The Woman of Shunem

Daf 10. Summary. David begins the first psalm with “Happy is . . .” and ends the second psalm “Happy are . . .” Those who count one fewer psalm written by David, count these two as one. It is taught that David only said Halleluya when he saw the downfall of the wicked. In a related story, Rabbi Meir is questioned by Beruya, his wife, when he prays that God should “have mercy” on the wicked ruffians who torment him (by “have mercy” he means “allow them to die”). “What is your thinking?” she asks. “Rather pray for God to have mercy on them that they should repent.”

Rabbi Yohannan asks for the source from which it is derived that homiletic inferences can be drawn from the juxtaposition of verses. Answer: Psalm 111:7-8. This is followed by several homiletic expositions related to the life of David.

How can one negotiate a compromise between two righteous individuals? King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah cannot agree on who should visit the other. Must the prophet seek out the king or the king seek out the prophet? God effected a “compromise” by causing the king to be ill and telling the prophet, “Go and visit the sick.” The king is healed when he heeds the prophet and prays for mercy. Rabbi Hanan says, “Even if the master of dreams tells a person that tomorrow he will die, he should not prevent himself from praying for mercy.”

When King Hezekiah turned to the wall and prayed for his life, he ended his prayer with “. . . what was good in your eyes I did.” What good did he do? He juxtaposed redemption and prayer at sunrise and he suppressed the Book of Remedies. In all, he did six things, three of which the rabbis approved.

Rabbi Yohannan, in the name of Rabbi Yosei ben Zimrai, looked at Hezekiah’s prayer and declared that God looks at a prayer that a petitioner bases on his own merit and makes His response based on the merit of others, and He looks at the merit of the one who prays if the prayer is based on the merit of others. It made Hezekiah bitter to realize that his own merit was not taken into account in healing him of his mortal illness.

The story of the woman of Shunem is related. She perceived the quality of the prophet sooner than her husband: “From here . . . we derive that a woman recognizes the character of her guests more than a man does.”

Several rabbis offer suggestions on how to prepare to pray and the posture one should assume. They review the loss of merit in coming late to recite the morning Shema.

Mishnah. Beit Shammai says that the evening Shema should be recited while reclining (“when you lie down”) and in the morning while standing (“when you rise”). Beit Hillel says, “Every person recites Shema as he is.” (For Hillel the text simply indicates the time to recite Shema, not the posture.) Rabbi Tarfon, a disciple of Hillel, once was on the road and stopped in the evening to recite according to Shammai, endangering himself (reclining by the side of the road where he might very well have been attacked). The Sages rebuked him, saying he deserved to be in danger for disregarding the instruction of his teacher.

Comment. There is so much material here that one could write a book on the implications of these two pages alone! It seems to me, however, if one must pick one element to highlight, it must be that there are women offering opinions here for the first time in this daf yomi cycle, and they are unambiguously the moral center of the text. Rabbi Meir, who would pray for the death of his tormentors, is asked by his wife Beruya, “What is your thinking?” Likewise, the woman of Shunem is not only faster than her husband at recognizing a holy man, but her good judgment is expanded to a generalization: “a woman recognizes the character of her guests more than a man does.” Is it possible that this text is actually saying that all those things that we see men agonize over– how to recognize the true nature of another and how to regulate their daily routine– are things that come naturally to women?

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2 Responses to The Woman of Shunem

  1. elenizl says:

    I agree that there is so much to see in this text … and I look forward to our discussing many of them! For now, yes, it is worth noting that in this very male document there is explicit acknowledgement of the specific talents of two particular woman and in one case this is generalized to women in general. Although positive, let’s be ever so slightly cautious as even positive stereotypes can lead to reductionism … and may do more harm than good if they limit our sense of possibility for both men and women.

  2. neillitt says:

    I agree. I was wary of writing “Is it possible . . .?” because I also anticipated that it could be read as a rationalization or even as patronizing. And then there is the flawed nature of the generalization: I know as many women who are poor judges of character as men!

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