Recovering the actual religious practices of Jewish women in antiquity – or, really, of almost all non-elite/non-rabbinic Jews – is at best a tricky business. Our main sources are rabbinic texts, which are so insular, academic, and either prescriptive or utopian that it is often hard to figure out what, if anything, they actually do reflect. Yet every once in a while these texts serve up a nugget that brings the historian up short.
I recently stumbled upon such a passage in the Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah, 30a. It occurs in the midst of a complicated discussion about the status of “uncovered” wine or water. The rabbis believe that snakes will enter the vessels of certain uncovered liquids and inject its venom, thus poisoning it. (Obviously, this belief merits a discussion in its own right, but not here.) The relevant passage reads:
שמואל לא שתי מיא מבי ארמלתא אמר לית לה אימתא דגברא ולא מיכסיא מיא
Shmuel would not drink water from the house of a widow. He reasoned that she no longer had fear of her husband and [therefore] did not cover the water.
Shmuel’s reasoning, which might well be added later by the redactor of the Babylonian Talmud (that is, it may not be Shmuel’s reasoning at all), is intriguing. He seems to be saying that any normal Jewish woman would not cover the water unless her husband told her to. Given the rabbinic understandings, this makes no sense. If she feared poisoning, why wouldn’t she continue to cover it? The obvious answer is that she is not really afraid of snake poisoning, but only goes along with her husband’s request to cover the water out of “fear,” which may simply refer here to the desire to keep a peaceful house.
It is worth considering the logic of this passage more generally. Men, particularly rabbis, had certain ideas and religious practices that they asked their wives to observe. As in any human relationship, these requests would have met with a variety of responses. What is so interesting about this particular passage is that even the rabbis themselves recognized that many of their wives found this particular rule stupid, and were ready to jettison it as soon as they could.
Were there other such “stupid” rules? The precise phrase “fear of the husband” appears nowhere else in classical rabbinic literature, but if anyone knows of other examples of the same phenomenon, please pass them along!