Today’s daf (Ketubot 66b) relates two stories about Miriam who was the daughter of the incredibly rich Nakdimon ben Guryon and who lived in Jerusalem in the years prior to, and following, the destruction of the Second Beit HaMikdash.
According to the account both found here and earlier on (see Ketubot 65a), it would appear that Miriam approached the Sages because her husband had died. As such, the subject of her conversation with them related to her financial awards from his estate. However, Miriam’s life was further complicated by the fact that following the death of her husband she was set to marry his brother in fulfilment of the mitzvah of yibum. As such, she approached the Sages to gain clarity in terms of who should be financially sustaining her.
As the Gemara records, ‘when the Sages designated four hundred gold coins for her account of perfumes from her late husband’s estate for use on that day, she blessed them and said to them: This is how you should also pledge for your own daughters, and they answered after her: Amen’ – although, as we are taught in Ketubot 65a, there are those who say that the Sages did not respond ‘Amen’ because they didn’t want to wish the same fate of losing a husband onto their own daughters.
So far this is the first story – which is likely to have occurred prior to the destruction of the Temple. The second story, also found in our daf, records an incident involving Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai following the destruction of the Temple when he was leaving Jerusalem with his students and he then saw Miriam gathering barley from between the dung of animals. She called out to Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, “My teacher, please provide me with money [for my needs]!” However, initially Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai did not recognize Miriam. In response, she identified herself, she reminded him that he was one of the witnesses at her wedding, and then a conversation ensued about where all her fathers’ riches went.
Bringing these two stories together, what we have here is a woman who came from great affluence, whose wedding was attended by great scholars like Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, whose husband died, who seemingly then fulfilled the mitzvah of yibbum and married her brother-in-law, whose second husband then seemingly died, whose father lost all his fortune, who lived through the destruction of the Temple – which was one of the most traumatic periods of Jewish history, and who ended up gathering barley from between the dung of animals in the fields surrounding Jerusalem.
While the speech that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai subsequently delivered to his students after encountering Miriam is recorded in the Gemara, we are not explicitly told whether he provided her with money – although we can likely presume that he would have given her some money or food. Still, apart from the lesson of giving to those in need, there is a further lesson that I think we can learn from this tragic story which is that when someone is experiencing a trauma, especially when they feel very vulnerable and alone, they can draw much comfort simply from encountering a familiar face. To quote Rav Soloveitchik in his essay ‘The Community’: ‘to recognize a person is not just identify him physically. It is more than that: it is an act of identifying him existentially’, and in terms of Miriam bat Nakdimon, in addition to some money and food, this is what she needed.
Oftentimes, when considering the difficult problems faced by others, we can throw up our hands because we simply cannot solve or fix their problems. Still, reflecting on this tragic story, it comes to teach us that sometimes just to recognize another means so much. And so, even when we can’t fix or solve the problems of others, we can help them by recognising them and by being a friendly, familiar and supportive face as they wrestle with their challenges while knowing that they are not alone.