February 14, 2023

Nedarim 20

Today’s daf (Nedarim 20a-b) records a startling episode which leads me to suggest that there is much more to it than meets the eye.
We are taught: ‘The asked Imma Shalom (who was the wife of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and the sister of Rabban Gamliel): “How come your children are so beautiful?” Imma Shalom replied, “[My husband] does not converse with me (מספר עמי) neither at the beginning of the night nor at the end of the night, but rather at midnight. And when he converses (וכשהוא מספר) he reveals a handbreadth [of my body] and covers a handbreadth, as though he were being coerced by a demon. And I said to [my husband]: What is the reason [for this behavior]? And he said to me: It is so that I will not set my eyes on another woman (i.e., think about another woman).”’
Before trying to make sense of what is taking place here, we need to explain the key word referenced in this passage. According to Rashi and others, the word ‘converse’ (מספר) is code for sexual intimacy. As such, what is being discussed here is the time and manner in which Imma Shalom and Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus were sexually intimate. However, as numerous other commentaries explain (eg. R’ Yaakov Emden), the word ‘converse’ – though also being used as a euphemism for sexual intimacy, is also referring to verbal foreplay. As such, Imma Shalom referred to the way in which Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus both spoke with her and was sexually intimate with her.
The problem with all this is that, just earlier on in the daf (Nedarim 20a), reference was made to the need for modest behaviour. So how do we reconcile the need for modesty, and a conversation between a great Jewish woman with a group of men where she shares details about how she and her husband are sexually intimate.
Moreover, while there are those (eg. R’ Tzaddok HaKohen) who understand the question “How come your children are so beautiful” as enquiring about their inner qualities, at least on first glance – and as pointed out by R’ Eliyahu Roth in his ‘Ha’er Eineinu’ commentary – the question suggests that these men did not consider Imma Shalom to be beautiful, for otherwise they would not have asked such a question.
So what we have here is a situation where an apparently improper question is asked by a group of men to a great Jewish woman, which leads her to share details of her private life with her husband. What is going on?!
To answer, we must go back to Nedarim 20a where Rabbi Yochanan ben Dehavi makes the assertion that it is improper to – and that people are punished for – conversing during sexual intimacy (מפני שמספרים בשעת תשמיש).
I believe that Imma Shalom, having heard this teaching, felt that it was not only wrong, but that it would curb verbal foreplay and communication during intimacy. Simply put, it would do harm to Jewish marriages!
Given this, brilliant and bold as she was (see, for example, Bava Metziah 59b), Imma Shalom initiated a conversation with a group of students, saying: “Look at me, and look at my children. Don’t you wonder how come my children are so beautiful?”. Out of respect, they would have responded by asking: “so how come your children are so beautiful?”, to which Imma Shalom then replied by explaining how communication is essential to intimacy – which she hoped would then reverse the trend of couples who, perhaps having heard Rabbi Yochanan ben Dehavi’s teaching – had ceased to talk before or during intimacy.
If I have explained this episode correctly, which both solves the questions I have raised above and also seems to be consistent with what we know of Imma Shalom, then this was a remarkably important intervention which was done for the sake of helping improve intimacy in relationships. Simply put, she allowed these students to ask what may have been an improper question, in order to teach them an essential lesson, and thereby enhance their marital relationship with their wives.
No wonder she was called ‘Imma Shalom’ – because through this intervention, she helped bring more shalom into the homes of so many!
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