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Let your house be open wide;
Let the poor be members of your household,
And don’t talk too much with the wife.
—Yosse ben Yochanan of Jerusalem


Commentary [1:5]
Yosse ben Yochanan begins by commending hospitality and personal generousity to the poor; the final harsh statement about women is all the more shocking.

One could try to soften this by saying that—as many traditional commentators do—by ‘converse’ with the wife Yosse was referring to gossip. But if we ask “what is it about wives and women as a class that we should them out as people we should not talk too much too?”—it is evident that this saying is, on its face, disparaging to women. The reality is that the sages were all men, and their views are sometimes marred by narrow-minded remarks about women. These are, it is true, balanced by Talmudic comments with the opposite tenor: “Your wife is short, so bend down to whisper to her [in seeking her counsel]”. (B.M. 59a). And: A man should “love his wife as himself and honor her more than himself.”(Yev. 62b) Still, this is the most prominent of wrong-headed statements about women in the Talmudic literature.

There is a story concerning this saying and the one woman highly respected in the Talmud as a scholar—Beruriah, the daughter of Chananiah ben Tradion (see 3:3) and wife of Rabbi Meir (see 4:12). Rabbi Yosse the Galilean was once walking on a road when he encountered Beruria, and he asked her: “By which road do we go to the city of Lydda?” She replied, “Galilean fool!, do not the sages say, ‘Don’t talk a lot with the woman’? You should have said, ‘Whither Lydda?’”(Er. 53b.)

Here is the story behind the story. Divorce was rare among the Rabbis, but Rabbi Yosse the Galilean divorced his wife—who was reputed to be a shrew. Beruriah would have known Rabbi Yosse and his ex-wife, since Yosse and her own husband Meir had both been students of Rabbi Akiva (see 3:17-20). Beruriah was as sharp-tongued as she was brilliant, and may well have sympathized with the ex-wife. This exchange was evidently in public, and in saying “which way do we go to Lydda,” Yosse may have embarrassed Beruriah with the innuendo. Hence her calling him a fool and retorting with the ‘perfect squelch’—ridiculing in one erudite turn of phrase both Rabbi Yosse’s ‘macho’ taunting and this misogynistic saying from Avot.


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