Posts Tagged ‘A Bride For One Night’

A couple of years back I did a course on the Talmud because I was curious about it and wanted to learn more about it. I loved the course and wanted to read more. The Talmud can be roughly divided into two parts – the legal and logical part called the Halacha, and the imaginative and story part called the Aggadah. Of course, it is not like the book is cleanly divided into parts, because the Halachic and Aggadic components are integrated in the same page. In the course I studied, we learnt more about the Halachic part – for example, one of the things we learnt was what the Talmud says about false witnesses and how we can devise a practical way to discover whether a witness is offering false testimony or not. In this context, we learnt the story of Susanna. I loved that story. I wanted to read more like it, stories which highlighted a legal principle or offered wisdom or were just inspiring in some way. I thought I will look for a book which had stories from the Talmud, a book which highlighted the Aggadic part – stories which can be read for enjoyment and also for the insights they offered. That is how I discovered Ruth Calderon’sA Bride for One Night : Talmud Tales’.

A Bride for One Night‘ has seventeen stories, all selected from the Talmud. They address different themes of Jewish life, including family, love, marriage, relationships, friendship, the relationship between student and teacher, the true nature of faith, the joy of learning, the conflict between dedicating oneself to intellectual pursuits and spending time with one’s family – these and other themes are explored and illustrated through these stories. Each story has three parts. The first part, which is the shortest, is a translation of the story from the Talmud. The second part is a longer literary and creative rendition of the story by the author. The third part offers reflections by the author on the story and analyses and highlights different aspects of it. Many of the original stories look deceptively simple and straightforward on first reading and the author’s rendition of the story makes it more dramatic and more interesting. But to me, the most important part was the reflections of the author in which she teases out the meaning from in-between words and from behind the words, offers explanations of simple words which are not obvious to readers who are not familiar with Jewish tradition (for example, what is the difference between ‘found‘ and ‘find‘? The answer is not as simple as we might think), and sometimes reads the story against the grain which illuminates a situation from a totally new perspective (for example, the traditional way of reading the story might make us think that the story is extolling the virtue of a particular social practice, but by reading the story against the grain, we realize that the story is actually criticizing a particular social practice and exposing its ills). Many times Calderon offers a feminist analysis and viewpoint on a story which is insightful and is fascinating to ponder on and contemplate about. Sometimes it is interesting to read the analysis and then get back to the original story and try to find out whether we could have teased out the insights ourselves and contemplate on how we missed it the first time. Ruth Calderon is a Talmud scholar and in the introduction to the book she explains how she chose the stories included in the book, and delves into how the stories are structured and how they can be read and interpreted today, through our twenty-first century eyes. That introduction is beautiful to read.

Some of my favourite stories from the book were these :

Sisters – This is the story of two sisters and how one of them is accused of adultery and how the other tries to help her to get out of it.

The Other Side – It is the story of a Rabbi who takes a robber as his student and what happens to them after that. It has a fascinating conversation between the two, which goes like this :

“One day, they were debating in the study house: The sword, the knife, the hunting spear, the hand sickle, the harvesting sickleā€”at what stage do they become impure? [That is, at what stage in their production do they shift from being raw materials, which are not susceptible to impurity, to vessels that may contract impurity?]
And they answered: From the time they are completed.
And when are they regarded as completed?
Rabbi Yohanan said: When they are refined in the furnace.
Reish Lakish said: When they are polished with water.”

It made me contemplate on when does one thing change into something else. For example, at which instant do two strangers become friends? Or partners or lovers? Is there a particular instant at which this happens or does it happen slowly and gradually? Or does it happen slowly and then suddenly – as Hazel Grace says in ‘The Fault in Our Stars‘ – “As he read, I fell in love, the way you fall asleep : slowly and then all at once“? At which exact instant does a collection of notes become music? At what point does a collection of random lines become art? At what exact point does a stone become sculpture? These are fascinating questions to ponder on. This is what this story did to me.

Libertina – A story in which a wife dresses herself attractively and seduces her husband and the husband responds without realizing that it is his wife and what happens after that.

Lamp – A story about what a young man and a young woman do on their wedding night – not the conventional consummating stuff but something unconventional.

He and His Son‘ and ‘Sorrow in the Cave‘ – Two versions of the same story in which a Rabbi who is chased by the authorities goes on exile, lives in a cave and spends the next twelve years pursuing learning and on contemplation. In the first version, he goes to the cave with his son. In the second version, he is alone.

Elisha – The story of Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya, who loses his faith.

The Beruria Incident – A story about a rabbi’s wife called Beruria, who is well learned herself. It is beautiful, inspiring and heartbreaking.

Yishmael, My Son, Bless Me – Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha enters the Holy of Holies, the innermost sanctum of the temple, to burn incense and offer prayers, and an amazing surprise awaits him. This story ended with these beautiful, inspiring lines – “What does this…teach us? It teaches us never to underestimate the blessing offered by an ordinary person.

I loved ‘A Bride for One Night : Talmud Tales‘. It offers beautiful insights into Jewish culture and tradition, in the form of stories. It is not a regular collection of short stories, which we can read at an easy pace, but it is more like a collection of Zen koans, which we read and contemplate on, try to tease the meaning between the words or behind them, and read the analysis and reflect on the insights they offer. It is thought-provoking and contemplative and makes us see some things in new light. I loved the commentary that Ruth Calderon offers in the ‘reflections’ part. I am glad I read it.

Have you read ‘A Bride for One Night : Talmud Tales’? What do you think about it?

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