A Bride for One Night: Talmud Tales

Jewish Publication Society  2014


Believing that the stories of rabbinic sages from Talmud and Midrash belong “not just to rabbis and academics,” Ruth Calderon presents a passionate reading and literary retelling of seventeen passages of text in the tradition of aggadic (homiletic) imagination and discourse. Each piece begins with a direct quote from the text, followed by a story and then, a reflection. Calderon chose texts she has mulled over. She explores the small details from real life which are given and often chooses to present the stories from a first person point of view in a formal, dignified tone. A child who cannot learn observes how his compassionate teacher can bring rain when the Rav’s prayers do not; a good sister volunteers to stand public humiliation for her sister; a wife waits for her scholar-husband who is sitting on the roof thinking about her, but not with her; a Roman matron tempts a Jewish scholar; a young scholar is chosen by Rabbi Meier to seduce his own wife who is interested in studying Torah. There are two very different stories which explore the difficulties Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai faces in reĀ­entering the world after years in his cave. Four tales—”Sisters,” “Libertina,” “Lamp,” and the title story—flesh out the struggles of women in narratives which did not necessarily have heroines before and can stand on their own. A few of the stories, though lyrical, depend on the commentaries which follow to explain Calderon’s interpretation of the original texts. Heartfelt, philosophical, imaginative, and religious, these stories offer new ways to read text. Bibliography, introduction, notes.

Discussion Questions

Courtesy of The Jewish Publication Society

  1. The first title Ruth Calderon suggested for this book, which is the English version of the original Hebrew edition, was Reading Talmud Barefoot.
    • What do you think she means by this expression?
    • And why does she encourage readers of Talmud to come to the stories this way?
    • Can you “come barefoot” to any of the stories here? What meaning do you find for yourself in reading the original tale?
    • How does your reading change after reading Calderon’s retelling?
    • After reading her “Reflections on the Story”?
  2. The tractates of the Talmud contain both halakhah (legal discourse) and aggadah (short narratives, imaginative tales). Aggadah, which sometimes challenges the halakhah, is considered by most students of Talmud not to be as important as the legal arguments. Calderon writes in her introduction that she disagrees.
    • Why do you think this is so?
    • What purpose is there in such story-telling?
  3. The Sages of the Talmud were all men, and the male worldview dominates many of these stories.
    • In which stories is this most apparent?
    • Were you disturbed by the sexist overtones?
    • What techniques does she employ in her own writing to give women a voice? (See, for example, “Sisters,” “The Goblet.”)
    • Is she successful in putting a different twist on the stature and role of women?
    • How did your reactions to the original and to Calderon’s retelling differ in this regard?
  4. Calderon says that she is engaging in a form of tikkun olam (repairing the world) when she tells a story anew, interpreting it as she comes to terms with a text that makes her uncomfortable or expanding upon a story she likes. (See, for example, “Lamp,” “A Bride for One Night.”)
    • Do you think she’s successful?
  5. In many of Calderon’s retellings there’s a subtle (or not so subtle) tension that’s not apparent in the original Talmud tales.
    • How does she create this emotional intensity? And where does it come from? (See, for example, “The Matron,” “The Beruria Incident.”)
    • Why does she do it?
    • How is your reaction to her version different from your reaction to the original?
  6. Some of these stories contain elements of the fantastic: miracles and sometimes even magic. One might even call some instances early examples of magical realism. Calderon calls the tales in the Talmud “the Arabian Nights of the Jewish people.”
    • Can you think of some examples of fantastic elements in the tales here? (See, for example, “He and His Son,” “Sorrow in the Cave.”)
    • Why do you think the Sages of the Talmud engaged in this?
  7. Calderon’s retellings are sharp contrasts to the short, cryptic original versions. She expands upon the plots and embellishes each tale with much detail, creating mood, atmosphere, and characterization. It’s as if she is telling the story that is hidden beneath the surface, or in the white spaces between black letters.
    • Is she being respectful to the Talmud and to Jewish tradition when she takes ownership of these tales and rewrites them?
    • Have others done similar reimaging and/or expanding upon Jewish texts?
    • What are some examples?
    • How and why did/do they do this?
  8. The book’s cover photo is Ruth Orkin’s well-known photograph “American Girl in Italy” (1951). It has special meaning to Calderon, who says she has carried a copy of it with her for about 20 years.
    • What message does the photo convey to you?
    • Why do you think it has special meaning to Calderon?
    • Why do you think she choose it for the cover?

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