Bruriah lived in Palestine during the second century. She was a well known sage [wise person] and Talmudic scholar. What we know of her comes from a variety of Rabbinic texts in tracts on the Talmud, a reference in midrash and another reference from an 11th century commentator.
We do not know her mother's name. Her father was Hanina ben Teradyon, a prominent rabbi of second century Palestine.
The Talmud speaks of Bruriah standing next to her father as he is being slowly burnt to death by the Romans because he had violated the Roman ban on the study or teaching of the Torah in public places.
Her father's death was a dramatic public affair. He was wrapped in the Torah scroll which was set afire but the Roman soldiers applied water soaked wool over his heart so as to keep him alive as long as possible. It was reported that his attitude was heroic and that even the executioner was moved by it. The executioner is said to have called out to the Rabbi asking that if he stopped the wet wool sponges, would the Rabbi assure him of entry into the World to Come. Hanina ben Teradyon gave him the assurance and the executioner took away the wool sponges and raised the flame. After the death of Hainin ben Terdyon, the executioner jumped into the flames and died also.
It is reported that her mother was also condemned to death for her husband's violation of the ban on teaching but we have no specifics reports about her death. It is also reported that his daughter was condemned to serve as a prostitute in a brothel.
The tradition says this condemned daughter was Bruriah's sister but Rabbi Tirzah Firestone appears to question the sudden appearance of a sister whose only story is about being condemned and then how she avoided sexual encounter with a man (Bruriah's husband) sent to her and who then realized her innocence. Firestone wonders if this woman was not Bruriah herself.
We do know that Bruriah married Rabbi Meir and that she was a woman of wisdom and compassion.
When her sons died on the Sabbath, it is said that she hid the fact from her husband until the end of Sabbath so that he would not be unduly upset on the holy day.
Then she posed a question to him:
If someone were to lend her something and then later came to ask for it back, should she return it to the owner? Rabbi Meir replied that of course they should return it. Bruriah then took him by the hand to see their dead sons lying on their beds. She reminded him that he had said they should return a pledge to its rightful owner.
The Rabbi replied, "The Lord has given, the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord".
If wisdom combines compassion with insight, this event reveals a woman of wisdom - one who could find a way to cast a tragedy so it could be accepted by another. Here is a woman who took her place in the House of Study, was a reputed scholar but also had the wisdom for compassionate use of holy words.
Bruriah was often involved in the halachic discussions, and even challenged her father on a matter of ritual purity (Tosefta Keilim Bava Kamma 4:49). Rabbi Judah Ben Bava praised her comments there.
In another instance, Rabbi Joshua praises her intervention in a debate between Rebbi Tarfon and the sages, saying "Bruriah has spoken correctly" (Tosefta Keilim Bava Metzia 1:3).
In the Midrash it is said that she was much taken aback when she found her husband, Rabbi Meir, praying for the destruction of an annoying neighbor. She taught him that the Psalm, "Let the sinners be consumed from the earth, and the wicked shall be no more" means that we should pray for the conversion of the wicked and not their physical destruction since conversion would be an end to wickedness.
Another story of Bruriah comes through a medieval commentator. It was said that she mocked a Rabbinic dictum that 'women are flighty'. This dictum could also be translated as 'women are easily seduced'. A medieval commentator said that her husband on hearing of this, was troubled by this. He is said to have stated, "By your life, you will end up proving the rabbis words to be true."
Rabbi Meir set her up to be seduced by one of his students. It is said that she finally 'acquiesced', though we do not know in exactly what that acquiescence consisted. It is said that when she learned of her husband's agreement to the plot, she was devastated. It is also said that in remorse she killed herself.
A different scholar claims that after the execution of her father, her mother was sold into slavery and her sister condemned to a brothel. Rabbi Meir and Bruriah fled to Babylonia to escape the Romans and that is how she left Palestine. So we are not really clear about the circumstances of her life. Legends do crop up around notable figures.
Rabbi Tirzah Firestone notes that the truth of of the story of the seduction has long been debated. Although the story has survived it could be a legend that arose to show the bad end that could come to a woman who dared to take her place among 'honored scholars'.
Other web sites:
Bruriah at Wikipedia.
Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, The Receiving: Reclaiming Jewish Women's Wisdom 2003, through Amazon.
This page was updated 30 October, 2014