Rav was taking leave of R. Chiyya. [R. Chiyya] said to him, “May the Merciful One save you from that which is worse than death.” [Rav wondered to himself:] Is there something worse than death? [Rav] left, investigated, and found: Now, I find woman more bitter than death; she is all traps, her hands are fetters and her heart is snares. [He who is pleasing to God scares her, and he who is displeasing is caught by her.] (Ecclesiastes 7:26).
Rav’s wife aggravated him. When he would say, “Prepare lentils for me,” she would prepare beans. [If he requested] beans, she would prepare lentils. When his son, Chiyya, grew up, he would reverse [his father’s requests] to her. [Rav] said to him, “Your mother has improved!” [Chiyya] said to him, “It was actually that I reversed [the requests] to her.” [Rav] said to him, “This is as people say, ‘[The child] who comes from you will teach you.’ You should not do this, for it says, They have trained their tongues to speak falsely; [they wear themselves out working iniquity] (Jeremiah 9:4).”
R. Chiyya’s wife would aggravate him. [Yet] when [R. Chiyya] would find something [in the market that she would like] he would wrap it in his shawl and bring it to her. Rav asked him, “But doesn’t she aggravate you? [R. Chiyya] said to him, “It is sufficient that they raise our children and save us from sin.”
The Rabbis discuss marriage on the previous daf of Talmud, where several sages wax poetic about the value of being married. R. Tanchum says in the name of R. Chanilai: “Any many who does not have a wife lives without happiness, without blessing, and without goodness.” Gemara then tells us that in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) they say that a man without a wive is as one without Torah, without a protective wall. R. Elazar is quoted as saying that a man without a wife is not whole. R. Yose learns from Elijah the prophet the extraordinary value of having a helpmate. As we all know all too well, as the passage above will reinforce, reality does not always accord with the ideal.
Rav studies with his uncle, R. Chiyya. Once, as Rav prepares to leave R. Chiyya’s bet midrash and return home, his uncle and teacher confers upon him a strange blessing: “May God save you from that which is worse than death.” Rav ponders this until he finds a verse he thinks explains it: R. Chiyya believes a wife can be worse than death. Is R. Chiyya referring to Rav’s wife, his own wife, or all wives?
Rav’s wife is a contrarian who derives satisfaction from annoying him. Their son, Chiyya (he has the same name as his uncle), learned how to deal with the situation— perhaps bringing more peace and quiet to the home—by cleverly requesting that mother prepare for his father what his father did not want, knowing she would do the opposite of what was requested and thereby inadvertently prepare what his father did want. As a result, his father found his mother less exasperating. Rather than keeping the scheme to himself, he reveals it to his father. Rav responds with a measure of pride and wonder—he has learned something from his son that had not occurred to him—but admonishes him with a verse from Jeremiah that suggests that deceiving his mother is sinful.
We next learn that R. Chiyya is also married to a woman who annoys him, yet when he finds something she would like in the marketplace, he buys it for her. Rav finds R. Chiyya’s behavior surprising and strange. The man who never thought to request lentils when he wanted beans, or beans knowing he would get lentils, has never thought to give his wife a gift either. For Rav, buying something for his wife rewards her for her annoying behavior. What is more, he has found nothing in her worth appreciating. Rav lacks the imagination to understand that a gift might please her, serving as a peace token and investment in the relationship itself. When Rav asks R. Chiyya why he gifts a wife who annoys him, R. Chiyya responds by saying that his wife blesses him in two significant ways: She raises their children and their physical relationship saves him from potentially straying from the marriage for sexual satisfaction. In other words, while she can be exasperating, he also recognizes and appreciates her positive qualities and the contributions she makes to his life and their family.
One might wonder how adept Rav is at interpersonal relationships
and whether, as the story presumes, his wife is the
sole—or even primary—problem in this marital relationship.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- When R. Chiyya offered Rav the strange blessing that God might save him from “that which is worse than death,” do you think he had Rav’s marriage in mind, or his own? How might R. Chiyya have thought God saves one from a marital relationship that is, figuratively, “worse than death”? (Please keep in mind there is no suggestion that either Rav’s or R. Chiyya’s marriage involved physical or emotional abuse.)
- Although Chiyya’s tactic of requesting what his father does not want is effective, Rav expresses disapproval. Why? Do you agree or disagree? Is anyone hurt by the son’s tactic? Does a person’s behavior entitle others to employ deception to get what they want? If you think it does, under what circumstances?
- How might a group of female Torah scholars have written about marriage and aggravating spouses? Do you think it would have been wholly different, or possibly much the same?