- Linguistic Liaisons: Wives and Vows in the Babylonian Talmud (Bt Nedarim 66A–B)
- Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies & Gender Issues
- Indiana University Press
- Number 35, Fall 5780/2019
- pp. 176-198
- View Citation
- Additional Information
This article addresses language as a rabbinic thematic focal point where geographic and especially institutional boundaries are staged. Applying notions introduced by Claude Lévi-Strauss and Pierre Bourdieu regarding language and social order to a late rabbinic narrative in the Babylonian Talmud—in BT Nedarim 66a–b—it looks at women and words as semiotic markers that regulate institutional order.
The tale introduces a domestic crisis triggered by linguistic misunderstandings and resolved, or at least compensated for, by the intervention of a sage. Thus, it presents the institution of the family, and the patriarchal authority and reproduction that the family entails, as subordinate to and dependent on the institution of the sages. The crux of the implied institutional rift is staged in the linguistic arena, which is the explicit theme of the entire textual unit (sugya) where the tale appears. The thematic framework of the sugya is vows (nedarim)—specifically vows made by husbands toward their wives that can be annulled by sages. The institutional division of labor whereby sages have control over (the annulment of) husbands' and fathers' vows, while the latter are granted the authority to release their wives and daughters from their own vows, is seen as creating an underlying cultural-institutional anxiety for which the last story in the sugya offers a (utopian) solution. Read in light of Bourdieu's notions of language, the sugya that stands at the center of this article may be construed as a meta-discourse, negotiating the linguistic symbolic capital that underlies rabbinic hegemony.