The story goes that about 1,500 years ago, a man moves from Babylonia to Land of Israel. The man marries a local woman, and the next thing we read is a request he makes of his new bride to cook him two lentils. So, she did as she was told. She cooked him precisely two lentils. The text says that he seethed with anger at her after this incident. The next day he told her, make me a barrel-full of lentils. So she made him enough lentils to fit in a giant barrel—way more than any single person could possibly eat.
The story is a classic case of following someone’s instructions according to their literal meaning. The wife, dutifully doing as her new husband asks, follows his instructions. However, we get a sense that the husband might be talking figuratively and not literally.
What transpires next is that the husband asks his wife to bring him two pumpkins. Presumably, the husband is quite hungry at this point and wants something filling to eat. What we learn is that the husband, who speaks Aramaic like his wife, speaks the language with a Babylonian dialect, whereas his wife speaks Aramaic according to the local Land of Israel dialect. In Babylonian Aramaic, the word for pumpkin is the same word as “lamp” in the Land of Israel dialect! So, of course, the wife brings her husband two lamps.
It’s hard to tell who is trying to play whom. Is the husband intentionally trying to make a fool of his wife? Is the wife purposefully acting in ways to get a rise out of her husband? What’s very clear is that these two are not communicating well.
The final scene is cringe-worthy.
After the husband received the two lamps from the wife, he tells her to go and break the lamps on the head of the gate. In Aramaic, the word for “gate” is “bava,” and who should be sitting at the main gate (bava) to the city at that very moment? Bava ben Buta, the chief rabbi of the town who was judging cases! The wife, following her husband’s request, goes to bava (the man and the gate) and breaks the two lamps on the head of Rabbi Bava ben Buta.
Instead of responding in anger, Rabbi Bava ben Buta asks the woman, “why did you do this?” She responds, “I was following the instructions my husband gave me.” We might expect some sort of punishment from the rabbi; instead, the rabbi blesses the woman with two sons who will grow up to be like Bava ben Buta. A strange turn of events, but stick with me.
The rabbi could have responded in anger. Instead, we sense that the rabbi knew there was some severe miscommunication between the husband and wife. Fault in this story can go in either direction. Clearly, both the husband and wife acted in ways that weren’t respectful. The purpose of this story is to underscore, bold, and italicize the importance of the words we choose. Men (or this man) may be from Babylonia and women (or this woman) may be from the Land of Israel, but that only emphasizes the need to always work on our communication.
Our tradition tells us that words have enough power to create the universe—God spoke and the world came into being. Likewise, we learn that hateful words can also destroy the unity of the Jewish people—when hateful words were used to bring the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. The decision we have to make for ourselves is whether we will wield our power for the creation of community, relationships, and unity; or, will we use our power to divide, denigrate, or destroy.
*Babylonian Talmud, Nedarim (Vows) 66b