The Talmud tells of a group of rabbis who gathered for a festive meal in the sukkah of the exilarch, the administrative head of the Babylonian Jewish community.
Their meal was interrupted by an angry woman who accused the exilarch’s servants of stealing her wood to make his sukkah. She insisted on the immediate return of her lumber, submitting her protest before Rav Nahman.
Rav Nahman (who was the exilarch’s son-in-law and served as the presiding judge in his law court) initially paid no attention to her plea. Thereupon she exclaimed indignantly, “A woman whose father had three hundred and eighteen servants has cried out before you, and yet you ignore her!” That is to say, she was descended from Abraham who “armed his three hundred and eighteen trained servants who were born in his own house” in a foray to rescue his nephew Lot who had been taken captive. As a Jewish woman she was surely entitled to justice if she was wronged by community dignitaries.
Rav Nahman remained unimpressed and disparaged her as a “pa‘ita,” a whiner or squawker. He ruled that according to Jewish law she was not entitled to the return of her boards, but only to monetary compensation. This was in keeping with a rabbinic enactment declaring that if a robber stole beams and built them into a house, he would not be compelled to dismantle the structure to remove the beams. That enactment had been introduced in order to facilitate the robbers’ potential repentance.
Rav Nahman’s insensitive treatment of the wronged lady might reflect his problematic experiences with the women in his life. His wife was the exilarch’s hot-tempered daughter Yalta who once responded to a slight by going on a rampage and smashing four hundred barrels of wine. His daughters were inclined towards lewdness and witchcraft. He was the author of some notoriously misogynistic quotes. It would therefore not be out of character for him to be insensitive to a woman suffering injustice.
The traditional commentators, however, were loath to attribute moral apathy to a revered talmudic sage, and they attempted in various ways to justify Rav Nahman’s curt response. Some explained that he was merely offering the lady helpful legal advice, pointing out that for various technical reasons she was weakening her case by submitting it too soon, on the first day of the festival.
Several authors focused on the woman’s reason for invoking Abraham and his 318 servants. As the hasidic master Rabbi Ẓevi Elimelech Shapira of Dynov put it, the Talmud would not have recorded her words unless they thought she was being especially insightful.
Rabbi Shapira remarked that she was not appealing to the merits of all three Hebrew patriarchs, but specifically to the first of them. She was alluding thereby to how divine mercy extended even to persons who were not descended from Isaac or Jacob. Thus, when Abraham’s outcast child Ishmael was dying of thirst in the desert, God heard his cries and provided water for him.
Furthermore, in kabbalistic symbolism Abraham is associated with the first day of Sukkot and with the moral quality of generosity [ḥesed]. Viewed in that context, the woman was stressing the sharp contrast between the patriarch’s ethical standards and those of the exilarch’s entourage: unlike them, after Abraham defeated Lot’s captors he assured the king, “I will not take from a thread even to a shoe-latchet, and I will not take anything that is yours.”
In Rabbi Jacob Ettlinger’s reconstruction of the story, Rav Nahman initially wanted to recuse himself from the case because according to Jewish law it is forbidden to adjudicate civil cases on festivals. The woman, however, misconstrued his silence and thought that he was exonerating the exilarch because the crime had been committed not by him but by his servants. It was in this context that she introduced the reference to Abraham and his servants. According to the sages, Abraham made a special point of paying his forces generously so as to forestall any larcenous temptations. Why, then, did the exilarch not follow Abraham’s example? It was only because of the woman’s vocal protests, which threatened to bring the rabbis into disrepute, that Rav Nahman felt compelled to break his silence and explain his reasoning.
Rabbi Zadok ha-Kohen of Lublin transformed the lady’s case into a poignant lesson about the fundamentals of Judaism. His starting point was a conception of a faith that springs from the depths of despair, an outlook that harkens back to the aged Abraham and Sarah giving birth to an heir long after they had exhausted any rational grounds for hope.
This was also evident when Abraham waged a hopeless-looking war against four mighty kings to rescue Lot. According to Jewish law, ownership is forfeited when one abandons hope of its recovery, and it was under that assumption that the king of Sodom sought to transfer Lot’s possessions to Abraham. The lady who challenged the exilarch’s authority was asserting proudly that like her ancestor Abraham she never gave up hope of obtaining justice.
For good measure, Rabbi Zadok supported his thesis with some ingenious word-play. The Talmud identified 318 as the numerological sum for the name of Abraham’s servant Eliezer, a name that derived (as Moses explained when bestowing it on his own son) from the words “the God of my father was my help.” Rabbi Zadok further noted that the numerological value of “despair” [Hebrew: ye’ush] is 317—symbolizing the one crucial step that separates hopelessness from faith in divine deliverance. "For this is the totality of the Israelite personality, never to despair at all, for the Lord is always able to come to our aid.”
This tale of a lone woman’s frustrating struggle against the Establishment thereby suggests to us a potential consolation in challenging times: It is precisely when circumstances appear utterly hopeless that we may have reason to hope for the advent of the redemption.