There are few named women in the Talmud. One of the few is Yalta, the wife of Rav Nachman, a third generation Babylonian Amora, and the daughter of the Reish Galuta, a wealthy and well-respected figure. When I first learned about Yalta, it was like discovering a timeless friend—a soul mate. Learning the stories in the gemaras that she appeared in was like laughing knowingly, with someone who was trying to break through a cement ceiling in a patriarchal world.
A few stories about Yalta:
The Talmud Bavli Beizah 25b brings an anecdote about Yalta being carried on a “sedan chair” on Shabbat. As surprising as this may be, the Gemara lists other limited circumstances when it would be permissible to be carried. An older person can be carried on a “sedan chair.” And if a number of people need the person for religious guidance, they can be carried. Also, a well-respected member of the community can be carried. Therefore, it logically follows that the reason why Yalta was being carried on Shabbat must be because people needed her. And indeed, Tosefot suggest: “people required her guidance,” and therefore, she could be carried on Shabbat.
The Talmud in Bavli Brachot 51b describes how Ulla refuses to send the “cos shel bracha” the cup of wine over which birkat hamazon (grace after meals) is made. Yalta gets up “in a passion” and breaks four hundred jars of wine. What audacity. What waste. And yet, the Mahrasha says that she was not angry because of the wine per se. She broke the wine to show that drinking the wine was not important to her. אלא על כוס הברכה שלא שלח לה כעסה
“rather, she was angry because the cup of benediction was not sent to her.” Yalta wanted to participate in the ritual of blessing the wine. She wanted desperately to be involved—not for the sake of drinking wine—but to bless and honor God in the same way that her male companions were doing. Yalta refused to accept status quo. Her reaction, while extreme, is a tribute to the passion she felt towards religious ritual.
Finally, the Talmud Bavli, Nidah 20b, describes how Yalta influenced the psak—Rabbinic dispensation—with regards to a question related to the laws of niddah (family purity). Yalta knew that her bedikah (checking) cloth was clean and rendered her able to be intimate with her husband. Yet, despite the fact that she had the knowledge to determine her own status, she still went to the Rabbi’s (as one was supposed to do at that time) to get an authoritative decision. Yalta could have circumvented the Rabbinic system altogether, and made her own decision. However, she took her predicament to the Rabbi, dialogued about it, and in the end, successfully influenced the rabbinic decision. Yalta saw a problem with the rabbinic system, and rather than reject it, she worked within the system towards changing it.
Read together, all three stories weave together a picture of a woman who was well respected for her scholarship, passionate about religious ritual, with the fortitude to encounter and influence rabbinic authority for the better.
How could any women —or any person for that matter—trying to participate in Jewish religious leadership not look to Yalta for strength?