Tisha B’Av: Marta bat Boethus – Let Them Eat Cake

In Massechet Gittin we find a series of “Aggadot HaChurban”- stories about Jerusalem in the period leading up to the destruction of the Temple. These stories describe the hunger and difficult conditions in Jerusalem during the siege, but more than that, they are meant to be a moral lesson as to the actions which brought about the destruction. Among the characters described in these stories we find one woman, Marta bat Boethus:

Marta, the daughter of Boethus, was among the wealthy of Jerusalem. She sent her agent out and told him, “Go and buy for me fine flour.” When he went out, it had all been sold; he came and said to her, “Fine flour there is none; but white flour there is.”

She told him, “Go and buy some for me.” When he went out, it had all been sold; he came in and said to her, “White flour there is none; but dark flour there is.”

She told him, “Go and buy some for me.” When he went out, it had all been sold; he came in and said to her, “White flour there is none; but barley flour there is.”

She told him, “Go and buy some for me.” When he went out, it had all been sold.

She had taken off her shoes, but she said, “I will go out and seek something to eat.” A piece of dung adhered to her foot and she died. About her did Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai quote [from Devarim 28]: “The tender and delicate woman among you, who would not adventure to set the sole of her foot upon the ground for delicateness and tenderness…”

There are those who say that she ate a fig of R’ Tzadok’s, and she became sick and died. For R’ Tzadok would regularly fast over a period of forty years so that Jerusalem would not be laid waste, so that when he did eat something the food could be seen. When he needed to restore himself, they would bring him a fig; he would suck out the juice and discard the rest.

As [Marta’s] soul was going to depart, she threw all her gold and silver into the market. She said, “What is this to me?” Which is what is written [in Ezek. 7]: “Their silver they shall cast into the streets.” (Gitin 56a)

To understand this story, we must first know who Marta bat Boethus was. From her name we see that she was from the illustrious Boethus family, a family of high priests known for their wealth and strength. Her name is used in the Talmud to symbolize the prototypical rich woman. She was, as well, the wife of the Kohen Gadol R. Yehoshua ben Gamla, one of the few high priests from the Second Temple who is remembered positively by the Rabbis. In fact, the Talmud tells us that she used her wealth to buy him the high priesthood after she became engaged to him. In short, she was a woman who was used to getting what she wanted!

Starving GirlWhile reading the story brought in our source, we see the almost comic effect of the servant who is running back and forth to the market to find food to feed his starving mistress. Clearly, she is completely disconnected from the reality of life in Jerusalem. She requests the finest of flours, not willing to adjust her ways to the current situation. Why doesn’t she just ask him to bring whatever he can find?! Her attitude reminds us of the famous misquote attributed to Marie Antoinette, “Let them eat cake!”. Note how many trips the servant must make until she realizes that she cannot stay locked in her house assuming that the world outside will provide her needs. In contrast, the story which precedes this one in the series is also a story about three wealthy people in Jerusalem (Nakdimon b. Gurion, Ben Kalba Savua and Ben Zizith Hakeset), who used their wealth to provide for the people during the siege.

Eicha Rabba brings us another story about a barefoot Marta which reinforces this view:

They laid out carpets for her from the entrance of her house to the gateway of the Temple so that her feet not be exposed (to the ground), even so, her feet were exposed…

We see Marta’s excessive sensitivity, her wastefulness. She is one who can walk into the street and be sure that someone will be there to make sure she does not have to interact with reality. We have seen that Marta can be a leader. She has already changed the nation’s path by determining who will be Kohen Gadol, but now she shirks her responsibility. She has not learned that in the current situation she must learn to compromise. In this she embodies the verse which R Yochanan chose as the opening to this series of stories: “Happy is the man that fears always, but he that hardens his heart shall fall into evil”. By being inflexible, and not accepting the reality around her, Marta avoided dealing with the difficult situation in Jerusalem and potentially saving the situation. In the first ending brought by the Talmud we see that her final brutal exposure to reality is too much for her to handle and brings on her death.

A Different Ending

In the second possible ending to the story we are introduced to R Tzadok. R Tzadok is the antithesis of Marta. For forty years he has seen the political and spiritual situation, the destruction approaching, and has held it off with his extreme behavior. The Talmud tells us that when he ate, the food could be seen, symbolic of the fact that he is transparent in his behavior – all that he does is good inside and out. What has Marta done during this time? She has not even stepped out of her house. She is the one who is enclosed, kept under wraps which prevent her from interacting with the world around her. It is at the point when the servant returns for the last time that she takes drastic action, removes her wraps and is ready to expose herself to what is happening outside, but it is too late. She tries to extract the contents of the fig as R Tzadok does but she is left with only the empty shell. It is too late for her to help the nation. The shock is too much for her and she dies. Her inflexibility has brought about her death.

The second ending adds the story of Marta’s throwing away her money. In this ending, death is not instant, but she has the time to take action before she dies. She throws away her money in the street. The money which was the basis for her power is no longer of any use. Perhaps she has finally understood that her wealth is what caused her to become so far estranged from society that she could allow the destruction to occur.

In these days of contemplation, we too must be sensitive to the world in which we live. We must not ensconce ourselves in our own protected environment, but venture out into society and do our best to improve the world around us, and be involved in bringing the nation to complete redemption.

Rabbanit Rebecca Linzer
Rabbanit Rebecca Linzer is a graduate of the Matan Ayanot Scholars Program. She teaches Talmud at Matan HaSharon and is the International Coordinator of the Matan Bat Mitzvah Program as well as Coordinator of Gavna, Matan’s new Beit Midrash for the Creative Arts. Rabbanit Linzer is a member of Beit Hillel.  


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