NaNoWriMo: Writing Fiction out of Rabbinic Stories

I’m still not sure how 404 million works of fiction get sold every year in this country, but I’m more sure how worthy an endeavor it all is. Go support authors and buy books!

On NaNoWriMo

This year, for the second year in a row, I participated in National Novel Writing Month (hereafter: NaNoWriMo), a ridiculous monthlong challenge in which participants crank out a 50,000 word manuscript. I say “ridiculous” because novels are not actually written in a month. (* As I wrote this, I remember reading that Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in ten days in a library basement, so I went back to check the facts. He did, in fact, compose 25,000 words in 9 days to complete the book, but it was building on a base of a couple years’ worth of previously published stories, and says nothing of the revisions afterwards).

At any rate, the point of the challenge, for the most part, is to get creative juices flowing and build excitement for the possibility of realizing the dream of writing a novel. Close to half a million people register for the challenge every year— about 10% finish with 50,000 words or more— and it all makes me wonder: why? What is it about writing a novel that appeals to so many people?

It made me wonder whether more people want to write novels than read novels, so I went to look up the numbers and actually, it’s not even close: Over 400 print fiction books are sold every year in the United States alone. (So much for the death of publishing! Take that kindle and e-readers! There are lots of things to be worried for in the publishing industry, but that’s still a very robust opportunity). 

So why are we so obsessed with long, fictional narratives?

Rabbinic Stories as Fodder

I’ve thought about this a lot this month, because the novel I was working on was a piece of historical fiction that aimed to make a series of short, ancient stories into the form of a novel. The material I was working with originated somewhere in the first couple of centuries, and usually was told in very compact story form. Sometimes the stories are charming and funny, sometimes they are puzzling, but they lack the character depth that I normally associate with stories and I always feel reading them: who are these people?

Here’s an example, from the group of stories I tried to capture. All of the stories I picked circled around a woman named Berurya, one of the only women to appear named in Rabbinic literature. I started with all of the stories that included her, and then branched out to try to capture the people around her: her father, siblings, husband, all of whom are also well-attested.

רַבִּי יוֹסֵי הַגְּלִילִי הֲוָה קָא אָזֵיל בְּאוֹרְחָא, אַשְׁכְּחַהּ לִבְרוּרְיָה אֲמַר לַהּ: בְּאֵיזוֹ דֶּרֶךְ נֵלֵךְ לְלוֹד? אֲמַרָה לֵיהּ: גָּלִילִי שׁוֹטֶה, לֹא כָּךְ אָמְרוּ חֲכָמִים: אַל תַּרְבֶּה שִׂיחָה עִם הָאִשָּׁה?! הָיָה לְךָ לוֹמַר: ״בְּאֵיזֶה לְלוֹד״.

Having discussed wise speech and the wisdom of Jewish women, the Gemara cites the following story: Rabbi Yosei HaGelili was walking along the way, and met Berurya. He said to her: On which path shall we walk in order to get to Lod? She said to him: Foolish Galilean, didn’t the Sages say: Do not talk much with women? You should have said your question more succinctly: Which way to Lod?

(Translation and text from Sefaria)

Okay, so what do we have here? It appears to be a dialogue in two statements. Rabbi Yosei asks a question, and Berurya reprimands him. This is the only snippet of the conversation we have (it presumes to be all of it), and these two people never are recorded as meeting at any other time. 

It should also be noted that while Rabbi Yosei’s question seems to be of the sort of ordinary conversational-type, Beruria’s response is actually to quote to him a piece of the Rabbinic tradition: 

יוֹסֵי בֶן יוֹחָנָן אִישׁ יְרוּשָׁלַיִם אוֹמֵר, יְהִי בֵיתְךָ פָתוּחַ לִרְוָחָה, וְיִהְיוּ עֲנִיִּים בְּנֵי בֵיתֶךָ, וְאַל תַּרְבֶּה שִׂיחָה עִם הָאִשָּׁה. בְּאִשְׁתּוֹ אָמְרוּ, קַל וָחֹמֶר בְּאֵשֶׁת חֲבֵרוֹ. מִכָּאן אָמְרוּ חֲכָמִים, כָּל זְמַן שֶׁאָדָם מַרְבֶּה שִׂיחָה עִם הָאִשָּׁה, גּוֹרֵם רָעָה לְעַצְמוֹ, וּבוֹטֵל מִדִּבְרֵי תוֹרָה, וְסוֹפוֹ יוֹרֵשׁ גֵּיהִנֹּם:

Yose ben Yochanan (a man) of Jerusalem used to say: Let thy house be wide open, and let the poor be members of thy household. Engage not in too much conversation with women. They said this with regard to one’s own wife, how much more [does the rule apply] with regard to another man’s wife. From here the Sages said: as long as a man engages in too much conversation with women, he causes evil to himself, he neglects the study of the Torah, and in the end he will inherit gehinnom.

(translation and text from Sefaria

This is a text worth picking apart in its own right, but from our perspective, for the story of Berurya, what matters is that Berurya apparently knew this text and possibly Rabbi Yosei did not. In the exchange, Rabbi Yosei acts like the generally uninformed person, using regular speech, whereas Berurya acts like the Rabbi, quoting a text to respond to ordinary conversation. In other words, we’re already someplace weird. (But interesting, right? Don’t you want to know more about this woman who is doing this? I do! I wanted to write a novel about her!)

Before we even get to the question of fictionalizing this account and making it more robust, there are a lot of things to notice about the story: historically, textually, and from both Berurya and Yosei’s points of view. In order:


Let’s cut to the chase, shall we: Did this happen?

Let me put the answer right up front. I have no idea if it happened or not. Neither does anybody else, although that doesn’t stop people from making guesses and arguments. 

I’m not going to weigh in on the question (even though I myself have some guesses) because for my project, it doesn’t matter: I wanted to bring to fuller expression the stories about her, so if someone else previously imagined her acting this way, I wanted to accept it and explain why she would have. In other words, it wouldn’t be out of the question that it never happened, but if the point of my story is fiction, then I presumed to give voice to the stories without evaluating all of them.

So let’s not get entangled with whether it happened, but presuming it did, let’s give a little texture to some other parts of the narrative.

In the story, Rabbi Yosei is asking about going to Lod.  If the name of this city rings a bell, it’s probably because in modern times, it is part of the name of Ben Gurion airport, roughly between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. But Lod is actually an ancient city, mentioned a couple of times in the Bible. It becomes known as Lydda in the Greek period, and in 200 CE, the city became a Roman city known as Diospolis (city of God?), after being a somewhat-important Jewish site for the previous century.

Another historical and relevant reality: Rabbi Yosei is one of the only Rabbis of the time of the Mishnah who is marked geographically. He is a Galilean, from the North. 

So where did this exchange happen, exactly? 

Here’s another complication: as far as I can tell, Berurya was also from the Galilee. That is to say, her father was from Sikhnin, in the north, and while her husband Meir seemed to get around a lot, eventually he ended up Usha and she presumably with him.

So where would they be that she would know the directions to Lod and he wouldn’t? Obviously, if I’m writing a story, I need to at least know where they are. 

One more historical note: this text isn’t dated, but a complete reorganization of the Jewish and Rabbinic community was happening in the background. The stories I have tend to be all like this: incidents that happened, circling around Rabbinic or Biblical texts. You could plausibly read almost all of them and not know that in 132-135, there was a massive Jewish revolt against Rome underway led by Bar Kochva, that the Jewish community was split in their support of his leadership, and that an unbelievable Roman military presence was summoned to quash the revolt and restore Roman rule. You could read texts like this all day and miss the fact that Judea was pretty much summarily destroyed, both because the Romans destroyed the physical infrastructure and because they killed everyone. Rabbi Yosei might be the only one listed as Galilean, but by ten years later, practically everyone was a Galilean, because that was all that was left. And that said, permanent Roman garrisons moved in the area, Beit She’an becoming Scythopolis, an important Roman city.

You might also miss the fact that Rabbinic Jews were only one kind of Jew around in this time period, including the fact that some Jews might have referred to themselves now as Christians. Or that while our texts presume depth and interest in the Rabbinic tradition and following Jewish law, almost certainly some Jews were “assimilated,” whatever that meant in that time period.

Where is all of that going on in our text, and how does it help characterize Berurya?


While it is fun to pull out this one little exchange from its location in the text and think about who Berurya was and why she said this, in reality, it is embedded in a series of stories, and they all fit together tightly.

This little story comes in the middle of an extended conversation in the text about Galileeans and their garbled accents (compared to Judea) that sometimes create misunderstandings, particularly in the speech of Galilean women. It also includes several stories of women or children having greater wisdom than the Rabbis, verbally outsmarting men who are supposed to be more sage than they, or are able to “put a halakhic spin on a normal human encounter” (Those are the words of scholar Tal Ilan in her article “Beruriah has Spoken Well”: The Historical Beruriah and Her Transformation in the Rabbinic Corpora”).

It also includes the repetition of the term “Galilean fool” in several different contexts besides Berurya saying it, and is laden with gender issues, dialect issues, and repeats the theme of the road and being lost. Collectively, the stories upend the traditional power dynamic of Rabbis and everyone-but-Rabbis. By putting wisdom in the voices of women and children (the most marginal people in terms of power) it questions whether wisdom is held only by the Rabbis. At least in Berurya’s case, it does this by still seating her authority within the Rabbinic tradition— she knows the Mishnah and Rabbi Yosei has forgotten it.

How can I work in the anti-Galilean bias, and how do I locate Berurya within it? And what to make of the other marginal characters and reveal the upending of power in this exchange?


Everyone has an opinion about who Berurya was. It can’t be helped, that’s what happens when only one woman is named. Here are some pictures of her:

David Goodblatt: “Beruriah was an exception to the rule regarding the degree of education of women in rabbinic society… the background of this exception is Sassanian Babylonia, not Roman Palestine.”

Daniel Boyarin: “In both (Babylonia and Palestine) she is atypical, …(in Babylonia)…she becomes a scandal.”

Brenda Bacon: “Beruriah was not only unusually learned; she also acted within her community as a sage, and her femaleness placed no limitations on her behavior.”

Tal Ilan: “the Babylonians created a repository of traditions about Beruriah, presenting her in this light, namely as a great sage…the Babylonian rabbis drew on the Beruriah traditions occasionally when their contents fit into the sugya they were editing, and when they wanted to make an unexpected remark about gender.”

Rachel Adler writes more specifically on our story: “The story is laden with ironies. Rabbi Yose, fearing that a superfluous pleasantry will open him to lust, rudely asks directions without a greeting. Beruriah obligingly demonstrates how he might have made the conversation briefer yet, thereby prolonging their contact. Not only must Rabbi Yose converse with a woman, he must be rebuked by her, not only rebuked but taught Torah, and not just any Torah but precisely the dictum he had been trying so zealously to observe.”

There are a lot of subtle differences in these different characterizations which could be teased out, but if we’re going to talk about creating fiction, it’s no use to say why she was used this way by the authors of the text. It’s going to come down to who was she, and what did she want? Why would a woman speak this way, how did it attach to what she wanted?

Was she showing off? Was she trying to best him?

Or perhaps, was she trying to flirt with him?

Why would she know the direction to Lod better than he did?

What was she doing on the road, alone, walking when he overcame her?

Rabbi Yosei

It’s really hard to believe that he was lost and needed directions, even if that’s the context of several other stories in the collection.

The crucial thing to push on is the word he used— which way shall we go— 

In fact, the substance of Beruriah’s rebuke is that he used four words when two would have sufficed. He said: 

  • By which 
  • road 
  • shall we go 
  • to Lod

And in her rebuke, she claims that it would have sufficed to say:

  • By which
  • to Lod

(It should be noted that this is slightly more coherent grammatically in Hebrew than it is in English, because Hebrew doesn’t necessarily need a verb for a sentence, although it should also be noted that her proposed edit is not exactly smooth— in Hebrew, it reads grammatically correct but a little choppy.)

But it’s weird to think that Beruriah had seriously objections to the word ‘road’ when there is a much richer presumption in the word ‘nelech’ or “shall we go.”

Was he asking her along? Was this a presumption? A pick-up line? 

Is there a proto #metoo story in here, whereby a man has heaped unwanted attention and presumption upon a woman he encounters, and her rebuke is part of shaking off his attention, as much as it is a re-centering of the Rabbinic tradition?

Final Thoughts

So far, I’ve expended about 2,000 words trying to explain the difficulty of trying to imagine this story into a larger narrative that includes a richer depiction of our heroine. And it might be noted that I have raised about a million questions about the text and answered none of them.

And it might also be noted that at least some answers are in order before I start writing the prescribed 1,667 words of the day.

And those two notes perhaps explain why this project was so difficult and why November was a particularly challenging month this year. If nothing else, this month’s exercise has helped me be ever-more sympathetic to the challenges of writing a novel and making it all work together. I read a lot of “how to” books before I started (there are some terrifically inspiring ones) and took their advice about creating plot and characters. But getting to know people is really hard; creating friendships in real life takes years of work of revealing oneself and being-revealed-to. It turns out that writers of fiction have much the same challenge of learning about their character, and then a different challenge of how to introduce them to a reader in a compelling way.

I’m still not sure how 404 million works of fiction get sold every year in this country, but I’m more sure how worthy an endeavor it all is. Go support authors and buy books!

I’m also sure that next year, if I do NaNoWriMo again, I’m going to un-bind myself from already-told stories so that I can be free to imagine weird things of my own (or my characters’) choosing, without worrying where Lod is, or how old Rabbi Yosei might have been in this interaction.

As for my own decisions about how to represent this text? In the end, I made Yosei young and loquacious, put in some gossip about his recent divorce (True! Or at least attested in Rabbinic stories!), made Berurya tired and at least a little bit impatient, and used this exchange as her last attempt to shake him off. 

Satisfactory? I’m not sure. But my account of it all came to 1,692 words, a perfect day’s work in NaNoWriMo terms.

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