אמרו עליו על רבי ישמעאל בן קמחית פעם אחת סיפר דברים עם ערבי אחד בשוק ונתזה צינורא מפיו על בגדיו ונכנס ישבב אחיו ושמש תחתיו וראתה אמן שני כהנים גדולים ביום אחד ושוב אמרו עליו על רבי ישמעאל בן קמחית פעם אחת יצא וסיפר עם אדון אחד בשוק ונתזה צינורא מפיו על בגדיו ונכנס יוסף <עם> אחיו ושמש תחתיו וראתה אמן שני כהנים גדולים ביום אחד ת"ר שבעה בנים היו לה לקמחית וכולן שמשו בכהונה גדולה אמרו לה חכמים מה עשית שזכית לכך אמרה להם מימי לא ראו קורות ביתי קלעי שערי אמרו לה הרבה עשו כן ולא הועילוTranslation:
It was told of R. Ishmael b. Kimchit that one day he spoke to an Arab in the marketplace, and spit from his mouth flew on his garments, and therefore his brother Jeshebab entered and served in his stead. Thus their mother saw two high priests on one day. Furthermore, it is said of R. Ishmael b. Kimchit that he went out and talked with a certain lord in the street, and spit from his mouth squirted on his garments, and therefore Joseph his brother entered and served in his stead so that their mother saw two high priests on one day.
Our Rabbis taught: Kimchit had 7 sons, and all of them served in the high priesthood. The Sages said unto her: What did you do to merit (or deserve) this? She said: All the days of my life, the beams of my house have not seen the plaits of my hair. They said to her: There were many who did likewise and yet did not succeed.
The beginning section of this passage is part of that complication. How did her 7 sons all come to serve as High Priest? At least two of them got in because their brothers behaved in ways that caused them to become disqualified to serve as High Priest for Yom Kippur. At a time when they were supposed to be studying, meditating, and maintaining their scrupulous ritual purity, they were talking to various people out in the shuk, the marketplace. In other words, they were disqualified, and called on their brothers to fill in, because they were doing what they shouldn't have been doing, in a place they shouldn't have been. Not, to my mind, such a great honor for their mother, then.
The second complication is that the rabbis assert that Kimchit's great merit is not so unusual (which tells us interesting things about at least what the rabbis thought women did in their head and hair covering practices).
What does this have to say about the potency of the merit of covering your hair, then? If nothing else, it sends a pretty ambivalent message. It suggests that women saw great spiritual merit and power in the practice, and in taking it to an extreme- and that the rabbis weren't so sure about that. Was this a way of taking away from the power of women's spiritual practices or making light of them? Or was it a way of voicing the different attitudes both felt in the tradition? Perhaps it's a call for moderation- after all, I haven't yet seen a halakhic source that asks one to cover one's hair at home/in the presence of only one's family.
I come out of it feeling ambivalent. What about you?
Stay tuned for the parallel Yerushalmi (Jerusalem or Palestinian Talmud) text, and a comparison.