In both the omer series and the kittel Collection, Nicholls utilizes the vocabulary of Jewish ritual to talk about larger issues. In “Ghosts and Shadows: The Women Who Haunt the Talmud” she hones in on ten female characters who “turn” the overwhelmingly male narrative voice of the Gemara into a discourse that recognizes female agency and power. She does this utilizing a completely unique medium consisting of multiple layers of translucent material (silk organza), each 15” x 20”, that beguilingly combine white sewn text, image, embroidery and the actual outline of the Vilna Talmud page being used, each sewn as a distinct layer.
In Taanis 23b, the Gemara relates a story about Abba Hilkiah, a grandson of the famous Honi the Circle Drawer. This sage was constantly beseeched by the Sages to pray for rain, and he was always successful. Once when he was sent for, he led the messengers on what seemed like an illogical wild-goose chase. At the end of this journey he came to his home whereupon his wife greeted him bedecked in her precious jewelry. He had her enter the house first and then he bid her to join him on the roof to pray for rain. She stood in one corner, he in the other and the rain began to fall on her side. When asked to explain his wife’s strange appearance upon greeting him, he assumed it was to keep him from looking at other women, thinking her as an object of desire. Thereupon her success at beseeching God for rain opened his eyes to her real virtue. He then explained that she was clearly more meritorious than he since she stayed at home and gave bread to the poor, which they could enjoy immediately, while all he did was to give the poor money which they had to wait to enjoy. Nicholls quotes the narrative on the top layer and through the outline of this Talmud page we can glimpse the wife with rings on all her fingers and copious necklaces even as two challah loaves hover like clouds over falling shafts of wheat. In this narrative what could easily have been missed amongst many other elements of the story, is that a woman’s worth is closely linked with elemental acts of kindness and resulting access to the Ruler of the Universe.
In “Rebbe’s Maid: The One Who Stood Between Heaven and Earth” the heroine likewise operates counter to prevailing rabbinic wisdom. Kesubos 104a relates the last days of Rebbe. The Sages decreed a public fast and forbade anyone from saying that Rebbe had died. His maidservant, a wise and pious woman, ascended to the roof and beseeched Heaven to allow him to live. But when she saw how terrible was his suffering, even struggling to take off and put on his tefillin, she changed her prayer and asked Heaven to take him. But since the Sages did not cease their prayers, she took an earthenware vessel and smashed it from the roof to the ground. The sound startled them, interrupting their prayers, which allowed Rebbe to die. She acted in wisdom, kindness and mercy and therefore we learn from her that when “one suffers greatly from an illness, and there is no chance that he will live, we are required to pray for his death” (Artscroll Kesubos 104a, note 7). Nicholls has depicted the old woman’s outstretched hands as she has just thrust the pot off the roof. On another layer we see the broken shards among Rebbe’s tefillin. Again it is a woman who understands what the men do not and effectively turns the narrative.
While each one of the narratives that Nicholls chooses explores another aspect of hidden women in the Talmud, “Shmuel’s Daughters: The Ones Who Knew What to Say to the Rabbis” perhaps best illuminates Nicholls’ own methodology. Ketubos 23a continues an exploration of the principle of ha’peh she’assar, literally “The very mouth that has forbidden is the mouth that has permitted,” wherein a prohibited state is established solely through the word of a particular person, that person has the right to report that the prohibition does not apply in their case. Here, tragically, Shmuel’s daughters were abducted and then returned, paradoxically by their captors. The daughters one by one entered the study hall and separately testified, “I was captured but I am pure.” They were believed and allowed to marry a Kohen. When their captors later entered the study hall, Rabi Chanina exclaimed, “These women are the children of a halachic master;” indeed they were the children of Shmuel. The Gemara has no idea what actually happened to the women in their captivity. All it admits is that through their knowledge of the principle of ha’peh she’assar the women skillfully cleared the path to their desired marriage to Kohanim. Nicholls’ image is deceptively simple; the foreground shows the broken chains of their captivity, or more likely the chains of their suspected defilement, in contrast to a simple stitched line of one daughter whispering in the ear of the other the key to their halachic freedom. For these women of the Gemara, it is Torah knowledge that liberates them much in the same way Nicholls spins her artistic magic through sophisticated Talmudic thinking.