Before the destruction of the second temple one out of every four women bore the name Miriam. Our besorot make it clear that this was a popular name, no where does it become more obvious than near Yeshua’s death. In his besorah, Yochanan ben Zavdai records the following:
"There stood by the cross of Yeshua, his mother [Miriam], his mother’s sister-in-law, Miriam of Chalfai, and Miriam Magdala." (Yo. 19:25)
Of the notable female followers who witnessed Yeshua’s hanging, all were named Miriam. So often is the name used throughout our text it is difficult to distinguish one Miriam from the next. Chagiga 4b records an important and rather humorous account of similar confusions:
"…The Angel of Death told his agent to bring him the soul of Miriam the hairdresser and instead was brought the soul of Miriam, the children’s teacher. The Angel of Death told his messenger: I told you to bring me Miriam the hairdresser. The messenger replied: If that’s the case, I will take her back. The Angel of Death said: Since you already brought her, then let her be included in the quota of the dead ."(Chagiga 4b)
The word hairdresser found in the quote above is a translation of the original megaddlela (one who elevates the hair); it’s a euphemism implying a prostitute or other woman of ill repute. Although Rabbeinu Tam, a medieval master of Jewish law, informs us that this is not a reference to the follower of Yeshua who would have lived 100 years earlier, commentary on the text nevertheless adds profound insight into our messianic story. It was Rabbeinu Tam’s grandfather Rashi who gave clarification on the word megaddlela establishing our current definition and understanding of the word.
For well over a thousand years there has been a debate regarding the identity of the woman who washed Yeshua’s feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. We’re given the name Miriam, but for generations it has been unclear whether or not this was the Miriam called Magdala. If we understand this name the way Rashi does. If we take the term to denote “one who elevates the hair” then perhaps the two characters are one and the same Miriam…it makes sense; we’re supposed to see the contrast. The story reads more beautifully this way. Miriam, the one who raised her hair above her convictions was transformed by the presence of the tzaddik Yeshua. Her hair, once treasured above all else, became like rags used to dry the feet of her master.