What is Talmud Tweets?

What is Talmud Tweets? A short, personal take on a page of Talmud - every day!

For several years now, I have been following the tradition of "Daf Yomi" - reading a set page of Talmud daily. With the start of a new 7 1/2 year cycle, I thought I would share a taste of what the Talmud offers, with a bit of personal commentary included. The idea is not to give a scholarly explanation. Rather, it is for those new to Talmud to give a little taste - a tweet, as it were - of the richness of this text and dialogue it contains. The Talmud is a window into a style of thinking as well as the world as it changed over the centuries of its compilation.

These are not literal "tweets" - I don't limit myself to 140 characters. Rather, these are intended to be short, quick takes - focusing in on one part of a much richer discussion. Hopefully, I will pique your interest. As Hillel says: "Go and study it!" (Shabbat 31a)

Friday, August 31, 2012

Berachot 30 - Imagination and the Physical

The power of the human mind to effect a simulation of reality. Someone who is blind, or for another reason cannot tell what direction to face during prayer, is instructed to “incline the heart” that is, mentally direct prayer to “Avinu Sh’bashamyim” – our Father in Heaven. Outside the Land of Israel, directing that prayer towards Israel. If inside Israel, towards Jerusalem. If in Jerusalem towards the Sanctuary. If on the Sanctuary (the Temple Mount) then towards the Holy of Holies. If at the Holy of Holies then towards the Mercy Seat. If behind the Mercy Seat, imagine oneself to be in front of the Mercy Seat. “In this way all Israel will be turning their hearts towards one place.”

I love the image of all the Jews in the world, in prayer, facing towards a single spot: the axis mundi linking Heaven and Earth. A circle of human awareness facing revolving around the central spoke. Even those who are not physically able to turn, imagine themselves to be. Imagination, Intention and Reality merge in prayer – and we are all united. Far from being a solitary experience, prayer is unifying – even in imagination.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Berachot 29 - Keep It Fresh!

Back to prayer (oh, right. . .). 

The discussion is primarily about what to do if the reader or the individual forgets part of the T’fillah (Amidah - the standing) prayers. Also, how to shorten the prayer if one is saying it in a dangerous place or time.

But an interesting commentary on the Mishnah (from yesterday’s page 28b) “If one makes prayers a fixed task, it not a genuine supplication.” What is meant by “fixed task”? Important to know if you want to keep it real.

Rabbi Jacob ben Idi said in the name of R. Oshaiah: “Anyone whose prayer is like a heavy burden.”

The Rabbis say: “Whoever does not say it in the manner of supplication.”

Rabbah and Rabbi Joseph both say: “Whoever is not able to insert something fresh in it.”

(I love this balance of Kevah and Kavannah – fixed prayer vs fresh prayer. Adding intention, freedom, creativity into worship. But one also has to be careful:

Rabbi Zera said: “I can insert something fresh, but I am afraid to do so for fear I should become confused!”

(Keep it fresh - but don't get lost! Good advice.)

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Berachot 28 - Reconcilliation

The story continues (see yesterday’s post). . .

Rabbi Eleazar ben Azaria, at 18 years old, accepts the position of President of the Assembly. His wife had tried to dissuade him: just as his predecessor, Rabban Gamliel, had been deposed, “Maybe later they will depose you!” she says. He responds with the aphorism: “Let a man use a cup of honor for one day, even if it be broken the next.” His wife also worries that, being so young he will not be taken seriously. A miracle happens and the 18 year old suddenly has 18 rows of hair on his beard turn white. (Which is why, we are told, he is quoted as saying “Behold, I am like a man 70 years old” – a statement which shows up in our Passover Haggadah!)

Gamliel’s high handed, autocratic principles are overturned, including one which excluded any disciple from entering the House of Study, whose “inside is not as is outside” – a test of integrity, perhaps. But who is to judge their worth? The doorkeeper is removed and the study becomes full, with maybe 700 new seats added. Gamliel has a private crisis of confidence, fearing that he may have denied true teachers of Torah, but in  dream he is told that he did not – although the rumor is that the dream was just meant to make him feel better!

Gamliel, rather than hiding away, continues to come to the Assembly, even in his disgrace. There he witnesses the case of an Ammonite convert who wants to marry a Jewish woman, even though the Torah forbids it. The ruling is that this law no longer applies because the ancient Ammonite kingdom has been mixed up and even the exiled of Israel are returned. Gamliel publicly argues the case with his nemesis, Rabbi Joshua – and loses. Gamliel, defeated and humliated, decides to privately apologize to Joshua. He goes to Joshua’s home and manages to insult him by proving how out of touch he is with the realities of those who are poorer than himself. None-the-less Rabbi Joshua forgives him and they are reconciled.

Rabbi Joshua becomes Rabban Gamliel’s champion and argues with the rabbis to restore Gamliel to the Presidency. Seeing their reconciliation, the rabbis agree in principle, but worry about the practical: how do we deal with Rabbi Eleazar ben Azaria who was elevated, seeing as he did nothing worthy of being degraded. They agree to a power-sharing compromise: Gamliel will preach 3 Shabbats a month and Eleazar once a month.

The disciple who started this whole thing off by asking the question about the evening prayer is at last identified: Rabbi Shimeon bar Yochai – who later in life finds himself hidden from the Romans in a cave for 13 years! By tradition (though not through scholarship) he is credited with writing – there in that cave - the core book of Jewish mysticism: the Zohar.

Isn’t this story worthy of an opera? Someone get to it!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Berachot 27 - Rebellion!

By stating, as the Mishnah does, that the evening prayer has no time limit as to how late it can be said, it is the equivalent of saying that the evening prayer is optional. So is it? This question becomes the crux of a rebellion and leads to the public deposing of the head of the Sanhedrin!

Rabbi Gamliel, who is head, of the Academy is publicly challenged by Rabbi Joshua on this point of law. This follows two previous times in which Gamliel asserts his authority over Joshua and publicly humiliates him. Using metaphors of the gladiators (and this seems to be as popular entertainment as the games), the crowd calls for Gamliel to be deposed. But they do not want Joshua to take his place, because that would just perpetuate the conflict. Nor do they want to nominate R. Akiba because he "has no ancestral merit." R. Eleazar b. Azariah is nominated as successor. He is described as wise (a necessary condition) and rich (important in paying the tribute to Caesar) and the tenth in descent from Ezra. (good ancestry). Will he accept? After all, he is only 18 years old! More tomorrow. . . .

Monday, August 27, 2012

Berachot 26 - Prayer and Sacrifices

A new chapter of the Mishnah begins to be discussed. The opening Mishnah of Berachot begins with the question of how early in the day one can begin to say the morning prayer. This chapter begins by asking how late one can say it. Then the upper time limit for the afternoon and evening prayers are discussed as well. Why all these clear delineations? Because, it is asserted, the prayer service was instituted to replace (and model) the sacrificial services after the Temple was destroyed (in 70 CE). Just as sacrifices had to be brought in their correct time, and the correct manner so prayer did as well.

But, the counter comes, the tradition is that the prayer services are much older: the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob each instituted one of the three prayer services (and texts are brought to prove it)! Just so, asserts Rabbi Jose ben Hanina "the Patriarchs instituted the Tefillahs and the Rabbis found a basis for them in the offerings."

Don't you love it when both sides are right?

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Berachot 25 - Not for the Angels

One does not say the Sh’ma in the presence of urine, feces or nakedness; based on the text “. . .that He see no unseemly thing in thee” (Deut. 23:15). Nakedness includes seeing someone through a glass. One’s own nakedness can be covered by water (although it cannot be fetid - but it should be stirred up). 

An interesting conversation questioning if it is permissible in that instance if “the heart sees his nakedness” – (I like that image of the heart seeing.) Some permit, some not. What if the “heel sees his nakedness”? Raba says it is permitted – and it is his reason that interests me: because “the Torah was not given to the ministering angels.” That is to say, we are human and you cannot make things so stringent that we would have to be an angel (without a body?) to be fully compliant.

But how can we apply Raba’s principle? How do we balance the ideal with the reality? Aiming for angelic perfection while realizing that we are limited by our humanity? The Torah wasn’t given to or for those of angelic perfection – it is a tool for us all, as flawed humans, to make ourselves strive for something more. We don't wallow or excuse the shallow flesh-based reality, but we don't deride ourselves for our humanness either. I like that image of being suspended between heaven and earth - we are more than the animals and less than the angels and our two-sided nature pulls us in both directions. Torah is our tool to keep us focused in the right direction.

Berachot 24 - Female Exposure

As an aside, there is a brief enumeration of some of the ways that woman’s physical exposure constitutes sexual excitement. A woman’s leg, a woman’s voice, a woman’s hair, all these have led to restrictions – covering up - in traditional Judaism. The principle of tzinut or “modesty” has seen women fully cover their limbs, hide their hair under shawls or wigs, and temper their voices (the last being among the reasons that women were excluded from being Cantors until the 20th century).

What is usually left out of these discussions, though, is the fact that the text places the emphasis on the one who “gazes” (presumably the man). “If one gazes at the little finger of a woman, it is as if he gazed at her secret place.” The man is presumed to have the responsibility to control himself. Leering is the problem, not exposure.

Except for the married man, when he sees his wife. Presumably that kind of arousal is not a bad thing!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Berachot 23 - Physically Prepare for Prayer

This page has an extensive discussion of bathroom etiquette as it relates to prayer. This is, if one is saying the prayers and finds he must relieve himself, when he returns does he start over or pick up where he left off? There is more, much more. You don't want to know. The point being, Talmud and Jewish law deals with all aspects of human life. It is not idealized - it is real.

There is a recognition that prayer requires preparation, including physical preparation (take care of your business before you begin to pray). Based on the verse" Prepare to meet thy God, O Israel." (Amos 4:12)

Prayer is not mere recital - it is Divine Encounter. Be ready.

It reminds me of the moment I take before services to wrap my head in the tallit - separating and centering myself.

How do you prepare yourself for prayer?

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Berachot 22 - Torah Like Fire

The page discusses cases when a man has had a seminal emission during the night (more about that when we study Niddah) - he is not supposed to say the prayers or study until he has bathed. Against this comes this interesting quote which says more about the power of Torah:

It has been taught: R. Judah b. Bathyra used to say: Words of Torah are not susceptible of uncleanness. Once a certain disciple was mumbling over against R. Judah b. Bathyra (because he had had an emission and did not think he could read out loud). He said to him: My son, open thy mouth and let thy words be clear, for words of Torah are not susceptible to uncleanness, as it says, "Is not My word like as fire." (Jer. 23:29) Just as fire is not susceptible of uncleanness, so words of Torah are not susceptible of uncleanness.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Berachot 21 - Minyan is Ten

Leviticus 22:32 "I will be hallowed among the children of Israel" is used as evidence that the kedusha prayers are not said unless there is a minyan of 10. How? Because another instance of the word "among" is "Separate yourselves from among this congregation." (Num.16:21). In that instance the 10 spies who spoke against Joshua and Caleb are referred to. Thus a "congregation" is defined as no less than 10.

Now you know.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Berachot 20 - Gender and Grace After Meals


When I was in rabbinic school at Hebrew-Union College we spent a lot of time on the texts on this page, regarding the release for women from “time-bound, positive commandments.” Although the Reform and Conservative Movements had long been ordaining women as rabbis and cantors, our female colleagues at Jewish Theological Seminary knew that they might not be accepted in some congregations. Even the Reform Movement had not yet, at that time, seen a woman as senior rabbi of a major congregation. This “exemption” for woman from some of the mitzvot was seen as a requirement, in traditional Judaism, that they be excluded.

All this feels very quaint now – although the issue of how gay and lesbian Jews continue to feel excluded in the same way as all women did, is still very prevalent. And, of course, the exclusion of women from many aspects of religious life continues today in the traditional world and in some elements in Israel. This continues to be shameful.

Reading this page of Talmud today, though, I am struck by a different story. Everyone, women included, are required to say birkat hamazon the “grace after meals.” The story is told here that the ministering angels got into a textual discussion with G-d. They note that the Torah describes G-d as one who “shows no favor” (Deut. 10:17). Yet, the angels point out, the Torah also describes G-d as “bestowing favor” on Israel in the 3-fold benediction (Num. 6:26) (note: the Hebrew is the same in both – usually translated as “lift up His countenance.”) In the story, G-d replies to the angels “And shall I not show favor for Israel, seeing that I wrote for them in the Torah 'And you shall eat and be satisfied and bless the Lord your God' (Deut. 8:10) and they are scrupulous [to say the grace after meals] even if the quantity of the meal is [the size of] and olive or an egg?”

Birkat hamazon – a rule which applies to male and female Jews – endears our relationship with the Divine. If not literally, as in this story from G-d’s perspective, then figuratively from ours. After every meal we stop and say and extended “thank you” – and act which brings us to a place of gratitude and humility. More powerful in some ways after a meal, when we are sated, than before when we are holding back in anticipation. Just when it would make sense to walk away from the table, we linger to think beyond our belly. A discipline unlimited by gender, which we can all learn from.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Berachot 19 - Does Dignity Win?

A saying of the rabbis: ‘Great is human dignity, since it overrides a negative precept of the Torah’. (Shabbat 81b) To respect someone's dignity - especially a scholar - a negative commandment (thou shalt not) can be suspended. The classic case, found elsewhere in the Talmud (Menachot 37b) is of a scholar who discovers while walking down the street that his clothes have mixed materials (ie linen and wool). Normally one should remove the garment immediately even in public. But for the sake of dignity the requirement would be suspended.

This might feel obvious to us - but it is not. How does one have the right to suspend a Torah commandment? After all it says in the Bible "No wisdom, no prudence, and no counsel can prevail against the Lord" (Proverbs 21:39) which seems to require a strict interpretation of the law. However rabbinic permission for interpretation is given by the Torah command "you shall act in accordance with the instruction given you and the ruling handed down to you. . .(Deut. 17:11). So it is within rabbinic power to make exceptions.

This argument of strict law verses sympathy based on human need continues to this day. I argue for human dignity.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Berachot 18 - Ghosts!

One whose dead lies before him (either literally, or simply has not yet buried them) is exempt from all the normal obligations, like saying the Sh'ma or the blessing after meals. On Shabbat, they perform all obligations. One also does not say the Sh'ma in a cemetery - because it is mocking the dead ("Hear, O Israel" - but they cannot hear!). Several stories are then told which indicate that they do, in fact, hear and have knowledge of the world. The Talmud has ghost stories!

Berachot 17 - Prayer for the New Rabbi

More prayers and sayings of the rabbis. But I am struck by this reflection of those newly ordained to serve the people:

"When the Rabbis took leave from the school of R. Ammi — some say, of R. Hanina — they said to him: May you see your world provided in your lifetime, and may your latter end be for the future world and your hope for many generations; may your heart meditate understanding, your mouth speak wisdom and your tongue indite song; may your eyelids look straight before you, may your eyes be enlightened by the light of the Torah and your face shine like the brightness of the firmament; may your lips utter knowledge, your reins rejoice in uprightness and your steps run to hear the words of the Ancient of Days."

This should be a blessing for all newly ordained rabbis. How do we dream when we begin a journey?

Friday, August 17, 2012

Berachot 16 - Prayer After Prayer

Prayers offered by several of the great rabbis which were recited by him after the conclusion of the amidah prayer. This one, by Rab, is now said on the Shabbat of Rosh Chodesh - which is appropriate since tomorrow is Rosh Chodesh, the beginning of the month of Elul:

"May it be Thy will, O Lord our God, to grant us long life, a life of peace, a life of good, a life of blessing, a life of sustenance, a life of bodily vigor, a life in which there is fear of sin, a life free from shame and confusion, a life of riches and honor, a life in which we may be filled with the love of Torah and the fear of heaven, a life in which Thou shalt fulfill all the desires of our heart for good!"

What prayer would you add?

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Berachot 15 - 'Hear', O Israel

"R. Judah said in the name of R. Eleazar b. Azariah: One who recites the Shema’ must let his ear hear what he says, as it says, ‘Hear, O Israel’." In other words, the Sh'ma must be said audibly to oneself to be valid (an exception is made for someone who is deaf).

But "Said R. Meir to him: ‘Which I command thee this day upon thy heart’, indicating that the words derive their validity from the attention of the heart."

Is it hearing or is it intention? Words or thought? Recital or attention?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Berachot 14 - Interrupted Prayer

When can one interrupt one's prayer to give greetings to another? What if that person is a respected teacher? What if that person is a person to fear (say a Roman officer?)? Specific "breaks" are discussed - with an attempt to balance respect for the continuity of prayer with respect for the individual. It does call to mind the "chatter" one hears in traditional synagogues vs the "decorum" of liberal ones.

Also - one should not conduct business before prayer. Based on Psalm 85:14 Righteousness shall go before him and [then] he shall set his steps on his own way.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Berachot 13 - Prayer and Intent

"Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one." This is the core, required statement of prayer. But recital is not enough. Intentionality matters.

If one happens to be reading the Sh'ma in the Torah and reads it with the intention to fulfill the commandment of reciting it in prayer, then it counts. Otherwise it doesn't. In fact, intention-attention (kavana) is required to make prayer count. No passive, empty recital of well-known words.

And it works both ways I.e. you can over intentionalize. So while it is meritorious to elongate the Sh'ma by drawing out the last word (echad - One), Rabbi Hiyya ben Abba says "once you have declared [G-d] king over everything above and below and over the four quarters of Heaven - nothing more is required." 'nuff said.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Berachot 12 - Heretics!

An ancient tradition is reported in which the Ten Commandments were recited before the Sh’ma. This was done in the Temple, but many people wanted to take up this custom outside: in Jerusalem and even in Babylon. But they were stopped from doing so “because of insinuations of the Minim.” There are many debates about who these “Minim” are (usually Anglicized to ‘Minuth’) but usually known as heretics who deny the existence of G-d or that G-d is not One (see, among many sources, Mishnah Sanhedrin 10:1 and Maimonides, Yad, Teshuvah 3:6-8). Here it seems to be concern that the Minim were implying the Ten Commandments were the only word of G-d, therefore deserving unique and singular status, and denying rabbinic interpretations and authority. The Ten Commandments, as far as the rabbis are concerned, are not considered more important than any of the remaining 603! One of several examples in which Jewish practice is changed based on the critiques of those outside.
An additional blessing was said by the Temple priests on Shabbat. This is no longer in our prayers, but is included in the wedding blessings (Sheva Berachot) asking G-d’s blessing in “love and brotherhood and peace and friendship.”

A short section on prayer choreography (more on that later) which contains this wonderful statement: “Rabbi Shesheth, when he bowed, used to bend like a reed and when he raised himself, used to raise himself like a serpent.” Try that, yoga practitioners!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Berachot 11 - Light and Darkness

Back to the main discussion of the tractate – the prayers. Specifically here, the words rather than the time or the actions of prayer. There is a discussion on this page about the first of two blessings said before the Sh’ma – that is, in our prayerbook, the blessing after Borchu. In the morning prayers we recite a quote from Isaiah 45:7, praising G-d who “forms light and creates darkness. . .” (in Isaiah, the statement is in the first person: “I [G-d] form light and create darkness”). But, the question comes, since this is a morning prayer, why not say “forms light and creates brightness” ? After all, it is daytime! No, the argument returns, we are simply quoting the text as is. However, comes the counter argument, we modify the next half of the sentence, changing it from “makes peace and creates evil” to “makes peace and creates all.” If we can change one half of a sentence, why not the other?! That last change, comes the reply, is a euphemism (perhaps so we don’t dwell on the evils that befall us.) Or, as Raba tells us, the whole point is to bring out the distinctive difference between light and darkness, mentioning darkness during the day and light at night – as in the evening version of the blessing “rolling light away from darkness and darkness from light.”

Left out of this discussion is a philosophical note found in the ArtScroll siddur (p. 85) which points out that the Isaiah quote is intended as a statement G-d’s unity, at a time of divided divinity:  light and darkness, good and evil all come from the same singular source – not a deity of pure good and  a counter-agent of evil. G-d is One. Darkness and light, good and evil: one is not meaningful or comprehensible without the existence of the other.

Berachot 10 - Beruria

The appearance of Beruria! The only woman whose textual interpretations are included in the Talmud - Beruria is the wife of Rabbi Meir. In her first entrance, and with snappy dialogue (she is the master of the halackic one-liners!), Beruria convinces her husband, who has been harassed by robbers not to pray for their death but for the death of their sins. She does this by neatly flipping one word of a prooftext. With proof in hand, Rabbi Meir prays that the thieves will repent - and they do! In this and other examples, Beruria displays not only compassion, but quick intelligence and the confidence to stand up for her beliefs. Perhaps one can say that she is the exception which proves the rule of what is to modern eyes a highly offensive negation of women in the Talmud - reflecting the reality of a 1,500 year old text. But one can also hold Beruria up as a demonstration of personal strength and respect for intellect. Beruria continues to inspire.

note: although I study every day, I do not post on Shabbat. On these summer days when Shabbat ends so late, I will most likely double post on Sunday.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Berachot 9 - The Color Blue

The Mishnah on this page states that the earliest time one can recite the morning prayers is when you can distinguish the color blue from white. The word for blue here is t'chelet which is a specific color dye the making of which was lost. A single thread of t'chelet is supposed to be in the tzitzit - the fringes of the tallit. But because the specific color was lost, the rabbis ordained that it should be white like the other threads. Today you can buy t'chelet - but I have always remained suspicious: the color of these threads sold is a dark blue, easily distinguished from white even in very low light! T'chelet must have been a very light blue. Blue is not blue is not blue, it's all about shades. I knew my lighting design past would come in handy one day!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Berachot 8 - Redeeming G-d

In a sentence - a summery of human action with cosmic consequences: "if one occupies oneself with study of Torah, acts of charity and prays with the community, I (G-d) account it as if this one had redeemed Me and my children. . ." a simple yet powerful guide for righteous living: study, generosity, and community. Any one is good. Taken together, these actions of the individual brings G-d into the world. "Redeeming G-d" - the soulless world becomes G-d-filled.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Berachot 7 - G-d's Self-Limiting Anger

Classic rabbinic texts don’t go in much for what we would call modern theology, but this page contains in part a fascinating examination of G-d’s anger. G-d is pictured as praying (!) that the Divine quality of mercy will suppress the quality of anger within, so that the punishment given to the people – while deserved – may be less than the full measure of strict judgment. In other words, G-d’s anger is self-tempered so that mercy will prevail. A reassuring thought.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Berachot 6 - We Are One

There is an extensive discussion of demons – which are seen as invisible creatures surrounding each of us “a thousand on one his left hand and ten thousand on his right” – and the magical potion for being able to actually see them. 

But I love another image from this page: the idea that just as religious Jews wear t’fillin as a sign of binding ourselves to G-d, G-d wears t’fillin as a sign of binding to us! If ours has the Sh’ma  (G-d is One) as our text, G-d’s t’fillin uses I Chronicles 17:21: And what one nation in the earth is like thy people Israel. . . As we make G-d unique, G-d makes us unique.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Berachot 5 - The Evil Inclination

An amazing page filled with miraculous healings and theories of chastisement (why does G-d inflict pain and suffering? What do we learn from it?)

I've studied this page several times. Today I focused on a brief text regarding the battle between the evil and good inclination within a person, based on Psalms 4:5 - "Tremble and sin not; commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still, Selah!"

The interpretation: "Tremble and sin not (fight your evil impulse); commune with your own heart (study Torah) upon your bed (recite the Sh'ma at night), and be still (remember that death awaits), Selah!"

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Berachot 4 - Willing to Say "I Don't Know"

note: I am not holding myself to a literal 140 character "tweet" in this blog - but I am trying to focus a small light on only one remark per Talmud page (folio page, meaning two sides of one page, thus the a and b designation). But there are two delicious comments here I could not resist.

1) in Exodus 11:4 Moses says the Angel of Death will start attacking the Egyptian first born "around midnight." Why not a precise time? Moses knew exactly when midnight would come, but he was afraid that the Egyptian astrologers would make a mistake about when midnight struck and then they would call him a liar. The lesson is: one should always be ready to say "I don't know." (In my experience, one of the hardest phrases!)

2) A ranking of the top angels based on their stamina: "Michael reaches his goal in one flight (without resting), Gabriel in two, Elijah in four, and the Angel of Death in eight. In times of plague, however, the Angel of Death reaches his goal in one."

Berachot 3 - G-d Keeps Time with Us

The night has 3 divisions or "watches." Heaven also has 3 "watches" and as each watch begins G-d roars like a lion and says "Woe to the children, on account of whose sins I destroyed My house and burnt My temple and exhaled them among the nations." That is to say, we are reminded of our sins and their cost all night - if we can hear it.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Berachot 2 - The Love of Questions

The 13th Cycle Begins!

Here is one of the things I love about Jewish study: everything starts with a question. The Talmud reading begins with a question. Actually, the mishnah begins with a question. The gemara (commentary) begins with a question about that question. Actually, two questions about that first question. And so it goes. No statements of ideology or dogma, and most people expect from a religious text. Rather the mind opens to investigation and doubt. How do you know what you know and what if you are mistaken? Prove it yourself and prove yourself. Welcome to the world of Talmud.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Talmud Tweets - One Cycle Ends, Another Begins!

Talmud Tweets!

Today ends a 7 1/2 year cycle of reading known as "Daf Yomi" - a page a day. Every day there is a set and sequential page of the Talmud that isread and studied by Jews around the world. Today marks the end of the 12thcycle. Originally started in 1923by Rabbi Meir Shapiro, the idea of following this regimen has taken off andsome 300,000 people take part in the “Siym HaShas” – or completion ceremony. About90,000were in MetLife Stadium in New Jersey last night for the largest of theseceremonies.

I have been following the practice of Daf Yomi for several years now,reading privately at home. I can’t say how long it has been, but I have notcompleted the full cycle. My habit is to wake up very early every morningbefore anyone else is up and read quietly. Although I have a full set of the “shas”(given to me by my brother, Rabbi Ronnie Cahana, as an ordination present 18years ago) for the past month or so, I have been reading my daf yomi on my iPadusing the app iTalmud by CrowdedRoad.

At times the text is quite disturbing. There can be no question or apologyfor misogyny, for example. At times it is painfully dull and focused onminutia, such as endless detail on the specifics of the long gone sacrificial cult.But it has continued to fascinate me and offer endless insights as the mostsignificant of Jewish texts. Midrash, halacha and the process of deep investigation mix on every page.

For the past few weeks, I have been experimenting with keeping a daily “tweet”log of every page – a sentence or two. This is not a summary of what is often acomplex argument, nor is it necessarily the most significant item on the page.My “tweet” is an entirely subjective snapshot of something that simplyinterests me – one tree in a daily changing forest. As such, I know it will bevery unsatisfying to most. But I see it is a simply a way of sharing a small partof what has been an enriching personal experience.

The Daf Yomi cycle – which ends today – finishes with Tractate Nidah, thelaws of “family purity” as it is euphemistically called. After an intricateargument around menstruation and other bodily discharges (both male and female)the tractate ends with a pure aside – and an appropriate place to both finishand begin:

“The Tana debe Eliyahu teaches: Whoever repeats halakoth everyday mayrest assured he will be a denizen of the world to come, for it says ‘Halikoth– the world is his’ (Hab. 3:6). Read not Halikoth (goings out) but halakoth(oral laws).”