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)

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Shabbat 28 – Gone Extinct!

The mention of a remarkable creature : the “Tahash.”

Translated variously as “sea cow”, “badger”, “porpoise”, “seal”, and even “goat” – the skin of the Tahash was one of coverings of the Tabernacle. But there is much confusion as to what this animal actually is. Or was.

What is our conclusion with respect to the tahash which existed in Moses’ days? — Said R. Elai in the name of R. Simeon b. Lakish, R. Meir used to maintain, The tahash of Moses’ day was a separate species, and the Sages could not decide whether it belonged to the genus of wild beasts (chayya) or to the genus of domestic animals (behayma);

and it had one horn in its forehead, and it came to Moses’ hand [providentially] just for the occasion, and he made the [covering of the] Tabernacle, and then it was hidden.

(also quoted in Numbers Rabbah 6:3)

Midrash Tanchuma goes further:

Midrash Tanchuma, Terumah 6: "Rabbi Yehudah said: There was a large, kosher wild animal in the wilderness, and it had a single horn in its forehead, and its skin was six colors; they took it and made the tapestries from it.

First of all, the idea of a one-horned animal of indeterminate species – and second, that it seemed to have either been a unique creature or to have gone extinct!

Could it be related to Elasmotherium,  a giant rhinoceros of the Pleistocene era, the bones of which were perhaps known? Or was it simply porpoise or even goatskin?

Whatever it was, prosaic or unique – it is fun to see that the Talmudic rabbis acknowledge some aspects of evolution.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Shabbat 27 - Look Here

". . .that you may look upon it. . ." (Num. 15:39)

This is the command for the tzitzit - the braided fringes on the four corners of the garment (tallit). The Talmud asks what about for a blind person? Does the obligation still hold for someone who does not see the fringes? After all, nightclothes do not need fringes, since the wearer does not see them!

According to R. Ashi who quotes the school of R. Ishmael, a blind person is still obligated to fringes because they are seen by others.

Again the sense of communal inclusion of those who might otherwise be, or feel, rejected.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Shabbat 26 - What Are They Doing?

Have to quote this exchange:

"R. Tarfon said: 'One may light [the Sabbat lamp] only with olive oil.' Thereupon R. Johanan b. Nuri rose to his feet and exclaimed, 'What shall the Babylonians do, who have only sesame oil? And what shall the Medeans do, who have only nut oil? And what shall the Alexandrians do, who have only radish oil? And what shall the people of Cappadocia do, who have neither the one nor the other, save naphtha?'"

There is a rabbinic principle to 'go and see' what the people are doing. That is, to be aware of the real-world effects of legal rulings. It is easy to get caught up in the world of the academy, but Judaism is to be lived! As we read: v'chai bahem - "that you may live by them (the laws)."

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Shabbat 25 - Wealth

Shabbat is a time when one is to feel wealthy and honored and satisfied.

"Rab Judah said in Rab's name: This was the practice of R. Judah b. Il'ai: On the eve of the Sabbath a basin filled with hot water was brought to him, and he washed his face, hands, and feet, and he wrapped himself and sat in fringed linen robes, and was like an angel of the Lord of Hosts."

But what if one's financial circumstances weigh heavily? The Rabbi's quote Lamentations (3:17) "And thou hast removed my soul far off from peace; I forgot prosperity." Intimating 'is your life really as bad as those who witnessed the destruction and experienced exile?'

Or put it in the positive: "Our Rabbis taught: Who is wealthy? He who has pleasure in his wealth" (Avot 4,1). In other words "wealth" is not an absolute status - one can always chase after more and more - and continue to be unhappy. "Wealth" is a subjective state of being satisfied with what you have.

At least on Shabbat - it is good to pay attention to what one has rather than what one lacks.

Shabbat 24 - Stop Doing That

A discussion on whether Hannukah should be mentioned in the blessing after meals (in the "Thanks" section), leads to the question of Rosh Hodesh (New Moons) and Festivals.

This leads to a surprising statement:

"R. Ahadebuy said in the name of R. Mattenah in Rab's name: When a Festival falls on the Sabbath, he who reads the haftarah in the prophetic lesson at the Sabbath Afternoon Service (in the blessing after) need not mention the Festival, since but for the Sabbath there is no prophetic lesson at the Afternoon Service on Festivals."

This is surprising because we don't read the haftarah on Shabbat afternoons! This is the only mention in the Talmud of this practice. It must have existed at one time. Rashi says it was common until it was outlawed by the Persians.

This shows the fluidity of Jewish ritual practice - at least at one time!

Friday, October 26, 2012

Shabbat 23 - It's Commanded

The first Hannukah blessing (remember, there are 3 on the first night, 2 on all the others) is quoted: ". . . Who sanctified us by His commandments and commanded us to kindle the light of Hanukkah." But, where is it written in the Torah that we are "commanded" to light Hannukah candles? Ah, you'd think that is a trick question - Hannukah isn't mentioned in the Torah since it's events take place after it was written! But, no - there is an answer: Nehemiah quoted: Ask thy father, and he will show thee; Thine elders, and they will tell thee. (Deut. 32:7).


Actually, what's going on here is a justification for rabbinic enactment. "Fathers", "elders" are stand-ins for the rabbis. They set certain laws and traditions which are observed as if written in the Torah. This is the nature of "Oral Law."

On this page is also a powerful statement about the rationale for the "corners of the fields" being left for the poor. Why not the middle? "R. Simeon said: On account of four considerations . . .as a precaution] against the robbing of the poor, against wasting the time of the poor, against suspicion, and against [transgressing] the commandment."

How great that this element of Tzedakah places the responsibility of consideration on the donor - including not wasting the recipient's time!

This also is commanded.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Shabbat 22 - Hannukah: Light It, Don't Use It!

Being a post-Biblical celebration, Hannukah is defined as a "minor" holiday. It's precepts are not inherently sacred, and Shabbat rules do not apply during the 8 days. And yet, the Hannukiyah (Hannukah menorah) is not treated like an ordinary candelabra. One does not count money by its light - that is, use it for a blatantly secular purpose. (Shabbat candles, of course, cannot be used for any purpose except bringing joy.) And the question arises if one hannukiyah can be lit from the branches of another.

The answer to that last question is examined. The solution would depend on whether the important precept is "lighting" or "placing." The Hannukah lights are supposed to be seen publicly - outside the home. So which action matters? In the end (spoiler alert!) the words of the blessing give the answer.

Oh, and by the way - a Hannukah menorah can't be placed 20 cubits or more over the ground. So you guys on a lift with your giant menorahs - not doing a thing!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Shabbat 21 - Hannukah Retold

The discussion of what wicks and oils are inappropriate for Shabbat (because the might need tending to) leads to the introduction of the Hannukah lights - and to the holiday itself.

"What is Hannukah?" the Talmud asks? A fair question since it is a post-Biblical holiday celebrating a military victory. No - the emphasis will be away from the rebellion (unlike the description in the book of Maccabees). Here, the story of the cruse of oil which lasts eight days is told.

Putting the emphasis on a supposed miracle rather than a victory against oppressors might have been rather important for those still living under Roman or Babylonian rule! Fascinating to see how a holiday is reinterpreted to deal with contemporary situations.

Again Hillel and Shammai disagree - this time over the order of lighting candles. Shammai says you start the first day with 8 candles and reduce daily, Hillel that we start with 1 and add each day - because one does not reduce sanctity.

No mention of latkes or dreidels. Or presents.

Light is enough.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Shabbat 20 - Lost Words

The Mishnah raises the question of what materials are not suitable for wicks to light Shabbat candles. It goes on to list several ("Lekesh, Hoshen, Kallick" etc.) which are not acceptable. The commentary attempts to connect these terms to contemporary known items - including Samuel who "asked all sea-fearers" about one term.

Fascinating insight into the way language and terminology changes - and how Jewish law tries to adjust.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Shabbat 19 - Going Postal

"Our Rabbis taught. . .letters may not be sent by a Gentile on the eve of Sabbath, [but] on Wednesday or Thursday it is permitted."

The issue is preventing an object from a Jew being handled or delivered on Shabbat. But what if the distance is further and it would not arrive before Shabbat? Some argue never to send a letter with a gentile! Shammai says it can be sent, so long as there is time enough to reach the addressee's house. Hillel says so long as it can reach the addressee's city. (there is also a seperate conversation about negotiated fees. we'll leave that aside for now)

How to reconcile? Rabbi Shesheth says in the second case there is a permanent post office in town to which the letter is delivered so that the gentile doesn't risk delivering it to a Jew by hand on Shabbat.

I did not know that the institution of fixed Post Offices was so ancient and ubiquitous! this would make a fascinating research paper. And what does it mean in our era when the postal system is failing? Does it apply to e-mail? Be careful with you "send" button!

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Shabbat 18 – Resting Crockpots

The Mishnah discusses a variety of actions which should not be begun on Friday’s unless they can be completed by Shabbat. These include drying flax or wool, setting traps for wild animals. Not surprisingly, Hillel and Shammai disagree on some specifics. For example, Shammai forbids one to sell to a Gentile or help load their wares unless the Gentile can reach a home before Shabbat. Hillel disagrees.

The Talmud commentary discusses a number of foods which can or cannot be prepared before Shabbat and left cooking. We are all familiar with the crockpot – I remember chulent being prepared Friday afternoon and cooking all Shabbat morning, so we could have a hot meal when we came home from the synagogue. Hillel and Shammai differ on some of the specifics, with the argument being that cookware is supposed to rest on Shabbat as well!

My warm memories are glad Hillel won that argument.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Shabbat 17 – Hyperbole

Descriptions of the culminating match between Hillel and Shammai:

A sword was planted in the Beth Hamidrash and it was proclaimed, ‘He who would enter, let him enter, but he who would depart, let him not depart!’

Presumably so that none of the voting members would leave and change the outcome of the vote.

The battle ends, the vote is taken:

And on that day Hillel sat submissive before Shammai, like one of the disciples, and it was as grievous to Israel as the day when the [golden] calf was made.

Ok, surely hyperbole. But a pretty dramatic rendition! Especially since the writers are followers of Hillel.

Sore losers?

Friday, October 19, 2012

Shabbat 16 - Glass Defilement

Continuing the discussion of the 18 laws enacted by Shammai, there is some analysis of glass vessels. No matter what they are made of, plates, bowls, jars, etc. are subject to ritual defilement and can make food impure (that is, cannot be eaten by a person in a state of ritual purity). But different materials are treated differently. Earthenware, for example can only be purified by breaking (either shattering and making it useless - and the shards no longer defile - or punching a large hole in it and then repairing it). Metal can be melted down. Glass is interesting because it is earth (silica), but can be melted down and reused like metal.

Many glass vessels are also supported by metal. So are they metal vessels with glass, or glass vessels with metal? Categories matter!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Shabbat 15 - Bring Back the Sages

A few cases are represented in which the Sages adopt neither the ruling of Hillel or of Shammai, but choose a compromise between the two.

These are quantitative compromises: the minimum amount of flour which is liable for an amount taken and burned as the Challah offering; the minimum amount of "drawn water" (that is water poured from jugs) as opposed to "living" (flowing) water which makes a mikve unfit.

These may see like small details, But I find it reassuring to see that solutions can be found to strongly held opposing viewpoints. Not feeling it so much these days. Anyone think we need more "Sages"?

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Shabbat 14 - Unintended Consequences

The Mishnah stated that on one occasion Shammai outnumbered Hillel and they enacted 18 measures (sounds like a "recess appointment.")

This page comments on some of those measures - or at least the assumption of what they are, since the Mishnah does not say.

The laws are about trumah - the portion of one's crop set aside for the priests - and what makes it unfit.

But it goes beyond. For beyond those 18, the Rabbis determined that a Torah scroll makes trumah unfit - and therefore a Torah scroll is unclean! Why.

"Said R. Mesharsheya: Because originally food of terumah was stored near the Scroll of the Law, with the argument, This is holy and that is holy. But when it was seen that they [the Sacred Books] came to harm, [by mice] the Rabbis imposed uncleanness upon them."

This looks like rule by mouse, unintended consequences.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Shabbat 13 - Super Separation

The two great schools of learning, based on the two First Century rabbis Hillel and Shammai. We almost always follow Hillel, ostensibly because the rulings are more lenient. Sometimes Hillel's are not as permissive, but we still follow them.

This one has always bothered me:

"Said R. Joseph, Come and hear: A fowl may be served together with cheese at the [same] table, but not eaten [with it]: this is Beth Shammai's view. Beth Hillel rule: It may neither be served nor eaten [together]!"

Hillel's ruling is followed today. I understand the reasoning, to prevent an unconscious mistake. Although not boiling a chicken in the milk of its mother seems a little over the top. And then to restrict even having cheese on the same table?

The Talmud goes on to a far more disruptive example - forbidding a husband and wife from sleeping in the same bed when she is in a state of impurity from menstration, even if they are both wrapped in their own clothes and do not touch.

The issue is preventing an accidental mistake. But it seems to take the conscious effort out. And these secondary restrictions begin to take on a life of their own, becoming in a sense primary. Restrictions upon restrictions. That's a lot of Separation!

Monday, October 15, 2012

Shabbat 12 - Attention Must be Paid

Two Shabbat principles:

1. PREPARE -Since one cannot carry objects on a garment (i.e. a tailor's needle) it is important to check one's garment before the Sabbath. Rabbi Joseph calls this a great or vital law of Shabbat - one must prepare!

2. JOY AND SADNESS - There is a disagreement about whether it is permissible to comfort mourners or visit the sick on Shabbat. Since it is a time of joy, these visits invoke sadness. Shammai forbids and Hillel - however reluctantly - approves. One might even greet mourners by invoking Shabbat as a source of healing. And that G-d's presence rests with the infirm.

Shabbat needs attention - before and during. But it also is a source of comfort. When we visit the sick, or comfort the mourner we are bringing that attention to near on those who need it most.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Shabbat 11 - No Advertising!

The Mishnah states that a tailor cannot go out just before sunset on Friday, as Shabbat is approaching, with a needle (presumably stuck in his cloak). The assumption is that he will forget he has it and once Shabbat begins, he would be liable for carrying it.

But maybe there is more than a preventive measure against carrying going on.

R. Judah taught:

"An artisan is liable [for carrying out an object] in the manner of his trade. For it was taught: A tailor must not go out with a needle stuck in his garment, nor a carpenter with a chip behind his ear, nor a [wool] corder with the cord in his ear, nor a weaver with the cotton in his ear, nor a dyer with a [color] sample round his neck, nor a money-changer with a denar in his ear."

it seems that these artisans would walk about with some symbol of their profession on them - perhaps in the hope that someone would see them and offer them a job. Or maybe just out of professional (guild) pride. But one day a week, they have to look like everyone else.

Don't you love the idea of a Shabbat without commercials?

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Shabbat 10 – What Shall We Wear?

On the conversation about how hard it would be to take off the girdle before eating and putting it back to pray (see prior post), the conversation revolves to the proper attire for prayer (is it proper to “let him stand and pray [without the girdle]”). How should one dress to pray?

This is a common concern in our world, too. I hear from people “I would come to services, but it’s ‘casual Friday!’” (of course, here in Portland, it’s always “casual Friday!”). Guests, who come to services for the first time are concerned about what to wear.

Maybe it depends not on what’s happening inside the synagogue, but what’s happening outside:

R. Ashi said: I saw R. Kahana, when there was trouble in the world, removing his cloak, clasp his hands, and pray, saying, ‘[I pray] like a slave before his master.’

When there was peace, he would put it on, cover and enfold himself and pray, quoting, ‘Prepare to meet thy God, O Israel.’ (Amos 4:12)

Or maybe, its less about what one wears on the outside when praying than what one prays on the inside while wearing.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Shabbat 9 - Get to It

The Mishnah, on a tangent away from Shabbat laws, puts a priority on prayer at the proper time. One does not begin certain activities (getting a haircut, going to the baths, sitting down to a meal ,going to a tannery, sitting for a lawsuit) before the afternoon (Mincha) prayer. The Talmud explains that the fear is the activities might become extended and one will miss the prayer.

Interesting snapshots into daily life and business as the specific tasks are unpacked. For example, it seems that either the Babylonian Jewish men or those still in Israel (the text is unclear which) wore tightly belted clothes which had to be loosened before eating!

In any case the message is clear: take care of the important things (prayer) first.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Shabbat 8 - an Eruv by Any Other Name

We usually think of an eruv as a legal fiction - a boundary made up of string or wire which creates a "private" domain allowing the Shabbat observant to carry within it. But a different kind of eruv is described here.

Shabbat rules restrict one from traveling more than 2,000 cubits (about 1/2 mile). However, that distance can be extended by placing some food at a preselected location within that boundary before Shabbat. This eruv becomes a new "private" domain and the traveller can travel another 2,000 cubits in any direction. If in a public area, this eruv can be in a pit 10 handbreadths deep.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Shabbat 7 - Height Limits, Public and Private

In a private space, for an object thrown from a public space on Shabbat - landing has no height limitation:

"R. Hisda said: If one fixes a rod in private ground and throws [an article from the street] and it alights on the top, even if it is a hundred cubits high, he is liable, because private ground extends up to heaven’."

But in public space there is:

"Rabbah b. Shila said in R. Hisda's name: If a brick is standing upright in the street, and one throws [an article]16 and it adheres to its side, he is liable; on top, he is not liable. Abaye and Raba both state: Providing that it is three handbreadths high, so that the public do not step on it"

This is because 'public space' is defined as a place where many people go. A brick 3 hands tall will not be stepped on, people will step around it. It's sides, however, serve only as a temporary resting place - eventually, something landing there will fall to the street and therefore is considered a public place.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Shabbat 6 - Principles and Definitions

Logically, this would have been the place to begin. Six pages into the tractate, we finally get base principles and definitions:

"Our Rabbis taught: There are four domains in respect to the Sabbath; private ground, public ground, karmelith (little-travelled area of a public space), and a place of non-liability. . ."

"One may not carry out from this private to this public ground, nor carry in from this public to this private ground; and if one does carry out or in, unwitting, he is liable to a sin-offering; if deliberately, he is punished by excommunication or stoning."

Now we can begin.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Shabbat 5 – The Invention of Basketball

According to all the websites, the game of Basketball was invented by a Canadian physical education instructor in 1891 by a gentleman by the name of James Naismith (1861-1939).

Not so, my friends.

This page of Talmud continues the analysis of various kinds of throwing an object on Shabbat between Public and Private spaces. For example, if one catches this object: if the catches stays in one place, then the thrower is liable. However, if the catcher moves from his place to catch it, then the thrower is exempt. Again, intention – the catcher has to demonstrate that it was not accidental.

What about if there is a basket in his hand? Is a basket in a public domain considered a private one?

R. Jose son of R. Juda said: If one fixes a rod in the street, at the top of which is a basket, [and] throws [an article] and it comes to rest upon it, he is liable.

It is not clear if dunking is allowed.


Sunday, October 7, 2012

Shabbat 4 - Space and Intention

More of moving objects across boundaries on Shabbat: public to private or the reverse.

One of the issues involves throwing - an object which comes to rest in the opposing space is considered as if handed (a forbidden action). What if it is tossed from a private to a private but over a public space (or vice versa)? "Rabbi holds him liable; but the Sages exempt him."

How high above the space (less than 10 handbreadths) matters, and intention matters. A general principle:

"All who are liable to sin-offerings are liable only if the beginning and end [of the forbidden action] are unwitting."

If you are a bad shot (oops!) looks like you may get a pass.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Shabbat 3 – It Takes One (Not Two)

Continuing the discussion of handing from one domain to another – only someone who performs a whole forbidden action is liable, but if two people are required to complete it (i.e. handing and taking across a domain), neither is liable. Based on Lev. 4:27 “And if any one of the common people sins through ignorance, when he does something against any of the commandments of the Lord concerning things which ought not to be done. . .” The emphasis being on “one.”

There is also the discussion of a karmelit – a “in between” space, neither public nor private. It is forbidden to transfer from karmelit to pubic or to private. A hand reaching out is like this in-between space – it does not present a problem until it returns to the body with the object. One can imagine a person standing with hand outstreached between two domains all Shabbat long, unable to move until Shabbat ends!

The truth is no one would be required to do this, but guilt or innocence would depend on whether the initial movement was intentional or not!


Friday, October 5, 2012

Shabbat 2 – Are You In or Out?

We begin a new tractate of Talmud today: Shabbat. (and note that Talmud pages always begin on page 2)

The theme throughout will be making explicit the laws of Shabbat. Implicit is the power of rabbinic interpretation to add to the biblical laws. A distinction is made between “d’rabbinan” (rabbinic) and “d’oryeita” (biblical) origin. But they both have the weight of law. This right to add levels of restriction is important because the biblical text can be quite vague, proscribing “work,” for example, but not defining it.
Or Mishnah begins in some ways oddly, by focusing on one kind of restriction: the transfer of objects between the public and the private domain. Carrying is allowed in the private (a home, for example) but forbidden in public. The Mishnah begins this important subject of the laws of Shabbat – one of the pillars of traditional Judaism, with a round-about statement: “THE CARRYINGS OUT OF THE SABBATH ARE TWO WHICH ARE FOUR WITHIN, AND TWO WHICH ARE FOUR WITHOUT.”

There is much explaining of this, with the example used of a poor man standing outside a rich man’s home on Shabbat who either hands or receives something. This involves an illegal transference from the private to the public domain. Who is liable? It depends.

The important point, though is the fact that there are 2 biblical breaks here (handing and receiving) to which the rabbis added 2 other restrictions on each (placing and carrying). The page goes on to explicate several other examples of “two which are four” – meaning rabbinic laws added to the biblical.

Two things stand out to me and will continue to be explored. One is the issue of boundaries and the crossing of them. The other is the tension of the biblical and rabbinic. The rabbis reserve the right, through deep analysis, to add. 

As we’ll see, they do.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Berachot 64 - The Ending is Familiar

When I was growing up in my father’s synagogue, on every Shabbat evening service after the final song, Ein Keloheynu, my father of blessed memory would read aloud a strangely worded paragraph. It was in smaller type so I was sure, in my childish way, that he was mistaken and it should be read silently. Although I never said anything to him about it, it always felt out of place and I did quite get the point.

Today I realized that this paragraph is the conclusion of the Tractate Berachot. It was my first experience hearing the language and logic of the Talmud – which is perhaps way it always felt a bit familiar. And the concluding sentence is the way I conclude just about every service I lead – an unconscious nod to the memory of my father, Rabbi Moshe Cahana (z”l). From now on it will be conscious.

I can hear his voice as I read these words.

Rabbi Eleazar quoted Rabbi Hanina who said: Scholars increase peace in the world, as it is written in Scripture: ‘When all they children shall be taught of the Lord, great shall be the peace of thy children.’ Read not baw-na-yih, ‘thy children,’ but bo-no-yih, ‘thy builders.’ Great peace have they that love Thy Torah; and there is no stumbling for them. Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces. For the sake of my brethren and friends, I would say, Peace be with thee! For the sake of the house of the Lord our G-d, I would seek thy good. The Lord will give strength unto His people; the Lord will bless His people with peace.

(From the Silverman Siddur [Rabbinical Assembly of America, 1946] p. 157, quoting Berachot 64a.)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Berachot 63 - Talmud Tweet

A real Talmud Tweet:

"Bar Kappara expounded: What short text is there upon which all the essential principles of the Torah depend? 'In all thy ways acknowledge Him and He will direct thy paths'" (Prov. 3:6).

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Berachot 62 – Under the Bed!

A favorite story of mine, and not just because the protagonist is my namesake (family ancestor?)

Rabbi Kahana wants to learn everything possible from his teacher, Rab. So one day, he hides under his teacher’s bed. He listens as the elder is in bed with his wife: talking, joking – being, shall we say, intimate. Kahana lets out an expression from under the bed, startling his master. When he is called on his highly inappropriate behavior, the student says: “It is a matter of Torah and I am required to learn it!”

So some negative lessons to learn here, about invasion of privacy! But also, that sexual behavior between spouses is a matter of Torah, and that the master practices foreplay. Jewish sexual ethics is not restrictive and appreciates mutual pleasure. Intimacy and communication are key. And it is private - you don’t need an audience.

Berachot 61 – Akiva’s Martyrdom

Ok, I was so overly excited by the items in the last post, that I accidently commented on a page and a half – that is 60 a-b and 61a. Sorry, faithful reader.

So I will just note that 61b includes the terrible story of Rabbi Akiva’s torture and death at the hands of the Romans. His execution, metal combs ripping through his flesh, took place at the time of the Sh’ma and so he began to recite. His disciples cried out to him “even now?” He replied that he had always been bothered by the verse “And you shall love Adonai your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might” (Deut. 6:5). Now, at his moment of death he has the opportunity to fulfill “with all your soul” which Akiva understood to mean even if it is taken away. He dies, prolonging the word “Echad” – “One.” A Divine Voice (“bat kol”) proclaims that Akiva is destined for life of the world to come.

A terrible story, to be sure. But one of faith and martyrdom. And trust. Something to think about when we say the Sh'ma.