Saturday, March 12, 2005

Berachos 10-11

There were certain boors in R'Meir's neighborhood and they caused R'Meir considerable distress. Once R'Meir was praying for mercy regarding them, so that they would die. (Berachos 10a).
These so-called boors (am haaretz) are the first common people to be mentioned in the Talmud. And R'Meir's outrageous prayer that they should stop aggravating him and just die is the cue for the entrance of something that is more scarce in these pages than boors: a female teacher.

R'Meir, who is often the antagonist whose arguments are overruled by the majority, is married to Beruria, the only woman that the Talmud credits as equal in learning to the rabbis. And she persuades R'Meir to amend his prayer to pray instead for the end of the Evil Inclination ("for mercy regarding these boors"). This prayer is successful and "they indeed repented of their wickedness."

Prayer is the subject throughout these two folios-- how to frame one; which prayers to associate with the Shema; when the answer depends on one's own merit; the posture to take when praying; (and on 12) one's state of mind. And the teachings are often similar to the one above in providing models for both ineffective and effective forms of petitioning. The former are most likely to demonstrate what we would be inclined to do if we didn't stop to reflect, while the latter encourage self-awareness and humility (or at least a capacity for embarrassment).

The path through these pages is somewhat convoluted and includes a few interesting threads that deserve more sustained analysis than this blogger can offer, but I will mention them in passing and hope that some reader will take up my invitation to comment and thereby widen the discussion.


The Women of Berachos 10

Starting with Beruria, the text makes several allusions to the feminine aspects of phenomena. For example, regarding Isaiah 54:1 (Sing out, O barren one who has not given birth), a "heretical" female asks Beruria how one can sing because she has not given birth:
But surely barrenness is cause only for sadness, not for rejoicing!
Beruria teaches that Jerusalem is barren only of "ill-fated progeny," thus explaining the cause for rejoicing in a dialogue between two women about the fertility of a "female" city.

In a subsequent passage on the same folio, the gemara seeks the ruach hakodesh (a feminine form signifying inspiration) of King David. The text suggests that David had dwelt in five worlds, two of which were explicitly feminine-- his mother's womb and at his mother's breast.

Free associating from David's five worlds, we are given five verses that David used to describe Godly attributes, which leads the gemara to inquire whose honor is greater: a king's (since David's teachings are preserved here) or a prophet's (since Isaiah's teachings preceded David's on this folio).

The story that responds to this question concerns a king (Chizkiyahu) and a prophet (Isaiah again). In this story, neither will visit the other because each thought his honor was higher than the other's and it was thus inappropriate that he should make the first move. Here the gemara introduces yet another question,
Who knows how to make a compromise (pesharah) between two righteous people?
The answer (of course) is that God alone could craft such a compromise-- and does:
What did the Holy One do? He brought afflictions upon Chizkiyahu, and He said to Isaiah: "Go and visit the sick one." Thus did God bring these two together.
Once at his sick bed, Isaiah teaches Chizkiyahu that his illness is an admonishment for failing to marry and procreate, yet again returning the focus of the text to the interdependence of men and women.

On 10b, women again are credited with a special power. It is the Shunamite woman who recognizes Elisha's holiness and leads the gemara to conclude,
From her we see that a woman recognizes the qualities inherent in her guests more readily than a man does.


The Book of Remedies

The story of Chizkiyahu (see above) includes his recovery from critical illness, which it attributes to the acceptance of his prayer. In his prayer, he is said to have included Isaiah 38:3
Remember now the manner in which I have walked before You truthfully and wholeheartedly: I have done that which is good in your eyes.
The rabbis offer several possible reasons that his prayer was accepted in response to the question, what did Chizkiyahu do that was good in the eyes of God? R'Levi suggested said "He means that he hid the Book of Remedies."

Footnote 13 in ArtScroll explains,
The Book of Remedies contained instructions regarding the natural healing properties of all the various herbs and grasses in existence . . . Those who were ill relied upon these natural remedies, and refrained from appealing to God for healing. Chizkiyahu therefore hid the book, so that the ill would be compelled to throw themselves on God's mercy . . .
The footnote goes on to cite an alternate theory that the book was actually not science but astrology.

When I read this footnote, I regarded it merely as an interesting sidebar re the tension between science and religion, and recognized that such thinking could very well be the basis of such "modern" phenomena as Christian Science, but did not give it a lot of thought. My study partner, however, had a much more vehement reaction, seeing it as at the root of all fanaticism and fundamentalism. He demanded to know why God would provide healing herbs at all if he didn't want us to use them?


Hillel and Shammai

Together again for the first time, the schools of Hillel and Shammai enter the discussion late on 10b and stick around for quite a bit of 11. Their dispute revolves around the verse commanding us to recite the Shema "when you lie down and when you arise." Shammai, who is usually the stricter of the two, interprets the verse to mean that one must say the evening Shema lying down and the morning Shema standing. Hillel, on the other hand, understands the verse to simply establish when to say the Shema, not the position to assume in the recitation.

The Mishnah favors Hillel, as it usually does. R'Tarfon is even quoted to undermine Shammai's position as being not simply wrong but dangerous:
I was once coming on the road, and when the time for the evening Shema arrived, I deliberately lay down to recite it, in accordance with the words of Beis Shammai, and I thereby endangered myself on account of the bandits, who might have attacked me while I lay there.
The gemara eventually (11a) goes even further to suggest that one who follows Shammai in this matter is "deserving of death." (Would Beruria suggest we amend this extreme position and encourage us to pray that such people come to repent?)

And even though Hillel would not restrict us from saying the Shema lying or standing, the gemara does offer a case where our posture would matter:
There was once an incident with R'Yishmael and R'Elazar ben Azaryah, in which they were resting at a certain place at night, and R'Yishmael was lying down, while R'Elazar ben Azaryah was erect. When the time to recite the evening Shema arrived, R'Elazar lay down in accordance with Beis Shammai's ruling, but R'Yishmael immediately straightened up. R'Elazar ben Azaryah thereupon said to R'Yishmael: Yishmael, my brother, I will give you an example to which your action may be compared. The comparison is to one to whom people say in praise: "Your beard is beautifully full," but who replies to them in spite: "Let it then be given to the destroyers!" So too you. All the while that I was erect, you were lying down. But now, when I have lain down, you have straightened up! When I paid you the compliment of emulating you, you immediately changed your position! R'Yishmael said to him: I by being erect performed the mitzvah in accordance with the words of Beis Hillel, whose view is followed in halachah, but you by lying down performed it in accordance with the words of Beis Shammai! And not only that, but I feared that the students might see us both lying down, and might on that basis establish Beis Shammai's ruling as the halachah for generations. I therefore straightened up, so as to counteract the erroneous impression.
This passage strikes me as an especially rich example of the potential our text has to embody a comedy of manners. Even more low brow humor may be derived from the cases cited to support the teaching that one occupied with a mitzvah is exempt from recitation of the Shema. Apparently, the groom of a virgin is exempt, but the groom of a widow is not. I asked a certain reed chopper (you know who you are!) why the widow's groom was not exempt and he replied "Patience! The Talmud will ask the same question, and the answer is on 16B (discussion begins bottom of 16A)." It is indeed difficult to get a good overview perched this close to the ground!

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