Thursday, March 17, 2005

Berachos 14-17

Not That There's Anything Wrong With It

I am occasionally tickled to discover turns of phrase in the Talmud that I first encountered in modern contexts, especially if their modern use struck me as novel when I first encountered it. Of course, to suggest that a turn of phrase from an ancient language, translated into english, can be directly related to its modern english usage is a bit of a stretch, but the translation is often conceptual and reflecting of a unique construction, so it may be blatently unscholarly, but it isn't beyond the beyond, especially when it can be used to amplify the meaning of the ancient text for a modern reader.

One such turn of phrase is used twice on 14a in pretty much the same way that Seinfeld employed it in an unforgettable treatment of homosexuality. As you surely recall if you ever saw the Seinfeld episode, all allusions to homosexuality are hastily followed by the phrase "not that there's anything wrong with it." On 14a two acts that have the appearance of impropriety are declared permitted followed by the phrase (as translated in the ArtScroll edition) "and there is nothing wrong with that." The two acts are (1) interrupting recitation of the Shema to greet one's teacher and (2) tasting food that one is preparing while fasting (provided one then spits it out). It strikes me that in both the modern and the ancient text the intent is the same: to acknowledge that an act may appear to be inappropriate but to declare that it is not improper after all. In the ancient context, where appearances are often the driving force behind regulation of behavior, it stands out as a stark contradiction to most of the text that surrounds it.


Three Things That Are Never Satisfied

Proverbs 30:15-16 states, "There are three things that are never satisfied . . . the grave, the narrow part of the womb, and the earth that is not sated with water."

On 15b R'Tavi takes this piece of Scripture to be a prooftext as follows:

If the womb, which takes in the sperm in silence, subsequently sends forth the baby in great clamor, then is it not evident that the grave, which takes the corpse amidst great clamor, will eventually bring it forth amidst great clamor? From here is a refutation to those who say that there is no allusion to the resurrection of the dead in the written Torah.

It seems to me to be a grave error (excuse the pun) to attempt, as R'Tavi does, to construct a logical argument from an aphorism. It is one thing to derive a law from a similarly constructed law, but to attempt to prove the resurrection of the dead from a metaphor is far from satisfying. Also, if I remember correctly, this is not among the proofs considered in Tractate Sanhedrin, where proving resurrection and the place of Israel in the world to come are central issues.

Marrying Virgins

On 16a the Mishnah returns to the groom who marries a virgin, declaring he "is exempt from the Shema recital from the first night of his marriage until the departure of the Sabbath if he did not yet perform the act of intercourse." Even so, Rabban Gamliel is reported to have recited the Shema on his wedding night. And later, to have washed his hands in warm water on the evening his wife died. Both these departures from the recommended marrying and mourning processes suggest a scholar who is not especially attached to his wife. We are cautioned not to emulate this man, lest we seem to be haughty. (On 17b the groom who recites the Shema and the person who abstains from labor on Tisha B'Av are each examined against the local custom to determine if they appear to be haughty.)

Is it significant that the first teachings offered in the gemara following this mishnah are Rav Mari's, when Rav Mari was conceived through an act of rape committed by a gentile who surely did not recite the Shema before performing the act of intercourse?

The text on 16b asks, "why . . . single out one who is marrying a virgin? . . . Even one who is marrying a widow . . ." but goes on to suggest that only with a virgin is a man "preoccupied with preparing for cohabitation." Well, as Mike pointed out, this is all the text you need to suspect that these guys didn't understand human nature at all! And what if the man is a virgin? Would it matter whether his bride was a widow or not? And if it did matter, might he be more intimidated knowing that she had the experience of another man to compare with him? Who is not preoccupied with preparing for cohabitation the first time with every partner?

The Wages of Workers

The text asks whether the intent of a worker reciting the Shema is important, and it makes a distinction between workers who work only for their meals and workers who work for a wage (16a). A wage earner may remain engaged in their work while reciting the Shema, while one who works for his meals should pause. Does this imply that a wage earner who pauses in his work is stealing from his employer and that this is a more serious infraction than to recite the Shema with less than full attention?

Slaves and Donkeys

The loss of a slave should not be mourned as the loss of a family member, but as if it was his donkey that had died (16b). There is a zero-sum game going on here just like the competition for Isaac's blessing: R'Yose is asked, if you praise a slave, "what have you left to be said about worthy Jews?" Is it not possible that there are some slaves whose merit outshines my own?

Special Prayers

The particular prayers offered by different rabbis following the Shemoneh Esrei are quoted on 17. They are prayers for protection or wisdom or any number of other things and provide a rich tapestry of the aspects of life that were esteemed by scholars of different temperaments. I could imagine spending several weeks comparing and contrasting these prayers. I can't imagine doing that now without falling very far behind in the reading schedule.

8 Comments:

Anonymous Reed Chopper said...

Neil, Shalom!

You cite R"Tavi commenting on a passage from Proverbs: If the womb, which takes in the sperm in silence, subsequently sends forth the baby in great clamor, then is it not evident that the grave, which takes the corpse amidst great clamor, will eventually bring it forth amidst great clamor? From here is a refutation to those who say that there is no allusion to the resurrection of the dead in the written Torah.

This is not meant as a serious proof-text. Any non-Pentateuchal passage cited by the Babylonian Talmud is only intended as an "asmakhta" -- that is, mere homily. One of the reasons that the proof-texts in the Jerusalem Talmud are not as forced as those in the Babylonian, is that the rules of the game are different -- the JT uses proof-texts from anywhere in the Tanakh, while the BT limits serious prooftexts to the Pentateuch. By the way, such aggadic material derived from nonpentateuchal texts is taken so nonseriously, that objections are almost never raised to them by anybody (why bother?).

It seems to me to be a grave error (excuse the pun) to attempt, as R'Tavi does, to construct a logical argument from an aphorism.

Besides, sometimes the seed is taken in with a lot of clamor!

Also, if I remember correctly, this is not among the proofs considered in Tractate Sanhedrin, where proving resurrection and the place of Israel in the world to come are central issues.

You remember correctly. Also, after stating in the Mishnah in Sanhedrin that one who asserts there is no prooftext for resurrection in the Torah has no portion in the World to Come, the Talmud doesn't succeed in finding one! (although it does bring in some asmakhtot = nonserious prooftexts).



Marrying Virgins

The text on 16b asks, "why . . . single out one who is marrying a virgin? . . . Even one who is marrying a widow . . ." but goes on to suggest that only with a virgin is a man "preoccupied with preparing for cohabitation." Well, as Mike pointed out, this is all the text you need to suspect that these guys didn't understand human nature at all! And what if the man is a virgin?


I think in those days they were not hung up on their "performance." If they were, they would be more nervous about an experienced woman, since she would have a basis of comparison! It's not that human nature changed, it's that they were hung up on different things (ike maybe icked out by the blood from intercourse with a virgin).


Slaves and Donkeys

The loss of a slave should not be mourned as the loss of a family member, but as if it was his donkey that had died (16b)


Nevertheless, they did sit in mourning for slaves (for example R"Eliezer, one of the most uncompromising characters in the Talmud mourned for his slave Tvi after asserting that one shouldn't).

--ReedChopper

11:48 PM  
Anonymous dreyfus said...

Other Talmudic phrases that are modern English expressions:
"Yes, if by X you mean [something else nothing like X]" --> "hachi ka'amar"

Re wages:
Maybe the idea is that people who are working for their meals take the work more seriously, and therefore can't concentrate on other things (like the Shema) while they're working, whereas people who are working for a wage (like me) can post to this blog while they're at work?

Re slaves:
This mentality (that there has to be someone lower than me) hasn't gone away. The Jim Crow laws were (among other things) a way that the elites in the South kept the poor white people in line -- they knew that, no matter how bad their lives were, they were still better off than the black people. And this mentality is in force today by the opponents of same-sex marriage who say that it threatens marriage - "If even *they* can get married, then what good is *my* marriage?"

11:42 AM  
Anonymous SIN said...

Neil and reed chopper are both wrong re R"Tavi commenting on a passage from Proverbs:

If the womb, which takes in the sperm in silence, subsequently sends forth the baby in great clamor, then is it not evident that the grave, which takes the corpse amidst great clamor, will eventually bring it forth amidst great clamor? From here is a refutation to those who say that there is no allusion to the resurrection of the dead in the written Torah.

They claimed this was not one of the "proofs" for Resurrection brought in Sanhedrin Chapter 11.

This text is in fact cited in Sanhedrin as a proof for Resurrection (see Sanhedrin 92a - bottom of the page)

As to reed chopper's claim that Sanhedrin fails to find any proof texts at all to justify Resurrection from the Torah, this is also wrong. Several proof texts are presented both from the 5 books and from Neviim and Ketuvim. Most are indeed tortuous, but they are there nevertheless.

The strongest, IMO, is from Ezikiel and the story of the dry bones. An actual example of Resurrection in Tanach.

BTW, the probable reason the Mishna and later the Gemara where so anxious to find proof of Resurrection in Tanach, was to refute Christian claims that Resurrection was a Hidush (a new thing) attributable to Jesus, and that only through Jesus was it possible.

"Heck no", they wish to claim. "We have had Resurrection all along!"

11:06 AM  
Anonymous Reed Chopper said...

Ha! Does my brother SIN never listen always?

First, we can dispose of the non-Pentateuchal texts cited in Sanhedrin since they don't count as true prooftexts in the Bavli. The Mishnah also clearly states "Ha-omer ayn techiyyat hamaytim min ha-Torah" i.e. one who claims there is no prooftext in the Torah. Zeke et al. won't cut it. (Besides, as for Zeke, there's a dispute whether it's merely a parable or truth with the conclusion "emet mashal haya" (truly it was a parable) which you can try to dray if you like. If they had a decent Torahitic prooftext, they wouldn't bother with these.

Next, ALL of the Pentateuchal texts cited there are CLEARLY homiletic. For example: "Hinecha shochev 'im avotekha v'kam (ha'am hazeh v'zanah)" -- "behold while you lie with your forbears, this nation will arise and stray" which they chop off at the parentheses to read (ungrammatically, besides) behold while you lie with your forbears and arise" It's an asmakhta, this type classified, by the way, as "Mikra hanidreshet l'fanav u'le'acharav" a text expounded by using the same word in two different ways.

So I stick to my guns: After declaring that one who claims there is no prooftext in the Torah for resurrection has no portion in the world to come, they fail to find one.

Happy Purim & Shabbat Shalom,
Your Friendly Reed Chopper

11:59 AM  
Anonymous Reed Chopper said...

Ha! Does my brother SIN never listen always?

First, we can dispose of the non-Pentateuchal texts cited in Sanhedrin since they don't count as true prooftexts in the Bavli. The Mishnah also clearly states "Ha-omer ayn techiyyat hamaytim min ha-Torah" i.e. one who claims there is no prooftext in the Torah. Zeke et al. won't cut it. (Besides, as for Zeke, there's a dispute whether it's merely a parable or truth with the conclusion "emet mashal haya" (truly it was a parable) which you can try to dray if you like. If they had a decent Torahitic prooftext, they wouldn't bother with these.

Next, ALL of the Pentateuchal texts cited there are CLEARLY homiletic. For example: "Hinecha shochev 'im avotekha v'kam (ha'am hazeh v'zanah)" -- "behold while you lie with your forbears, this nation will arise and stray" which they chop off at the parentheses to read (ungrammatically, besides) behold while you lie with your forbears and arise" It's an asmakhta, this type classified, by the way, as "Mikra hanidreshet l'fanav u'le'acharav" a text expounded by using the same word in two different ways.

So I stick to my guns: After declaring that one who claims there is no prooftext in the Torah for resurrection has no portion in the world to come, they fail to find one.

Happy Purim & Shabbat Shalom,
Your Friendly Reed Chopper

11:59 AM  
Blogger NeilLitt said...

Yes! You hammered the nail without pounding your finger. We were both wrong re the citation of this “proof” in Sanhedrin, but not in the sense that it proves anything, but only in the sense that it was actually there and we didn’t remember it. The only loose end betwixt us is the question of how to recognize when ArtScroll is pretending to believe what it says.

12:02 PM  
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