Sunday, March 20, 2005

Berachos 18-20

When the Body Lies Before You

The Mishnah continues to specify circumstances when one is exempt from reciting the Shema. Beginning on 17b, we have the obligations (and exemptions) of participants in a funeral procession, which naturally leads to a discussion of other mitzvos that may be set aside for the sake of burying a corpse. Since contact with a corpse may result in a state of ritual contamination that would preclude participating in some prayers and other mitzvot, this leads to a discussion of other states of contamination and how they would affect one's obligation to recite the Shema.

As a nonobservant Jew, I am much more interested in the collateral issues that emerge from this discussion, especially rabbinic notions of the dignity of a corpse and its awareness of events in this world . . . and the next. And, by extension our awareness of events in this world and the next.

Wordplay abounds in this section. It is noteworthy, for example, that the exemption from reciting the Shema when there is a body before you applies both to one who is literally in the presence of a corpse and also to the close relative of the unburied corpse ("as long as he is responsible to bury the body it is as if it lies before him"). For the former, the exemption comes from the prohibition against mocking a pauper ("one who mocks a pauper blasphemes his Maker"): reciting the Shema in the presence of a corpse, which is incapable of reciting the Shema, "mocks" the corpse. For the latter, the obligation to bury supercedes all other obligations, creating an exemption because of the urgency that marks this task as having primacy over all other competing obligations.

The ideal code of conduct described herein does, however, have its own exceptions. On the practical level, if one is being pursued by gentiles or bandits, one is permitted to flee, riding a donkey "while sitting astride the bones." And as for not mocking a pauper, R'Yitzchak (19a) said,
If anyone disparages a dead person it is as if he disparaged a stone.
. . . Some say that this is because the dead do not know what is said about them while others say that they do know but they do not care.
The gemara also suggests that the terms "living" and "dead" may have a spiritual connotation, with the righteous "who even after their death are yet called living" (18a) and the wicked "who even in their lifetime are called dead" (18b). Thus, our text takes multiple and contradictory positions on what it means to be alive and dead and what it means to attend to a corpse. Its purpose is apparently to catalog related teachings, not to declare any one approach to be the authoritative rabbinic position.


I Hear Dead People

R'Yitzchak (the same R'Titzchak who compared the dead to stones?) says that "The worm is as painful to the dead as a needle to living flesh." Rather than dwelling on this incredibly disturbing notion, the gemara accepts it but wonders if the dead are aware of the pain of others or of the affairs of the world.

This leads to a story about "a certain pious man" who got such grief from his wife when he gave a coin to a poor man on the eve of Rosh Hashanah that he went to spend the night in the cemetery. There he overheard the spirits of two children, one of whom suggests that they roam the world "and hear from behind the curtain what misfortune is to come to the world this year." The other is reluctant to go because she is ashamed of the condition of her shroud and encourages her friend to go alone and come back with the news from the other side. When she returns she reports that crops planted at the first rain will be destroyed by hail. The pious man overhears this and waits until the second rain to plant his crops, and his crops prosper when everyone else's are destroyed. The next year he goes again to the cemetery and again hears these two spirits. Again, one is reluctant to go so the other goes without her and this time reports that those who plant at the second rain "will be blasted by a dry wind." The pious man overhears this and plants at the first rain and his crops are not blasted. After these two years of agricultural success, his wife becomes curious as to how her husband has suddenly become such a good farmer and he tells her about the spirits. A few days later the wife gets into an argument with the mother of the spirit whose shroud was tattered and alludes to her daughter to humble the mother. The next year when the man returns to the cemetery and the spirits again talk of seeking word from the other side, the one who had the tattered shroud replies to her friend, "Leave me be! The words that we spoke between ourselves in years past have already been heard among the living."

The gemara suggests that this story proves that the dead know what is spoken by the living, but it rejects this as a proof since it is also possible that someone died in the course of the year and told them about the quarrel. However, the gemara does not question the underlying premise of the story (dead people are aware of something), even though it has also presented R'Yitzchak's teaching that the dead are like stones. As my reed chopper suggested, aggadic material is not seriously meant to prove anything, but it does seem to me that in a system where scripture is forced to justify practice, and the tone offers no clue as to whether or not the intention is serious, this distinction is a technicality at most.


A Deeper Sense of Loss

The question that follows is especially poignant:
Rav Pappa said to Abaye: What was different about earlier generations, for whom miracles occurred, and what is different about us, for whom miracles do not occur?
It seems like there is a terribly modern question buried here: the question being something like, how is it that earlier generations could believe in miracles when we cannot? Perhaps the "enlightenment" was not a one-time-only historical occurrence, but a recurrence that made a breach between this and that every few generations.

15 Comments:

Anonymous reed chopper said...

Rabbi Yitzchak without patronymic is a Babylonian who made aliya and became a Tanna. He conveyed to the Babylonians a warning from R Judah Hanasi that they shouldn't try to get too independent. The Babylonians were generally more into the lore of demons, ghosts, the dead and what we might think of as superstitions. R' Yitzchak did mostly halakhic, not aggadic stuff, but he was also into mysticism (so you've got to watch out for esoteric meanings in his stuff).

I don't see any contradictions between the two opinions of his that you brought: tortures of the grave (chibbut ha-kever, a popular notion), and the dead not caring what you say about them. They feel, just not for you.

You write: "...but it does seem to me that in a system where scripture is forced to justify practice, and the tone offers no clue as to whether or not the intention is serious, this distinction is a technicality at most."

It's a big topic. To tell the difference between a genuine proof or prooftext, and an asmakhta (homiletic prooftext or proof) you don't have to rely on the tone. Rule 1: If the cited text is not from the Pentateuch, it's an asmakhta. Rule 2: If the statement is purely aggadic, then the entire thing is homiletic. You can tell, because even authorities with differing opinions almost never raise objections to aggadot, as I wrote before. In the rare cases when objections are raised, it's never to challenge the sources, only to criticize the guy who presented the aggadah for going to the trouble of proving something they think is unworthy (like Akiva saying that the "two thrones in heaven" mentioned in Daniel are one for the butt and one for the feet, which the other Rabbis thought was too grossly anthropomorphic).

According to Rambam, texts are NEVER the real source of halakha, and all the texts cited are kind of asmakhtot. It's an extreme position, and difficult because sometimes the Gemara itself dismisses somebody's prooftext as an "asmakhta b'olma" (a plain old asmakhta) -- so some texts must not be asmakhtot. The point, which I've almost lost, is that later authorities differ sharply about the role of texts in establishing the halakha.

Very "serious" topics are aggadic. It's just processed differently than halakhic material.

However, you make a good point. In some parts of frummie-land, all statements from the tradition are treated equally and literally. Just because some authority says something and cites a source they stick it to you. This is remote from the attitude of the Gemara which greets almost every halakhic statement with: "Says you!."

4:41 PM  
Blogger NeilLitt said...

Your rule #1 makes a lot of sense. On the other hand, rule #2 strikes me as incomplete. Homily obviously falls short of scripture as a proof, but if its role is to illustrate rather than prove a rabbinic ordinance, it could still carry some weight, no? Tackling it from another angle, would it be fair to say that the ArtScroll translation and commentary is treating these and those equally? In other words, is my ability to decipher these nuances being compromised by the humorlessness of my modern redactor?

4:50 PM  
Anonymous reed chopper said...

Until recently the Orthodox did have a "sense of humor" about Aggadah. In Z. H. Chajes' The Student's Guide Through the Talmud he writes (over 100 years ago):

"Now since the style which the Rabbis adopted in the Midrash and Aggadah is not understood by the average student, so that at first glance many strange idioms and extravagences appear to be contained in their statements, such have afforded the critics opportunities to pass censure upon them, and to conclude that the Rabbis presented us with strange, at times shocking utterances, for the support of which they have needlessly deprived passages of their natural or primary meaning, I have set myself the aim to show the reader the methods employed by the Rabbis in these subjects..."

It's a run-on sentence, but it sure hits it on the head.

This is an Orthodox source! Saying this today in Borough Park would get you strung up. ArtScroll never acknowledges that these things sound funny to normal people.

Finally, it's not that they don't carry weight. It's that they have no authority. According to the rules of the game, ONE MAY NOT DEDUCE ANY HALAKHA FROM AN AGGADIC PASSAGE, PERIOD. This ArtScoll endevours to keep this secret from you.

7:51 PM  
Blogger NeilLitt said...

Brilliant! Thanks. And it looks like there’s a copy on the shelf of the library right across the street from my office! I’ll swallow it whole!

10:59 AM  
Anonymous reed chopper said...

I like the book a lot (I own two worn-out copies), but it's 1. Orthodox and 2. Dense with examples. I hope you're not disappointed. He sticks to the dogmatics of the system, but at least he explains them clearly and understands where we're coming from.

The other "classical" intro/overview for the Talmud text is Hermann Strack's Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash, which is informative but oy is it boring. Not recommended except for pedants. Strack was, by the way, a goy. It's interesting how he deals with the xenophobic stuff in the Talmud. More or less, he says that the Talmud was written by Jews for Jews, and they didn't think we goyim would be reading it. You and I also say stuff that we wouldn't say if we thought other people were listening in. Amazing.

11:00 AM  
Blogger NeilLitt said...

Shh. They’ll hear you. Dense doesn’t bother me . . . or Mike. We both read Moore’s Judaism, which is a two-volume Christian religious scholar’s attempt to document rabbinic Judaism. Strack, however, goes beyond dense and evolves into a full-proof cure for insomnia.

11:46 AM  
Blogger NeilLitt said...

P.S. Finding Chajes in the Firestone Library was a journey through the underworld. It is housed in the Near East Collection, which is buried three levels below the main floor in a labyrinth of stacks that are so tightly packed that you have to turn a levered wheel to pry them apart. Moreover, the catalog numbers serve double-duty for Talmuds and their support books, but are divided by size between the typically oversized Talmuds and the more modestly sized commentaries. It took me a half an hour of wandering through a library that I have generally mastered to find this particular volume.

And it was worth it. So far I've only read the translator's preface and his short biographical sketch of the author, but there's enough there to suggest that I'm going to like this. For one thing, it panders to my exegetical paranoia: "Even a correct translation of a halachic or aggadic passage, if not properly elucidated, may result in a monstrous misunderstanding." I love that phrase "monstrous misunderstanding." With allies like this, how will we ever get the courage to study Talmud without the Orthodox? And this translator (Jacob Shachter) also renews the promise that no adventurous interpreter of Talmud will go unpunished: "It was only natural that . . . he [Chajes] incurred the displeasure of many of the contemporary rabbis, who, besides, could not tolerate his method of Talmudic learning, based as it was on critical investigation, a novel feature amongst the Rabbis of his generation."

Sadly, that last sentence undermines your implication that adventurous commentary died within the last hundred years. Apparently, even in the 19th Century, critical reading was discouraged! As it was also when Maimonides attempted it, if my memory serves me well. So when wasn't critical investigation a novel feature amongst the Rabbis?

4:16 PM  
Anonymous reed chopper said...

P.S. Finding Chajes in the Firestone Library was a journey through the underworld....

It's not as well known as it deserves to be.

... it panders to my exegetical paranoia: "Even a correct translation of a halachic or aggadic passage, if not properly elucidated, may result in a monstrous misunderstanding." I love
that phrase "monstrous misunderstanding." With allies like this, how will we ever get the courage to study Talmud without the Orthodox?


Not so much the Orthos as the cognescenti. The Ven diagrams overlap, but not much. Also, among the Orthos there's a two-tier system: those who know make up crap for the others to swallow.

"It was only natural that . . . he [Chajes] incurred the displeasure of many of the contemporary rabbis, who, besides, could not tolerate his method of Talmudic learning, based as it was on critical investigation, a novel feature amongst the Rabbis of his generation."

I don't agree with this statement. What was novel was to publish for the masses what every Yeshiva bocher already knew, but didn't talk about. The book was even intended for goyim to read as well, and telling them the straight scoop is unforgivable. But it's not like he was heretical or anything. He still sticks to the party line, and he opposed the Reformies -- which kept him kosher in the frum community, but just barely. By the way, what he thinks in his own head isn't clear, because what he's explaining, as I said before, are the dogmatics of the system (which you have to know to make sense of what the Rabbis are saying).

Sadly, that last sentence undermines your implication that adventurous commentary died within the last hundred years. Apparently, even in the 19th Century, critical reading was discouraged! As it was also when Maimonides attempted it, if my memory serves me well. So when wasn;t critical investigation a novel feature amongst the Rabbis?

Same response: there's what WE scholars know, and what everybody else is allowed to know. We do critical investigation, but we keep it simple for them. ArtScroll is in this tradition -- they don't believe half the pious crap they're dishing out. Sadly, many of the authorities in the Talmud held the same view of trusting nonscholars with "difficult" information, even going so far as to have secret halakhot ("halkhah v'ayn morim keyn" -- "That's the Halakhah, but don't tell the idiots) you must have already come across a few examples of it. Ever read the Grand Inquisitor section of the Brothers Karamazov?

8:20 PM  
Blogger NeilLitt said...

Yes. However, Dostoyevsky, like the reed chopper and the am haaretz, is writing from outside, not inside. When I teach this Summer, I most definitely want to teach from outside, too, but I wonder what that will be like if any of the students are attached to reading from the inside!

8:25 PM  
Anonymous Mike said...

Intriguingly, the text itself interests me less than reed chopper's views of what is going on. I agree with much of what s/he says, but I do have a few problems. The first is a matter of what is Halakah and what isn't. S/he says, "If the cited text is not from the Pentateuch, it's an asmakhta", which I take to mean is not Halakic. The Daf for tomorrow seems to offer an example of a Halakic ruling that uses a non-Pentateuch proof text (specifically Amos). Artscroll on page 23a2 says "The gemara gives the basis for the ruling - one who needs to relieve himself should not pray until he does so" as Amos 4:12. Is this not a Halakic ruling, and if it is what am I missing?

My second problem is that Reed Chopper says, "ArtScroll is in this tradition -- they don't believe half the pious crap they're dishing out." I think s/he may well be right, but I'm left with the question of how do I tell what Artscroll believes and what they don't believe.

10:38 PM  
Anonymous Tree said...

Is Jacob Schachter a son of Reb Zalman??

10:55 PM  
Blogger NeilLitt said...

tree asks Is Jacob Schachter a son of Reb Zalman??

Not this Jacob Schachter: at the time he translated Chajes (1960) he was a rabbi in Northern Ireland.

Mike writes S/he says, "If the cited text is not from the Pentateuch, it's an asmakhta", which I take to mean is not Halakic.

An asmakhta is a rabbinnic enactment, rather than a rule rooted in Scripture, but both are halakic.

Mike also writes I'm left with the question of how do I tell what Artscroll believes and what they don't believe.

I share your curiosity on this one and I hope Reed Chopper will speak to this point.

5:52 AM  
Anonymous Reed Chopper said...

Rabbinic vs. Torahitic & Prooftext vs. Asmakhta

These are two different issues. "Torahitic" (d'oraita) means that the this halakha has divine authority, but not necessarily that it has a "serious" prooftext. For example, there are Torahitic halakhot that are not mentioned at all in scripture, but were handed down only orally. "Rabbinic" (d'rabanan) means that the Rabbis have enacted this law from their own authority, (like chicken being fleishig), and do not pretend that it is divine in origin (except for ArtScroll & company who would never tell you that fowl is Torahitically pareve -- In Hilchot Mamrim Chapter 2 Rambam makes it clear that the Rabbis are not permitted to pass off Rabbinic laws for Torahitic). What's the practical difference? After all, the Rabbis do have the authority to enact laws and you have to obey them -- in fact Rabbinic laws are sometimes enforced more vigorously than Torahitic ones because people presumably wouldn't dare to infringe Torahitic laws). There are practical differences. For example, in a doubtful case (whether the law applies to the instant case or not), if the law in question is Torahitic, then the ruling is stringent, if it is Rabbinic, then the ruling is lenient.

The issue between an asmakhta and a serious prooftext is not whether the statement is halakhic or not, but whether the cited text is indeed the origin of the halakha. In an asmakhta the text is not the origin, it is only cited homiletically for support (which is what the word "asmakhta" literally means).

Halakha comes from 5 places:
1. Tradition (the pipe from Sinai)
2. Expounding texts according to accepted hermeneutic principles
3. Rabbinic enactments
4. Custom
5. Ma'aseh (roughy, precedent).

Only one of these has to do with scripture, and even then some authorities (like the Rambam) insist that the texts are never really the origin of the halakha.

8:07 AM  
Blogger NeilLitt said...

That’s cleared up a lot for me. I was confusing the source of the ruling with the source of the proof.

8:09 AM  
Anonymous Reed Chopper said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

12:57 PM  

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