Sunday, March 27, 2005

Berachos 21-26a

How Do You Spell 'Relief'?

The Rabbis taught in a Baraisa: One who needs to relieve himself should not pray until he does so . . . Rav Zavid and some say it was Rav Yehudah, said: They did not teach that the prayer of one who needs to relieve himself is invalid except in regard to one who is unable to restrain himself. (23a)
Several folios explore the various ways that the body undermines the soul. Sneezing, drooling, pissing, farting, shitting-- a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. But it can distract one from more "elevated" concerns.

On 21b we meet the baal keri, one who has had a seminal emission, and we learn that Ezra forbids him to recite Torah. But let's face it: who among us can be confident that he is not a baal keri? I take a nap, I have a dream that I don't even remember, out pops my little am haaretz and makes a puddle that dries even before I awaken. It happens.

R'Yehudah permits a baal keri to study the laws of derech eretz (proper conduct), but no other parts of the Torah, Prophets, and writings, nor the Mishnah, Talmud, Halachach, or Aggadic teachings: "for the particular tumah he contracted was brought about through levity, inconsistent with the feeling of awe that Torah study demands."

Awe = good. Levity = bad. R'Zeira would not laugh on account of the prohibition cited in Berachos 31a that "it is forbidden to fill one's mouth with laughter in this world." ArtScroll cites Rashi's explanation that "R'Zeira was extra stringent in regard to this matter and would not smile at all."

With characteristic humorlessness, the ArtScroll footnote continues by assuring us (citing Ritva) that there is nothing wrong with smiling and that there are many recorded instances of Rabbis making humorous remarks, but "as a personal precaution . . . R'Zeira was careful not to laugh at all, so as not to come to forbidden laughter."

So, forewarned is forearmed: try not to laugh. Eschew smiling as needed. If you're a baal keri (and who isn't?), ponder the divide between the one who rules that "this and that are forbidden" and the one who rules that "this and that are permitted" (22a).
It was taught in a Baraisa: It once happened that someone propositioned a woman to commit an immoral act with her. She replied to him: "Boor! Do you have forty se'ah available to you in which you can immerse after your proposed tryst?" Upon hearing her words, he immediately discontinued his attempt to seduce her, and refrained from committing the sin.

Can you resist smiling in the presence of such tales? Do you wonder if this woman was a Torah scholar? Do you buy the idea that the man would find the reminder that he did not have the water needed to ritually purify himself a sufficient impediment to discontinue his attempt to seduce her? And last but not least, wherever would he put his tefillin while he was ravishing her?

Respect My Tefillin!

Laughing with Tefillin

An incident occurred with one student who placed his tefillin in the holes that were towards the public domain, and a certain harlot came by and took them, and she came to the study hall and said: Look what so-and-so gave me as my payment. When this student heard this, he went up to the roof and fell off it and died. At that time they instituted the rule that one should hold the tefillin in his garment and in his hand and enter the latrine with them. (23a)

Ultimately, "whatever is done to protect them from loss is more worthwhile than preserving them from disrespect" (24a).

Sneezing and Farting

One who sneezes during his prayer, it is an evil omen for him. (24b)
Of course, we sneeze all the time! I dare say we sneeze a hundred times for every seminal emission. Well, actually, the Gemara explains, this "refers to a 'sneeze' from below, i.e. to gas passed noisily from the rectum." Humorlessly, ArtScroll fn 14 on 24b explains,
The reason passing wind during Shemoneh Esri is an evil omen is because the sound that accompanies the wind alerts others to his act, and he is thereby humiliated. This humiliation before others is an evil omen, for it indicates that this individual is not well regarded in Heaven.
Hey Reed Chopper! Is ArtScroll pulling my leg (or my finger)?

The Bottom Line

These folios lay down rules for parts of the body that will not be governed. I was curious to see what the most famous physician/rabbi had to say about this, so I consulted Maimonides.

Maimonides wrote,
The Jewish people accepted the custom of reading the Torah and reciting the Shema even after a seminal emission because the words of Torah cannot contract ritual impurity. . . . They stand in their state of purity forever, as Jeremiah 23:29 states: Just as fire is incapable of becoming ritually impure, so, too, the words of Torah are never defiled.
So, the decree to forbid a man who has had a seminal emission from reading Torah is rejected because the people are unable to maintain it. Such a decree is never really accepted as law.

I specifically want to encourage comments on what decrees we can and cannot accept, and what we make of the notion that a decree that cannot be maintained cannot be the law and how that would play out.

One Last Thing

This section is clearly an early source for Jewish notions of body image that survive to this day, most obviously in traditionally observant communities. It is here (24a) that we find that one may not gaze on a woman "with intent to enjoy her" and that her hair and her voice are both equivalent to "her nakedness." And since men cannot be trusted to restrain their impulses, women are denied the right to be themselves.


Anonymous Tree said...

Surely a community cannot enfoce what is unenforcible. Laws cannot survive that go against nature. So while the Rabbis cannot prevent their bodies from sneezing, farting, emitting etc. they create laws that can only humiliate them further for what is out of their control. Oy.

But what is probably even more troubling and terrifying to them are the "other" bodies -- the ones they really cannot control,namely those of their wives, daughters and mothers whose blood comes forth with the cycles of the moon obeying no man's law.

Is this section a joke? Are they making fun of themselves? Probably not. The rabbis are attemting to control the uncontrollable and while this is understandable it never survives the test of community. Amcha don't buy it and will continue to sneeze (etc.) throughout the service. much for now.....gotta go.....!

7:51 AM  
Anonymous Reed Chopper said...

R' Sheshet offers the opinion that the sight of a woman's hair is provocative, which is interesting since R' Sheshet was blind.

R' Zeira objects to any levity, but this is clearly labelled as an extreme view. Besides, "Zeira" literally means "small," which may explain his dour attitude.

My personal experience of being a Ba'al Keri is different -- I generally know if it happens. But you now know why Keri Lotion doesn't sell well in Borough Park.

As to not imposing rules on the people that they aren't able to keep, this rule only applies to matters instituted by the Rabbis. First, before imposing a prohibition on the people the Rabbis are required to consider whether the people will follow it. If they mistakenly think the people will follow, and they institute it, and the people ignore the rule, the rule becomes null and void and the Rabbis are not allowed to try to force the people to obey it. However, the Rabbis can continue to enforce Torahitic rules, even if all the Children of Israel are eating chazzer in Chinese restaurants.

1:54 PM  
Blogger NeilLitt said...

So, all those bald women with wigs are primping for a blind man?

2:03 PM  
Anonymous Reed Chopper said...

Weird, ain't it? Since the feel of hair is so sexy, R' Sheshet may have assumed that the sight of it was similarly provocative. Maybe Samuel (who thought that women's voices were provocative) was deaf! (just kidding).

2:07 PM  
Anonymous Mike said...

Neil said
I specifically want to encourage comments on what decrees we can and cannot accept, and what we make of the notion that a decree that cannot be maintained cannot be the law and how that would play out.

My interest in this question is in the precursor question, namely - Who gets a vote? That is, who is included in the group of people who get a vote in deciding that the decree cannot be maintained? It seems clear that, generally speaking, the Orthodox restrict the vote to adult males who otherwise agree to accept the teachings of the rabbis. I reject that answer, but consistent with my view that the Talmud often raises the right questions, albeit it gives answers I profoundly disagree with, I am interested in this question in our world. In particular I believe that for many contemporary issues, who gets to vote, and how we weight various votes, is the fundamental moral question.

This plays out in various ways. One current example is the claim by many conservatives that they are taking a moral stand on abortion or end of life issues, while liberals avoid the moral issues. But if the most fundamental of moral issues is - Who gets to vote? - then it is liberals who are debating the moral issues, while conservatives are often simply playing definitional games. For instance, in my mind whether or not a specific abortion is morally legitimate comes down to when is there a victim, (i.e. whan has the intercourse created an independent being desrving of being considered a victim, and thus entitled to protection). In my mind, this is a definitional question, and as such is not subject to moral argument. Many of the questions surrounding end-of-life decisions turn out to be similar, in that they depend on definitions of what constitutes an independent life. It is for this reason that I am very much a believer in leaving such decisions to the person or persons most directly involved.

5:56 PM  
Anonymous Reed Chopper said...

Mike asks the zillion-dollar question: "Who gets a vote?"

First, somewhat irrelevantly, the sources: Discussing the issue, Rambam uses different terms to describe the "electorate." He says first, that before the Rabbis try to impose a restriction, they must first consider whether Rov Ha-Tzibbur the majority of the crowd (approximately) will stand for it. Then he says that if they then thought that Rov ha-Kahal the majority of the community (or congregation, approximately) were able to stand for it and they issued the restriction, but pikpiku ha'am bah (the people dissed it) and it did not catch on in Rov Ha-Kahal (the majority of the community), their decree is null and void, and they may not try to force et Ha-Am (the people) to follow it.

Then to make matters even more complex, he says (in maybe the most controversial section of his entire work) that if a court issued the decree and they thought that observance of it caught on B'khol Yisrael (in all of Israel) and the matter stood that way for many years, and after a lot of time passed, a different court arose and did a survey and saw that the decree was not being observed B'khol Yisrael (in all of Israel) they may retract the decree (but they don't have to). The controversy surrounds the issue of whether the earlier court was mistaken in thinking that it caught on, or whether observance of the decree did catch on and then lapsed (in other words, what are we stuck with?).

It may be that Rambam is using these terms as synonyms, or is just borrowing the language of the Talmud and isn't implying fine distinctions. Or one can attempt to make something of the differences.

By the way, the news isn't great when it comes to Torahitic law. The fact that 99% of Israel eats pork hot dogs at the ballgame doesn't make it ok, by the dogmatics of the system. All of this discussion relates only to prohibitions instituted by the Rabbis of their own authority.

It turns out that many such Rabbinic prohibitions lapsed, e.g. the Rabbinic prohibition against Bishul Akum -- that is you can't eat anything cooked by goyim. Last time I looked, Heinz beans had on O-U. But the frummies are bringing back other lapsed prohibitions such as Pat akum (bread baked by goyim), and they'll get around to bringing back bishul akum and many other lapsed prohibitions.

Returning to Mike's real question FOR US: I think the answer kind of has to be something like "Adult male and female members of the committed community." Besides, we can take the Rabbinic principle of community buy-in and extend it for us to Torahitic law as well. Laws that are ignored by everybody you know or associate with cease to exist, as Ghandi showed. Our community is not even aware which observances are Torahitic and which are Rabbinic anyway.

On the second subject: I disagree with Mike that issues like abortion can be settled by definitions, because the definitions you accept just support whatever view you champion anyway. So for the "Pro-Life" people a "person" is a conceptus, but for "Pro-Choice" people a "person" is "a born sentient lacking a rapidly fatal disease and with a potential IQ of at least X" -- in other words, an individual we could potentially shmooze with over a beer.

11:24 AM  
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1:30 AM  

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