Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Berachos 54-56

If Only You Believe Like I Believe in Miracles
Blessings should not address the future . . . prayers should not address the past. . . . to cry out over that which is past is to utter a prayer in vain. (54a).
The free association in this section is quite elegant. The distinction between what can be blessed and what can be prayed for is practical, acknowledging the natural order of things. A prayer to alter the past would, of course, be a prayer for no less than a miracle or a "nullification" of the law. And the above-cited text is a prelude for dealing with both the nullification and the miraculous.

The Mishnah speaks of nullifying the law "because it is time to act for Hashem," a suggestion that the commentators treat cautiously, permitting themselves to consider that nullifying the law (which would be the equivalent of dishonoring God's Name) is not permitted in any event, but the appearance of nullifying the law would be permitted if it spread goodwill and put God's name out there amongst the populace. Saul of Tarsus, of course, took it a step further. Nevertheless, recalling how important appearance is (see, for example, my blog entry on Berachos 14-17), this concession to the appearance of a gross impropriety is most certainly a revolutionary gesture.

The Mishnah also speaks of the obligation to recite a blessing when one sees a place where miracles were performed for the Jewish people. The Gemara asks for the source of this ruling and ultimately concludes that the blessing is only required for a miracle "performed for the masses . . . [which] implies that on a miracle performed for an individual we do not recite a blessing," making another distinction (consciously or not) between Jewish and Christian notions of the miraculous.


On 54b the Gemara confidently quantifies the number of people who need protection. The text begins, "Three types of people need protection . . ." Alas, as typically happens there are two variants of the three , followed by further variants. The bottom line is that we all need protection; we are all vulnerable.

There are also (at least) three things that "prolong the days and years of a person," including "one who spends a long time in the privy." (ArtScroll 55a fn18 explains that this "does not mean that a single session in the privy should be drawn out. Rather, it refers to [the] practice of frequently checking onself for the need to defecate . . ")

And while spending a long time in prayer will prolong life, "Anyone who prolongs his prayer and contemplates it, i.e. he expects it to be fulfilled, will eventually suffer heartache." Prayer in the absence of despair is folly.

Interpretation of Dreams
The Three Am Haaretz
Beginning on 55a, where it says, "A dream that has not been interpreted is like a letter that has not been read," there is an extended description of rabbinic dream theory. In brief, the rabbis are in awe of the power of dream interpretation; even going so far as to ask, "if one feels his dream might bode ill, why have it interpreted and risk giving veracity to an adverse omen?" (55b2).

The dream interpreter Bar Hedya is known to interpret dreams as good omens only for those who pay him well, and we have numerous examples of his interpreting the identical dream positively or negatively depending on the fee he is given (56a). Rava is slow to catch on and is the victim of several bad interpretations, eventually leading to the prediction that "The king's treasury will be broken into and you will be arrested as a thief"-- which indeed occurs on the very next day. Even so, Rava continued to pay poorly until after the interpretation was rendered to him that he would receive two blows with clubs and, following the actual two blows which he soon thereafter received, he interrupted his assailant and told him, "Two is enough for me; I saw only two in my dream." From that point forward, he paid handsomely for his dream interpretation and the omens turned out more favorably.

Dream interpretation seems to be a source of great amusement here, and other examples in this text suggest that word play is a subconscious tool within dreams. It may not be too much to suggest that Freud's theory is not a fresh invention but a distillation of ancient rabbinic humor. Take my dream, please!


Anonymous Reed Chopper said...

The Past; Nullification; Dreams

The Past
To pray to change the past is a vain prayer, but the Rabbis interpret "the past" in a strange quantum theory way. It's past if somebody knows about it. You can pray that you don't have lung cancer until the doctor actually looks at the X-ray. Then the wave function collapses, and your deadly disease becomes established fact. Before the doctor looks at it, you can still pray. God can work miracles for you, as long as you don't catch Him/Her in the act.

The issue of nullifying the Torah in order to act FOR God is pegged to a pun on a pasuk. In any case, I respectfully demur to the opinion that the law is only apparently nullified; Maimonides (Hilchot Mamerim 2) makes it crystal clear that in times of crisis the law can be nullified as long as there is a pretense that the nullification is only temporary. It's too complicated to go into now, but he also implies imho that sometimes the law is nullified permanently.

This part is a hoot. It's not that they think that dreams are meaningless (although they do say that every dream contains at least some nonsense). They believe that meaning is contained in the dream + interpretation. imho this entire section is meant to be funny (with serious mystical allusions). Their optimistic interpretations of obviously scary classically Freudian dreams (e.g. "I dreamt that my nose fell off," based on the pun between 'af meaning nose and 'af meaning wrath) are hilarious.

1:59 PM  
Blogger NeilLitt said...

Re the past: I don't see where there is room for the Rabbis to get quantum with the past. The Mishnah is quite explicit: If his wife was pregnant and he says: "May it be Your will that my wife give birth to a male," this is a prayer in vain. If he was coming along the road, and he heard the sound of screaming in the city and he says: "May it be Your will that this screaming is not taking place within my house," this is a prayer in vain.

Re nullification: I concede that I've simplified the issue. Pretense (i.e., appearance) extends even to "intent." The bottom line is that you cannot declare that you are nullifying the law. (It apparently results in immediate and sudden death for Rav Chanina on 58b.)

2:02 PM  
Anonymous Reed Chopper said...


I was hoping you'd ask! This is a famous conundrum. First of all (drum roll...) the source in Bava Metziah 42a:

"R. Isaac also said: A blessing is found only in what is hidden from the eye, for it is written, The Lord shall command the blessing upon thee in thy hidden things. The School of R. Ishmael taught: A blessing comes only to that over which the eye has no power, for it is said, The Lord shall command the blessing upon thee in thy hidden things.

"Our Rabbis taught: When one goes to measure [the corn in] his granary, he should pray, ‘May it be Thy will, O Lord our God, to send a blessing upon the work of our hands.’ Having started to measure, he prays, ‘Blessed is He who sendeth a blessing on this pile.’ But if he measured and then prayed, it is a vain prayer, because a blessing is not found in that which is [already] weighed, measured, or counted, but only in that which is hidden from the eye, for it is said, The Lord shall command the blessing upon thee in thy hidden things."

So, the pile of grain has no weight until you weigh it. So until you do, you can pray that it will weigh a lot. There's no objective reality to it. When you weigh it, the wave function collapses.

What about Brachot 54a? Why can't you pray that the child in your wife's womb be a boy (or girl)? [It does sound eerily like Schroedinger's cat in the box, doesn't it?]. The traditional frummie resolution of these two sources is that God won't change the past, but S/He will create miracles with respect to the present. So, God won't go back in time to change history (it was a boy who was conceived rather than a girl).

This frummie explanation falls apart under scrutiny. First of all, as we all know, our matriarch Leah successfully prayed to turn a son she had conceived into a daughter, Dinah, so as not to mortify her sister. So God does change the sex of already conceived babies if you pray hard enough. Maybe the difference is that the prayer for a boy was viewed as selfish, while Leah's prayer for a girl was altruistic!

My own Copenhagen resolution of the two texts is that there's no problem: In the case of the screaming in the city, somebody (but not you) already knows who screamed (neighbors, the screamer) so it has become objective reality. That's why the text emphasized that you were outside of the city, so YOU don't know, but others do.

The case of the child is harder. Notwithstanding the Midrash on Dinah, you could say that the angel in charge of conception knows (various Rabbinic sources to the effect that male and female souls pre-exist and one is selected by the angel to descend); v'ee ba'it ay'mah ("if you want, you can say" -- Talmudic phrase used to introduce a second answer, a sure sign that neither of the answers is particularly strong), that femaleness or maleness is not like a flavor, (or like the weight of the grain, what Medieval philosophers call "accidents") but goes to the essence of the soul. There never was a superposition of male/female, any more than there can be a superposition of green/sweet.

The simplest solution, of course, would be to say that the two sources don't agree -- but it wouldn't be Talmud if we didn't try to harmonize them.

8:42 PM  
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