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!

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Berachos 7-9

A self-described member of "the peanut gallery" wrote,
One peep from the peanut gallery (which was probably covered in the ArtScroll commentary and/or which you likely long ago figured out yourself) is that themes of the night and the dawn in the Talmud always also allude to the exile and the redemption.
Sadly, no. In the earlier folios I did not pick up on this theme and I did not see it explicitly expressed in ArtScroll's commentary, but before the gemara on the first mishnah ends, I have since seen the boundaries and overlaps of day and night explicitly linked to escape from Egypt (redemption from Egypt happened at night and departure from Egypt happened by day) and Egypt explicitly described as the first exile:
The Holy One Blessed is He, said to Moses, "Go and say to Israel, 'I was with them in this subjugation in Egypt, and I shall be with them at the time of their subjugation at the hands of other kingdoms." Moses, assuming that God wanted him to repeat this entire message to the Children of Israel, said before God, "Master of the universe! It is enough for an affliction to be dealt with at the time it actually arrives. Why should I cause them worry now by mentioning a later trouble?"
With hindsight, Moses forestalls foreshadowing!

I'm listening to music as I write this, and I just realized the irony that the music I am listening to is the funeral of Akhnaten from Philip Glass's opera about the Egyptian Pharoah who was the first to conceive of an abstract god. The irony is even more attenuated by the realization that the first glimpses of God in Berachos are anything but abstract: from the Tefillin that God dons on 6a, this is far from a mystical conception of deity. On 7a, God prays and ArtScroll's footnote 2 quotes Ben Yehoyada:
What need is there for this prayer? He is uttering the prayer to Himself!
Perhaps, as R'Saadia Gaon suggests,
The Gemara doesn't mean that God prays, but rather that God demonstrates how we should pray.
Folio 8a tells us where to pray, and ArtScroll fn 17 that "Truancy from the synagogue is punished with exile"-- a double exile, if you will, since the synagogue itself is a place of refuge during our exile from the Temple.

Alas, exile can also be a psychological condition. Consider R'Yehoshua ben Levi's instructions to his sons on 8b:
Be careful with the honor of an elderly scholar who has involuntarily forgotten his Torah learning, for we say that the second set of Tablets and the broken pieces of the first Tablet both rest in the Ark.
To involuntarily lose one's learning is the most acute of all exiles. I cannot read this teaching without reflecting on my stepmother Sarah, who cared for her husband Sam long after he involuntarily forgot his Torah. When I walked into their apartment wearing a t-shirt with Hebrew text on it, Sam came alive and said, "I used to know Hebrew!" This was at a time when Sarah was changing Sam's diapers several times a day-- taking care to honor the elderly scholar who had involuntarily forgotten his Torah learning. She did not need to study this text to know what it had to teach; she derived it from logic. "After all," she would say, "didn't he change enough diapers in his life? I can do this for him."

Sunday, March 06, 2005

The First Five Days: Berachos, 2-6

From when may we fulfill the obligation to recite the Shema in the evenings?

When Rabban Gamliel's sons come home from a banquet after midnight (2a), they are most likely drunk. Yet Rabban Gamliel affirms that they are obligated to recite the Shema. Does he assume that it has a sobering effect?

Skipping ahead two folios, we see that Rabban Gamliel understands that the Shema could be recited any time during the night but that the rabbis generally put the time for reciting the evening Shema only until midnight "for the purpose of distancing a person from sin." Isn't it precisely because of sons like Rabban Gamliel's that the rabbis erected such a "fence"?

How does this sugya define the boundaries between day and night? On 2b we have competing definitions: does the evening begin when the Kohanim can begin eating Terumah or when the poor person sits down for his evening meal? In either case, in practical terms, doesn't the definition appear to be dependent on when the workday ends? Is the critical question whether we measure the workday according to the most privileged or the most common?

The absence of clocks makes the task of differentiating day from night a real challenge. On 3a the Gemara suggests common signs that may provide clues that night has ended:
Once a woman begins speaking with her husband and a child begins nursing from its mother's breasts, let him arise and recite the Shema, for the night has ended.
On 3b and 4a the Gemara questions whether Biblical figures were able to determine the time by extraordinary means. For example, David would be awakened at midnight when a harp suspended over his bed would vibrate from a Divine breeze. Moses, who knew the exact moment when it was midnight, nevertheless spoke to Pharoah of events that would occur "about midnight."
Moses thought that Pharaoh's astrologers might err in their calculation of the precise midpoint of the night and say: "Moses is a liar."
The Gemara follows this example with a teaching that Mike Rappeport singled out as particularly troubling:
Teach your tongue to say "I do not know," lest you be caught in a falsehood.
When should we hesitate to say something when we are certain of its accuracy?

If it comes to the time to recite the Shema and one is far from home, one must not put oneself in danger in order to pray (3a). Rather, one should say an abridged prayer by the side of the road. The danger of being out and about in a world that is predominantly not Jewish is a strong subtext in this image of the vulnerable traveller. It arises again on 5a and 5b in the discussion of "afflictions of love"-- the suffering that is visited upon each of us to ensure that we will remain mindful to vigilantly observe the mitzvot. Can a modern reader see beauty in this image of human frailty or get stuck on the fearful superstition that is clearly present? Can the concept of "afflictions of love" have any standing in a post-Holocaust world?

There is in fact a poignant metaphor in the cases on 5b where rabbis's sufferings are relieved when they accept help from other rabbis, teaching:
A captive cannot release himself from prison. He needs help from someone outside.
Even so, in this Gemara that insists that all suffering is earned, the text (5b) has the courage to inquire whether there are afflictions that cannot be "afflictions of love," and to suggest that there are two: (1) tzaraas and (2) "deprivation of children." The latter must mean something more narrow than one might glean from a surface reading, since 5a has already stated:
Whoever engages in studying Torah and in bestowing kindness, and buries his sons, is forgiven for all his sins.
That which serves no purpose, that which does not fall within the definition of an "affliction of love," is on 5b "one who did not have children at all." But I must say again that the spectre of the holocaust suggests that such pilpul can no longer stand.

The use of Scriptural passages to establish the law or to settle a dispute will take many forms. We get our first strong hint of this on 4b, where R'Yochanan and R'Yehoshua disagree, but the text cannot establish whether they disagree over the interpretation of a verse or their disagreement is based on a rational argument. Such distinctions in such an ancient text are exhilerating to discover!

A major topic introduced in these first folios is how to "refrain from sinning." On 5a we learn that reminding oneself of the day of his or her death is an effective strategy but should only be used when all else fails (from ArtScroll fn 8):
By reminding himself that upon death he must face the Heavenly court and give an account for all his actions, he will surely refrain from sinning (Iyun Yaakov; cf Maharsha). This last strategy (of reflecting on death) has a detrimental side effect-- it can lead to sadness and depression. The Gemara therefore suggests this course only as a last resort. (Iyun Yaakov).
Torah study should usually be sufficient defense against sin.

On 6a and 6b the text seeks to delineate how to ensure that one's prayers will be heard. This includes an extended consideration of where the individual stands in the universe. Is it necessary to be in a synagogue for one's prayers to be heard? Must one stand in a particular place? Must one stay on until one's companion has completed his prayer? This leads to larger questions (6b): Was the entire world created for the sake of one person (R'Elazar)? Is the entire world equal in importance to the individual (Abba bar Kahana)? Or was the world created solely as an accompaniment for this person (R'Shimon ben Azai or-- some say-- R'Shimon ben Zoma)?

Origin of Daf Yomi

The daf yomi was begun by Rabbi Meir Shapiro in 1923 (Rosh Hashana 5684). The cycle that began this week is the twelfth daf yomi cycle of daily study of one folio of the Babylonian Talmud.

I learned the abovementioned facts from a monthly newsletter called The Wein Press, published by Rabbi Berel Wein, which was passed on to me by Ron Schnur. Rabbi Wein's tribute to Rabbi Shapiro is notable for its narrative effects. This modern secular reader finds similarities in Rabbi Wein's prose to the ancient text we are studying: a propensity to drive home points by pronounced idealization:

Because of his unusual gifts of memory and understanding, the child Meir was already known for his genius. He was also a student of tremendous diligence. He had great intellectual curiosity, teaching himself astronomy and mathematics and soon developed into a great Torah scholar of note at a very young age.

This passage takes me back to my childhood, when all the parents that surrounded me praised the scholarship and career prospects of the little lumps of clay they were raising. We, however, continue to aspire, while Rabbi Shapiro went on to achieve:

In Tarnopol, Rabbi Meir wrote a Torah commentary in a pilpulistic style, called Imrei Daas. Even though the book was a work of innovation and genius, it never gained distribution due to the fact that almost all of the printed copies, together with Rabbi Meir's great private library, were destroyed in the First World War by Russian shellfire. The only remaining two copies were buried with Rabbi Meir Shapiro in his grave.

I asked Rabbi David Silverman what could possibly have led to the burial of the only copies of such a legendary work of genius and he replied that it was not unusual for rabbinic scholars to insert provisions in their wills to dispose of their papers. It was traditionally viewed as a profound act of humility, but it strikes me more as riven with shame and self-doubt. Of course, we will never know the motives that apply in any one case. But doesn't it bring to mind the situation of Kafka, who also ordered his works to be burned? What if Rabbi Shapiro had had a friend like Kafka's Max Brod!

Rabbi Wein wrote that

It is no exaggeration to say that . . . the daf hayomi is [Rabbi Shapiro's] lasting legacy to the Jewish people.
But it is also no exaggeration that writers who employ Rabbi Wein's mode of hagiography must be taken with a grain of salt. And his effusive praise of Rabbi Shapiro's accomplishments goes unintentionally over the top when he describes the Yeshiva that Rabbi Shapiro built in Lublin:

He called his yeshiva "Yeshivat Chachmei Lublin" and after protracted delays and financial difficulties, the great and imposing building, containing among other treaures a full-scale model of the Second Temple . . .
Size does matter, and a full-scale model would be difficult to install in any building!

Also, it is a remarkably tidy life:
. . . in September 1933 he had a premonition of impending sickness and arranged for a life insurance policy on himself for $30,000 with the yeshiva as its beneficiary. In October 1933 he fell ill with a viral type of pneumonia and on 7 Cheshvan, 5694 he died at the age of only forty-six. *
Thus, even in death, he provided for his community. The details are both concrete and incredible, as is so much in the text that this blog will be describing. We are and have apparently always been a people who can conjure up vivid examples to support our hopes and idealizations. May we remain so for many more thousands of years!

*Rabbi Wein's account is perhaps contradicted by Carolyn Slutsky in the Jewish Exponent (March 10, 2005), where 'Shapiro' is 'Shapira' and there is no mention of an insurance policy, but there is mention of financial challenges:

Shapira died in 1933. His death led to financial problems and infighting at the yeshiva. As World War II started in 1939, the yeshiva closed. Many of the students and teachers were killed by the Nazis, and much of the library went up in flames.

FN ADDED 3/14/05.