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.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Berachos 12-14

Before moving ahead I have some unfinished business with Berachos 11a, where it is related that R'Tarfon was on the road when it came time to recite the evening Shema and he lay down (per Beis Shammai), acknowledging later that "I thereby endangered myself because of the bandits who might have attacked me as I lay there!"
The Sages said to him: It would indeed have been fitting for you to have come to harm. For by deliberately lying down for the Shema, you transgressed upon the words of Beis Hillel! We thus see that one who follows Beis Shammai in this matter is deserving of death.
This passage has been gnawing at me since I read it last Friday. What happened to the notion that both these and those are the words of the one true God? This dismissal of Shammai's followers as "deserving of death" must surely be restricted to the specific case of those who put themselves in danger to observe a stringent interpretation of the law when a lenient one is available. Am I forcing this text to be more wise than it actually is?

It is not a problem restricted to the one passage. A similar caution is echoed on 14b where Rav recites the Shema before donning tefillin. The gemara explains that he does this because his servant is late delivering the tefillin, but goes on to cite Ulla, who said, "Regarding anyone who performs the recital of the Shema without wearing tefillin, it is as if he utters false testimony upon himself."

In talking with Mike about these last few folios, I had to listen to him ask over and over, why would God care how we stand and the order with which we say the words? Why would God care what we wear? Why would God be interested in our prayers at all? These are impossible questions and they force me to acknowledge the strangeness of the text. The prayers are for the peace of mind of the petitioner, and the discipline to frame them in a manner that would please the rabbis is part of a pre-modern therapy for alleviating distress.

Such postmodern drashes will surely not satisfy most modern readers. Even for me, they serve only as a possible explanation for the role the text may have played at one time in the communities that studied it, but it is not a justification for following it in the present.

These folios contain much of the explanation for the order of the prayers that follow the Shema in the sense that they explain the order of a traditional service, but they provide no more than an exegetical attempt to justify a construction that is clearly a rabbinic invention to fill the void created by the destruction of the Second Temple.

Is there also ambivalence behind such questions as those on 13 and 14 as to whether one must be focussing on the recitation or one may permit one's mind to wander; whether the recitation must be in Hebrew or it may be recited in any language; whether there are moments during the recitation when one may pause to greet one's friend or teacher and/or inquire about their health?

Consider this teaching from 13b:

Rav Nachman said to his servant Daru: If you see me dozing off while reciting the first verse of the Shema, discomfort me so that I become totally conscious and alert. For more than that (i.e. for the rest of the Shema) do not discomfort me.

These sorts of things conjure up an image of a synagogue very much like the one down the street-- full of grumpy, distracted, and rumpled souls who may at any moment doze off or interrupt their prayers to gossip with their neighbor. Not everything that stands the test of time is noble; even the mundane has a crack at immortality!