Thursday, March 31, 2005

Berachos 26b-29

The Origin of Prayer

Was prayer instituted by the Patriarchs or the men of the Great Assembly? On 26b R'Yose the son of R'Chanina takes the former position while R'Yehoshua ben Levi takes the latter position. Apparently, there are those among the rabbis who are comfortable acknowledging that prayers replace the sacrificial system after the destruction of the Temple and those who need to put its origin at the very dawn of the Jewish people.

Rabbinic uncertainty about this, about the limits of leadership, and about the threat of Christianity all seem to bubble up in these pages.

If It Ain't Broke That Don't Mean It's Fixed

Is there a fixed time for the evening prayer? Is the evening prayer even compulsory? R'Yehoshua says it is elective and Rabban Gamliel says it is compulsory. Without resolving the question, the Gemara moves on to provide a story about these two guys (27b):

A student asked R'Yehoshua whether the evening prayer is elective or compulsory and he replied that it is elective. The same student then asked Rabban Gamliel (the head of the academy) the same question and he replied that it is compulsory. (One has to wonder why the student couldn't simply accept the first answer rather than asking them both. Was he seeking to stir up trouble?)

Then the student said to Rabban Gamliel, "But R'Yehoshua told me it is elective!" Gamliel told the student to ask him (that is, Gamliel) again when everyone was in the study hall, which he did. And Gamliel repeated his answer and then raised the question, "Is there anyone who disputes this ruling?" (This guy is cruising for a bruisng!) R'Yehoshua says no (according to ArtScroll fn 24 "out of respect for Rabban Gamliel . . . and to preserve the public concord") and Rabban Gamliel orders him to stand and forces him to confess that he did indeed rule the prayer elective rather than compulsory.

Rabban Gamliel resumed teaching. He was sitting and teaching and he never told R'Yehoshua that he could sit, so he had to remain standing. The other students became indignant and interrupted the lesson. They recalled other incidents when Rabban Gamliel had distressed R'Yehoshua and they resolved to depose him (though ArtScroll fn 30 suggests "the initial outburst at Rabban Gamliel's actions appears to have come from the people who had come to hear the lecture, not from the Sages themselves"). Apparently, Rabban Gamliel had often dealt harshly with others, too.

The Sages consider replacements for Rabban Gamliel: (1) R'Yehoshua, but he was personally involved; (2) R'Akiva, but he was a descendant of proselytes; (3) R'Elazar ben Azaryah, who "is wise, and he is wealthy, and he is the tenth generation from Ezra." Of course, they pick (3). The appointment is a huge success: the study hall must be enlarged to accomodate all the students who want to study with R'Elazar ben Azaryah!

Like R'Yehoshua, R'Elazar ben Azaryah's rulings are more temperate and lenient than Rabban Gamliel. And Rabban Gamliel comes to realize that he was too harsh and he comes to repent before R'Yehoshua, and the Sages see this and they are moved to restore him to his previous position. And they have a dilemma: "How shall we do this? Shall we remove R'Elazar ben Azaryah completely from office? We cannot do that, for we have a tradition that in matters of sanctity we elevate but we do not lower." (28a). They resolve that Rabban Gamliel will lecture three weeks and R'Elazar ben Azaryah one week.

This inside look at the politics of the Academy adds food for thought to our discussion in the previous section on who gets to chose which halachah to observe. It suggests that, in the long run, a harsh teacher will not be followed.

The Perils of Blessing Heretics

On the one hand, R'Eliezer teaches "One who makes his prayer fixed, his prayer is not a genuine supplication" (28b). On the other hand, R'Zeira confesses, "I am able to innovate in my prayer, but I am afraid to do so lest I become confused" (29b). Betwixt the two we have Shmuel Hakatan, who establishes a "blessing" against the heretics and then forgets it! (28b). And even though it is taught (29a) that "If the prayer leader erred in any of the prayer blessings, we do not remove him; however, if he erred in the blessing of the heretics, we remove him because we suspect that perhaps he is a heretic," because Shmuel HaKatan himself established the blessing, "there was no reason to suspect that he himself was a sectarian."

Are these heretics who may seduce our rabbis perhaps the followers of Jesus, who were still considered a Jewish sect as these teachings developed? Is it Christianity that makes R'Zeira wary of innovating his prayer even as he is aware that a "fixed" prayer is dead?

Baruch Dayan Ha-emet

May His Memory Be For a BlessingWhenever Mel Schulman (pictured here) heard me speak of Talmud, he would come up to me afterwards and gently suggest that I should seek out a teacher. While I have been blessed to have many fine teachers, I think that Mel was suggesting in the kindest possible tone, that the lessons that I derived from these teachers were simply too unorthodox. May his memory be for a blessing and may I continue to hear him whisper in my ear to always have companions on this journey.

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.