Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Berachos 37-43

The Not-So-Great Dictator

Rabban Gamliel has been under attack here (on the blog) and on 37a R'Akiva takes a shot at him, too. Gamliel held that one should recite the three blessings of Bircas HaMazon after eating any food from among the seven species praised in Deuteronomy 8:8, while his colleagues ruled that it was sufficient to recite the one-blessing abridgement of the three.

Rabban Gamliel gave R'Akiva permission to recite the blessing after eating. R'Akiva hastened to recite (without consulting Rabban Gamliel) the one-blessing abridgement of three, in keeping with the Sages' view and in contrast to that of Rabban Gamliel. Rabban Gamliel said to him in rebuke: Akiva! Until when will you continue to poke your head into a matter of dispute between me and my colleagues? R'Akiva said to him: Our Master, even though you say thus and your colleagues say thus, you have taught us, our Master, that in matters of dispute between an individual and a majority, the halachah accords with the majority.

Rabban Gamliel's opinion is subservient to his teaching; his disposition must take a back seat to his philosophy. The tyrant overthrows himself.

Conduct Unbecoming a Torah Scholar

Harry Frankfurt's Bestseller

Harry Frankfurt, moral philosopher and author of the bestselling book, On Bullshit, came up to me in the supermarket one Saturday morning and said to me with great delight, "You're shopping on Shabbas! I'm going to tell!"

"But Harry," I replied. "If you tell, then they'll know that you were shopping on Shabbas, too!"

"Yes," he nodded. "But they expect more of you!"

And so they do. And because they do, Torah scholars must live their lives so that not only are they beyond reproach but their appearance should not lead anyone to suspect otherwise.

Sometimes it seems that appearance is even more important than actual observance. For example, the ban against taking medicine on Shabbat (38a) is not enforced if "the onlooker could say that the person intends to ingest it for the purposes of eating." Eating is, after all, permitted. Appearance is here apparently more important than intent. (The problem is that intent is still the decisive factor in determining which blessing to recite, so a casual observer might still overhear the scholar reciting shehakol (for its therapeutic properties.)

Six things are unbecoming for a Torah scholar: He should not go out to the street perfumed; and he should not go outside alone at night; and he should not go outside with patched shoes; and he should not converse with a woman in the street; and he should not recline (i.e. dine) with a group of unlearned people; and he should not be the last to enter the study hall. And some say: He should also not walk with large strides. And he should not walk with an erect posture. (43b).

There are very "good" reasons for each of these prohibitions. For example, "It is unbecoming for a Torah scholar to converse with a woman in the street even if she is his wife, and even if she is his daughter, and even if she is his sister, because not everyone is familiar with the identity of his relatives." A Torah scholar has not only his own reputation to protect, but the reputation of the scroll that he studies. When Harry saw me shopping on Shabbas, he might as well have seen me conversing with my wife or taking long strides in the parking lot.

Being a Torah scholar must be very stressful. Perhaps I am better off being an Am Haaretz.

Bless My Cabbage . . . Or Not

One of Bar Kappara's disciples was mocked by his colleagues "for having recited the blessing on the partridge when he should have recited a blessing on the cabbage" (39a). Bar Kappara chewed out the mockers for not appreciating that their fellow student may indeed have never had partridge before and found it especially appealing, and he chewed out the one who recited the blessing for not consulting him, his teacher, before launching into a novel blessing. The study hall is a rough place and the teacher takes no prisoners.

When put on the spot, even a teacher may prevaricate to avoid embarrassment. Rav Papa suggested that Rava had taught something "to extricate himself from an embarrassing predicament" (43b). Do we dare wonder whether this was a common practice that often went undetected?


The Talmud often startles me by offering practical observations that are both timeless and earthy. One teaching of Rava bar Shmuel leads to several others, including: "Urine does not empty completely from the bladder unless one urinates while sitting" (40a). I found this one especially useful on the morning my wife asked me if there was any particular reason that I did not confine my flow to the bowl itself. I was able to quote Rashi from ArtScroll fn 16:

When one urinates while standing and the stream of urine begins to weaken and land progressively closer to him, he must be concerned that the droplets not bounce from the ground onto his feet. . . . Hence, he tends to arrest the flow prematurely, while the stream is still relatively strong . . .. If he urinates while sitting, however, the urine droplets do not bounce onto his feet; thus, he allows the bladder to empty completely.

Where else do you see stuff like this!