Thursday, June 09, 2005

Shabbos: Hillel Incapable of Embarrassment

Hillel & Shammai
Those who know me and how I study Talmud will not be surprised if I compare Hillel and Shammai to Lennon and McCartney. Shammai (second from the left) is more stringent, insisting on a narrow path, exhorting us to imagine that there is nothing but the energy that we generate by pursuing truth. Hillel (third from the left) has a sunnier disposition and invites the neophyte in by example rather than trial. Shammai will tell you how important he is (bigger than Jesus!) while Hillel will leave you feeling as if you are important. It's not as compelling or well developed as my argument on the oral transmission via Abbott & Costello (not yet posted to this blog, though bound to end up here sooner or later), but take the poetic leap with me and think on how each pair of antagonists created a unique linguistic/musical pallet that consolidated what preceded it and took it to the next level.

The legend of Hillel's beautiful melodies would not have endured so long without Shammai's abrasive interruptions of his elegant tempos. If Shammai did not expel the convert with impossible demands, Hillel's conversion of him by taking his demands seriously and turning them on their head would be a lesser song: the success is cherished most because of the failure that preceded it.

The fool who bets that Hillel will lose his temper (31a) loses his wager twice and wins for losing, but who will bet that Shammai will answer a truly thoughtful question temperately? And what would be the lesson if he won?

Kaspit's comments below led me to his blog, where I discovered his comments on this very daf and responded as follows:
. . . and he who isn't busy being born is busy dying, eh? Hillel's role in this folio suggests that we will find our path by avoiding what is hateful to others; Shammai's role is to offer an alternative motivation to stumble along the same road: fear of God. While Hillel ostensibly prevails, the next folio is a litany of the calamities that will befall one who descrates the Sabbath. Death hovers at every turn. The Fear Factor does not get pushed back easily. Those of us who have managerial responsibility know only too well that a sharp word uttered thoughtlessly has more clout than we realize in the moment. Murderous blows unconsciously delivered kill just the same.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Shabbos: Extinguishing A Candle

R'Tanchum of Nevi is asked, "Is it permissible to extinguish a lit candle for the benefit of a seriously ill person on the Sabbath?" (30a). Rashi suggests that the question was "posed before a crowd," most likely because what follows is not the traditional give-and-take of the study hall, but a rousing (and exceedingly homiletic) sermon. Here, perhaps, is a hint of the Rabbinic public voice, preaching rather than engaging in a meticulous examination of the textual basis for an ordinance.

The Mishnah is clear: yes, it is permissible to extinguish a candle on Shabbos for the benefit of a seriously ill person. Less clear is the meaning of the sermon, which at one point suggests that God forgave the people even for eating on Yom Kippur when they were celebrating the dedication of the Temple, and that God said to David that He preferred a single day in which David studied Torah to a thousand of his olah offerings. These are two examples of instances when the very existence of the Temple led to practices that are undervalued by God when compared to the values of Rabbinic Judaism.

Ultimately, the sermon comes round to tie into the previous extended discussion of the proper care of the candle with a grand rhetorical flourish:
And as for the question that I asked of you, here is the answer: In the Hebrew language, a candle is called "a candle," and a person's soul is called "a candle." Thus, when one candle must be extinguished so that the other may survive, it is better to allow the candle fashioned by flesh and blood to be extinguished before the candle fashioned by the Holy One, Blessed is He. (30b).
Which Rashi interprets to mean, "let a candle fashioned by man be extinguished so that the life of a person-- a "candle" fashioned by God-- may be preserved."

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Shabbos: If I Were A Rich Man

Amidst the disputes regarding how to kindle the candles, which rags truly have no value, and whether to wear one's tzitzis out or concealed, there is this:
The Rabbis taught in a Baraisa:
Which person is truly wealthy? Anyone who takes pleasure in his wealth. These are the words of R'Meir. (25b).
Yet consider the case of the wealthy candlemaker quoted in today's New York Times:
"Money makes a lifestyle," he said. "It creates a division between the old money and the new. It is a little bit of class jealousy. We go to a cocktail party and a guy is telling my wife about his airplane. So finally the question comes up: 'How do you get over to the island?' and she says, "we come by plane.' And he says, 'What kind of plane?' and she says 'A G-IV. And so the wind comes out of the guy's sails."
The candlemaker's wife is certainly taking pleasure in her wealth, but this can't be the kind of pleasure that R'Meir is imagining. This is the pleasure that comes from making others feel diminished.

Perhaps sensing that R'Meir's definition is inadequate, the Gemara continues:
R'Tarfon says: A wealthy man is anyone who has a hundred vineyards and a hundred fields and a hundred servants who work in those fields.
And the Times reports,
The demand for labor is so great that every weekday roughly 400 workers fly in from the mainland for construction, gardening, plumbing and other services. The commute may be a nuisance, but the money makes it worthwhile.
Maybe so. But the commute and the long hours create a mental poverty, leaving no time for family or study. And the "wealthy" who employ them are isolated among their own possessions. This is not the message the Gemara wants to leave us with; rather, it continues,
R'Akiva says: He is anyone who has a wife beautiful in deeds.
This is a statement that I can support wholeheartedly. However, this is not a kind of wealth that one can earn as easily as money. The newly rich described in the Times have perhaps been slow to discover this:
Some say that too much is being made of all these distinctions. "The only people who are truly class conscious," said Roger Horchow, who realized his fortune when he sold his catalog business to Neiman Marcus in 1988 for $117 million, "are the second tootsie wives of men with big bankrolls."
The Times and the Talmud are light years apart on the question of wealth. The Times sees wealth in the grossest terms, focussing on those who have been financially rewarded way beyond the value of what they have contributed to the global community. Their point is a political one. And whether valid or not, it adopts a much narrower definition of wealth than our tradition would support.

This Gemara concludes with the words of R'Yose,
A wealthy person is anyone who has a latrine near his table.
To which Rashba adds a necessary qualification:
In terms of the time needed to reach it, not in terms of actual physical proximity.
There lives a wealthy man!