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Thursday, December 7, 2017

Women: People or Chattel — BT Sanhedrin 22a (part 1) — #94

MISHNAH: No one may ride [the king’s] horse, sit on his throne, or make use of his scepter; no one may see him when his hair is being cut, when he is naked, or when he is bathing, for it is written, You shall surely set over yourselves a king (Deuteronomy 17:15)—that is, his awe shall be “over you.”
 GEMARA: R. Yaakov said in R. Yochanan’s name, “What is Avishag? Avishag [the Shunammite woman] was permitted to Solomon [in marriage] but not to Adonijah. She was permitted to Solomon because he was a king and a king may make use of the king's scepter. But she was forbidden to Adonijah because he was a commoner. What was Avishag [to David]? It is written: King David was now old, advanced in years, etc. (1 Kings 1:1). And it is written: His courtiers said to him, “Let a young virgin be sought, etc. (1 Kings 1:2). Further it is written, So they looked for a beautiful girl, etc. (1 Kings 1:3) and it is written, The girl [Avishag] was exceedingly beautiful. She became the king’s attendant and waited upon him (1 Kings 1:4).” She said, “Let us marry.” [David] said to her, “You are forbidden to me.” She said to him, “When courage fails the thief, he becomes virtuous.” Then he said to [his servants], “Summon Batsheva.” It is written: So Batsheva went to the king in the chamber (1 Kings 1:15). Rav Yehudah said in Rav's name, “On that occasion, Batsheva dried herself thirteen times.”
Rabbinic legislation and discussion of women has justifiably come under much scrutiny and criticism. Today, it is part of a larger reconsideration of how women are treated in every culture and religion, indeed every human institution. Recent revelations of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault, and concomitant failures to protect women, will hopefully lead to positive change.

Deuteronomy states that if the Israelites elect to have a king rule over them, the king may not amass excess wealth and shall not have many wives (Deuteronomy 17:14-17). This could be a less than subtle criticism of Solomon, who took more than 700 wives. How many is “many wives?” Deuteronomy does not specify an upper bound, so the Rabbis derive it from traditions concerning King David: According to 1 Chronicles chapter 3, King David had seven wives, but oral tradition holds he had a total of eighteen wives and concubines. Hence, the Rabbis conclude that the “many wives” limit in Deuteronomy means eighteen. At the time Avishag was brought to keep David warm (read more here), he had reached the limit of eighteen wives.

The mishnah creates a sense of reverence and awe for the king by stipulating that no one may use his possessions. Only one who assumes the throne may use the king’s possessions; anyone else is considered to have committed a treacherous misappropriation and is presumed to have pretensions to claim the throne.  To prevent such misappropriation, it was customary in the ancient world to destroy the king’s possessions, including his horse and bed, when he died. Mishnah further notes that it is forbidden to observe the king engaged in private, personal acts that make him appear “merely human” and thereby less awe-inspiring.

The Gemara recognizes this principle applies to the king’s wives, as well, who are deemed royal chattel. In the ancient world, when a king assumed the throne other than by inheriting it from his father, he took possession of the king’s wives and harem and routinely had intercourse with each one to signify his claim to the throne. The Rabbis wonder: When Solomon became king, what happened to Avishag, the nubile young woman selected by David’s courtiers to serve as his bed-warmer, as recounted in 1 Kings chapter 1. After David died, the Gemara asks: Could Solomon have legally married Avishag? The answer is yes. This means David had not married Avishag because a son may not marry his father’ wife (Leviticus 18:8). As noted, a king may take possession of the property of the previous king, including his wives and harem. Avishag could not have married Solomon’s older half-brother and rival to the throne, Adonijah, because to do so would have signaled Adonijah’s intent to seize the throne. Indeed, according to 1 Kings chapter 2, after Adonijah conceded that Solomon would succeed David, he requested Avishag as his wife. To Solomon, this was tantamount to claiming the throne and he had Adonijah executed. The Tana”kh claims (1 Kings 1:1-4) that King David did not have sex with Avishag. The Gemara asserts that he did not marry her, all of which seems to suggest that David’s strength and virility had waned.

The Gemara redeems David’s manhood with a strange and problematic aggadah: Avishag asked David to marry her but he declined because he had reached his allotted eighteen wives—he adhered to the halakhic limit. Avishag, however, mockingly accused David of refusing to marry her because he was too old to consummate the relationship. In response, David summoned Batsheva (who, in fact, walked in on the scene of David and Avishag together because she came to plead Solomon’s case for the throne—see 1 Kings 1:11-27) and had intercourse with her thirteen consecutive times (she dries herself after each instance), proving his virility. (The number thirteen seems to be derived from the number of words in 1 Kings 1:15.) Hence, it was David’s virtue rather than impotence that prevented him from marrying Avishag.


  1. R. Yaakov asks, “What is Avishag?” meaning, “What was her status?” What question would you have asked about Avishag and how would you have answered it? (For background: 1 Kings 1:1–4)
  2. Whether or not David was adhering to the halakhic limit to the number of wives an Israelite king may take, and whether or not he was impotent, how does he treat both Avishag and Batsheva? What message is conveyed by both the biblical story and the Talmudic aggadah about women?
  3. How should we read and teach texts such as this, that presume women are possessions and commodities?

Friday, December 1, 2017

How Much May I Give? — BT Ketubot 50a — #93

R. Ilai said, “The sages in Usha instituted that one who gives generously to charity [lit.: “scatters” or “squanders”] should give no more than one-fifth of their wealth.” It is similarly taught [in a baraita]: One who gives generously should not give more than one-fifth [of his income] lest he come to need [assistance from other] people. It once happened that an individual sought to dispense [in excess of one-fifth of their wealth to charity] but his colleague did not let him. Who was [his friend]? R. Yeshevav. But others say that R. Yeshevav [was the one who wanted to give away more than one-fifth of his wealth] but his colleague did not let him. Who was the friend? R. Akiba. Rav Nachman, and some say Rav Acha bar Yaakov, said, “What verse [teaches the principle of one-fifth]? Of all that You give me, I will surely give one-tenth (aser a’asrenu) of it to You (Genesis 28:22).” But the second tenth is not equivalent to the first tenth. Rav Ashi said, “[Since Torah says,] I will surely give one-tenth of it, [this implies] that the second tenth is equal to the first tenth.”

In America, the Tuesday following Thanksgiving has come to be known as “Giving Tuesday,” perhaps as a counterbalance to the consumer frenzy of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. With that in mind, this week we learn a text about giving which imparts a surprising lesson: There is a limit to how much tzedakah a person should give. 

To fully appreciate this text, it is helpful to know several things. First, the Rabbis deemed tzedakah—donations of money, property, or time—a mitzvah, a commandment incumbent upon all Jews. Second, the generally accepted minimum one should donate to tzedakah is one-tenth of one’s net income (these days, after taxes)—not 10% of one’s total wealth. This fraction is derived from the biblical institution of tithing, which means “tenth.” The text above addresses those who wish to give over and beyond the obligatory tenth. Elsewhere, we learn that those who cannot afford one-tenth should give one-third of a shekel each year. The Rabbis understood that giving to others preserves and promotes the dignity of the giver. Third, while there were certainly wealthy people and poor people in the ancient world, the disparities in wealth we find today are historically unprecedented. Notwithstanding, later commentators noted that while the one-fifth cap applies to ordinary people, those with greater means may, if they choose, exceed it.

In the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the sages coalesced and organized themselves under the leadership of Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai in Yavne, a small settlement north of Jerusalem, where the rabbinic tradition took root and blossomed. Following the Bar Kokhba rebellion of 135 CE, the rabbis removed to Usha in the Galilee. In truth, they moved frequently, returning to Yavne, back to Usha, then to Shefaram, Bet She’arim, and finally Tzippori. It is interesting to have a small window onto one of the periods of Usha.

R. Ilai tells us that the Sages of Usha, during the early rabbinic period set a cap on how much of one’s income one should donate to tzedakah. The Talmud bolsters R. Ilai’s report with a baraita from the era of the Mishnah that conveys the same rule: The limit is twenty percent. This refers to one’s earnings in any given year, not one’s overall wealth. Its rationale: Giving away too much of your income could compel you to require assistance from others. The goal of giving is to assure that everyone has sufficient sustenance. Giving so much that you now require tzedakah from others defeats that goal. The Gemara immediately cites an instance of someone who attempted to exceed the upper limit but was stopped by a friend. This anecdote confirms the broad acceptance of the one-fifth rule. As first reported, R. Yeshevav stopped the would-be philanthropist, but others heard the story told differently: R. Yeshevav was the person who attempted to exceed the one-fifth limit and R. Akiba was the friend who stopped him. The anecdote roots the rule in the era of the Mishnah and carries the imprimatur of no less than R. Akiba.

The Gemara asks for a biblical source for the rule, which is supplied by Rav Nachman (or, according to others, Rav Acha bar Yaakov). In Genesis 28:22, Jacob, fleeing his brother Esau, lies down for the night and dreams of a ramp (or ladder) leading to heaven. God appears to him in the dream and extends the promise made to Abraham and Isaac that his offspring shall be as numerous as the dust of the earth and shall inherit the Land of Israel. When he awakens, Jacob promises he will “surely give one-tenth (or: surely set aside a tithe) for You” of all God gives him. The Hebrew repeats the verb “tithe,” from which the Rabbis deduce that Jacob promised one-tenth twice. Jacob’s promise thereby sets the upper bound of two-tenths, or twenty percent. This also establishes the Jewish principle that giving tzedakah is, in effect, returning a portion of what God has given by channeling it to someone God wishes to receive it. The Rabbis wonder: How is this to be calculated? If I give one-tenth and then calculate the second tenth on the basis of what remains, that would be 10% of the remaining 90%, which is 9% (for a total of 19%). No, Rav Ashi tell us, this is not correct; when Torah says one-tenth of it, we infer that the first and second tenths are equal to one another.


  1. The purpose of tzedakah is to benefit people lacking sufficient means for shelter, food, and clothing. Do you think contributions to art museums and the symphony qualify to be considered tzedakah? Medical research and organizations that pursue social justice? Is there a difference between charity and tzedakah?
  2. In addition to preventing people from becoming impoverished and needing tzedakah themselves, what other reasons might there be to set a one-fifth-of-income cap on giving?
  3. How much of your yearly income do you or your family contribute to charities that address the needs of the poor?

Monday, November 20, 2017

Giving Thanks — BT Sotah 40a — #92

While the shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) is reciting Modim (“We give thanks”), what do the people say? Rav says: “We give thanks to You, Adonai our God, that we can give You thanks.” And Shmuel says: “God of all the living, that we can give You thanks.” R. Simai says: “Our Creator, Who created everything, that we can give You thanks.”[The sages of] Nehardea, in the name of R. Simai, say: “Blessings and thanks to Your great name, for you have kept us alive, sustained us, so that we can give You thanks.” Rav Acha bar Yaakov would complete it thus: “May You give us life and be gracious to us, and collect and gather our exiles into Your holy courtyards in order to observe Your laws and fulfill Your will with a whole heart, so that we can give You thanks.” Rav Pappa said, “Therefore, we should recite all of them.”

The Rabbis who crafted the daily Amidah imagined that we approach God in prayer as one would approach a powerful earthly sovereign. They designed a liturgy and accompanying choreography for the Amidah, which replaces the daily Temple sacrifices, accordingly: Upon entering the sovereign’s throne room (take three steps forward), we bow (during the first blessing), then address the sovereign with words of praise, petition, and thanksgiving, bow again (during the penultimate blessing, Modim, which is the subject of the passage we are studying), and lastly walk backward out of the throne room so as not to turn our backs on the sovereign (hence three steps backward at the end of the Amidah). Accordingly, the Amidah consists of three blessings praising God, followed by thirteen petitions, and ending with three blessings of thanksgiving. Initially, the Rabbis stipulated the themes and order of the blessings; in time, final versions of all nineteen blessings were composed and approved by the Rabbis.

Before books and literacy were ubiquitous, a shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) would stand before the congregation and recite the prayers. Those who knew them by heart could say them with him, but most people probably listened to the prayers and said, “Amen” after each blessing, affirming its meaning and thereby fulfilling their obligation to say it. For one of the nineteen blessings—Modim—it struck the Rabbis as insufficient to merely say, “Amen.” Modim, the blessing of general thanksgiving, afforded the worshiper the opportunity to personally express gratitude to God. How could a shaliach tzibbur express thanks for anyone but himself? Therefore, the Rabbis ordained that while the leader recites a Modim, each worshiper expresses his own thanks to God. Our passage begins with a query concerning personal prayers of thanksgiving.

Five sages are quoted in response to the query. Rav, who is quoted first, establishes that for him the ultimate thanks is meta-thanks: being thankful that one can express thanks. This is a remarkable idea: while one can be thankful for particulars of life, such as health, family, livelihood, friends, and so on, Rav elevates the idea of gratitude from the material (itself entirely respectable!) to the spiritual. Indeed, his thinking is well substantiated in our day by the work of psychologists whose research affirms that expressing gratitude can powerfully effect one’s life to: “lower blood pressure, improve immune function, promote happiness and well-being, and spur acts of helpfulness, generosity, and cooperation” (Robert Emmons and Robin Stern). Rav and his colleagues understood intuitively that our goal extends beyond being thankful for the particular blessings in our life: we seek to be grateful for our ability to feel and express gratitude.

(It should be noted that most translations render this passage: “We give thanks…that we are inspired to give You thanks” or “…for the merit of giving You thanks.” The Talmud does not include words that connote “inspiration” or “merit” in this passage. It appears these translations  derive from the theological beliefs of those who wrote them.)

Shmuel, R. Simai, the sages of Nehardea, and Rav Acha all repeat Rav’s words. What, then, distinguishes their prayers from one another? The sages differ in how they address God, and hence the aspect of God they have in mind, which in turn hints at the nature of the thanks they have in mind. The first observation we might make is that each appellation of God is longer than the previous one. Further, the four offerings seem to be arranged in two pairs: Shmuel thanks the God of life, but R. Simai thanks the God of all Creation; the latter is more expansive and inclusive. The sages of Nehardea thank God who keeps us alive and sustains us, but R. Acha bar Yaakov adds a specific and particularistic petition-in-disguise that God bring Jewish exiles back to a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem where they will be able to bring sacrificial offerings to the altar as they once did (in a sense, “sneaking” a petition into an expression of thanksgiving).

Rather than choose one as the canonical prayer for all to say, Rav Pappa wishes to include and honor each version. He tells us we should recite them all. Perhaps he intends us to choose the version that fits our emotional state during the moment of prayer, or perhaps he is advising us to to say what our hearts prompt.


  1. G.K. Chesterton wrote: “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” (A Short History of England, ch. 6) Do you agree? Why or why not? How does Chesterton’s statement relate to the talmudic passage?
  2. The American holiday of Thanksgiving inspires many people to acknowledge the blessings in their lives, which are all too easy to overlook much of the time. What are you grateful for?
  3. With Thanksgiving falling this week, many people are thinking about the ways in which we express our thanks to God and one another. At many Thanksgiving gatherings, it is customary to go around the table and invite each person present to say what they are grateful for.  What is the value—both to the one expressing gratitude and to all those listening—of expressing personal thanks aloud before other people?

Friday, November 17, 2017

Know-It-Alls — BT Rosh Hashanah 21b (part 2) — #91

Gemara: How do we know that the meaning of “alil” is “clarity”? R. Abahu said, “Scripture states: The words of Adonai are pure words, silver purged, clear to the world, refined sevenfold (Psalm 12:7). Rav and Shmuel [disagreed on this matter]. One said, “Fifty gates of insight were created in the world, all of which were given to Moses save one, as it is written, You have made him little less than divine…(Psalm 8:6). Kohelet [in English, Ecclesiastes] sought to find words of delight (Ecclesiastes  12:10)—this means that Kohelet wanted to be like Moses. A bat kol (heavenly voice) issued forth and said to him, That which was written was upright, even words of truth (ibid.) [and] Never again has there arisen from among Israel a prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 34:10).” The other said, “Among the prophets [none like Moses arose], but among the kings [such a one] arose. How, then, do I interpret: Kohelet sought to find words of delight? [The verse means that] Kohelet sought to dispense judgment through [reason of] the heart, without witnesses and without admonition. A heavenly voice issued forth and said to him, That which was written was upright, even words of truth [implying] [A person shall be put to death] only on the testimony of two or more witnesses… (Deuteronomy 17:6).”

In TMT #90 we examined the mishnah, concerning the importance of involving witnesses in the declaration of the new moon, that launches the Gemara discussion above. The mishnah asked whether potential witnesses are permitted to travel on shabbat to testify at the bet din (court) in Jerusalem regarding the appearance of the new new moon even if the sky were clear; presumably locals in Jerusalem also saw the new moon and could testify without violating shabbat. The Gemara asks about the meaning of the term “alil, which mishnah uses to connote a clear (as opposed to overcast) sky. This sets the stage for a discussion in the Gemara concerning whether anyone has a “clear” view (i.e. understanding) of Adonai. As it turns out: Not even Moses.

The passage focuses on a disagreement between Rav (175–247 CE) and Shmuel (165–c. 264 CE), leaders of the first generation of amora’im, Babylonian scholars. Rav is the respectful moniker for Abba Arikha, who founded a yeshivah in Sura. Shmuel founded a yeshivah in Nehardea. Rav and Shmuel were colleagues, study partners, and intellectual sparring partners. Here, as elsewhere, they express differing opinions, though we are not told which sage held which view.

The first view holds that even Moses did not have access to all knowledge and every insight, metaphorically described as “fifty gates.” Moses could enter only forty-nine of the fifty gates. The proof text offered is a famous verse from Psalm 8 that describes humanity as “little less than divine.” Hence, even Moses did not have access to all divine knowledge. The claim is additionally supported by quoting Ecclesiastes 12:10, which says Kohelet (understood by tradition to be King Solomon) sought complete knowledge. The sage interprets this to mean Kohelet/Solomon wished to be like Moses, but heaven ordained that this was not to be because while God’s word (Torah) is complete and perfect, never again would there be one like Moses. Hence although Solomon tried he could not understand even as much as Moses.

The second view does not take issue with Moses’s incomplete knowledge (the forty-nine out of fifty gates entered). Rather, he differs with his colleague’s understanding of Ecclesiastes 12:10. He responds that Deuteronomy 34:10 said no other prophet like Moses would arise—but that does not exclude kings. Hence, Kohelet (i.e., King Solomon) is not a counter example to the claim of Deuteronomy 34:10. This is not a surprising inference, given that I Kings 5:11 asserts that [Solomon] was the wisest of all people. 

The Gemara, wishing to uphold Moses as the most insightful and knowledgeable person who ever lived (even over and above King Solomon) then asks how we are to understand Kohelet sought to find words of delight. This suggests he tried, but did not succeed—concurring with the first opinion. The phrase is interpreted to mean that King Solomon dispensed judgment according to “his heart” but not according to halakhah, which requires witnesses’ testimony and adjuration of the witnesses to tell the truth. The Gemara draws a parallel between Ecclesiastes 12:10 and Deuteronomy 17:6. Although not stated here, on BT Makkot 6b, R. Yose interprets Deuteronomy 17:6 to require that witnesses be warned concerning the importance of giving truthful testimony in court. Hence Ecclesiastes 12:10 speaks to the requirement to admonish witnesses to give truthful testimony; it does not affirm that Kohelet/Solomon possessed complete knowledge.


  1. The Rabbis never precisely define what is behind the “fifty gates.” What might the Rabbis be saying about the nature and source of knowledge, insight, and understanding? If even Moses did not have complete knowledge, can anyone today claim it? Could they be warning us not to believe those who do?
  2. What “gate” of understanding do you suppose was closed even to Moses? What does this say about the limits of human knowledge and understanding? Are there “gates” that you feel are closed to you?
  3. While the Gemara makes no reference to the famous case King Solomon adjudicated between the two prostitutes both claiming to be the mother of the same infant (see 1 Kings 3:16–28)—indeed, the Bible reports that this is the case that convinced people Solomon possessed chochmat-Elohim (“divine wisdom”)—do you think the Gemara has this incident in mind? No witnesses were sought or questioned; Solomon proceeded by his heart and intuition rather than following proper procedures. Had you been the judge hearing that case, how would you have proceeded?

Friday, November 10, 2017

"New Moon!" — BT Rosh Hashanah 21b (part 1) — #90

MISHNAH 1:5 Whether [the new moon] was clearly visible [to everyone] or whether it was not clearly visible, [witnesses who want to come testify before the beit din to having seen the new moon] may desecrate shabbat because of it. 
R. Yose says: If [the new moon] was clearly visible, they may not desecrate shabbat because of it. 
 It once happened that more than forty pairs [of potential witnesses] came through [on their way to Jerusalem to testify before the beit din concerning the new moon] and R. Akiba detained them in Lod. Rabban Gamliel sent [a message to R. Akiba, saying]: If you detain the crowd [from appearing before the beit din], you may cause them to stumble in the future.

There are times when two or more religious obligations, each understood to benefit the community, appear in opposition. The mishnah discusses such a situation and its resolution.

The Rabbis live in the post-Temple era. The earliest generation can recall the rites and rituals of the Second Temple and all of them fervently long for the Temple to be rebuilt and the sacrificial cult re-instituted. To this day, traditional prayerbooks express a longing for the restoration of the Temple sacrifices, which have come to be associated with the advent of the messianic age.

The Hebrew calendar is based on the cycle of the moon. The period from one new moon to the next is one lunar month. Each new moon marks the beginning of a new month, called Rosh Chodesh. The new moon, and accordingly the declaration of Rosh Chodesh, determines the times when holy days falling during that month are observed. Rosh Hashanah falls on the new moon of the month of Tishrei; Sukkot and Pesach fall on the full moons of Tishrei and Nisan, respectively. Priests offered special sacrifices in the Temple for Rosh Chodesh and holy days; hence the declaration of Rosh Chodesh determined when the sacrifices should be offered.

Technically, a lunar month is slightly more than 29.5 days long; hence the new moon becomes visible the following day, somewhere between 30 and 31 days after the previous new moon. In the time of the Mishnah, witnesses would appear before a court in Jerusalem in pairs to provide testimony they had seen the sliver of the new moon. With two reliable witnesses, the court would declare which day was Rosh Chodesh. Since the schedule of sacrificial offerings was determined by the calendar, the Sages ruled that one could violate shabbat by traveling to Jerusalem to offer testimony concerning the new moon on the basis of Leviticus 23:4, which  instructs that sacred occasions be “celebrated each at its appointed time.” After the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai ruled that desecrating shabbat in this way was impermissible except to testify to the new moons of the months of Tishrei and Nisan, since these events determine, respectively, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, and Pesach.

If the thirtieth day comes and goes without anyone seeing the new moon—for example, if the sky is entirely overcast–the thirty-first day is automatically declared the new moon, since a lunar month could not possibly be thirty-two days long.

Mishnah often records several conflicting opinions. The anonymous first opinion, known as the Tanna Kamma (the first tanna), tells us that people who wish to bring testimony that they saw the new moon are permitted to violate shabbat by traveling on the holy day to the beit din (court) in Jerusalem whether or not the moon is visible. One might argue that if the moon is clearly visible, people in Jerusalem can serve as witnesses without traveling on shabbat; and if the sky is overcast, no one can provide legitimate testimony—so in either case, there is no cause to violate shabbat by traveling to give testimony. Yet the mishnah explicitly permits people to do so.

R. Yose objects to the Tanna Kamma’s leniency for people to travel on shabbat when the moon is clearly visible. He thinks rabbinic law forbids it as unnecessary. People in Jerusalem can provide testimony without violating shabbat.

The mishnah next recounts an occasion when no fewer than eighty people travel on shabbat to offer testimony concerning the new moon. Such a large number of people suggests that the moon is clearly visible that night. R. Akiba, who agrees with R. Yose, stops them in Lod outside Jerusalem, deeming their violation of shabbat unnecessary. However, Rabban Gamliel, the Nasi who presides over the beit din, overrides R. Akiba because his action could discourage people from coming to Jerusalem in the future: After all, who would want to make the effort if they might be turned back before achieving their goal? What is more, on an occasion when the moon is partially visible (perhaps visible where these potential witnesses live but not visible in Jerusalem) they may decide that their effort might be in vain and not bother to come—possibly on an occasion when witnesses are needed in court because Jerusalem is entirely overcast.


  1. Rabban Gamliel concurs with the Tanna Kamma and this view that prevails. Do you agree or disagree with the priorities this view represents? Why? What is Rabban Gamliel’s priority?
  2. Why do you think the Rabbis placed a premium on the participation of witnesses in the process of declaring the new month? What is lost by our use of scientifically calculated calendars? What is gained?
  3. In what ways might we encourage greater participation in important Jewish communal issues? What issues to you believe would benefit from broader participation?

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Talmudic Time Management — BT Shabbat 9b — #89

MISHNAH: One may not sit before a barber close to the time of Minchah until he has prayed, and may not enter a bathhouse or a tannery nor begin to eat nor begin to judge a case [close to the time of Minchah]. But if one began [any of these activities], one does not need to stop. One stops for the recitation of the Shema, but not to pray.
 GEMARA: What does “close to the time of Minchah” mean? If minchah gedolah is intended, why [are these activities] not [permitted]? For there is plenty of time left in the day [for both the activity and prayer]. Rather, close to minchah katana [must be the Mishnah’s intent]. If one began [an activity] one does not have to stop. Shall we say this is a refutation of R. Yehoshua b. Levi, for R. Yehoshua b. Levi said, “Once the time has arrived for Minchah prayers, it is forbidden for a person to taste anything before reciting the Minchah prayers.” No. [Mishnah means] close to minchah gedolah and the haircut of Ben Elashah. “One may not enter a bathhouse” [refers to] the entire process of bathing. “One may not enter a tannery” refers to a large tannery. “One may not begin to eat” [refers to] a large meal. “One may not judge a case” [refers to] the beginning of the case.

Time is a precious commodity that forces us to set priorities. Time management was as crucial in the ancient world as it is today, and no less challenging. Deadlines abounded then as now: the natural world provided deadlines for planting and harvesting, sundown established a deadline for accomplishing daily chores, and the rabbinic obligation of prayer imposed yet another set of deadlines. Minchah, the afternoon prayers, while briefer than either morning or evening prayers, must nonetheless be recited within a specific interval of time. This interval is determined by three factors: (1) Torah; (2) the practices of the priests in the Second Temple; and (3) the Rabbis’ understanding of the phrase bein ha-arba’im (twilight). 

The Minchah prayers recalls and replaces the daily Minchah grain offering that accompanied the afternoon sacrifice in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the Mikdash (Temple). Torah tells us the Minchah was offered at twilight, bein ha-arba’im (Exodus 29:39-41 and Numbers 28:4–8). In general, when the Rabbis speak about time, they divide the daylight portion of a 24-hour day into 12 segments, each called an “hour.” Hence the length of an “hour” is not fixed; a rabbinic “hour” is 1/12 of the period of daylight on any given day. “Noon” or “midday,” when the sun is at its zenith, is the sixth hour. In a world without precise time-keeping technology, this system made sense. 

The time interval of bein ha-arba’im—literally “between the darkenings”—has come to be defined as one half hour past midday, which is the sixth hour (to insure that it is after midday, when the day has begun to “darken”), until sundown, when the sky begins to darken into night. This expansive interval, from 6-1/2 hours to 12 hours is known as Minchah Gedolah (“large minchah”). However, when the Temple stood, the Minchah offering was routinely completed at 9-1/2 hours (i.e., 3-1/2 hours after midday). This shorter interval, from 9-1/2 hours until sundown, is called Minchah Katana (“small minchah”). Clearly, Minchah Gedolah is a significantly larger expanse of time than Minchah Ketana.

While Shacharit (the morning prayers) can be said before heading out to work and Ma’ariv (evening prayers) recited after dark at the end of the workday, Minchah is said in the middle of the workday, when one’s mind and energy is occupied with many things, then as now. The Mishnah teaches us to plan our time in advance in order to prioritize the Minchah prayers. Activities that might occupy the bulk of the afternoon should not be initiated close to the time of Minchah, because one could become distracted, lose track of time, and miss the interval for praying Minchah. Two questions immediate arise: Isn’t the interval from 6-1/2 hours until sundown sufficient time to complete the activities mentioned and yet pray Minchah? Not all of these activities sound like they take much time—why, then, is Mishnah concerned about them? The Mishnah understands that people are forgetful and may not plan ahead. If someone enters into one of these activities, and subsequently realizes there is insufficient time for Minchah, they must stop temporarily to recite Shema, but can forego the other prayers of the Minchah service.

The Gemara seeks to resolve the questions raised above. First, it determines that the Mishnah speaks of Minchah Ketana, since it assumes Minchah Gedolah leaves plenty of time for both afternoon activities and prayer. Next, the Gemara explores an apparent contradiction between the Mishnah, which says that if one has begun to eat, one may finish the meal, and R. Yehoshua b. Levi, who said that even if one has begun a meal, when the time for Minchah arrives, one must stop and recite the prayers. The Gemara resolves the seeming conflict by saying Mishnah intends Minchah Gedolah and R. Yehoshua means Minchah Ketana. Another voice objects: No, Mishnah is talking about Minchah Gedolah and while normally a haircut is not a lengthy affair, it has in mind Ben Elashah the son of R. Yehudah ha-Nasi who, according to Nedarim 51a and Sanhedrin 22b, went for extraordinarily elaborate haircuts that took an entire afternoon. Concerning the other activities stipulated, Mishnah intends to tell us not to enter into lengthy versions of them if they will interfere with our ability to say Minchah prayers at the proper time.


  1. The Rabbis want us to plan our day starting with the important temporal fixture: prayer. How do you plan your day? Do you set aside time for prayer or meditation?
  2. Hillel taught: “Do not say: When I have time, I will study—because you may never have the time.” Shammai advised: “Make your Torah [study time] fixed.” What do you make fixed and immutable in your schedule?
  3. What can you do to make sure you stop at the appointed time, especially if you do not know how long something will take?

Friday, October 13, 2017

How to Scuttle Wisdom — BT Pesachim 66b — #88

Rav Yehudah said in Rav’s name: Whoever is boastful, if he is a sage, his wisdom will desert him; if a prophet, prophecy will desert him. If he is a sage, his wisdom will desert him: [we learn this] from Hillel, for the master said [in a baraita]: “Hillel began to rebuke them with words” and [subsequently] said to them, “I heard this halakhah but have forgotten it.” If he is a prophet, his prophecy will desert him [is learned] from Deborah, as it is written, The villagers ceased, they ceased from Israel, until I, Deborah, arose a mother in Israel (Judges 5:7). And it is [subsequently] written, Awake, awake, Deborah! Awake, awake, utter a song! (Judges 5:12)

Rav, whose full name was Abba Aricha (175–247 CE), was a student of R. Yehudah ha-Nasi (135–217 CE), the compiler of the Mishnah. Rav founded an important yeshivah in Sura in Babylonia where Rav Yehudah bar Yechezkel (220–299 CE) was among Rav’s closest and most important disciples. Rav Yehudah bar Yechezkel, Rav’s student, conveys a teaching concerning the effects of boastfulness and arrogance in the name of his master, Rav.

While the Rabbis’ primary concern may well have been deducing halakhic principles, procedures, and laws, the world of ethical and character values was also within their scope. Among the attributes they especially prized was humility. The quintessential model of humility is Moses, of whom Torah says, Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth (Numbers 12:3).

For the Rabbis, not only is humility consistent with greatness, but genuine greatness (particularly in the realm of Torah scholarship) and humility are inseparable. R. Chanina b. Ida taught that Torah is like water: just as water flows only downhill, so too Torah’s wisdom endures only with those who are humble (BT Ta’anit 7a).

Rav Yehudah bar Yechezkel conveys the teaching of his master, Rav, that arrogant boasting undermines not only the acquisition, but also the retention of wisdom. For the Rabbis, the two modes by which people acquire wisdom are Torah study and prophecy. And while the age of prophecy was considered to have ended by the time this passage was written, the Rabbis still evoke the image of a prophet who had a direct communication from God. Hence, Rav illustrates his claim with the example of a rabbi (Hillel) and a prophet (Deborah).

Earlier on this same folio (66a), Gemara recounted that long ago questions arose concerning the performance of Passover rituals normally not permitted on shabbat: What happens when the festival coincides with shabbat? The only one who knew whether Passover overrides shabbat was Hillel. Therefore he was immediately appointed Nasi. Hillel taught the laws of Passover but veered off into boasting about his credentials and berating the community’s leaders for being lazy and ignorant. The community leaders then asked Hillel what the law is in the case of someone who forgets to bring a knife to slaughter his pesach lamb to the Temple—the slaughter is permitted on shabbat, but is carrying the knife permitted? Hillel responded, “I heard this law, but I have forgotten it.” In the passage above, Rav connects these two events causally, claiming that the reason Hillel forgot the law he had once known was because he had arrogantly boasted of his scholastic prowess. 

The second example is Deborah, the general who was also a prophet. In Judges chapter 5 (one of the oldest surviving examples of biblical poetry), Deborah derides the ineffectiveness of the leaders who preceded her and praises her own amazing victory over the Canaanites under their general, Sisera. The phrase quoted—Awake, Awake, Deborah! Awake, awake, utter a song!—is here interpreted by the Rabbis to signal that Deborah’s gift of prophecy had evaporated. According to Rav, coming on the tail of her boasting, this was the result of her haughtiness.

Rav does not specify the precise causal connection between boastfulness and the cessation of wisdom. Could it be that braggarts are entirely focused on themselves and therefore unable to focus on learning and receiving wisdom from without? Has the ego become a barrier that wisdom and genuine Torah learning cannot cross?


  1. Genuine humility seems to run counter to human nature. In a classic hasidic story, a man complains to his rabbi, “The sages taught that one who runs away from fame, fame will pursue him. I have spent my entire life running away from fame, but fame has never pursued me.” His rabbi responded, “The trouble is that you are always looking over your shoulder to see if fame is chasing you.” How would you define humility? Do you consider yourself humble? How do you think others see you?
  2. The world of social media has birthed the term “humble brag.” (Urban Dictionary’s definition: “Subtly letting others now about how fantastic your life is while undercutting it with a bit of self-effacing humor or ‘woe is me’ gloss.”) Have you observed the “humble brag?” Have you engaged in “humble bragging?” If so, why?
  3. The Italian commentator, kabbalist, and philosopher, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707–1746) wrote humorously about false modesty in Mesillat Yesharim (Path of the Upright): “[One] imagines that he is so great and so deserving of honor that no one can deprive him of the usual signs of respect. To prove this, he behaves as though he were humble and goes to great extremes in displaying boundless modesty and infinite humility. But in his heart he is proud, saying to himself, ‘I am so exalted, and so deserving of honor, that I need not have anyone do me honor. I can well afford to forgo marks of respect.’” If one is occupied with boasting about their humility, is this any different from boasting about their success?