Follow by Email

Friday, July 14, 2017

Zelophchad’s Daughters — BT Baba Batra 119b — #85

It was taught [in a baraita]: The daughters of Zelophchad were wise; they were astute expounders [of Torah]; they were righteous.
“They were wise”—Because they spoke at the right moment, as Rav Shmuel bar Rav Yitzhak said, “This teaches that Moses our rabbi was sitting and expounding the passage [concerning the laws of] yibbum (levirate marriage), as it says, When brothers dwell together (Deuteronomy 25:5). They (the daughters) said to him, ‘If we are considered equal to a son, give us a son’s inheritance; if not, let our mother undergo yibbum.’ Immediately, Moses brought their case before Adonai (Numbers 27:5).” 
“They were astute expounders [of Torah]”—Because they said [to Moses], “If [our father] had had a son, we would not have spoken.” But it was taught [in a baraita]: “a daughter.” R. Yirmiyah said, “Delete ‘daughter’ from here.” Abaye said, “Even had he had a daughter of a son, we would not have spoken.”
“They were righteous”—Because they married only [men] worthy of them. R. Eliezer b. Yaakov taught [in a baraita]: Even the youngest of them did not marry before the age of forty.

Torah describes how, while still in the Wilderness, the Land of Israel was apportioned to the tribes, and within each tribe, to its clans. Marriage, at this time, was less about romance than about producing male heirs to inherit the patrimony and, in turn, pass it on to the next generation, keeping it within the clan if possible, and certainly within the tribe. 

Machlah, Noa, Choglah, Milcah, and Tirtzah, the remarkable and memorable daughters of Zelophchad, are a source of continuing fascination for students of Torah. Numbers chapter 27 recounts that after Zelophchad died leaving five daughters but no sons, his daughters, in an early instance of leaning in, approached Moses and said, “Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” Moses brought their case before Adonai. Adonai said to Moses, “The plea of Zelophchad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen: transfer their father’s share to them.” (27:6–7) God ruled in favor of the sisters and, in the next verse, promulgated the order of inheritance: first sons, then daughters, next brothers, followed by paternal uncles.

The institution of levirate marriage (yibbum) is related to concerns about inheritance. Usually a man may not marry his brother’s wife (Leviticus 18:16; 20:21), but as Deuteronomy 25:5–6 explains, if a man dies without a male heir to inherit his property and carry on his name, his brother is obligated to marry the widow (yibbum) in the hope of producing a male child who will legally be the son of the deceased brother and inherit his land, thereby preserving his “name.” (Should the brother of the deceased refuse to marry his brother’s widow, the ceremony of chalitzah releases him by imposing public humiliation on him—see Deuteronomy 25:7–10.) Levirate marriage figures into the stories of Tamar and Judah, Ruth and Boaz, and possibly Lot’s daughters.

The Rabbis attribute to Machlah, Noa, Choglah, Milcah, and Tirtzah—the daughters of Zelophchad—three admirable attributes, each of which is explained by expanding their story as found in the Torah. Evidence of each trait is, in turn, explained.

The first requires the most attention. Rav Shmuel bar Rav Yitzhak says that the sisters understood that their case could be won by a legal argument based on yibbum as follows: Deuteronomy 25:5 reads, When brother dwell together and one of them dies and leaves no son but this could also be read “leaves no child,” which is how Moses taught it. The sisters therefore point out that if Moses taught that yibbum only applies when there are neither sons nor daughters, then a daughter counts as a son for the purposes of yibbum when there is no son (they exempt their mother from having to undergo yibbum), and should therefore inherit from their father when there is no son. The sisters’ wisdom was in waiting to bring their case when Moses was teaching precisely this law so he would be primed to recognize its legitimacy.

They are astute expositors of Torah because they know that a son precedes a daughter in claiming an inheritance, even though the law has not yet been give—God teaches it after they bring their case (v. 25). Abaye says the proof that they were astute expositors of Torah is found in their ability to deduce that the daughter of a son (a niece) has priority over a daughter in inheritance.

Finally, they are considered righteous, which is demonstrated by a baraita that tells us that each waited many years to marry in order to find appropriate mates. The Gemara continues to discuss this, going to so far as to say that while usually women who marry at 40 cannot bear children, God wrought a miracle for the sisters.


  1. What do you think the purpose of the institution of yibbum is? Who does it benefit or protect?
  2. Are you surprised that the rabbis ascribe to the sisters traits and abilities usually ascribed by the Rabbis only to men—particularly wisdom and expounding Torah? Why do you think they do this? 
  3. What three attributes would you ascribe to your partner or child(ren)? What attributes do you consider the highest?

Friday, June 30, 2017

Views of a Marriage — BT Yebamot 63a-b — #84

Rav was taking leave of R. Chiyya. [R. Chiyya] said to him, “May the Merciful One save you from that which is worse than death.” [Rav wondered to himself:] Is there something worse than death? [Rav] left, investigated, and found: Now, I find woman more bitter than death; she is all traps, her hands are fetters and her heart is snares. [He who is pleasing to God scares her, and he who is displeasing is caught by her.] (Ecclesiastes 7:26).
 Rav’s wife aggravated him. When he would say, “Prepare lentils for me,” she would prepare beans. [If he requested] beans, she would prepare lentils. When his son, Chiyya, grew up, he would reverse [his father’s requests] to her. [Rav] said to him, “Your mother has improved!” [Chiyya] said to him, “It was actually that I reversed [the requests] to her.” [Rav] said to him, “This is as people say, ‘[The child] who comes from you will teach you.’ You should not do this, for it says, They have trained their tongues to speak falsely; [they wear themselves out working iniquity] (Jeremiah 9:4).”
R. Chiyya’s wife would aggravate him. [Yet] when [R. Chiyya] would find something [in the market that she would like] he would wrap it in his shawl and bring it to her. Rav asked him, “But doesn’t she aggravate you? [R. Chiyya] said to him, “It is sufficient that they raise our children and save us from sin.”

The Rabbis discuss marriage on the previous daf of Talmud, where several sages wax poetic  about the value of being married. R. Tanchum says in the name of R. Chanilai: “Any many who does not have a wife lives without happiness, without blessing, and without goodness.” Gemara then tells us that in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) they say that a man without a wive is as one without Torah, without a protective wall. R. Elazar is quoted as saying that a man without a wife is not whole. R. Yose learns from Elijah the prophet the extraordinary value of having a helpmate. As we all know all too well, as the passage above will reinforce, reality does not always accord with the ideal.

Rav studies with his uncle, R. Chiyya. Once, as Rav prepares to leave R. Chiyya’s bet midrash and return home, his uncle and teacher confers upon him a strange blessing: “May God save you from that which is worse than death.” Rav ponders this until he finds a verse he thinks explains it: R. Chiyya believes a wife can be worse than death. Is R. Chiyya referring to Rav’s wife, his own wife, or all wives?

Rav’s wife is a contrarian who derives satisfaction from annoying him. Their son, Chiyya (he has the same name as his uncle), learned how to deal with the situation— perhaps bringing more peace and quiet to the home—by cleverly requesting that mother prepare for his father what his father did not want, knowing she would do the opposite of what was requested and thereby inadvertently prepare what his father did want. As a result, his father found his mother less exasperating. Rather than keeping the scheme to himself, he reveals it to his father. Rav responds with a measure of pride and wonder—he has learned something from his son that had not occurred to him—but admonishes him with a verse from Jeremiah that suggests that deceiving his mother is sinful.

We next learn that R. Chiyya is also married to a woman who annoys him, yet when he finds something she would like in the marketplace, he buys it for her. Rav finds R. Chiyya’s behavior surprising and strange. The man who never thought to request lentils when he wanted beans, or beans knowing he would get lentils, has never thought to give his wife a gift  either. For Rav, buying something for his wife rewards her for her annoying behavior. What is more, he has found nothing in her worth appreciating. Rav lacks the imagination to understand that a gift might please her, serving as a peace token and investment in the relationship itself. When Rav asks R. Chiyya why he gifts a wife who annoys him, R. Chiyya responds by saying that his wife blesses him in two significant ways: She raises their children and their physical relationship saves him from potentially straying from the marriage for sexual satisfaction. In other words, while she can be exasperating, he also recognizes and appreciates her positive qualities and the contributions she makes to his life and their family.

One might wonder how adept Rav is at interpersonal relationships 
and whether, as the story presumes, his wife is the 
sole—or even primary—problem in this marital relationship.


  1. When R. Chiyya offered Rav the strange blessing that God might save him from “that which is worse than death,” do you think he had Rav’s marriage in mind, or his own? How might R. Chiyya have thought God saves one from a marital relationship that is, figuratively, “worse than death”? (Please keep in mind there is no suggestion that either Rav’s or R. Chiyya’s marriage involved physical or emotional abuse.)
  2. Although Chiyya’s tactic of requesting what his father does not want is effective, Rav expresses disapproval. Why? Do you agree or disagree? Is anyone hurt by the son’s tactic? Does a person’s behavior entitle others to employ deception to get what they want? If you think it does, under what circumstances?
  3. How might a group of female Torah scholars have written about marriage and aggravating spouses? Do you think it would have been wholly different, or possibly much the same?

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die? — BT Baba Metzia 62a — #83

How does R. Yochanan interpret that your kinsman may live with you (Leviticus 25:36)? He uses it for that which was taught: If two people are traveling together and one of them possesses a canteen of water such that, if both of them drink, both will die; but if [only] one of them drinks, he will reach civilization [and live]. This was the view of Ben Petora: It were better for both of them to drink and both of them to die, so that one of them does not see his friend die—until R. Akiba came and taught: that your kinsman may live with you (Leviticus 25:36) [implies that] your life takes precedence over your friend’s life.

The context for this breathtaking passage is a discussion of the laws of interest and usury, in which R. Yochanan and R. Nachman b. Yitzhak have a disagreement concerning whether the courts should compel a person to return interest. The latter quotes R. Elazar as teaching that usury is a violation of Leviticus 25:36: Do not exact from [your kinsman] advance or accrued interest, but fear your God, that your kinsman may live with you. This certainly sounds decisive, so the Gemara asks how R. Yochanan understands the same verse because unless he finds in it a different meaning altogether, then R. Nachman’s argument will prevail.

R. Yochanan’s interpretation of Leviticus 25:36 is illustrated in a gut-wrenching situation prompting two halakhic opinions concerning “Who has a right to the water?” We are told that the opinion of Ben Petora prevailed until R. Akiba came and overturned it with his interpretation of Leviticus 25:36. 

Perhaps you’re wondering: How would we know the water in the canteen is sufficient for only one person? What if they pass a stream or a well, or other people who can give them water? Why do they not consider other solutions? The failure of the text to address these questions alerts us that this is a contrived scenario meant to serve as a hypothetical thought experiment. The passage appears to be a digression from the general discussion about interest, but perhaps meant to suggest that Person X is not required to lend money to Person Y, even if Y is in dire straits, if X is poor and doing so would endanger X’s family. (Otherwise, X is expected to do so.)

Consider the scene: Two people are traveling together in the desert. Civilization—a settlement where water and food are available—is not nearby. One of the travelers possesses a canteen of water sufficient to enable only one person to make it to the settlement alive. If, however, the two travelers share the water in the canteen, neither will survive.

Two opinions concerning whether the one who owns the canteen of water must share it with the other are articulated. The first is that of ben Petora (we know him only as “the son of Petora”). We are told that his view was accepted halakhah until R. Akiba subsequently articulated an opinion grounded in a verse of Torah—Leviticus 25:36—that became accepted halakhah.

Ben Petora ruled that the owner of the canteen is obligated to share his water. His reasoning does not depend upon a Torah verse or halakhic principle, but rather on an emotional argument: Who would want to live having witnessed their companion dying and knowing that he died because the owner did not share his water?

R. Akiba, however, offers an opinion grounded in Torah: When Torah says that your kinsman may live with you, it implies the owner of the canteen can claim all the water (if, indeed, he needs all of it to live) because the kinsman cannot “live with” him unless he himself remains alive. Hence the owner of the canteen should prioritize himself over his companion.

Is it possible that ben Petora seeks to release both travelers from “playing God” 
by choosing who lives and who dies? 
But isn’t sharing the water a choice concerning who lives and dies?


  1. Ben Petora chooses “we” over “I”—but following his opinion, how many survive? Following R. Akiba’s opinion, how many survive? Is it fair to say that ben Petora chooses death over life, but R. Akiba chooses one life over two deaths? Do you think that maximizing the number of survivors justifies R. Akiba’s ruling? Following ben Petora’s opinion, the owner of the canteen will die with a clear conscience. According to R. Akiba’s opinion, the owner of the canteen will survive—with whatever pain and guilt that entails. Which would you choose? 
  2. How does R. Akiba’s ruling that one should save oneself first compare with the familiar instructions on an airplane to put on one’s own air mask first, and only afterward to assist a child? Can you envision another situation in which one might need to prioritize saving oneself before saving another person’s life? Is there an application of this hypothetical case to how self-driving cars should be programmed? (Imagine a pedestrian stepping in front of a car. If the car swerves to miss the pedestrian, it will hit a wall or another car, killing the passenger.)
  3. This text was one of several Talmudic texts instrumental in deciding an excruciatingly difficult case in 1977 of conjoined twins (let’s call them Baby A and Baby B) born to a Jewish couple. The babies were joined at the torso and shared a single, 6-chambered heart, which was insufficient to sustain them both for more than a few months. If the twins were separated, for anatomical reasons the heart could only be given to Baby B. The chief surgeon at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, Dr. C. Everett Koop (later Surgeon General of the United States) determined that the heart was Baby A’s underdeveloped 2-chamber heart and Baby B’s fully developed 4-chamber heart. When asked whether the heart could be given to Baby A and thereby save her life, Dr. Koop replied, “There is no way to save Baby A. The issue is only should both die, or should Baby B be saved.” If you were called upon to decide whether the twins be separated and Baby B given the heart, how would you decide and why?

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Priorities: Pray or Study? — BT Shabbat 10a (#2) — #82

Rava saw Rav Hamnuna prolonging his prayer. [Rava] said, “Does one forsake the world-to-come and occupy oneself with transitory life?” [Rav Hamnuna] reasoned: The time for prayer is separate from the time for Torah study.
 R. Yirmiyah was sitting before R. Zeira and they were occupied in study. It grew late to pray and R. Yirmiyah rushed to arise [to pray]. R. Zeira applied to him the verse, One who turns away from hearing Torah (lit. instruction), even his prayer is an abomination (Proverbs 28:9).

In TMT #81, we considered the differing prayer styles of Rava bar Rav Huna and Rava.  One dressed up, while the other dressed down, suggesting very different emotional postures and conceptions of prayer. Gemara affirmed both and told us that Rav Ashi, following Rav Kahana, employed both styles as circumstance warranted. The account of Rava bar Rav Huna and Rava is followed immediately by the exchanges recounted above concerning the competing time demands of prayer and Torah study.

Were we immortal—and hence, time an infinite resource—we would not feel the daily pressure concerning how to spend our time and order our priorities. For the Rabbis, the obligations of Torah both study and prayer loom large and compete for that most limited of  resources—time. Devoted as they were to Torah study—their life blood and sacred mission—some rabbis saw anything that interfered, including even prayer, as an unwelcome intrusion. The passage above is one such hint.  Other sages readily acknowledged the value of the more “mundane” pursuits of life, especially those that put food on the table and support a family—all the more so, a sacred task: prayer.

R. Akiba taught: If there is flour (i.e., sustenance), there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no flour. (Pirkei Avot 3:21) Life requires both the pursuit of Torah and the mundane; they reinforce one another.

All four sages mentioned lived in the fourth century of the common Era. Rava (Abba b. Yosef bar Chama) and Rav Hamnuna were both Babylonian sages. R. Yirmiyah and R. Zeira are sages in Eretz Yisrael (R. Zeira was born in Babylonia, but famously made aliyah to Eretz Yisrael). Juxtaposing two similar conversations—one set in Babylonia, the other in Eretz Yisrael—reinforces the universality of this concern in the fourth century rabbinic world.

Rav Hamnuna takes prayer seriously, investing his time in prayer to make it meaningful. Some people can switch gears quickly and focus their minds on prayer without much ado, but others cannot. For this reason, the siddur provides a lengthy assemblage of psalms and prayers to “warm up” before the formal prayers of Shacharit, the morning service. This section of the service, which comes before Barchu, called Pesukei de-Zimra (lit. “verses of song/praise”), affords one the opportunity to prepare spiritually for the core prayers of the service. Whether Rav Hamnuna is engaged in preparation for prayer, or simply elongating and relishing the core prayers is unclear, but also irrelevant. He takes prayer seriously as a spiritual practice, not merely as a statutory obligation. 

Rava, however, responds to Rav Hamnuna’s practice contemptuously, accusing him of trading his portion in the far superior life of olam ha-ba (the world-to-come) for life in this inferior, transitory world. Clearly, for Rava, the key to life in olam ha-ba is Talmud Torah: the more Torah study, the greater likelihood of attaining olam ha-ba. In a sense, this is the inverse of what we learn in Pirkei Avot, the “the more Torah, the more sustenance.” Rav Hamnuna responds (calmly, at least as I imagine the discussion) that there is sufficient time for both, meaning that prayer deserves the time allotted to it, and should not be seen as competing with Talmud Torah for scarce temporal resources: God desires both and rewards both.

In Eretz Yisrael, R. Yirmiyah and R. Zeira hold a similar conversation centered on the same disagreement. While engaged in study together, R. Yirmiyah, realizing that the window for prayer is closing, hurries to say his prayers within the prescribed interval of time, angering R. Zeira who resents interruption of their studies. R. Zeira quotes Proverbs 28:9, which says that one who avoids hearing and, we are to understand, heeding, God’s instruction so deeply offends God that even that person’s prayer—presumably a sincere attempt to connect with God—is rejected by God and deemed an abomination. The thrust of the verse seems to be that if you willfully ignore God’s instruction, God will ignore your prayers. R. Yirmiyah understands the verse to say that God is offended by one who turns away from learning to pray. This is a surprising comment given that prayer is considered a mitzvah—one of God’s instructions. 


  1. Have you known someone who is wholly devoted to one endeavor that is the core and substance of their life? Does it seem to you they neglect other important facets of life?
  2. What elements of Jewish life do you find most meaningful? How do you prioritize study, prayer, rituals, celebrations, holy days, community events, and the arts, among others. Have you had to sacrifice something to pursue these priorities?
“The reemergence of God as a dominant force in world affairs, shaping both the fates of nations and the daily existence of ordinary individuals, poses fundamental questions about the role of religion in human life. One of the most significant…is this: What does faith in God do to a person? That is, when God enters the conversation and dictates human ethical and social norms, is it a force for good or evil? For action or complacency? For moral progress or moral corruption?”
Rabbi Donniel Hartman, Putting God Second, pp. 4-5
  1. This passage inspires broader questions about the priorities religion inspires and instills. Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute argues that the three monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), while claiming to value peace, have at times championed immoral ideas and committed violence because of an “autoimmune disease” whereby they prioritize God over people blindness. Do you agree?

Friday, May 26, 2017

Dressing for Prayer — BT Shabbat 10a (#1) — #81

Rava bar Rav Huna would put on fine shoes and pray. He said, “Prepare to meet [your God, O Israel] (Amos 4:12).” Rava (Abba b. Yosef bar Chama) would cast off his cloak, clasp his hands, and pray. He said, “[One should dress for prayer] like a servant before his master.” Rav Ashi said, “I saw Rav Kahana [do the following]: When there was suffering in the world, he would cast off his cloak, clasp his hands, and pray. He said, ‘One [should dress for prayer] like a servant before his master.’ When there was peace, he would get dressed, covering and wrapping himself, and pray. He said, ‘Prepare to meet [your God, O Israel].’”

Fashion changes quickly but in any age clothing communicates many things: socio-economic status, profession, respect or disrespect. The story of Tamar in Genesis chapter 38 makes it clear that when she donned the clothes of a prostitute, her father-in-law Judah failed to recognize her on the road; he saw only her clothing.

Similarly, body language communicates many things. Consider what these gestures communicate: arms crossed over the chest, clenched fists, fake smile, looking down at the ground rather than making eye contact, furrowed eyebrows 

Prayer is conceived by the Rabbis as one’s time to communicate with God. The Amidah, in particular, was conceived by the Sages as a time, metaphorically, when one has a private audience with God in the divine Throne Room.

It seems that every generation, as fashions change, some older folks object to the way some younger folks dress, accusing them of wearing “inappropriate” or “disrespectful” clothing. We all learn as youngsters what is considered appropriate, but times, standards, and sensibilities change. The Talmud reminds us that clothing and body language communicate to the beholder, but also reflect the thoughts and feelings of one who presents them—hence there is no one right way.

The Gemara compares the differing prayer styles of two Babylonian rabbis, both named Rava. Rava bar Rav Huna was a third generation amora, the son of Rav Huna who headed the academy of Sura. The second is Abba b. Yosef bar Chama (known throughout the Talmud as just “Rava”) a fourth generation amora who lived and established a yeshivah in Machuza. Rav Ashi, born the year Rava died, headed the academy in Sura. He attempts to reconcile the two divergent views.

Rava bar Rav Huna dressed up for prayer, donning fine shoes. Why shoes? Perhaps because shoes, hidden beneath a long robe, are the least visible sartorial item. If he paid so much attention to shoes, imagine how scrupulous he was about everything else he wore for prayer? In quoting the prophet Amos (4:12), he yanked the verse out of its context. Amos warned the people to prepare themselves for the coming punishment that God would inflict on the northern tribes. For Rava bar Rav Huna, however, “Prepare to meet you God” means dress as you would to meet a president or king—express respect through dress because talking to God is a great honor.

In contrast, Rava did the opposite. He removed his g’limah (a cloak that signaled his status) and clasped his hands together as one who is helpless in the face of a far greater power. Rava explained that for him, the experience of prayer was akin to that of a servant appearing before his master. Updating a bit: One would not appear before one’s boss wearing far dressier or costlier clothing and behaving as if the employee were the boss in the relationship.

Rav Ashi followed the model of Rav Kahana, who followed the models of both Rava bar Rav Huna and Rava, depending upon the circumstance. When times were bad and people were suffering, he adopted the humble style of Rava, removing his g’limah and clasping his hands in petition. When times were good, however, Rav Kahana followed the model of Rava bar Rav Huna and dressed up to pray. Rav Ashi confirms that there is no one single appropriate way to pray—either with respect to clothing or body language. Circumstances and needs change—and vary with individuals—and prayer should be a sincere expression of the one who utters it. 


  1. There was a time when people dressed up to attend a synagogue service. Many still do, but today many congregations encourage people to “come as you are” in casual dress. What do you think is gained by loosening the requirements? Is anything lost? 
  2. In Rava bar Rav Huna and Rava’s day, Jews conceived God on the model of a powerful king. Today, Jews conceive God in widely divergent ways. How does your conception of God influence your thoughts about clothing and body language during prayer? What prayer experience (e.g. liturgy, venue, rituals) or style (e.g., meditation, movement, music, chanting) is most meaningful to you?
  3. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (Ein Eyah vol. 3) explains that differing styles of Rava bar Rav Huna and Rava reflect two types of prayer: Petition and Praise: “Rava emphasized the aspect of prayer that corresponds to Yirah, the awe and reverence of a self-effacing servant before his master. Rava bar Rav Huna, on the other hand, stressed prayer as an expression of Ahavah, out of love for God. He conducted his prayers in the manner of a loving and favorite son, proudly wearing his finest clothing before his father.” Yirah instills humility and makes the worshiper aware of God’s kindness and mercy; Ahavah lifts up the soul and makes the worshiper receptive to spiritual truths. What are your thoughts on Rav Kook’s interpretation of this Talmudic passage?

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Are You a Good or Bad Guest? — BT Berakhot 58a (#2) — #80

[Ben Zoma] used to say: What does a good guest say? “How much trouble my host went to for my sake! How much meat he served me! How much wine he served me! How many cakes he served me! Every effort this host expended was only for my sake!” But what does a bad guest say? “How much trouble did this host go to for me? I ate one serving of bread. I ate one piece [of meat]. I drank one cup [of wine]. Every effort this host expended was taken only for his wife and his children.” Concerning a good guest, what does [Scripture] say? Remember, then, to magnify his work concerning which people have sung (Job 36:24) Concerning a bad guest, it is written, Therefore people fear him (Job 37:24).

Hakarat ha-tov means “recognition of the good”—in other words: gratitude. In TMT 79, Ben Zoma’s blessing upon seeing a crowd of people at the Temple revealed his unique sense of  gratitude for his blessings. Talmud juxtaposes another saying of Ben Zoma concerning gratitude under very ordinary circumstances: You are invited to someone’s home for a meal. Do you marvel at everything you are served and revel in the efforts of your host? Or do you minimize—or worse, denigrate—your host’s efforts? As recounted in the Talmud, attitude distinguishes a “good guest” from a “bad guest,” but clearly there is much more to the distinction Ben Zoma draws. Ben Zoma’s comparison of the “good guest” and “bad guest” demonstrates both how to cultivate gratitude and how to express it. We come to realize that feeling and expression appreciation are inextricably intertwined. In expressing gratitude, we come to experience it. In experiencing it, we learn to articulate it.

When Ben Zoma compares the “good guest” and the “bad guest,” we are to assume both received the same food and service, but reflected their experience differently. The distinction is not in the facts of what occurred, but in their attitude and response to the experience.

The “good guest” appreciates every effort the host goes to, and explicitly expresses: (1) appreciation for each item on the menu; (2) gratitude for the generous quantity of each dish served; and (3) the generous presumption that the effort expended by the host was for the guest, in particular.

In contrast, the “bad guest” undervalues everything by focusing on how little the host needed to expend to feed him, and presumes that the host’s efforts were expended primarily for his own family, not for his guest. In this way, the guest need not feel any appreciation at all since, “He hardly did a thing for me.”

The subject of each sentence uttered by the “good guest” is the host: He went to so much trouble; he served me meat, wine, and cakes; he went to this trouble for my sake alone. The subjects of the “bad guest’s” sentences are both “I” and the host: He went to little trouble. I barely ate anything.  He was more concerned with his family than with me. Good guests believe they receive more than they deserve; bad guests believe they receive less than they deserve.

Having recounted Ben Zoma’s description of the “good guest” and “bad guest,” Gemara supplies proof texts from the ever-enigmatic biblical Book of Job. There is not unanimous agreement about the inherent meaning of these verses (and hence how they ought properly be translated) nor how they function here to bolster Ben Zoma’s teaching. Job 36:24, the verse associated with the “good guest,” seems to support praising one’s host’s efforts (even though the original speaker, Elihu, had praise of God’s deeds in mind). Job 37:24 suggests that just as people cannot see and fully appreciate God, so, too, the “bad guest” fails to fully see all that the host does for the guest and therefore fails to feel gratitude and express appreciation.

Gratitude rejoices with her sister, Joy, and 
is always ready to light a candle and have a party. 
Gratitude doesn’t much like the old cronies of 
Boredom, Despair, and Taking Life for Granted.
—Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlov


  1. Compare the order of food and drink items, and the language used to describe them, recited by the “good guest” and the “bad guest.” Note that the “good guest” states that s/he is served meat, wine, and cakes, while the “bad guest” names only bread and then claims to have consumed only trivial quantities of meat and wine. What does this reveal about the attitude of each? When are you a “good guest” and when are you a “bad guest”?
  2. The “bad guest” is someone who ignores a salient part of reality: his host certainly expended effort on his behalf, and not merely for the sake of his spouse and children. The “bad guest” manages not to see or acknowledge all that was done to make him comfortable and happy. But is the “good guest” entire honest? Didn’t the host expend effort for his own family as well  as for his guests? If we cannot see the full picture of reality, on which side should we err? What are the advantages to us and to others of erring on the side of the “good guest”?
  3. Might Ben Zoma have in mind that we are guests in God’s home, the world God created? If so, the difference between being a “good” guest and being a “bad” guest concerns how we experience God’s blessings, evaluate them, and respond to what we have. When are you a “good guest” and when are you a “bad guest”?

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Thank you, thank you! — BT Berakhot 58a (#1) — #79

Our Rabbis taught [in a baraita]: One who sees a crowd of Israelites should say, “Blessed is [God] who discerns secrets,” because the mind of each is different from that of the others, just a s the face of each is different from that of the others. Ben Zoma once saw a crowd on a step of the Temple Mount. He said, “Blessed is [God] who discerns secrets, and blessed is [God] who has created all these to serve me”—because [Ben Zoma] used to say, “How hard Adam must have labored so that he could eat a piece of bread; he had to plough, and sow, and weed, and tend, and harvest, and thresh, and winnow, and sift, and grind, and mix, and knead, and bake, and after that he could eat, whereas I am able to wake in the morning and find all this already done for me. And how hard Adam must have labored so that he could have a garment to wear; he had to shear the sheep, and bleach the wool, and beat it, and dye it, and spin it, and weave it, and wash it, and sew it, and after that he could be clothed, whereas I am able to wake in the morning and find all this already done for me. How many workers wake up every morning to stand at the door of my house? I wake up in the morning, and find all these things before me.”

The tractate Berakhot concerns prayer. Prior to the account above, the Talmud has been discussing blessings to recite over various kinds of foods, as well as blessings to say under special  circumstances, e.g., hearing good news or bad news, seeing a rainbow, seeing a king or scholar, or being in a place where a miracle occurred. These special blessings are one way in which people can cultivate in themselves an appreciation for all life’s blessings. By noticing, naming, and thanking God for them, we feel grateful and are probably a good deal happier. 

In the midst of Gemara’s discussion of blessings of thanksgiving, the Rabbis bring a baraita (oral teaching from the first two centuries of the Common Era) that says when one is in the midst of an enormous crowd, one should say, “Blessed is God who discerns secrets,” a blessing recognizing the uniqueness and individuality of each soul. Ben Zoma has his own unique take on this blessing.

Gemara records that Ben Zoma was amidst an enormous crowd of Jews. Standing up on a step in the Temple Mount, he was able to view this enormous crowd, presumably assembled to celebrate a festival. This, in itself, is strange because Shimon ben Zoma, a contemporary of R. Akiba, was likely born after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, and hence this is not an experience he would have had. Nonetheless, he would have heard older colleagues, including his teacher, R. Yehoshua b. Chananiah (as suggested by Nazir 8:1), who did live when the Temple existed, recount the awe-inspiring sight of vast crowds of Jews gathered at the Temple for pilgrimage festivals. Ben Zoma marvels not only at the individuality of each person—with distinct minds and thoughts— but also reflects on the blessings he personally enjoys thanks to others.

We might be inclined to understand “who has created all these to serve me” as a hubristic statement, but it is not meant this way. Perhaps a better (though less literal) translation would be,  “who has created all these people from whose labors I benefit.” To illustrate his insight, Ben Zoma compares his life with that of Adam. Adam and Eve, the only human beings, did not benefit from the labor and skills of others. For two of the most basic elements of life—food and clothing—Adam had to engage in every task of the long, elaborate, back-breaking process of turning wheat into bread, and wool into a garment. Ben Zoma, however, lives in city where people with special skills put them to constructive use to support themselves and their families and whereas he merely walks outside in the morning and finds bread and clothing for sale.

Ben Zoma cites the mundane facets of life—think bread and t-shirts—and finds cause for enormous gratitude. It is altogether easy to take much in our lives for granted. Ben Zoma not only reminds us to feel and express appreciation, but also to be keenly aware of not only the “stuff” that enhances our lives, but all the many people who contribute to making the “stuff”we enjoy.


  1. Many psychologists, pointing out the emotional, physical, and social benefits of gratitude, recommend keeping a “Gratitude Diary” or “Blessings Journal” to record what we are grateful for, from the pleasure of a chocolate bar, to getting a good night’s sleep, to having a job, to the love of friends and family. What would you write in your journal today? Try keeping a journal for a month—write something brief two or three times a week—and gauge its effect on your happiness and well being. Reflect, as did Ben Zoma, on what life would be like without the blessings you enjoy.
  2. The blessing over bread (Baruch ata Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha-olam ha-motzi lechem min ha-aretz / “Blessed are You, Adonai our God, ruler of the universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth”) is a peculiar blessing. After all, bread does not come forth from the earth. In fact, it requires many skilled people to work cooperatively to produce bread. In that sense, it is a blessing not only over bread, but over society, through which we make available to one another our skills and combine them to produce life-sustaining bread. Consider the next time you recite the blessing: does it enhance the flavor and enjoyment of your bread?
  3. The podcast “Planet Money” explored how a t-shirt is made from scratch, from harvesting cotton through sewing it together—including the hundreds or thousands of people around the world involved. You can listen here. Does it give you a new vantage point on your wardrobe?