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Friday, December 7, 2018

Light in Darkness #2 — BT Avodah Zarah 8a — #114

This is fine according to the one who said the world was created in Tishrei: he [i.e., Adam] saw the short days but had not yet seen the long days. But according to the one who said the world was created in Nisan, [Adam] had seen both short days and long days. He had not seen days as short as these [immediately preceding the winter solstice]. 
Our Rabbis taught [in a baraita]: On the day that the first man was created, when the sun set before him [for the first time] he said, “Woe is me! The world is becoming dark because I sinned, and it will return to chaos and void, and this is the death that heaven has decreed for me.” He undertook a fast and cried all night—and Eve cried along with him. When the dawn arrived, he said, “This is the natural course of the world.” He arose and sacrificed an ox whose horns preceded its hooves, as it is said, [My praise] will please Adonai more than oxen, [more] than bulls with horns and hooves (Psalm 69:32).

This passage is a continuation of TMT #113,  in which the Rabbis posited that midwinter festivals exist among all peoples, having originated in the experience of witnessing the days grow shorter prior to the winter solstice. They express this by envisioning Adam, the primordial human, terrified by the decrease in daylight which made him think the world was reverting to pre-Creation chaos and void. The scene imagined by the Rabbis presumes Adam had never before experienced the phenomenon of days grow shorter and subsequently growing longer.  The passage above picks up the discussion from there.

The Rabbis wonder: why was Adam so terrified? Had he never observed that day length waxes and wanes? The answer depends on how much of the year he had experienced by the time the first winter solstice arrived. In tractate Rosh Hashanah (10b-11a), we find a passage alluded to in the conversation above; there is a disagreement between R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus, who claims the world was created in Tishrei (autumn, when Rosh Hashanah occurs) and R. Yehoshua b. Chananiah, who holds the world was created in Nisan (springtime, when Pesach occurs). If the world were created in Tishrei, the story in TMT #113 concerning Adam’s first winter makes sense: he observed the days shorten, but had never seen them lengthen—hence he feared that the days would continue to shorten until there were no more light. If, however, the world were created in Nisan, he had seen the days lengthen prior to the summer solstice and grow shorter afterward; as the winter solstice approached, he would have surmised that there is a natural cycle. Why then was he so terrified? The Gemara answers this implied question: Even assuming Adam were created in the springtime, he had never experienced days this short.

The Rabbis next introduce another story similar to the previous one in several ways. In this one, sunset on Adam’s very first day of life terrifies him. The enveloping darkness seems to him like death itself and he assumes it is heaven’s punishment for sins he has committed (the conclusion he drew in the first story) and further that the entire world is being destroyed and Creation itself is reverting to chaos and void (again, as in the first story). He therefore undertakes a fast and cries throughout the first night. Eve cries alongside. As in the first story, Adam realizes he is wrong—in this case, because the sun rises the following morning—and reasons that daily cycles of light and dark are the natural order of the world. In contrast to the first story, in which Adam institutes a festival in response to the relief he feels, in this case Adam makes a sacrifice to God in gratitude. 

The Talmud notes that the ox Adam sacrifices has the singular feature that its horns grew prior to (or, more likely, simultaneously with) its hooves. In the course of nature, an ox is born with hooves, but develops horns later as it grows. In the verse quoted, Psalm 69:32, the term for “horns” precedes the term for “hooves,” which may explain why the Talmud says “an ox whose horns preceded its hooves.” What is more, the verse refers to a shor-par: the term shor applies to the animal from the time it is born (before it has grown horns) but par refers to a bull after it has matured and grown horns. This seems to have suggested to the Rabbis that the ox Adam sacrificed was the primordial ox, created full-grown with both hooves and horns, just as Adam came into being a full grown adult. Hence, the story in TMT #113 part 1 and this story have a similar structure and numerous features in common: misapprehension of how the world operates, fear that Creation is being reversed, presumption that sin is driving the unsettling change in the world, fasting as a response to sin, the realization that there is a natural order, and a religious or spiritual response to the relief or gratitude felt upon gain a new understanding.

  1. How do the natural lengthening and shortening of days in the cycle of the year affect you? Are the Rabbis here suggesting that religion arises from universal human experiences of the natural world?
  2. Both stories portray Adam believing his sin caused disordered the physical universe (although he has violated no rules) and conceiving a ritual response to the experience of relief and gratitude. Do these stories undermine Jewish religious teachings that define sin as a violation of God’s commandments, and laudable religious praxis as adherence to God’s commandments? Or do they reinforce them as natural human proclivities that God constructively marshals?
  3. It is well understood by scholars that Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 are separate (and conflicting) creation stories despite the Rabbis’ attempts to reconcile them. The mention of Eve is curious: according to Genesis 2, Eve was brought into existence to compensate for Adam’s loneliness; hence she was not present on his first day. Why do you think the second baraita added the character of Eve? 

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Light in Darkness — BT Avodah Zarah 8a (part 1) — #113

Rav Chanan bar Rava said, “Kalenda is eight days following the winter solstice; Saturnalia is eight days preceding the winter solstice. And your mnemonic [to remember this]: Later and earlier You formed me (Psalm139:5).” Our Rabbis taught [in a baraita]: When the first man saw the days gradually growing shorter, he said, “Woe is me! Perhaps the world is growing dark for me and returning to chaos and void because I have sinned, and this is the death that has been decreed upon me from heaven.” Therefore he kept eight days of fasting. However, once he saw the Tevet (i.e., winter) solstice and saw the days gradually growing longer he said, “This is the natural way of the world.” He went and celebrated an eight-day festival. The following year, he established both of these [eight-day observances] as festival days. He fixed them for the sake of heaven, but they [idolaters] fixed them for the sake of idolatry.

The tractate Avodah Zarah is devoted to exploring the implications of the idolatrous practices for Jews who live among pagans and interact with them. In the mishnah that precedes this passage, R. Meir lists seven pagan (in fact, Roman) festivals. Jews may not conduct business with those celebrating these festivals for the three days leading up to them lest they inadvertently facilitate pagan observances. The first two of the seven festivals listed in the mishnah are Kalenda and Saturnalia. Saturnalia, celebrated during the week leading up to the winter solstice, entailed sacrifices to the Roman god Saturn and was marked by carnivals, partying, and gambling. Kalenda refers to the first day of each Roman month, but Gemara understands it differently.

Rav Chanan bar Rava understands Kalenda to be the eight days following the winter solstice, and Saturnalia to be the eight days preceding the solstice. He supplies a mnemonic to recall which comes first: in the well-known verse Psalm 139:6 the word  “later” occurs before the word “earlier.” Hence Kalenda is “later” than (after) the solstice and Saturnalia is “earlier” than (prior to) the solstice.
Talmud then brings a fascinating baraita that locates the origin of ancient midwinter festivals not in particular societies or cultures, but in the lived experience of all humanity, represented by Adam, the first human. Mid-winter festivals arose from the universal human experience the world grows darker and colder, the days becoming shorter leading up to the winter solstice. Perhaps this baraita explains the Rabbis’ observation that most every society has a midwinter festival that prominently features the symbolism of light in darkness. 

The baraita tells us that Adam feared that the days would continue to grow shorter until there would be nothing but darkness enveloping the whole world, all light annihilated as the world returned to the primordial chaos that existed before Creation. Adam assumed his own sins accounted for the terrifying diminution of daylight and unraveling of Creation. He hoped that if he fasted for eight days, God would accept his atonement and halt the world’s downslide into non-existence. These eight days were the shortest eight days of the year, just prior to the winter solstice.  After the solstice, Adam noticed that the days were no longer shortening; in fact, they were growing longer. He realized that the processes of nature, rather than his own actions, determine the course of the cosmos, and therefore spent the next eight days celebrating. The following year, Adam fixed both eight-day observances: eight days prior to the solstice and eight days following it. The story ends with the comment that whereas Adam fixed the two eight-day festivals for the sake of heaven, pagans corrupted them by keeping them as idolatrous festivals.

  1. Why do you think that Adam, upon realizing that the laws of nature determine the length of days, celebrated for eight days? Was it because the world would not end imminently or was it a relief to realize that his actions were not the cause of the world’s seemingly imminent demise? Why do you think Adam fixed both eight-day observances in the second year? Why keep the eight days during which the days grow shorter, as though the world is devolving back into chaos and void? Does the symmetry of the two festivals speak to you? If so, how?
  2. The baraita calls to mind the famous talmudic passage about Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai’s differing approaches to lighting the Chanukah menorah. Bet Shammai says: the first day they light eight lamps and thereafter decrease. Bet Hillel says: the first day they light one lamp and thereafter increase.” (BT Shabbat 21b) Comparing the two, perhaps Adam’s  eight days of fasting mirrors Bet Shammai’s practice in that the days and the lights grow dimmer each successive day. Adam’s eight days of celebration after the winter solstice mirrors Bet Hillel’s practice of increasing the light each successive day as the days grow longer. The Talmud presents both Bet Hillel’s and Bet Shammai’s practices as legitimate embellishment of the require to light a single candle each night of Chanukah, though in time, Hillel’s practice became normative. Given that the Rabbis represent Kalenda and Saturnalia as deriving from Adam’s two eight-day festivals (when, in  fact, Saturnalia lasted seven days), do you think the Rabbis had Chanukah in mind when they told the story of Adam’s two eight-day festivals bracketing the winter solstice? 
  3. Imagine we celebrated as both Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel instructed and kept Chanukah for 16 days: decreasing light for eight days prior to the 25th of Kislev, followed by increasing light for the next eight days. Aside from ingesting far too many latkes, how might the festival speak to the ups and downs of history, our communal lives, and our individual lives? Is there a message here about a natural cycle of times of darkness and light in our world, and maintaining the hope for light to return when we feel shrouded in darkness?

Monday, November 12, 2018

Coping with Fear — BT Berakhot 60a — #112

Our Rabbis taught [in a baraita]: It once happened that Hillel the Elder was traveling along the road [where he lived] when he heard screaming in (i.e., coming from) the city [he was approaching]. He said, “I am confident that this does not come from within my house.” Of him Scripture says: He shall not fear evil tidings; his heart is steadfast, confident in Adonai (Psalm 112:7). Rava said, “However you expound this verse—from beginning to end you may interpret it [i.e., the second clause may be understood to explain the first clause], or from end to beginning you may interpret it [i.e., the first clause can be read to explain the second]. [The verse] may be expounded from beginning to end [thusly]: He will not fear evil tidings. What is the reason? [Because] his heart is steadfast, confident in Adonai. [The verse] may be expounded from end to beginning [thusly]: His heart is steadfast, confident in Adonai [because] he shall not fear evil tidings.

Fear and misfortunate are inevitable elements of life and, for many, deeply intertwined. A diagnosis, illness, the shattering of an important relationship, loss of employment, not to mention any number of physical dangers all give rise to fear. As much as I prefer these editions of TMT to be timeless, the truth is today the Jewish world has cause for renewed fear. As the classic Jewish telegram has it: “Start worrying. Details to follow.” Many of us are again greeting an armed guard on our way into shul on shabbat, and we worry for our African American and Muslim friends and neighbors. We can draw strength from one another and the Talmud suggests a way to draw strength from God.

The mishnah (BT Berakhot 54a) that gives rise to this comment in the Gemara discusses what constitutes a prayer said in vain: any prayer hoping for an outcome that has already been determined. Mishnah provides two examples, the second of which is that if you are traveling home and hear the sound of screaming coming from your city, praying that not come from your house is a prayer said in vain—it either already is, or is not. This inspires the Rabbis to tell the story of Hillel who, upon finding himself in just this situation, expresses confidence that the screaming is not coming from his home. 

The Gemara comments that Hillel’s experience and consequent response to what would be a worrisome and frightening situation for most of us is mirrored by Psalm 112:7: He shall not fear evil tidings; his heart is steadfast, confident in Adonai. Psalm 112 delineates the blessings that redound to one who “fears Adonai.” Verse 7 is particularly apropos because hearing screams is akin to receiving “evil tidings”: both bad news and screaming are aural experiences that generate fear. Yet the second clause of Psalm 112:7 expresses confidence in God. What is the nature of this confidence? Is it a presumption of God’s protection from imminent danger, or the ability to endure inevitable fear? We cannot be certain. 

Rava explains that, in general, one can interpret a verse such as this with two clauses from “front to back” or “back to front.” This means that the second clause can be used to explain the first and vice versa. The implication is that either direction will supply the same meaning. But is this so? In the case of Psalm 112:7, we have two interpretative options:
    1. One need not fear bad news <——— full confidence in Adonai
    2. One need not fear bad news ———> full confidence in Adonai

Reading the verse “beginning to end” (#1) suggests that one who places confidence in God can hear bad news without being overcome by fear. Depending on one’s theology, this suggests two interpretative options: (a) Fear is not necessary due to the expectation that God will intervene and mitigate the bad news; or (b) Reliance on God affords one strength to cope with the fear that bad news generates (put another way: God’s presence in one’s life buoys one's strength in times of fear and danger because one knows they are not entirely alone). 

Reading the verse “end to beginning” (#2) works similarly. One can have confidence in God because or if one does not fear bad news. Full confidence in God changes how one hears the news: it doesn’t sound devastating to one who is fully confident in God to either intervene or provide strength and comfort (again, this depends upon your theology); hence it doesn’t generate crushing fear.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav
  1. How do you cope with fear? What helps you most? Do you lean on God?
  2. The Hasidic master, Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, is revered for many teachings, not least of  which is כל העולם גשר צר מאד, והעיקר לא להתפחד כלל “The entire world is a very narrow bridge, but the essential thing is not to succumb to fear.” (For a long time, this teaching was transmitted and translated incorrectly as: “…but the essential thing is not to fear.” Telling people not to fear is, of course, impossible, absurd, and perhaps cruel. However, encouraging people not let themselves be entirely overcome and overwhelmed by fear (as the original version does) is a reasonable and compassionate goal. Do you see a connection between not succumbing to fear—resisting the paralyzing power of fear—and Rava’s interpretation of Psalm 112:7?
  3. In light of Rava’s teaching, how would you interpret Exodus 15:20: עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ וַיְהִי לִי לִישׁוּעָה “My strength and God’s song have become my deliverance​“? How do your strength and God’s song interact? Can they be partners is responding to fear?

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Breaking Bad News — BT Baba Metzia 59b — #110

It was said: On that day all objects which R. Eliezer had declared tahor (ritually pure) were brought and purified through fire. Then the Sages took a vote and blessed [i. e., excommunicated] R. Eliezer. The Sages said, “Who shall go and inform him [that he has been excommunicated]?” “I will go,” answered R. Akiba, “lest someone inform him inappropriately and thus destroy the entire world.” What did R. Akiba do? He donned black garments and wrapped himself in black and went and sat at a distance of four cubits from R. Eliezer. “Akiba,” said Rabbi Eliezer, “what happened today?” “Master,” he replied, “it appears to me that your companions are avoiding you.” Thereupon, R. Eliezer also rent his garments, took off his shoes, got down off his chair, and sat on the ground, all the while tears streaming from his eyes. 

Have you ever needed to deliver bad news? Doctors, chaplains, and police officers do so as part of their job, but at one time or another, each of us is called upon to to inform someone of something that will pain, frighten, or devastate them. Is there a proper way to deliver bad news? 

This passage is part of what is arguably the best known sugya in all Talmud, the oven of Achnai. It caps off a story that illustrates the danger of “overreaching” with words. For the Sages, words have power, both for good and for evil. Just as God is said to have created the world with words, so too do we create worlds of reality and emotion with our words. At the end of a discussion on the danger of using words cruelly or carelessly, the Rabbis tell a story about R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus, who finds himself in fundamental opposition to his colleagues concerning a matter of ritual purity. When they vote, he refuses to abide by the majority’s decision and holds his ground. What ensues is nothing short of a literal natural disaster. R. Akiba attempts, with limited success, to redeem the situation through a sensitive use of words. The story overall has much to teach us. This short passage teaches us how we might deliver bad and painful news, which is certainly a way we use words for good or for ill.

The object under discussion is an oven, which R. Eliezer declares unsusceptible to ritual impurity, but the Sages declare in a vote to be impure. R. Eliezer’s refusal to accede to the majority means that his declarations of what is pure or impure can no longer be vouched for. Hence, everything he has declared ritually pure is forthwith considered suspect and requires purification by fire. But the Sages do not stop there. They take a second vote and excommunicate R. Eliezer (in absentia), an exceptionally harsh punishment that, in itself, is extreme overreaching. So horrific is the idea of excommunication that the Talmud cannot bring itself to use the term and employs the ironic euphemism “blessed.” 

Taking this harsh measure makes the Sages anxious. R. Eliezer, we learn in the earlier part of the story (not recounted here), is a miracle worker and wields enormous power. In this story alone, he causes a tree to uproot itself and jump 100 cubits (~150 feet), makes a stream flow backward, and causes the walls of the Study House to lean in menacingly on those within who dare to disagree with his judgment. Therefore, angering R. Eliezer has practical implications: he has supernatural power and is therefore dangerous. Excommunication is a dreadful punishment to bear, both because it brings shame and because it imposes restrictions on one’s associations: most notably, people in the community may not come closer than four cubits (~ 6 feet) to one who has been excommunicated.

R. Akiba, who enjoys a reputation for exceptional sensitivity, assumes the task on behalf of the Rabbis, lest someone perform it clumsily and R. Eliezer, enraged, wreak havoc on the community. Here is where the lesson on how to deliver bad news begins. R. Akiba dresses in black and sits four cubits away from R. Eliezer. He says nothing. Black garments, which R. Eliezer can see from a distance, signal that R. Akiba is mourning a great loss (the loss of R. Eliezer from the circle of scholars in the Study House). This immediately warns R. Eliezer that something bad has happened, but doesn’t assail him with the news. Since the restrictions of excommunication are well known, when R. Akiba sits at a distance of four cubits, R. Eliezer understands what has transpired. R. Akiba waits for R. Eliezer to speak first—he waits until R. Eliezer is emotionally ready to hear the news. When R. Eliezer finally asks, R. Akiba gently says that it appears that the other rabbis are avoiding him, without explicitly saying that R. Eliezer has been excommunicated. R. Akiba’s style is slow and gentle, conveying only as much as R. Eliezer is ready to absorb. Having digested R. Akiba’s communication in full, R. Eliezer mourns his loss of collegial community: he rends his cloak, removes his shoes, and sits low on the ground—several are mourning rituals practiced to this day—and he weeps. What the midrash does not tell us, but we are to understand, is that R. Akiba remains nearby, a comforting and consoling presence.

  1. Why do you think people often say “passed away” rather than “died”? Does it have something to do with the power of words and the starkness and finality of death? Do euphemisms protect the recipient of bad news, assuage the feelings of the bearer of bad tidings, or serve the needs of both? Are euphemisms for death intended to provide spiritual comfort, or do they allow the speaker to avoid being perceived as abrupt or offensive, avoid their own discomfort and grief?
  2. Have you ever delivered bad news and felt unequal to the task? Were you able to complete it in a way you consider honorable and compassionate?
  3. Why do people often rush giving bad news? Is it to minimize their own pain? How might you employ R. Akiba’s approach to delivering bad news?

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Bikkur Cholim — BT Shabbat 12b — #109

Rabbah b. Bar Chanah said, “When we followed R. Elazar to inquire after a sick person, sometimes he would say to him, [in Hebrew] ‘May the Omnipresent remember you for peace.’ At other times, he said, [in Aramaic] ‘May the Merciful One remember you for peace.’” But how could he do this [i.e., pray in Aramaic]? Did not Rav Yehudah say, “One should never petition for his needs in Aramaic,” and R. Yochanan say, “If one petitions for his needs in Aramaic, the Ministering Angels do not heed him because they do not understand Aramaic”? A sick person is different, because the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) is with him, for R. Anan said in Rav's name, “Whence do we know the Shekhinah helps the sick? As it is written, Adonai will sustain him on the sickbed (Psalm 41:4).” It was also taught in a baraita: One who visits the sick should not sit on the bed or on a chair; he should wrap himself and sit in front of him [on the floor] because the Shekhinah is above the sick person’s head, as it is said, Adonai will sustain him on the sickbed. And Rava said Ravin said, “Whence do we know the Holy Blessed One sustains the sick? Because it is said, Adonai will sustain him on the sickbed.”

Parshat Vayera opens, “Adonai appeared to [Abraham] by the terebinths of Mamre… Looking up, he saw three men standing near him.” Midrash explains that God visited Abraham as he recovered from his circumcision (recounted in verses immediately prior to this) and on God’s model, they learned bikkur cholim, the mitzvah of visiting the sick. This week’s TMT is passage from tractate Shabbat concerning bikkur cholim

In the midst of a conversation about the Mishnah’s prohibition (on 11a) against searching one’s garments for vermin or read by lamplight on shabbat evening, the Gemara takes an interesting turn to discuss bikkur cholim (visiting the sick) on shabbat. The underlying concern is that visiting the sick may cause the visitor to suffer; while visiting is permitted on shabbat, any suffering induced conflicts with oneg shabbat—shabbat is ideally a “day of delight.” The discussion of bikkur cholim, however, does not mention any possible conflict with shabbat. Rather, it goes in a most unexpected direction.

Rabbah b. Bar Chanah recounts that when R. Elazar visited the sick, he sometimes prayed in Hebrew and other times in Aramaic, presumably based on which language the sick person understood. The anonymous narrator, however, is surprised that R. Elazar ever couched a prayer for recovery from illness in Aramaic because Rav Yehudah taught that petitionary prayers should never be made in Aramaic and R. Yochanan taught that prayers for the ill in Aramaic are ineffectual because “the Ministering Angels” don’t understand Aramaic and therefore cannot respond. At first glance, the claim that the Ministering Angels are conversant in some languages  but not others may seem humorous, but upon further reflection, this statement is both confounding and troubling. Do we not pray directly to God? Are the Ministering Angels intermediaries? Commentators through the ages have twisted themselves in knots to explain this passage, including: angels literally don’t know Aramaic; Aramaic is an inferior language; angels do not convey prayers to God but rather carry out God’s will in response to prayers uttered to God in any language (if so, the language of prayer should be a moot point, no?); those who pray in Aramaic do so with less kavanah (intention) than if they used Hebrew (really?). It truly seems that at least some sages believed the Ministering Angels played an intermediary role conveying our prayers to God. 

The Gemara resolves the concern by asserting that the Shekhinah (God’s Divine Presence) is aware of sick people and is present for them. R. Anan supplies a proof text he learned from Rav: Psalm 41:4 assures us that “Adonai will sustain him on the sickbed.” In addition to resolving the problem created by the presumption that the Ministering Angels act as intermediaries to God, I imagine that the assertion that God is nearby and present to people who are sick is exceptionally comforting, particularly in a world that offers little effective medical care and few curative pharmaceuticals, let alone medicines to relieve pain.

The Hebrew term in Psalm 41:4 (samech-ayin-daled), here translated “sustain,” has a wide range of meanings. It connotes “support,” “assist,” “nurse (i.e., take care of),” and “feed.” The verse (Psalm 41:4) is cited twice more. It is mentioned in a baraita to explain why one should sit on the floor rather than on the bed or a chair when visiting the sick. If the Divine Presence is understood to be hovering above the patient’s head, a visitor who sits on the bed or on a chair is above the Shekhinah; in God’s presence, humility is required. Psalm 41:4 is employed a third time by Rava in the name of Ravin, to prove that God sustains those who are sick, suggesting that God feeds or nourishes those who are sick. 

  1. Does it matter what language one uses to pray? Can prayer be expressed without formal language, without words?
  2. When you visit one who is sick, where do you sit? What do you consider when choosing where to sit (e.g., the presence of the Shekhinah, the nature of your relationship with the sick person, the physical and/or emotional needs of the person you’re visiting, the possibility of contagion)?
  3. The third mention of Psalm 41:4 seems to suggest that God provides food to nourish the sick. Yet the Shulchan Aruch (YD 335:8) asserts that one of the primary purposes in visiting the sick is to ascertain their needs and make arrangements for fulfilling them. This would naturally include food. How do you understand the Gemara’s claim here? Is there possibly a suggestion here that those who bring food to the home of the sick are working as God’s hands?

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Udder Confusion — BT Chullin 109b-110a — #108

Yalta said to Rav Nachman, “For anything the Merciful One prohibited to us, [God] permitted something similar: [God] prohibited blood but permitted [eating] liver; not a menstruant, but the blood of purity; not fat of a domesticated animal, but fat of an undomesticated animal; not pork but the brain of a shibuta fish; not giruta [a non-kosher fish], but tongue of a fish; not the wife of another man, but a divorcee during [her previous] husband’s lifetime; not one’s brother’s wife, but levirate marriage; not a gentile woman, but a beautiful [captive of war] woman. I wish to eat meat [cooked] in milk.” Rav Nachman told [his] cooks, “Roast udders on a spit for her.” But didn’t we learn [in the mishnah] “The udder must be cut open”? That is only with regard to [cooking in] a pot [not roasting]. Isn’t it taught [in a previously cited baraita]: [An udder] cooked [in its milk is permitted]—after the fact, but not from the start? The same is true even from the start because [the tanna of the baraita] uses this language because he wants to teach in the latter clause: “A stomach cooked with milk” is prohibited. There, it may not [be eaten] even after the fact. [The tanna]  taught the first clause [this way], as well: [An udder] cooked [in its milk is permitted].

The story above concerns a debate about an act done intentionally that might be interpreted to violate the separation of meat and dairy foods, which is a pillar of kashrut. According to halakhah, there are acts that are forbidden whether done intentionally or inadvertently. Other acts are impermissible from the start (i.e., if performed intentionally) but after the fact (if done inadvertently) they are permissible. For example: if parve food, such as rice or lentils, is cooked in a clean meat pot, may it be served with dairy food? Joseph Karo (16th century), author of the Shulchan Arukh, wrote that it may, but only if the mistake were discovered after the fact. However, Karo himself later cited Rabbeinu Yerucham (14th century) who permitted parve food intentionally cooked (“from the start”) in a meat pot to be served with a dairy meal. Rav Nachman contrives a way to fulfill the wish of his wife Yalta to taste meat and milk together.

Yalta is the wife of Rav Nachman, the wealthy and powerful exilarch of the Jewish community in Babylonia. Yalta is mentioned several times in the Babylonian Talmud. She is consistently presented as clever, educated, and the recipient of her husband’s efforts to please her. This story, more than any other, brings all these together. 

Yalta makes a fascinating argument concerning God’s prohibitions and then marshals a clever array of facts to back it up. She claims: for everything God forbids, there is something similar permitted as compensation. She supplies eight examples: four concern food, one concerns sexual intimacy, and three concern sexual partners. In that order (which is not identical with the order presented in the Gemara): Torah forbids the consumption of blood (Lev. 17:13-14) but permits liver, which retains the taste of blood. Fat of domesticated animals is impermissible (Lev. 7:23), but the fat of undomesticated animals is not proscribed. Pork is forbidden (Lev. 11:3) but the brain of a shibuta fish, which tastes like pork, is permitted. Torah’s standards for fish (fins and scales) rules out the giruta, but the tongues of permitted fish taste much the same. Sexual intercourse with a niddah (menstruant) is forbidden (Lev. 18:19, 20:18) but there are times when blood flow (“blood of purity”) does not make sexual intimacy impermissible. Concerning sexual partners, sexual intercourse with a married woman is adultery (Ex. 20:13, Dt. 5:17) but marriage to a divorcee, even while her previous husband is alive, is permitted (presumably this carries a hint of the thrill of adultery). A man may not have sex with his brother’s wife (Lev. 18:16), yet the law of levirate marriage (Dt. 25:5-10) can sometimes require a man to marry his brother’s widow. Marriage to a non-Jew is forbidden (Dt. 7:3), yet is effectively permitted when the woman is taken captive in war (Dt. 21:10-14). Having asserted that there is always an “exception to the rule,” if one is clever enougsh to recognize it, Yalta proclaims her desire to taste milk and meat together. Rav Nachman, who wishes to please her, orders his cooks to roast an udder, presumably because the udder retains some of the milk it produced.

The Gemara now discusses whether Rav Nachman’s instructions to his cooks—intentionally planning to combine milk and meat from the start—delegitimizes the outcome. The mishnah preceding the story said: “The udder must be cut open and emptied of its milk. If he did not cut it open, he has not transgressed. The heart must be cut open and emptied of its blood. If he did not cut it open, he has not transgressed.” It seems clear enough that only milk expressed from a living animal counts as milk that may not be combined with meat. However, in the Gemara that follows, the Rabbis compare the case of the udder and the heart, claiming that the heart must be cut open even after cooking to remove the blood because blood may not be eaten under all circumstances, unlike milk which is permissible to consume. Prior to our story, the Rabbis also contrasted the case of the udder with that of the stomach of a nursing calf. While the latter is always forbidden—even after the fact—the udder is permissible before or after the fact. Thus, Rav Nachman’s stratagem to combine the udder (flesh) with its milk for Yalta is permissible.

  1. In Yalta’s novel view, God balances prohibitions with corresponding permissions. What insights can you derive from this? Does it have implications for how authorities or parents make rules?
  2. Having argued that God is as much about permission and prohibition, Yalta trusts Rav Nachman to find a way for her to taste milk and meat together. It would have been easier for him to say, “Sorry, not allowed.” Instead, he figured out a way to provide what she wanted. How is this a model for marital (and other) relationships?
  3. Many people find fulfillment in upholding religious strictures. Others feel suffocated by them. Does this story speak to those in the latter group? If so, how?