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Friday, January 31, 2020

#152: The Goose & the Gander — Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Moses made haste and bowed his head toward the ground and prostrated himself [before God] (Exodus 34:8). What did Moses see? R. Chanina b. Gamla said: [Moses] saw [God’s attribute of] Slow to Anger. But the Rabbis say: [Moses] saw [God’s attribute] of Truth. It is taught by the one who said that [Moses] saw Slow to Anger, as it is taught [in a baraita]: When Moses ascended to heaven, he found the Holy Blessed One sitting and writing, “Slow to Anger.” [Moses] said to [God], “Master of the universe, is Slow to Anger [only] for the righteous?” [God] said to him, “Even for the wicked.” [Moses] said to [God], “Let the wicked be obliterated.” [God] said to him, “Now (i.e., in time) you will see that you need this.” When Israel sinned [in response to the report of the spies, at which time Moses implored God to forgive the people], [God] said to [Moses], “Did you not say to Me that Slow to Anger should be for the righteous [alone]?” [Moses] said to [God], “Master of the universe, and is this not what You said to me: ‘[Slow to Anger] is even for the wicked’?” This is [the meaning of] that which is written, Therefore, I pray You, let Adonai’s forbearance be great, as You have spoken, saying… (Numbers 14:17). (BT Sanhedrin 111a, b)

The human proclivity for vengeance and retribution needs no introduction. Most all of us are living proof that the tendency to approve punishment for those we don’t like far exceeds our  sense that justice demands equal treatment for our friends and allies. The passage above envisions Moses wrestling with this all-too-human emotional and moral dilemma. At the root of the discussion is a famous account in Exodus of Moses’ direct view of God on Mount Sinai: Adonai came down in a cloud; [God] stood with [Moses] there and proclaimed the name “Adonai.” Adonai passed before [Moses] and proclaimed, “Adonai! Adonai! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet [God] does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.” (Exodus 34:5-7) This passage is known as “The Thirteen Attributes” it enumerates. These verses emphasize that God’s forgiveness, which extend to “the thousandth generation” over God’s willingness to punish evil-doers, which extends only to “the third and fourth generations.”

Given that Torah asserts that God descended in a cloud and stood alongside Moses, the Rabbis ask: What, precisely, did Moses see in that moment that led him to hastily prostrate himself before God just as God finished proclaiming the Thirteen Attributes? R. Chanina b. Gamla says Moses saw the middah (attribute or character trait) of Erekh Apayim (Slow to Anger), God’s forbearance and reluctance to punish. R. Chanina’s colleagues disagree, claiming Moses bowed in homage to Truth. However, a baraita is brought in support of R. Chanina’s opinion; it claims that Moses paid prostrated before God in that particular moment precisely because he saw God writing the words “Slow to Anger” into the Torah that God would momentarily reveal to Moses. He asks God if this consideration would be given only to righteous people. God responds no: Slow to Anger is for all people, including the wicked. Moses objects, telling God that the wicked should be quickly destroyed. But God enigmatically replies: Don’t be too quick to wish for that, Moses because a time will come when you will request that I exercise just this attribute in favor of  people who exhibit behavior you now condemn; then you will be glad Slow to Anger applies to them, as well.

Sure enough, what God predicts transpires. As recounted in Numbers chapters 13-14, Moses dispatches twelve spies on a reconnaissance mission of the Land of Israel, ten return with a negative report that frightens and disheartens the people. As a result, Israel rebels against God’s command and threatens to pelt Moses and Aaron with stones. God expresses the desire to strike the people with pestilence and disown them (14:12) but Moses exhorts God to forgive them, evoking God’s exceptional forbearance (14:18). In his own enumeration of God’s divine attributes, closely echoing Exodus 34:5-7. Moses lists Slow to Anger first. Perhaps this fascinating detail inspired this aggadic narrative: Adonai! Slow to anger and abounding in kindness; forgiving iniquity and transgression; yet not remitting all punishment, but visiting the iniquity of parents upon children, upon the third and fourth generation (v. 18). Moses concludes, Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to Your great kindness, as You have forgiven this people ever since Egypt (v. 19). The phrase, “as You have forgiven…ever since Egypt” evokes the notion of Slow to Anger. And, indeed, God pardons Israel (v. 20). God’s warning to Moses has come to fruition. If Slow to Anger is appropriate for the righteous, who are not in need of forgiveness because they have not sinned, do not the wicked need God’s forbearance and forgiveness all the more? Is not what’s good and due the righteous goose good and appropriate for the wicked gander, as well?

  1. Is the middah (attribute) of Erekh Apayim—being slow to anger and not rushing to judgment— an unearned concession to the wicked, or a fundamental element of justice? Why or why not? Are there implications for criminal and civic justice in our own times? What are the implications for our personal relationships?
  2. The principle of God’s forbearance toward both for righteous and wicked is encapsulated in a narrative about Moses’ inability to understand and foresee that he might value God’s forbearance at a future time when Israel is “wicked.” Can you identify real-world examples when you were unable to see the other side of an issue until it impacted your life personally?
  3. Do you consider yourself slow to anger? If not, how might you cultivate this attribute?

Friday, January 10, 2020

#151: The King & the Judge — Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Why are the kings of Israel [not judged]? Because of an incident that occurred. The slave of King Yannai killed a person. Shimon b. Shetach said to the Sages, “Set your eyes on him and let us judge him.” They sent [a message] to [King Yannai]: Your slave killed a person. [Yannai] sent [his slave] to them. They sent [another message] to Yannai: You come here also, [because concerning], [the ox] and its owner (Exodus 21:29) Torah stated that the owner should come and stand [trial] with his ox. [Yannai] came and sat. Shimon b. Shetach said to him, “King Yannai, stand on your feet and [witnesses] will bear witness against you. It is not before us that you stand, but rather you stand before the One Who Spoke and the World Came Into Being, as it says, the two parties to the dispute shall appear before Adonai (Deuteronomy 19:17).” [Yannai] said to him, “I will not [comply] when you [alone] tell me, but rather only if your colleagues say so.” [Shimon b. Shetach] turned right. [The judges to his right] forced themselves to look down at the ground. He turned to the left. [The judges to his left] forced themselves to look to the ground. Shimon b. Shetach said to them [i.e., all the judges], “You are masters of thought. May the Master of Thought punish you.” Immediately, [the angel] Gabriel came and struck them to the ground and they died. At that moment, [the Rabbis] said: A king does not judge [others] and [others] do not judge him. He does not testify [against others] and [others] do not testify against him. (BT Sanhedrin 19a,b)

Torah expresses deep reservations about Israel’s desire to be ruled by a king out of concern for the potential, or perhaps likelihood, that a king would abuse his power. Deuteronomy 7:14–20 restricts a king’s wealth, military power, and ability to make personal alliances with other nations  through marriage. At the same time, Torah assigns to the Levites the exclusive right to interpret the law. The Rabbis considered themselves the rightful inheritors of levitical authority and, accordingly, run the courts.

Tractate Sanhedrin delineates the structure, organization, and procedures rabbinical courts must follow. Without  explanation, mishnah 2:2 specifies, “The king may neither judge nor be judged; may not give testimony nor may others testify against him…”  The Gemara explains this by means of a narrative concerning an occasion when Shimon b. Shetach, president of the Sanhedrin, attempted to summon to court the second Hasmonean ruler, King Yannai (AKA Alexander Jannaeus), in the late second century BCE. Although Yannai initially complies, things do not proceed smoothly. The action quickly focuses on the underlying conflict between Shimon b. Shetach’s authority and King Yannai’s power.

The Sanhedrin, the rabbinical court, is called upon to adjudicate a case of murder. Shimon b. Shetach, president of the Sanhedrin, summons the accused, a slave belonging to King Yannai, to court via a message to the king. Yannai initially complies. The sage then demands that the king, himself, appear alongside his slave, citing a law in Torah that holds the owner of an ox responsible for damage wrought by his animal. The analogy of the slave-king to an ox-owner relationship implies that just as the ox should be supervised and controlled at all times by the owner or the owner’s agent, the king should do likewise vis-a-vis his slave and bears responsibility for crimes committed by the slave. Given that the slave is a human, not an animal, this argument is dubious at best. Initially, Yannai appears compliant. As the action unfolds, however, we find ourselves amidst a pitched battle between Shimon b. Shetach’s authority and King Yannai’s power. Shimon b. Shetach demands that the king stand in court, a posture of deference and respect that is generally the inverse of the usual posture whereby a king sits on his throne and others stand before him. The sage specifically notes that the king must stand not before the sages who serve as justices, but before God, the ultimate power and authority of the universe. Yannai, whom we easily picture brimming with contempt, neither stands nor utters a word in response. Rather, he stares menacingly at the rabbi-justices arrayed to Shimon’s right and left. They all look down at the ground, signaling submission to the king’s superior power. The story does not end with either King Yannai’s conviction or exoneration, but rather with Shimon b. Shetach castigating his colleagues, whom he condemns as having failed in their duty as “masters of thought” on the model of the Divine “Master of Thought.” Heaven apparently concurs in this judgment and carries out the ultimate punishment: the justices who deferred to the king all die.

  1. Do you think that King Yannai initially appears in court to show deference to the Rabbis, or  intends all along to intimidate them with a show of steely confidence in his superior power in the very location where they exert their authority and thereby issue a warning?
  2. Did Shimon b. Shetach exercise his authority properly? If a king is beholden to the laws of the Torah no less than any other citizen, should the courts try him for violations of the law or summon him as a witness to a crime?  Does the conflict between King Yannai and Shimon b. Shetach center on law or the practical reality of the uneven distribution of power between the ancient Jewish “executive” and rabbinic judiciary? Do you find parallels today?
  3. The rabbi-justices meekly submit to Yannai’s power. Should we understand this as tacit agreement that Shimon b. Shetach is overreaching in his attempt to call the king as a witness or try him for murder (as the “owner of the ox”)? Or, are the sages thoroughly intimidated and terrified by the king? Might their fate at the hands of Heaven be considered middah k’neged middah (“measure for measure”): they looked down to the ground in acquiescence to human power, rather than up to heaven in obedience to the divine authority invested in the Sanhedrin? Can you envision another outcome for the situation described in the narrative?

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Ten Minutes of Talmud #150: How to Give Tzedakah — Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Mar Ukva had a poor man in his neighborhood into whose door socket he would throw four zuz every day. Once the poor man thought, “I will go and see who is doing me this kindness.” On that day it happened that Mar Ukva was delayed at the Bet Midrash (Study House) and his wife was accompanying him. As soon as the poor man saw [someone] turning the door, he went out after them. They fled from him and ran into an oven from which the coals had just been swept. Mar Ukva's feet were getting burned so his wife said to him, “Lift your feet and place them on my feet.” Mar Ukva was distraught. His wife said to him, “I am usually at home and my charity is immediate.”
 And what was the reason for all that? Because, Mar Zutra b. Toviah said in the name of Rav and others say R. Huna b. Bizna said in the name of R. Shimon the Pious and yet others say R. Yochanan said in the name of R. Shimon b. Yochai: it is better to deliver oneself into a fiery oven than to publicly humiliate another person.” Whence do we [learn] this? From Tamar, as it is written, She was brought forth (Genesis 38:25). (BT Ketubot 67b)

Rambam (Moses Maimonides, 1138-1204) famously taught in his Mishneh Torah (Matanot Ani’im 10) that while all generosity is commendable and fulfills the mitzvah of tzedakah, some forms are superior to others. He expressed his as a ladder of Eight Levels of Charity, each rung higher than the next. Upon examination, it becomes clear that Rambam believed that the giver’s attitude matters (cheerful generosity is superior to grudging giving, even if the amounts are equal). In addition, giving before being asked is better than giving only upon request. Also clear is that, for Rambam, the anonymity is desirable and that of the donor vis-a-vis the recipient is more important, perhaps so that the recipient’s dignity is not compromised by knowing their source of support. Certainly, talmudic wisdom circulated through Rambam’s veins and the story of Mar Ukva may have influenced him on this last point, in particular.

Mar Ukva is unquestionably a righteous man. Noting his neighbor’s need, he finds a way to supply the funds his neighbor needs to live each and every day while maintaining his own anonymity so that  the neighbor need not feel dependent upon or indebted to Mar Ukva.
Perhaps it is inevitable that the scheme, depending as it does on precise timing, breaks down one day when Mar Ukva stays late at the Bet Midrash. His neighbor, seeing the door move, realizes that his mysterious benefactor is delivering money and pursues him, most likely eager to learn his identity and thank him for his generosity. Mar Ukva, eager to remain anonymous, flees the scene together with his wife who happens to accompany him that day. They find a surprising place to secret themselves: mostly likely this is a communal oven, which would have been  accessible from the street and large enough for two people to enter. We are told that it had recently been swept of coals left over from cooking, which also suggests that it is still hot inside. As we might suspect, Mar Ukva’s feet are burned. Surprisingly, his wife’s feet are not. She therefore invites him to stand on her apparently impervious feet. It would appear that Mar Ukva complies, but he is nonetheless distraught because he believes that her immunity to the heat of the oven means her merits exceed his. He has scrupulously fulfilled the mitzvah of tzedakah, going to great lengths to support his poor neighbor each and every day, yet his efforts do not afford him the protection his wife enjoys. Recognizing his emotional distress, his wife offers an explanation: because she is home most of the time, poor people can easily find her and secure a donation immediately in response to their need.

Having told the story of Mar Ukva and his neighbor, the Rabbis ask: Why did Mar Ukva go to so much trouble to remain anonymous, an effort that led him to hide in a dangerous place and sustain injury? The answer and proof text they provide is nearly identical to what we find in BT Baba Metzia 59a: “It is better to cast oneself into a fiery furnace than to publicly humiliate another person.” It is tempting to conjecture that Baba Metzia contains the original version of this hyperbolic expression of antipathy toward publicly shaming and that the story of Mar Ukva in tractate Ketubot is constructed to illustrate the principle literally. The proof text supplied concerns Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah, son of Jacob (see Genesis 38). Tamar was married to Judah’s son Er, who died before having children. By the law of levirate marriage, Er’s son Onan married Tamar. He, too, died, before having children. Judah should have married Tamar to his third son, Shelah, but did not. Tamar therefore disguised herself as a prostitute and sat at a crossroads Judah would pass on his way to shear his sheep. Judah hired her, depositing his signet, cords, and staff with her in lieu of payment. Sometime later, when it became obvious that Tamar was pregnant, Judah accused her of adultery and condemned her to be burned to death. Tamar could have publicly humiliated Judah by revealing his signet, cords, and staff. Instead, she presented them to him privately, sparing him public humiliation.

  1. Rambam’s scale of giving is 1 through 8, where 1 is the highest level. He ranks giving when “the donor knows who the recipient is, but the recipient does not know the source” as #3 on his scale, but “giving directly to the poor upon being asked” as only #6. How might he compare Mar Ukva’s giving with his wife’s giving? How might he respond to her explanation?
  2. Setting aside Rambam’s view, and focusing on what the Talmud is teaching us, is Mar Ukva’s wife attempting to assuage her husband’s distress when she explains that her tzedakah is more immediate, or is she revealing another facet—immediate response to those in need—to what constitutes desirable giving? How does the story support the view that her giving is superior?
  3. Do you think the oven functions as a location that affords a means of comparing the righteousness of Mar Ukva and his wife, or a location that conveys Mar Ukva’s sense that he deserves to be punished for his failure to deliver his tzedakah anonymously, or both?

Friday, December 13, 2019

#149: Whose Land? — Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

MISHNAH: Whence [do we know] that [in] a six-by-six handbreadth garden plot one may plant five [species] of seeds, four on the four sides of the garden and one in the middle? Because it is written, For as the earth brings forth its growth, and as a garden causes its seeds to grow… (Isaiah 61:11). It does not say “its seed” but rather “its seeds.”
 GEMARA: Whence [do we know five species are permitted]? Rav Yehudah said: For as the earth brings forth its growth. “Brings forth” is one. “Its vegetation” is one, making two. “Its seeds” is plural, making four. “Cause to grow” is one, [totaling] five. The Sages have a substantial tradition that five [species] in a six-[by-six square garden] do not draw sustenance from one another. How do we know the Sages’ view is reliable? R. Chiyya bar Abba said that R. Yochanan said: What [is the meaning of], Do not move your neighbor’s boundary set by the early ones (Deuteronomy 19:14)? Do not encroach on the boundary set by earlier generations. What does “set by the early ones” [mean]? R. Shmuel bar Nachmani said in the name of R. Yonatan: What is the meaning of the verse, These are the sons of Seir the Chori who live in the land… (Genesis 36:20)? Does everyone else live in the sky? Rather, it means they were experts in settling the land, for they would say, “This rod’s length [of land] is for olive trees. This rod’s length is for grapevines. This rod’s length is for figs.” They were called Chori (Horites) because they smelled (heirichu) the earth. They were called Chivi (Hittites) [see Genesis 36:2] because, as Rav Pappa said, they would taste the earth like a snake (chivya). Rav Acha bar Yaakov said: [They were called] Chori (Horites) because they were freed (b’nai chorin) of their possessions. (BT Shabbat 84b-85a)

Torah prohibits kilayim, the mixing of plant or animal species (see Lv. 19:19 and Dt. 22:9-11).  The Mishnah expands the prohibition to include mixtures of seeds in a garden or vineyard, grafting, and cross-breeding. Today, kilayim is best known with regard to mixing wool and linen fibers in one garment. On the basis of the use of the plural “seeds” in Isaiah 61:11, M Shabbat 5:2 stipulates that in a modestly-sized garden plot—needed to support a family—one may plant a variety of species if they arranged with space between them allowed to lie fallow.

Gemara seeks to understand mishnah’s specification that precisely five species are permitted. Rav Yehudah derives permission from a close reading of the Isaiah verse, which is composed of five phrases that refer to the growth of vegetation in a garden. Notwithstanding Rav Yehudah’s scriptural justification, the Rabbis are concerned that if close enough, plants could forge physical connections (i.e., among their roots) by which they nourish one another, thereby violating the prohibition of mixing species. R. Chiyya bar Abba in the name of R. Yochanan offers support by the biblical prohibition (Dt. 19:14) against moving boundary markers erected to define and secure long-established tribal borders. Just as borders are recognized on the basis of long-accepted claims of ownership, so too each species “owns” its own section of the garden plot. R. Shmuel bar Nachmani then evokes Esau’s descendants with a laser focus on the seemingly superfluous phrase “inhabitants of Seir who live in the land.” Certainly they live in the land; after all, does anyone live in the sky? What, then, does this phrase teach us? Employing a rabbinic etymological interpretation, R. Shmuel tells us that “inhabitants of Seir” means they knew precisely where to plant olive trees, grapevines, and figs, presumably in adherence to the strict separation of species kilayim to prevent intermingling and to ensure maximum yield. Further, they were called Chori (Horites) because they “smelled” (heirichu) precisely where to plant each species: transposition of the letters chet and resh in Chori (Horite) produces rei’ach (“scent”). This mode of interpretation is employed by Rav Pappa, as well, noting that earlier in the same chapter (Genesis 36:2) we learn that Esau married not only the daughter of Elon the Hittite, but also the daughter of Tzivon the Chivi (Hivite); hence Esau’s descendants—the “inhabitants of Seir who live in the land”—include Hivites. Through the similarity between Chivi (Hivite) and chivya (“snake”), Rav Pappa explains that, “who live in the land” means the descendants of Esau could, like a snake, taste the earth—an expression of their exceptional knowledge of the land and how and where to plant each species.

This brings us to Rav Acha bar Yaakov’s enigmatic comment. He dissents from R. Shmuel bar Nachmani’s interpretation of Chori (Horites), connecting Chori instead to b’nai chorin, a phrase found in the blessings recited every morning, which means “free.” The “inhabitants of Seir who live in the land” are called Chori (Horites), Rav Acha tells us, because they were freed of their possessions—that is, dispossessed of their land.

  1. Do you think “smelling” and “tasting” the earth celebrate a deep attachment to and knowledge of the land or, given that Horites and Hivites are Canaanites, this is a subtle deprecation of the physical focus of their lives? In our time, should it be viewed positively or negatively?
  2. The purpose of the mitzvah of kilayim is unclear. Some have suggested it relates to an ancient sensibility concerning God’s creation that all things be separated into their proper realms (see Genesis chapter 1). Could R. Shmuel bar Nachmani’s interpretation concerning the non-Jewish inhabitants of Seir who, being experts on the land’s fertility, plant each species separately, suggest there is a natural, biological basis for kilayim? 
  3. Many people throughout history have been dispossessed of their ancestral land. Do you think that Rav Acha’s dissenting opinion of “Chivi” is merely an alternative interpretation? Do you think its pointed reference to the dispossession of the Hivites from their land (particularly in the context of Dt. 19:14) is a justification of Jewish sovereignty looking far back in time? How does the lack of historical evidence to support the “events” Torah recounts influence your view? Does this conversation contribute to thinking about the issue of the ownership of land?

Monday, November 18, 2019

#148: Destiny or Mitzvot? (Part 2) — Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

From [what happened to] Shmuel, [we can conclude] there is also no constellation for Israel (i.e., the Jewish people). Shmuel and Avlet were sitting together and [saw] some people going to a lake. Avlet said to Shmuel, “This person will go but he will not return. A snake will bite him and he will die.” Shmuel said to him, “If he is a Jew, he will go and return.” While they were sitting, [the person under discussion] went and returned. Avlet arose and threw down [the man’s] pack, and found within a snake severed in two. Shmuel said to [the man], “What did you do?” He said to [Shmuel], “Every day we all take bread and eat [together]. Today, one of us did not have bread. He was embarrassed. I said to [the others], ‘I will go and collect [bread from everyone].’ When I came to him, I made it appear as if I were taking [bread] from him so he would not be embarrassed.” [Shmuel] said to him, “You performed a mitzvah.” Shmuel went and taught: Charity will save from death (Proverbs 10:2; also 11:4)—not only from an unusual death, but from death itself.  (BT Shabbat 156b)

TMT 147 featured a disagreement between R. Chanina, and R. Yochanan and Rav concerning astrology. Astrology was a serious science in Babylonia during the period of the Talmud. Some rabbis, including R. Chanina, claimed stars had the power to determine one’s destiny and the  ability of the astrologer to decipher it. R. Yochanan and Rav allowed this may be true for Gentiles, but categorically rejected the notion that constellations determine the destiny of Jews, individually or as a nation. Legitimizing astrology suggests that God is not wholly in charge, or that God outsources a vitally important matter to elements of creation. R. Yochanan and Rav drew their proofs from scriptural verses. Talmud then offers a proof based on an event witnessed by Shmuel, the scholar and astronomer who headed the academy in Nehardea in Babylonia. The Rabbis tell a story that places a Jewish astronomer who rejects astrology together with a Gentile astrologer to show the illegitimacy of astrology.

The sage Shmuel is sitting with a Gentile named Avlet. We know little about Avlet, but given the situation and conversation, it is reasonable to surmise that a shared fascination with the stars brings them together in conversation. Shmuel is an astronomer. Avlet is an astrologer. As they sit together, they see a group of people heading out for a hike to a lake. Avlet, who claims to be able to decipher people’s destinies by the alignment of the stars, informs Shmuel that one particular member of the party (let’s call him Reuven) will be bitten by a poisonous snake during the hike. As a result, Avlet says, Reuven will die and not return with the rest of his companions. Shmuel, who rejects the validity of astrology in the lives of Jews, accordingly rejects Avlet’s prediction. He responds that if Reuven is a Jew, Avlet’s prediction will come to naught and Reuven will return safely. And indeed, Reuven returns very much alive, proving Avlet wrong and Shmuel right. (This is either a very long conversation, or one that occurs in installments, because the hiker returns several days later.)

But couldn’t Shmuel be correct and Reuven not die from some other cause? It’s one thing to predict Reuven’s from a poisonous snake bite, but quite another to claim he will return alive. All confident predictions of events we would consider otherwise unforeseeable (like a snake bite) presume predestination. On what can such a prediction be based?

Surprised to see Reuven return alive, Avlet rises, takes hold of Reuven’s backpack, and examines its contents. He finds inside a dead snake cut through—the very snake Avlet had predicted would kill the hiker. Shmuel asks Reuven what he did, the implication being that he must have done something so meritorious that God intervened and protected him from the poisonous snake—proving that constellations do not determine destiny because a person can influence their future by performing mitzvot. Reuven explains that each day he and his comrades pooled and shared their food supplies. On the last day of their outing, one person had nothing left to contribute and therefore would feel embarrassed. To prevent his embarrassment, Reuven took it on himself to make the food collection. He make it appear to everyone that the person without bread had, in fact, contributed to the food collection, thereby performing the mitzvah of saving the man from public embarrassment. This act of charity, Shmuel concludes, is what determined his fate. Quoting Proverbs 10:2, Shmuel extends the scope of his claim: Not only do the stars not determine or predict our future, and not only can acts of charity protect one from an unusual death (e.g., the snake crawling into Reuven’s backpack) but all the more so, charity can protect  the giver from death in general.

  1. Why do you think some people would choose to believe that personality traits or one’s future are determined by astrological signs?
  2. What do you think Shmuel means by "not only from an unusual death, but from death itself?” On the basis of “Charity saves from death,” some Jews carry tzedakah onboard an airplane to disburse in Israel, believing God will protect them while engaged in an act of tzedakah. Do you agree with this interpretation-application of Shmuel’s teaching? Or does this make tzedakah a talisman?
  3. Mo’ed Katan 28a (below) seems to contradict the claims here and in TMT 147 that constellations have no bearing on destiny. How do you understand this passage? Can you reconcile the two?
Rava said: Lifespan, children, and income are not contingent on merit; rather, they depend on mazel (“constellation”). Consider two righteous rabbis: Rabbah and Rav Chisda. When one would pray, rain would fall, and when the other would pray, rain would fall. Rav Chisda lived 92 years; Rabbah lived 40 years. The house of Rav Chisda [celebrated] 60 wedding feasts; the house of Rabbah [experienced] 60 calamities. (Mo’ed Katan 28a)

Monday, November 4, 2019

#147: It’s All in the Stars (part 1) — Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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It was stated: R. Chanina says: A constellation makes one wise, a constellation makes one wealthy, and there is a constellation for the Jewish people. R. Yochanan said: There is no constellation for the Jewish people. R. Yochanan reasoned: Whence [do we know] there is no constellation for the Jewish people? As it is stated, Thus said Adonai: Do not learn to go the way of the nations and do not be dismayed by portents in the sky; let the nations be dismayed by them! (Jeremiah 10:2) The nations will be dismayed, but not the Jewish people. And Rav also holds there is no constellation for the Jewish people, as Rav Yehudah said that Rav said: Whence [do we know] there is no constellation for the Jewish people? As it is stated, [God] took [Abraham] outside [and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars if you are able to count them. And [God] added, “So shall your offspring be.”] (Genesis 15:5) Abraham said to the Holy Blessed One, “Master of the universe, [since You have granted me no offspring,] my steward [Eliezer] will be my heir (Genesis 15:3).” [God] said to [Abraham], “No. None but your very own issue shall be your heir (Genesis 15:4).” [Abraham] said before [God], “Master of the universe, I looked into my astrological map and I am not fit to have a son.” [God] said to  him, “Emerge from your astrology because there is no constellation for Israel. Are you thinking that because Tzedek (Jupiter) is in the west? I will restore and establish it in the east.” Thus it is written, Who has roused a victor from the East, and will call justice to his steps, [has delivered up nations to him, and trodden sovereigns down? Has rendered their swords like dust, their bows like wind-blown straw?] (Isaiah 41:2).
(BT Shabbat 156a,b)

In ancient times, the movement of constellations across the night sky was foundational to the development of calendrical systems, but also presumed to have influence far beyond. The Persian culture of Babylonia in which the Rabbis were immersed considered astrology a serious science, key to predicting the future and discerning the meaning of events in the terrestrial world. Just as individuals were born “under a constellation,” so each nation was presumed to be influenced by its own constellation. One who knew how to interpret its movement might be able to discern the future. 

The Rabbis, like all of us, wanted to know what the future holds and why things unfold as they do. Are events the result of inevitable fate? Do the stars determine Israel’s destiny, or an individual’s destiny, as the people around them believed? Here and elsewhere in the Talmud, the Sages debate the truth and efficacy of astrology.

R. Chanina asserts that an individual’s constellation determines whether they will be wise and affluent. The implication of R. Chanina’s claim is that if constellations determine one’s attributes and future, virtue and righteous deeds influence neither. Of equal import, if Israel has its own  constellation, and that constellation determines its destiny, God is left out of the equation. This amounts to predetermination without God.

R. Yochanan and Rav categorically reject R. Chanina’s assertion that astrology determines Israel’s destiny. Citing Jeremiah 10:2, R. Yochanan declares that the stars (“portents of the sky”) might influence the destinies of other nations, but not those of individual Jews or the people Israel. Only God does. As further proof, Rav cites God’s covenantal promise to Abraham in Genesis 15:5. As Abraham gazes at the constellations in the night sky, God asserts divine dominion and the power to determine Abraham’s future. In Rav’s midrashic explication of the verse, a conversation ensues in which Abraham expresses a measure of doubt, pointing out that God promised Abraham progeny yet he remains childless, with only his steward, Eliezer to inherit from him. Abraham, presuming that constellations determine destiny, tells God he has consulted his astrological map and concluded from it that he is unworthy to have a child. God pointedly instructs Abraham and thereby all Jews to come, “Emerge from your astrology,” i.e., “Forget astrology.” In Rav’s midrashic expansion of Genesis 15:5, God tells Abraham: You can look at the stars, but they mean only what I tell you they mean—that your progeny will be exceedingly numerous. You cannot decipher your future from them because it is I who determines what will be. In Rav’s telling, God continues: Do you think this is because Jupiter (called “Tzedek” at this time) appears in the western sky rather than the east? No problem, I’ll move it to the east. I control the movement of the heavenly bodies you believe determine destiny. I am the sole sovereign of the universe. The stars are My servants; they  possess no independent power.

  1. The Rabbis’ ambivalence concerning astrology is mirrored in the contrast between R. Chanina’s claim here with the opinion ascribed to him in BT Berakhot 33b: "R. Chanina said: Everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven." What do you believe God’s role is in future events? Do people possess free will? Is there a contradiction between free will and God’s intervention in human affairs? What is the meaning of personal moral responsibility and adherence to mitzvot if constellations control destiny? if all is under God’s control? Is there a parallel between the claim of astrology and notions of biological determination we see today?
  2. Although the implications of astrology would seem clearly at odds with most contemporary Jewish beliefs and values, the Rabbis had difficulty unequivocally rejecting what the dominant culture “knew” and accepted as truth. What ideas widely accepted by the dominant culture today do you think are at odds with Judaism or which you, yourself, reject? Does this present a difficulty for you? If so, how?
  3. If it were possible to know your personal future, would you want that knowledge? Why or why not? Would it help or hinder you?

Friday, October 25, 2019

#146: Spit in My Eye! — Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

R. Meir regularly preached in the synagogue of Hammata every Sabbath eve, and there was a woman there who regularly came to listen. Once he spoke for a long time, and the woman went home to find that the lamps burned out. Her husband said to her, “Where have you been?” She said to him, “I was listening to the lesson.” He said to her, “I swear that this woman (i.e., you) shall not enter this house until she (i.e., you) spits in the face of the teacher.” R. Meir perceived [what happened] through the Holy Spirit, and pretended to have an eye ailment. He said, “Any woman who knows how to whisper an incantation over an eye, let her come and do so.” The woman’s neighbors said to her, “Here is an opportunity for you to return home. Pretend to whisper an incantation and spit in his eye.” She went to R. Meir. He said to her, “Do you know how to whisper an incantation for an eye ailment?” Out of reverence for him, she said, “No.” He said, “If one spits in it seven times, it is good for it.” After she spat he said, “Go and say to your husband, ‘You told me to spit once but this woman (i.e., I) spat seven times.’” His students said to him, “Should one disgrace the Torah in this way? Had you told us, we would have brought [her husband] here, lashed him to a bench, and forced him to make up with his wife.” He said to them, “Should Meir’s honor be greater than the honor of his Creator? For if Scripture says that the Holy Name, which is written in holiness, should be erased in the waters [the ritual of the sotah, Numbers 5:11–31] in order to restore peace between a husband and his wife, how much more Meir’s honor?”
(Jerusalem Talmud, Sotah 1:4, 16d) 

In TMT #145, we met a discordant couple. The husband came dangerously close to uttering a vow against his wife that would have carried legal weight, which may explain why the story is found in tractate Nedarim (Vows). The husband rashly and uncivilly demanded that his wife publicly harm a sage and, in doing so, embarrass herself. The sage, recognizing the situation, resolved the situation in defense of the woman. 

Here, a jealous husband does not hold back: he utters a legally binding dreadful vow. This story, however, is in tractate Sotah (Suspected Adulteress), which concerns the ritual Torah prescribes when a husband is wrought with jealousy because he suspects his wife has committed adultery, but there is neither evidence nor witnesses to confirm his suspicion. The public ritual, as Numbers 5:11-31 describes in detail, is held in the Tabernacle  (later, the Temple) and presided over by the priests. It seems clear that the Bible’s presumption is that the ritual will exonerate the woman, but in publicly embarrassing her, it will assuage the husband’s overwrought jealousy and restore some semblance of peace between husband and wife.

A woman who regularly attends R. Meir’s lessons returns home late one Shabbat evening because his address ran particularly long, so long that the shabbat lamps she lit before sundown have burned down entirely. Her husband, who did not attend the lesson, is angry and jealous. Given that the story is in tractate Sotah, it is reasonable to think he suspects her interest in R. Meir extends beyond Torah learning. Minimally, he is jealous of how much time she devotes to listening to R. Meir rather than attending to him. The husband utters a drastic vow: she is banned from his house until she spits in the face of R. Meir—an unthinkable act that would dishonor the great sage. Jealousy, which launches the sotah ritual, sparks the events here.

Aware of the woman’s predicament, R. Meir devises a clever plan to ameliorate the situation. He contrives a way for the woman to carry out the literal requirement of the husband’s vow without causing harm or insult to himself. As in the TMT #145 story, a sage finds a path for fulfilling the “letter of the law” while avoiding the objectionable “spirit of the law.” R. Meir claims to be afflicted with an eye ailment that can be cured by someone whispering an incantation over it. Although the wife does not immediately recognize the opportunity being offering her to fulfill the demand conditioned by the husband’s vow,  her savvy friend does and convinces her to seize it.  Yet when the wife approaches R. Meir and he makes a show of asking her if she knows the proper incantation for his eye, she feels compelled to answer honestly out of regard for the sage and her sense honesty. Without missing a beat, R. Meir asks her to spit in his eye seven times. She can hardly say no to the great sage’s direct request. R. Meir then tells her that she has more than fulfilled the husband’s requirement and can now return home. Everyone’s needs have been met and R. Meir has transformed the insulting act demanded by the husband into a “healing” act.

R. Meir’s stodgy students object that, in inviting a woman to spit in his eye (quite different from uttering an incantation), he demeaned himself and thereby the Torah he represents. He points out that God did no less in prescribing that the Holy Name to be washed off the scroll on which the curse of the sotah, which contained God’s Name, was written (Numbers 5:23). God permitted dishonoring the Name for the sake of shalom bayit, to restore peace between husband with wife.

  1. Many people understand the ritual of the Sotah as a “trial by ordeal” reflecting God’s judgment of guilt or innocence. R. Meir understands it differently. Which understanding do you think is correct and why?
  2. R. Meir draws a parallel between himself and God: as God willingly sustains dishonor to restore peace between a husband and wife, so, too, R. Meir willingly sustains dishonor in pursuit of the same end. Is comparing himself to God blasphemous? Is there another way to understand the parallel he draws?
  3. The wife is unwilling to lie, but R. Meir justifies his deception in order to restore marital peace as a higher good. When do the ends justify the means? Have you ever made the determination that you must commit a “wrong” in order to effect a greater good?

Monday, October 21, 2019

Ten Minutes of Talmud #145: A Contentious Marriage — Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

A man from Babylonia went up to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) and married a woman [from there]. He said to her, “Cook תרי טלפי [lit. two lentils] for me.” She cooked two lentils for him. He became angry with her. The next day, he said to her, “Cook a גריוא [geriva, a very large quantity] for me.” She cooked a גריוא (geriva) for him. He said to her, “Go, bring me two בוציני (butzinei).” She went and brought him two lamps. He said to her, “Go break them on the head of the בבא (bava, gate).” Bava b. Buta was sitting as a judge at the [city] gate. She went and broke them on [or: over] his head. He said to her, “Why did you do this?” She said to him, “Thus my husband commanded me.” He said, “You have fulfilled your husband’s desire. May the Omnipresent bring forth from you two sons like Bava b. Buta.”
(BT Nedarim 66b) 

Our focus here will be three salient themes in a multi-faceted story about a husband and wife dangerously out of synch with one another. Its location in tractate Nedarim (“Vows”) likely gives rise to the first theme. Torah’s prohibition of “swearing falsely in the name of God” (Ex. 20:7, Lv. 19:12, Dt. 5:11) inspired considerable discussion in the Talmud of dozens of situations in which people bind themselves by uttering ill-considered vows and oaths. One such  situation is the sadly all-too-common phenomenon of an angry spouse uttering a rash, threatening vow (e.g., “I swear I’ll never speak to you again!”) that is legally binding—as the husband here comes dangerously close to doing. A second theme is the dangerous dynamic of a contentious marriage lacking good will and constructive communication and marked by escalating animosity and retribution. A third theme arises from a question lurking beneath the first two: What is the proper behavior of the two parties embroiled in a contentious marital relationship? What can outsiders do if they are drawn into the fray when a couples’ treatment of one another sparks pain and insult, which in turn ignites flames of resentment and anger, which in turn begets sizzling revenge? How might this uncontrolled conflagration be avoided? Is there a way to lower the temperature? What salve might be applied to the wounds? The next edition of TMT (#146) will present a companion tale.

This is a deeply troubled marriage, no “match made in heaven.” The husband is from Babylonia; the wife is from Eretz Yisrael. They come from two Jewish communities separated by a vast geographical distance and hence aspects of culture, religious practice, custom, and linguistic  dialect—this last plays a lead role in the drama. The marriage was not the woman’s choice. Her father would have arranged it, as was universally the custom. While the man, a foreigner whose parents remained in Babylonia, may have made the match for himself, it is unlikely the couple knew one another before they married. The animosity between them hangs thick in the air. The story turns on way the wife responds to four demands the husband makes of her. She employs literalism and seeming intensional misinterpretation that wreak of passive aggressive retaliation.

The husband demands (not requests) his wife prepare “two lentils” for his dinner. While it is clear that he means “a small portion,” she interprets his words literally and cooks precisely two lentils. Unsurprisingly, he is angry. The following day, he demands (not requests) that she prepare a geriva of lentils. Geriva is far more than one person could possibly consume. Again, she fulfills his demand to the letter, rather than the spirit. He next demands two botzinei. In Babylonia Aramaic botzinei are pumpkins, but in the Aramaic of the Eretz Yisrael the term can connote clay lamps such as one lights for shabbat. Finally, enraged, the husband demands that the wife smash the lamps “on the head of the [city] gates.” We can imagine him stopping just short of uttering the vow, “or I will have nothing further to do with you!” or “or don’t come back!” His demand seems designed to publicly humiliate her. She proceeds to the city gates where the sage and judge Bava (lit. “gate”) b. Buta is presiding. Certainly she cannot smash the lamps into his head, but she smashes them over his head; the word her husband used meaning “on” can also mean “over.” Yet again she has found a way to meticulously follow his instructions while subverting his intentions. Bava b. Buta—unlike her husband—asks her why she has done this. Her “honest” response does not portray him in a positive light, yet upon hearing that her husband commanded this, the sage (publicly) praises her.

The wife’s intentional misinterpretations through literalism and pun inspire an observation in kind: she revolts against her revolting husband by undermining his overbearing exercise of authority over her. Each act amps up his anger. The lamps hold symbolical significance. They evoke the two shabbat lamps lit to welcome shabbat, a time (we hope) when shalom beit (“peace at home”) prevails. The shattered lamps reflect the state of the couple’s marriage. Recognizing this, Bava b. Buta chooses his words carefully and deploys them to transform her violent act into a good deed, her public humiliation into public praise. He blesses her with two sons—replacements for the lamps?—who will be like him and bring her joy.

  1. Given that the couple is nameless and generic, the Rabbis meant the story to serve as a warning tale.  What do you think their message is? Can you imagine a completely different interpretation of the story from the one suggested here?
  2. The story, through the person of Bava b Buta, conveys a powerful message about at least three characteristics of a good marital relationship: dan l’khaf zechut (judge people for good, as the sages does the wife), open communication, and kindness. Had the husband and wife demonstrated these qualities, how would things have been different?
  3. What else might the lamps symbolize? What message might they encode?

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Ten Minutes of Talmud #144: Everyone Hates Taxes — Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Rav Nachman bar Rav Chisda imposed a head tax on the Rabbis. Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak said to him, “You have violated the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings.” 
 Torah: As it is written, Lover, indeed, of the people, their holy ones are all in Your hand (Deuteronomy 33:3). Moses said to the Holy Blessed One, ‘Master of the universe, when You cherish the peoples, all the holy ones will be in Your hand.’” [The verse continues] They followed in Your steps. Rav Yosef taught: These are the disciples of the scholars [i.e., Torah scholars] who pound their feet from city to city and from country to country to study Torah: Accepting Your pronouncements — [means] debating the words of the Omnipresent. 
Prophets: As it is written, And while they are courting among the nations, there I will hold them fast; and they shall begin to diminish in number from the burden of king [and] officers (Hosea 8:10). Ulla said, “This verse includes Aramaic, [hence it means:] If everyone studies, I [God] will gather them now, and if few [study, the Torah scholars who do] will be released from the burdens [i.e., taxation] of kings and officers. 
Writings: As it is written, It is not permissible to impose tribute, poll tax, or land tax (Ezra 7:24). Rav Yehudah said: “tribute” is the king’s portion; “poll tax” is the head tax; “land tax” is the arnona (a tax on crops and cattle paid in kind).
(BT Baba Batra 8a) 

Paying taxes is anathema to most everyone and hence most everyone loves to hate the IRS, but objection to taxation is hardly a modern phenomenon. The Roman authorities would have justified their levying taxes by citing the need to pay and outfit armies, build and maintain public works (e.g., roads, aqueducts, arenas), and fund public administration. Many ordinary citizens, however, viewed tax collectors as greedy spawn, the minions of corrupt rulers because Roman officials responsible for collecting taxes often sold the collection right to unscrupulous individuals who employed force and extortion and were subject to few restrictions on seizing money and property. They routinely kept a sizable sum for themselves before transmitting funds to Rome. Unsurprisingly, people went to great lengths to evade paying taxes.

The discussion in Baba Batra comes amidst a larger discussion of taxations to improve and maintain a town’s infrastructure. While the Rabbis heavily approved their decision to levy taxes to assist poor people, Mishnah categorizes assets seized by tax collectors as stolen property and therefore permits one to make a false vow to evade Roman tax collectors. In the third century, R. Shmuel declared that the legal principle dina d’malchuta dina, which declares that the law of the non-Jewish governing authorities is binding on Jews, applies to paying taxes assessed by legitimate civil governments. This includes the IRS.

The first chapter of Mishnah Baba Batra discusses taxes the Rabbis imposed on the Jewish community to pay for civic projects, ranging from a gatehouse at the entrance to a courtyard shared by multiple homeowners, to a city wall with a locking gate and guards to protect the entire community. The Mishnah deems it appropriate for everyone to contribute to a project that will benefit many. Naturally, there are always individual exemptions, such as new or temporary residents, or poor people. Under consideration here is the poll tax (known also as a “head tax”), levied on every citizen, regardless of their ability to pay. Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak objects to Rav Nachman bar Rav Chisda’s imposition of the head tax on rabbis, claiming they are exempted from paying it by no less than the Torah, Prophets, and Writings—that is, the entire Tana”kh.

How so? Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak draws support from Torah by interpreting Deuteronomy 33:3 to say that even when God permits foreign nations to dominate Israel and hence levy taxes, nonetheless the “holy ones,” meaning Torah scholars, are “in God’s hands.” Only God can impose the poll tax on them. Perhaps Rav Yosef’s addendum is meant to suggest that rabbis “pay their fair share” to the community through services they provide “pounding the pavement” to interpret Torah in order to discern God’s will, teach the people, and serve as community judges.

Building on the theme of rabbinic service and leadership to the broader Jewish community, support is drawn from the Prophets (Hosea 8:10) by Ulla’s reading of the Aramaic word yitnu as “learn.” If everyone becomes a Torah scholar, God will gather Israel (perhaps implying the messianic in-gathering). Until then, only the small slice of the community—Torah scholars engaged in an essential role needed by the entire community—are exempt from the poll tax.

Finally, proof from Writings: In expectation of the in-gathering inspired by the rebuilding of the first Temple, which had been destroyed by the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE, the fifth century BCE scribe Ezra exempted priests and Levites from paying taxes. The tribe of Levi had not been given a land grant in Eretz Yisrael; hence priests and Levites did not possess land by which to earn income. Instead, they retained a small portion of some of the sacrifices they offered  not the altar in the Temple on behalf of the entire nation.

  1. The argument concerning who should pay taxes and who is exempt has raged since taxes were first imposed. How does the argument manifest itself today? How is Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak’s claim similar to, and different from, arguments made today?
  2. What are the pros and cons to exempting communal leaders (e.g., priests and scholars), or any other protected class, from a head tax? Are there parallels today? If you think there are, do you find the pros or the cons more convincing?
  3. The story addresses the propriety of leaders whose legislation serves their own interests. Are there parallels today? Can leaders do this objectively and avoid the optics of self-dealing?

Monday, October 7, 2019

The Power of Reframing — BT Berakhot 10a — #143 / Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

There were hooligans in R. Meir’s neighborhood who vexed him exceedingly. R Meir prayed for mercy for them—that they should die. Beruriah, R. Meir’s wife, said to him, “How can you think this way, inasmuch as it is written, Let חטאים (sins) cease from the land (Psalm 104:35). Is it written ‘Let חוטאים (sinners) cease from the land’? Rather, it is written [i.e., should be read], ‘חטאים (sins).’ Moreover, go to the end of the verse: And the wicked will be no more [meaning]. [If] transgressions cease, there will no longer be wicked people. Rather, pray for mercy on them that they should repent.” [R. Meir] prayed for mercy for them and they repented.
A certain heretic said to Beruriah, “It is written, Sing, barren woman who has not given birth (Isaiah 54:1).” “She should sing because she has not given birth?! Fool! Go to the end of the verse, where it is written, For the children of the desolate shall be more numerous than the children of the married woman, says Adonai. Rather, what is the meaning of, Sing, barren woman who has not given birth? It means: Sing, Congregation of Israel, which is like a barren woman who did not give birth to children like you who are [destined] for Gehenna.”
Beruriah is a fascinating figure. She is the daughter of sage, married to the prominent sage R. Meir, and a scholar in her own right: Beruriah is said to be capable of learning every day 300 laws from 300 scholars (BT Pesachim 62b). In her interactions with her husband, his students, their neighbors, and heretics, she variously shows herself to be intellectually brilliant, compassionate, patient, sarcastic, and quick witted. We see this range of attributes in the two stories above.

On the previous daf (9b), R. Yehudah b. R Shimon b Pazi says that King David would utter a full-throated “Hallelujah” only when he witnessed the downfall of the wicked. In support, he cites Psalm 104:35, a verse that Beruriah also references: Let sinners cease from the earth, and let the wicked be no more… Beruriah, however uses the verse to transform revenge into something understanding that leads to reconciliation.

The first story exhibits both Beruriah’s intellectual acumen, as well as her emotional intelligence. Her husband, R. Meir, is harassed by neighborhood hooligans. We don’t know if these are local punks and petty thieves or (as some have suggested) heretics who challenge his most deeply cherished beliefs. Whoever they are, their behavior so disturbs R. Meir that he prays for their demise. Beruriah’s response to his anger and pain is both clever and compassionate. She affirms his emotional experience, but appeals to his religious values and identity as a sage as the proper response. She further provides a compelling and reframing scriptural argument to steer R. Meir toward a more appropriate ethical response. Beruriah’s argument hinges on an original reading of the first half of Psalm 104:35, commonly translated, May sinners disappear from the earth and the wicked be no more. The word חטאים was written without vowels at this period in history, allowing Beruriah to legitimately parse it as “sins.” She tells her husband that the proper way to read the verse is: May sins disappear from the earth, and [then] the wicked be no more, teaching us that the proper goal is to seek the demise of sins (not sinners) so that there will no longer be wicked people. Therefore, R. Meir should pray for “sins” to disappear, not for “sinners” to die. R. Meir accepts the moral force of her reframing interpretation of Psalm 104:35; he instead prays (a second time) for mercy for the hooligans. Perhaps seeing R. Meir’s dramatically altered approach to them inspired their repentance and, as a result, they stopped sinning. Curiously, the phrase “R. Meir prayed for mercy for them” appears twice. It appears that the first iteration is might be sarcastic. Mercy is the opposite of what R. Meir initially wished for.  Alternatively, the first iteration of “mercy” might be euphemistic, a reflection of how deeply distasteful the Rabbis found R. Meir’s prayer. The second iteration of “prayed for mercy for them” is, in dramatic contrast, genuine. Unlike the first instance, the second is happily effective.

The second story presents another side of Beruriah. Here we taste her sharp tongue and quick wit. The heretic quotes the first half of a verse from the prophet Isaiah that says the Jewish people’s suffering at the hands of Babylonia following the destruction of the First Temple (586 B.C.E.) is metaphorically like the situation of a woman unable to have children. Yet, shockingly she should sing for joy. In her laser-guided retort, Beruriah points out that the remainder of the verse (that the heretic did not quote) upends his argument by assuring Israel that God, the “husband” who seems to have “divorced” his “wife” Israel will, in time, reverse Israel’s present situation. This likely reflects the historical expectation of liberation and restoration that the Persian Empire afforded Israel after it conquered the Babylonian Empire (539 B.C.E.). Once again, Beruriah’s clever interpretation proves its power to reframe, here transforming the heretic’s ridicule and condemnation into God’s hopeful promise to Israel. 

  1. Beruriah imaginatively interprets two verses that are key to resolving two difficult situations. Do you find her technique helpful? Have you encountered interpretations of people’s words or deeds that reframed a painful or contentious situation, helping to foster reconciliation? 
  2. Beruriah refocuses R. Meir’s animosity toward the hooligans themselves to a larger concern about the effect of sins in the world. How might you use refocusing constructively in your life? We often experience the words and behavior of others as insults and slights. Consider an example from your own life and how you might reframe it as Beruriah teaches us to do.
  3. How do you imagine R. Meir’s behavior and communication with the hooligans changed as a result of Beruriah’s teaching? Can you imagine a conversation between them before and after Beruriah’s reframing? Have you ever noted a time when your change in attitude toward someone resulted in a change in their behavior?