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Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Action-Reaction — BT Gittin 57a — #133

The city of Beitar was destroyed on account of a shaft of a litter. [How did this happen?] [In Beitar] it was customary that when a boy was born they would plant a cedar tree and when a girl was born they would plant a cypress tree. When they married, they would cut down [the two trees] and build a chupah (wedding canopy). One day the emperor’s daughter passed by. The shaft of the litter broke. They [her servants] chopped down a cedar [to fashion a replacement shaft] and brought it to her. [The people of Beitar] came, fell upon them, and beat them. [The servants] went and told the emperor: the Jews have rebelled against you. He went against them [in war].

The story above begins by recounting a charming tradition practiced in the city of Beitar and ends with a horrific account of the massacre of the Jews of Beitar by the Romans. How did a small matter mushroom into a massive catastrophe? Rabbis often tell the first part of the story (and only the first part!) when a bride and groom stand beneath their chupah. The image of planting trees for each child and combining them to construct their chupah is lovely. Unsurprisingly, the remainder of the story is not recounted under the chupah. 

To understand this story, it is helpful to know the history of the Bar Kokhba Revolt (132-135 C.E.) and the significance of Beitar. Although the rebellion against Rome in the first century (66-70 C.E.) resulted in  the destruction of the Second Temple and most of Jerusalem, and the devastation of the countryside, the hope of throwing off the Roman overlords persisted. Shimon bar Kokhba spearheaded a renewed attempt in the first half of the second century. Initially the revolt met with success. The spiritual mentor of the movement was no less than R. Akiba, the greatest scholar of his day. R. Akiba went so far as to declare Bar Kokhba the longed-for Jewish messiah. Prophecy had promised the messiah would restore Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel. Ultimately, the Roman forces crushed the revolt and both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds provide accounts of the massacre in Beitar in exquisitely gory detail.

The story suggests that the lovely tradition of planting trees when a child is born was a local custom, unique to Beitar. Therefore, the daughter of the Roman Emperor, who happened to be passing by, could not be expected to be aware of local custom. As befitting royalty, she traveled with an entourage of servants to bear her litter on two long shafts hoisted onto their shoulders. When one of the shafts broke, her servants sought a tree suitable to replace the broken shaft. 

The people of Beitar took umbrage at this act, interpreting it as Roman hubris—or far worse. They responded with hostility and violence, setting on the entourage and beating the servants. The story is replete with potent symbolism. Perhaps the very presence of the Emperor’s daughter in the holy Land of Israel, inflamed the residents. Perhaps Romans chopping down a tree bespoke yet another Roman attempt to uproot Jews from their sacred land. Perhaps chopping down a tree designated for a child’s marriage canopy was seen as a Roman effort to destroy the next generation of Jews, the future of the Jewish people.

The Romans interpreted the response of the Jews to what for the Romans was undoubtedly an insignificant event as yet another attempt to revolt against Rome. Accordingly, they reported to  the Roman emperor that the Jews were rebelling against Rome. The response was unsurprising: he launched a massive attack. Beitar was obliterated and, according to tradition, everyone was killed except one young boy: Shimon b. Gamliel, a direct descendant of Hillel, who grew up to be the Nasi of the Sanhedrin. Therein lies enormous symbolism: the Roman attempt to eradicate Judaism was undermined by the survival of the line of Hillel.

Jewish tradition has not been kind to Shimon bar Kokhba, who led a segment of the Jewish people down the road of disaster, bringing death to those in Beitar and widespread suffering to Jews throughout Judea. The Jerusalem Talmud dubbed him Bar Koziba, “son of a lie.”

  1. Given the migratory nature of our lives in the 21st century, the custom of planting trees when children are born and harvesting their wood to construct their chupah is charming but unrealistic. Many of us live far from where we were born. Do you know of another custom that merges the lives of a betrothed couple in a beautiful way, perhaps related to making the canopy of their chupah, or some other facet of the marriage ceremony? Can you imagine something you have not seen?
  2. The story, told concisely and simply, paints a profound picture of how even a small event can be magnified by misunderstanding and over-reaction, resulting in violence. The princess’s entourage felt entitled to make use of whatever they deemed necessary. Have you ever seen people misunderstand, misinterpret, and over-react to something said of done by another? Have you yourself ever done this? What was the result? How could this be avoided?
  3. R. Akiba’s identification of Bar Kokhba as the Messiah was an enormous contributing factor to the disaster. It legitimized and empowered Bar Kokhba, assuring him more influence and adherents. What is the responsibility of leaders in identifying whom to trust? How can we identify leaders we can rely on. What signs would suggest caution?

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Four Children — Jerusalem Talmud, Pesachim 70b — #132

R. Chiyya taught: The Torah speaks of four children: one wise, one wicked, one stupid, and one who does not know how to ask. What does the wise child say? “What is the meaning of the decrees, laws, and rules that Adonai our God has enjoined upon you?” (Deuteronomy 20:6) Accordingly you will say, “With great might, Adonai took us out from Egypt, from the house of bondage (Exodus 13:14).” What does the wicked child say? “What do you mean by this rite? (Exodus 12:26) What is this toil that you make us toil each and every year?” Since such children exclude themselves from the community, accordingly you say, “It is because of what Adonai did for me when I went free from Egypt (Exodus 13:8).” “For me” did God do it and not for “that person.” If “that person” had been there, they would not have been worthy of being saved. What does the stupid child say? “What is this?” (Exodus 13:14). Accordingly,  teach them the laws of the pesach offering—that we may not eat the afikoman after the pesach offering, so that a person should not get up from one eating group and go to another. The child who does not know how to ask, you will speak first. R. Yosa said: The Mishnah said, “If the child has no understanding, the parent teaches them.”

On four occasions and in four different ways, Torah speaks of parents who, in the future, will explain the celebration of Passover to their children. Three are inspired by questions the children ask; the fourth does not mention the child posing a question. From these differently worded passages, the Rabbis constructed the section of the Haggadah known as the “Four Children,” a seeming typology of children based on character and attitude. The four biblical passages are:
  • “What is the meaning of the decrees, laws, and rules that Adonai our God has enjoined upon you?” (Deuteronomy 6:20)
  • “What do you mean by this rite?” (Exodus 12:26)
  • “What is this?” (Exodus 13:14)
  • [A fourth child seems unable to shape a question, yet receives an explanation:] You shall explain to your child on that day, “it is because of what Adonai did for me when I went free from Egypt.” (Exodus 13:8 )

The Jerusalem Talmud (Yerushalmi) uses the four biblical verses cited above to create a typology of sorts of children, delineating four categories: wise, wicked, stupid, and unable to ask. If you are familiar with the text of the Haggadah, you will immediately recognize that the Haggadah speaks not of a “stupid” child (tipesh), but rather of a simple, or innocent, child (tam). Apparently, the Yerushalmi interprets the unadorned question, “What is this?,” as the query of a stupid child. Further, the verse taken by the Yerushalmi to allude to a fourth type of child is used in the Haggadah to construct the response to the wicked child.

If not from the Yerushalmi, whence the label “tam” (innocent, or simple), found in the Haggadah? The source is Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael, a compilation of rabbinic midrashim. There are two striking differences between this version and the Yerushalmi. First, Mekhilta reads “What is this?” as the question of an innocent child, not of a stupid child.  Second, Mekhilta offers an emendation to Deuteronomy 6:20: couching the “wise” child’s question in the first person plural (“What is the meaning of the decrees, laws, and rules that Adonai our God has enjoined upon us?”) thereby heightening its contrast with the simpler question of the wicked child, which remains in the second person plural (“What do you mean by this rite?”).  Yet Torah couches both in the second person plural. This slight-of-hand allows the Mekhilta to continue with a far harsher parental retort to the wicked child than the Yerushalmi imagines. Borrowing and embellishing on the parental response to the fourth child and emphasizing “me” in the parent’s response, Mekhilta supplies this response to wicked children: “‘To you’ and not to them. Because they disassociate themselves from the community and deny the foundation [of the faith], you, likewise, blunt their teeth and tell them, Because of what Adonai did for me when I went out from Egypt (Exodus 13:8). For me and not for you, for had you been there, you would not have been redeemed.”

1. An aerial eye view of the two versions of the Four Children reveals:
Yerushalmi: wise, wicked, stupid, unable to askMekhilta: wise, wicked, simple, unable to ask
Tradition has voted with the Mekhilta, which identifies the third child as “simple” rather than stupid. This, along with its far harsher response to the wicked child, is included in standard texts of the Haggadah. Do you agree with this choice? Why or why not? Were you to add a fifth child, or even sixth child, how might they be described? What lesson would you wish to teach?

2. Considering four Torah verses that speak of parents teaching children, how would you characterize the children, and why? Do the labels depend upon the words alone, the tone in which they are asked, the listener’s sensitivities, or something else? 

3. The Yerushalmi presents wise and stupid as opposites. The wise and wicked children ask virtually the same question; the difference is located in their attitudes. The stupid child and the one unable to ask are likewise similar—both are assumed unable to learn as one would wish. This typology seems to suggest that knowledge and intellectual acumen are the most important determinate of how we see, evaluate, and respond to children. Do you agree? What is the danger of this perspective? Do you think this is why the Haggadah did not use this version?

Monday, April 8, 2019

The Messiah with Metzora — BT Sanhedrin 98a — #131

R. Yehoshua b. Levi found [the prophet] Elijah standing by the entrance to R. Shimon b. Yochai's tomb. [R. Yehoshua] asked [Elijah]: “Have I a portion in the world-to-come?” [Elijah] said to him, “If this Master [God] desires it.” R. Yehoshua b. Levi said, “I saw two, but heard the voice of a third.” [R. Yehoshua] said to him, “When will the messiah come?” [Elijah] said to him, “Go and ask him.” “Where is he sitting?” “At the gates [of Rome].” “By what sign may I recognize him?” “He sits among the poor suffering illness, all of whom untie and retie [their bandages] all at once, but he unties and reties [each bandage] separately, thinking: Perhaps I will be wanted. I must not be delayed.” So [Rabbi Yehoshua b. Levi] went to [the messiah]. He said to him, “Peace upon you, my master and teacher.” [The messiah] said to [R. Yehoshua], “Peace upon you, Son of Levi.” He said to him, “When will the master come?” He said to him, “Today.” [Upon returning to Elijah,] Elijah said to [R. Yehoshua], “What did he say to you?” He said, “Peace upon you, Son of Levi.” [Elijah] said to [R. Yehoshua], “[By this,] he guaranteed you and your father a portion in the world-to-come.” [R. Yehoshua] said to [Elijah], “He lied to me, stating that he would come today, but he has not come.” [Elijah] said to him, “This is what he said to you: Today, if you will but heed his voice (Psalm 95:7).”

Speculation about  the messiah was rife among the Rabbis. The loss of the Second Temple, living under Roman oppression, and longing for the restoration of sovereignty over the Land of Israel inspired the Rabbis to examine God’s promises, particular Isaiah 53,  which speaks of the suffering of the messiah and also portrays him as a valiant conquerer. This led, in time, to a bifurcation into two messiahs: the “Son of David,” the conquerer, and the “Son of Joseph” (or “Son of Ephraim,” the sufferer. The speculation went so far as to suggest that there might be two messianic comings, the Son of Joseph dying and the Son of David succeeding, also understood to   represent two aspects of the messiah’s mission. 

Isaiah 53:4 speaks of the messiah as bearing/suffering our sickness, and this comes to be associated with tzara’at, often erroneously translated “leprosy” (see TMT #130), giving rise to stories about the messiah afflicted with tzara’at. The story on Sanhedrin 98a, located amidst a long speculative conversation concerning when the messiah will come, does not specifically mention tzara’at but we know that lepers, in particular, were barred from entering Rome and sat outside the gates begging. We also know that they covered their sores with bandages, which needed to be changed periodically.

The story takes place in three distinct scenes: (1) a conversation between R. Yehoshuah b. Levi and Elijah at the tomb of R. Shimon b. Yochai; (2) a conversation between R. Yehoshua b. Levi and the messiah at the gates of Rome; (3) a second conversation between R. Yehoshua b. Levi and Elijah.

SCENE 1: In the first conversation, R. Yehoshua seeks assurance that he will have a portion (i.e., reward) in olam ha-ba, the world-to-come. R. Yehoshua hears a voice—not Elijah’s—that says this is up to God. From this he senses God’s immediately presence, so he probes further, asking when the messiah will come, that is, reveal himself. Shockingly, Elijah responds that the messiah is already here, sitting among the poor lepers outside the gates to Rome. If the messiah looks like every other leper, R. Yehoshua asks, how will I recognize him? Elijah describes a subtle difference: normally, lepers untie all the bandages covering all their sores, and then re-bandage them; in contrast, the messiah tends to each sore separately so that if he is summoned, he can respond by revealing himself at a moment’s notice.

SCENE 2: Armed with this insight, R. Yehoshua b. Levi has no difficulty identifying the messiah. He greets the messiah and asks when he will reveal himself. The messiah’s response is shocking: “Today.” It appears that R. Yehoshua is so startled he doesn’t ask anything further, even whether he will have a portion in olam ha-ba, which was his original mission.

SCENE 3: R. Yehoshua returns to Elijah and recounts his conversation with the messiah. Elijah assures him that the greeting, Shalom to you, means that both he and his father will have a share in olam ha-ba. R. Yehoshua, is appears, is far more focused on “Today,” which seems a patent lie. No, says Elijah, you have to know how to interpret the messiah’s “Today.” Since the messiah is the Son of David, we are to interpret it through David’s words in Psalm 95:7: The messiah is always present, always prepared to reveal himself, but Israel has an important initiatory role to play by  being worthy, as expressed by “if you will but heed his voice.”


1. Some people understand the messiah to be an actually human (or super-human) redeemer, others as an ideal age we strive for. What is your understanding?

2. The echo of the leper-messiah is heard clearly in the story of the Baal Shem Tov recounted by Raphael Patai (below).. Can you imagine a 21st century version?

A story about the Baal Shem Tov (Besh”t): One erev shabbat, a student was driving the Besh”t through a small village when the horse stopped of its own accord at a hovel. The Besh”t entered the home where he found a family living in destitute poverty. The old man covered head to toe in sores, wounds, and boils—all the signs of tzara’at. The man’s joy at seeing the Besh”t was such as he had never known in his life. They talked for some time and parted having developed the fierce love of David and Jonathan. The Besh”t explained this enigmatic scene to his young driver: In every generation, the Messiah, clothed in a  body, prepares to reveal himself if the generation is worthy. Since that generation was not worthy, the Messiah would depart at the close of shabbat. (Raphael Patai, The Messiah Texts, p. 31)
3.  “If you will but heed his voice” seems to suggests that the messiah will come when all Jews obey God. Is there another way to understand the use of this line from the Psalm 95?

Monday, April 1, 2019

What’s a Metzora to Do? — BT Arakhin 16b — #130

R. Shmuel b. Nadav asked R. Chanina, others say R. Shmuel b. Nadav, the son-in-law of R. Chanina asked R. Chanina, and yet others say [he asked] R. Yehoshua b. Levi. “Why is the metzora distinctive, such that Torah says, He shall dwell apart; his dwelling shall be outside the camp (Leviticus 13:46)?”—[for example,] he separated a man from his wife, a person from their neighbor. Therefore Torah said, He shall live alone. R. Yehoshua b. Levi said, “What is distinctive about the metzora that Torah says he must bring, two living ritually clean birds (Leviticus 14:4) to become ritually pure again?” The Holy Blessed One said: He behaved like a babbler [speaking evil of others]; therefore Torah tells him to bring a babbler as a sacrifice.

The term tzara’at covers a large number of skin diseases, which Torah describes as affecting the skin or hair, or found on clothing or even on the stones of houses. Leviticus 13-14 catalogues a great many of the symptoms, which include discoloration, scaly patches, lesions, boils, and burn-like sores. Tzara’at has long been erroneously translated “leprosy,” which is a well understood neurological condition called Hansen’s Disease. But tzara’at is not synonymous with leprosy. The person afflicted with tzara’at is called a metzora. Tzara’at renders one ritually impurity until a priest’s examination deems them cured and eligible for purification. Until then, Torah imposes several unusual conditions: the metzora must wear torn clothes, leave their hair unkempt, cover the lower part of their face, and cry out, “Ritually impure, ritually impure!” presumably to warn others in the vicinity. In addition, the metzora must “dwell apart” from the community, living outside the encampment (Leviticus 13:46). After a priest examines the metzora and declares them cured, the metzora may reenter the camp and complete their purification in the Tabernacle with “two living ritually clean birds” (Leviticus 14:4).

For the Rabbis, tzara’at is not merely a physical disease, but rather the symptom of a spiritual malady that is divine punishment for moral sins. A midrash in Vayikra Rabbah tells us that tzara’at is a symptom of seven traits and acts God abhors: haughtiness, lying, shedding innocent blood, scheming to do evil, running eagerly to do evil, giving false witness, and sowing discord among people. BT Arakhin 16a provides an alternative list of seven: murder, engaging in a vain oath, illicit sexual intercourse, pride, theft, and miserliness, but here as elsewhere in the rabbinic tradition, the hands-down most popular explanation is lashon ha-ra—evil speech or gossip. The connection comes primarily from a rabbinic interpretation of the story in Numbers in which Miriam attacks her brother Moses on the pretext of his wife’s ethnicity, criticizing Tzipporah as a Cushite (dark-skinned). As punishment, God afflicts Miriam with tzara’at that turns her skin a flaky white. From this, the Rabbis deduced that tzara’at is punishment for lashon ha-ra.

R. Shmuel b. Nadav poses a question. The Gemara is unclear to whom he poses the question, and goes out of its way to record various received versions, but is clear that R. Yehoshua b. Levi responds. R. Shmuel has noticed two unusual features of how a metzora is treated. No other seemingly medical disease garners this treatment. First, the metzora cannot remain in the Israelites’ encampment, living with others, but must relocate and live alone outside the camp. Second, upon recovery, the ritual of purification for the former metzora requires two birds, one of which is sacrificed and the other of which is set free. R. Shmuel b. Nadav asks why these unusual features pertain only to the metzora. R. Yehoshua b. Levi explains two features of the treatment of a metzora to be allegorical punishment and remedy for the underlying crime of lashon ha-ra. In essence, he is saying: the metzora is punished with separation from the community because their gossiping caused the rupture of relationships and separation of people from one another, as for example between a married couple or between neighbors. The two birds required to complete the ritual purification process mirror the crime of lashon ha-ra: the birds babble, just as a gossiper babbled.

Talmud does not attempt to explain the specifics of the procedures for dealing with tzara’at in the context of the larger system of ritual purity or the traditions of the sacrificial cult. Rather, both punishment and atonement reflect the crime: The one who commits lashon ha-ra, alienating people from one another, is excluded from the community for a time, isolated by being forced to live outside the camp where garbage and sacrificial leftovers are dumped—a fitting location for one who cannot control their speech. The emotional danger the metzora inflicted on others  results in physical danger to the metzora.

  1. Midrash Tanchuma teaches that three are (figuratively) killed by lashon ha-ra: the speaker, the listener, and the object of the speech. Who is the most guilty and why?
  2. Reflect on Rachel Adler’s interpretation of Torah’s requirement that the metzora “cover his upper lip” (Leviticus 13:45) below. Whose faces do you turn away from? Whose faces do we turn away from, as a society?

He shall cover his upper lip. Fearing contagion from the metzora’s breath, the biblical text commands that he veil his upper lip and proclaim his impurity to warn others away, but under his veil, his eyes can still call out wordlessly for compassion, for connection. The contemporary philosopher Emmanuel Levinas teaches that the face of the Other upturned to our own face is the primary locus of ethics. Faces are infinitely varied, the most individualized of our body parts. The face is bare, vulnerable. It expresses pain, need, and loneliness. The face is also the primary locus of Otherness. The Other’s face is different from mine. . . . Levinas would argue that our ethical obligation is to do what is counter-intuitive, what is the very opposite of pollution thinking: to stay rather than to flee, to comfort rather than reject. (Rachel Adler, “Those Who Turn Away Their Faces,” in Healing and the Jewish Imagination, p. 153)

3. Talmud’s reinterpretation of the physical disease of tzara’at to a moral-spiritual malady offers a new way to approach difficult texts. What other challenging texts might be interpreted metaphorically?

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Red Heifer: Animal to Ashes — BT Menachot 51b-52a — #129

[Citing Mishnah Shekalim 7:7] “[The court enacted an ordinance] regarding the Red Heifer that one is not liable for appropriating consecrated property for making use of its ashes.” Isn’t this already a Torah law? For it is taught, It is a sin offering (Numbers 19:9), which teaches [that like a sin offering,] one is liable for appropriating consecrated property. “It” [means deriving benefit from the animal itself]. But from its ashes, [if one derives benefit,] one is not liable for appropriating consecrated property. Rav Ashi said: There were two ordinances [enacted concerning this matter]. According to Torah law, “it” means one is liable for me’ilah (appropriating consecrated property) [from deriving benefit from “it,” the animal itself], but from its ashes, one is not liable for me’ilah (appropriating consecrated property). But when they [the Rabbis] saw that people were treating [the ashes] disrespectfully—by making [salves] for their wounds from it—they decreed [use of the ashes to be] me’ilah (appropriating consecrated property). But when they saw that [due to this decree] people were refraining from sprinklings [in cases that were somewhat] uncertain, they restored the biblical law.

This is a technical and recondite passage, but what lies behind it is worth working to understand.  First: Me’ilah is a trespass whereby one uses, or derives benefit from, something consecrated to God. In essence, me’ilah, appropriating consecrated property, means stealing what belongs to God’s. That includes all animals brought for sacrifice. But the Red Heifer is not a sacrifice in the usual sense: it is slaughtered and burned outside the Temple precinct. Its ashes are gathered and used for purification from the most severe level of ritual impurity—contact with a corpse. The Red Heifer is not a sacrificial animal. Nonetheless, Torah calls it a chatat (“sin offering,” Numbers 19:9), Talmud (Yoma 42a) compares its sanctity to utensils used in the upkeep of the Temple because it was purchased from Temple fund. Therefore it is subject to the laws of me’ilah.

Next: The mishnah of Menachot that precedes the discussion above discusses how to handle the expense of the High Priest’s minchah (the daily meal offering he made ) during an “interregnum” period between the death of one High Priest and the appointment of his successor. The Rabbis enacted several ordinances that differed from Torah law to resolve issues that  arose. Just prior to the passage above, a double enactment was cited. According to Torah law, the High Priest paid for his minchah. If he died, these meal offerings were purchased with Temple funds until another High Priest assumed the office. However, when the Temple treasury grew depleted, the Rabbis ordained that payment for these offerings should be sought from the deceased High Priest’s heirs, thereby overriding Torah law. That did not work as planned, however, because the heirs were negligent and did not bring the offerings, so the Rabbis issued a second ordinance revoked the first and once again operated by Torah law. This account inspires the recounting of another two-ordinance situation.

The mishnah cited (from tractate Shekalim) says that a human court decreed that one who makes use of the ashes of the Red Heifer is not subject to the laws of me’ilah: the ashes, unlike the animal itself, are not considered God’s property. Gemara asks: Why was this necessary? Doesn’t Torah already say as much in Numbers 19:9 when it declares the Red Heifer to be a chatat (“it is a sin offering”)? A baraita teaches that “it” in Numbers 19:9 refers only to the animal, but not to its ashes after it is burned. We might stop a moment and ask how this applies to sacrificial animals. Those which are burned on the altar remain there until they are turned completely to ash, after which young apprentice priests clean away the ashes. While the task of cleaning away the ashes is part of the priests’ sacred duties, the ashes themselves are not subject to the laws of me’ilah because, as Talmud explains elsewhere, once the mitzvah has been performed with an object (such as an animal offered for sacrifice), it is no longer subject to me’ilah (Sukkah 49b).

Rav Ashi now explains that there were, in fact, two decrees. Biblically, me’ilah applies only to the animal and not to its ashes after it is burned (as Gemara already explained). But in time, the Sages observed that people treating the ashes in a disrespectful manner, using them to produce salves to treat wounds, perhaps because they thought the ashes were not subject to me’ilah. This inspired the Rabbis to pass the FIRST DECREE: the ashes of the Red Heifer were thereafter  subject to the laws of me’ilah and its penalty of paying restitution. As a result of this decree, the Sages subsequently observed that people who were doubtfully in need of ritual purification with the ashes of the Red Heifer held back and did not secure the priest-administered ritual purification, most likely because they thought that if they didn’t actually need it, they would be committing me’ilah—using God’s Red Heifer ashes for their own benefit when it was not truly required. Both the Torah and Rabbis considered ritual purity to be of paramount importance. Therefore, to prevent this far more serious problem, the Rabbis subsequently initiated a SECOND DECREE: that the original Torah standards concerning the ashes should again prevail and ashes would no longer be subject to the laws of me’ilah.

  1. Why might people have ascribed healing power to the ashes?
  2. Why might the Rabbis have considered the salves made from Red Heifer ashes to be a disrespectful use of the ashes?
  3. The Rabbis’ first decree is more restrictive than biblical law, but as if in compliance with the Law of Unintended Consequences, the unpredictable results are worse. Torah’s law addressed the status of the ashes, but the Rabbis’ decree was an attempt at social engineering. What are the ups and downs of using laws to engineer behavior?

Thursday, February 14, 2019

God’s Frugality — BT Menachot 86b — #128

One might think that clear oil of beaten olives is unfit for meal offerings since the verse states, A tenth of fine flour, thoroughly mixed with beaten oil (Exodus 29:40). If so, what does the verse mean by, for lighting (Exodus 27:20)? Rather, [clear, beaten oil is required only for the menorah] in order to save money. Why save money? R. Elazar says, “Torah conserved the money of the Jewish people.”
 Command the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives [for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly] (Leviticus 24:2). R. Shmuel bar Nachmani says, “’To you’—and not for My benefit [because] I do not need its light.” [Concerning] the Table of Showbread in the north and the Menorah in the south [of the Sanctuary], R. Zerika says R. Elazar says, “[God said:] ‘I do not require [the Table] for eating, nor do I require [the menorah] for its light.’” [Concerning the Temple:] He made for the House windows narrow and broad (1 Kings 6:4). It was taught [in a baraita]: [God said:] “Narrow within and broad without [because] I do not require their illumination.’

The Mishkan (wilderness Tabernacle), and the Mikdash (Jerusalem Temple) after it, were conceived as the nexus between heaven and earth, the place where God and Israel’s relationship was renewed daily and amplified through the sacrifices offered on the altar. The altar was not the only striking feature of the Mishkan (and Mikdash). Another was the Menorah. The first and longest-standing symbol of the Jewish people, the seven-branched candelabra that stood in the Mishkan is a graphic, symbolic depiction of creation itself: six days of creation held together by the central trunk, Shabbat. God tells Moses to instruct the Israelites to bring “clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly” (Exodus 27:20). The kohanim (priests) were assigned the daily duties of cleaning the Menorah, replacing its wicks, and refilling its cups with oil so that it would burn eternally, symbolizing the eternal nature of God’s covenant with Israel. The Table of Showbread (Exodus chapter 25) displayed twelve loaves of bread on its golden shelves, representing God’s commitment to ensuring Israel’s physical sustenance, their most basic need. Each shabbat, the kohanim replaced the loaves with twelve fresh ones.

Mishnah Menachot 8:3, and the Gemara that follows (starting on 85b), engages in a detailed description concerning the production of olive oil via a succession of pressings (beatings). Each subsequent pressing produces a lesser quality oil. Only the finest oil from the first press—“clear oil of beaten olives”—is suitable for lighting the Menorah (Exodus 27:20). Two chapters later, the Torah says that meal offerings are made with one-tenth measure of choice flour and a quarter hin of merely “beaten oil.” Why is the finest quality oil used to light the Menorah not also required for the meal offering? After all, God uses the Menorah only for illumination, but “consumes” the meal offering. While God’s “seeing” and “eating” are metaphorical, it makes sense that the oil we  consume should be as pure, or purer than, the oil used to illuminate the dark.

The Gemara explains that God does not require the most expensive oil for the meal offering. The nation, which pays for the costs of the Mishkan through tithing, thus saves money. God wants the nation to use its funds properly and frugally and toward that end, does not require the most expensive olive oil for the meal offering.

Why, then, is the finest type of oil required for the Menorah? As R. Shmuel bar Nachmani explains, Torah says “to (or: for) you” to convey that God does not require the illumination provided by the Menorah—it is symbol for Israel, so the people will remember that God is always with them. R. Zerika points out that much the same can be said of the Table of Showbread, as evidenced by its placement at the opposite end of the Mishkan. Normally, one would place a lamp next to the table to provide light for eating. However, God, Who does not require this configuration, commanded they be placed far apart so Israel would understand that these symbols exist solely for their sake.

The Gemara provides one more example. The windows in Solomon’s Temple are described as “narrow and broad,” presumably meaning that they had a narrow opening to the outside but a wider opening on the inside (familiar to us from medieval castles and walls) because the narrow opening is easier to protect, and the broader opening inside permits more light to diffuse within.  The Gemara reads “narrow and broad,” however, as “narrow within and broad without”—the opposite of standard construction—allowing God to make the statement that God doesn’t require the light.

  1. If God doesn’t need the Menorah for illumination or the meal offering and bread of the Table for sustenance, why build the Mishkan and carry out these rituals? What does Israel gain by following rituals portray a God Who eats and sees like human beings—if that does not correspond to reality? 
  2. In explaining anthropomorphic references to God, our Sages said that Torah speaks in the language of human beings. Do you find it helpful and engaging, or distracting and confusing, to talk about God in human terms (“seeing,” “eating,” “angry,” etc.
  3. In explaining why God accepted Abel’s sacrifice while rejecting Cain’s (Genesis 4:3-4), it has often been pointed out that Abel brought “the choicest of the firstlings of his flock” while Cain simply brought produce from his fields. This suggests that one should bring only one’s best to God. Yet this passage from the Talmud pointedly says God doesn’t not always want the finest quality. How would you explain this seemingly contradiction?

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Why Do People Repent? — BT Yoma 86a — #127

R. Chama b. Chanina said: Great is repentance because it brings healing to the world, as it is said, I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely (Hosea 14:5). 
 R. Chama b. Chanina pointed out a contradiction: It is written, Return, you backsliding children (Jeremiah 3:22)—that is, you who were backsliding (i.e., rebelling) in the beginning. But [then] it is written, I will heal your backsliding (Jeremiah 3:22). There is no difficulty: Here, [the reference is to where they repent] out of love; there [to where they repent] out of fear. 
Rav Yehudah pointed out this contradiction: It is written, Return, you backsliding children, I will heal your backsliding (Jeremiah 3:22), but it is also written, For I am a lord to you, and I will take you one from a city and two from a family  (Jeremiah 3:14). There is no difficulty: Here, [the reference is to where they repent] out of love or fear; there [the reference is to where they repent] through suffering.
R. Levi said: Great is repentance because it reaches the heavenly throne, as it is said, Return, Israel, to Adonai your God (Hosea 14:2).

The building blocks of our lives are our relationships (with ourselves, with God, with other people) and all relationships are tested by life. We would hope that all apologies are sincere, heartfelt, and healing. Teshuvah (repentance), the path to reconciliation and healing, is therefore crucial. But who hasn’t heard, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” which isn’t an apology at all? And who hasn’t blurted out, “I’m sorry” without fully meaning it? The passage above opens a longer conversation in tractate Yom on repentance, a most appropriate discussion for the talmudic tractate concerning the laws and rites of Yom Kippur.

R. Chama b. Chanina opens the discussion of teshvuah by pointing to the potential of repentance, and hence how high the stakes are: repentance brings healing not only to individuals in the context of interpersonal relationships, but is the source of healing for the the world when the breach is between God and humanity. With a claim this lofty, it is unsurprising that someone should ask, “But doesn’t it matter why the offending party repented?” and “Does teshuvah have the power to repair every breach?” Two efforts to dissecting the relationship between motivation, sincerity, and outcome of repentance follow. Both follow a common rabbinic formula: Two scriptural verses are presented that seem, at first glance, to contradict one another. A resolution is offered that solves the contradiction by slicing and dicing the verses, assigning each verse to a different situation. Hence the truth of each verse is preserved, and a distinction is made between applications in a manner that invites a more nuanced view of the subject itself.

In the first “slice and dice,” R. Chama b. Chanina contrasts the first half of Jeremiah 3:22 with the second half of the same verse. Return you backsliding children suggests to R. Chama that Israel’s rebelliousness is a foolish act of childish insubordination—over as quickly as it began. However, as R. Chama understands the latter half of the verse (I will heal your backsliding) the Israelites require God’s healing because they remain, even after teshuvah, tainted by their sin. Does repentance wipe the slate clean, or is the offender forever marked by the sin? R. Chama resolves the contraction by assigning the first half of the verse to repentance undertaken out of love. It is genuine and heartfelt and thereby fully clears the sinner’s account with God. He assigns the latter half of the verse to repentance undertaken out of fear (for a delightful treatment of repentance coerced by fear: Tom Chapin’s “Mikey Won’t). This implies that repentance evoked by fear is likely to be defensive—more intended to avoid punishment than forge reconciliation.

Rav Yehudah offers a second “slice and dice.” For him, Jeremiah 3:22 in its totality implies that repentance effectively brings healing at all times, for all people. He contrasts this with another verse from Jeremiah (3:14) that suggests God picks and chooses whose repentance to accept, implying that repentance is not always effective and healing. Rav Yehudah resolves the seeming contradiction by assigning 3:22 to repentance undertaken either out of love or fear—regardless of what inspires a person to repent, sincere repentance brings healing. He assigns 3:14 to the experience of suffering, which, often understood as punishment from heaven in Rav Yehudah’s world, would naturally be expected to inspire repentance. But suffering does not always inspire repentance. The picking and choosing of 3:14 is that of suffering individuals who decide whether or not their suffering motivates repentance. 

R. Levi quotes Hosea 14:2, a verse that cuts through the analysis, argument, and slicing and dicing by asserting that all repentance, regardless of how human beings are inclined to judge one another’s sincerity, reaches the throne in heaven; that is, it is fully accepted by God. 

  1. What is the difference between saying, “I’m sorry” and doing teshuvah?
  2. Does it matter whether love, fear, suffering, or something else motivates a person to repent? If so, why? Is R. Chama’s distinction between teshuvah from love or fear an observation or a judgment? Is Rav Yehudah’s comment about sufferers who do not repent an observation or a judgment?
  3. The discussion in tractate Yoma ends with a statement by R. Meir (below) that goes even farther than that of R. Levi, claiming that God forgives the world for the sake of the repentance of an individual. Can an individual apologize on behalf of a group? Can an individual repent on behalf of a group? Why do you think he makes this claim?

R. Meir says: Great is repentance, for on account of an individual who repents, the sins of all the world are forgiven, as it is said,  I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely, for My anger is turned away from him (Hosea 14:5). It is not stated “from them” but rather “from him.” (86b)