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Friday, October 13, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall — BT Nedarim 9b — #87

Shimon ha-Tzaddik said [in a baraita], “In all my life, I never ate the guilt-offering of a nazirite who became tamei [ritually impure] with one exception. Once a certain man, a nazirite [who had become tamei] came from the south and I saw that he had beautiful eyes and was handsome, with curly locks. I said to him, ‘My son, why did you see fit to destroy your beautiful hair?’ He said to me, ‘I was a shepherd for my father in town. I went to fill [a bucket with water] from the spring and I gazed down at my reflection [in the water] and my yetzer rushed over me and threatened to banish me from the world. I said to [my yetzer], “Evil one! Why are you so arrogant in a world that is not yours, with one who is destined to be [consumed by] worms and maggots? By the Temple Service, I will shave you for [the sake of] heaven.”’ Immediately, I arose and kissed him on his head and I said to him, ‘My son, may there be more who make nazirite vows like you in Israel! It is about you that Scripture says, If anyone, man or woman, explicitly utters a nazirite’s vow, to set himself apart for Adonai… (Numbers 6:2).” 

The background for this story is found most prominently in the Metamorphosis of Ovid (43 BCE - 17 or 18 CE), the Roman poet who wrote the classic version of the Greek tale of Narcissus. Narcissus, the son of a river god and a nymph, one day discovered his magnificently beautiful reflection in a pool of water. Not realizing it was his own image, he became so transfixed by his own beauty that he fell hopelessly in love with it and lost the will to do anything else but gaze at his own reflection. The term narcissism derives from this story. Many artists have painted Narcissus; my favorite is by Caravaggio (shown here to the right).

The story Shimon ha-Tzaddik tells in the Talmud provides evidence that the Rabbis were familiar with Greek and Roman stories. In this case, the talmudic re-write of the tale of Narcissus is instructive of rabbinic values.

The Rabbis were suspicious nazirites. Torah presents the nazirite as one who takes on additional vows (to abstain from cutting his hair, drinking grapes or wine, and avoiding contact with the dead) presumably to attain a greater level of holiness. But the Rabbis were wary: There are sufficiently many obligations imposed by Torah. Is this an act of spirituality or hubris? Is a nazirite someone who makes the vow because he is in control of his yetzer ra (evil inclination), or someone who is inspired to to be a nazirite by his arrogant and narcissistic yetzer?

The sacrifice of a nazirite, should he become ritually impure, or after he finished the period of his vow, was eaten by a kohen (priest). Apparently, Shimon ha-Tzaddik, a High Priest according to tradition, avoided eating the sacrifices of nazirites as a matter of personal practice. Our story concerns an exception he once made. The nazirite whose sacrifice he agreed to eat had three hallmarks of someone the High Priest and rabbi would disdain and look down upon: he was a shepherd, he came from the south, and he was, of course, a nazirite. 

Shimon notices the man’s exceptional beauty and therefore asks why he would be willing to cut off his hair, as is required at the end of the period of the vow. The man replies that he once gazed at his own reflection in a pool of water and immediately felt overwhelmed by the yetzer ra—he felt in danger of losing himself as Narcissus had done. His glimpse of his own beauty risked his life, but unlike Narcissus, he pulled himself away from the brink by reminding himself that beauty is ephemeral; all are destined to decompose in the ground (here, the nazirite quotes Pirkei Avot 3:1). He thereupon took the vow to counteract the power of his own yetzer, intentionally destroying the beauty that threatened to overwhelm his character. Recognizing the rightness of his intentions, Shimon ha-Tzaddik agrees to eat, and thereby validate, his sacrificial offering.

  1. Is there a conflict between self-esteem, as it is promoted today, and the middah (character attribute) of humility? Does social media, which encourages us to curate our lives and promote a certain image, narcissism?
  2. In Ovid’s version of the tale of Narcissus, the arrogant and proud young man spurns many suitors, among them a nymph who implores the gods, “So may he love himself, and so may he fail to command what he loves.” This is a classic case of what the Sages called middah k’neged middah (“measure for measure”). Just as Narcissus refused to reciprocate the love of those who had fallen in love with him, he fell in love with his own image which could not reciprocate his love. Do you think that self-love and narcissism can interfere with a person’s ability to be in a loving relationship with another person? How?
  3. One of the chief differences between the Greek story of Narcissus and the talmudic tale of the nazirite concerns self-awareness. Narcissus is utterly unaware of how his obsession with his  image is effecting him; he is even unaware that the image that transfixes him is his own. The nazirite, in contrast, is keenly self-aware and can therefore sidestep the trap that claims Narcissus’ life. In Ovid’s telling, after Narcissus dies, the water nymphs go to collect his body to place on his funeral pyre, but it has disappeared. In its place they find a flower with a yellow center surrounded by white petals. Still beautiful, but all humanity gone. The nazirite, in contrast, emerges as beautiful as ever—outside and inside. What do you think is the relationship between self-awareness and beauty? Between humility and beauty?

Friday, September 29, 2017

Preparing & Over-preparing for Yom Kippur — BT Yoma 2a — #86

MISHNAH 1:1: Seven days before Yom Kippur, they remove the High Priest from his house [and sequester him] in the Parhedrin Chamber. And they prepare another priest to stand in for him lest  he come to be disqualified. R Yehudah says, “They also prepare another wife for him, lest his wife die, for it says, He shall make atonement for himself and for his household (Leviticus 16:6). ‘His household' refers to his wife.” The Sages said to [R. Yehudah], “if so, there is no end to the matter.”

For Jews today, Yom Kippur is a quiet day of fasting and long prayers in synagogue. Some people spend the entire day in synagogue. Others take an afternoon break to walk outside or nap at home. The tone is serious, if not even somber. Our prayers beseech God to forgive the wrongs we have committed during the past year; our fast atones for them. On Yom Kippur, we rehearse our death: we neither eat nor drink; we wear white (some Jews wear the actual shroud in which they will be buried); we abstain from sex, bathing, pleasure, and entertainment; we focus solely on our lives from a spiritual perspective.

For Jews living during the time of the Second Temple, Yom Kippur was quite different. The rituals in the Mikdash in Jerusalem were elaborate, complex, and dramatic. People gathered to watch, hear, and smell it all. Sacrifices were made. The High Priest recited formulas of atonement for himself, his household, the priests, and the people before entering the Holy of Holies where he utters the Tetragrammaton, the Name of God. We briefly recall these rituals during the Avodah service, attempting to imagine what is temporally and culturally distant from us. The climax of the day came when two goats were chosen, one to be sacrificed and one to be exiled to Azazel in the wilderness, carrying the sins of all the people. The morning Torah reading recalls this ritual. The day had an air of celebration because it conveyed to people God’s forgiveness.

The first mishnah in Yoma, the tractate on Yom Kippur, describes the preparation of the High Priest a week prior to Yom Kippur. Given his importance in the dramatic rituals of the day, the need for preparation is not surprising.

The mishnah has three parts: (1) We are told that the High Priest leaves his home and resides in a special location on the Temple Mount called the Parhedrin Chamber for the week prior to Yom Kippur. On Yoma daf 8 the Gemara derives the name “Parhedrin” from a term for Roman officials who were appointed annually for a one-year term, suggesting that high priests were appointed this way during the Second Temple period. The High Priest was sequestered here to prevent his becoming disqualified to serve on Yom Kippur. Why seven days? In Leviticus 8:33-34 Moses instructs Aaron and his sons to remain in the Tent of Meeting for seven days prior to the consecration of the Tabernacle, a ritual that involved kapparah (atonement). This is taken as a model for the High Priest’s sequestration in preparation for Yom Kippur. Reish Lakish, however, derives the seven days from Moses’ envelopment in a cloud on Mount Sinai, as described in Exodus 24:16. The most likely source of disqualification would be having sexual intercourse with his wife were she to become a menstruant. There are other substances that could render him ritually impure, as well. Confining the High Priest to the Temple Mount reduces the chances that he comes into contact with them. Yet, despite all precautions, it is not impossible, and so another priest is prepared simultaneously to take over should the High Priest become defiled or otherwise unable to perform his duties.

(2) Leviticus tells us that the High Priest must “make atonement for himself and for his house[hold].” R. Yehudah understands the term “house” to mean “wife”—the Rabbis commonly understood the term this way—and concludes that this means that the High Priest needs not only a standby to perform his rituals, but also a standby wife in case his wife dies just prior to, or during, Yom Kippur.

(3) The Rabbis say that R. Yehudah’s call for a backup wife goes too far. If we must be concerned that his wife will die, ought we not be concerned that the standby wife will also die? And if we entertain concerns on this level, there is no end to the concerns that could be raised to which we would have to respond. Yet we should give R. Yehudah his due: An entire nation was relying on the High Priest to facilitate atonement with God for them. Were the High Priest’s wife to die, he would become a mourner, highly distracted by his loss, and possibly unable to perform his crucially important duties on behalf of the entire nation of Israel.

Perhaps the Rabbis’ intent is to draw a line between reasonable and excessive preparations and precautions. Hence, worrying about the wife suddenly dying is not reasonable, but concern about him become ritually impure is less unlikely and hence more reasonable.


  1. Can you imagine a spiritual purpose to the High Priest’s week of separation in the Parhedrin Chamber? If you were the High Priest, in addition to avoiding ritual defilement and reviewing the rites of Yom Kippur, how would you have used the time? How do you prepare for Yom Kippur?
  2. Is it reasonable to sequester the High Priest in the Parhedrin Chamber for a week prior to Yom Kippur? If you don’t think it is, how should the needs of the individual High Priest be balanced with the needs of the nation?
  3. Are there times when you, or those around you, have difficulty distinguishing between preparations and precautions that are reasonable and appropriate and those that are overblown and unreasonable? How do you determine what is justified and rational, and what is not?

Friday, July 14, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Friday, June 30, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Thursday, June 8, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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