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Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Prayerful Mindset — BT Berakhot 30b (part 2) — #98

GEMARA: Whence this law [that one should achieve a state of koved rosh to pray the Shemoneh Esrei]? [1] R. Elazar said, “Scripture states: Bitterly dispirited, she (Hannah) [prayed to Adonai] (1 Samuel 1:10).” How do you know this? Perhaps Hannah was different in that she was very bitter at heart. [2] Rather, R. Yose the son of R. Chanina [derived it] from here: But I, through Your abundant love, enter Your house; I bow down in awe at Your holy temple (Psalm 5:8). How do we know this? Perhaps David [the presumed author of Psalm 5] is different because he tormented himself asking for mercy. [3] Rather, R. Yehoshua b. Levi said, “From here: Prostrate yourself before Adonai בְּהַדְרַת-קֹדֶשׁ in holy splendor (Psalm 29:2). Do not read בְּהַדְרַת (in splendor) but rather בְּחֶדְרַת (in trembling).” How do you know this? Perhaps I will tell you that בְּהַדְרַת (in splendor) is, in fact, meant, just as Rav Yehudah would first adorn himself (by dressing up) and afterward pray. [4] Rather, Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak said, “It derives from here: Serve Adonai with awe and rejoice with trepidation (Psalm 2:11).”

TMT #97 examined Mishnah Berakhot 5:1, which claims that one should achieve a certain state of mind—koved rosh—for prayer. Three interpretations of koved rosh were explored in TMT-97. With TMT #98, we now turn to the Gemara’s discussion of the mishnah. The Rabbis seek the  Mishnah’s source for claiming that one must achieve a state of koved rosh to pray the Shemoneh Esrei. The amora’im (the Sages who wrote the Gemara) offer four opinions concerning what the tanna’im (the Sages during the period of the Mishnah who preceded the amora’im) meant, supporting their claims with scriptural verses. (For clarity, I have numbered the four opinions.)  The Gemara questions the legitimacy of the first three but offers no further commentary on the fourth. 

A question underlies the four opinions presented: when can the example of one individual be deemed representative of a broad principle concerning the behavior everyone should aspire to, rather than be seen as the behavior of that particular individual on that particular occasion in that particular circumstance?

Mishnah did not provide a source for its claim that one should achieve a state of koved rosh to pray the Shemoneh Esrei, which is not unusual. Gemara offers four opinions. The first is ascribed to R. Elazar. He cites the story of Hannah in First Samuel because it recounts the experience of an individual explicitly praying to God. R. Elazar understands marat nefesh (“bitterly dispirited”) to mean “in an extremely serious mood.” The Gemara challenges this suggestion, asking whether Hannah’s state of mind can serve as a general rule for all who pray, or rather pertains only to Hannah on this particular occasion, which seems a more reasonable explanation.

Next, R. Yose offers the example of King David, credited with authoring Psalm 5 (see verse 1). He understands “bow down in awe” as an expression of prayer in which the request is for mercy is central. Indeed, this is the thrust of the entirety of Psalm 5: David beseeches God to save him from his enemies because his life is endangered. The Gemara reasons that David was in a state of personal torment rather than koved rosh. Thus this example, like the first, concerns an individual’s personal state of mind and should not be generalized prescriptively to all people when they pray.

R. Yehoshua b. Levi offers a third explanation. Drawing on Psalm 29:2, he instructs us to read b’hadrat kodesh as b’chedrat kodesh, changing the letter hay (ה) to the letter chet (ח). Hay and chet are visually similar, distinguished only by a tiny stroke of ink. Read this way, R. Yehoshua instructs us to be so keenly aware of God’s power that we tremble when we pray. In other words, fear (yirat Adonai) should dominate our mental state during prayer. The Gemara counters that we could just as reasonably not exchange the hay for a chet and understand the verse to instruct us to dress up to pray (look splendid) as we would do when meeting a powerful human sovereign. Indeed, Rav Yehudah would don good clothes for prayer, his time to “talk with God.”

Fourth and last is Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak’s interpretation based on Psalm 2:11. He understands “serve” to connote prayer. He says that our attitude in prayer should combine awe, joy, and trepidation. It’s not clear if he means that one should aim for all three states of mind simultaneously, or draw on whichever emotion most honestly reflects one’s state of mind at the moment. The Gemara does not challenge his view, communicating that a spectrum of emotions are all appropriate and conducive to prayer.

  1. Which do you think is preferable and more appropriate: (1) prescribing a specific state of mind for prayer, or (2) encouraging people to  channel their personal emotional state into prayer? What are the advantages and disadvantages to each approach in theory and for you personally?
  2. Rambam (Moses Maimonides) was an advocate of strict kavanah (intention) in prayer. He counsels us to train ourselves to expel all extraneous thoughts and focus solely on the words of the prayers. (See below.) How does this strike you? What is gained? What is sacrificed?
  3. What mood or state of mind do you find most conducive to prayer? What other factors (e.g., environment, music or silence, public or private) do you prefer? How do you prepare to pray?

Turn your thoughts away from everything while you read the Shema or during the [Shemoneh Esrei] prayer… After some time when you have mastered this, accustom yourself to have your mind free from all other thoughts when you read any portion of the other books of the prophets, or when you say any blessing, and to have your attention directed exclusively to the perception and the understanding of what you utter.” (Moses Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed III:51)

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Frame of Mind — M Berakhot 5:1 (30b) — #97 (part 1)

MISHNAH: One should not rise to pray [the Shemoneh Esrei] except with an attitude of koved rosh (in a serious frame of mind). The pious ones of old would wait for an hour and then pray in order to direct their hearts toward God. Even if the king greets [one who is praying the Shemoneh Esrei], that person should not respond to him. Even if a snake curls around his heel, that person should not interrupt [recitation of the prayer].

When the Temple stood in Jerusalem, God was worshiped by bringing a complex array of sacrifices ranging from meal offerings to incense to animals to its altar. The sacrificial cult ended in 70 C.E. with the Destruction of the Second Temple, but in its day, it afforded worshipers stunning sights of crowds, animals, and priests; sounds ranging from animals to the music of the Levites; the smell of animal flesh and blood, as well as incense; and often involved the feel and taste of the sacrifices, as well. The Book of Leviticus is devoted to detailing the many required sacrifices, the occasions on which each was to be brought to the Temple, and the precise procedures the kohanim (priests) were to follow. Other portions of the Torah focus on the sacrificial cult, as well. Torah is concerned with the state of mind of the priests offering the sacrifices, but nowhere is the  attitude or state of mind of the ordinary Israelite mentioned. Perhaps this is because the sheer drama of the sacrificial cult—involving all the physical senses—commanded one’s full attention.

In the vacuum left by the Destruction, the Rabbis determined that prayer would function as the primary mode of worship replacing communal sacrifices: Shacharit in place of the morning offering and Minchah in place of the afternoon offering. Ma’ariv, the evening prayers, were initially voluntary, but came to be considered obligatory. Prayer is an entirely different experience than offering a sacrifice. Even when performed communally, prayer is far more private, inward, and contemplative and, arguably, far more difficult. There is no show to watch, no drama unfolding. Prayer requires focus, concentration, and effort. In the mishnah above, the Rabbis discuss the desirable state of mind when engaged in prayer.

The Shemoneh Esrei, the central prayer of the Jewish prayer service, is an amalgam of numerous blessings. On weekdays, it was composed of 18 blessings (now 19)—hence the moniker Shemoneh Esrei (“eighteen”)—organized in three sections: praises, petitions, thanksgiving. It is also called the Amidah (“standing”) because it is recited while standing. 

In the mishnah above, the Sages teach that one should achieve the state of mind they term “koved rosh” to pray the Shemoneh Esrei. Koved rosh is so important that the early Sages spent an hour in meditation to achieve this frame of mind to prepare themselves to pray the Shemoneh Esrei properly. Once achieved, nothing should be permitted to interfere with one’s concentration, not even a king’s greeting or a threatening snake. These are curious examples of the extent to which one should focus on the Shemoneh Esrei. Ignoring the greeting of  a king is politically dangerous; ignoring a snake is physically dangerous. (The Rabbis likely believed that God would protect one engaged in prayer from harm.)

But what is the attitude of koved rosh, which literally means “heaviness of head,” that the Sages adjure us to acquire? Rashi (11th century, Provence) understood the term to connote a mindset of awe and reverence. According to Natan b. Yechiel (11th century, Rome) koved rosh alludes to physical posture: bowing one’s head in prayer. Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (1789–1866), the third rebbe of Chabad offered a creative interpretation based on an alternative meaning of the root kaf-bet-daled, “sweep”: one should sweep from one’s mind all extraneous and worldly thoughts in order to focus only on the meaning of the prayer.  These explanations might be viewed as differing aspects of prayer that could apply simultaneously, or as differing and incompatible understandings of prayer. (You might wish to consider how each of these three explanations of koved rosh aligns with the mishnah’s praise for lengthy preparation for prayer and instruction to ignore the dangers of both kings and snakes while reciting the Shemoneh Esrei.)

  1. Menachem Mendel Schneersohn’s interpretation of koved rosh, which encourages one to sweep away all extraneous thoughts and focus solely on the words of the Shemoneh Esrei, seems to contradict the generally understood purpose of prayer, which is to share with God one’s concerns and request from God what one needs. How do you suppose Schneersohn conceived of prayer? How did he understand God? Is your prayer a conversation with God or a time for meditation? How do the words in the siddur help or detract from your prayer?
  2. The Talmud (BT Yebamot 105b) recounts that R. Chiyya and R. Shimon b. R. Yehudah were sitting and talking. One said, “Those who prays should direct their eyes downward [focused on the Temple]” while the other said, “Those who prayer should direct their eyes upward [toward heaven].” R. Yishmael b. R. Yose, however, said, “My father taught that when praying, we should direct our eyes downward and our hearts upward, fulfilling both requirements.” How do you understand the concerns of the first two sages? Is R. Yishmael’s father’s teaching helpful to you? 
  3. There is a tension in Jewish prayer between keva (formal, fixed prayer) and kavanah (intentional, spontaneous prayer). Keva privileges formality and provides a framework, but spontaneous prayer is often the most heartfelt. Which form of prayer is most meaningful for you? Are you able to combine the two when you pray?

Monday, February 12, 2018

Matchmaker, Matchmaker — BT Sanhedrin 22a (part 3) — #96

R. Alexandri said, “For a man whose wife dies the world is darkened, as it says, The light in his tent darkens and his lamp fails him (Job 18:6).” R. Yose bar Chanina said, “His steps will be shortened, as it says, The steps of his strength will be shortened (Job 18:7).” R. Abahu said, “His advice fails, as it says, His own advice will cast him down (Job 18:7).”
Rabbah bar bar Chanah said in the name of R. Yochanan, “It is as difficult to make a match [for marriage] as the splitting of the Reed Sea, as it is said, אֱלֹהִים מוֹשִׁיב יְחִידִים בַּיְתָה מוֹצִיא אֲסִירִים בַּכּוֹשָׁרוֹת God restores the lonely (or: singles) to their homes, sets free the imprisoned, safe and sound (Psalm 68:7).” Do not read “אֲסִירִים בַּכּוֹשָׁרוֹת / sets free the imprisoned” but rather “כּאֲסִירִים בַּכּוֹשָׁרוֹת as if [God] sets free the imprisoned.” Do not read “בַּכּוֹשָׁרוֹת / safe and sound” but rather “בכי ושירות / crying and singing.”
Is this really so? Didn’t Rav Yehudah say in the name of Rav, “Forty days before the formation of an embryo, a heavenly voice announces: ‘The daughter of this one [is intended to marry] this one’?”
There is not difficulty (i.e., no contradiction between the claim of Rabbah bar bar Chanah and the claim of Rav Yehudah). This [the claim of Rav Yehudah] concerns first marriage and this [the claim of Rabbah bar bar Chanah] concerns second marriages.

In 1611, Johannes Kepler, the astronomer who formulated the laws of planetary motion, found  himself widowed, with children, and in need of a wife. He drew up a list of eleven women and set out to interview them all, but not one passed muster. His experience inspired him to ask, “Was it Divine Providence or my own moral guilt which, for two years or longer, tore me in so many different directions and made me consider the possibility of such different unions?”

The secret of a good marriage is forgiving your partner for marrying you in the first place.
—Sacha Guitry

In a world in which one’s family chooses one’s spouse, is it more or less difficult to achieve a good and lasting marriage? One might argue that those whose partners are assigned to them have different expectations of the marital relationship, perhaps lower emotional and romantic expectations. In the world of the Rabbis, parents contracted matches for their children, but this did not prevent people from hoping for a deeply loving and satisfying relationship. Realists to the core, the Rabbis comment on just how difficult it is to achieve this goal.

The mishnah that introduces the discussion above did not concern marriage (see TMT-94), but rather the dignity of the king. The Rabbis jump immediately to the relationship between David and Avishag and from there, the heartbreak of the dissolution of a marriage through divorce or the death of a wife: above, three sages weigh in the trauma of losing a spouse: depression (his world “darkens”), physical deterioration (“the steps of his strength will be shortened”), loss of a good advisor (his source of advice fails him). Acknowledging the momentousness of the loss inspires the realization of just how remarkable a good marriage is, so much so that they attribute it to God’s intervention. But more: Rabbah bar bar Chanah  tells us that even for God, making a good match takes extraordinary effort, comparable to the parting of the Reed Sea, among the most impressive miracles recounted in the Torah. The Rabbis support this claim not by referencing Exodus 14-15, which tells the story of the splitting of the Reed Sea, but rather based on the sound of the words in a verse from Psalm 68 to make the connection between the story of God’s awesome might and intervention and God’s role in making matches. 

Rav Yehudah, however, has a tradition that God designates people to marry one another before they are even born, which undermines the claim that matchmaking is difficult. How are the competing and conflicting claims to be reconciled? By assigning them to two different situations: Making first matches—when people are young, flexible, enthusiastic, and romantic—is an easy task. Making second marriage—when people are older and more set in their ways—is far more of a feat.


  1. Do you agree that finding a compatible mate is easier the first time one marries than the second time, or do you see it the other way around? Why?
  2. Given that few young people in the ancient world chose their own spouse, and they therefore had to abide by their parents’ choice, is there an advantage to claiming that God had a hand in  making the match and, even more, put enormous effort into insuring the right match?
This mathematician’s efforts at making a match rivaled—or perhaps exceeded?—God’s! 
This guy hacked OkCupid.
  1. In the 1960s, mathematician Martin Gardner famously published a matching algorithm that came to be known as the “The Marriage Problem” (for matching) or the “The Secretary Problem” (for hiring), but more properly called “The Optimal Stopping Theory” (see Remember Kepler’s conundrum? The algorithm says that if you have n candidates to consider, you should interview 36.8% of them (for those who like math, the precise number is 1/e) without accepting any of them, and then choose the very next candidate whose qualities exceed all the applicants interviewed thus far. (NB: The theoryWhile the theory is couched in terms of heterosexual matchings, it is equally applicable to homosexual matchings.) How much trust would be required to follow this algorithm? How is it different from trusting a matchmaker?

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Heartbreak of Divorce — BT Sanhedrin 22a (part 2) — #95

Rav Shaman bar Abba said, “Come and see how difficult is divorce, for King David was permitted to seclude himself [with Avishag] but he was not permitted to divorce.” R. Eliezer said, “Whenever a man divorces his first wife, even the altar [of the Temple] sheds tears for him, as it says, And this you do, as well: You cover the altar of Adonai with tears, weeping and moaning so that [God] refuses to regard the offering any more and to accept what you offer (Malachi 2:13). And it is written, But you ask, ‘Because of what?’ Because Adonai is a witness between you and the wife of your youth with whom you have broken faith, though she is your partner and covenanted spouse (Malachi 2:14).” R. Yochanan—and some say R. Eliezer—said, “One’s wife dies only if he is unable to pay his debts, as it is said, Let your bed [i.e., wife] be taken from under you when you have no money to pay (Proverbs 22:27).” And R. Yochanan said, “Any man whose first wife dies, it is as if the Temple were destroyed in his lifetime, as it is said, O mortal, I am about to take away the delight of your eyes through pestilence, but you shall not lament or weep or let your tears flow (Ezekiel 24:16). And it is said, And I spoke to the people in the morning, and my wife died in the evening (Ezekiel 24:18). And [shortly thereafter] it is written, I am going to desecrate My Sanctuary, your pride and glory, the delight of your eyes [and the desire of the your heart]…(Ezekiel 24:21)

In TMT #94, we noted the Rabbis’ interpretative machinations to explain King David’s relationship with Avishag, the young Shunammite woman, who was brought to “warm his bed”  toward the end of his life (1 Kings 1:1–4). Obviously, David’s relationship with Avishag raises many questions, chief among them: Was the relationship sexual? Did David marry Avishag and, if so, was the marriage consummated? The Bible confirms neither their intimacy nor whether they married, but Solomon’s response to Adonijah’s request to marry her suggests David did wed Avishag (see TMT #94 for detailed explanation). The Rabbis claim David abstained from sex with Avishag not because he was impotent (quite to the contrary!), but rather out of faithful adherence to Torah’s limitation as to how many wives a king may take. That he could have divorced one of his wives and married Avishag inspires a discussion of the heartbreak of divorce, which in turn leads to comments on the other way a first marriage might end: if the wife dies.

Rav Shaman bar Abba attempts to reconcile the Bible’s problematic assertion that David shared a bed with Avishag with the Rabbis’ assertion that David never married her, given that by divorcing one of his wives, David could have obeyed the rabbinic prohibition concerning yichud (secluding himself with a woman he is not permitted to marry, BT Kiddushin 80b). This would allow him to marry Avishag. Rav Shaman’s comment is a classic example of rabbinic spin: David already had dispensation (from whom?) to seclude himself with Avishag so he would not need to divorce one of his eighteen wives (the maximum permitted an Israelite king) in order to marry her. One might reasonably respond that with eighteen wives David hardly needed another! Why is there a need for a special dispensation? If David so desired Avishag, divorcing one of his wives was an option. To counter this response, R. Eliezer declares that divorce so saddens God that the very “altar sheds tears for him.” R. Eliezer quotes verses from Malachi to support his claim. There are several problems here, beginning with R. Eliezer’s assertion that the altar sheds tears “for him.” For him? Men had exclusive power to divorce their wives. While the ketubah offered women a measure of insurance, divorce often left them impoverished, unsupported, and socially ostracized. Why doesn’t the altar shed tears for her as well? Further, while the verses from Malachi seem to fit R. Eliezer's claim about God’s attitude toward divorce, in their biblical context they concern intermarriage—an entirely different scenario. Could R. Eliezer’s comment be construed as a   condemnation of divorce?

R. Eliezer’s comment inspires two more about another way a first marriage could end: through the death of the wife. These comments seem entirely out of place. Perhaps they are here because the first is also ascribed to R. Eliezer.  Its author finds a verse in Proverbs that supports his claim that a man’s wife dies only because he is unable to pay his debts. The claim goes unexplained and unchallenged, but one wonders if the “debt” referenced is her conjugal rights. This is followed by a comment attributed solely to R. Yochanan that a man experiences the loss of his first wife as a catastrophe comparable to the destruction of the Temple: his world crumbles. Within six verses, Ezekiel mentions “delight of your eyes,” “my wife died,” and “desecration of [God’s] Sanctuary,” which R. Yochanan weaves together to say that marriage is a peak life experience and therefore loss of a partner is a crushing experience. It would appear that the conversation has strayed from the topic of David’s relationship with Avishag to a generalized dirge on divorce.


  1. Deuteronomy 24:1–4) permits a man to divorce his wife for any (or no) reason. Given how emotionally difficult divorce is for the couple, their families and friends, and the community, does this passage’s claim that “the altar weeps” provide comfort or impose pain for a couple undergoing a divorce? How does “the altar weeps for him” color things?
  2. As noted above, R. Eliezer’s assertion that God is deeply grieved by divorce may be mentioned here to justify King David’s cohabiting with Avishag without first divorcing one of his wives and marrying her. Nonetheless, the altar analogy asserts that our sadness at divorce is matched by God’s. How might this impact peoples attitudes toward the propriety of divorce?
  3. How does ascribing human feelings to God affect your own understanding of the Divine?

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Women: People or Chattel — BT Sanhedrin 22a (part 1) — #94

MISHNAH: No one may ride [the king’s] horse, sit on his throne, or make use of his scepter; no one may see him when his hair is being cut, when he is naked, or when he is bathing, for it is written, You shall surely set over yourselves a king (Deuteronomy 17:15)—that is, his awe shall be “over you.”
 GEMARA: R. Yaakov said in R. Yochanan’s name, “What is Avishag? Avishag [the Shunammite woman] was permitted to Solomon [in marriage] but not to Adonijah. She was permitted to Solomon because he was a king and a king may make use of the king's scepter. But she was forbidden to Adonijah because he was a commoner. What was Avishag [to David]? It is written: King David was now old, advanced in years, etc. (1 Kings 1:1). And it is written: His courtiers said to him, “Let a young virgin be sought, etc. (1 Kings 1:2). Further it is written, So they looked for a beautiful girl, etc. (1 Kings 1:3) and it is written, The girl [Avishag] was exceedingly beautiful. She became the king’s attendant and waited upon him (1 Kings 1:4).” She said, “Let us marry.” [David] said to her, “You are forbidden to me.” She said to him, “When courage fails the thief, he becomes virtuous.” Then he said to [his servants], “Summon Batsheva.” It is written: So Batsheva went to the king in the chamber (1 Kings 1:15). Rav Yehudah said in Rav's name, “On that occasion, Batsheva dried herself thirteen times.”
Rabbinic legislation and discussion of women has justifiably come under much scrutiny and criticism. Today, it is part of a larger reconsideration of how women are treated in every culture and religion, indeed every human institution. Recent revelations of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault, and concomitant failures to protect women, will hopefully lead to positive change.

Deuteronomy states that if the Israelites elect to have a king rule over them, the king may not amass excess wealth and shall not have many wives (Deuteronomy 17:14-17). This could be a less than subtle criticism of Solomon, who took more than 700 wives. How many is “many wives?” Deuteronomy does not specify an upper bound, so the Rabbis derive it from traditions concerning King David: According to 1 Chronicles chapter 3, King David had seven wives, but oral tradition holds he had a total of eighteen wives and concubines. Hence, the Rabbis conclude that the “many wives” limit in Deuteronomy means eighteen. At the time Avishag was brought to keep David warm (read more here), he had reached the limit of eighteen wives.

The mishnah creates a sense of reverence and awe for the king by stipulating that no one may use his possessions. Only one who assumes the throne may use the king’s possessions; anyone else is considered to have committed a treacherous misappropriation and is presumed to have pretensions to claim the throne.  To prevent such misappropriation, it was customary in the ancient world to destroy the king’s possessions, including his horse and bed, when he died. Mishnah further notes that it is forbidden to observe the king engaged in private, personal acts that make him appear “merely human” and thereby less awe-inspiring.

The Gemara recognizes this principle applies to the king’s wives, as well, who are deemed royal chattel. In the ancient world, when a king assumed the throne other than by inheriting it from his father, he took possession of the king’s wives and harem and routinely had intercourse with each one to signify his claim to the throne. The Rabbis wonder: When Solomon became king, what happened to Avishag, the nubile young woman selected by David’s courtiers to serve as his bed-warmer, as recounted in 1 Kings chapter 1. After David died, the Gemara asks: Could Solomon have legally married Avishag? The answer is yes. This means David had not married Avishag because a son may not marry his father’s wife (Leviticus 18:8). As noted, a king may take possession of the property of the previous king, including his wives and harem. Avishag could not have married Solomon’s older half-brother and rival to the throne, Adonijah, because to do so would have signaled Adonijah’s intent to seize the throne. Indeed, according to 1 Kings chapter 2, after Adonijah conceded that Solomon would succeed David, he requested Avishag as his wife. To Solomon, this was tantamount to claiming the throne and he had Adonijah executed. The Tana”kh claims (1 Kings 1:1-4) that King David did not have sex with Avishag. The Gemara asserts that he did not marry her, all of which seems to suggest that David’s strength and virility had waned.

The Gemara redeems David’s manhood with a strange and problematic aggadah: Avishag asked David to marry her but he declined because he had reached his allotted eighteen wives—he adhered to the halakhic limit. Avishag, however, mockingly accused David of refusing to marry her because he was too old to consummate the relationship. In response, David summoned Batsheva (who, in fact, walked in on the scene of David and Avishag together because she came to plead Solomon’s case for the throne—see 1 Kings 1:11-27) and had intercourse with her thirteen consecutive times (she dries herself after each instance), proving his virility. (The number thirteen seems to be derived from the number of words in 1 Kings 1:15.) Hence, it was David’s virtue rather than impotence that prevented him from marrying Avishag.


  1. R. Yaakov asks, “What is Avishag?” meaning, “What was her status?” What question would you have asked about Avishag and how would you have answered it? (For background: 1 Kings 1:1–4)
  2. Whether or not David was adhering to the halakhic limit to the number of wives an Israelite king may take, and whether or not he was impotent, how does he treat both Avishag and Batsheva? What message is conveyed by both the biblical story and the Talmudic aggadah about women?
  3. How should we read and teach texts such as this, that presume women are possessions and commodities?

Friday, December 1, 2017

How Much May I Give? — BT Ketubot 50a — #93

R. Ilai said, “The sages in Usha instituted that one who gives generously to charity [lit.: “scatters” or “squanders”] should give no more than one-fifth of their wealth.” It is similarly taught [in a baraita]: One who gives generously should not give more than one-fifth [of his income] lest he come to need [assistance from other] people. It once happened that an individual sought to dispense [in excess of one-fifth of their wealth to charity] but his colleague did not let him. Who was [his friend]? R. Yeshevav. But others say that R. Yeshevav [was the one who wanted to give away more than one-fifth of his wealth] but his colleague did not let him. Who was the friend? R. Akiba. Rav Nachman, and some say Rav Acha bar Yaakov, said, “What verse [teaches the principle of one-fifth]? Of all that You give me, I will surely give one-tenth (aser a’asrenu) of it to You (Genesis 28:22).” But the second tenth is not equivalent to the first tenth. Rav Ashi said, “[Since Torah says,] I will surely give one-tenth of it, [this implies] that the second tenth is equal to the first tenth.”

In America, the Tuesday following Thanksgiving has come to be known as “Giving Tuesday,” perhaps as a counterbalance to the consumer frenzy of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. With that in mind, this week we learn a text about giving which imparts a surprising lesson: There is a limit to how much tzedakah a person should give. 

To fully appreciate this text, it is helpful to know several things. First, the Rabbis deemed tzedakah—donations of money, property, or time—a mitzvah, a commandment incumbent upon all Jews. Second, the generally accepted minimum one should donate to tzedakah is one-tenth of one’s net income (these days, after taxes)—not 10% of one’s total wealth. This fraction is derived from the biblical institution of tithing, which means “tenth.” The text above addresses those who wish to give over and beyond the obligatory tenth. Elsewhere, we learn that those who cannot afford one-tenth should give one-third of a shekel each year. The Rabbis understood that giving to others preserves and promotes the dignity of the giver. Third, while there were certainly wealthy people and poor people in the ancient world, the disparities in wealth we find today are historically unprecedented. Notwithstanding, later commentators noted that while the one-fifth cap applies to ordinary people, those with greater means may, if they choose, exceed it.

In the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the sages coalesced and organized themselves under the leadership of Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai in Yavne, a small settlement north of Jerusalem, where the rabbinic tradition took root and blossomed. Following the Bar Kokhba rebellion of 135 CE, the rabbis removed to Usha in the Galilee. In truth, they moved frequently, returning to Yavne, back to Usha, then to Shefaram, Bet She’arim, and finally Tzippori. It is interesting to have a small window onto one of the periods of Usha.

R. Ilai tells us that the Sages of Usha, during the early rabbinic period set a cap on how much of one’s income one should donate to tzedakah. The Talmud bolsters R. Ilai’s report with a baraita from the era of the Mishnah that conveys the same rule: The limit is twenty percent. This refers to one’s earnings in any given year, not one’s overall wealth. Its rationale: Giving away too much of your income could compel you to require assistance from others. The goal of giving is to assure that everyone has sufficient sustenance. Giving so much that you now require tzedakah from others defeats that goal. The Gemara immediately cites an instance of someone who attempted to exceed the upper limit but was stopped by a friend. This anecdote confirms the broad acceptance of the one-fifth rule. As first reported, R. Yeshevav stopped the would-be philanthropist, but others heard the story told differently: R. Yeshevav was the person who attempted to exceed the one-fifth limit and R. Akiba was the friend who stopped him. The anecdote roots the rule in the era of the Mishnah and carries the imprimatur of no less than R. Akiba.

The Gemara asks for a biblical source for the rule, which is supplied by Rav Nachman (or, according to others, Rav Acha bar Yaakov). In Genesis 28:22, Jacob, fleeing his brother Esau, lies down for the night and dreams of a ramp (or ladder) leading to heaven. God appears to him in the dream and extends the promise made to Abraham and Isaac that his offspring shall be as numerous as the dust of the earth and shall inherit the Land of Israel. When he awakens, Jacob promises he will “surely give one-tenth (or: surely set aside a tithe) for You” of all God gives him. The Hebrew repeats the verb “tithe,” from which the Rabbis deduce that Jacob promised one-tenth twice. Jacob’s promise thereby sets the upper bound of two-tenths, or twenty percent. This also establishes the Jewish principle that giving tzedakah is, in effect, returning a portion of what God has given by channeling it to someone God wishes to receive it. The Rabbis wonder: How is this to be calculated? If I give one-tenth and then calculate the second tenth on the basis of what remains, that would be 10% of the remaining 90%, which is 9% (for a total of 19%). No, Rav Ashi tell us, this is not correct; when Torah says one-tenth of it, we infer that the first and second tenths are equal to one another.


  1. The purpose of tzedakah is to benefit people lacking sufficient means for shelter, food, and clothing. Do you think contributions to art museums and the symphony qualify to be considered tzedakah? Medical research and organizations that pursue social justice? Is there a difference between charity and tzedakah?
  2. In addition to preventing people from becoming impoverished and needing tzedakah themselves, what other reasons might there be to set a one-fifth-of-income cap on giving?
  3. How much of your yearly income do you or your family contribute to charities that address the needs of the poor?

Monday, November 20, 2017

Giving Thanks — BT Sotah 40a — #92

While the shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) is reciting Modim (“We give thanks”), what do the people say? Rav says: “We give thanks to You, Adonai our God, that we can give You thanks.” And Shmuel says: “God of all the living, that we can give You thanks.” R. Simai says: “Our Creator, Who created everything, that we can give You thanks.”[The sages of] Nehardea, in the name of R. Simai, say: “Blessings and thanks to Your great name, for you have kept us alive, sustained us, so that we can give You thanks.” Rav Acha bar Yaakov would complete it thus: “May You give us life and be gracious to us, and collect and gather our exiles into Your holy courtyards in order to observe Your laws and fulfill Your will with a whole heart, so that we can give You thanks.” Rav Pappa said, “Therefore, we should recite all of them.”

The Rabbis who crafted the daily Amidah imagined that we approach God in prayer as one would approach a powerful earthly sovereign. They designed a liturgy and accompanying choreography for the Amidah, which replaces the daily Temple sacrifices, accordingly: Upon entering the sovereign’s throne room (take three steps forward), we bow (during the first blessing), then address the sovereign with words of praise, petition, and thanksgiving, bow again (during the penultimate blessing, Modim, which is the subject of the passage we are studying), and lastly walk backward out of the throne room so as not to turn our backs on the sovereign (hence three steps backward at the end of the Amidah). Accordingly, the Amidah consists of three blessings praising God, followed by thirteen petitions, and ending with three blessings of thanksgiving. Initially, the Rabbis stipulated the themes and order of the blessings; in time, final versions of all nineteen blessings were composed and approved by the Rabbis.

Before books and literacy were ubiquitous, a shaliach tzibbur (prayer leader) would stand before the congregation and recite the prayers. Those who knew them by heart could say them with him, but most people probably listened to the prayers and said, “Amen” after each blessing, affirming its meaning and thereby fulfilling their obligation to say it. For one of the nineteen blessings—Modim—it struck the Rabbis as insufficient to merely say, “Amen.” Modim, the blessing of general thanksgiving, afforded the worshiper the opportunity to personally express gratitude to God. How could a shaliach tzibbur express thanks for anyone but himself? Therefore, the Rabbis ordained that while the leader recites a Modim, each worshiper expresses his own thanks to God. Our passage begins with a query concerning personal prayers of thanksgiving.

Five sages are quoted in response to the query. Rav, who is quoted first, establishes that for him the ultimate thanks is meta-thanks: being thankful that one can express thanks. This is a remarkable idea: while one can be thankful for particulars of life, such as health, family, livelihood, friends, and so on, Rav elevates the idea of gratitude from the material (itself entirely respectable!) to the spiritual. Indeed, his thinking is well substantiated in our day by the work of psychologists whose research affirms that expressing gratitude can powerfully effect one’s life to: “lower blood pressure, improve immune function, promote happiness and well-being, and spur acts of helpfulness, generosity, and cooperation” (Robert Emmons and Robin Stern). Rav and his colleagues understood intuitively that our goal extends beyond being thankful for the particular blessings in our life: we seek to be grateful for our ability to feel and express gratitude.

(It should be noted that most translations render this passage: “We give thanks…that we are inspired to give You thanks” or “…for the merit of giving You thanks.” The Talmud does not include words that connote “inspiration” or “merit” in this passage. It appears these translations  derive from the theological beliefs of those who wrote them.)

Shmuel, R. Simai, the sages of Nehardea, and Rav Acha all repeat Rav’s words. What, then, distinguishes their prayers from one another? The sages differ in how they address God, and hence the aspect of God they have in mind, which in turn hints at the nature of the thanks they have in mind. The first observation we might make is that each appellation of God is longer than the previous one. Further, the four offerings seem to be arranged in two pairs: Shmuel thanks the God of life, but R. Simai thanks the God of all Creation; the latter is more expansive and inclusive. The sages of Nehardea thank God who keeps us alive and sustains us, but R. Acha bar Yaakov adds a specific and particularistic petition-in-disguise that God bring Jewish exiles back to a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem where they will be able to bring sacrificial offerings to the altar as they once did (in a sense, “sneaking” a petition into an expression of thanksgiving).

Rather than choose one as the canonical prayer for all to say, Rav Pappa wishes to include and honor each version. He tells us we should recite them all. Perhaps he intends us to choose the version that fits our emotional state during the moment of prayer, or perhaps he is advising us to to say what our hearts prompt.


  1. G.K. Chesterton wrote: “I would maintain that thanks are the highest form of thought; and that gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.” (A Short History of England, ch. 6) Do you agree? Why or why not? How does Chesterton’s statement relate to the talmudic passage?
  2. The American holiday of Thanksgiving inspires many people to acknowledge the blessings in their lives, which are all too easy to overlook much of the time. What are you grateful for?
  3. With Thanksgiving falling this week, many people are thinking about the ways in which we express our thanks to God and one another. At many Thanksgiving gatherings, it is customary to go around the table and invite each person present to say what they are grateful for.  What is the value—both to the one expressing gratitude and to all those listening—of expressing personal thanks aloud before other people?