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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Carpe Diem — BT Ketubot 112a — #16

When R. Zeira was going up to the Land of Israel, he could not find a ferry to cross [a river]. He held onto a rope and crossed. [Seeing this,] a certain Sadducee/heretic said to him: “Impetuous people; you put your mouths before your ears, and you continue to behave impetuously. [R. Zeira] said to him: “A place that Moses and Aaron did not merit [to enter], who says that I will merit [to enter] it?

Tractate Ketubot discusses traditions of marriage, in general, and the Ketubah (marriage contract), in particular. The Rabbis frequently liken the covenant between God and Israel to the covenant of marriage: Mount Sinai was the chupah and Torah is the ketubah. The marriage is fulfilled by living a life of Torah in the Land of Israel. Tractate Ketubot closes with a series of accounts about the extraordinary character of the Land of Israel and the Rabbis’ abiding love for the land. This material has an unmistakable messianic flavor. Our story about R. Zeira, impatient to across the Jordan River (the gateway to the Land of Israel for those coming from Babylonia) is among them.

R. Zeira comes from Babylonia. Our story is the capstone to an account, several folios earlier, of a difficult conversation R. Zeira had with his teacher, Rav Yehudah, concerning R. Zeira’s passion for the Land of Israel and desire to move there. Rav Yehudah did not approve because he considered aliyah to the Land of Israel tantamount to an attempt to hasten the messianic age, an act that forces God’s hand. Rav Yehudah believed that it was God’s will that Babylonian Jews remain in Exile and endure God’s punishment until God chose to lift the decree. R. Zeira replied that moving to the Land of Israel would violate God’s will only if the entire community were to move, en masse. Individuals who choose to live in the Land, however, are not in violation of God’s will. And with that, R. Zeira left Babylonia for the Land of Israel, which is how he came to be standing on the shore of the Jordan River, eager to cross over and enter the Land. The very notion of crossing the Jordan River evokes two powerful images: First, the Israelites’ crossing without Moses and Aaron (Joshua, ch. 3). Second, Elijah parting the Jordan and crossing through “on dry ground” (2 Kings 2:8), which in turn evokes the image of Israel’s redemption: Moses parts the Reed Sea and the Israelites cross through on dry ground (Exodus, ch. 14).

The Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) also recounts that R. Zeira was so eager to cross the Jordan River, the portal to the Land of Israel, that he crossed the river in his clothing. Challenged by the Sadducee, he retorted, “Why should I not be impatient to pursue a blessing that was denied to even Moses and Aaron?” (JT Shevuot 35c) 

With no boat in sight, R. Zeira grasps hold of a rope strung across the river for the ferryman to use to propel his craft, and crosses the river on his own. The man who observes R. Zeira is someone who does not have a religious connection to the Land nor messianic dreams and expectations. His accusation that Israel is an impetuous people is based on Exodus 24:7, which records that when Moses delineated God’s commandments for the Israelites, the people responded: נַעֲשֶׂה וְנִשְׁמָע “We will do and we will listen/understand.” The heretic implies that from the beginning, Jews have rushed into action before taking the time to carefully consider what they are doing. Just as they responded to God with their mouths (“we will do”) before using their ears (“we will listen/understand”) so, too, R. Zeira rushes ahead to cross the river—a dangerous move—rather than wait for a boat to safely ferry him across. R. Zeira’s impatience is precisely what Rav Yehudah had warned against. R. Zeira responds to the man that he is privileged to go where even Moses and Aaron were not permitted to go—into the Land of Israel. Who wouldn’t jump at such an opportunity? Who wouldn’t be eager and impatient?

Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet. (Aristotle)

The story both acknowledges the danger of messianism—you could “drown”—and expresses compassionate understanding for the desire to participate in bringing that time closer. Throughout our history we have wrestled with the notion of messianic age: Is it close? Is it a goal or ideal more than a concrete expectation? Can people participate in bringing it about or do we wait passively for God to bring it about? Throughout our history we have seen that messianism is fraught with danger. Messianism played no small role in the disastrous Bar Kochba Revolt (135 C.E.) and in Sabbateanism. From the cult of David Koresh to the current horror of the apocalyptic vision of ISIS, messianism has proven its danger time and again.
“There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.” Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”

  1. Do you think Rav Yehudah, living in the 3rd century C.E., was concerned with the possible danger of messianism (he lived after the Bar Kochba Revolt) or do you think he was convinced that Israel must endure its exile until God initiates change?
  2. The Jewish idea of the messiah began with the hope for a king from the line of David who would unite the nation and restore Jewish sovereignty over the Land. Many Jews believe that God will send just such a “personal messiah” some day. Others believe that the description of the age that the messiah will inaugurate constitutes a vision of the ideal world we should strive for. Does either reflect your view?
  3. When is it good to be patient, and when is it preferable to be impatient? Consider a wide array of issues such as: peace, poverty, hunger, homelessness, persecution, racism, climate change, refugees, interfaith relations, violence against women.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Searching for God — BT Berakhot 48a — #15

Abaye and Rava were seated before Rabbah [when they were young boys]. Rabbah said to them: To whom does one recite blessings? They said to him: To the Merciful One. [Rabbah asked them:] Where does the Merciful One reside? Rava pointed toward the ceiling. Abaye went outside and pointed toward heaven. Rabbah said to them: You will both become rabbis. It is as the folk saying: A pumpkin can be recognized from its blossoming.

How often have you heard parents keeling about an incident that confirms in their mind that their young child is exceptionally bright? Our story concerns a similar moment, when Abaye and Rava are still young boys learning at the feet of their teacher, Rabbah, and he discerns in their answers to the question, “Where does God reside?” exceptional intellectual and spiritual promise.

The context for this story is a broader discussion of Birkat ha-Mazon, the blessings recited after a meal that includes bread. More immediately, the Rabbis are discussing how many people are required for the zimun (the formal invitation to join in Birkat ha-Mazon) under a variety of circumstances, one of which concerns a minor who is not yet obligated by the mitzvot and would therefore usually not be counted. R. Yochanan says that if the minor shows signs of maturity (i.e., entering puberty), that is sufficient. A baraita is brought that specifies precisely what signs of puberty are required to justify counting the minor as an adult for the purposes of zimun but then includes this seeming contradiction: “But one is not exacting with regard to a minor.” Our story comes to explain this enigmatic addendum in the baraita, which suggests that some minors are more adult than others and a judgment call is appropriate.

Abaye and Rava were distinguished sages and Torah superstars. Their numerous debates, known collectively as Havayot d’Abaye v’Rava, are famous. Abaye rose to be the master of the great academy at Pumbedita. Rava (whose real name was Abba b. Yosef bar Chama) left Pumbedita and founded another great academy in Mechoza.

On the surface, this brief story is deceptively simple. When asked where God abides, one boy points to the ceiling; the other goes outside and points skyward. How does this foretell greatness? The Talmudic commentator Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Eidels, 1555-1631, Poland) says that the boys did not even understand the question; they parroted what they had observed from parents and teachers, indicating that they could learn by repetition. This hardly seems to presage greatness. But perhaps that is not the point. Perhaps the Rabbis are using the story of the boys’ responses to illustrate two very different approaches to finding or knowing, and relating to, God.

When Rava points to the ceiling, he suggests that God is imminent, and we can experience God within the structure of the lives we live: home, school, relationships, customs and traditions, joys and pleasure, sorrow and losses. We come to know God through our experiences day in and day out. Abaye, in pointing to the sky, suggests that God, who is transcendent, can be found in the majesty and enormity of the universe, in contemplating mysteries that are beyond our understanding and that overwhelm our imagination. Rabbah does not declare one answer correct and the other wrong. Rather, he affirms both answers and thereby multiple paths to knowing and experiencing God. Each of us has a different temperament, and differing proclivities and sensibilities. As there are many conceptions of God, there are many routes to finding God and experiencing God’s presence in our lives.

If we could find God in small things, could we find God in all things? 

  1. Another way to understand the distinction between Abaye’s and Rav’s gestures: One way to know God is by understanding the universe through examination, measurement, and analysis. Maimonides, like Aristotle before him, believed that the more one knows about the universe, the more one knows God. An alternative way to know God is through the abstract: emotions, aesthetics, ideas, and ideals. Does one of these modes appeal more to you than the other?
  2. Buddhists tell a precautionary tale about the formation of religious ritual: At the start of evening meditation in a certain monastery, a cat would begin howling. The spiritual teacher instructed his disciples to tie the cat to a pole so it wouldn’t be a distraction. Thereafter the cat was tied to the pole before prayer every evening. Many years later, the teacher died. The disciples continues to tie the cat to the pole each evening as they had always done. When the cat died, they found another cat and brought it to the monastery and continued the practice. Many years later, scholars wrote learned works on the significance of typing a cat to a pole as the prelude to meditation. Elizabeth Gilbert tells a version of this fable in Eat, Pray, Love, in which the cat’s death precipitates a religious crisis: How could they meditate without the cat tied to the pole? The ritual of the cat had become the essential and indispensable means to reaching God.  While the fable criticizes the calcification of ritual, it also affirms its power. Are there rituals that bring you closer to God? Do some create a barrier for you, making closeness more difficult to achieve?
  3. The Kotzker Rebbe, when asked where God can be found, famously responded, “Wherever you let God in.” Where can you, or where do you, let God into your life? What would it take for you to let God in?

Elijah’s experience of God: The Lord passed by. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of God; but God was not in the wind. After the wind, an earthquake; but God was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake, fire; but God was not in the fire. After the fire, a soft murmuring voice. (I Kings 19:11-12)

Friday, December 4, 2015

Torah or Work? — BT Berakhot 35b — #14

Rabbah bar bar Chanah said that R. Yochanan reported in the name of R. Yehudah son of R. Ilai: See what a difference there is between the earlier and the later generations. The earlier generations made the study of the Torah their primary concern and their ordinary work subsidiary to it—and succeeded at both. The later generations made their ordinary work their primary concern and their study of the Torah subsidiary—and succeeded at neither.
The Rabbis had much to say about the working world and the many jobs by which people earn a living. After all, they all worked; being a rabbi was not a profession then. Talmud tells us that Hillel was a woodchopper and his colleague, Shammai, was a builder. Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai was a businessman, Rabbi Shmuel b. Shilas was teacher, Rabbi Meir was a scribe, R. Yose b. Chalafta was a tanner, R. Yehoshua b. Chananiah was a charcoal maker, Rabbi Dimi of Nehardea was a merchant, Rabbi Yannai owned and operated vineyards, R. Huna raised cattle, R. Chisda brewed beer, and Mar Shmuel was a doctor. No doubt their “real world” experiences were invaluable in influential in the numerous discussions of business practices and ethics that permeate the Talmud. In addition, they appreciated the difficulty of balancing work life with family life and the pursuit of Torah.

Rabban Gamaliel the son of Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi said: Great is study of the Torah when combined with a worldly occupation, for toil in them both puts sin out of mind. All study of the Torah which is not supplemented by work is destined to prove futile and lead to sin…(Pirkei Avot 2:2)

The observation offered in the name of R. Yehudah b. Ilai touches on three distinct themes. The first is the challenge of setting priorities for one’s time and energy. For the Rabbis, the ideal life is one spent studying Torah, day in and day out. Like us, they were limited to a 24-hour day. Those who excelled in their studies would travel (sometimes great distances) to study in the great academies of Eretz Yisrael and Babylonia, remaining there for months or even years. And while accounts of their sojourns to study may be exaggerated, the challenge of supporting a family and devoting themselves to Torah was ever-present. When was the last time you bemoaned the limitation of merely 24 hours each day? R. Yehudah is keenly aware that time and energy are limited.

The second theme is a tendency seen in every generation to idealize and glorify those who came before. Even before Isaac Newton wrote in 1676 to Robert Hooke, “If I have seen further it is by standing on ye sholders [sic] of Giants,” the image that we are dwarfs and those who came before us are giants was well known, and has made numerous appearances in pop culture (e.g., Jurassic Park, The X-Files, R.E.M.’s “King of Birds”). In our time, we have come to speak of “The Greatest Generation” since Tom Brokaw popularized that phrase in his book about the generation that came of age during the Great Depression and fought in World War II. Here, in Berakhot 35b, the Rabbis named compare themselves with the generations that preceded them: they envision their predecessors as having devoted themselves first and foremost to Torah study, using whatever time remained to work. In contrast, their generation made income-generating work primary and relegated Torah study to a secondary priority.

Rabbi Nehorai said: I forsake all professions in the world and teach my son only Torah, for a person eats of the reward for learning Torah in this world and the principal remains for him in the next world. Other professions are not like this: If a person becomes sick or old or is in agony and cannot work at his occupation, he will die of starvation. The Torah, however, is not like this. It will protect him from evil when he is young and provides him with a future and hope when he is older. (Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 82a)

There is, not surprisingly, a theological layer to their understanding that constitutes the third theme: When one makes Torah the first priority, both Torah study and work prosper, but when one subordinates Torah to work, neither prospers. The suggestion here, and in further discussions on this daf (page) of Talmud is that God compensates those who prioritize Torah to enable them to devote the lion’s share of their time to study. Hence, organizing one’s life around Torah study is an act of devotion that God faithfully rewards. Elsewhere, Talmud makes this point unambiguously clear (see Kiddushin 82a in the box above).


  1. Do you feel you have the desirable balance between Torah learning and other aspects of your life? Between work and family? Between work and leisure? What would it elevate the place of Torah learning in your life?
  2. In what ways have you viewed prior generations as “more successful” or “greater” or “more admirable”? Have you ever had the experience of realizing that your impression concerning earlier generations was based upon incomplete information? If so, how did that affect your perspective and opinions?
  3. How do you respond to the theological claim that those who devote themselves to Torah study will enjoy the protection of God? Is there another way to understand this claim? Is there, perhaps, a way in which Torah study enlarges and enriches our lives, and helps us to cope with the trials, tribulations, and traumas of life? (See Pirkei Avot 2:2 on page 1 above.)

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Giving Thanks on Thanksgiving — Menachot 43b — #13

It was taught [in a baraita]: R. Meir used to say: A person is obligated to say one hundred blessings each day, as it is written, And now, Israel, what does Adonai your God require of your? (Deuteronomy 10:12) R. Chiyya the son of R. Avia endeavored to compensate on sabbaths and on festivals by using spices and eating delicacies.

The prayer services we are familiar with—both the structure and the non-biblical content—are the handiwork of the Rabbis. The statutory prayer services (Shacharit and Minchah) replace sacrifices that were made morning and afternoon in the Temple in Jerusalem. The evening service was, early on, a matter of disagreement, but the opinion that it is compulsory prevailed, and thus there are three Jewish prayer services daily: Shacharit, Minchah, and Ma’ariv. There are, as well, many blessings crafted for various occasions, such as those for food, wine, and the performance of mitzvot (e.g., tallit, tefillin, lighting shabbat candles, lulav and etrog).

R. Meir tells us that God wants us to recite one hundred blessings each day. How does he arrive at this number? Deuteronomy 10:12 says, What (mah) does Adonai your God ask of you? R. Meir reads “mah” (“what”) as “me’ah” (“one hundred”)—the words sound similar—so that the verse now means “Adonai your God requires one hundred of you.” A very creative reading, but what is R. Meir’s purpose?
Let’s first ask how a person can recite 100 blessings each day. If you recite all the traditional prayers for Shacharit, Minchah, and Ma’ariv you will say approximately 90 blessings. To these, one can add the blessings recited before and after eating, but it’s still difficult to get to 100. On shabbat and holy days, the liturgy has fewer blessings and therefore supplies fewer opportunities to reach a total of 100. For those who do not recite all the traditional prayers each day, it’s trickier to arrive at 100 blessings.
As you can see, in order to recite 100 blessings a day, one would need to say at least several blessings that aren’t part of the liturgical “script.” Tradition supplies blessings to say when one sees a rainbow, or the ocean for the first time, or puts on a new garment for the first time, but not even these are always enough. Perhaps the reason R. Meir set the bar at 100 is that he understood that to recite 100 blessings each day, we have to recite blessings that come straight from our hearts and respond to what is happening in our lives at the moment. R. Chiyya highlights this by noting that special days require us to dig deeper within ourselves.
This teaches us two wonderful traits: mindfulness and creativity. Cultivating a religious soul is about developing a sense of awe: When we pay attention and notice the wonders of the world and of our lives, we can find God in both the ordinary and the extraordinary. Creativity comes in when we find words to express our wonder and sense of appreciation, or our joy and desire to share it, or our pain and search for strength, or our fear and need for support.
Here are a few blessings from our tradition that you might like to use:

  • (For the wonders of nature) Blessed are You, God, whose presence fills creation and who makes beauty such as this in the world.
  • (Upon hearing good news) Blessed are You, God, Who is goodness and Who is the source of good.
  • (Traveler’s prayer) May it be your will, our God and God of our ancestors, to guide us, sustain us, and lead us in peace to our desired destination in health and joy and peace, and to bring us home in peace. Save us from every enemy and disaster on the way, and from all calamities that threaten our world. Bless the work of our hands. May we find grace, love, and compassion in Your sight and in the sight of all people. Praised are you, God, Who hears prayer.
Ultimately, all blessings are about gratitude: either for what we have or what we believe we may yet receive. Cicero said, “Gratitude is not only the greatest of virtues, but the parent of all others.” Being thankful is powerful. Our ability to express gratitude is the most direct route to our happiness. The research of Dr. Martin Seligman (father of the school of “Positive Psychology” confirms that happiness is not related to what we have—it’s about our attitude toward what we have. Focusing on our blessings generates positive energy for facing the challenges and really tough stuff. Here are two blessings for tough times that you might wish to use at some point:
  • (When experiencing physical and/or emotional pain) Blessed are you, God, who endowed me we more strength and patience than I often realize I have. Help me find these resources within me now and use them for healing.
  • (When experiencing loss) Blessed are You, Source of life, for all that is and has been good in my life, even if I cannot retain the goodness forever. May I always recall the blessings I have experienced and may I be able to help others do the same when they experience loss.


  1. Can you think of five things to be grateful for in your life today?
  2. A Hasidic story tells of a young man who presented his teacher with the gift of water from a spring. The teacher tasted it, smiled, and thanked the student for the sweet-tasting water. His assistant, however, tasted it and spat it out. “Why did you say it was sweet when it’s bitter?” he asked. “Ah,” said the teacher, “you only tasted the water. I tasted the gift.” Do you taste the water or the gifts in life?
  3. Rabbi Mitchell Chefitz wrote, “The Curse of Blessings” about a man who extends his life by reciting a new blessing every day. Try composing a new blessing every day for a month.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Singing in the Rain — Mishnah Ta’anit 1:1 — #12

When do we begin to mention the power of rain? R. Eliezer says: From the first day of the Festival [of Sukkot]. R. Yehoshua says: On the last day of the Festival. R. Yehoshua said to [R. Eliezer]: Inasmuch as rain on the Festival is a sign of a curse during the Festival, why mention it [before the last day]? R. Eliezer said to [R. Yehoshua]:  I did not say to request it but rather to make mention of “Who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall in its due season.” [R. Yehoshua] said to [R. Eliezer]: If that is so, one should always mention it…

Unlike Egypt, where the Nile reliably overflows its banks each year, insuring fertile fields for planting, a robust harvest in the Land of Israel depends entirely upon rain and dew. In Eretz Yisrael, rain or lack thereof determines whether crops grow and accordingly whether people and animals thrive, or whether drought occurs and famine ensues. 

The Amidah, sometimes called Ha-Tefilah (“The Prayer”) or Shemoneh-Esrei (“The Eighteen Benedictions”), constitutes the central prayer of the service. There are two seasonal additions to the Amidah that concern rainfall. First, in Gevurot, the second blessing, whose theme is resurrection, the words “Who causes the winds to blow and the rain to fall” are added from the last day of Sukkot until the first day of Pesach. Second, in the ninth blessing, birkat ha-shanim (“Who blesses the years”), a petition for rain is added: ten tal u-matar (“provide dew and rain”) from early December through Pesach. Both insertions are added during the rainy season in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel).

The question under consideration concerns when we should add mention of the power of rain, which means God’s power to bring (or withhold) rain. Both R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua agree that it should begin during the festival of Sukkot, but they differ concerning whether “Who cause the winds to blow and the rain to fall” should be added from the first day onward, or beginning only on the final day of the festival.

What’s at stake? Several things. R. Yehoshua, who says we add the prayer for rain on the last day of the festival, points out that if rain were to fall during Sukkot, it would ruin the festival for everyone. One cannot fulfill the mitzvah of living in the sukkah—eating, sleeping, studying, playing, and socializing—while it rains. Therefore, if it rain falls during Sukkot, R. Yehoshua reasons, it means God is displeased with us (“a sign of a curse”). Why invite something you don’t want?

R. Eliezer, who suggests initiating the prayers on the first day of the festival, doesn’t disagree. Rather, he says that the first addition that R. Yehoshua interprets as a request for rain is rather a theological statement that God holds the power over rain. R. Eliezer holds that the second addition to the ninth blessing (“provide dew and rain”) is the actual petition for prayer.

R. Yehoshua points out R. Eliezer’s inconsistency: If “Who cause the winds to blow…” is merely a theological statement and not a request, it should always be included in the Amidah, yet R. Eliezer agreed that it should be added to the prayers seasonally—corresponding to the rainy season—suggesting that, in reality, it is a request. That being the case, it makes much more sense to add it at the end of Sukkot, the time we genuinely wish for rain to fall.


  1. R. Yehoshua says that if rain falls during Sukkot, it is an unpropitious sign. Rashi is troubled by the terminology, “sign of a curse.” He understands it to mean a divine rebuke. Perhaps he has in mind mishnah Sukkot 2:9, which says that rain during Sukkot is a rebuke from God. In Sukkah 28b, Gemara provides an allegory: “To what may the matter be compared? To a servant who pours a cup for his master, and then the master pours a pitcher in his face.” How do you understand the events of nature? Do you believe that God is pulling the strings? If not, how do you conceive God and God’s relationship with the physical universe?
  2. Rain is a life-and-death matter, and whoever controls the rain determines whether people live or die. Perhaps this explains why a prayer for rain is added to the blessing concerning resurrection. But rain does not bring things back to life — it restores plants to the appearance of life after they have appeared dead to our eyes, but were never truly dead. Could this help us understand resurrection as a metaphor for people whose lives seemed or felt to be over—people who descended in despair and hopelessness, or serious life-threatening illness—yet recovered? Mention of resurrection has been removed from some Jewish prayer books because its literal meaning is incompatible with many people’s beliefs. If we view liturgy as poetry, and remind ourselves that poetry speaks in metaphors, might we “resurrect” the blessing concerning resurrection?
  3. Gemara quotes a baraita (Mishnaic era teaching that is not found in the Mishnah itself) in which R. Eliezer says that one may say, “Who causes the wind to blow…” throughout the year because it is understood that one prays only for rainfall in the appropriate season. This raises several questions: How specific do communal prayers need to be? Phrased another way: How much lee-way is there for the individual to interpret the words for him or herself? And even more: Could we ever have a set of communally recited prayers lacking “wiggle room” for people to bring their own understandings, interpretations, beliefs, and hopes to the process of prayer?

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Demons in the Study House — BT Kiddushin 29b — #11

Abaye heard that [Rav Acha bar Yaakov] was coming [to study in his study house]. There was a certain demon in the Abaye’s study house and when two people arrived together—even in the daytime—they were tormented [by the demon]. [Abaye] said to [his students]: Do not invite [Rav Acha] to be a guest [in your home]. Perhaps a miracle will occur. [Rav Acha] went and slept in the study house. A seven-headed dragon-serpent appeared to him. With every bow he made [in prayer], one of its heads fell off. The following day [Rav Acha] said to [Abaye]: Had not a miracle occurred, you would have endangered me!

Our bizarre story is preceded by a baraita (Mishnaic era teaching) that tells us that if a man has insufficient financial resources to educate both himself and his son, he takes precedent over the son. R. Yehudah, however, expresses the opinion that if the son is quicker and more intelligent, the son’s education should take priority. Gemara cites, as an example, Rav Acha bar Yaakov, who sent his son, R. Yaakov, to study in Abaye’s house of study but upon learning that his son did not excel in his studies, Rav Acha told him to stay home and went in his stead to study with Abaye.

For those still in the Halloween spirit, you’ll enjoy knowing that Abaye’s study house is haunted by a demon. Babylonian culture was rife with demons and spirits, and the Babylonian Talmud reflects the belief that largely invisible demons and spirits present a ubiquitous and continual threat to decent people: they inhabit the air, water, trees, roofs, and even privies. One is most vulnerable to malicious demons at nighttime and when alone. This is precisely Rav Acha’s situation in Abaye’s study house. The demon who haunts Abaye’s study house is particularly virulent: he threatens the students even when accompanied by a friend, and even in daytime.

Abaye instructs his students not to offer Rav Acha home hospitality, although tradition and courtesy require that they should. Abaye knows that without lodging for the night, Rav Acha will stay in the study house, where he will root out the demon by virtue of his famous and outstanding piety. As predicted, Rav Acha spends the night alone in the study house where he is confronted by a seven-headed dragon-serpent. Rav Acha’s piety to the rescue! He spends the night in prayer; each time he falls to his knees, one of the seven heads falls off. His genuflections are spiritual fencing lunges against the demon and his words are decapitating swords. Rav Acha vanquishes the demon—just as Abaye hoped. Recognizing a setup, Rav Acha is understandably annoyed with Abaye for knowingly placing him in a dangerous situation. He attributes his success to a miracle, that is, to God’s intervention.

Ancient cultures are not alone in their fascination with malicious spirits, be they demons, dybbuks, or dragons. Carl Jung wrote about the Shadow archetype of the unconscious mind, a mosaic of basic animal instincts and repressed ideas and desires that includes the best and the worst within us. He suggested that the Shadow appears in dreams and visions (primarily nighttime phenomena), often taking the form of a demon, dragon, snake, or some dark and frightening figure, a projection of what we suppress or dislike in our animal nature. We cannot eject evil from our psyches and our lives, so we project it outward onto imagined external monsters. If we view the story of Rav Acha through a Jungian lens, a fascinating image appears.

On one level, when Rav Acha finds himself alone in the dark, his human compulsions and inclinations arise and manifest in the form of a seven-headed dragon-serpent, threatening to destroy his intention to study Torah. He disempowers (kills) his Shadow dragon, his dark animal instincts, by immersing himself in prayer. But what about Abaye? There is something inherently contradictory here. Abaye wants Rav Acha to rid the study house of the demon that haunts Abaye and his students—by teaching them to repress their animal instincts through prayer?—yet in telling his students to deny hospitality to Rav Acha, Abaye gives in to the demon by failing to do what is right (extend home hospitality) and by placing him in a dangerous situation.


  1. Jung wrote about the connection between the Shadow and artistic creativity: at times an artist can see “…the figures that people the night-world—spirits, demons, and gods; he feels the secret quickening of human fate by a superhuman design…he catches a glimpse of the psychic world that terrifies the primitive and is at the same time his greatest hope.”(1) If the demon is a projection of what Abaye and his students dislike about themselves, how might they—and we—come to terms with our “demons” and put them to constructive, and even artistic, use?
  2. Concerning the connection Jung makes between evil and artistic creativity, Rollo May writes: “…evil can’t be put out of human life, as Jung noted that one could not erase the Shadow. And if one tries to put it out, then the rage is put out with it and the capacities to create are thrown aside with the so-called evil.”(2) May then quotes Mephistopheles in Goethe’s Faust: “I am that which always does evil which turns into good” (Part I, Lines 1335-37). We might be inclined to quote a story from the Talmud which tells of a time that the people were able to immobilize the Evil Inclination and, as a result, all generativity came to a grinding halt, threatening the future of life on earth (BT Yoma 69b). Do you think Rav Acha’s decapitating the dragon is meant to connote “erasing” the demon, or seizing control of him and using his powers for creativity and good (note what he says to Abaye)?
 (1)  Jung quoted by Christian Gaillard in “The Arts” in The Handbook of Jungian Psychology, ed. Renos K. Papadopoulos, p.360.
(2)  “Creativity and Evil,” in Facing Evil: Confronting the Dreadful Power Behind Genocide, Terrorism, and Cruelty, ed. Paul Woodruff and Harry A. Wilmer, pp. 73-4.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Parental Obligations — BT Kiddushin 29a — #10

What is the meaning of [the Mishnah:] “All obligations of the son upon the father”? Shall we say, all that the son is obligated to perform for his father? Are then women [i.e., daughters] exempt? But it was taught: Every man [his mother and his father you (plural) shall fear] (Leviticus 19:3). I know this only of a man. Whence do I know it of a woman? When it is said: Every man, his mother and his father you (plural) shall fear—behold, two are [mentioned] here. Rav Yehudah said: This is the meaning: All obligations of the son [that fall] on the father to do for his son, men are obligated but women [i.e., mothers] are exempt. We learned in the Mishnah what our Rabbis taught [in a baraita]: The father is obligated with respect to his son to circumcise, redeem, teach him Torah, take a wife for him, and teach him a trade. Some say, to teach him to swim also. R. Yehudah said: He who does not teach his son a trade, teaches him banditry. Banditry! Can you really think so! Rather, it is as though he taught him banditry.

Becoming a parent is arguably the largest single obligation a person undertakes in his or her lifetime. But what does it entail? What do we owe our children? Every parent parents differently, and many of us look over our shoulders at how others parent and wonder if we are missing something essential. Talmud is highly invested in communal continuity and successful families.

The Mishnah tells us, “All obligations of the son upon the father, men are obligated but women are exempt.” There are two ways to understand this statement: First, Mishnah intends obligations of the son toward the father; second, obligations of the father toward the son. Gemara discards the first possibility because the exemption of women would suggest that only sons, and not daughters, have such obligations—after all, Mishnah specifically exempts women. The Gemara goes so far as to quote the verse someone might bring to “prove” that the Mishnah intends obligations of the child toward the parent: Leviticus 19:3, which ostensibly speaks only of a man. Yet the very same verse employs the plural form of “you” which Gemara understands to include daughters as well as sons.

This opens the way for Rav Yehudah to assert that the obligations of which the Mishnah speaks are those of the father to do for his son. Rav Yehudah explains that fathers are obligated toward their sons, but mothers are not. This immediately raises several questions: Why are mothers not obligated? What are the obligations of a father (and mother) toward a daughter? Here the wide cultural gap between the rabbinic era in both Eretz Yisrael and Babylonia, and our own time, is keenly evident. Daughters were, in large measure, financial liabilities to be married off well. They did not participate in the religious, economic, or cultural life of the community as sons did.

Consider the list Rav Yehudah supplies of a father’s obligation toward his son: Circumcision, redemption of the firstborn (pidyon ha-ben), Torah learning, marriage, and training to earn a livelihood. An anonymous source adds one additional item: swimming. When the Rabbis provide a list of this sort, several possibilities lie behind it. The list might be exhaustive: these are the only hard-and-fast obligations of a father toward his son. Alternatively, the list might be a sampling, and it remains for us to analyze what principles or values generated the list—and extrapolate to other items that properly fit the list. Or, the items on the list are symbolic, each representing a category that remains to be fully fleshed out. Noting that the basics of food, shelter, and clothing are not stipulated, let alone anything connoting love and respect. I suspect that the last perspective fits. Circumcision and redemption are the entry points of the child into the community: they symbolize the child’s identity as a Jew among non-Jews, and as a Jew in the local Jewish community and larger Jewish world, connecting the child to the on-going ritual life of the Jewish people. Torah learning nurtures the child’s spiritual life and ability to derive spiritual meaning and strength from tradition. Marriage hopefully assures the son’s emotional and social well-being. A livelihood provides the means to economic security and well-being. Swimming is a curious and marvelous addition: A parent should teach a child the skills needed to stay afloat and protect oneself in a dangerous world.


  1. Gemara, unsurprisingly, distinguishes the obligations of fathers and mothers to their children, as well as those owed sons and daughters to their parents. Do you think there is any reason to make such distinctions in the 21st century? If you were asked to draw up your own list of essential obligations of parents in the 21st century, what would you include and why?
  2. There is a set of social skills Talmud values but does not instruct parent to instill in their children as a matter of obligation—after all, how can you require parents to instill character traits in their children. Among them are: self-confidence, honesty, trustworthiness,  cooperation, compassion, generosity, tenacity, patience. What effective means do you recommend for transmitting these values?
  3. Daniel Goleman, psychologist and pioneer in the realm of Emotional Intelligence, describes how a teacher in Spanish Harlem taught second-grade students (many of whom had suffered trauma) to focus their attention for learning by using a meditative breathing technique. You can hear Goleman describe it here. Should parents teach this to their children?

Friday, October 23, 2015

Are We Prophets? — Baba Batra 12b (part 2) — #9

R. Yochanan said: From the day that the Holy Temple was destroyed, prophecy was taken away from the prophets and given to fools and children. “To fools.” What does this mean? It is like what happened to Mar bar Rav Ashi who was standing in the marketplace of Mechuza and heard a fool saying, “The person being appointed to lead the academy in Mechasya signs his name ‘Tavyumi.’” He [Mar ben Rav Ashi] said [to himself]: “Who among the rabbis signs his name ‘Tavyumi’? I do!  This means it is a fortunate time for me.” He arose and went [to Mechasya] but by the time he arrived the rabbis had voted to appoint Rav Acha of Difti as the head [of the academy]. When the rabbis [in the academy in Mechasya] heard that [Mar bar Rav Ashi] had arrived, they sent a pair of rabbis to consult him. He kept the pair there. They sent another pair of rabbis. He held them [the second pair] there. [The rabbis continued to send rabbis in pairs to visit Mar ben Rav Ashi] until he had ten. [Then Mar bar Rav Ashi] began to teach and expound [to the ten assembled rabbis sent by the academy at Mechasya]. Because one does not begin to expound with a group of fewer than ten people.

In Ten Minutes of Talmud #5 we saw the Rabbis wrestling with whether their Torah—the halakhic decisions they made—falls under the rubric of prophecy. In claiming divine authority for their decisions, they effectively claim some sort of prophecy. The Bet Midrash, however, operates by discussion, debate, logical reasoning, precedent, rabbinic hermeneutics (rules of textual interpretation), and ultimately democracy. They may not all agree, but after the vote is taken, everyone is expected to “incline with the majority.”

R. Yochanan asserts that since the Destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E.,  prophecy is entrusted only to fools and children. How could one possibly know whether the words of fools (the term shotim includes deranged individuals) and children are indeed divine communications or simple the product of their imaginations? And who would trust either to convey God’s will reliably? Talmud supplies two examples: prophecy from “fools” and from children (see below).

Mar bar Rav Ashi hears a “fool” in the marketplace of Mechuza saying that the rabbis in the academy in Mechasya will appoint him over his rival, Rav Acha of Difti, to lead them. The manner in which the fool identifies the future leader of the academy in Mechasya is bizarre: someone who signs his name “Tavyumi,” which as far as Mar bar Rav Ashi knows, applies only to him among all the rabbis. He therefore travels to Mechasya to claim his prize, only to learn that the rabbis have just voted to appoint Rav Acha of Difti as their head. When they learn that Mar bar Rav Ashi is in town, however, they send two rabbis to secure his approval and permission to appoint his rival. Mar bar Rav Ashi, it appears, has a plan. He detains the two rabbis; when they do not return, their colleagues assume they did not complete their task. Therefore two more rabbis are sent. Mar bar Rav Ashi delays them, as well. In pairs, rabbis arrive, until Mar bar Rav Ashi has assembled a minyan of rabbis. He thereupon formally addresses them and successfully convinces them that he will be the superior leader. Mar bar Rav Ashi is appointed in place of Rav Acha of Difti.

Aside from the chutzpah factor evident here, we might wonder: Did the rabbis change their minds and install Mar bar Rav Ashi to head the academy at Mechasya in fulfillment of the prophecy? Or did Mar bar Rav Ashi implement a crassly political scheme emboldened by the fool’s words? Or perhaps the prophecy provided an opening for Mar bar Rav Ashi to confidently prove his qualifications and secure a position for which he was eminently qualified? It would seem that if the fool’s words were genuine prophecy, Mar bar Rav Ashi’s fortunes would be secured without having to go through the machinations of delaying the rabbis and addressing them as a candidate for office.

It appears that the Rabbis are deeply conflicted about the notion of prophecy: Does it exist at all any longer? Does God communicate directly with anyone? The notion that God communicates only to fools and children reflects the Rabbis’ sense that at least since the calamity of Roman rule in the Land of Israel, culminating in the Destruction of the Second Temple, God was far less involved with the world than previously. For them, God was distance and out-of-touch.


1. Do you believe that prophecy exists? If so, how would you recognize a genuine prophet, or genuine prophecy?
2. Another hint that the Rabbis understood R. Yochanan’s statement as debasing prophecy is the story they tell to illustrate the prophecy given to children: 
Rav Chisda’s daughter was once sitting on her father’s lap. Rava and Rami bar Chama were sitting before Rav Chisda. He [jokingly] said to her: “Which of these two do you want [to marry]?” She said: “Both of them.” Rava said: “[I want to be] last.”  
There are only two ways that Rav Chisda’s daughter could marry both scholars: either she was divorced from the first and married the second, or her first husband died and she married the second man. Rava sardonically prefers being the second husband to assure that he does not die early. The Talmud understands her statement to have come to pass. Does this mean that a child acting childishly is spouting prophecy? Hardly.

3. Psychologists have explained the power of self-fulfilling prophecies in our lives. They are fueled by our expectations.  Two types of self-fulfilling prophecies often seen in the educational and organizational realms are the Pygmalion Effect (higher expectations lead to increased performance) and the Golem Effect (lower expectations lead to lower performance). Have you witnessed either of these or experienced them in your life?

Monday, October 12, 2015

Who’s a Prophet? — Baba Batra 12a,b (part 1) — #8

 R. Abdimi from Haifa said: From the time the Temple was destroyed, prophecy was taken away from the prophets and given to sages. Is it really true that no sage [prior to the Destruction] was a prophet? This is what he [R. Abdimi] meant: Although prophecy was taken from the prophets [at the time of the Destruction], it was not taken from the sages. Amemar said: A sage is even greater than a prophet, as it says, And a prophet has a heart of wisdom [the word “wisdom” is from the same root as “sage”] (Psalm 90:12). Which do we compare with which? I would say [that we compare] the lesser to the greater [i.e. prophet to sage]. Abaye said: Know that one great man will state something and [the same thing] will be stated in the name of another great man. Rava said: What is the difficulty? Perhaps both of them were of one destiny? Rather, Rava said: Know that one great man will state something and then the same statement will be made in the name of R. Akiba b. Yosef. Rav Ashi said: What is the difficulty? Perhaps concerning this matter, he [the first sage] had the same destiny [as R. Akiba]. Rather, know that a great man can state something and [sometime later] it will be stated as halakhah to Moses from Sinai. But perhaps [the sage came to this statement] like a blind man [finds his way] through a window. But did he not provide a reasoned explanation [for his opinion]?

The claim of prophecy undergirds Torah’s authority. Moses is many things: leader, general, teacher, and prophet, but it was in his capacity as prophet that he speaks “face to face” with God and receives Torah on Mount Sinai. After the Destruction of the Second Temple (70 C.E.), the Rabbis in both the Land of Israel and Babylonia are engaged in the enterprise of creating what we know as Rabbinic Judaism. They call it Torah she-b’al-peh—Oral Torah—and claim that it also came down Mount Sinai with Moses. This “Oral Torah” is Talmud.

Talmud’s claim to authority rested on the claim that the Rabbis’ decisions reflected God’s will and opinion—a prophecy of sorts. But the Rabbis were not latter-day Isaiahs and Jeremiahs. They sat in the Study House, learned and taught the teachings of their elders, discussed and debated, considered precedents, applied rational thinking and reasoning to the issues before them, and ultimately took a vote to determine halakhah. We do not picture them as the artist Benjamin West (1738-1820) painted Isaiah, his lips anointed with fire by an angel (Isaiah 6:6), yet the idea of divine inspiration figured into their understanding of what they were doing. Since their claim to authority is based on a similar claim, rejection of receiving insight from the holy spirit would be self-defeating.

Yet the Rabbis have reason to be skeptical and distrustful of prophecy: The prophet makes a claim to divine inspiration or revelation that is not open to empirical or rational examination, which is bedrock for the Rabbis. Moreover, history is riddled with false prophets. We see the Rabbis wrestling with this conundrum in Baba Batra 12a,b, both as it applies to them, and in consideration of intellectual integrity and its meaning for the community.

**Please note: I have divided this passage into two parts: the first is in this edition of Ten Minutes of Talmud; the remainder will be in the next edition. Since this passage is more complex than previous TMT passages, I’ve interpolated explanations and commentary into the text below.**


R. Abdimi from Haifa said: From the time the Temple was destroyed, prophecy was taken away from the prophets and given to sages. 
If prophecy was transferred from the prophets of old to the Rabbis, it certainly sounds like the Sages did not have prophecy until the Destruction, doesn’t it? On this basis, the question is raised: 
Is it really true that no sage [prior to the Destruction] was a prophet? This is what he [R. Abdimi] meant: Although prophecy was taken from the prophets [at the time of the Destruction], it was not taken from the sages. 
Hence the Sages did have prophecy prior to the Destruction, and retained it after the Destruction. Having established that Sages possessed the power of prophecy both before and after the Destruction of the Temple, we might think to compare them to the classical prophets, as Amemar does: 
Amemar said: A sage is even greater than a prophet, as it says, And a prophet has a heart of wisdom [the word “wisdom” is from the same root as “sage”] (Psalm 90:12). 
How do I know that means a Sage is superior to a prophet? Perhaps the verse means to tell me that a prophet is superior because in addition to prophecy, he possesses the wisdom of a sage. How am I to read the verse? 
Which do we compare with which? 
In other words: Do we compare the prophet to the sage, or vice verse? 
I would say [that we compare] the lesser to the greater [i.e. prophet to sage]. Abaye said: Know that one great man will state something and [the same thing] will be stated in the name of another great man. 
That is, the very same teaching can be attributed to two different sages who did not know one another or teach one another. How could this be unless they both have the power of prophecy?
Rava said: What is the difficulty? 
That is: Why is this a problem? 
Perhaps both of them were of one destiny? 
The term in the Talmud is חד מזלה meaning they were born under the same constellation, suggesting that they have the same intellectual capacities. Two intelligent people can come to the same conclusion about a matter and teach the same thing; this doesn’t make either of them a prophet. Hence, it is still unproven that sages are endowed with prophetic ability. 
Rather, Rava said: Know that one great man will state something and then the same statement will be made in the name of R. Akiba b. Yosef. 
According to Rava, that something is quoted in the name of R. Akiba, whom Talmud regards as a “Second Moses”—see BT Menachot 29b—proves it has divine authority. 
Rav Ashi said: What is the difficulty? Perhaps concerning this matter, he [the first sage] had the same destiny [as R. Akiba]. Rather, know that a great man can state something and [sometime later] it will be stated as halakhah to Moses from Sinai. 
This means that he received it prophetically. 
But perhaps [the sage came to this statement] like a blind man [finds his way] through a window 
[which we can attribute only to luck]. 
But did he not provide a reasoned explanation [for his opinion]? 
If he gave a cogent halakhic explanation, he cannot be considered as one who stumbled on the right answer out of sheer good fortunate and nothing more. He must have provided a well-argued reason, and this is what proves that his teaching is prophetic.


  1. Does prophecy exist in our time?
  2. Could there be anyone you would acknowledge as a prophet?
  3. Would you recognize a prophet if you saw or heard one? How?

Friday, October 2, 2015

Elephant in the Sukkah — Sukkah 23a — #7

If one used an animal as a wall of the Sukkah, R. Meir declares it invalid and R. Yehudah valid, for R. Meir was wont to say: Whatever contains the breath of life can be made neither a wall for a sukkah, nor a side-post for an alley, nor boards around wells, nor a covering stone for a grave… What is the reason of R. Meir? Abaye replied: Lest it die.  R. Zeira replied: Lest it escape.  Concerning an elephant securely bound, all  agree [that the sukkah is valid], since even if it dies,  there is still ten [handbreadths height] in its carcass.

We may build a sukkah out of anything we like: the frame can be wood, metal, or PVC piping; the walls can be wood, fabric, or tarps. Over the course of time, and three different sukkot, my family has used all three. The Talmud considers a rather unusual “building

material” we have never tried: an elephant. Perhaps you’re thinking: That’s crazy! It makes no sense! Or perhaps you’re thinking: There were precious few elephants in either Eretz Yisrael or Babylonia when the Talmud was written, so what are they talking about? How might we think about this passage?

The Western World discovered the Russian philosopher and literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975) and his ideas on the “carnivalesque” in the 1960s. Here is the clearest and most succinct description I have found (many thanks to the professor of English 355 at Arizona State University who wrote this—I couldn’t find your name to thank you properly):

“For the literary theorist and philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin, the carnivalesque is both the description of a historical phenomenon and the name he gives to a certain literary tendency. Historically speaking, Bakhtin was interested in great carnivals of Medieval Europe. He saw them as occasions in which the political, legal and ideological  authority of both the church and state were inverted — albeit temporarily — during the anarchic and liberating period of the carnival. The carnival was not only liberating because—for that short period—the church and state had little or no control over the lives of the revelers, although Terry Eagleton points out this would probably be “licensed” transgression at best. But, its true liberating potential can be seen in the fact that set rules and beliefs were not immune to ridicule or reconception at carnival time; it ‘cleared the ground’ for new ideas to enter into public discourse. Bakhtin goes so far as to suggest that the European Renaissance itself was made possible by the spirit of free thinking and impiety that the carnivals engendered.”
Examples of the carnivalesque in our society include: Reality TV, Spring Break, Homecoming, Halloween, Super Bowl, and Mardi Gras. And, of course: Purim. The Jewish scholar Daniel Boyarin applied Bakhtin’s ideas to the Talmud.

The premise is absurd, but the conversation proceeds as if it were a sober, serious, significant halakhic issue under consideration: May we use an elephant as a wall of our sukkah? Naturally, there is a disagreement. R. Meir objects and R. Yehudah permits. If you feel you are in the realm of the absurd, you are entirely correct. If you feel you are peeking through the tent flap into a circus—complete with canonical elephant!—you are again correct. The Talmud asks about R. Meir’s objection. Two explanations are offered: First, R. Meir was worried that the elephant would die during Sukkot, raising the absurdity level to a new high. Second, R. Meir was concerned that the elephant would escape. How, after all, do you tie down an elephant who decides he’s leaving? But perhaps we can overcome both concerns: if we can securely leash the elephant, even if he dies and falls on his side, he’s adequately tall sideways to meet the minimum requirement for the height of the walls of a sukkah. Any remaining doubts that we are in the realm of the absurd?


  1. Perhaps you wondered: On what basis could R. Yehudah imagine, let alone validate, the use of an elephant, and where on earth would he get one? (How would he get it to his backyard? Would he tape his kids’ artwork to its side and legs?) While Talmud questions R. Meir’s invalidation of the elephant-sukkah, it doesn’t question R. Yehudah’s permission—it simply accepts it. It is as if Talmud is saying: Sure, use an elephant! No problem. This reveals an underlining sense of fun and whimsy. The primary biblical mitzvah of Sukkot is joy—this is z’man simchateinu (“our season of joy”). Perhaps the Rabbis are here fulfilling the mitzvah of joy through humor.
  2. The fertile imaginations of the Rabbis are an invitation to engage in the pleasures of imagination. Ushpizin is another example of their vivid imaginations. What does your fantasy sukkah look like? Check out the Sukkah City Contest:
  3. On Sukkot, our world is turned upside down as we move out of our cozy houses and make the fragile sukkah our home for a week. The outside becomes the inside, and the inside becomes the outside. Sometimes circumstance turns our lives upside down or inside out to our detriment. Could Sukkot be a training ground for coping with extreme change?

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The First Avinu Malkeinu? — Ta’anit 25b — #6

Our Rabbis taught: It is told of R. Eliezer that he ordained thirteen fasts upon the community, but no rain fell. In the end, as the people began to depart [the synagogue], he exclaimed: “Have you prepared graves for yourselves?” Thereupon the people sobbed loudly. Rain fell. 

It is also related of R. Eliezer that once he went before the Ark [to lead prayers] and recited the twenty-four benedictions, but his prayer was not answered. R. Akiba went down [before the Ark to lead prayers] after him and exclaimed: “Avinu Malkeinu (“our father, our king”), we have no ruler but You; Avinu Malkeinu, for Your sake have mercy upon us!” Rain fell. The Rabbis present suspected [R. Eliezer], whereupon a bat kol (heavenly voice) was heard proclaiming: “This man [R. Akiba] was answered, not because he is greater than the other man [R. Eliezer], but because he is always forbearing and the other is not.

With Sukkot, we add to our daily prayers a petition for rain. For people living in the 21st century, we cannot avoid asking: Is prayer efficacious? In other words: do our prayers accomplish anything? Do they change the world beyond us? Do they change us?

The context for these the story about R. Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and R. Akiba is a discussion of what to do if drought or disaster threatens the community. The mishnah (on Ta’anit 15a) tell us that a variety of rituals were enacted, including moving prayer services out of the synagogue and into public space, adding six extra blessings to the Amidah (bringing the total to twenty-four), and this:

When they stand up to pray, they place [as prayer leader] before the ark an old man who knows the prayers well, who has children, and whose house is empty [of food], so that his heart is concentrated on his prayer…

We have two stories about R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus, a tanna who lived in the first and second centuries. He was one of the five primary disciples of Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai, the leader of the Jewish community at the time the Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 C.E. We are told in Pirke Avot 2:11 that Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai likened R. Eliezer’s mind to a plastered cistern that never loses a drop of water. It’s a beautiful image because Torah is mayim chaim, life-giving water; R. Eliezer retained all the Torah he ever learned. Rabban Yochanan also said, “If all the Sages of Israel were placed on one scale of a balance, and R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus on the other, he would outweigh them all” (PA 2:12). R. Eliezer is a gold-medal, rabbinic heavy-weight.

In the first story, R. Eliezer has taken the extraordinary step of ordaining thirteen fasts. Things must be dire. The fasting does no good, so R. Eliezer warns the people, in essence, “Do you realize that if your prayers are not sincere and heartfelt you’re going to die?” Their cries to heaven are sincere and heartfelt—they do the trick because they are sincere. The mishnah (cited above) prescribed a way to find a prayer leader whose prayers for mercy are sincere. It would seem that sincerity is a crucial ingredient for efficacious prayer. Recognizing this, R. Eliezer evokes sincere prayer from the people.

Why doesn’t God respond? It’s as if God says, “I didn’t answer because I didn’t really hear you ask.”  

In the second story, R. Eliezer leads the prayers and inserts the extra blessings to address the grave situation of the community resulting from the drought, but with not effect. R. Eliezer’s well-known arrogance may be the underlining factor: he sets himself apart from others, even his own colleagues (Baba Metzia 58-59), diluting his sincerity despite his greatness. Heaven does not respond; rain does not fall.  

R. Akiba next takes a turn leading the prayers and rather than projecting his own sincerity and compassion, he invokes God’s compassion and sincerity. He addresses God as “Avinu Malkeinu” (lit. “our father, our king”)—the first time this appellation is used. The phrase “Avinu Malkeinu” calls on God to feel the people’s pain, as parents experiences the pain of their children, and to respond to their needs, as parents respond to the needs of their children. The other rabbis present are suspicious. R. Eliezer is a wonder-worker. Perhaps he used his powers to make it rain? But no, heaven settles any doubt by declaring that R. Akiba’s prayers worked because of his character: R. Akiba is patient and forgiving.


  1. Lurking beneath the surface of these stories—and much, if not most, of Talmud—is a theology that holds that God hears prayer and can be an active agent in the world, responding to the actions of people, if God choose. Is this your theology? If not, how do you understand God? If God does not “hear” and “respond” to prayers in the traditional sense, what is the value of prayer and how might it be used in one’s spiritual life?
  2. R. Akiba is patient and forgiving. R. Eliezer, in contrast, is impatient, strict, and demanding. This seems to introduce the notion of middah k’neged  middah (measure for measure): It takes a person who is patient and forgiving to inspire and evoke that quality in God. How does our behavior toward other people influence their behavior? Can we “bring out the best” or “bring out the worst” in others by how we operate?
  3. It is possible to read these stories as a commentary on those who separate themselves from the community’s needs, concerns, sorrows, successes, and joys. The fasting did not work until the people felt the pain of others. R. Akiba’s prayer reached God because he was deeply connected with the community and inspired God to be likewise. In contrast, R. Eliezer ordained fasts and inserted prayers. Could it be that these were merely pro forma rituals for him? Do you find it difficult to pray with sincerity? What helps?

(c) Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, September 21, 2015

Hospitality When It Really Matters — Kiddushin 81 — #5

Plimo used to say everyday, “An arrow in Satan’s eye!” Once, on the eve of Yom Kippur, Satan disguised himself as a poor man and went and called out at his door [begging for alms]. They brought out bread for him. He said, “On a day like this, when everyone is inside [eating the meal before Yom Kippur at a table], shall I be outside?” They brought him inside and brought him bread. He said, “On a day like today everyone [sits] at the table. [Should] I sit by myself?” They brought him in and sat him at the table. [As] he sat, his body suddenly became covered with boils and sores, and he behaved repulsively. He said to him, “Sit properly!” [The beggar] said to [Plimo], “Give me a cup [of wine].” They gave him a cup. He coughed and spit phlegm into it. They scolded him. He fell and [it appeared that he had] died. They heard people [in the street crying out], “Plimo has killed a man! Plimo has killed a man!” He fled and hid in a privy. Satan followed him, and fell before him. When [Satan] saw how [Plimo] was suffering, he disclosed his identity. He asked Plimo, “Why did you say this [i.e. “An arrow in Satan’s eye”]?” [Plimo asked,] “Then how should I speak?” [Satan] said to him, “Let master say, ‘May the Merciful One rebuke Satan.’”

In the first edition of Ten Minutes of Talmud, we read a passage from tractate Shabbat about hospitality. The Rabbis—at least symbolically—elevate welcoming people in importance above welcoming the Shekhinah (God’s Presence). It’s one thing to invite friends and family into our homes, feed them, and enjoy their company. It’s quite another to welcome unbidden guests, particularly when we find them repellant. In tractate Kiddushin, the Rabbis tell the story of a man named Plimo who has the opportunity to welcome a homeless man begging for alms. Try to imagine that such a person knocks on the door of your home. What do you do?

This beautifully constructed story of Plimo is found with others concerning righteous sages who boast that the yetzer ra (evil inclination) has no power of them. Here, the yetzer ra, anthropomorphized, and played by none other than Satan, the prosecutorial angel in God’s heavenly court. Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 21:10 says, “One should not give Satan an excuse.” Plimo does precisely that: he taunts Satan, daring Satan to call his bluff.

The setting is Erev Yom Kippur. Plimo and his household are assembled for the last meal before the fast begins. This is likely a hardy, if not sumptuous, meal because it has to hold them for 25 hours. Plimo and his family are preparing to spend Yom Kippur pleading with God to be merciful to them, forgive them for their sins, and inscribe them for another year of life. It’s a lovely, idyllic family scene until a knock comes on the door…

The beggar at the door is poor and desperately hungry. While the family is embarking on a voluntary (if obligatory) fast, the beggar fasts involuntarily. How does the family respond? Hoping to avoid contact with him, they bring bread outside so that they don’t have to invite him inside. The beggar, however, asks to be brought inside where everyone else is. Once inside, he points out that everyone else is permitted to eat at the table. As much as they would like to ignore him, he makes it impossible to do so. When the beggar sits down at the family's table, we are told that, “his body suddenly became covered with boils and sores.” Really? Suddenly? Or is it that no one noticed that he is not only starving, but also desperately ill. How could they have missed this? Plimo’s response is to reprimand the poor man, rather than attend to his medical needs. The juxtaposition of Plimo, who is about to plead for God’s mercy—though he smugly believes he is righteous enough not to require it—and his failure to show mercy to one truly in need is stunning and disturbing. Would a genuinely righteous person behave as Plimo has? Yet how different are all of us from Plimo?

The beggar falls and “dies.” At once, the whole neighborhood is aware of what has happened and that Plimo is at fault. How do they know? This seems to be Satan’s doing. Plimo has publicly declared his righteousness; Satan makes Plimo’s true self public knowledge. In horror, Plimo flees to the privy and locks himself in. The inconvenience that befell Plimo has turned into a disaster. Satan pursues Plimo and again “falls” before him, making it clear to us that Plimo not only failed to show compassion to the beggar, but failed to fulfill the mitzvah of attending to the dead. Satan, realizing that Plimo is suffering, now ends the masquerade by revealing himself. Ironically, Satan shows Plimo more compassion than Plimo shows the beggar. But Satan doesn’t let Plimo off the hook entirely. Satan asks Plimo why he arrogantly boasted, “An arrow in Satan’s eye.” Plimo is a good deal more humble now, and open to hearing what Satan has to say. Satan reminds Plimo that he, like all of us, is vulnerable to temptation and wrongdoing, and needs to invoke God’s help to do what is right and avoid what is wrong.


  1. Plimo is not a bad man. But neither is he impervious to the yetzer ra. What happens when people believe in their own righteousness overmuch?
  2. What suffering does Satan see in Plimo? Is it fear, embarrassment, shame? Something else?
  3. How different is Plimo from all of us? Most of us believe we are basically good and decent people yet when we encounter someone whose poverty or person repels us, what do we do?

Friday, September 11, 2015

Apologizing is Never Easy — Yoma 87a (part 3) — #4

R. Yose b. Chanina said: One who asks pardon of his neighbor needs to do so no more than three times, as [Jacob said in a message to Joseph], Please forgive the offense of your brothers, please, who treated you so harshly. Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father [Genesis 50:17]…

When R. Zeira had a complaint against someone, he would repeatedly pass by him, showing himself to him, so that [the offender] could come out to [placate] him. Rav once had a complaint against a certain butcher, who had mistreated him. When he saw that Yom Kippur was getting close, and the butcher had not come to him [to ask forgiveness], he said to himself: “I will go to him, to make it easy for him to apologize to me.” Rav Chuna ran into Rav on his way to the butcher and asked: “Where are you going?” Rav said: “To make amends with so-and-so.” Rav Chuna thought to himself: “Abba [Rav’s real name] is about to cause someone’s death.” [Rav] went and remained standing before [the butcher] while the butcher was sitting and chopping the head [of an animal]. [The butcher] looked up and saw [Rav], and said: “You are Abba! Go away! I have nothing to say to you!” While he was chopping, a bone flew off from the animal’s head, struck [the butcher’s] throat, and killed him.


Having told us how to go about doing teshuvah (repentance), we saw in TMT #3 that the Rabbis acknowledge that sometimes things happen differently than we plan, and we would be wise to take advantage of opportunities for reconciliation—however strange and “fowl”—to succeed, as R. Yirmiyahu and R. Abba wisely did.

The Rabbis understand in another way that things don’t always proceed according to a formula or plan. That is the subject of their second story. R. Yose has warned that apologies don’t always go smoothly and are not always accepted. Therefore, one needs to put a limit on apology: three sincere attempts suffice. But he goes a step further, telling us to stop after three attempts.


Rav (whose real name is Abba) scrupulously follows the Rabbis’ formula for teshuvah, but not R. Zeira’s advice. Rav has been offended by the butcher. He goes out of his way to make himself available to the butcher to apologize in time for Yom Kippur. His timing assures us that his intentions are good: he wants the butcher to be free from the sin of the offense he had caused by Yom Kippur, the “deadline” for apology, so he will be written into the Book of Life for the coming year. Ah, the best laid plans of mice and men.

If the Rabbis are correct, there should be an amicable reconciliation before Yom Kippur. Yet Rav Chuna knows this will not turn out well and, indeed, it’s a disaster. The butcher is still furiously angry, unwilling to talk, and certainly not inclined to apologize! Rav’s appearance in his abattoir—which the butcher interprets as pressure to apologize—makes him even angrier. In his fury, he hacks away at the animal head he’s working on, dislodging a shard of bone that flies into his throat, killing him.

Rav followed the procedure delineated by the Rabbis. One could say that he went above and beyond the requirements by making himself available to the butcher to apologize before Yom Kippur. Yet it didn’t work—just as R. Zeira warned us. The rules and procedures provide structure and possibility, but repentance is a quintessentially human emotional interchange—it cannot always be governed by rules and procedures, and relationships cannot always be resolved within a specified time frame. We need to be flexible and sensitive and sometimes, we simply need to give it more time.

  1. R. Zeira’s advice is really a warning that if three apologies don’t work, something far deeper and darker is going on. Have you ever been in such a situation? Were you able to resolve it?
  2. Prior to this story, on the same page of Talmud, we are treated to a litany of maxims by sages speaking to the power of repentance, including this: R. Shmuel b. Nachmani said in the name of R. Yonatan: “Great is repentance because it prolongs a person’s life.” The story of Rav and the butcher is the physical incarnation of that aphorism: In a sense, the butcher died prematurely because he did not repent. Do you believe that holding grudges affects our physical well being? Can teshuvah enhance our physical and mental health, or only our spiritual health? Are spiritual, mental, and physical health intertwined?
  3. R. Yitzhak, in the name of Rabbah b. Mari, compares God’s modus operandi with that of ordinary people (on the same page of Talmud): “If a person angers his friend, it is doubtful whether the friend can be placated or not. And even if he can be placated, it is doubtful whether he will be placated by mere words. But if a person commits a sin in secret, the Holy One of Blessing is placated by mere words…Still more, God accounts it to him as a good deed.” The Rabbis often compare our conduct with God’s. This
  4. Rabbi Yonatan said: Great is repentance, because it brings redemption nearer.reflects their understanding and compassion concerning our human limitations. At the same time, it raises the bar by encouraging us to stretch ourselves to be more godlike. How easily are you placated after someone offends or hurts you? How open to forgiving others are you?

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

What a Way to Get Forgiven! — Yoma 87a (part 2) — #3

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R. Abba had been wronged by R. Yirmiyahu. [R. Yirmiyahu] went and sat at the entrance to [the house of] R. Abba. As [R. Yirmiyahu’s] maid was throwing out [waste] water, some drops landed on [R. Yirmiyahu’s] head. He said: “They have made a trash heap of me.” He recited the following concerning himself: From the trash heaps, [God] raises the destitute (Psalm 113:7). R. Abba heard and came outside to greet him. He said to [R. Yirmiyahu]: Now I need to appease you, as it is written, Go humble yourself that your neighbor be superior (Proverbs 6:3).

Our lives are a web of relationships with family, neighbors, colleagues, co-workers, members of our many social circles and communities—and of course with God. The quality of our lives and our emotional well being is often a function of the health of these many relationships. When an important relationship goes awry, we feel as if our lives are off-kilter, out of balance. We’ve all been on the receiving end of hurtful words that are insulting, insensitive, even unconscionable. Sometimes they were uttered intentionally, the product of animosity or resentment. Sometimes the speaker simply didn’t realize that his or her words were like missiles entering our psyches. Words can hurt, and hurt deeply. Perhaps, as you read this, you can recall something someone said long ago that continues to cause a twinge of pain, or maybe you are aware of the echo of the former pain. On the other side of the ledger, consider the verbal missiles you have launched—whether intentional or inadvertent—that have delivered a fuselage of emotional pain. In TMT #2 we saw that R. Yitzhak want us to use the High Holy Day season with its deadline of Yom Kippur to set to right relationships that have been damaged not only by material wrongs, but also by such verbal missiles.

Teshuvah (repentance) affords us a corrective. The Rabbis give us a formula for teshuvah. Part of the magic of the High Holy Days is that it additionally provides a structure: (1) A deadline for apologizing—Yom Kippur; (2) A communal structure for apologizing—everyone’s doing at the same time; and (3) A spiritual narrative—this is sacred work. But in some cases, the structure isn’t the only solution.

Our story is a brief play in three scenes. In Scene 1, R. Yirmiyahu sets out to do what the Rabbis would have him do: He visits R. Abba to apologize for wronging him.

In Scene 2, while sitting and waiting for R. Abba to emerge from his house, R. Abba’s maid appears and dumps out waste water. This is essentially sewage, and just like in any good sitcom, as she carelessly and mindlessly dumps out her bucket, some splashes on R. Yirmiyahu, whom she somehow has not noticed. R. Yirmiyahu’s response is fascinating. In what tone of voice does he declare, “They have made a trash heap of me”? Is he angry and insulted? Is he laughing at the irony of the mishap and thinking, “Well, this is appropriate payback for what I did to R. Abba.” He chooses a verse from Psalm 113 with which to frame the experience: From the trash heaps, [God] raises the destitute, signaling that he chooses to rise from the uncomfortable, awkward, unpleasant experience without regarding it as an insult. It happened, it’s over. If initially he found humor in the incident, the verse is a clever reflection of the irony he felt. If initially he was angry about having sewage splatter on him, he has quickly “risen above” his anger; this in itself is an act of forgiveness and he is doing precisely what he came to ask R. Abba to do. In either case, it is a beautiful expression of his choice not to be offended.

In Scene 3, R. Abba finally emerges and realizes precisely what has transpired. Perhaps what has happened is the physical embodiment of what he was feeling toward R. Yirmiyahu? In any case, it somehow “evens the score.” All is forgiven as R. Abba notes that perhaps now he needs to apologize to R. Yirmiyahu.

Something unexpected, unpleasant happened here—foul water was splashed on R.  Yirmiyahu. It could have made the situation far worse. Imagine R. Yirmiyahu becoming enraged and shouting, “I come here to apologize and reconcile, but you have your maid dump sewage on me, treating me like refuse!” Instead, the opposite happens. Both rabbis want to reconcile and use the unexpected event as the means to do so.

  1. What role do you think “evening the score” had in the reconciliation of R. Abba and R. Yirmiyahu? Do you think it was necessary? Would they have managed to reconcile had the maid not come out at that moment and splashed dirty water on R. Yirmiyahu?
  2. We have no evidence that R. Yirmiyahu even apologized to R. Abba. It seems he never used the Rabbis’ formula for teshuvah. Something unexpected happened and he latched onto it as an opportunity. Has this ever happened to you? Could you respond to the situation as R. Yirmiyahu did?
  3. Whether R. Yirmiyahu’s initial reaction to being splattered with foul water was anger or laughter, the verse he quotes—Psalm 113:7—shows us that he invoked great humility, and not an inconsiderable sense of humor. Humility and humor are wonderful attributes that can carry us far in our relationships and interactions with other people. How have humility and humor served you in your life?  
Genuine humility says, “I am capable of doing much more, 
and therefore I must.” —Rabbi Eliyakim Krumbein