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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.)