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Sunday, January 24, 2016

Friday Already! — BT Beitzah 16a — #21

It was taught in a baraita: They said about Shammai the Elder that every day he ate in honor of shabbat: If he found a good quality animal he would say: “This is for shabbat.” If he found an even better one, he would save the second one [for shabbat] and eat the first one. But Hillel the Elder employed a different strategy, whereby all his actions were for the sake of heaven, as it is said, Blessed is God day by day (Psalms 68:20). This was also taught in this baraita: Bet Shammai say: From the first day of the week [prepare for] your shabbat. But Bet Hillel say: Blessed is God day by day.

How often does your week—filled with dozens of obligations and activities—whiz by, Friday arrives as if without warning, and you find yourself saying, “How did it get to be Friday already? How am I going to get ready for shabbat in time?” Winter in the northern hemisphere is especially challenging because the sun sets early where many of us live, depriving us of precious time to prepare for shabbat. Torah records the mitzvah of shabbat in each of the two versions of the Ten Commandments: (1) Remember (zachor) the sabbath day and sanctify it… (Exodus 20:7-9); and (2) Observe (shamor) the sabbath day to sanctify it… (Deuteronomy 5:12-13). The Rabbis wondered: Which way did God deliver the commandment at Mount Sinai? 

 The sabbath hymn, Lecha Dodi says in the first verse that “Shamor and zachor were spoken in one utterance.” 

The midrash Mekhilta, trying to reconcile the two versions, tells us: “‘Remember’ and ‘Observe’—remember before and observe afterwards… Remember it from the first day of the week, so that if you come upon a rare bit, ready it for the sabbath. R. Yitzhak says: Do not count [days] as others count, but count with respect to shabbat.”  R. Yitzhak wants us to live a shabbat-centric week. This helps us appreciate the difference between Shammai and Hillel that the Talmud spotlights.

Shammai and Hillel have different approaches to preparing for shabbat. Shammai spends the entire week looking for the best food he can secure for celebrating shabbat. When he finds something wonderful, he sets it aside. If he subsequently finds something superior, Shammai consumes the first item and saves the superior second item for shabbat. In this way, from Sunday onward he is thinking about shabbat and preparing for it. Shammai counts the days as R. Yitzhak advises in Mekhilta: “Six days until shabbat, five days until shabbat, four days until shabbat…”

Hillel has a different approach. If he comes across something special, he enjoys it that day; not all his efforts, from Sunday onward, are directed toward preparing for shabbat. Everything he does, day in and day out, Hillel does for the sake of heaven because every day is sacred and every moment an opportunity to serve God and express gratitude for one’s blessings. He seems to trust that he will find what is needed in time to celebrate Shabbat.

Being Jewish is not a competitive sport, but neither is it a spectator sport.

We are accustomed to thinking that in all debates between Hillel and Shammai, there must be a winner and a loser—and it’s probably Hillel who is “right.” Accordingly, the commentators trip over themselves to declare either Shammai or Hillel the “winner” of this round. There is an unfortunate current running through Jewish tradition, modeled as it is on the legal paradigm and employing the legal idiom, that most every situation there is a “right way” and a “wrong way.” Hence in every disagreement there is a “winner” and a “loser.” Being Jewish is not (and ought not be) a competitive sport. But neither is Judaism a spectator sport, as both Shammai and Hillel attest. They offer us different approaches to Jewish living. Each has merit. What distinguishes them is the personality and temperament of the person who adopts them as his own. There are many good and wonderful ways to live Jewishly, celebrate shabbat, and serve God. That is the beauty of this story.


  1. Which approach—Shammai’s or Hillel’s—appeals to you more, and sounds closer to your way of doing things? Why?
  2. We are creatures of habit—our story describes the habits of Shammai and Hillel. What are the Shabbat “habits” of your household? What would you like them to be? In another tractate of the Talmud (BT Shabbat 119a) the Sages tell us that two angels—one good, one bad—escort us home from shul on Friday evening. If the two angels find our homes prepared to celebrate shabbat—candles lit, delicious food simmering, the family assembled to celebrate together and enjoy one another’s company—the good angel says, “May it be so next week” and the bad angel must say,  “amen.” If, however, they find that our homes are not prepared for shabbat and no shabbat celebration is happening, the bad angel says, “May it be so next week” and the good angel must say, “amen.” The story reminds us that getting started is often the hardest part. Continuing a way of celebrating shabbat that we find meaningful and fulfilling is far easier than launching it in the first place.
  3. What elements in your life can make shabbat festive for you? Shammai seems to have focused on food. Hillel doesn’t mention food. Here are some suggestions. Which appeal to you?
• Saving a new garment you acquired during the week to wear on shabbat
• Using a new tool or utensil to prepare for shabbat
• Reserving a new game to play on shabbat
• Setting aside a new book to begin reading  on shabbat
• Using a new recipe to prepare food for shabbat
• Setting the dinner table with a special tablecloth and dishes
• Planning a special family conversation to hold on shabbat

Monday, January 18, 2016

Asceticism — Baba Batra 60b — #20

It is taught that R. Yishmael b. Elisha said: Since the day of the destruction of the Temple, we should by rights bind ourselves to eat no meat and drink no wine. However, we may impose no hardship on the community unless the majority can endure it. And from the day that a foreign government has come into power that issues cruel decrees against us and forbids us to observe the Torah and its precepts, and does not allow us to enter into the brit milah [circumcision]—some say pidyon ha-ben [redemption of the firstborn son]—we ought by rights to bind ourselves not to marry nor to beget children. But the result would be that the seed of our father Abraham would of itself come to an end. Rather, let Israel go their way. It is better that they should err in ignorance than in presumptuousness.

Religious people are sometimes drawn to asceticism. The word “asceticism” means “training” or “exercise.” In practice, it is most often abstinence from worldly pleasures in order to devote oneself entirely to religious/spiritual pursuits. Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam have long featured strains of asceticism and expressed admiration for those who withdraw from the world of material acquisition and sensual pleasure, devoting themselves to prayer, meditation, and study. Judaism, however, has consistently rejected asceticism as a religious practice, considering it a sign of ingratitude to God for the gifts and pleasures of life that God makes available to us. The Jerusalem Talmud (Kiddushin 4:12) goes so far as to say that after we die, when we appear before the throne of God in heaven for judgment, we will be compelled to account for every licit earthly pleasure we denied ourselves.

When one is in mourning, however, it is customary to avoid vanity and physical pleasure. During Shiva, some do this by abstaining from bathing and sexual relations. They sit on low stools. For many months they eschew parties and entertainment. In the aftermath of the Destruction of the Second Temple, the customs of mourning and the pull of asceticism became intertwined. In tractate Baba Batra we are told: “When the Second Temple was destroyed, large numbers in Israel became ascetics, binding themselves neither to eat meat nor to drink wine.” Talmud records a famous conversation that purportedly took place between these people and R. Yehoshua b. Chanina. The ascetics tell R. Yehoshua that it would be inappropriate to consume meat and wine since they were formerly brought as offerings to the Temple. He replies that if that is the case, they should also abstain from bread, fruit, and even water, all of which were integral to various sacrifices and rites. R. Yehoshua concludes, “My children, come and let me advise you. Not too mourn at all is impossible, because the decree that the Temple be destroyed has been executed. But to mourn too much is also impossible, because we may not impose a hardship on the community unless the majority can endure it.”

Do we serve God best by abstaining from the pleasures of life, or by taking pleasure in life?

Our passage is found on the same page of Talmud, following R. Yehoshua’s conversation with those who were practicing asceticism. R. Yishmael b. Elisha was a High Priest, amplifying the weight and impact of his teaching: If one who was the High Priest expresses the opinion that extreme mourning, in the form of asceticism, is wrong, what authority figure would promote it as appropriate? R. Yehoshua speaks about excessive mourning, but R. Yishmael goes further. He points out that given the cruelties imposed by Rome and the strictures the government had placed on the Jewish community, extreme mourning actually plays right into their hand, supporting their effort to eradicate Judaism. If the thinking of the ascetics is taken to its logical conclusion, the Roman prohibition against brit milah (circumcision) and pidyon ha-ben (redemption of the firstborn son) would suggest: if we can’t circumcise and redeem our children properly, then we shouldn’t marry and have children. That path leads to annihilation. R. Yishmael’s point is that this would be self-annihilation.

R. Yishmael doesn’t stop there. Exhorting Jews to continue living their lives, he says it is better to err inadvertently (if, indeed, there is any justification for asceticism) than to err out of presumptuousness. He adds this idea: Asceticism does not affirm life; it is an exercise in holier-than-thou. With this comment, R. Yishmael sets the standard for Jewish thinking thereafter: Asceticism is not righteous behavior; it is self-righteous behavior. A practice supposedly about mourning and humility turns out to be about religious hubris.

R. Yishmael implicitly says even more. The logic of asceticism has no end. In renouncing the world and its pleasures, one gives the Romans power over one’s thinking and values to the extent that, in the end, one renounces God’s priorities: marriage, children, community, joy, pleasure.


  1. Have you ever been tempted by asceticism? If so, what value does it hold for you? If not, why not?
  2. On the basis of R. Yehoshua’s teaching, the Sages ordained the following: “A man may plaster his house, but he should leave a small space uncovered [unfinished, in remembrance of the Destruction of the Temple]. A man who is preparing all that is needed for a feast should leave out some small ingredient. And if a woman is putting on all her jewelry, she must omit one piece.” Why do you think they promulgated this decree?  How does this satisfy the tendency toward visible mourning while keeping it in check?
  3. The early Hasidim taught that our joy pleases God. R. Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (1920-1943), the Warsaw Ghetto rebbe, believed that the physical pleasures of an embodied existence can be marshaled to serve God; hence, he sought holiness in the pleasures of life. For example: alcohol can be a catalyst for avodat Adonai (worship of God) if one directs one’s experience “heavenward.” How might you incorporate this thinking into your own life?

Monday, January 11, 2016

Is Lying a Sin or a Mitzvah?—Yebamot 65b—#19

R. Ilai stated in the name of R. Eleazar b. R. Shimon: One is permitted to deviate from the truth for the sake of peace, as it is said, Your father left this instruction, etc., and, Thus shall you say to Joseph: “Forgive, I pray you, etc. (Genesis 50:15-17).

R. Natan says: It is a mitzvah [to deviate from the truth for the sake of peace], as it is said, But Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears it, he will kill me”, etc. (I Samuel 16:2).

In the academy of R. Yishmael it was taught: Great is the cause of peace, for even the Holy One Blessed be God, deviated from the truth for the sake of peace, for initially it says, “My husband is old” and after that it is written, “old as I am” (Genesis 18:12-13).

When Parson Weems published a biography of George Washington in 1809, he invented the myth of the cherry tree little George was supposedly lopped off with a hatchet. When confronted by his father, little George nobly replies, “I cannot tell a lie,” and admits his deed. Weems wanted to teach the importance of honesty. He couldn’t point to the Bible because telling the truth is not one of the Ten Commandments. Did you ever wonder why? Certainly trusting relationships are paramount to an individual’s mental health, a family’s well being, and a society’s healthy functioning—and it’s hard to imagine trust without honesty. Yet the Rabbis can. They can envision a situation—and you probably can, too—when telling the truth would be needlessly hurtful and therefore wrong.

R. Ilai tells us that to promote or preserve peace it is permitted to deviate from the truth. He provides an example in shorthand, quoting only tidbits of the relevant verses. Here is he full passage he has in mind (with the words R. Ilai quotes in boldface):
When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrong that we did him!” So they sent this message to Joseph, “Your father left this instruction before he died: Thus shall you say to Joseph, ‘Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly’ Therefore, please forgive the offense of the servants of the God of your father.” And Joseph was in tears as they spoke to him. (Genesis 50:15-17)
After Jacob dies, Joseph’s brothers fear that he will seek revenge for their having sold him into slavery and all the misery that he suffered as a result, so they concoct a story—a bald-faced lie—that their dying father left but one request, namely, that Joseph should forgive them. The result of their lie is that the brothers are peacefully reconciled with Joseph.

The truth is rarely pure and never simple. (Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest)

R. Natan goes further. Not only is it permissible to lie for the sake of truth, but it is mandatory. He, too, provides an example: God sends the prophet Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint one of Jesse’s sons to succeed Saul as king of Israel. God designs a deception so no one will guess the true purpose of his mission, which would put both Samuel and the chosen son in danger. God tells Samuel to bring a heifer and say that he has come to offer a sacrifice to God. Hence, R. Natan reasons, God employs deception for the sake of peace. One could claim, however, that R. Natan’s example of God’s supposed lie is weak. It’s a partial truth: Samuel uses the heifer to imply that the sacrifice is his sole reason for coming to Bethlehem. R. Natan’s example does not quite prove that God ordains lying under some circumstances.

The academy of R. Yishmael closes this gap with a marvelous story.  In Genesis, Abraham is visited by three emissaries of God who tell him that 90-year-old Sarah will give birth to a child. Sarah, eavesdropping, laughs when she hears this and says, “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment—with my husband so old?” God reports her words to 100-year-old Abraham as, “Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?” Sarah expresses incredulity based on Abraham’s age and condition, but God says Sarah laughed at the thought that she could bear a child at the age of 90. Here is an ironclad proof that God would lie to protect the peace between husband and wife.

“Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.” (Mark Twain, Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World)

Gemara cannot promulgate a detailed rule concerning when it is permissible and desirable to lie. It can only establish the principle that peace is a greater good and when the two are in serious conflict, peace is to be given priority. The Rabbis trust that people of good will exercise careful judgment.


  1. Have you ever shaded the truth or lied in order to avoid hurting someone’s feelings or causing a rift in a relationship, or in order to mend an acrimonious relationship? If you had it to do over again, would you say the same thing? Would you choose different words?
  2. R. Natan seems to be suggesting that in cases that warrant concealing the truth, we aim for the least dishonesty possible, such as shading the truth, or omitting some point of information. Is this differing from lying? Is it preferable in your mind?
  3. In another tractate of Talmud (Baba Metzia 23b-24a) Rav Yehuda teaches in the name of Shmuel that learned people conceal the truth in three matters, which are understood to be {1} for the sake of humility (to avoid bragging), {2} privacy (to avoid revealing intimate information about people), and {3} finances (to avoid burdening someone with houseguests, since hospitality is so highly prized, the host could not say not to requests). Can you think of other matters that warrant hedging the truth?

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Maybe It’s Not About You — BT Berakhot 6b — #18

R. Zeira said: The reward for attending a [Torah] lecture is for running [to hear it]. Abaye said: The reward for attending a Kallah is for being squeezed [by the crowd]. Rava said: The reward for a halakhic discussion is for the intellectual reasoning. Rav Pappa said: The reward for visiting a house of mourning is the silence. Mar Zutra said: The reward for fasting is for the tzedakah. Rav Sheishet said: The reward for delivering a eulogy is the wailing. Rav Ashi said: The reward for [attending] a wedding is the words [one says to the bride and groom].

Not long ago, I overheard a man explain that it had rained the previous day because he had taken a day off from work to go to a ball game. I would have thought that he was simply make a wry comment about the unfortunate timing of the rain, but he next said that the rain was his punishment for being absent from work when a deadline was looming and he was needed at the office. Again, I might have chalked this off as a sardonic remark, but he finished by noting that this was not the first time God had punished him for slacking off. It is very common for people to assume a causal relationship between two events based on their sequential timing, even despite all reason. We are hardwired to seek pleasure and avoid pain (in their many manifestations: physical, emotional, spiritual). The notion of reward and punishment is an interpretation of the cause or meaning of the pleasure and pain we experience that we layer on top; this, too, seems to be hardwired. Perhaps so many think this way because most people are inclined to reward or punish others in order to influence their behavior, and presume God does the same.

“If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.” Albert Einstein   

Torah—especially the Book of Deuteronomy—tells us repeatedly that God is the divine purveyor of retributive justice: God rewards and punishes Israel in response to their obedience to, or violation of, the covenant. God brings or withholds rain, protects them from enemies or not, increases their herds and crop yields or not, and so on. The Rabbis held that God destroyed the Second Temple in 70 C.E. to punish the Jews for the sin of sinat chinam (gratuitous hatred) but then backed away from the stage of history. For the Rabbis, God, who was once intimately involved in the life of Israel, is distant, minimally involved, watching, waiting—God no longer jumps into the fray of world events to protect and redeem God’s people. If God is distant and detached, what does this say about the traditional belief in God’s reward and punishment?

“One response that is almost universally rejected by all thinking segments of the [Jewish] community is that the Holocaust is God’s punishment for Israel’s sin. If the Holocaust accomplished anything, it effectively killed the doctrine of retribution as the key to Jewish theodicies. It may have worked for centuries, but today it is viewed as an obscenity.” (Neil Gillman, Sacred Fragments, p. 202.

The doctrine of reward and punishment was challenged head-on in the aftermath of the Holocaust, but the roots of the challenge existed already in our Talmud.

Our passage provides a subtle and non-traditional way to think about the concept of divine reward in the new post-Temple reality.  Seven sages cite behaviors considered especially meritorious by the Rabbis: (1) attending the lecture of a prominent Torah scholar, (2) attending the twice yearly study convention that was held in Babylonia during this period in history, (3) participating in a halakhic discussion, (4) visiting someone in mourning, (5) fasting, (6) eulogizing the dead, and (7) attending a wedding. One would expect that simply engaging in these behaviors would bring reward, and the sages say it does, but not in the way you might expect: it comes in the form of an indirect or unintentional by-product of the act. When we examine the seven examples—the Rabbis provide an unusually generous number of examples—we find that the rewards are benefits that accrue to others. Running to hear a Torah lecture excites others about Torah study and inspires them to attend. Enlarging the crowd at the Kallah has a similar effect. The reasoning expended in a halakhic discussion elevates and enriches the experience for all present. Making a shiva call properly (i.e., quietly) creates a comfortable and comforting environment for mourners because they are not compelled to talk and are comforted by your presence. It is customary to give tzedakah on fast days and there are always people in need of tzedakah. A good eulogy allows the mourners to fully grieve. Words of either congratulations or entertainment directed to a bride and groom make their day more joyous and memorable.

Rather than asking, “How am I being rewarded?” ask yourself, “How does what I do reward and benefit others?”

 We often expect our behavior to result in a response that feels to us like a reward: if we do something good, we expect to be thanked or get credit. The Rabbis are teaching us that better than considering the reward we receive for our deeds (including our speech) is to consider how our words and deeds can reward others. This way of thinking can train us to think more broadly about our behavioral decisions and how we affect the world and those around us. It can help us feel satisfied and fulfilled when good things happen for others as a result of what we do, especially when we do not directly receive what feels like a “reward” such as recognition, praise, recompense, or honor.


  1. As you experience the world, do you believe God rewards and punishes people on the basis of their behavior? Consider Neil Gillman’s quote (above). Do you agree or disagree?
  2. Can you recall examples from your life when your good deed benefited someone else? Are you able to consider that your reward?
  3. Imagine a mitzvah you might perform and the “reward” it might beget for someone else.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Year-Beginning Giving — Shabbat 151b — #17

It has been taught [in a baraita]: R. Shimon b. Eleazar says: Do [tzedakah] while you can find someone [to receive it] and while you still have resources [to give] and while it is still in your power [to give]. And even Solomon, in his wisdom, said, So appreciate your vigor in the days of your youth, before the evil days come upon you—these [evil days are] the days of old age—and the years draw nigh when you will say, “I have no pleasure in them” (Ecclesiastes 12:1—these are the days of the messiah, when there is neither merit nor obligation.

For the past few weeks, my email “in box” has been flooded with solicitations from a wide variety of charities, each hoping that the looming end of the secular year would inspire me and many others to claim another tax-deductible contribution. Have you had the same experience? Fundraisers know that one way to encourage those of us who are inclined to give to actually make a contribution is to create a sense of urgency by setting a deadline. One website, dedicated to “Compassionate Crowdfunding” advises: “When people receive requests of any kind, the natural reaction is to identify the deadline, and then wait until time is running out. With a fundraising deadline that conveys a sense of urgency, your [web]page will motivate more people to act quickly.” (Here’s another example.) The organizations who flooded my inbox from Thanksgiving to New Years were banking on December 31 being the deadline for those wishing to write off their contributions on their 2015 taxes. For the Talmud, the “deadline” is understood literally: death.

Talmud assumes we have righteous intentions coupled with human inclinations. Our righteous intentions play this continuous-loop tape in our heads: “Good people give tzedakah and I want to be a good person. It’s my obligation to give tzedakah and I should fulfill my obligation. I feel good about myself when I give tzedakah. I shouldn’t procrastinate in giving tzedakah because then I’m not as good as I want to be.” Most of us have a concurrent continuous-loop tape playing in our heads: “I might need this money. There are things I’d like to buy with this money. What if something happens so that I don’t have enough money?” 

What motivates people to donate to charities, volunteer at shelters and soup kitchens, and give money to homeless people on the street? Is it expectation of a reward or altruism?

R. Shimon b. Eleazar understands these conflicting messages swirling around in our minds. He also understands that every thought on both of those tapes begins with “I.” He offers us another tape to play in our heads that help us understand in a meaningful and existential way that tzedakah is not just about us. First, R. Shimon reminds us that giving tzedakah is primarily about the recipient’s needs. If we ignore one who is in need, that person will continue to suffer and another opportunity to alleviate suffering may not come our way for some time. Second, he reminds us that people’s fortunes wax and wane and the opportunity to alleviate someone’s suffering is guaranteed only now, in this moment. (R. Chiyya will remind his wife further down on this same daf of Talmud, “There is a wheel which revolves in this world.”) Third, R. Shimon reminds us that just as our financial resources might decline, so too our physical resources, in which case even if we have the money, we might not have the strength to dispense it to lesson someone’s suffering. Do it now, while you can!, R. Shimon advises, lest tomorrow you cannot for lack of finding someone in need, or the financial resources to help, or the strength to make real your good intentions.

A brain-imaging study headed by neuroscientist Jordan Grafman from the National Institutes of Health showed that the “pleasure centers” in the brain, i.e., the parts of the brain that are active when we experience pleasure (like dessert, money, and sex), are equally active when we observe someone giving money to charity as when we receive money ourselves! Giving to others even increases well-being above and beyond what we experience when we spend money on ourselves. (see Question #3 below)

Gemara support R. Shimon with a verse from Ecclesiastes, which tradition holds was composed by King Solomon. The verse opens the last chapter of the book, which is dedicated to reminding us to get our acts together religiously and morally because life is never as long as we think, and we waste too much time on superficial and frivolous pursuits. Vanity of vanities, says Kohelet; all is vanity (1:2 and 12:8)—and too late we realize we’re out of time. Gemara, unsurprisingly, identifies the “days of evil,” which the verse contrasts with the “days of our youth,” as old age. But perhaps unexpectedly, Gemara identifies the days in which we “have no pleasure” not as these same “days of evil”/old age, but rather as the days of the Messiah, when we will be unable to attain merit for good deeds because we will no longer be obligated to give tzedakah because no one will be in need. The deadline for goodness is now, while there is human suffering in the world. The Gemara is reminding us that giving tzedakah will bring us enormous joy, the joy of being young and vigorous.


  1. What inspires you to give tzedakah or engage in volunteer work?
  2. What can you do to encourage yourself to give more and do more? (For example, if you keep a pile of $1 or $5 bills in easy reach while you drive, would it be easier to give them to people asking for handouts? Try it.)
  3. Emma Seppala wrote an article that summarizes work done in the field of Positive Psychology concerning compassion and human behavior. Have you experienced the health and happiness benefits of compassion discovered by cognitive scientists in the field and described in her piece?