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Monday, February 29, 2016

How Far Must I Go? — BT Avodah Zarah 15a,b — #26

[14a] It was taught in a baraita: One may sell [a pagan merchant] a bundle [of frankincense]. And how much is a bundle? R. Yehudah b. Beteira explained: a bundle weighs at least three manehs [approximately one pound]. Should we not be concerned lest the [merchant] goes and sells it to another [idol worshiper] who will burn it [as a sacrifice to a pagan idol]? Abaye says: We are commanded, Before [the blind do not place a stumbling block] (Leviticus 19:14) but we are not obligated concerning a “before” for a “before:… [15b] Rabbah once sold a donkey to an Israelite who was suspected of selling it to an idolater. Said Abaye to him: “Why did you do this?” He said: “I sold it to an Israelite.” “But he will go and sell it to an idolater!” “Why should he sell it to an idolater and not sell it to an Israelite?” 

Ancient Israel lived surrounded by polytheistic culture. Hammurabi’s Code lists 20 gods in the prologue; Egypt had 40 gods and goddesses; the Canaanites worshiped two divine couples, as well as several other gods. In stark and revolutionary contrast, Torah declares: I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a graven image, nor likeness, of any thing in the heaven above or on the earth beneath, or in the water beneath the earth. (Exodus 20:2-3) Idols, created by human beings, are not divine manifestations of the Creator of all. Torah is obsessively concerned with the risk that Israel will imitate the practices of the peoples around and descend into idolatry. Talmud dedicates an entire tractate, Avodah Zarah, as well as sections of other tractates, to regulating interactions with non-Jews to prevent Jews from engaging not only directly, or even indirectly, in idolatry.

While the scenarios presented derive from a concern about idolatry, and test how far one’s responsibility for enabling idolatrous worship extends by selling pagans materials for idolatrous worship, we might well apply this thinking to other situations in which what we own or sell could have negative consequences: drugs, alcohol, and guns come readily to mind.

Mishnah 1:5 [13b] instructs Jews not to sell to pagans certain items—among them the aromatic resin frankincense—that are likely to be used in idolatrous worship. I have excerpted two seemingly contradictory scenarios from Gemara’s discussion of this mishnah. The first case concerns a Jew who sells frankincense to a pagan merchant, where the possibility exists that the merchant may subsequently sell the frankincense to  second pagan who then uses it in idolatrous worship. Abaye explains that the Jew may sell the frankincense to the merchant without violating the prohibition, You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind. You shall fear your God: I am the Lord (Leviticus 19:14). The deaf cannot hear insults and the blind cannot see objects deliberately placed in their path, but Torah uses “deaf” and “blind” metaphorically: we are forbidden to take advantage of people’s vulnerabilities and weaknesses. Abaye is suggesting that were a Jew to sell frankincense directly to a pagan who intended to offer it as a sacrifice to an idol, the Jew would be enabling idolatry by taking advantage of the idolator’s vulnerability. In this case, however, the Jew sold the frankincense to a pagan merchant who is not obligated by You shall not…place a stumbling block. What the merchant does with the frankincense is not the Jewish seller’s responsibility. 

The second case concerns Rabbah, who sold a donkey to a Jew. For reasons we are not told, there was reason to suspect that the Jewish buyer might resell the donkey to a pagan who would sacrifice it as part of idolatrous worship. Is Rabbah potentially guilty of You shall not…place a stumbling block before the blind? Abaye asks Rabbah why he made the sale and Rabbah responds that he is not responsible for any subsequent sale; after all, the Jew who purchased the donkey might just as soon resell it to another Jew as sell it to a pagan.

How far does our responsibility go? And is idolatry the only consideration in our day and age?  Midrash Sifra on Leviticus 19:14 provides the example of A who knowingly gives B poor financial advice that will ultimately benefit A. In our day and age, consider one who sells a gun to a person with a volatile temper who has gotten into fist fights with neighbors.

“But the Torah teaches us that even by sitting at home doing nothing, by complete passivity and divorcement from society, one cannot shake off responsibility for what is transpiring in the world at large, for the iniquity, violence and evil there. By not protesting, "not marking the graves" and danger spots, you have become responsible for any harm arising therefrom, and have violated the prohibition: "Thou shalt not put a stumbling block before the blind..." 
Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Leviticus, p.178'


  1. Can you think of examples of behaviors that would violate the prohibition, You shall not…place a stumbling block before the blind in various arenas of modern life (e.g., community, politics, business, economics)?
  2. Can one passively violate You shall not…place a stumbling block before the blind? For example, by failing to point out corruption, bribery, safety violations in the workplace, or by not protesting injustice?
  3. When one sells an item to someone who might use it to harm another, how much responsibility does the seller have to vet the buyer? Consider the following: (A) an adult who presents a valid ID to purchase cheap beer, while teenagers are seen outside waiting in the parking lot; (B) physicians who dispense drugs such as oxycontin, Adderall, and Ritalin without periodically seeing the patient; (C) dealers who sell guns at gun shows.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

God, the Cosmic Shadchan — BT Sotah 2a — #25

Rabbah bar bar Chanah said in the name of R. Yochanan: It is as hard for  God make a match [between a man and a woman for marriage] as splitting the Sea of Reeds. Is that so? Did not Rav Yehudah say in the name of Rav: Forty days before the formation of an embryo, a heavenly voice proclaims, “The daughter of So-and-so [is designated to marry] the So-and-so; a certain house [is designated for] So-and-so; a certain field [is designated for] So-and-so. This is not a difficulty: This [opinion, that marital matches are determined in heaven prior to conception] concerns first marriages; this [opinion that marital matches are determined by one’s behavior] concerns second marriages.

Did you choose your life partner? Or did God? Do you believe you met by chance and were fortunate to find one another? Or were you living out a destiny designed for you long ago, perhaps even before your were born? These questions stand behind the difference of opinion between R. Yochanan (as reported by Rabbah bar bar Chanah) and Rav Yehuda.

It is rare for Torah to command or forbid an emotional state. You might point to “You shall love the Lord your God,”  but it’s helpful to understand that “love” in the Torah meant loyalty far more than romantic love as we understand it. Marriages were contracted in the ancient world for a host of pragmatic reasons related to family, procreation, and alliances—though Song of Songs assures us that romantic love flourished long ago—and most often parents chose mates for their offspring. Most of us shudder at the prospect of an arranged marriage; many moderns presume that it is more challenging to make an arranged marriage work longterm than a match made by romantic love.

Our passage appears on the first page of tractate Sotah, which discusses the laws and practices surrounding the biblical institution of the “suspected adulteress” whose husband is overwrought with jealousy, but he has neither evidence nor witnesses that his wife has committed adultery. Torah describes a social strategy that is public, involving the priests, to siphon off dangerous emotional energy in the hope that the  husband does not act violently toward his wife. The full description of the trial of the sotah is found in Numbers 5:11-31. 

Jealousy is a dangerous emotion. It easily turns into rage. The Gemara begins by asking why tractate Sotah follows tractate Nazir, which concerns Nazirite vows. The response provided is that the husband, like a nazir, should not consume alcohol. Given that alcohol lowers inhibitions, and the husband who suspects his wife of adultery is presumed to be overwrought and potentially out of control, this is sound advice indeed!

I have heard many people refer to their spouse as “my beshert,” a Yiddish word that suggests that destiny brought the couple together. We find the roots here. While R. Yochanan and Rav Yehudah both agree that God has the primary role in matchmaking, they disagree concerning when and how. R. Yochanan compares God’s matchmaking to Parting the Sea of Reeds: it is a colossally difficult task. Rav Yehudah claims that God matches people either at the moment of conception (the more likely understanding of the Gemara) or forty days prior to conception. (While Gemara presumes heterosexual marriage, we can have in mind any kind of life partnership when we consider this passage.)

The Rabbis resolve the disagreement handily through the use of a technique called okimta, whereby they assign two different realities or sets of circumstances to the two opinions. In this case: Rav Yehudah’s view applies to first marriages; R. Yochanan’s view applies to second marriages. In other words: God arranges your first marriage even before you’re born, but if that marriages ends by death or divorce, the task of finding you a second spouse—when you, like Israel coming out of Egypt, have a fully formed personality and needs—is a tremendous undertaking. Does this resolve anything? Or does it generate more questions?


1. Why do you think Gemara identifies Rav Yehudah’s view with first marriages and R. Yochanan’s view with second marriages?
2. How might the notion of God’s role and destiny (“beshert”) in finding a mate make it easier or harder for people to do the hard relationship work marriage requires? Consider the message of this midrash:
A Roman matron asked R. Yose b. Chalafta: “How many days did it take your God to create the world?” He answered, “Six.” “And what has He been doing since then?” “Making matches. This man to that woman,this woman to that man.” The Roman matron replied with surprise: “Is that all? Why anyone can do that!” Rabbi Yossi observed, “It may seem easy to you, but for God making a good match is as difficult as parting the Reed Sea.” To prove her point, the Roman matron returned home and lined up all her household servants – 1000 men and 1000 women, paired them up and married them off. The following morning they returned to her, one with a black eye, one with a bruised face, one limping, and another wounded, each with its own misery and saying, “This one that you designated for me I do not want.” The Roman matron sent for Rabbi Yose and said, “Rabbi your Torah is truth and it is beautiful and praiseworthy. You spoke well in all you said.” 
(Genesis Rabbah 68 and Leviticus Rabbah 8)

3. Rambam (Moses Maimonides, 11th century) disagreed with both R. Yochanan and Rav Yehudah. In Shemonah Perakim ch. 8 (his introduction to Pirkei Avot), Rambam avers that it is necessary for finding a marital partner to be a human choice in order for people to obtain credit for fulfilling the mitzvah of p’ru ur’vu (procreation), on the one hand, and be held accountable for entering into a prohibited marriage, on the other. Does Rambam’s view solve any problems or only introduce new ones?

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Is Suffering “Good for the Soul”?—BT Baba Metzia 85a—#24

[The sufferings] of R. Elazar b. of R. Shimon were superior to those of Rabbi [Yehudah ha-Nasi] because they came to him through love and departed in love, while those of Rabbi [Yehudah ha-Nasi] came to him through a certain incident, and departed likewise. They came to him through a certain incident—what is it? As a calf was being led to slaughter it broke away, hid its head under Rabbi's garment, and lowed [in terror]. He said [to the calf], “Go, for this were you created.” Thereupon [the angels in heaven] said: “Since he has no pity, let us bring suffering upon him.” And departed likewise—how so? One day Rabbi's maidservant was sweeping the house. [Seeing] some young weasels lying there, she was about to sweep them away when [Rabbi] said to her: “Let them be. It is written, and His tender mercies are over all his works (Psalm 145:9).” [In heaven] they said: “Since he is compassionate, let us be compassionate toward him.”

Here and elsewhere, the Talmud explores the ins-and-outs of suffering, and in particular painful physical suffering. I would imagine that in the ancient world, which lacked the medical treatments, cures, and analgesics we enjoy (and all too often take for granted) unrelieved physical pain was a source of fear and agony, and even more frequently than in our age inspired the question: Why me? In this reality, the Rabbis propose and thoroughly analyze the theological claim that suffering can be beneficial (BT Berakhot 5): If one accepts their suffering as a loving gift from God through which they pay off the debt of their sins in this world, they will merit a greater reward in the world-to-come. While this may sound alien and troubling to many of us, please keep in mind that making suffering meaningful is one way to make it more bearable.

The context for our passage is a lengthy account of R. Elazar (son of R. Shimon bar Yochai), who spent years and expended enormous effort to insure that he would suffer in this world. The descriptions are strange, extreme, and disgusting—they fall into the realm of the carnivalesque. Interposed into this extended treatise on R. Elazar’s sufferings is a comparison to those of R. Yehudah ha-Nasi (who is called “Rabbi” in the Talmud because of his singular importance). Impressed by R. Elazar’s effort and exploits in the realm of suffering, Rabbi exclaims, “How beloved is suffering!” and thereupon enters a 13-year period of suffering. Gemara objects to this framing of Rabbi’s suffering: Rabbi did not summon suffering as R. Elazar had done; rather, it came about due to his behavior.

The righteous care for the lives of their animals, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel. (Proverbs 12:10)

The calf being led to slaughter is deeply fearful. It attempts to hide beneath Rabbi’s robe. Rather than express concern or offer comfort, Rabbi responds callously that the animal was created to become food for people. In response to a failure to show compassion, heaven visits Rabbi with suffering. 

Several commentators ask: What’s wrong with Rabbi’s response to the calf? The basis of their question is the presumption that everything in the universe was created for human benefit. The substance of what Rabbi says, therefore, is correct. The problem, they conclude, is not with the veracity of Rabbi’s claim, but rather with his failure to visibly and verbally demonstrate compassion for the calf. If this were the case, the next part of the story is confusing. When Rabbi’s maidservant prepares to sweep away a nest of newborn weasels (presumably killing them in the process), Rabbi quotes a verse from Psalm 145 to say, in essence: Just as God’s attitude toward all living creatures is tender mercy, so should ours be, as well. If heaven’s objection is that Rabbi failed to show compassion, then telling his maid to “Let them be,” is unnecessary; merely making a show of compassion should be sufficient if all animals exist to serve human needs. Actually acting compassionately to save their lives is not necessary—but Rabbi does not make a mere show of compassion; he saves their lives.

The Talmudic commentator Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Eidels, 1555-1631) further reasons that heaven was responding to the substance of Rabbi’s claim concerning the calf, interpreting it to mean that all creatures are destined to die and therefore so should he. But then heaven granted Rabbi suffering to exempt him from a premature death. There is a flaw in the logic of this interpretation, as well: Why, then, does heaven relieve Rabbi’s suffering precisely in response to his compassion toward the weasels, rather than after he has suffered sufficiently to avoid an early death?

Torah requires that animals be permitted to rest on Shabbat. It prohibits muzzling an ox while it threshes grain. It requires that the mother bird be dismissed from the nest before eggs or nestlings are collected. It requires us to relieve the load of an overburdened animal. It forbids animals of different sizes to be yoked together.

I understand this story to be subtly rebutting the notion that animals exist purely for the sake of human appetites, needs, and desires, as many commentators claim.


  1. Does the adage, “What goes around comes around,” apply to this story?
  2. Can our own painful physical suffering sensitize us to recognize the pain others experience? Is that what happens to Rabbi, and is this possibly a lesson of the story? Is it possible that suffering is, in this sense, “good for the soul?”
  3. The view that all creation is meant to serve our needs derives from a particular reading of Genesis chapter 1. In light of what we know about the universe as a whole, and the ecosystem of our planet in particular, is this idea still tenable and moral? What are the implications for our consumption patterns, food choices, and factory farming?

Monday, February 8, 2016

Facing Jerusalem — BT Berakhot 30a — #23

Our Rabbis taught in a baraita: A blind person or one who cannot discern the cardinal directions should direct his heart toward God in heaven, as it says, And they will pray to Adonai (I Kings 8:44). One who stands outside the Land of Israel should direct his heart toward the Land of Israel, as it says, And they will pray to You by way of their land (I Kings 8:48). One who stands in the Land of Israel should direct his heart toward Jerusalem, as it says, And they pray to Adonai by way of the city that You have chosen (I Kings 8:44). One who stands in Jerusalem should direct his heart toward the Temple, as it says, And they will pray toward this house (II Chronicles 6:32). One who stands in the Temple should direct his heart toward the Holy of Holies, as it says, And they will pray toward this place (I Kings 8:35). One who stands in the Holy of Holies should direct his heart toward the parochet (ark cover). One who stands behind the chamber of the parochet should envision himself as standing before t

he parochet. Thus we find that one who is in the east should turn and face west [to pray]; one who is in the west should turn and face east; one who is in the south should turn and face north; one who is in the north should turn and face south; all Israel should turn their hearts to one place.

The Rabbis discussed at length the Temple, the meaning of its destruction, and their longing for it to be rebuilt. They determined that we should face Jerusalem to pray. Consequently, to this day synagogues build their ark on the wall facing Jerusalem, and synagogues in Jerusalem face the Temple Mount. Many Jews have a small plaque called a mizrach (“east”) on the eastern wall of their house to remind them of the direction of Jerusalem.

"Without Jerusalem, the Land of Israel is a body without a soul." (Elhanan Leib Lewinsky)

But the Talmud doesn’t discuss the Western Wall. In recent decades, the Kotel (the Western Wall, so named because it is the western retaining wall around the Temple Mount) has come to be an important place of prayer for many Jews due to its proximity to the spot where once the Temple stood. The Orthodox rabbinate in Israel controls the area adjacent to the Wall, regulating with an iron fist who may prayer there and how. Women wishing to pray with tallit and read Torah have been excluded, often violently. Led by Women of the Wall, and the courageous force of nature, Anat Hoffman, they have prevailed. Recently, the Israeli government approved a plan to create an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel in the section known as Robinson’s Arch. I chose this passage in celebration of this victory.

While the passage from Berakhot 30a certainly makes it sound like facing Jerusalem for prayer is an open-and-shut case, Baba Batra 25a reports that, “Rav Sheshet believed that the Shekhinah is in all places. Accordingly, when [he prayed] he would say to his attendant: Set me facing any direction except east. And this was not because the Shekhinah is not there, but because the minim (sectarians) prescribe that one face east.” Other sages recommend facing west (the Shekhinah is in the west according to R. Abbahu), north (to become wealthy according to R. Yitzhak), and south (to become wise, again according to R. Yitzhak). It would appear that at some point in history, Jerusalem was not yet a fixed direction for prayer. It is worth noting that Rav Sheshet was blind; the passage in Berakhot 30a seems to suggest that people who are blind or directionally challenged are exempted from the requirement to face the Temple Mount, either because it is an onerous imposition given their disability, or because for them it is not experientially meaningful.

"Jerusalem is a port city on the shore of eternity." (Yehudah Amichai)

When the Temple stood, it was a visible sign of God’s presence, lending sanctity to the Temple Mount, and by extension to Jerusalem, where tradition holds God chose King Solomon to build the First Temple. In this passage, written after the Destruction of the Second Temple, when the Jews are bereft of their Sanctuary and coming to realize that it will not soon be rebuilt, the Rabbis construct, with words, the metaphysical structure of the world: the world is composed of a series of concentric circles of holiness, with the ark of the covenant at the center, the Holy of Holies next, followed by the Temple, and then Jerusalem, and then the Land of Israel. Because the Temple was “God’s house” and God figuratively “resided” in the Holy of Holies, that is the address one faces for prayer. And even if the Temple no longer stands, one imagines it in one’s religious imagination and makes it potent in one’s life by facing a certain spot on the globe for prayer.

"No city in the world, not even Athens or Rome, ever played as great a role in the life of a nation for so long a time, as Jerusalem has done in the life of the Jewish people." (David Ben-Gurion)

1.     What power and meaning do facing Jerusalem for prayer hold for you? Do you have a mizrach in your home? Why or why not?
2.     Many Jews would say that they do not genuinely long for the Temple to be rebuilt and the cult of sacrifices to be restored. Are there reasons to face Jerusalem for prayer nonetheless?

3.     Prayer at the Kotel—which is only a retaining wall—worries some people, who believe the intense focus on praying at the Wall comes close to idolatrous worship of the Wall. What are your thoughts?

Monday, February 1, 2016

Holy Lunacy — BT Sanhedrin 42a — #22

R. Acha b. Chanina said in R. Assi’s name, who said in R. Yochanan’s name: Whoever pronounces the blessing over the new moon in its due time is as if welcoming the Shekhinah [the divine Presence], for one passage states, This month… (Exodus 12:2) and elsewhere it is said, This is my God, and I will glorify Him (Exodus 15:2). In the school of Rabbi Yishmael it was taught: Had Israel merited no more than to greet the presence of their Heavenly Father once a month, it would have sufficed. Abaye said: Therefore we must recite it standing. But Mareimar and Mar Zutra recited the blessing [over the new moon] from [atop] each other’s shoulders.


We live most of our lives indoors. Much is lost by living so little outdoors and so minimally connected to the natural world. This is especially true of our religious lives: we pray, study, hold Passover seders, and virtually every holy day celebration indoors. The one notable exception is Sukkot because our obligation to dwell in the sukkah can be fulfilled only outdoors.

Our holidays are tied to the cycle of the moon, but on any given night, are you aware of the phases of the moon because you see it, or only because you know the date on the Hebrew calendar? Kiddush Levana (the blessing over the new moon) is customarily recited outside when both stars and the moon are visible in the night sky, anywhere from three days after the appearance of the new moon until the full moon, ideally at the conclusion of Shabbat.


R. Yochanan teaches that reciting Kiddush Levana, the sanctification of the new moon, has enormous spiritual potency: it is equivalent to welcoming the Shekhinah (God’s Presence) into our midst. Perhaps this has to do with the proximity of the moon—it is far closer to us than any other heavenly body—and we long to feel God’s Presence in our lives. Or perhaps it is because of the reassuring light the moon provides at night; we seek God’s light and security that come from proximity. Or perhaps it is the very cycle of the moon, which mirrors the cycles of our lives. As the moon waxes and wanes, so do our fortunes, both as individuals and as a people. As the moon always returns, so we hope that God’s redemption will come to us, as individuals, as a people, and for all the world.

Lie on your back and you look up high
At the lantern in the nighttime sky
It’s nice to know that she’s nearby
Our next-door neighbor, the moon.
Quarter moon, half moon, full moon bright
She’s always ready to lend you light
She’ll be here tomorrow night
Our next-door neighbor, the moon.
A billion years, a million million eyes
Have gone out in the night
To watch the same moon rise
Once in a while she’s lost from view
Perhaps she has some things to do
Then comes back just like new
Our next-door neighbor, moon.
Night upon night beaming down on me
Her soft, gray light so I can see
Our closet friend in the galaxy
Our next-door neighbor, the moon…

Tom Chapin, “Our Next-door Neighbor, the Moon” on the album In My Hometown

R. Yochanan offers us two verses to establish his claim that welcoming the moon is equivalent to welcoming the Shekhinah into our midst: This month (ha-chodesh ha-zeh) shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you (Exodus 12:2) establishes for R. Yochanan the obligation of Kiddush Levana, and the word “this” (zeh) connects it with God’s presence and redemption at the Sea of Reeds: This (zeh) is My God and I will glorify Him (Exodus 15:2). (Connecting the meaning of two verses through a common word is a common rabbinical hermeneutic called a gezeirah shava.)

R. Yishmael, perhaps hyperbolically, tells us that were this the only opportunity we had to experience God’s presence in their lives, it would suffice. If that is the case, Abaye tells us, we should stand to recite Kiddush Levana. Then why are Mameimar and Mar Zutra not standing? Most commentaries explain that Mareimar and Mar Zutra are old and frail. Unable to stand for Kiddush Levana, they lean on each other’s shoulders. But if they are both weak, would they not have leaned on someone strong? I think the Talmud is telling us not that they were old and unable to stand, but that they took turns climbing on one another’s shoulders in an effort to get closer to the moon. If welcoming the moon is like welcoming the Shekhinah, who wouldn’t want to get closer—and sing and dance in celebration—outside under the stars and moon?


1.     A midrash in Chullin 60b  tells us that when God created the “greater light” (sun) and the “lesser light” (moon), the moon said, “Master of the universe, is it possible for two kings to share one crown?” God responded: “Go and diminish yourself!” The moon objected that she has been punished for asking a reasonable question. In recompense, God offers three consolations that are unworkable. In the end, God decrees that Israel should offer an atonement sacrifice of a he-goat on the moon—as God’s atonement for making the moon smaller. What message(s) do you hear in the midrash? How would you have responded to the moon?

2.     Here is the blessing (from Sanhedrin 42a) of Kiddush Lavana for you to say: “Blessed are you, Adonai our God, ruler of space and time, Who with God’s word created galaxies, and with the divine breath created all their hosts. God gave them law and time so they would not change course. They are joyous and glad to perform the will of their Owner; they are workers of truth whose work is truth. To the moon God said that it should renew itself each month, a crown of splendor for those born from the womb who are destined to renew themselves like the moon and to glorify their Maker for the name of God’s glorious kingdom. Blessed are You, Adonai, who renews the months.”