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Thursday, April 21, 2016

Leaning In — BT Pesachim 108a — #34

[Mishnah:] Even the poorest Jew may not eat except while reclining. [Gemara:] It was said: Matzah [must be eaten] reclining. Bitter herbs need not [be eaten] reclining. [Concerning drinking the four cups of] wine:  It was stated in Rav Nachman’s name that reclining is required, and it was stated in Rav Nachman’s name that reclining is not required. There is no disagreement here. One [statement] refers to the first two cups, and the other statement refers to the last two cups. Some explain it this way, but some explain it the opposite way. Some explain it this way: The first two cups require reclining because it is now that freedom begins. The last two cups do not require reclining because what happened, happened. And some explain it the opposite way: On the contrary! The last two cups require reclining [because] at that time there is freedom. The first two cups do not requiring reclining because at that time one is [still] reciting, “We were slaves [of Pharaoh in Egypt].”

When the traditions of the Passover seder began to take shape after the Destruction of the Second Temple (70 C.E.), the Rabbis turned first to Torah for clues as to how Jews should celebrate the festival even though they could no longer sacrifice a paschal lamb. Torah speaks of a meal featuring unleavened bread, bitter herbs, at which the story of the Exodus is recounted. Naturally, these figure prominently in the seder. The Rabbis also turned to the Greco-Roman culture in which they lived and borrowed the model of the symposium to serve as a framework for the Passover seder. The symposium was an elegant banquet at which guests recline on  couches, enjoy many courses and delicacies (with lots of vegetables and lots of dipping), sip numerous glasses of wine, and engage in extended intellectual conversations. In the course of time, the traditions of the Rabbis were folded into the framework of the symposium, and more and more customs were added. The four cups of wine recall God’s fourfold promise of redemption: “I will bring you forth…I will deliver you…I will redeem you…I will take you” (Exodus 6:5,6) How appropriate to recall God’s promises of redemption that have been fulfilled, as we eat a leisurely meal and recline on cushions.

The Mishnah instructs everyone—even the poor—to recline at the Passover meal. But when? The Gemara tells us to recline while eating matzah, presumably because our people ate the unleavened bread after they had been freed from Egypt. For maror (bitter herbs), however, we need not recline, presumably because the purpose of maror is to recall the bitterness of slavery prior to freedom. Gemara then recalls a ruling in Rav Nachman’s name in two different ways: we should recline while drinking wine, and we should not recline while drinking wine. Which is correct? The Gemara finds a way to affirm both rulings: The first version of Rav Nachman’s ruling is applied to the two cups of wine we drink before the main meal, and the other version of the ruling to the two cups of wine drunk after the main meal. But even here, there is disagreement concerning whether reclining applies to the first, or last, two cups of wine. Rationales are given for each.

The argument for reclining for the first two cups only is based on the present situation of the people at the seder: The celebrants are free people and demonstrate their freedom with the very first cup of wine by reclining. Having fulfilled the obligation to lean for the first two cups, they no longer need to do so for the second two cups. The seder, from this perspective, is about standing in freedom and looking back to remember that we were slaves intil God redeemed us.

The explanation for not reclining for the first two cups but reclining for the latter two cups presumes that we are not merely retelling the story of our redemption from slavery—we are actually re-enacting our ancestors’ redemption in such a way that we experience redemption, as well. We say, “Once we were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt…” with the intent of crawling inside the experience of slavery in our minds as best we can. To lean while drinking the required cups of wine at the same time that we are trying to imagine ourselves enslaved is counterproductive. By the time the main meal is served, however, we have told the entire story, sung Dayenu and half of Hallel, and are prepared to eat and think like royalty. Following dinner, we recline in order to more fully experience our freedom.


  1. What is at stake in the two views of whether we recline for the first two or last two cups of wine? Which view is more meaningful to you? Why?
  2. Many people bring pillows to the seder table to fulfill the tradition of leaning while drinking wine. Others find the pillows and leaning uncomfortable, raising an interesting question: If the tradition does not evoke the comforts of freedom for you, should you continue to do it? Is the tradition absolute, or a culturally determined expression of freedom? Rabbi Eliezer ben Joel ha-Levi of Bonn (12th century) said that only the sick recline while eating. In Avi ha-Ezri he wrote that reclining was no long obligatory because doing so is what sick people do and hence delivers the wrong message.
  3. Another tradition was added to the four cups of wine: Not only are we free on seder night, but we are royalty. Hence someone should serve us by pouring our wine. Here’s a curiosity from Jewish history: Noting that in his day men often ordered their wives to serve them wine at the  seder, ironically making women play the part of a slave on seder night, the 19th century Polish halakhist, Rabbi Y. M. Epstein, author of Arukh haShulchan, instructed people to pour their own wine: “It is haughty and arrogant to order one’s wife to serve him wine. After all, he is no more obligated to drink wine than she. Therefore, we ask that everyone pour for him or herself.” How is it done at your seder? How would you like to do it? Could people pour for one another in some manner that allows everyone to both serve and be served?

Monday, April 18, 2016

Is Giving Birth a Sin? — BT Niddah 31b — #33

R. Shimon b. Yochai was asked by his disciples: Why did the Torah ordain that after giving birth a woman should bring a chatat (sin offering)? He replied: When she kneels in childbearing she swears impetuously that she will never again have intercourse with her husband. The Torah, therefore, ordained that she should bring a sacrifice. R. Yosef said: Does she not [in swearing she will never have intercourse with her husband again] act presumptuously, in which case the absolution of [the oath] depends on her regretting it? Furthermore, she should have brought a sacrifice prescribed for an oath.

Torah imposes a peculiar requirement upon a woman who gives birth. Following an initial period of ritual impurity (seven days for a son, fourteen days for a daughter) she remains impure for an addition period of time (33 days for a son, 66 days for a daughter). After this, Leviticus 12:6-7 specifies that the woman must bring two sacrifices to the Temple: a lamb as an olah (burnt offering) and a pigeon or turtledove as a chatat (sin offering). Why does she bring a chata? What sin has she committed? Certainly giving birth is not a sin. The students of R. Shimon bar  Yochai asked him these very questions.

R. Shimon bar Yochai tells his students that in the midst of hard labor women swear an oath that they will never again have sex with their husbands. Presumably the pain is so intense that they abhor the idea of ever having sex again lest they become pregnant and have to endure again the ordeal they are experiencing. Certainly, an oath of the sort R. Shimon has in mind would be problematic, both from the standpoint of the man’s religious obligation to procreate, and from the perspective of the couple’s marital relationship. 

Really? All women swear such an oath? After all, Torah requires all women to bring a chatat after giving birth, so the reason must apply to all women. Curiously, the Gemara does not address R. Shimon’s broad, sweeping generalization about women. Rather, it shoots two gaping holes in the logic behind R. Shimon’s contention for even a single woman. The first challenge is brought by R. Yosef, who points out that if a person behaves impetuously and swears a rash oath that needs to be annulled or retracted, the proper procedure is for a priest (or in his day, a rabbi) to discern that the individual sincerely regrets having sworn the oath and wishes to retract it. But Torah makes no such allowance: all women bring the chatat and none are questioned by the priests. The second challenge is offered by the anonymous voice of the Gemara. Had the woman’s sacrifice been intended to atone for an inappropriate oath that she wished to retract, the proper offering would have been a lamb or a goat—not a bird as Torah prescribes. Hence Torah could not have had in mind atonement for the sin of making an impetuous oath, as R. Shimon claims.

R. Shimon bar Yochai’s strange claim about the behavior of women in childbirth has been repeated ad nauseam, and can be found today in range of Torah commentaries that even includes the Conservative Etz Hayim (which presents it as Talmudic speculation; see p. 651). The JPS commentary penned by Jacob Milgrom (Leviticus, p. 74) tells us that “sin offering” is an acceptable translation if understood properly, because the ancients “seldom distinguished between ‘sin’ and ‘impurity.’” The Torah commentaries of the Reform Movement, however, do not repeat R. Shimon’s canard. The Torah: A Modern Commentary (p. 826) explains: “Obviously, having a baby is not a sin; it is in fact the fulfillment of a divine Command (Gen. 1:18). The reference here is to ritual purgation and nothing else.” The Torah: A Women’s Commentary (pp. 642) explains: “…blood from the sacrifice serves as a ritual detergent…The passage of time, the offering of sacrifices, and perhaps a ritual bath…all contribute to her renewed ability to touch and eat sacred food and enter holy space.”

Did R. Shimon bar Yochai ever attend a childbirth? Undoubtedly not. Men did not do so until very recently, and certainly not during the Talmud period. Those who have felt compelled to repeat his  absurd claim might have consulted masechet Keritot 26a, where his opinion is mentioned and dismissed. There, Talmud affirms that the woman’s offering is “for the purpose of permitting her to partake of consecrated food, and is not expiatory.” In other words, the sacrifice is not a sin-offering at all; it is the last ritual of purification that restores the woman to a state of ritual purity. 


  1. Why might R. Shimon b. Yochai have imagined that women in hard labor swear an oath never again to have intercourse with their husbands? Could his contention reflect anxiety felt by men who are separated from their wives at a time when their wives experience pain? Could they have imagined that, in their pain, women might have wanted to forswear sex lest they ever have to go through labor again?
  2. Why do you suppose that R. Shimon bar Yochai’s explanation, logically dismantled on Niddah 31a and summarily rejected on Keritot 26a has nonetheless been repeated as a valid explanation for more than 15 centuries?
  3. The history of this passage reflects a phenomenon we have seen often and continue to see in the public sphere: A negative generalization about a group of people is made and repeated again and again despite all logic and readily available facts to the contrary because it has emotional resonance. Where do you see this phenomenon happening today? Can you propose a way to counter it? Could we understand our passage as Talmud’s model for responding calmly and logically to an irrational and emotional claim?

Sunday, April 10, 2016

A Borrower and a Lender Be! — BT Ketubot 72a — #32

Rav Kahana said: A man who imposes a vow on his wife that she should neither borrow nor lend a sieve, strainer, millstones, or oven must divorce her and pay her ketubah because he has caused her to have a bad name among her neighbors. A baraita taught the same thing: A man who imposes a vow on his wife that she should neither borrow nor lend a sieve, strainer, millstones, or oven must divorce her and pay her ketubah because he has caused her to have a bad name among her neighbors. Similarly, if [the wife] vowed to neither borrow nor lend a sieve, strainer, millstones, or oven, or not to weave beautiful garments for his children, she may be divorced without her ketubah because she has caused him to have a bad name among the neighbors.

Long before a ketubah became the object of decorative art, it was a legal lien on a man’s property that he gave his wife when he married her. The Rabbis innovated the ketubah, which replaced the biblical mohar (bride price), as a protection for the woman in case the marriage ended, lest she be left with nothing. It stipulated how much money and property she would retain in case of death or divorce. In a sense, it functioned (in part) as a prenuptial agreement.  Today, in some Jewish communities, it is still a lien (albeit beautifully illuminated) and in more liberal communities the text has been modified to reflect the financial and social realities of life in the 21st century.

Prior to this passage, the Rabbis have been discussing mean-spirited vows that a husband might make; if they subject his wife to various forms of privation he must divorce her and pay her ketubah. These include forbidding her to visit her parents, attend a house of mourning, or visit a house of feasting. Many commentators try to invert the plain meaning of the text to say that these mishnayot concern foolish and inappropriate vows a wife makes that her husband fails to forbid. The text makes little sense understood this way and its very language must be contorted to squeeze this meaning out of it.

Rav Kahana paints a scenario for us of a husband who forbids his wife (through the device of a vow) from engaging in the ordinary day-to-day social interactions that make for good neighbors: borrowing and lending kitchen utensils. (We might be inclined to add the proverbial cup or sugar or two eggs to Rav Kahana’s examples.) In the world of the Talmud, women regularly borrowed  kitchen utensils from one another, and doing so fostered and cemented good relationships between neighbors in the community. Refusing to lend someone a cake pan or electric mixer (to translate into our parlance) could generate resentment and seriously damage relationships with neighbors and quite possibly threaten friendships. Imagine you asked a friend to borrow a loaf pan and your friend said no. What would you think? How would you feel? The husband’s vow destabilizes his wife’s position vis-a-vis her neighbors and friends: “he gives her a bad reputation” resulting in her social isolation. If the wife does not mourn or celebrate with others, lend and borrow simple kitchen utensils, she is cut off from her community. The husband divorces her and must pay her ketubah because she has done nothing wrong that would suggest she should forfeit it. But why does Talmud say he must divorce her? Perhaps, in the eyes of the Rabbis, a vow such as this is a sign that their relationship is seriously unhealthy. The husband’s behavior—socially isolating his wife and ruining her reputation with her neighbors and friends—raises a red flag: What else is he doing to her?

Conversely, if the wife vows to neither lend nor borrow in the way of a good friend and neighbor—and Gemara adds if she refuses to make nice clothing for his (i.e., her own) children—this, too, is a dangerous sign. Her actions socially isolate not only herself, but also her children and husband and thus he may divorce her without paying her ketubah if he chooses. 

“Neighbors bring food with death and flowers with sickness and little things in between. Boo was our neighbor. He gave us two soap dolls, a broken watch and chain, a pair of good-luck pennies, and our lives. But neighbors give in return. We never put back into the tree what we took out of it: we had given him nothing, and it made me sad.” Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird


  1. The Rabbis placed a premium on good neighborly relations, a sine qua non for building community. Do you agree? We live in a society in which many people barely know their neighbors. What has been your experience?
  2. In Hamlet (Act 1, Scene 3) Polonius famously counsels his sons, Laertes: “Neither a borrower nor a lender be, For loan oft loses both itself and friend, And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.” Shakespeare had in mind the risk of lending money to people who might not repay their obligation. How would you feel if you lent money or a tool to a friend who did not pay you back? In what situations does borrowing strengthen a relationship, and when does it threaten to rupture a relationship?
  3. The picture that emerges from the mishnah and Rav Kahana’s description is that of a controlling husband who seeks to socially isolate his wife from her family, friends, and community. There is a wealth of literature on people with borderline personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder who engage in behaviors much like those ascribed to the hypothetical husband of this Talmudic passage. Often physical and emotional abuse are occurring behind closed doors.  The National Domestic Violence Hotline ( says: “Possessive and controlling behaviors don’t always appear overnight, but rather emerge and intensify as the relationship grows.” Do you know anyone in this situation? How might you speak with them and advice them?

Monday, April 4, 2016

Can Torah Study Alone Ward Away Suffering? — BT Avodah Zarah 17b — #31

This accords with the opinion of Rav Huna who said: “One who engages only in Torah study is like one who has no God, for it is said, Now for long seasons Israel was without the true God [and without a teaching priest and without Torah] (2 Chronicles 15:3).” What is meant by “without a true God”? [It means] that whoever engages only in Torah study is like one who has no God. And did [R. Chanina] not engage in gemilut chasadim? R. Eliezer b. Yaakov says: “A person should not give his money to the [communal] charity fund unless a Torah scholar like R. Chanina b. Teradyon is appointed to oversee it. [R. Chanina] was certainly trusted [to oversee the charity] but never actually did. But it was taught: [R. Chanina] said to [R. Yose b. Kisma]: “I switched Purim funds and distributed them to the poor.” R. Chanina did [acts of kindness] but not as he should have.

Given that this passage begins, “This accords with the opinion of Rav Huna…” clearly we are in the middle of a longer piece. The context is a story set during the infamous Hadrianic persecutions in the early second century C.E. The Romans outlawed Torah study, observance of many mitzvot, and rabbinic ordination, threatening the survival of Judaism and the Jewish people. Tradition holds that R. Chanina b. Teradyon, together with nine other rabbis, was brutally martyred during this period; the stories of their martyrdom are recounted in many synagogues on Yom Kippur. In the daf following [18a], we find the famous account of R. Chanina’s trial: R. Chanina is wrapped in a  scroll of Torah and burned to death, giving rise to his famous vision of the Hebrew letters miraculously escaping from the parchment and ascending to heaven. 

The larger discussion, of which this passage is a part, begins with a baraita that informs us that R. Chanina and R. Elazar b. Perata were arrested by the Romans and charged with a variety of crimes. R. Chanina tells his colleague, “You are fortunate because you were arrested on five counts, but will be saved. Woe is me who has been arrested on one count, but will not be saved—for you engaged in Torah study as well as gemilut chasadim (deeds of kindness), whereas I engaged only in Torah study.” Was R. Chanina—an eminent scholar— not saved from the fangs of the ruthless Roman establishment because Torah study, however diligent and exemplary, is insufficient to merit heaven’s intervention without gemilut chasadim (deeds of loving kindness)? What we find here is the Rabbis’ desperate attempt to find a reason for R. Chanina’s suffering.

"There is only one question which really matters: why do bad things happen to good people? All other theological conversation is intellectually diverting . . .” (Rabbi Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, p. 6)

Rav Huna brings a verse from Tana”kh that recounts Jewish “history” from Adam through founding of the Davidic dynasty, the Babylonian Exile, and Cyrus’ authorization for the people to return and rebuild the Temple. Rav Huna quotes only the beginning of the verse, but given that the verse ends “without Torah,” we can see that his point is that Torah study is insufficient to secure heaven’s protect from a fate like R. Chanina’s if it is not a accompanied by gemilut chasadim, deeds of loving kindness. But is it true that R. Chanina has no deeds of kindness to his merit? Could that be? R. Eliezer b. Yaakov’s statement that a charity fund should be administered by a Torah scholar of R. Chanina’s eminence is brought to refute the suggestion that R. Chanina had no deeds of chesed to his credit, but an anonymous voice points out that R. Chanina never actually managed the fund—he merely qualified to do so on the basis of his scholarship. An early teaching is then quoted that claims that R. Chanina did, indeed, oversee a charity fund, but he did not insure that the funds were properly disbursed. The suggestion is that his laxity on his part, made him deserving of the punishment he received at the hands of the Romans. The Rabbis did not naively believe that enough kind acts protects a person from the slings and arrows of life. Rather, they are making a profound comment about the inadequacy of studying Torah in the absence of living Torah through acts of gemilut chasadim.


  1. The problem of theodicy (God’s justice) arises in every generation and in every religious tradition. Why do you think this is? The Rabbis are turning somersaults to find a way to justify R. Chanina’s grisly end. On the following daf [18a] they will record that R. Chanina was executed together with his wife, and that their daughter was consigned to a brothel. Clearly, the story of the mismanaged charity funds is not a capital offense, and certainly doesn’t explain why his wife and daughter suffered as they did, so the Rabbis offer another explanation: R. Chanina uttered God’s ineffable Name. Moreover, his wife failed to restrain him and his daughter was guilty of egregious vanity. Do these explanations resolve the problem of theodicy for you, or do they perhaps compound the problem? Or does this issue not trouble you (i.e., you don’t expect the good to always prosper and the wicked to always suffer) because your understanding of God obviates the concern?
  2. Even if you do not subscribe to the belief that God protects those who do good, is there a way in which doing good itself affords a person a measure of protection from the evils of the  world, or does it have no influence ultimately on the course of one’s life?
  3. What happens when you decouple Torah study from moral behavior? Consider Pirkei Avot 4:5 (below). How do you understand R. Yishmael? Rashi says that one who studies only in order to teach does so for the sake of status and therefore will be unable to either learn or teach. What do you think Rashi is saying about the quality of learning and teaching when one’s purpose is self-aggrandizement?
R. Yishmael taught: One who studies in order to teach will be enabled to study and to teach. One who studies in order to practice will be enable to study, to teach, to observe, and to practice. (Pirkei Avot 4:5)