Yehudah and Chizkiyah, the sons of R. Chiyya, were sitting and eating with Rabbi but did not say anything. [Rabbi] said to [his servants], “Overpower them with strong wine so they will say something.” When they became intoxicated, they began to speak, “The son of David [i.e., the messiah] will not come until the two ruling houses of Israel end, and they are: the Exilarch [in Babylonia] and the Patriarchate in the Land of Israel, as it is said, He shall be for a sanctuary, a stone that men strike against: a rock men stumble over for the two Houses of Israel… (Isaiah 8:14).” Thereupon Rabbi said to them, “My children, [would] you cast thorns in my eyes?!” R. Chiyya said to him, “Master, let this not be bad in your eyes. The letters of ‘wine’ (יין) [sum to] seventy and [so too] the letters of ‘secret’ (סוד). When wine goes in, secrets come out.”
Talmud tells the story of an awkward situation at a dinner party. The general discussion preceding this story is inspired by Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, which gives instructions on admonishing witnesses in capital cases in order to dissuade them from giving false testimony. The mishnah includes a homily on the value of every human life, since witnesses may hold the life of a human being in their hands. Reference is made to Abel, who is murdered by his brother, Cain. In the Torah, God says to Cain,“The bloods of your brother cry out to Me!” (Genesis 4:10). Why is “bloods” plural? The mishnah cleverly interprets that murder deprives the world not only of the person killed, but of all their descendants, as well. In the Gemara's discussion that follows this mishnah, R. Yehudah, the son of R. Chiyya, says that after receiving Abel’s blood, the earth never opened up again. His brother, Chizkiyah, challenges his claim, citing Korach and his minions. R. Yehudah responds with two comments about the atoning quality of exile (because Cain is exiled for murdering his brother). A supplementary view is offered by R. Yochanan, who cites verses demonstrating that King Jehoiachin, who sat “on the throne of David,” was childless until he went into exile, where he fathered Shealtiel, whose son Zerubbabel was the governor of the Jewish community that returned from Babylonian exile sometime between 538 and 520 B.C.E. Hence, exile atoned for his sins.
Thus, leading up to Talmud’s story of the strange dinner party conversation, Talmud has recounted several opinions expressed by R. Chiyya’s sons, mention has been made of the throne of David, and the effects of exile have been discussed. These all come together when wine does what it normally does: reduces inhibitions and loosens the tongue.
R. Chiyya and his sons are dinner guests at the home of R. Yehudah ha-Nasi, the patriarch of the Jewish community in the Land of Israel. The Temple has been destroyed and much of the Jewish community is in Exile. The country has been decimated by wars with Rome and its population is largely impoverished. R. Yehudah ha-Nasi is the Nasi (“prince,” or president) of the Sanhedrin, a position reserved for members of his “household” (i.e., bloodline), who are presumed to be direct descendants of Hillel. In Babylonia, the Resh Galuta, who is presumed to be a descendant of King Jehoiachin, and therefore also of King David, is the leader of the Jewish community. The Nasi and the Resh Galuta are the political leaders of their communities, representing them to the Roman and Babylonian governments respectively.
Rabbi seems disappointed that R. Chiyya’s sons say nothing. In a move best entitled, “Be careful what you ask for,” R. Yehudah ha-Nasi orders his servants to give R. Chiyya’s sons strong wine to loosen their tongues. Unsurprisingly, the ploy is effective, but what they say is devastating. They say that messiah will not come until the two ruling houses of Israel—R. Yehudah ha-Nasi’s own family in the Land of Israel, and the Resh Galuta in Babylonia—cease to exist. What is more, they quote a verse from Isaiah that, in context, says that God will be a sanctuary for those who are loyal to God, but a stumbling block to those who, among the “two houses of Israel” (referring to the Northern and Southern kingdoms of Isaiah’s day) are not. When R. Chiyya’s sons quote Isaiah 8:14, they mean to communicate that the “two houses of Israel”—the Patriarchate and the Resh Galuta—are a stumbling block to the coming of the messiah. Predictably, R. Yehudah is aghast that they would think such a thing, let alone say so at his table.
R. Chiyya seeks to smooth over the awkward situation by pointing out that the numerical values of the words “wine” and “secret” are identical, suggesting that “when wine goes in, secrets come out.” However, R. Chiyya’s excursion into Gematria is not the same as a disavowal of what his sons have said. Rather, it is a distraction.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- There are several ways to understand what R. Chiyya’s sons are saying: They might mean that when the messiah comes, the two ruling families will no longer be necessary. Or, they might mean that the messiah will not come until the two ruling families are no longer in power. In either case, it seems a wry comment on human political enterprises. Which do you think is intended and why?
- Have you ever inadvertently (perhaps when intoxicated) said something you later regretted? Were you able to smooth over the situation and make peace?
- Some people have sent tweets or posted pictures on the internet that have been misinterpreted and cost them their reputations and jobs. What precautions can you take to insure that inappropriate pictures and material about you do not end up on the internet?