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Monday, August 22, 2016

Risking it All — BT Avodah Zarah 18a — #50

The Rabbis taught [in a baraita]: When R. Yose b. Kisma became ill, R. Chanina b. Teradyon visited him. [R. Yose] said to [R. Chanina], “Chanina, my brother! Don’t you know that Heaven set this nation [Rome] to rule over us? For they destroyed [God’s] House (the Temple), burned [God’s] Sanctuary (the Holy of Holies), killed [God’s] pious ones, and caused [God’s] best ones to perish—and still [Rome] exists. Yet I have heard that you sit and engage in Torah study and convene gatherings in public, and a scroll [of Torah] rests in your lap.” [R. Chanina] said to [R. Yose], “Heaven will have mercy.” [R. Yose] said to him, “I am speaking reason to you, and you tell me that Heaven will have mercy?! I will be amazed if they don’t burn you and the Torah scroll in fire!” [R. Chanina] said to him, “Rabbi, where am I vis-à-vis the world-to-come?” [R. Yose] said to him, “Is there a particular deed you have done?” [R. Chanina] said to him, “I once exchanged Purim funds for charity funds and distributed [the Purim funds] to the poor.” [R. Yose] said, “If so, may my portion be from your portion, and may my lot be from your lot.”

As we move from Tisha B’Av toward Rosh Hashanah, the destruction of the First and Second Temples and theological interpretations of their meaning, the High Holy Day themes of sin, repentance, and forgiveness, and theological beliefs about God’s justice in this world and reward in the world-to-come all come to be braided together. 

Eleh Ezkerah (“These we remember”), the traditional martyrology of Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av recounts the legendary deaths of ten Sages at the hands of the Roman emperor Hadrian. Our  passage precedes the account of R. Chanina’s martyrdom, setting the stage for the gruesome story. The bridge (immediately following our passage) is an account of R. Yose b. Kisma’s death. Talmud recounts that because R. Yose opposed the Jewish rebellion against Rome, Roman dignitaries attended his burial. Upon returning from his funeral, they encountered R. Chanina b. Teradyon teaching Torah in public. Immediately, they executed R. Chanina in precisely the manner predicted by R. Yose: Talmud records that he was wrapped in a scroll of Torah and set on fire.

R. Yose expresses alarm at the risky behavior of R. Chanina from two distinct perspectives. First, from the theological viewpoint that God, as Sovereign of the universe, has set the Romans to rule over Israel and therefore Israel must accept this onerous imposition, with all the suffering it entails, as God’s will. This is part and parcel of a traditional theology that interprets the Destruction of the Temple as God’s just punishment for Israel’s sins. (While this is a predominant view, it is not a theology universally subscribed to by all the Rabbis.) Rome’s continued existence—and even more, her continuing power—reflect God’s will. R. Chanina replies that he can trust God, who has set Rome over Israel, to be merciful and protect him from ultimate harm, since studying and teaching Torah is also God’s will. 

Upon hearing this response, R. Yose applies his second perspective: It is not reasonable to take such risks. By gathering disciples together and teaching them in public with a Torah scroll in his  lap, R. Chanina is publicly snubbing Roman rule. R. Yose says, in essence: I would sooner bet on the Romans to respond to your taunt by wrapping you in a Torah scroll and burning you alive, than I would bet on God to intervene and save you from the vile, violent, and vindictive Romans.

R. Chanina shifts the conversation from the current situation and his possible execution by the Romans, to his ultimate disposition: will he be consigned a portion in olam ha-ba (the world-to-come)? R. Yose asks R. Chanina: Have you done something to earn olam ha-ba? This seems a peculiar question. Do not the risks to his life to further Torah learning, which bespeak his limitless commitment to God and Torah, suffice? Yet R. Chanina mentions instead, a small incident. Once, while distributing communal charity funds that he oversaw, R. Chanina inadvertently used his personal Purim tzedakah money. We are to understand that he did not correct the mistake by removing the equivalent amount from the public fund to replenish his personal Purim fund. Hence, R. Chanina made an additional contribution to the communal tzedakah fund. R. Yose’s response confirms that this deed is sufficient not only to insure his ultimate reward in the world-to-come, but in principle the magnitude of heaven’s reward ought to be (at least metaphorically) sufficient to cover R. Yose, as well.


  1. R. Yose contrasts R. Chanina’s trust in God to intervene and save him with common sense. Is R. Chanina making a public statement fully aware of the risk he is taking, or he tempting fate? Does R. Chanina’s desire to move the conversation to a discussion of olam ha-ba suggest he is not expecting God to intervene to save him?
  2. The deed that R. Chanina cites, and which R. Yose confirms has earned him a reward in olam ha-ba seems rather ordinary, as good deeds go. Why do you think that the rabbis who told this story choose to juxtapose his risking his life to subvert the Romans with an ordinary act of tzedakah? What does this say about the Rabbis’ understanding of olam ha-ba?
  3. The graphic and painful description of the martyrdom of R. Chanina and nine other sages in Eleh Ezkarah, based on the legendary accounts in the Talmud, is read in some, but not all, synagogues on Yom Kippur. Do you find it meaningful? The Shalom Center has offered an alternative Martyrology highlighting a minyan of Jews who were killed in the last 50+ years affirming the Jewish values of justice, truth, and peace. You can view it here. Would this martyrology be meaningful to you on Yom Kippur?

Friday, August 19, 2016

Burn, Baby, Burn! — BT Shabbat 21a — #49

Rabbah said, “Concerning the wicks that the Sages said we may not kindle with on Shabbat: because the flame flickers on them. Concerning the oils that the Sages said we may not kindle with: because they are not drawn up the wick.” Abaye asked Rabbah, “Concerning the oils with which the Sages said we may not kindle on shabbat: What is the law concerning whether one may pour a small amount of [permissible] oil into them and kindle? Do we decree it [impermissible] lest one kindle with only [unacceptable oils], or not?” [Rabbah] said, “We do not kindle.” [Abaye asked,] “Why?” [Rabbah replied,] “Because we may not kindle [with impermissible oils].” [Abaye] responded: “[But, if] one wrapped a substance with which we may kindle over a substance with which we may not kindle, we may not kindle with [the combination]. Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel said, ‘In my father’s household, we would wrap wicking over a nut and kindle.’ This demonstrates that they would kindle [with the sort of combination of materials that Rabbah says is prohibited].” [Rabbah] said to [Abaye], “Don’t refute me from Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel; support me from the first tanna’s ruling.”  [Abaye said,] “There is no difficulty. Practice is superior [proof].”

These days, we buy factory-made candles to light for shabbat, perhaps even purchasing them over the internet without leaving the house and with little effort. Long ago, people used oil lamps and went to some effort to prepare them for use. Mishnah Shabbat 2:1 (20b) lists materials considered unsuitable for wicking and to fuel shabbat lights. Some materials produce superior wicking that draws up the fuel nicely, and some fuels produce a more robust and dependable flame than others. Mishnah does not declare these to be the criteria behind Mishnah’s lists, but in  our passage (from the Gemara) Rabbah presumes these criteria. (This is probably because if the flame flickers, it can easily go out and one would be tempted to relight the lamp, thereby kindling a flame on shabbat, an act that is biblically forbidden.)

How often have you looked at a recipe that called for a certain kind of flour or oil or fruit and wondered: Can I substitute another kind of flour or oil or fruit for at least part of the amount stipulated in the recipe? This is the question Abaye raises: Mishnah says don’t use X, but does that mean I may not use any X at all (for example, by combining X with a permissible substance), or does it mean that I may not use solely X to make my wick or to fuel my shabbat lamp? Rabbah responds: We may not use any of the materials the Mishnah declares impermissible. (Can you hear the echo of a parent who says, “Which part of ‘No’ don’t you understand?”) Abaye wants to know what, precisely, is the prohibition about. Rabbah responds, somewhat obliquely, “Because we may not kindle”—meaning, in a mixture of materials we might end up effectively kindling or fueling the flame with precisely the materials the Mishnah disallows if our combination is weighted heavily in favor of the disallowed material and only a token amount of appropriate material is involved. This, in turn, could lead to the very situation Rabbah presumes is the concern of the Mishnah: a weak, flickering flame that could easily goes out.

Abaye presses the question by citing a specific example whereby a wick is constructed by wrapping a permissible substance around a nut. He points out that no less than Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel claimed that this was how wicks for shabbat lamps were produced in his household.  Would Rabbah claim that the household of the Nasi, the president of the Sanhedrin, was violating halakhah when they prepared their shabbat lamps and wicks?! Rabbah responds that Abaye, who contends that one may combine impermissible materials with permissible materials, chooses to refute him with an anecdote, but could have chosen instead to support him by citing the opinion of the tanna kamma, the first mishnaic opinion. But the tanna kamma simply listed materials that were not to be used; the tanna kamma did not address the question of mixtures. It is Rabbah who reads the Mishnah as forbidding mixtures. Abaye responds by saying that the actual practice of a sage provides better proof than Rabbah’s inference from reading the Mishnah. It is worth pointing out that Abaye’s anecdote concerning the practices of the household of the Nasi is one of leniency; it enlarges the possibilities for practice.

The conversation in the Gemara does not end here, but continues in another direction. I end it here with the dangling question of how we evaluate what seems to be a contradiction between an inference made from a tannaitic ruling and anecdotal evidence of the practice of a sage.


  1. The traditional presumption is that the Mishnah prohibits the use of inferior materials lest the flame flicker out and, in relighting it, one violates Torah’s prohibition against kindling a flame on shabbat (Exodus 35:3 — shabbat candles are lit prior to shabbat). Can you suggest another reason the Mishnah prefers materials that produce a strong and robust flame?
  2. Rabbah seems to be saying that mixing materials—those not allowed with those allowed—is a slippery slope. If combinations are permitted, people will be inclined to use whatever is at hand, including inadequate substances, rather than make the effort to find high quality materials. How do you think the slippery slope argument relates to religious observance and practice? How does it relate to the principle of hiddur mitzvah (beautification of a mitzvah is a mitzvah in itself).
  3. In the Gemara, Rabbah contends that Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel’s family’s practice of making a wick by winding wicking around a nut is not a violation of his reading of the Mishnah: the nut served only as a buoy to keep the wick afloat in the oil; it was not part of the wick. We could argue that if he is correct, this celebrates the pluralism of design in Jewish ritual objects; and if he is wrong, the passage celebrates pluralism of Jewish ritual practices. When is pluralism constructive? Are there limits? If so, when and why?

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

“Food, Glorious Food!” — BT Baba Batra 8a — #48

Rabbi [Yehudah ha-Nasi] opened his storehouse during times of famine, saying, “Students of Scripture, Mishnah, Gemara, halakhah, or aggadah may enter, but unlearned people may not.” R. Yonatan b. Amram pushed his way in. He said, “Master, feed me.” [Rabbi] said to him, “My son, do you read [i.e., study Torah]?” [R. Yonatan] said to him, “No.” “Have you studied [other sacred texts]?” He said to him, “No.” “If so, why should I feed you?” [R. Yonatan] said to [Rabbi], “Feed me as a dog or raven.” [Rabbi] fed him. After he left, Rabbi sat in distress. “Who is he? I gave my bread to an unlearned person.” R. Shimon bar Rabbi said to [his father], “Perhaps he was Yonatan b. Amram, your disciple, who does not wish to benefit from the honor [of being a student of] Torah?” They investigated and found [that it was R. Yonatan b. Amram]. Rabbi said, “Let everyone enter.”

Feeding the hungry is a fundamental Jewish obligation. Torah establishes the institutions of pe’ah (leaving the corners of the field for the poor to harvest) and shemittah (the sabbatical year, which cancels the debts of the poor) as societal supports for the poor. The prophets berate the people for failing to adequately feed those in need. Isaiah famously and passionately says, Is this fast [of Yom Kippur] the fast I desire, a day for people to starve their bodies?…[Rather] it is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your homeIf you offer your compassion to the hungry and satisfy the famished creature, then shall your light shine in darkness and your gloom shall be like noonday (58:5,7,10).

At the same time, Pirkei Avot 4:7 teaches in the name of R. Tzaddok, Do not make the Torah into a crown with which to aggrandize yourself or a spade with which to dig. In other words, don’t use Torah to pump up your ego or as a tool to enrich yourself. 

Both teachings, although unspoken, are integral to the story of Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi, who fulfills the mitzvah of feeding the poor, but apparently is not inclined to provide food for everyone who is hungry. He feeds only those who study Torah deeming them worthy of his largess, but the unlearned he considers unworthy.

R. Yonatan b. Amram, a disciple of R. Yehudah ha-Nasi, enters Rabbi’s storehouse because he is suffering from hunger. As Rabbi, determined to feed only students of Torah, queries him concerning his credentials, we quickly realize that Rabbi doesn’t recognize him. Apparently R. Yonatan has donned a disguise. R. Yonatan says he does not study and never has. Rabbi thereupon asks, “Then why should I feed you?” R. Yonatan responds, “Feed me as you would a dog or a raven”—whereupon Rabbi gives him food. This exchange leaves Rabbi distressed because he believes he has violated his own standards and provided bread to an ignoramus. His son, R. Shimon, alleviates his distress by suggesting that the “ignoramus” may actually be R. Yonatan and therefore Rabbi fed a Torah scholar. Why would R. Yonatan disguise himself and lie to his teacher? In order to avoid violating R. Tzaddok’s dictum that one should not make Torah a spade with which to dig (profit from Torah learning)? Rabbi thereupon revamps his policy and permits everyone who is hungry to come and obtain the food they need.

Talmud does not explain or analyze Rabbi’s change in policy. What made him change? Perhaps   the exchange with R. Yonatan made him realize that he feeds dogs and ravens readily, yet withholds food from human beings. Or perhaps Rabbi felt that R. Yonatan was so committed to R. Tzaddok’s teaching, thereby refusing to acquire food on the basis of his Torah learning, that he had been forced to lie to his own teacher in order to eat; and perhaps others might do the same, or even go hungry. Or perhaps, Rabbi came to realize that his policy distinguishing between the learned and the unschooled was inherently immoral. Rabbi has constructed a tiered system of people’s right to food based on Torah scholarship—this is not something Torah would countenance.

R. Yonatan’s surprising behavior (coming in disguise) and shocking request (treat me as you would animals) provokes Rabbi to reconsider what he is doing, and affords him the room to change without public embarrassment.


  1. Had R. Yonatan confronted Rabbi directly and impugned his policy, what do you think Rabbi’s response might have been?
  2. In the early 1980s, then-President Ronald Reagan sought to reduce the amount of money in the Federal budget allocated to welfare programs. His tactic was to refine rhetoric, changing the meaning of “safety net” and distinguishing between the “needy” and the “truly needy,” suggesting that some poor and needy people are not “truly needy” and therefore should not receive welfare or food stamps. Do you see a similarity with Rabbi’s initial system for distributing food?
  3. In numerous passages in the Talmud, the Rabbis express contempt for amei ha-aretz, Jews who do not study Torah. Examples of their animosity: One shouldn’t marry the daughter of an am ha-aretz, socialize with them, trust them, or accept their testimony in court. There are even terrible hyperbolic statements that suggest the acceptability of violence against them. Clearly, for the Rabbis, being Jewish requires deep intellectual engagement with sacred texts, and those who do not share the same value system are considered ideological enemies. In this context, the story about R. Yehudah ha-Nasi and R. Yonatan speaks to how we treat the “other,” and particular those whom we consider ideological opponents. Can you find modern parallels?