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Sunday, September 25, 2016

Divine Prayer Leader — BT Rosh Hashanah 17b (part 2) — #55

And Adonai passed before [Moses] and proclaimed (Exodus 34:6). R. Yochanan said, “Had not Torah written this, it would be impossible to say this. This teaches that the Holy One of Blessing wrapped himself [in a tallit, prayer shawl] like a prayer leader and demonstrated to Moses the order of prayer. [God] said to him, ‘Any time that Israel sins, let them perform this order of prayer before Me and I will forgive them.’”
 Adonai! Adonai! (Exodus 34:6) I am [God] before a person sins, and I am [God] after a person sins and repents.

In TMT #54 we examined the Gemara immediately preceding the passage above. There, three rabbis cited three biblical verses that they interpret to prove God’s desire to act out of loving kindness rather than stern justice. God prefers mercy and forgiveness to judgement and punishment. The third verse cited is Exodus 34:6-7 which expresses what has come to be known as the Thirteen Attributes of God: Adonai passed before [Moses] and proclaimed: Adonai! Adonai! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet [God] does not  remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations.

The first set of attributes (prior to the semi-colon) are those we associate with a loving, merciful, and forgiving God; the second set are those of a stern judge who meets out punishment. In TMT #54, the Rabbis seek to reconcile these seemingly opposing aspects of the Divine personality and temperament by saying that God initially sits on the Throne of Justice, but then moves to the Throne of Mercy because God desires to forgive us. In this week’s passage above (which follows last week’s passage in the Gemara) the Rabbis interpret the opening words of Exodus 34:6.

According to the Torah, “Adonai passed before [Moses]…” prior to reciting the Thirteen Attributes. The expression “passed before” is also how the Rabbis describe a shaliach tzibbur (public prayer leader), who is said to “pass before” the ark. This provides a linguistic opening for the Rabbis to envision God as acting the part of a shaliach tzibbur in order to teach Moses how to lead the community in prayer whenever they have sinned and are in need of forgiveness. Given the verses’ context in the Torah—Moses has ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah a second time, following the incident of the Golden Calf—this is a touching interpretation. God nearly wiped out the Israelites after they worshiped the Golden Calf; the Rabbis’ contention that God now teaches Moses how to invoke divine forgiveness bespeaks just how desperately God wants to forgive those who sin, even when the sin is idolatry. 

As the Rabbis imagine the scene, so keenly does God wish to be able to pardon the Israelites, that God dons a tallit and demonstrates to Moses how to pray and what to say to illicit God’s compassionate forgiveness. This highly anthropomorphic image of God—in human form wrapped in a tallit—appears to have caused some discomfort, which is reflected in R. Yochanan’s defensive contention that Torah itself makes the claim that God personally tutored Moses. Otherwise, R. Yochanan contends, no one would dare to say such a thing about God!

The Rabbis next interpret, Adonai! Adonai! (Exodus 34:6). Why is God’s Name doubled in the verse? They explain that the first iteration of “Adonai” applies to our relationship with God prior to violating the covenant; the second “Adonai” affirms our relationship with God after we have sinned. While we might well fear that sin distances us from God, in reality God remains very much concerned about us and attached to us regardless of our behavior. No doubt this interpretation was meant to be a reassuring message to people that even if they felt they had strayed far from God and violated serious dictates of the covenant, God remains in relationship with them and welcomes their teshuvah (repentance and return) at any time. God’s love and connection are eternal and unconditional. Teshuvah (repentance) is easier when one knows that God will receive it favorably.


  1. The image of God as a prayer leader wrapped in a tallit raises the question of how we imagine and speak about God. On Rosh Hashanah, just one week away, we will deploy numerous images of God, chief among them “Father/Parent and Ruler” (Avinu malkeinu). Throughout the High Holy Day season, we will add many more vivid metaphors, including God as Shepherd, Potter,  Lover, Friend. Which of these metaphors help you in thinking about your relationship with God? Are any of them a hindrance? Why?
  2. The Talmud seems to be saying that if we go through certain motions—specifically, the recitation of prescribed prayers—God will (automatically?) forgive. Where is teshuvah (repentance) in this process? (See the baraita below, which appears on the same page of Talmud as our passage.)  Does the recital require or inspire a certain state of mind? Or is it a workaround to genuine teshuvah?
  3. How do you use the prayers, music, scriptural readings, and the atmosphere of the High Holy Days to help you do teshuvah (repentance)?
They challenged this [from a baraita]: If one repents between [Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur], he is pardoned. If he did not repent between [Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur], even if he brought all the rams of Nevayot [the finest rams; see Isaiah 60:7] that exist [as offerings] he is not pardoned. (Rosh Hashanah 17b)

This edition of Ten Minutes of Talmud is available as a pdf here

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Divine Contradictions — BT Rosh Hashanah 17b (part 1) — #54

Rav Huna presented a contradiction: It is written, God is just in all [God’s] ways, and it is written [in the same verse], and acts with loving kindness in all [God’s] deeds (Psalm 145:17). Initially, [God is] just, but in the end, [God acts with] loving kindness.
R. Elazar presented a contradiction: It is written, And to You, Adonai, is loving kindness, and [in the same verse] it is written, for you repay each person according to their deeds (Psalm 62:13). Initially [God acts from the standpoint of], for You repay each person according to their deeds, but in the end [God acts from the standpoint of], And to You, Adonai, is loving kindness.
Ilfai, and some say Ilfa, presented a contradiction: It is written, and abundant in kindness, and [in the same verse] it is written, and truth (Exodus 34:6). Initially, [God acts from the standpoint of] and truth, but in the end, [God acts out of] and abundant in kindness.

Rosh Hashanah is conceived by the Rabbis as a day when the entire world is arrayed before God for judgment. Those whose merits outweighs their misdeeds are written into Sefer ha-Chaim (the Book of Life); those whose misdeeds outweigh their merits risk not being inscribed in the Book of Life. The Rabbis teach that God’s condemnation of the latter group is not a slam dunk, however, because the divine Judge of the universe is loving, forgiving, and merciful.

On the High Holy Days, two attributes of God are front and center: God’s sense of Justice (God is seen as the Judge on High who evaluates our deeds from the past year and passes sentence on us), as well as Mercy (God wants to forgive us and give us another chance to get it right). God’s Justice and Mercy sometimes appear to the Rabbis to be at odds with one another. They imagine God wrestling with these two divine inclinations: If God acts solely out of compassion, justice will not be served, but if God acts entirely according to the dictates of justice, who could survive? Will God come down on the side of strict justice or on the side of forgiving mercy? The Rabbis note three particularly verses where these two attributes seem to be at odds with one another.

When Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah from God the second time, God descended in a cloud, passed before Moses, and proclaimed: Adonai! Adonai! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet [God] does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations. (Exodus 34:6-7) We recite the first part of this passage (up until the semi-colon) in synagogue on the High Holy Days before the open ark; the second part is dropped. The Rabbis were keenly aware that the full passage presents seemingly contradictory aspects of God: God is merciful, but also values justice and accordingly dispenses punishment; God prizes truth, but acts out of a love that sometimes ignores the truth of human behavior. What is more, there are other verses that present God’s seemingly contradictory inclinations.

For them, it is a sin qua non that God wants to forgive us and embrace us in love. In our passage, three rabbis present three verses—two from Psalms and one from the Exodus passage cited above—which are potentially self-contradictory. The Rabbis are determined to present God as favoring forgiveness and loving kindness over justice, truth, and punishment—even when doing so requires reversing the order of the phrases of a verse: taken in the verses’ original word order, two of the three might be used to “prove” that God favors judgment over forgiveness. In the hands of these sages, it is precisely the opposite.

Rav Huna finds a verse in Psalm 145 that ascribes to God both justice and kindness. What happens when these traits are in opposition to one another? Rav Huna tells us that God begins to evaluable human behavior from the perspective of justice, but moves to the attribute of loving kindness: ultimately God forgives. R. Elazar presents a verse from Psalm 62 that ascribes to God loving kindness followed by retribution—in that order. He tidily reverses the order of the attributes as presented in the verse to arrive at the same conclusion as Rav Huna: God initially plans retribution, but settles into loving kindness. Ilfai (or Ilfa), citing Exodus 34:6-7, follows the same pattern and performs the same slight of hand as R. Elazar, reversing the order of the attributes so that, once again, God begins with the attribute of harsh judgment (truth) and moves to a more forgiving stance (abundant kindness).


  1. The High Holy Days can induce anxiety and fear in people who subscribe to the belief that God is a divine Being who keeps a ledger of their good and bad deeds, judges them, and determines their future. What might this passage say to people who hold that God-idea? What might this passage to people who, themselves, are inclined to judging others harshly?
  2. Are the Rabbis talking about God’s behavior or about ours? Could the Rabbis intent be more prescriptive than descriptive? That is to say, are the Rabbis signaling us that godlike behavior (imitatio dei) requires us to set aside our tendency to judge others and adopt a stance of compassion and forgiveness whenever possible—just like God? Can you recall occasions when you responded from the perspective of “justice” and “judgment,” but might have done better to have responded from the standpoint of “mercy” and “loving kindness?” Can you recall a time when someone responded to you from the perspective of “justice” and “judgment” rather than “mercy” and “loving kindness”?
  3. How is “truth” related to strict judgment? When is it appropriate to respond to someone from that perspective, and when is it important to respond with mercy and loving kindness and give them the benefit of the doubt?

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

How Dangerous are Oaths? — BT Gittin 35a — #53

It once happened during a period of famine that a certain man deposited a golden dinar with a widow and she placed it in a flour jug. [Subsequently] she baked it into a loaf of bread and gave [the bread] to a poor man. Several days later, the owner of the dinar returned and said to her, “Give me my dinar.” She said to him, “May one of that woman’s [i.e., my] children be poisoned if I have derived any benefit from your dinar.” They reported that it was no more than a few days before one of her children died. When the Sages heard of this matter, they said, “If such [happens to] one who has sworn truthfully, how much more so to one who swears falsely!” [But] why was she punished? Because she gained the place of the dinar. How, then, [could they claim she was] “one who has sworn truthfully”? [She is] like one who has sworn truthfully.

Backing up to get the bigger picture: A ketubah protects a woman from penury in the case her marriage ends by death or divorce. It is a lien on her husband’s estate. What happens if another claimant to the estate asserts that her husband paid her part or all of the ketubah prior his death or divorce?

The mishnah preceding and inspiring the Gemara discussion that recounts the incident above tells us that originally the widow would swear in the court that her deceased husband had not prepaid the ketubah prior to his death. Some years later, the courts stopped permitting women to swear an oath, and as a result many widows could not collect their due—an injustice that undermined the very purpose of having a ketubah. Therefore, Rabban Gamliel the Elder decreed that widows could make a vow (not quite the same as swearing an oath) in order to collect the value of their ketubot. The incident recounted in our passage (the source of which is unclear: some say was related by Rav Kahana and others say was recounted by Rav Yehudah in the name of Rav) concerns a woman who makes a statement that the Rabbis understand to be an oath with disastrous consequences, even though her oath was completely truthful as far as she knew. The purpose of the story is to illustrate the danger of making oaths, thereby justifying the mishnah’s assertion that the Rabbis stopped allowing women to make oaths in court.
This story is an excellent example of a recurrent problem in religious (as well as philosophic and ethical) traditions: Every religious claim has tentacles, implications that often become entangled with logic, morality, and other religious beliefs.

A widow accepts responsibility to take care of the man’s dinar (a gold coin) and hides it in a place that no one is likely to find it: her flour bin. Inadvertently, when she scoops up some flour to make bread, the dinar finds its way into the dough and is baked into the bread, which she gives away to a poor person. When the man comes to collect the dinar he deposited with her, she cannot find it and therefore truthfully swears an oath that she did not steal it. Her oath is, “May one of my children die if I benefited from your dinar.” Several days later, one of her children dies. The Sages who hear this story are convinced that the woman did not steal the dinar, and swore the oath thinking that the dinar was lost, and fully believing that she did not benefit from it in any way. Yet they presume the death resulted from the hand of heaven, the consequence of her oath. Accordingly, they respond that if the consequences of one who truthfully swore an oath are so dire, imagine what happens to one who knowingly swore a falsified oath. 

The Gemara objects: This makes no sense! If the widow misplaced the dinar and, to the best of  her knowledge, did not benefit from it, why would God punish her so harshly? In response to this legitimate challenge, the Gemara ties itself in knots to maintain the connection between the child’s death and the woman’s oath: the claim is made that she did, in fact, benefit, even if unknowingly, by retaining the volume of flour equal to the volume that the dinar displaced. If that is the case, the Gemara contends, then the claim that she made the vow truthfully is incorrect, yet as far as she could ascertain, it was truthful. The Gemara responds that the Rabbis only meant that she is like one who swears an oath truthfully in that she believed that she had not benefited from the dinar.

This story raises a host of thorny questions and exposes numerous moral and theological problems, which I will touch on below.


  1. For the Rabbis, the story illustrates the danger of swearing oaths. Do you think the story is effective? Why or why not?
  2. Did the widow truly gain the small amount of flour displaced by the dinar, given that she didn’t sell the bread but gave it away to a poor person?
  3. How do you respond to the Rabbis’ tacit claim that God would punish a person who
    is fundamentally honest and decent, but who loses track of a coin she is asked to guard, by ending the life of her child? What kind of God does that? Why do you think the Rabbis are willing to assert that the widow’s child’s death was the result of her actions? What is your reaction to the cartoon at the right?

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Which One First? — BT Kiddushin 32a — #52

Elazar b. Matya says, “If my father says, ‘Give me a drink of water,’ but I have a mitzvah to do [at the same time], I lay aside the honor of my father to do the mitzvah [first], because I and my father are [both] obligated to perform the mitzvah.” Issi b. Yehudah says, “If it is possible for others to fulfill the mitzvah, it should be done by others and [the son] should attend to the honor of his father.” Rav Matnah said, “The halakhah follows Issi b. Yehudah.”

Honoring one’s parents is #5 of the “Top Ten” mitzvot. There are two versions of the Ten Commandments in the Torah; both Exodus 20:12 and Deuteronomy 5:16 command us to honor our parents. But there is a third iteration of this mitzvah in Leviticus 19:3 where we are told to revere our parents. In tractate Kiddushin, the Rabbis discuss at length what the difference between “honoring” and “revering” is, what precisely is entailed in each, and who is financially liable for the cost of caring for one’s parents as the mitzvah requires. In addition, they offer anecdotes to illustrate their points. 

Some of the situations the Rabbis envision are sticky. For example, R. Eliezer was asked how far one should go in honoring one’s parents. He responds with this scenario, “To the point that if [the father] takes a wallet [full of money] and throws it into the sea in [the son’s] presence, the son may not embarrass him.” It is not clear who the owner of the wallet is, but nonetheless, R. Eliezer  claims that kibbud av (“honoring one’s father”) requires that the son not attempt to stop the father at the risk of embarrassing him. How many of us could adhere to R. Eliezer’s standard?

Our passage recounts a disagreement between Elazar b. Matya and Issi b. Yehudah concerning how one sets priorities in a situation of overlapping obligations. We should note that on the previous daf (31a) a young man poses a similar question to R. Eliezer: If both parents request water simultaneously, whom do I serve first? R. Eliezer instructs him to serve his father first because, “both you and your mother are obligated to honor your father.” The young man goes to R. Yehoshua, asks the same question, and receives the same response. He then asks: “What if my parents are divorced?” R. Yehoshua can discern from the young man’s countenance that his father is no longer living and responds to his disingenuous question facetiously, “Pour water into a pitcher for them and coo to them as to roosters!” Talmud does not make a clear determination that the father takes priority over the mother. A later law code, the Shulchan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 240:14), determines that the child may choose which parent to serve first. It will soon become clear why I am recounting this discussion.

The Rabbis have determined (daf 31b) that honor your father and mother “means that the child must provide the parent with food and drink, clothe and cover him, and lead a parent in and out.” But what should you do if, at the very moment that your parent requests a drink of water, you have another pressing mitzvah to perform? It is clear from the context that the type of mitzvah we are talking about is one that is time-bound: fulfilling it later is not an option. (Otherwise, there would be no conflict of obligations.) Do you ask your parent to wait until you have completed the mitzvah? Do you delay, and possibly set aside completely, the other mitzvah in favor of getting  water for your parent?

Elazar b. Matya tells us that he relegates kibbud av (“honoring his father”) to another (presumably time-bound) mitzvah because his father is also obligated to the other mitzvah. This echoes R. Eliezer’s thinking in the situation mentioned above concerning the young man who asks which parent he should serve first: R. Eliezer responds that he should first serve the father because both he and his mother are obligated to serve the father. In Elazar b. Matya’s case however, Issi b. Yehudah offers another way to approach the conundrum, telling us that if someone else is available to perform the mitzvah, that is a preferable solution since both mitzvot are thereby fulfilled. Rav Matnah affirms this as halakhah.


  1. Can you think of other solutions to the conflict of obligations? For example, if you were to ask someone else to get your parent a glass of water so you could attend to the other mitzvah, would that be a dereliction of duty to your parent? (Today, assisted living and nursing homes often fulfill the obligations of kibbud av v’em, serving as the agents of the child.)
  2. Immediately after the discussion of Elazar b. Matya’s scenario, we find, “Rav Yitzhak b. Shila said in Rav Matnah’s name, who said in Rav Chisda’s name: If a father renounces the honor due him, his honor is renounced.” If a parent has the right to forego honor due him or her, is it appropriate for the parent to do so when the child is caught between two conflicting obligations? If, for example, the conflicting mitzvah were burying the dead, we would probably say that the parent ought to choose to forego the honor due them. But if the parent refuses to forego their honor, what would you recommend?
  3. There is a halakhic principle that should rescue us from the dilemma described in our passage: עוסק במצוה פטור מן המצוה “One who is engaged in performing a mitzvah is exempt from performing another mitzvah” (BT Berakhot 11a). Talmud even goes so far as to say that שלוחי מצוה (“messengers of a mitzvah,” i.e., someone actively preparing to perform a mitzvah) is exempt from another simultaneous obligation (BT Sukkah 25a). It is surprising that this principle is not invoked here, but even if it were, would it give us guidance concerning which mitzvah takes precedence?

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Go Shopping! — BT Shabbat 119a — #51

There was a very wealthy gentile in the neighborhood of Joseph Who Honors Shabbat. Astrologers said to him, “Joseph Who Honors Shabbat will come to possess all [your] property.” He went and sold all his property and purchased a precious jewel. He placed it in his turban. As he was crossing a river [on a ferry], a gust of wind blew [his turban] into the water. A fish swallowed the jewel. [Fishermen] caught [the fish] and brought it [to market] late on Friday. They said, “Who will buy it now?” They said to them, “Go, bring it to Joseph Who Honors Shabbat. He always buys.” They brought it to him and he bought it. He cut it open and found the jewel inside. He sold it for thirteen trunks of gold dinarim. An old man met him and said, “One who expends money for Shabbat, Shabbat repays.”

The Sages struggled with the idea of divine determination and astrological predestination. The former accords to God control over the course of our lives, while the latter solves the  inconsistencies lying behind the question: Why would a just God permit the righteous to suffer and the evil to prosper?

The Sages often espouse the belief that, as we say today, “what goes around, comes around.” This philosophy is termed middah k’neged middah (“measure for measure”): goodness and generosity are repaid in kind, but so are cruelty and greed. This claim of retributive justice buttresses the rabbinic belief in God’s justice, which may be delayed—sometimes even postponed until olam ha-ba (the world-to-come)—but ultimately God is just. In their enthusiasm to commend observance of mitzvot to us, the Sages promise that practice will be rewarded with wealth. The story told above is an illustration. Joseph honored shabbat and, as a result, became wealthy through a complex series of unlikely events. Immediately following the story above, the Gemara asserts that in addition to those who honor shabbat, those in Eretz Yisrael who tithe, and those in Babylonia who honor Torah, are rewarded by heaven with wealth.

Our protagonist is known as Yosef Mokir Shabbat (Joseph Who Honors Shabbat). He lives in the neighborhood of a wealthy man who is accustomed to visiting astrologers (Gemara calls them “Chaldeans”) to forecast the future and advise him. While Talmud gives a nod to astrology (T Kiddushin 5:17, BT Avodah Zarah 5a), we also find Talmud averring that Jews may not rely on astrology (BT Shabbat 156a, Pesachim 113b). Most famously, BT Shabbat 156a states ain mazal l’Yisrael—the stars and constellations do not, nor should not be understood to, influence the destiny of the Jewish people. In the story of Yosef Mokir Shabbat, mention of the gentile neighbor’s reliance on astrologers and the message they deliver serves two purposes: (1) It confirms that he is an idolater; and (2) that he is consumed by the desire for wealth. 

When the astrologers tell Joseph’s neighbor that some day all his wealth will pass into Joseph’s hands, he goes to great lengths to prevent this from happening. He sells all his property and purchases a priceless gem with the proceeds, thereby concentrating all his wealth into one, small item. He tucks the gem into his turban so that he can wear it at all times on his person. Or so he  thinks. A strong wind blows his turban into the water, the gem falls out, and a fish swallows it. The fisherman catches the fish and brings it to market late on Friday afternoon, a time when it will be difficult to sell because almost everyone has already made their purchases for shabbat. The fisherman worries that he will be unable to sell the fish, but he needn’t worry, people tell him, because Joseph Who Honors Shabbat can always be counted on to spend lavishly on his shabbat preparations. Indeed, Joseph purchases the fish and takes it home. When he cuts it open, he discovers the gem, whose value, we are told, is equivalent to thirteen trunks of gold coins—an extraordinary (and hyperbolic) sum, by any measure. The neighbor’s wealth is now Joseph’s.

An anonymous old man enters the tale to articulate the moral of the story: Those who expend their resources to celebrate shabbat will be repaid handsomely.


  1. The ostensible purpose of the story, it seems, is to illustrate how expending one’s resources to observe shabbat is repaid by heaven. But we may well wonder: Did Joseph become wealthy because it was predestined by the stars (as the astrologers predicted), or because he punctiliously honored shabbat? Does mention of the astrologers enhance the story, or confuse the message? Can you envision an interpretation of the story’s moral (“One who expends money for Shabbat, Shabbat repays”) that does not become ensnarled in a conversation about predestination, either divine or astrological?
  2. If Joseph knew the fisherman or that the jewel had belonged to his neighbor, should he have returned the gem? (See TMT #46-Return Receipt Requested?)
  3. What are your thoughts concerning Rava’s claim, as reported in Mo’ed Katan 28a that the length of one’s life, the birth and survival of one’s children, and one’s financial success in life do not depend upon merit, but rather upon mazal (influence of, or destiny as ordained in, the stars; “mazal” means constellation). Rava compares two righteous sages: R. Chisda lived to be 92, but Rabbah died at 40. R. Chisda’s family enjoyed wealth and celebrated sixty marriages in the time Rabbah’s family  struggled to subsist and suffered sixty bereavements. Could “mazal” be a way of ameliorating the problematic assumption of divine providence in such matters?
The story of Yosef Mokir Shabbat is beautifully retold and embellished by Marilyn Hirsch and richly illustrated by Devis Grebu in Joseph Who Loved Shabbat (Puffin Press, 1988). Sadly, it is out of print. Happily, used copies are available from web vendors.