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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Giving Thanks — BT Berakhot 54b — #61

Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: Four [classes of people] give thanks: seafarers, those who traverse the wilderness, one who was ill and recovered, and one who was imprisoned and set free… What blessing does he say? Rav Yehudah said, “Blessed [are You] who bestows loving kindness.” Abaye said, “One expresses thanksgiving in the presence of ten, as it is written, Let them exalt [God] in the congregation of the people (Psalm 107:32).”  Mar Zutra said, “Two of them must be rabbis, as it says, Praise [God] in the assembly of the elders (Psalm 107:32).” R. Ashi challenged this, “You might as well say that all must be rabbis!” Is it written (in Psalm 107:32), “in the assembly of elders?” [No!] It is written, In the congregation of the people. Say, then, in the presence of ten plus two rabbis? This is a difficulty. Rav Yehudah was ill and recovered. R. Chana of Bagdad and other rabbis went to visit him. They said to him, “Blessed is the All Merciful who gave you back to us and did not give you to the dust.” He said to them, “You have released me from the obligation of giving thanks.” But did not Abaye say that one must express thanksgiving in the presence of ten? There were ten present. But [Rav Yehudah, himself] did not express thanks! There was no need, since he answered them, “Amen.”

The Gemara prior to our passage has been discussing blessings said in places where a miracle occurred, or where idolatry was uprooted.  The Gemara includes a famous list of blessings: for thunder and lightning, for seeing the ocean, for receiving good news and even bad news, upon entering a large city, for visiting the site of the Temple, for surviving a lion or camel attack, and for visiting the place where the Israelites crossed the Reed Sea.

This passage is the source for reciting Birkat ha-Gomel, the blessing of thanksgiving that is said in synagogue after one has survived a dangerous situation or an ordeal, such as surgery or crossing an ocean. Customarily, the one who recites birkat ha-gomel is honored with an aliyah to the Torah and, following the second blessing, says, “Praised are You, Adonai our God, Sovereign of the universe, Who bestows goodness beyond our merit, for bestowing favor upon me.” The congregation responds, “May God who has been gracious to you continue to favor you with all that is good.”

Rav Yehudah, whose very name is derived from hoda’ah (“thanks”) when Leah names her son Yehudah (Genesis 29:35), says that there are inherently dangerous experiences in life that call for an expression of thanksgiving when one survives them: travel across the sea or desert, recovery from a dangerous illness, and release from incarceration. Each is tantamount to facing death; survival is a new lease on life. (The passage continues with a lengthy recitation of verses to establish each of the four categories that I have not included above.) Rav Yehudah provides the formulation that serves as the foundation for Birkat ha-Gomel

Next is a discussion of the context for reciting the blessing of thanksgiving. Abaye says it should be recited in the presence of a minyan, based on the first half of Psalm 107:32: Let them exalt [God] in the congregation of the people, praise [God] in the assembly of the elders. Mar Zutra, focusing on the latter half of the same verse, concludes that two rabbis must be present because“elders” is plural and is taken to refer to rabbis based on BT Kiddushin 32b where zakein (“elder”) is understood to mean “rabbi” by interpreting it as a contraction of zeh kana chokhmah (“this one acquired wisdom”). Rav Ashi, in response to Mar Zutra, remarks that one might as well claim that all ten must be rabbis—a high standard for reciting a blessing of thanksgiving. Then Gemara points out that Psalm 107:32 says “congregation of the people,” not “congregation of elders,” and hence requiring ten rabbis is absurd. Yet the verse says both “congregation of the people” and “assembly of the elders,” prompting the Gemara to  ask if perhaps both a minyan and an additional two rabbis need to be present to hear the blessing of thanksgiving. The Gemara concedes that while logical, this interpretation results in a problematic solution.

We then read a short story about Rav Yehudah who had occasion to recite Birkat ha-Gomel (or something similar) following an illness—but never did. A group of colleagues (later affirmed to be a minyan of rabbis, thereby fulfilling both Abaye’s and Mar Zutra’s opinions) visited him and recited their own blessing of thanksgiving . Rav Yehudah responded, “Amen,” understanding this as releasing him of the obligation to explicitly express thanks himself. This is a beautiful model of the reciprocal nurturing relationship of the individual and community through prayer.

A Thanksgiving Pray
by Rabbi Naomi Levy
For the laughter of the children,For my own life breath,For the abundance of food on this tableFor the ones who prepared this sumptuous feast,For the roof over our heads,The clothes on our backs,For our health,And our wealth of blessings,For this opportunity to celebrate with family and friends,For the freedom to pray these wordsWithout fear,In any language,In any faith,In this great country,Whose landscape is as vast and beautiful as her inhabitants.Thank You, God, for giving us all these.  Amen.


  1. Why might it matter if there are two, ten, or no rabbis present when a person recites Birkat ha-Gomel? Can you argue both for and against the need for rabbis to be present?
  2. Which is more powerful and meaningful for you: saying a blessing yourself, or having those around you spontaneously say a blessing on your behalf? Why?
  3. Birkat ha-Gomel credits God with having saved the individual reciting the blessing from danger or ordeal. If your understanding of the universe is that causality depends upon the laws of nature (including the inherent role of probability, which we might translate as luck), what meaning can you attach to Birkat ha-Gomel?

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Burned By Boiling Anger—BT Pesachim 66b—#60

Resh Lakish said, “When a person becomes angry: if wise, wisdom will desert them; if a prophet, prophecy will desert them.” 
 We learn that if they are wise, wisdom will desert them from Moses, for it is written, And Moses became angry at the commanders of the army… (Numbers 31:14), and it is written, Elazar the priest said to soldiers who came to the war, “This is the law of the Torah that Adonai commanded to Moses…” (Numbers 31:21). This implies that the halakhic ruling was hidden from Moses. 
[We learn that] if they are a prophet, their prophecy deserts them, from Elisha, for it is written, And Elisha said to the king of Israel, “What have you to do with me?!” (2 Kings 3:13), and it is written, “And now get me a musician.” As the musician played, the hand of Adonai came upon him, etc. (2 Kings 3:14).

Anger is among the most common (and sadly for some people, frequent) emotions we experience. There are those who counsel letting one’s anger out because bottling it up is unhealthy. But some people not only don’t hold it in, they spew their anger on everyone. A study in the Journal of Medicine and Life warns that anger can cause the production of stress  hormones (specifically, corticosteroids and catecholamine) leading to “an avalanche of events, including  hemodynamic and metabolic modifications, vascular problems, and disorders of the cardiac rhythm”—directly impacting upon cardiovascular diseases. Certainly expressions of anger can wound and lead to discord and severely damage relationships, and even to extreme, physically violent behavior.  In addition, we would do well to consider the influence our behavior has on children who witness our angry outbursts. What are they learning about appropriate responses to insult, frustration, impatience—or whatever provoked our anger—from watching our response?

The Sages may not have the scientific vocabulary to discuss these consequences of uncontrolled anger, but they understand it intuitively and through life experience. Perhaps that is why this teaching about anger is attributed to Resh Lakish. Talmud holds that his first career was as a robber or gladiator. After a chance meeting with R. Yochanan while crossing the Jordan River, he became a student of Torah, a disciple of R. Yochanan. He married his master’s sister, and became R. Yochanan’s study partner. Theirs was an exceptionally close relationship until one day, while discussing the halakhah concerning the purity of weapons, R. Yochanan referred a question to Resh Lakish with a snide and hurtful comment about Resh Lakish’s first career. Shocked and wounded, Resh Lakish responded in anger, calling into question the value of the Torah R. Yochanan had taught him—essentially the substance and purpose of R. Yochanan’s life. The result was that the two refused to speak to one another or forgive one another. R. Yochanan died of a broken heart, and Resh Lakish died shortly thereafter from the pain of it all. In this one tragic story, the dire consequences of uncontrolled anger are all played out.

We are warned: One who is slow to anger has great understanding, but impatience leads to foolishness (Proverbs 14:29). Buddha taught: “You will not be punished for your anger; you will be punished by your anger.” The Rabbis concur, and illustrate the point by asserting that anger clouds one’s judgment and vision, eclipsing both wisdom and prophecy.  
“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” 
Mark Twain

Moses serves as the example of lost wisdom. The Talmud cites an incident recounted in the Book of Numbers in which Moses becomes enraged with the Israelites’ army commanders for collecting booty in the war with Midian. Subsequently, the priest Eleazar explicates ritual law. The Rabbis’ understanding is that because Moses becomes enraged, he forgets the halakhic rules and Elazar must teach them. 

Elisha supplies the illustration for the Sages’ point about prophecy. Elisha, the disciple of Elijah, loses his divine inspiration due to overwhelming and distracting anger he harbors for King Yehoram of Israel. “The hand of Adonai came upon him” is understood to imply that divine inspiration had deserted him until this point.


  1. When is it appropriate and constructive to express anger, and when is it not? How is it appropriate and constructive to express anger, and how is it not? Has your expression of anger ever damaged a relationship? Are there times when even if your anger is justified, it is best to keep it to yourself?
  2. A famous talmudic teaching attributed to R. Ilai tells us that a person’s character can be discerned by three things: koso (“his cup”), kiso (“his purse”), and kaso (“his anger”) (BT Eruvin 65b)—how people handle alcohol, their money, and their anger. How do these provide valuable insights and criterion for judging character?
  3. Groucho Marx once quipped, “If you speak when angry, you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.” Have you said something in anger that you later regretted? The Rabbis notes that, “Of those who are insulted but do not insult, who hear themselves reviled but do not answer, and who act through love and rejoice in [their own] suffering, Scripture says, Those who love [God] are like the sun rising in might (Judges 5:31).” (BT Shabbat 88b) Have you ever been insulted or reviled but not responded? Was this a good decision in the short term? In the long run?

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Seeing in the Dark — BT Megillah 24b — #59

It was taught in a baraita: The [Sages] said to R. Yehudah, “Many people have tried to expound on the Merkavah though they have never seen it.” R. Yehudah [says]: “[There expounding on the Merkavah] depends upon the understanding of the mind, and one can concentrate one’s mind and know, but here [concerning blessing the luminaries, which we say] because of the benefit [derived from them], and he had no benefit.
The Rabbis say that [a blind person] derives benefit, as R. Yose taught in a baraita: R. Yose said, “All my days I was troubled by this verse: You shall grope at noonday as a blind person gropes in darkness (Deuteronomy 28:29)—what difference is there to a blind person between darkness and light?—until I observed this incident: Once I was walking in the dark at night and I saw a blind person walking on the road with a torch in his hand. I said to him, ‘My son,  why do you need this torch?’ He said to me, ‘So long as I have a torch in my hand, people see me and save me from ditches, thorns, and briers.’”

The larger context of this passage concerns who may lead public prayers and read the Torah and Haftarah portions in synagogue. The narrower question to which this passage responds is this: May one who, being blind from birth, has never seen the luminaries, recite on behalf of others the blessing Birchat ha-Me’orot in the morning prayers that praises God for creating them? The mishnah tells us that a blind person may certainly do so, but also preserves the opinion of R. Yehudah that anyone who has never seen the luminaries may not. Our passage explores two approaches to explain the disagreement between R. Yehudah and the Sages. Both attempts draw on baraitot (mishnaic-era teachings of the tanna’im).

The first explanation of the difference of opinion between R. Yehudah and the Sages concerns human attempts to understand God’s chariot (the Merkavah), an early school of Jewish mysticism that focused on the visions of God’s chariot found in the Book of Ezekiel (chapter 1). Ezekiel, according to tradition, is the only human who has seen the Merkavah, yet many have tried to describe it. How? They attempted to fathom it through the powers of the mind, the Sages contend. R. Yehudah, however, rejects this analogy, claiming that it is solely through the powers of the mind that one can comprehend the Merkavah because no one can actually see it. In the case of the luminaries, however, most people see them and thereby benefit from them directly.

Wouldn’t it suffice for Torah to say that Israel will be as sightless at high noon as in complete darkness? Why does Torah add “a blind person gropes in darkness”? Doesn’t everyone grope in the darkness?

The second explanation comes from another baraita attributed to R. Yose who tells us that for a long time, he could not understand Deuteronomy 28:29, which poetically describes the  curses that will afflict Israel if they violate God’s covenant: You shall grope at noonday as a blind person gropes in darkness. With only a glance, the gist of the verse is clear: Israel will be as compromised as the blind (a distinctive and dangerous disadvantage in the ancient world). But a closer look—which R. Yose’s keen eye supplies—reveals something peculiar in the verse: Why does the verse mention a blind person? Wouldn’t it suffice to say that Israel will be as sightless at high noon as in complete darkness? R. Yose tells us that he pondered this peculiarity until he encountered a blind person walking along a road at night carrying a torch. Why would the blind person need a torch? How could it possibly benefit him? The light his torch projected enabled sighted people to see obstacles in his path and warn him to avoid them. Hence the blind person benefited from the light he could not see. So, too, the Sages are suggesting, blind people benefit from the luminaries although they cannot see them.

“The One Who in compassion grants light to the earth and those who dwell on it, and in goodness renews the work of Creation each day…Be blessed, Adonai our God, for the glory of the work of Your hands and for the light-giving luminaries that You made so that they would glorify You. Selah.” (morning prayers)


  1. One way to view the disagreement between the Rabbis and R. Yehudah is that it hinges on whether blessings and prayers should be firmly anchored in concrete, physical experiences in our lives, or rather open to more abstract interpretations and applications. R. Yehudah’s rejection of the Sages’ reasoning as offered in the first baraita suggests that  a person without direct physical experience of a blessing cannot recite it for one who directly  experiences the benefit. Do you agree with R. Yehudah’s reasoning? Why or why not?
  2. Mishnah sees fit to preserve R. Yehudah’s opinion, even though he is overruled by the Rabbis. It is not uncommon for Mishnah to preserve a minority opinion, but we might nonetheless ask: Why? What is the value in R. Yehudah’s viewpoint? R. Yehudah, it seems, wants to retain a more concrete connection  between the recitation of blessings and the human experience of those blessings. What are the strengths and weaknesses of this approach?
  3.   The case of the blind man who carried the torch raises another question: Can one be said to benefit when the benefit accrues to someone else? Can the pleasure derived from altruistic behavior be considered a benefit?