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Monday, January 30, 2017

Sanctuary Cities — BT Makkot 10a — #69

It was taught in a baraita: We do not establish cities of refuge from small villages or from large cities, but only from medium-sized towns. We establish them only where there is water; and if there is no water, we bring water. We establish them only where there are marketplaces. And we establish them only where there are population centers. If the surrounding area’s population has diminished, we boost the population; if the population of the city of refuge has diminished, we bring kohanim, levities, and Israelites [to settle] there. “And there should be no commerce in weapons or hunting gear”—these are the words of R. Nechemiah, but the Sages permit it. And they agree that traps may not be lain in [the cities of refuge], nor ropes spun in them, so that the blood-avenger should not be found there.

Torah makes provision for the protection of people who are compelled to flee their homes because their lives are endangered by people bent upon killing them: He who fatally strikes a man shall be put to death. If he did not do it be design, but it came about by an act of God, I will assign you a place to which he can flee. (Exodus 21:12–13) The situation envisioned by Torah is the case in which a person accidentally commits manslaughter and relatives of the deceased seek  vengeance by killing the person who unwittingly caused the death.

Torah stipulates the division of Eretz Israel among the tribes of Israel when the Israelites entered the Land. The Levites, assigned to administer the sacrifices in the Temple, were not assigned a tribal holding, but rather granted forty-eight towns in which to dwell, as well as pastureland beyond their walls (see Numbers ch. 35). Torah designates six of the towns allotted to the Levites as Arei Miklat (“Cities of Refuge”), where people who had committed accidental, unintentional manslaughter could find asylum from a family member of the deceased (“the blood-avenger”) who pursued them with intent to kill. One who sought asylum in a city of refugee could only be removed in order to stand trial. In Makkot 13a we are told that in these six towns, the refugee is provided sanctuary whether or not he knows he is in an ir miklat (sanctuary city); in the other forty-two cities, it would seem, the refugee must request sanctuary, but with the full expectation that it will be provided by the residents.

We might ask: Why do the Rabbis in Babylonia—far from Eretz Yisrael and long after Jews have lost sovereignty over the land—bother to discuss the particulars of the Arei Miklat in detail? And what can we learn both from their discussion of the requirements for establishing sanctuary cities, and from the very fact that they find it important to consider and discuss providing sanctuary to refugees, even at a time when they are not in a position to implement the principles they deduce from their study and conversation?

The passage above is a baraita, a teaching of the tanna’im, the scholars of the first two centuries CE. It stipulates the qualities needed for a city to qualify as a sanctuary city, qualities likely to ensure that it could properly and safely harbor those whose lives were endangered.

The baraita delineates five characteristics required for a town to fulfill its mission as a sanctuary city: First, neither small hamlets nor large cities are suitable because small hamlets lack the requisite characteristics to care for refugees and large cities pose the danger that a go’el ha-dam (“blood-avenger”) might enter unnoticed, blend into a large crowd, and thereby succeed in killing his prey. Second, an adequate supply of water must be available. Where this is lacking, canals are dug to bring water to the community. In the arid conditions of Eretz Yisrael, water supply is crucial for sustaining life. Notice that an inadequate water supply does not necessarily disqualify a town from serving as a sanctuary city: there are solutions that can be pursued even though they require strenuous labor. Third, the sanctuary city must have a marketplace, which insures that food and other provisions needed for refugees are readily available. Fourth, the sanctuary city  must be surrounded by a sizable population because the go’el ha-dam might bring a gang with him to attack the town in his quest for vengeance. Fifth, the sanctuary city itself must have an adequate population of Jews to insure that the people of the town will be familiar  with, and committed, to the law of the Cities of Refuge and will not turn refugees over to blood-avengers.

R. Nechemiah adds to the baraita’s list of requirements a prohibition against selling weapons and hunting gear in the ir miklat (“sanctuary city”) lest a blood-avenger enter the city with the appearance of innocent intent and then buy weapons to kill a refugee. A person carrying weapons is far easier to recognize as a blood-avenger. The Rabbis disagree because weapons and hunting gear are basic necessities for providing food for one’s family. Both R. Nechemiah and the Rabbis agree, however, that laying traps and spinning ropes may not take place within a sanctuary city, lest the blood-avenger slip into the town unnoticed.


  1. Torah establishes sanctuary cities as a fundamental feature of Israelite society as a refuge for people who had killed someone accidentally and unintentionally. How does Torah’s concern for protecting those whose lives are endangered (whether by families, militias, or governments) speak to the situations around the globe we find today?
  2. The Gemara (Makkot 13a) instructs that refugees who are exiled to one of the six Cities of Refuge are exempt from paying rent for lodging. (They would, however, pay rent to the Levites in the other forty-two towns.) What message might we take from this instruction?
  3. In order for a town to meet Torah’s requirements, it seems clear that someone had to survey its qualifications and the leaders of the community had to insure that they provided the infrastructure to support refugees. What  is our responsibility toward today’s refugees? 

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Does Size Matter? — Chullin 60b — #68

R. Shimon b. Pazzi pointed out a contradiction: One verse says, And God made the two great luminaries, and immediately the verse continues, The greater luminary… and the lesser luminary (Genesis 1:16). The moon said to the Holy Blessed One, “Sovereign of the Universe! Is it possible for two sovereigns to wear one crown?” God answered, “Go, then, and make yourself smaller.” “Sovereign of the Universe,” cried the moon, “must I make myself smaller because I have suggested that which is proper?” God replied, “Go and rule by day and by night.” “But what is the value of this?” cried the moon. “Of what use is a lamp in broad daylight?” God replied, “Go. Israel shall reckon the days and the years by you.” “But it is impossible to do without the sun for the reckoning of the seasons,” said the moon, “as it is written, And let them be for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years (Genesis 1:14).” “Go. The righteous shall be named after you, as we find: Jacob the Small [Amos 7:5], Samuel the Small [1 Samuel 2:19], David the Small [1 Samuel 16:11, 17:14].” On seeing that [the moon] would not be consoled, the Holy Blessed One said, “Bring an atonement offering for Me for making the moon smaller.” This is what was meant by R. Shimon b. Lakish when he declared, “Why is it that the he-goat offered on the new moon is distinguished in that it is described as a sin-offering for God (Numbers 28:15)? Because the Holy Blessed One said, “Let this he-goat be an atonement for Me for making the moon smaller.”

Who says size doesn’t matter? A longitudinal study by Timothy A. Judge and Daniel M. Cable, published in the Journal of Applied Psychology (Vol. 89, No. 3) claimed that height correlates to higher earnings to the tune of $789 per inch per year. Judge and Cable suggested that it may be that taller people have greater self-esteem and confidence, or it may be that others ascribe greater authority and leadership capacity to taller people. Judge explained in an interview: "Perhaps when humans were in the early stages of organization, they used height as an index for power in making 'fight or flight' decisions. They ascribed leader-like qualities to tall people… Evolutionary psychologists would argue that some of those old patterns still operate in our perceptions today.” Princeton economists Anne Case and Christina Paxson, however, offer a different explanation: Taller people are smarter. We know from life experience that size, significance, power, and self-perception are often inseparably intertwined in the human mind, profoundly influencing the societies we inhabit. Given the human proclivity to compare ourselves with others, the Rabbis offer this midrashic allegory of the sun and moon. Originally they were the same size… that is, until the moon objected to God. (A parallel version of this midrash is found in Bereishit Rabbah 6:3.)

The midrash about the sun and the moon is launched by a seeming internal contradiction in Genesis 1:16: God made “two great luminaries,” suggesting they are the same size, followed by, “the greater luminary to dominate the day and the lesser luminary to dominate the night…” 

The moon objects to God that two rulers cannot share one crown, and so God punishes the moon by compelling her to shrink herself. Again the moon objects that her punishment is unjust because her objection was reasonable. God, seeming to respond, ordains that the moon will reign  (i.e., be visible) both day and night, unlike the sun which is visible only during the day. Again the moon objects, saying that the light she casts during the day is insignificant. God responds by ordaining that the Jewish calendar will count days and years by the moon, but the moon rejects this, saying that in reality days and years are calculate according to the sun. (In the Jewish calendar, the sun determines days, weeks, and years, but the moon determines the months and the festivals.) Attempting to assuage the moon, God offers that the sobriquet “Small” will, in the future, apply to those who are great: the Jewish People (Jacob), a first century tanna (Samuel) renowned for his humility, and King David, who was the youngest of his brothers. Being “small” places the moon in good company.

Unable to console the moon, God seeks to make atonement for having forced her to diminish herself unjustifiably. The Rabbis peg this on Numbers 28:15, which instructs Israel to bring “a sin-offering for God,” reading the verse to mean that Israel brings the sin-offering on God’s behalf to effect atonement for God’s sin against the moon.


  1. Are you able to forgive yourself? Are you able to forgive others? There is a story about a man who could not entirely forgive himself for something he had done wrong. His rabbi asked, “Have you ever forgiven another person utterly and completely?” The man replied that he had tried, but there was always a tiny bit of resentment that remained. The rabbi pointed out that this was the problem: Until he could forgive another entirely, he would not be able to forgive himself entirely. The Rabbis present God as a model one who is unable to fully achieve self-forgiveness and therefore perpetually in need of an atonement offering.
  2. The Talmudic commentator Rabbi Shmuel Eidels (Poland, 1555–1631, known as the Maharsha) views the moon as a metaphor for the Jewish people, who have been politically and socially “diminished” and subjugated throughout much of history. If the Maharsha is correct about the Rabbis’ intent in telling this story, what is the message to us?
  3. Does God bring an atonement offering every month as an acknowledgement that God was wrong, or as a reconciliation offering? How does this apply to our relationships?

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Garlic #3 and Humiliation #1 — BT Sanhedrin 11a — #67

Rabbi [Yehudah ha-Nasi] was sitting and teaching when he smelled the odor of garlic. He said, “Whoever is eating garlic, leave!” R. Chiyya got up and left. All [the others in the room] got up and left. the following morning, R. Shimon, the son of Rabbi [Yehudah ha-Nasi] sought out R. Chiyya. He said to [R. Chiyya], “Are you the one who[se behavior] irritated my father?” [R. Chiyya] said to him, “There should be none like that in Israel!”

The academies in Babylonia were bastions of intellectual competition that was often fierce and not infrequently cruel. As a result, public humiliation was an unfortunate facet of life. Nonetheless, the Sages railed against public humiliation, going so far as to compare the experience of being humiliated to death, and the sin of humiliating someone to the sins of adultery and murder. The story above is one in a string of six stories in which someone’s potential public humiliation is prevented by the astute and righteous intervention—or proactive behavior—of a human or God, averting the catastrophe of public humiliation.

The context for these stories is the Gemara’s discussion of the first mishnah in tractate Sanhedrin which discusses the size of the court a variety of violations of halakhah. (Most civil cases permitting monetary reparation require three judges; criminal cases often require twenty-three; a full court of seventy-one is required to judge an entire tribe, a false prophet, and a high priest accused of a capital offense, and also to declare a discretionary war.) The mishnah stipulates that intercalating the calendar—a month by one day, or adding an extra month (Adar 2) to insure that Passover falls after the spring equinox—“begins with [a court of] three [judges], is debated with five, and finalized with seven.” (M Sanhedrin 1:2)

In its discussion of calendrical intercalation, Gemara  wanders down a fascinating and seemingly unrelated path. Stating that intercalating a month into the year requires judges who are specially designated for that task, Gemara tells the story of a time when Rabban Gamliel ordered seven sages to appear in his attic study early the next morning. Arising to find eight sages in attendance, he declared, “Whoever came up without permission, go back down!” Shmuel ha-Katan immediately offered that he was the eighth and had come only to learn the laws of intercalation. At this, Rabban Gamliel’s tone changed abruptly and, addressing Shmuel ha-Katan as “My son,” he bid him sit. The Gemara comments that Shmuel ha-Katan was not the uninvited sage; rather, he outed himself to prevent a colleague from being embarrassed. This account inspires the story in this edition of TMT about Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi, and four more that follow it.

R. Yehudah ha-Nasi was the patriarch in his generation, the highest ranking rabbinic sage in the Jewish community. He is so exalted that the Talmud refers to him as merely “Rabbi” without  further appellation—he is “The Rabbi” (with a capital “T”). One day, he smells the pungent odor of garlic in his classroom; someone is chewing on a raw clove. Rabbi finds the unpleasant smell not only irritating, but also insulting. Who would dare to sit in his class wreaking of garlic? Rabbi summarily commands that  the offender leave immediately.

This is a critical moment. Whoever stands will be subjected to ridicule and humiliation.

R. Chiyya bar Abba assesses the situation and perceives the danger. He stands up and leaves. When the other sages and students present follow his example; they arise and leave. The following morning, R. Yehudah’s son, Shimon, thinking it peculiar and highly unlikely that R. Chiyya was chewing on garlic in class, seeks him out and asks. “Heaven forbid!” R. Chiyya bar Abba responds. Of course not! This is, of course, precisely what R. Shimon expected to hear. R. Chiyya bar Abba acted as he did to prevent anyone else from suffering humiliation.

  1. Can you recall a time in your life when you were publicly humiliated? How did you feel? When you recall the incident today, what feelings does it conjure in you? Does the pain remain?
  2. Had you been sitting in the classroom that day, what would you have done? Have you ever witnessed a scene comparable to the one in this Talmudic story, in which one person prevented another from humiliation by taking it upon him or herself?
  3. Modernity has spawned a new source of humiliation. Many people have reported that social media makes them anxious and lowers their self-esteem because it encourages them to compare their live with the glossing, glimmering, glorious impressions of the way others live. The Polish Jewish sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman (b. 1925, University of Leeds, England)  survived WWII as a refugee in Soviet Russia and was expelled from Poland in the anti-Semitic purge of 1968. He has written numerous books exploring the interplay of modernity, bureaucracy, consumerism, and social exclusion. Bauman says that social media causing a type of self-inflicted degradation in some peoples. He has noted, “We live in a world of communication—everyone gets information about everyone else. There is universal comparison and you don't just compare yourself with the people next door, you compare yourself to people all over the world and with what is being presented as the decent, proper and dignified life. It's the crime of humiliation.” Have you ever felt degraded or humiliated by/in social media? Before you post or comment, do you ask yourself if this may embarrass someone?

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Garlic #2 and the Limits of Analogy — BT Berakhot 51a — #66

They asked Rav Chisda, “Should one who ate and drank but did not say a blessing [beforehand] go back and recite the blessing?” [Rav Chisda] said to them, “If one has eaten a clove of garlic so that his breath smells bad, should he go back and eat another clove of garlic so that his breath will smell even worse?”
Ravina said, “Therefore, even if one finished eating his meal, he should go back and say the blessing, because it was taught in a baraita: One who immersed [in a mikveh] and emerged [from the water] says as he emerges, Blessed [are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the universe] Who has made us holy with mitzvot and commanded us concerning immersion.” 
But this is not [a legitimate analogy]. There, prior [to immersion] the person was unfit [to say the appropriate blessing]. Here, prior [to eating] the person was fit [to say the appropriate blessing] and since he was excluded [from saying the blessing after he finished eating] he was excluded [from saying it at all].”

There are two sets of blessings recited for food: Those said prior to eating, like ha-motzi, render food permissible to us to eat (strictly speaking, food—like everything—belongs to God), and Birkat ha-Mazon, a lengthy set of blessings of thanksgiving recited after eating. Our passage  concerns the blessing recited prior to eating food. Rav Chisda answers this question: If someone ate and drank without having first recited a blessing over the food, should they, at the time they realize the omission, stop and recite the blessing before continuing to eat?

Rav Chisda answers by way of an analogy to garlic eating. Garlic is marvelous stuff, as every cook and food connoisseur knows. The newly free Israelites in the wilderness expressed deep longing for the foods of Egypt, among them garlic (Numbers 11:5-6). Even better, there is a suggestion in the Jerusalem Talmud that garlic is an aphrodisiac (JT Megillah 75a) and in the Babylonian Talmud that garlic boosts sperm production (BT Baba Kama 82a enumerates other marvelous qualities of garlic, as well). Eating raw garlic, however, brings out its malodorous quality (which makes one wonder just how much of an aphrodisiac it could be unless both partners partake).

Rav Chisda responds to the query by saying that one who ate without reciting a blessing may stop and recite the blessing and then continue eating. He employs an analogy to say that if eating without having recited the proper blessing prior to consuming food is wrong, then continuing to eat without the proper blessing would also be wrong: If you eat garlic and then realize your breath is offensive to others, would you then eat more garlic so that your breath becomes more offensive? In essence, Rav Chisda counsels: When you realize your mistake, stop and say the blessing. 

It is unclear, however, whether Rav Chisda intends a blessing said half-way through a meal to (a) apply retroactively to what has already been eaten, or (b) apply to the food that remains to be consumed. Ravina understands Rav Chisda’s teaching as the former; therefore, even if one has completed the meal and there is no more food to be eaten, one may “go back” and recite the blessing that should have been said prior to commencing the meal. As his proof, Ravina cites a baraita concerning immersion in a mikveh (ritual bath): One recites the blessing after immersion because at the time of immersion he is ritually impure and therefore “unfit” to recite the blessing.  Ravina’s point, in quoting this baraita, seems to be that there are other occasions when one recites the blessing after performing the act, rather than before.

Gemara rejects Ravina's analogy. The person at the mikveh is unfit to recite the blessing prior to immersion; indeed, being in the state of ritual impurity is precisely why one needs to immerse. Hence the blessing can only be said after immersion. The person eating a meal, however, could have said the blessing before eating but did not due to a lapse of memory. Having rejected Ravina’s proof, Gemara concludes that one who completed his meal cannot “go back” and recite the blessing: he missed the opportunity.

Given Gemara’s rejection of Ravina’s argument and conclusion that one who completes the meal cannot afterward say the blessing that should have preceded it, we can now understand Rav Chisda’s view as the second of the two possibilities mentioned above: the blessing Rav Chisda permits is to cover the food that remains to be consumed.


  1. Do you agree with Gemara that Ravina’s baraita is irrelevant and therefore negates his claim that one may recite a blessing such as ha-motzi after completing a meal? Why or why not? 
  2. One might argue: that the consequence to saying that it’s okay to recite a blessing whenever one remembers is twofold: First, the meaning of the blessing is lost or diluted when it is not in its functional position; and second, this leniency discourages people from making the effort to remember and say blessings at the proper time. Do these arguments resonate with you?
  3. This passage suggests that, when it comes to ritual observance, sometimes there is a trade-off between flexibility and meaning: Observing rituals in a prescribed, orderly fashion preserves the function and meaning of the act. What does it mean to say the blessing that permits food to us after eating it? What are your thoughts on this?