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Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Rabbit Hole #4: Talmudic Telephone — BT Yebamot 62a — #75

It was taught [in a baraita]: R. Natan says: Bet Shammai says [one is obligated to have] two male and two female children and Bet Hillel says a male and a female. Rav Huna said: According to R. Natan, what is Bet Shammai’s reasoning? Since it is written,  וַתֹּסֶף לָלֶדֶת אֶת-אָחִיו אֶת-הָבֶל she additionally bore his brother Abel (Genesis 4:2)— [this means] Abel and his [twin] sister and Cain and his [twin] sister. And it is written, [Adam knew his wife again, and she bore a son and named him Seth, meaning,] “God has provided me with another offspring in place of Abel,” for Cain had killed him (Genesis 4:25). But the Rabbis say that [Eve] was expressing gratitude [that God had given her another child].
 It was taught in another [baraita]: R. Natan says: Bet Shammai say: one male and one female and Bet Hillel say either a male or a female. Rava said: According to R. Natan, what is Bet Shammai’s reasoning? As it is said, [God] did not create [the world to be] a waste but formed it for habitation (Isaiah 45:18). And one has accomplished habitation [by having one child].

For the past three editions (TMT #72, 73, and 74) we have been following Gemara’s discussion of the early rabbis’ decision to interpret Be fertile and increase (Genesis 1:28) prescriptively, thereby asserting that procreation is a Toraitic commandment, and the problems that unfold from that decision.

As we have learned previously, Mishnah records that, to fulfill the obligation to procreate, Bet Shammai (B”S) held two sons are required, while Bet Hillel (B”H) held both a son and a daughter are needed to fulfill the mitzvah. The Gemara above, however,  introduces  two alternative versions of the opinions of the Schools of Shammai and Hillel by way of baraitot (plural of baraita), mishnaic-era teachings (first and second centuries C.E.) that were preserved orally. What is more, not only do these two new versions conflict with one another, they are also attributed to the same person! So now we have three versions of how B”S and B”H understood the mitzvah of procreation.

In addition to the mishnah, Gemara preserves two alternative versions of the views of B”S and B”H in baraitot attributed to R. Natan. The three versions are illustrated in the following  table:

Bet Shammai requires:
Bet Hillel requires:
2 males
1 male and 1 female
R. Natan #1
2 males and 2 females
1 male and 1 female
R. Natan #2
1 male and 1 female
1 child (either male or female)

Gemara focuses on B”S’s reasoning in recounting both baraitot, perhaps because the mishnah on Yebamot 61b (TMT #72) provided a proof text for Bet Hillel’s claim, but none for Bet Shammai’s.

Notice we now have three versions of B”S’s standard: 2 males; 2 males and 2 females; 1 male and 1 female. We have two versions of B”H’s standard: 1 male and 1 female; or one child (either sex). In the Mishnah’s version, both B”S and B”H require that same minimum number of children, and people would, on average, have to have the same number of children to reach either goal. In both of R. Natan’s versions (the two baraitot presented in the Gemara), B”S requires twice as many children as B”H.

For R. Natan #1, Rav Huna’s explanation of B”S’s reasoning hinges on a peculiar syntax of Genesis 4:2. There are two iterations of the direct object marker אֶת in the verse where one (or perhaps none) is grammatically required. Rav Huna tells us that B”S deduced from this redundancy that both Cain and Abel had twin sisters who are not specifically mentioned in the biblical narrative. Hence Eve actually had two sons and two daughters before Cain killed Abel. One might object, as Gemara proposes, that the birth of Seth invalidates this explanation—perhaps it suggests that the minimum number of children ought to be five. The rejoinder is that Eve made it clear that Seth was an “additional” child for which she felt gratitude, but he was not conceived out of obligation.

For R. Natan #2, Rava explains that B”S’s requirement to have one male and one female derives from Isaiah 45:18, wherein the prophet expresses God’s desire that the world be inhabited. Civilization requires people to reproduce. Therefore providing the world with one male and one female furthers that goal. The anonymous Gemara responds that having one child fulfills this goal sufficiently: one’s son can marry another’s daughter and vice versa.

1.   The game of Telephone relies on the notoriously inaccurate nature of oral transmission and aural reception, relying as they do on human hearing, interpretation, and memory. Might the three versions of B”S and B”H’s minimum requirements reflect the challenges of oral transmission? Can we know the original version? Do we need to know?
2.   Why does Gemara include two alternative, conflicting versions of B”S and B”H’s standards? Perhaps Gemara recognizes that setting any minimum is a problem? People have, and refrain from having, children for a wide variety of personal reasons. Could the Rabbis recognize that halakhah has gone too far by setting a minimum for the fulfillment of what it has chosen to interpret as a mitzvah?
3.   By presenting multiple versions of B”S and B”H’s minimums, are the Rabbis suggesting that individuals must choose? At the same time, does the notion of establishing a minimum suggest that individuals should take into consideration society’s needs?

Friday, March 24, 2017

Rabbit Hole #3: Moses’ Reasoning — BT Yebamot 62a — #74

[1] He separated from [his] wife.” How did [Moses] explain this? He said, “If [concerning] the people Israel, with whom the Shekhinah spoke only momentarily, and for whom [God] fixed a time [to speak to them], the Torah says, Do not draw near to a woman (Exodus 19:15), then I, who might hear the divine word at any moment and for whom [God] did not fix a time, how much more so [should I separate from my wife].” And [Moses’] reasoning agreed with that of the Omnipresent, as it says, Go, say to them, “Return to your tents.” But you [Moses] remain here with Me (Deuteronomy 5:27-28). 
 [2] “He broke the tablets.” How did [Moses] explain this? He said, “Just as concerning the pesach, which is one of the 613 mitzvot, Torah said, No foreigner (ben neichar) shall eat of it (Exodus 12:43), then when the entire Torah [is being given] and the Jews are apostates (mumarim) [through worship of the Golden Calf], how much the more so [are they unfit to receive the Torah].” And [Moses’] reasoning agreed with that of the Omnipresent, for it is written, that you shattered (Exodus 34:1). And Resh Lakish said: “The Holy Blessed One said to Moses, ‘May your strength be straight because you shattered [the tablets].’” 
[3] “He added one day” based on his own thinking. How did [Moses] explain this? “As it is written, [Adonai said to Moses: Go to the people and warn them to] stay pure today and tomorrow (Exodus 19:10). ‘Today’ is similar to tomorrow. Just as ‘tomorrow’ includes its night, so, too, ‘today’ includes its night. The night of today has passed. Learn from this that the two days are in addition to now [today].” And [Moses’] reasoning agreed with that of the Omnipresent, for the Shekhinah did not rest [on the mountain] until after shabbat.

This is the third installment of a sugya in tractate Yebamot concerning the consequence of the Rabbis’ decision to read “Be fertile and increase” (Genesis 1:28) as a prescriptive (rather than descriptive) statement, thereby making procreation a mitzvah. In TMT 73, the Gemara explained that Bet Shammai established two male children as the minimum required to fulfill the mitzvah on the model of Moses, who fathered only two sons. According to Gemara, Bet Hillel rejected this argument because Moses decided to remain celibate after leaving Egypt, not because two sons is sufficient to fulfill the mitzvah. Further, this was one of three things Moses did based on his own thinking rather than in obedience to God’s commandments. The other two were “breaking the tablets” and “adding a day.” All three are explained in our passage above. 

This passage is an excursus from the main topic of the mitzvah of procreation. It provides two examples ([1] and [2]) of the Rabbis’ nimble manipulation of biblical texts through the rabbinic hermeneutic of kal va’chomer (קל וחומר, a fortiori), a form of logical argument most easily understood through an example: If a teacher’s policy is to lower a student’s grade by ten points for a late assignment, then a student who turns in an assignment that is late, incomplete, and partially plagiarized can expect to receive a grade lowered by more than ten points.

[1] The Gemara argues that Moses had only two sons because he separated from his wife, reasoning: “God told the Israelites to avoid sexual contact with their spouses in preparation to hear God’s word when they received the Torah. If God required the people, who would only hear God’s word momentarily and at a fixed time, to abstain from sex beforehand, then I must abstain all the time, because I might hear God’s word at any moment and without knowing ahead of time. Therefore, I should avoid all further sexual contact with my wife.” Gemara confirms God’s agreement by citing a verse from Deuteronomy in which God tells the Israelites to return to their tents (and hence to their sexual relationships with their spouses) but instructs Moses to remain with God, taken here to mean that should not resume a sexual relationship with Tzipporah.

[2] Gemara explains that Moses’ decision to throw down the tablets was similarly his own determination and that Moses reasoned: “Torah forbids foreigners from partaking in the pesach (paschal) sacrifice. If that is the case for just one of the 613 commandments in the Torah, then surely the Israelites who have been committing apostasy by worshiping the Golden Calf are unfit to receive the entire Torah.” There are several problems with this argument. First, the exclusion of foreigners is mentioned only in connection with eating the pesach, not all mitzvot. Further, Exodus 12:43 refers to a ben necihar (foreigner), but idolatry makes the Israelites mumarim (apostates)—the two are not equivalent. Hence the argument is very weak. Perhaps that is why Gemara appends Resh Lakish’s claim that God congratulated Moses for shattering the tablets—indicating God’s approval of Moses’ reasoning.

[3] Returning to God’s requirement that the Israelites be celibate prior to Revelation, Exodus 19:10-11 says that God required celibacy for two days preceding Revelation, presumably so that the people would be in a state of taharah (ritual purity) to receive Torah. However, Exodus 19:15 can be understood to say that Moses extended this period to a third day. The Gemara explains Moses’ convoluted reasoning: God required two days. Since every day includes the preceding night (the day commences at sunset), the day God spoke to him was incomplete. Reasoning that two complete days were required, he added a day, arriving at three days total. Again, God confirms Moses’ reasoning: Revelation did not take place before shabbat, after the extra day Moses added.


  1. Is there a danger in claiming that Moses—quintessential leader, prophet, teacher—remained celibate most of his married life in order to be in relationship with God?
  2. Do you think Moses was justified in shattering the tablets? What else might he have done?
  3. Torah understands certain bodily discharges (including semen) as incompatible with a state of ritual “purity.” Why do you think this is the case?

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Halakhic Rabbit Hole (#2) — BT Yebamot 61b-62a — #73

[61b] Bet Shammai say: two males. What is Bet Shammai’s reasoning? They derive it from [the example] of Moses, as it is written, The sons of Moses: Gershom and Eliezer (1 Chronicles 23:15). And Bet Hillel? They derive it from the creation of the world. And Bet Shammai—[can they not also] derive it from the creation of the world? [No, Bet Shammai says:] We  cannot infer what is possible [62a] from what is impossible. And Bet Hillel—[can they not] derive it from Moses also? [Bet Hillel] would tell you: Moses acted as he did based on his understanding, as it has been taught in a baraita: Moses did three things on the basis of his understanding and [in each instance] his thinking aligned with that of the Omnipresent: [1] He separated from his wife; [2] he broke the tablets; [3] he added one day. 

In TMT #72 we examined a mishnah concerning the Rabbis’ interpretation of Genesis 1:28 (“Be fertile and increase”) which they deemed to be a mitzvah for men (that determination comes  later in the discussion). If God commands men to procreate, it is natural to ask: How many children must one have to fulfill the mitzvah? The mishnah recorded a disagreement between Bet Shammai (B”S) and Bet Hillel (B”H). The former held that a man must father two sons; the latter held that he must have a son and a daughter. The mishnah told us that B”H’s opinion rested on the scriptural basis of Genesis 5:2 (“Male and female God created them”) but supplied no support for B”S’s view. The passage of Gemara above begins by quoting a phrase from the mishnah: “Bet Shammai say: two males.”

The Gemara supplies a source for Bet Shammai’s opinion. It tells us that B”S derived their opinion from the example of Moses—singular leader, prophet, law-giver, even rabbi (in the minds of the Sages)—who had two sons Gershom and Eliezer. Could there be any question but that Moses knew God’s will and fulfilled it? The Gemara cites for proof a verse from First Chronicles. Why did it not cite Exodus 18:3–4, where we first learn the names of Moses’ two sons? Perhaps because the Exodus verse comes just after the Israelites cross the Reed Sea where Moses meets Tzipporah, their sons, and Jethro in the wilderness. He has been separated from his wife for some time—perhaps their reunion will result in another child, perhaps a daughter? The First Book of Chronicles, however, is written much later, long after Moses lived, and 23:14 lists two only children: both sons.

Bet Hillel’s reasoning is entirely different. As we saw in TMT #72, the mishnah cited Genesis 5:2: Male and female God created them. Rather than basing the halakhic requirement on the example of Moses, B”H derive it from the creation story: God, the cosmic parent, created Adam and Eve, hence a man should emulate God by creating a son and a daughter.

Gemara often explores a disagreement in halakhic justification, such as this one between B”S and B”H, by asking: How would they respond to the other’s reasoning? That is precisely what happens next.

The Gemara wonders: Why didn’t Bet Shammai argue from Creation? Gemara speculates that B”S would respond that B”H’s scenario does not apply except in the Garden of Eden case. There, God made one man and one woman to insure that the human species could propagate. (The mishnah’s “impossible” inference is the continuation of the human species had God created two men.) In our world, parents who have two sons and no daughters need not worry about their sons finding mates. (The “possible” inference is the situation in our world, populated with men and women.) 

Next, the converse: Gemara asks why B”H did not derive their view from the example of Moses, as did B”S. The response is that Moses did not stop having children because he thought he had fulfilled the halakhic requirement to Be fertile and increase, but rather because he deemed it necessary and appropriate to separate himself from his wife at that particular juncture in history. In fact, the Gemara says, this was the first of three decisions that Moses made on the basis of his own understanding. The second decision was breaking the stone tablets he received from God on Mount Sinai; the third was to add a day to the two days of abstinence God ordained prior to Revelation.

Gemara will discuss Moses’ three decisions at some length, and so will we in TMT #74. You might enjoy reading Exodus 32 for the background to the second decision, and see if you can find a discrepancy between  Exodus 19:10–11 and Exodus 19:15 that lies behind Gemara’s report of Moses’ third decision.


  1. B”S based their view on the example of Moses; B”H based their view on God’s Creation. What do you think the implications are for following the model of Moses versus the model of God in the matter of how many children one is required to bring into the world?
  2. If people were to have children until they achieved the standard of either B”S or B”H, no doubt many would have large families, but would it have any effect on the overall balance of males and females in society? 
  3. Both B”S and B”H require a man to produce a male child, and neither says that two daughters fulfills the mitzvah of procreation. What are your thoughts on the social and psychological implications of this, both for children and for parents, as well as for society?

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Halakhic Rabbit Hole (#1) — BT Yebamot 61b — #72

MISHNAH: No man may abstain from keeping the law, Be fertile and increase (Genesis 1:28), unless he already has children: According to the School of Shammai, [he is obligated to procreate until he has] two sons; according to the School of Hillel, a son and a daughter, for it is written, Male and female God created them (Genesis 5:2).
GEMARA: [We might infer from the mishnah that] if he has children, he may abstain from procreation, but he may not abstain from having a wife. This supports what Rav Nachman said in the name of Shmuel: “Even if a man has several children, it is forbidden for him to remain without a wife, as it says, It is not good that man should be alone (Genesis 2:18).” But others say [we might infer from the mishnah]: If he does have children, he may abstain from procreation and he may also abstain from [marrying] a wife. Shall we say that this is a conclusive refutation of what Rav Nachman said in the name of Shmuel? No: If a man has no children, he must marry a woman who can bear children; if a man has children, he may marry a woman who is not capable of bearing children.

This is the first of several editions of TMT on a complex and troubling passage in the Talmud that, as we shall see in coming weeks, amounts to a halakhic rabbit hole.

Central to Jewish tradition is the notion of mitzvah, usually translated “commandment” or “religious obligation.” Torah is filled with mitzvot (pl.) that range from ethical to societal to ritual concerns. The Rabbis expanded the list substantially in numerous ways. For example, consider shabbat prohibitions. Torah lists four: Keep shabbat, sanctify  shabbat, refrain from work, and don’t light fires. Through their unique method of biblical hermeneutics, the Rabbis expand the work prohibition to include 39 melachot (categories) of activity, among them: sowing, plowing, reaping, kneading, baking, cleaning, spinning, tying a knot, sewing, tearing, writing, erasing, building, tearing down, kindling a fire, extinguishing a fire, and carrying. (There are 22 others.)

In the mishnah above, the Rabbis famously declare procreation to be a mitzvah. That alone should give us pause: What are the implications for people who cannot have, or do not want, children, and for those who have had, but lost, children?

On the basis of Genesis 1:28, the mishnah declares p’ru u-r’vu (“Be fertile and increase”) to be a positive commandment. In context, 1:28 is clearly descriptive: like all the living elements of  creation—plants and animals—human beings reproduce. Genesis 1:22 features the same words vis-a-vis land animals, but would anyone think that God commands them to reproduce? The Rabbis nonetheless choose to read 1:28 as prescriptive. Perhaps recognizing the inherent weakness of their claim, later in this daf and elsewhere, they support it by quoting Isaiah 45:18: …[God] formed [the earth] for habitation. The purpose of reproduction, then, is to fill the earth with civilization.

Having declared that procreation is a mitzvah from which a man may not abstain (the Rabbis will soon determine only men are obligated), the mishnah records a disagreement between Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel concerning what is required to fulfill the mitzvah.

The Gemara infers from the mishnah that even if a man has children, he nonetheless must marry (e.g., if his wife died, he should remarry). The inference comes from what the mishnah does not say, viz. a man must be married unless he has children. This inference, Gemara tells us, is consistent with R. Nachman's teaching in the name of Shmuel. However, Shmuel based the requirement to be married on Genesis 2:18 and not on the proof text of this mishnah. This opens the door for an alternative opinion: Perhaps the inference that a man must marry is unnecessary? If the contention that a man does not have to marry (after having children) is correct, then it refutes what Shmuel taught (as conveyed by Rav Nachman).

The Rabbis have a dilemma: If they defend the first inference, they are requiring a man to marry even after having children. Certainly he may, but making it a requirement seems to lack justification. However, if they defend the second inference, they negate Shmuel’s teaching, which they seem loathe to do, perhaps because he led one of the two primary academies in Babylonia. Gemara’s solution is to read Shmuel’s teaching in a more nuanced way: Once a man has fulfilled his duty to have children, he may marry a woman who is unable to have children, but until then, he must marry a woman who can bear him children.


  1. What are we to make of the disagreement between Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel concerning what is required to fulfill the mitzvah of p’riya u-r’viya (procreation), given that it is biologically and mathematically meaningless, since by either criteria, the population will be approximately 50% male/50% female? What else may be of concern here?
  2. What, if anything, does the Rabbis re-interpretation of Shmuel’s teaching resolve?
  3. Why do you think the Rabbis insisted that Genesis 1:28 is prescriptive, rather than descriptive? I’ve mentioned some of the implications of Mishnah’s declaration that procreation is a mitzvah. Gemara sets minimums. Can you suggest further implications and problems that arise from this viewpoint? How do the situations you have envisioned inform you concerning the wisdom of the Rabbis’ decision?