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Friday, June 30, 2017

Views of a Marriage — BT Yebamot 63a-b — #84

Rav was taking leave of R. Chiyya. [R. Chiyya] said to him, “May the Merciful One save you from that which is worse than death.” [Rav wondered to himself:] Is there something worse than death? [Rav] left, investigated, and found: Now, I find woman more bitter than death; she is all traps, her hands are fetters and her heart is snares. [He who is pleasing to God scares her, and he who is displeasing is caught by her.] (Ecclesiastes 7:26).
 Rav’s wife aggravated him. When he would say, “Prepare lentils for me,” she would prepare beans. [If he requested] beans, she would prepare lentils. When his son, Chiyya, grew up, he would reverse [his father’s requests] to her. [Rav] said to him, “Your mother has improved!” [Chiyya] said to him, “It was actually that I reversed [the requests] to her.” [Rav] said to him, “This is as people say, ‘[The child] who comes from you will teach you.’ You should not do this, for it says, They have trained their tongues to speak falsely; [they wear themselves out working iniquity] (Jeremiah 9:4).”
R. Chiyya’s wife would aggravate him. [Yet] when [R. Chiyya] would find something [in the market that she would like] he would wrap it in his shawl and bring it to her. Rav asked him, “But doesn’t she aggravate you? [R. Chiyya] said to him, “It is sufficient that they raise our children and save us from sin.”

The Rabbis discuss marriage on the previous daf of Talmud, where several sages wax poetic  about the value of being married. R. Tanchum says in the name of R. Chanilai: “Any many who does not have a wife lives without happiness, without blessing, and without goodness.” Gemara then tells us that in Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) they say that a man without a wive is as one without Torah, without a protective wall. R. Elazar is quoted as saying that a man without a wife is not whole. R. Yose learns from Elijah the prophet the extraordinary value of having a helpmate. As we all know all too well, as the passage above will reinforce, reality does not always accord with the ideal.

Rav studies with his uncle, R. Chiyya. Once, as Rav prepares to leave R. Chiyya’s bet midrash and return home, his uncle and teacher confers upon him a strange blessing: “May God save you from that which is worse than death.” Rav ponders this until he finds a verse he thinks explains it: R. Chiyya believes a wife can be worse than death. Is R. Chiyya referring to Rav’s wife, his own wife, or all wives?

Rav’s wife is a contrarian who derives satisfaction from annoying him. Their son, Chiyya (he has the same name as his uncle), learned how to deal with the situation— perhaps bringing more peace and quiet to the home—by cleverly requesting that mother prepare for his father what his father did not want, knowing she would do the opposite of what was requested and thereby inadvertently prepare what his father did want. As a result, his father found his mother less exasperating. Rather than keeping the scheme to himself, he reveals it to his father. Rav responds with a measure of pride and wonder—he has learned something from his son that had not occurred to him—but admonishes him with a verse from Jeremiah that suggests that deceiving his mother is sinful.

We next learn that R. Chiyya is also married to a woman who annoys him, yet when he finds something she would like in the marketplace, he buys it for her. Rav finds R. Chiyya’s behavior surprising and strange. The man who never thought to request lentils when he wanted beans, or beans knowing he would get lentils, has never thought to give his wife a gift  either. For Rav, buying something for his wife rewards her for her annoying behavior. What is more, he has found nothing in her worth appreciating. Rav lacks the imagination to understand that a gift might please her, serving as a peace token and investment in the relationship itself. When Rav asks R. Chiyya why he gifts a wife who annoys him, R. Chiyya responds by saying that his wife blesses him in two significant ways: She raises their children and their physical relationship saves him from potentially straying from the marriage for sexual satisfaction. In other words, while she can be exasperating, he also recognizes and appreciates her positive qualities and the contributions she makes to his life and their family.

One might wonder how adept Rav is at interpersonal relationships 
and whether, as the story presumes, his wife is the 
sole—or even primary—problem in this marital relationship.


  1. When R. Chiyya offered Rav the strange blessing that God might save him from “that which is worse than death,” do you think he had Rav’s marriage in mind, or his own? How might R. Chiyya have thought God saves one from a marital relationship that is, figuratively, “worse than death”? (Please keep in mind there is no suggestion that either Rav’s or R. Chiyya’s marriage involved physical or emotional abuse.)
  2. Although Chiyya’s tactic of requesting what his father does not want is effective, Rav expresses disapproval. Why? Do you agree or disagree? Is anyone hurt by the son’s tactic? Does a person’s behavior entitle others to employ deception to get what they want? If you think it does, under what circumstances?
  3. How might a group of female Torah scholars have written about marriage and aggravating spouses? Do you think it would have been wholly different, or possibly much the same?

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Who Shall Live and Who Shall Die? — BT Baba Metzia 62a — #83

How does R. Yochanan interpret that your kinsman may live with you (Leviticus 25:36)? He uses it for that which was taught: If two people are traveling together and one of them possesses a canteen of water such that, if both of them drink, both will die; but if [only] one of them drinks, he will reach civilization [and live]. This was the view of Ben Petora: It were better for both of them to drink and both of them to die, so that one of them does not see his friend die—until R. Akiba came and taught: that your kinsman may live with you (Leviticus 25:36) [implies that] your life takes precedence over your friend’s life.

The context for this breathtaking passage is a discussion of the laws of interest and usury, in which R. Yochanan and R. Nachman b. Yitzhak have a disagreement concerning whether the courts should compel a person to return interest. The latter quotes R. Elazar as teaching that usury is a violation of Leviticus 25:36: Do not exact from [your kinsman] advance or accrued interest, but fear your God, that your kinsman may live with you. This certainly sounds decisive, so the Gemara asks how R. Yochanan understands the same verse because unless he finds in it a different meaning altogether, then R. Nachman’s argument will prevail.

R. Yochanan’s interpretation of Leviticus 25:36 is illustrated in a gut-wrenching situation prompting two halakhic opinions concerning “Who has a right to the water?” We are told that the opinion of Ben Petora prevailed until R. Akiba came and overturned it with his interpretation of Leviticus 25:36. 

Perhaps you’re wondering: How would we know the water in the canteen is sufficient for only one person? What if they pass a stream or a well, or other people who can give them water? Why do they not consider other solutions? The failure of the text to address these questions alerts us that this is a contrived scenario meant to serve as a hypothetical thought experiment. The passage appears to be a digression from the general discussion about interest, but perhaps meant to suggest that Person X is not required to lend money to Person Y, even if Y is in dire straits, if X is poor and doing so would endanger X’s family. (Otherwise, X is expected to do so.)

Consider the scene: Two people are traveling together in the desert. Civilization—a settlement where water and food are available—is not nearby. One of the travelers possesses a canteen of water sufficient to enable only one person to make it to the settlement alive. If, however, the two travelers share the water in the canteen, neither will survive.

Two opinions concerning whether the one who owns the canteen of water must share it with the other are articulated. The first is that of ben Petora (we know him only as “the son of Petora”). We are told that his view was accepted halakhah until R. Akiba subsequently articulated an opinion grounded in a verse of Torah—Leviticus 25:36—that became accepted halakhah.

Ben Petora ruled that the owner of the canteen is obligated to share his water. His reasoning does not depend upon a Torah verse or halakhic principle, but rather on an emotional argument: Who would want to live having witnessed their companion dying and knowing that he died because the owner did not share his water?

R. Akiba, however, offers an opinion grounded in Torah: When Torah says that your kinsman may live with you, it implies the owner of the canteen can claim all the water (if, indeed, he needs all of it to live) because the kinsman cannot “live with” him unless he himself remains alive. Hence the owner of the canteen should prioritize himself over his companion.

Is it possible that ben Petora seeks to release both travelers from “playing God” 
by choosing who lives and who dies? 
But isn’t sharing the water a choice concerning who lives and dies?


  1. Ben Petora chooses “we” over “I”—but following his opinion, how many survive? Following R. Akiba’s opinion, how many survive? Is it fair to say that ben Petora chooses death over life, but R. Akiba chooses one life over two deaths? Do you think that maximizing the number of survivors justifies R. Akiba’s ruling? Following ben Petora’s opinion, the owner of the canteen will die with a clear conscience. According to R. Akiba’s opinion, the owner of the canteen will survive—with whatever pain and guilt that entails. Which would you choose? 
  2. How does R. Akiba’s ruling that one should save oneself first compare with the familiar instructions on an airplane to put on one’s own air mask first, and only afterward to assist a child? Can you envision another situation in which one might need to prioritize saving oneself before saving another person’s life? Is there an application of this hypothetical case to how self-driving cars should be programmed? (Imagine a pedestrian stepping in front of a car. If the car swerves to miss the pedestrian, it will hit a wall or another car, killing the passenger.)
  3. This text was one of several Talmudic texts instrumental in deciding an excruciatingly difficult case in 1977 of conjoined twins (let’s call them Baby A and Baby B) born to a Jewish couple. The babies were joined at the torso and shared a single, 6-chambered heart, which was insufficient to sustain them both for more than a few months. If the twins were separated, for anatomical reasons the heart could only be given to Baby B. The chief surgeon at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia, Dr. C. Everett Koop (later Surgeon General of the United States) determined that the heart was Baby A’s underdeveloped 2-chamber heart and Baby B’s fully developed 4-chamber heart. When asked whether the heart could be given to Baby A and thereby save her life, Dr. Koop replied, “There is no way to save Baby A. The issue is only should both die, or should Baby B be saved.” If you were called upon to decide whether the twins be separated and Baby B given the heart, how would you decide and why?

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Priorities: Pray or Study? — BT Shabbat 10a (#2) — #82

Rava saw Rav Hamnuna prolonging his prayer. [Rava] said, “Does one forsake the world-to-come and occupy oneself with transitory life?” [Rav Hamnuna] reasoned: The time for prayer is separate from the time for Torah study.
 R. Yirmiyah was sitting before R. Zeira and they were occupied in study. It grew late to pray and R. Yirmiyah rushed to arise [to pray]. R. Zeira applied to him the verse, One who turns away from hearing Torah (lit. instruction), even his prayer is an abomination (Proverbs 28:9).

In TMT #81, we considered the differing prayer styles of Rava bar Rav Huna and Rava.  One dressed up, while the other dressed down, suggesting very different emotional postures and conceptions of prayer. Gemara affirmed both and told us that Rav Ashi, following Rav Kahana, employed both styles as circumstance warranted. The account of Rava bar Rav Huna and Rava is followed immediately by the exchanges recounted above concerning the competing time demands of prayer and Torah study.

Were we immortal—and hence, time an infinite resource—we would not feel the daily pressure concerning how to spend our time and order our priorities. For the Rabbis, the obligations of Torah both study and prayer loom large and compete for that most limited of  resources—time. Devoted as they were to Torah study—their life blood and sacred mission—some rabbis saw anything that interfered, including even prayer, as an unwelcome intrusion. The passage above is one such hint.  Other sages readily acknowledged the value of the more “mundane” pursuits of life, especially those that put food on the table and support a family—all the more so, a sacred task: prayer.

R. Akiba taught: If there is flour (i.e., sustenance), there is no Torah; if there is no Torah, there is no flour. (Pirkei Avot 3:21) Life requires both the pursuit of Torah and the mundane; they reinforce one another.

All four sages mentioned lived in the fourth century of the common Era. Rava (Abba b. Yosef bar Chama) and Rav Hamnuna were both Babylonian sages. R. Yirmiyah and R. Zeira are sages in Eretz Yisrael (R. Zeira was born in Babylonia, but famously made aliyah to Eretz Yisrael). Juxtaposing two similar conversations—one set in Babylonia, the other in Eretz Yisrael—reinforces the universality of this concern in the fourth century rabbinic world.

Rav Hamnuna takes prayer seriously, investing his time in prayer to make it meaningful. Some people can switch gears quickly and focus their minds on prayer without much ado, but others cannot. For this reason, the siddur provides a lengthy assemblage of psalms and prayers to “warm up” before the formal prayers of Shacharit, the morning service. This section of the service, which comes before Barchu, called Pesukei de-Zimra (lit. “verses of song/praise”), affords one the opportunity to prepare spiritually for the core prayers of the service. Whether Rav Hamnuna is engaged in preparation for prayer, or simply elongating and relishing the core prayers is unclear, but also irrelevant. He takes prayer seriously as a spiritual practice, not merely as a statutory obligation. 

Rava, however, responds to Rav Hamnuna’s practice contemptuously, accusing him of trading his portion in the far superior life of olam ha-ba (the world-to-come) for life in this inferior, transitory world. Clearly, for Rava, the key to life in olam ha-ba is Talmud Torah: the more Torah study, the greater likelihood of attaining olam ha-ba. In a sense, this is the inverse of what we learn in Pirkei Avot, the “the more Torah, the more sustenance.” Rav Hamnuna responds (calmly, at least as I imagine the discussion) that there is sufficient time for both, meaning that prayer deserves the time allotted to it, and should not be seen as competing with Talmud Torah for scarce temporal resources: God desires both and rewards both.

In Eretz Yisrael, R. Yirmiyah and R. Zeira hold a similar conversation centered on the same disagreement. While engaged in study together, R. Yirmiyah, realizing that the window for prayer is closing, hurries to say his prayers within the prescribed interval of time, angering R. Zeira who resents interruption of their studies. R. Zeira quotes Proverbs 28:9, which says that one who avoids hearing and, we are to understand, heeding, God’s instruction so deeply offends God that even that person’s prayer—presumably a sincere attempt to connect with God—is rejected by God and deemed an abomination. The thrust of the verse seems to be that if you willfully ignore God’s instruction, God will ignore your prayers. R. Yirmiyah understands the verse to say that God is offended by one who turns away from learning to pray. This is a surprising comment given that prayer is considered a mitzvah—one of God’s instructions. 


  1. Have you known someone who is wholly devoted to one endeavor that is the core and substance of their life? Does it seem to you they neglect other important facets of life?
  2. What elements of Jewish life do you find most meaningful? How do you prioritize study, prayer, rituals, celebrations, holy days, community events, and the arts, among others. Have you had to sacrifice something to pursue these priorities?
“The reemergence of God as a dominant force in world affairs, shaping both the fates of nations and the daily existence of ordinary individuals, poses fundamental questions about the role of religion in human life. One of the most significant…is this: What does faith in God do to a person? That is, when God enters the conversation and dictates human ethical and social norms, is it a force for good or evil? For action or complacency? For moral progress or moral corruption?”
Rabbi Donniel Hartman, Putting God Second, pp. 4-5
  1. This passage inspires broader questions about the priorities religion inspires and instills. Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute argues that the three monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), while claiming to value peace, have at times championed immoral ideas and committed violence because of an “autoimmune disease” whereby they prioritize God over people blindness. Do you agree?