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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Talmudic Time Management — BT Shabbat 9b — #89

MISHNAH: One may not sit before a barber close to the time of Minchah until he has prayed, and may not enter a bathhouse or a tannery nor begin to eat nor begin to judge a case [close to the time of Minchah]. But if one began [any of these activities], one does not need to stop. One stops for the recitation of the Shema, but not to pray.
 GEMARA: What does “close to the time of Minchah” mean? If minchah gedolah is intended, why [are these activities] not [permitted]? For there is plenty of time left in the day [for both the activity and prayer]. Rather, close to minchah katana [must be the Mishnah’s intent]. If one began [an activity] one does not have to stop. Shall we say this is a refutation of R. Yehoshua b. Levi, for R. Yehoshua b. Levi said, “Once the time has arrived for Minchah prayers, it is forbidden for a person to taste anything before reciting the Minchah prayers.” No. [Mishnah means] close to minchah gedolah and the haircut of Ben Elashah. “One may not enter a bathhouse” [refers to] the entire process of bathing. “One may not enter a tannery” refers to a large tannery. “One may not begin to eat” [refers to] a large meal. “One may not judge a case” [refers to] the beginning of the case.

Time is a precious commodity that forces us to set priorities. Time management was as crucial in the ancient world as it is today, and no less challenging. Deadlines abounded then as now: the natural world provided deadlines for planting and harvesting, sundown established a deadline for accomplishing daily chores, and the rabbinic obligation of prayer imposed yet another set of deadlines. Minchah, the afternoon prayers, while briefer than either morning or evening prayers, must nonetheless be recited within a specific interval of time. This interval is determined by three factors: (1) Torah; (2) the practices of the priests in the Second Temple; and (3) the Rabbis’ understanding of the phrase bein ha-arba’im (twilight). 

The Minchah prayers recalls and replaces the daily Minchah grain offering that accompanied the afternoon sacrifice in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and the Mikdash (Temple). Torah tells us the Minchah was offered at twilight, bein ha-arba’im (Exodus 29:39-41 and Numbers 28:4–8). In general, when the Rabbis speak about time, they divide the daylight portion of a 24-hour day into 12 segments, each called an “hour.” Hence the length of an “hour” is not fixed; a rabbinic “hour” is 1/12 of the period of daylight on any given day. “Noon” or “midday,” when the sun is at its zenith, is the sixth hour. In a world without precise time-keeping technology, this system made sense. 

The time interval of bein ha-arba’im—literally “between the darkenings”—has come to be defined as one half hour past midday, which is the sixth hour (to insure that it is after midday, when the day has begun to “darken”), until sundown, when the sky begins to darken into night. This expansive interval, from 6-1/2 hours to 12 hours is known as Minchah Gedolah (“large minchah”). However, when the Temple stood, the Minchah offering was routinely completed at 9-1/2 hours (i.e., 3-1/2 hours after midday). This shorter interval, from 9-1/2 hours until sundown, is called Minchah Katana (“small minchah”). Clearly, Minchah Gedolah is a significantly larger expanse of time than Minchah Ketana.

While Shacharit (the morning prayers) can be said before heading out to work and Ma’ariv (evening prayers) recited after dark at the end of the workday, Minchah is said in the middle of the workday, when one’s mind and energy is occupied with many things, then as now. The Mishnah teaches us to plan our time in advance in order to prioritize the Minchah prayers. Activities that might occupy the bulk of the afternoon should not be initiated close to the time of Minchah, because one could become distracted, lose track of time, and miss the interval for praying Minchah. Two questions immediate arise: Isn’t the interval from 6-1/2 hours until sundown sufficient time to complete the activities mentioned and yet pray Minchah? Not all of these activities sound like they take much time—why, then, is Mishnah concerned about them? The Mishnah understands that people are forgetful and may not plan ahead. If someone enters into one of these activities, and subsequently realizes there is insufficient time for Minchah, they must stop temporarily to recite Shema, but can forego the other prayers of the Minchah service.

The Gemara seeks to resolve the questions raised above. First, it determines that the Mishnah speaks of Minchah Ketana, since it assumes Minchah Gedolah leaves plenty of time for both afternoon activities and prayer. Next, the Gemara explores an apparent contradiction between the Mishnah, which says that if one has begun to eat, one may finish the meal, and R. Yehoshua b. Levi, who said that even if one has begun a meal, when the time for Minchah arrives, one must stop and recite the prayers. The Gemara resolves the seeming conflict by saying Mishnah intends Minchah Gedolah and R. Yehoshua means Minchah Ketana. Another voice objects: No, Mishnah is talking about Minchah Gedolah and while normally a haircut is not a lengthy affair, it has in mind Ben Elashah the son of R. Yehudah ha-Nasi who, according to Nedarim 51a and Sanhedrin 22b, went for extraordinarily elaborate haircuts that took an entire afternoon. Concerning the other activities stipulated, Mishnah intends to tell us not to enter into lengthy versions of them if they will interfere with our ability to say Minchah prayers at the proper time.


  1. The Rabbis want us to plan our day starting with the important temporal fixture: prayer. How do you plan your day? Do you set aside time for prayer or meditation?
  2. Hillel taught: “Do not say: When I have time, I will study—because you may never have the time.” Shammai advised: “Make your Torah [study time] fixed.” What do you make fixed and immutable in your schedule?
  3. What can you do to make sure you stop at the appointed time, especially if you do not know how long something will take?

Friday, October 13, 2017

How to Scuttle Wisdom — BT Pesachim 66b — #88

Rav Yehudah said in Rav’s name: Whoever is boastful, if he is a sage, his wisdom will desert him; if a prophet, prophecy will desert him. If he is a sage, his wisdom will desert him: [we learn this] from Hillel, for the master said [in a baraita]: “Hillel began to rebuke them with words” and [subsequently] said to them, “I heard this halakhah but have forgotten it.” If he is a prophet, his prophecy will desert him [is learned] from Deborah, as it is written, The villagers ceased, they ceased from Israel, until I, Deborah, arose a mother in Israel (Judges 5:7). And it is [subsequently] written, Awake, awake, Deborah! Awake, awake, utter a song! (Judges 5:12)

Rav, whose full name was Abba Aricha (175–247 CE), was a student of R. Yehudah ha-Nasi (135–217 CE), the compiler of the Mishnah. Rav founded an important yeshivah in Sura in Babylonia where Rav Yehudah bar Yechezkel (220–299 CE) was among Rav’s closest and most important disciples. Rav Yehudah bar Yechezkel, Rav’s student, conveys a teaching concerning the effects of boastfulness and arrogance in the name of his master, Rav.

While the Rabbis’ primary concern may well have been deducing halakhic principles, procedures, and laws, the world of ethical and character values was also within their scope. Among the attributes they especially prized was humility. The quintessential model of humility is Moses, of whom Torah says, Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth (Numbers 12:3).

For the Rabbis, not only is humility consistent with greatness, but genuine greatness (particularly in the realm of Torah scholarship) and humility are inseparable. R. Chanina b. Ida taught that Torah is like water: just as water flows only downhill, so too Torah’s wisdom endures only with those who are humble (BT Ta’anit 7a).

Rav Yehudah bar Yechezkel conveys the teaching of his master, Rav, that arrogant boasting undermines not only the acquisition, but also the retention of wisdom. For the Rabbis, the two modes by which people acquire wisdom are Torah study and prophecy. And while the age of prophecy was considered to have ended by the time this passage was written, the Rabbis still evoke the image of a prophet who had a direct communication from God. Hence, Rav illustrates his claim with the example of a rabbi (Hillel) and a prophet (Deborah).

Earlier on this same folio (66a), Gemara recounted that long ago questions arose concerning the performance of Passover rituals normally not permitted on shabbat: What happens when the festival coincides with shabbat? The only one who knew whether Passover overrides shabbat was Hillel. Therefore he was immediately appointed Nasi. Hillel taught the laws of Passover but veered off into boasting about his credentials and berating the community’s leaders for being lazy and ignorant. The community leaders then asked Hillel what the law is in the case of someone who forgets to bring a knife to slaughter his pesach lamb to the Temple—the slaughter is permitted on shabbat, but is carrying the knife permitted? Hillel responded, “I heard this law, but I have forgotten it.” In the passage above, Rav connects these two events causally, claiming that the reason Hillel forgot the law he had once known was because he had arrogantly boasted of his scholastic prowess. 

The second example is Deborah, the general who was also a prophet. In Judges chapter 5 (one of the oldest surviving examples of biblical poetry), Deborah derides the ineffectiveness of the leaders who preceded her and praises her own amazing victory over the Canaanites under their general, Sisera. The phrase quoted—Awake, Awake, Deborah! Awake, awake, utter a song!—is here interpreted by the Rabbis to signal that Deborah’s gift of prophecy had evaporated. According to Rav, coming on the tail of her boasting, this was the result of her haughtiness.

Rav does not specify the precise causal connection between boastfulness and the cessation of wisdom. Could it be that braggarts are entirely focused on themselves and therefore unable to focus on learning and receiving wisdom from without? Has the ego become a barrier that wisdom and genuine Torah learning cannot cross?


  1. Genuine humility seems to run counter to human nature. In a classic hasidic story, a man complains to his rabbi, “The sages taught that one who runs away from fame, fame will pursue him. I have spent my entire life running away from fame, but fame has never pursued me.” His rabbi responded, “The trouble is that you are always looking over your shoulder to see if fame is chasing you.” How would you define humility? Do you consider yourself humble? How do you think others see you?
  2. The world of social media has birthed the term “humble brag.” (Urban Dictionary’s definition: “Subtly letting others now about how fantastic your life is while undercutting it with a bit of self-effacing humor or ‘woe is me’ gloss.”) Have you observed the “humble brag?” Have you engaged in “humble bragging?” If so, why?
  3. The Italian commentator, kabbalist, and philosopher, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707–1746) wrote humorously about false modesty in Mesillat Yesharim (Path of the Upright): “[One] imagines that he is so great and so deserving of honor that no one can deprive him of the usual signs of respect. To prove this, he behaves as though he were humble and goes to great extremes in displaying boundless modesty and infinite humility. But in his heart he is proud, saying to himself, ‘I am so exalted, and so deserving of honor, that I need not have anyone do me honor. I can well afford to forgo marks of respect.’” If one is occupied with boasting about their humility, is this any different from boasting about their success?

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall — BT Nedarim 9b — #87

Shimon ha-Tzaddik said [in a baraita], “In all my life, I never ate the guilt-offering of a nazirite who became tamei [ritually impure] with one exception. Once a certain man, a nazirite [who had become tamei] came from the south and I saw that he had beautiful eyes and was handsome, with curly locks. I said to him, ‘My son, why did you see fit to destroy your beautiful hair?’ He said to me, ‘I was a shepherd for my father in town. I went to fill [a bucket with water] from the spring and I gazed down at my reflection [in the water] and my yetzer rushed over me and threatened to banish me from the world. I said to [my yetzer], “Evil one! Why are you so arrogant in a world that is not yours, with one who is destined to be [consumed by] worms and maggots? By the Temple Service, I will shave you for [the sake of] heaven.”’ Immediately, I arose and kissed him on his head and I said to him, ‘My son, may there be more who make nazirite vows like you in Israel! It is about you that Scripture says, If anyone, man or woman, explicitly utters a nazirite’s vow, to set himself apart for Adonai… (Numbers 6:2).” 

The background for this story is found most prominently in the Metamorphosis of Ovid (43 BCE - 17 or 18 CE), the Roman poet who wrote the classic version of the Greek tale of Narcissus. Narcissus, the son of a river god and a nymph, one day discovered his magnificently beautiful reflection in a pool of water. Not realizing it was his own image, he became so transfixed by his own beauty that he fell hopelessly in love with it and lost the will to do anything else but gaze at his own reflection. The term narcissism derives from this story. Many artists have painted Narcissus; my favorite is by Caravaggio (shown here to the right).

The story Shimon ha-Tzaddik tells in the Talmud provides evidence that the Rabbis were familiar with Greek and Roman stories. In this case, the talmudic re-write of the tale of Narcissus is instructive of rabbinic values.

The Rabbis were suspicious nazirites. Torah presents the nazirite as one who takes on additional vows (to abstain from cutting his hair, drinking grapes or wine, and avoiding contact with the dead) presumably to attain a greater level of holiness. But the Rabbis were wary: There are sufficiently many obligations imposed by Torah. Is this an act of spirituality or hubris? Is a nazirite someone who makes the vow because he is in control of his yetzer ra (evil inclination), or someone who is inspired to to be a nazirite by his arrogant and narcissistic yetzer?

The sacrifice of a nazirite, should he become ritually impure, or after he finished the period of his vow, was eaten by a kohen (priest). Apparently, Shimon ha-Tzaddik, a High Priest according to tradition, avoided eating the sacrifices of nazirites as a matter of personal practice. Our story concerns an exception he once made. The nazirite whose sacrifice he agreed to eat had three hallmarks of someone the High Priest and rabbi would disdain and look down upon: he was a shepherd, he came from the south, and he was, of course, a nazirite. 

Shimon notices the man’s exceptional beauty and therefore asks why he would be willing to cut off his hair, as is required at the end of the period of the vow. The man replies that he once gazed at his own reflection in a pool of water and immediately felt overwhelmed by the yetzer ra—he felt in danger of losing himself as Narcissus had done. His glimpse of his own beauty risked his life, but unlike Narcissus, he pulled himself away from the brink by reminding himself that beauty is ephemeral; all are destined to decompose in the ground (here, the nazirite quotes Pirkei Avot 3:1). He thereupon took the vow to counteract the power of his own yetzer, intentionally destroying the beauty that threatened to overwhelm his character. Recognizing the rightness of his intentions, Shimon ha-Tzaddik agrees to eat, and thereby validate, his sacrificial offering.

  1. Is there a conflict between self-esteem, as it is promoted today, and the middah (character attribute) of humility? Does social media, which encourages us to curate our lives and promote a certain image, narcissism?
  2. In Ovid’s version of the tale of Narcissus, the arrogant and proud young man spurns many suitors, among them a nymph who implores the gods, “So may he love himself, and so may he fail to command what he loves.” This is a classic case of what the Sages called middah k’neged middah (“measure for measure”). Just as Narcissus refused to reciprocate the love of those who had fallen in love with him, he fell in love with his own image which could not reciprocate his love. Do you think that self-love and narcissism can interfere with a person’s ability to be in a loving relationship with another person? How?
  3. One of the chief differences between the Greek story of Narcissus and the talmudic tale of the nazirite concerns self-awareness. Narcissus is utterly unaware of how his obsession with his  image is effecting him; he is even unaware that the image that transfixes him is his own. The nazirite, in contrast, is keenly self-aware and can therefore sidestep the trap that claims Narcissus’ life. In Ovid’s telling, after Narcissus dies, the water nymphs go to collect his body to place on his funeral pyre, but it has disappeared. In its place they find a flower with a yellow center surrounded by white petals. Still beautiful, but all humanity gone. The nazirite, in contrast, emerges as beautiful as ever—outside and inside. What do you think is the relationship between self-awareness and beauty? Between humility and beauty?