Follow by Email

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Power of Compassion — BT Baba Metzia 85a — #103

Rabbi [Yehudah ha-Nasi] said, “How precious is suffering!” He accepted upon himself thirteen years [of suffering]: six years of kidney stones and seven years of scurvy, and some say seven years of scurvy and six years of kidney stones. The stableman at Rabbi’s house was wealthier than King Shapur [of Persia]. When he would throw fodder to the animals, the noise [they made] could be heard three miles away. He would arrange to throw [fodder to the animals] just as Rabbi entered the bathroom. Even so, [Rabbi’s] cries were louder than the noise [of the animals] and were heard by seafarers. Nevertheless, the suffering of R. Elazar b. R. Shimon was greater than that of Rabbi, for whereas those of R. Elazar b. R. Shimon came through love and departed through love, those of Rabbi came as the result of a certain incident and departed as the result of an incident. [His sufferings] came as the result of a certain incident—what was this? A calf was being led to slaughter. It tried to hide in the folds of Rabbi’s garment and it lowed. He said to it, “Go, for this you were created.” They said [in heaven], “Since he does not show mercy, let suffering come upon him.” And [his sufferings] departed as the result of an incident—one day, Rabbi’s maidservant was sweeping the house. There were baby weasels there and she [intended] to sweep them away. [Rabbi] said to her, “Leave them be. It is written, [God’s] tender mercies are upon all [God’s] creatures (Psalm 145:9).” They said [in heaven], “Since he shows compassion, let us show compassion to him.”

Human suffering is both ubiquitous and troubling. It is therefore unsurprising that the Rabbis frequently discuss why it happens, what it means, and how to cope with it.  Given the limited physical and mental health options in the ancient world to alleviate suffering, the Rabbis’ capacity to mitigate suffering lay in their ability to reframe it, often in positive terms. Hence, viewing suffering as a gift from God that will be repaid many times over is one strategy employed by the Rabbis to explain suffering. This passage, however, suggests that suffering can be God’s punishment for offensive behavior—here, a failure of compassion.

For the Rabbis, suffering could be punishment from heaven, 
atonement for sin, or it could be a gift from God that will be repaid with interest.

The passage above follows a long treatise on the self-inflicted sufferings of R. Elazar b. R. Shimon and the merit that accrued to him for accepting these sufferings willingly: after he died, his body lay in an attic for many years without decomposing (84b). Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi (whom Gemara refers to as “Rabbi”) understands this to be a sign of R. Elazar’s greatness.

Having seen that suffering marked R. Elazar as righteous, Rabbi pronounces suffering “precious” and seeks to accept upon himself suffering to gain similar merit in the eyes of God. The nature of his suffering is disputed: tz’mirta means stones in the kidneys or urinary tract; tz’farna is understood as scurvy or thrush. The precise length of each ailment is less important than the claim that Rabbi brought it upon himself willingly and that his pain was so intense that his cries of agony were louder than the intensely loud noise made by the animals, whose keeper provoked them to make noise in order to drown out Rabbi’s cries of pain—all this functions to inform the reader that Rabbi suffered greatly.

The Gemara then undercuts the claim that Rabbi accepted suffering willingly by comparing the merit of his suffering unfavorably to that of R. Elazar b. R. Shimon. Whereas R. Elazar’s suffering came about through love (that is, he accepted suffering as a token of God’s love), Rabbi’s suffering came about, and also ceased, due to particular incidents. What were the incidents? Both involved Rabbi’s attitude toward the suffering of animals: His failure to show compassion toward a calf being hauled to slaughter compounded by his callous and erroneous claim that the animal existed only to become food for human beings provoked heaven to punish him with suffering. This is divine retribution: middah k’neged middah (measure for measure). The incident that ended Rabbi’s suffering is the appropriate bookend to the onset of his suffering: when he treats mere weasels with compassion and saves them from his maidservant’s broom, and even more when he quotes Psalm 145:9 as not merely descriptive of God’s compassion toward living creatures but as prescriptive for people’s obligation to show compassion for all animals, he demonstrates that he has repented the fault that brought on his suffering. Therefore heaven repays his compassion to the weasels by showing him compassion—his suffering ceases.

  1. How do you view suffering? Do you consider it a natural part of life that is divorced from questions of behavior and righteousness? Do you think it results from ethical choices and behaviors? Do you believe it is an objective experience or a state of mind? Given your answers to these questions, how should one who holds your views approach their own suffering?
  2. The Rabbis had ample opportunity to observe the residue of suffering on the soul. Does it leave one more compassionate and resilient, or more fearful and bitter? What has been your experience of suffering? Psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun have written about the possibility of positive personal growth in the aftermath of painful trauma, which they term “post-traumatic growth.” This includes “improved relationships, new possibilities for one's life, a greater appreciation for life, a greater sense of personal strength and spiritual development.” Have you witnessed this in someone else or experienced it in yourself?
  3. Why do you think that the story about Rabbi portrays a failure of compassion as the cause of suffering and the development of compassion as the “cure” of suffering? Is there an inherent connection between suffering and compassion?

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Eat Together, Bless Separately? — BT Berakhot 45b — #102

Yehudah bar Mereimar, Mar bar Rav Ashi, and Rav Acha of Difti ate a meal together. No one of them was more distinguished than his fellows to lead the blessing for them [i.e., Birkat ha-Mazon, the grace after meals]. They said, “Concerning that which was taught in the Mishnah—‘Three who ate together are obligated to join in zimum [the formal invitation by one of a group that ate together for the others to join in the blessings of Birkat ha-Mazon]—this pertains only when one person is distinguished. But where all are equal to one another separate blessings is preferable.” [Hence] each person recited Birkat ha-Mazon for himself. [Later] they came before Mereimar. He said to them, “You have fulfilled the obligation of Birkat ha-Mazon, but you have not fulfilled the obligation of the zimun. And if you say, ‘We’ll go back and say the zimun,’ there is no retroactive zimun.”

On this basis of Deuteronomy 8:10 (When you have eaten and been satisfied, you shall blessed Adonai your God for the good land that God has given you ), the Rabbis ordained and composed Birkat ha-Mazon, a series of blessings to be recited after eating a meal that includes bread. The three sages named above are discussing the zimun of Birkat ha-Mazon. The zimun is the invitation by one person, extended to dining companions, to recite Birkat ha-Mazon. The Rabbis ordained (M Berakhot 7:1, on the previous daf) that when three people eat bread together, they are obligated to join in a zimun, whereby one person “invites” the others to recite Birkat ha-Mazon. The Gemara on 45a explains that Rav Assi derived the obligation of zimun from Psalm 34:4 and R. Abahu derived it from Deuteronomy 32:3, but many authorities hold that the zimun is a rabbinic, not Toraitic, obligation.

The basic structure of Birkat ha-Mazon is four blessings preceded by the zimun. The Talmud explains these blessings on daf 48b as the Rabbis’ interpretation of the Deuteronomy 8:10: (1) When you have eaten and been satisfied you shall bless praise for God who sustains the world with food (blessing #1); (2) Adonai your God the zimun; (3) for the land thanks to God with special focus on the land of Israel, the source of Israel’s sustenance (blessing #2); (4) good → request that God protect and rebuild Jerusalem (blessing #3); (5) that God has given you → general praise of and thanks to God (blessing #4). (Additional short blessings have been added to Birkat ha-Mazon, as well as blessings for shabbat and festivals.) 

An anecdote is recounted concerning three rabbis who eat a meal together but recite Birkat ha-Mazon privately. They do not say the zimun, that is, no one invites the others to recite Birkat ha-Mazon. Gemara wants to know why they neglect the zimun. They explain their decision saying they believe that the Mishnah’s requirement of zimun pertains only when one of the people present is acknowledged as a greater Torah scholar than the others.

Rav’s students were sitting [and eating] a meal together. Rav Acha came [and joined them]. They said, “A great man has come who will recite for us [i.e., lead the zimun]. [Rav Acha] said to them, “Do you think that the greatest one blesses [i.e., leads Birkat ha-Mazon]? A primary member of the meal blesses.” But the halakhah is that the greatest one blesses even though he came at the end [of the meal]. (BT Berakhot 47a)

It may be that the three colleagues have in mind another incident recounted on Berakhot 47a (see above), in which Rav’s students are eating a meal together when Rav Acha (one of the three rabbis who omit zimun since no one of them is deemed a greater Torah scholar than the others) arrives late to join the meal. The students assume that since Rav Acha is a great sage, he will lead them in Birkat ha-Mazon, but he demurs, saying that someone who was there throughout the meal should lead Birkat ha-Mazon. The Gemara dismisses Rav Acha’s viewpoint, promulgating a halakhic decision that a Torah scholar of prominence, even one who arrived halfway through the meal, should lead Birkat ha-Mazon. 

When the three scholars who recited Birkat ha-Mazon privately (although they ate together) recount this incident to Mereimar, he tells them that while they fulfilled the obligation of reciting Birkat ha-Mazon, they did not fulfill the obligation of saying the zimun. Furthermore, Mereimar says, having recited the blessings of Birkat ha-Mazon, one cannot go back and recite the zimun afterward any more than one would issue an invitation to an event after the event took place.

1. Do you think the Rabbis place so much emphasis on the zimun because it is an opportunity to recite a blessing, or due to its potential to create community among people who eat together, or as a “reward” for eating with others rather than alone? How important are communal meals in your life?

2. Rav Acha’s says the one who leads Birkat ha-Mazon should be a “primary” diner. The subsequent halakhah ordains that “the greatest one blesses even though he came at the end [of the meal].” Memeimar holds that someone should lead even if none is considered most distinguished. Which view do you prefer? Often today, a guest at the table is invited to lead Birkat ha-Mazon; does this comport with one of the three views or is it reflect yet another? 

3. The zimun (invitation) applies when people eat a meal together, but what constitutes “eating together?” Imagine a school, workplace cafeteria, or restaurant with multiple tables where people bring or buy their own meal, arriving at different but overlapping times. Or perhaps a large group, such as a family, eats at the same time but occupies several tables. Or imagine people purposefully eating at the same table but each is on his/her cell phone. Under which conditions would you say they are eating “together?”