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Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Breaking Bad News — BT Baba Metzia 59b — #110

It was said: On that day all objects which R. Eliezer had declared tahor (ritually pure) were brought and purified through fire. Then the Sages took a vote and blessed [i. e., excommunicated] R. Eliezer. The Sages said, “Who shall go and inform him [that he has been excommunicated]?” “I will go,” answered R. Akiba, “lest someone inform him inappropriately and thus destroy the entire world.” What did R. Akiba do? He donned black garments and wrapped himself in black and went and sat at a distance of four cubits from R. Eliezer. “Akiba,” said Rabbi Eliezer, “what happened today?” “Master,” he replied, “it appears to me that your companions are avoiding you.” Thereupon, R. Eliezer also rent his garments, took off his shoes, got down off his chair, and sat on the ground, all the while tears streaming from his eyes. 

Have you ever needed to deliver bad news? Doctors, chaplains, and police officers do so as part of their job, but at one time or another, each of us is called upon to to inform someone of something that will pain, frighten, or devastate them. Is there a proper way to deliver bad news? 

This passage is part of what is arguably the best known sugya in all Talmud, the oven of Achnai. It caps off a story that illustrates the danger of “overreaching” with words. For the Sages, words have power, both for good and for evil. Just as God is said to have created the world with words, so too do we create worlds of reality and emotion with our words. At the end of a discussion on the danger of using words cruelly or carelessly, the Rabbis tell a story about R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus, who finds himself in fundamental opposition to his colleagues concerning a matter of ritual purity. When they vote, he refuses to abide by the majority’s decision and holds his ground. What ensues is nothing short of a literal natural disaster. R. Akiba attempts, with limited success, to redeem the situation through a sensitive use of words. The story overall has much to teach us. This short passage teaches us how we might deliver bad and painful news, which is certainly a way we use words for good or for ill.

The object under discussion is an oven, which R. Eliezer declares unsusceptible to ritual impurity, but the Sages declare in a vote to be impure. R. Eliezer’s refusal to accede to the majority means that his declarations of what is pure or impure can no longer be vouched for. Hence, everything he has declared ritually pure is forthwith considered suspect and requires purification by fire. But the Sages do not stop there. They take a second vote and excommunicate R. Eliezer (in absentia), an exceptionally harsh punishment that, in itself, is extreme overreaching. So horrific is the idea of excommunication that the Talmud cannot bring itself to use the term and employs the ironic euphemism “blessed.” 

Taking this harsh measure makes the Sages anxious. R. Eliezer, we learn in the earlier part of the story (not recounted here), is a miracle worker and wields enormous power. In this story alone, he causes a tree to uproot itself and jump 100 cubits (~150 feet), makes a stream flow backward, and causes the walls of the Study House to lean in menacingly on those within who dare to disagree with his judgment. Therefore, angering R. Eliezer has practical implications: he has supernatural power and is therefore dangerous. Excommunication is a dreadful punishment to bear, both because it brings shame and because it imposes restrictions on one’s associations: most notably, people in the community may not come closer than four cubits (~ 6 feet) to one who has been excommunicated.

R. Akiba, who enjoys a reputation for exceptional sensitivity, assumes the task on behalf of the Rabbis, lest someone perform it clumsily and R. Eliezer, enraged, wreak havoc on the community. Here is where the lesson on how to deliver bad news begins. R. Akiba dresses in black and sits four cubits away from R. Eliezer. He says nothing. Black garments, which R. Eliezer can see from a distance, signal that R. Akiba is mourning a great loss (the loss of R. Eliezer from the circle of scholars in the Study House). This immediately warns R. Eliezer that something bad has happened, but doesn’t assail him with the news. Since the restrictions of excommunication are well known, when R. Akiba sits at a distance of four cubits, R. Eliezer understands what has transpired. R. Akiba waits for R. Eliezer to speak first—he waits until R. Eliezer is emotionally ready to hear the news. When R. Eliezer finally asks, R. Akiba gently says that it appears that the other rabbis are avoiding him, without explicitly saying that R. Eliezer has been excommunicated. R. Akiba’s style is slow and gentle, conveying only as much as R. Eliezer is ready to absorb. Having digested R. Akiba’s communication in full, R. Eliezer mourns his loss of collegial community: he rends his cloak, removes his shoes, and sits low on the ground—several are mourning rituals practiced to this day—and he weeps. What the midrash does not tell us, but we are to understand, is that R. Akiba remains nearby, a comforting and consoling presence.

  1. Why do you think people often say “passed away” rather than “died”? Does it have something to do with the power of words and the starkness and finality of death? Do euphemisms protect the recipient of bad news, assuage the feelings of the bearer of bad tidings, or serve the needs of both? Are euphemisms for death intended to provide spiritual comfort, or do they allow the speaker to avoid being perceived as abrupt or offensive, avoid their own discomfort and grief?
  2. Have you ever delivered bad news and felt unequal to the task? Were you able to complete it in a way you consider honorable and compassionate?
  3. Why do people often rush giving bad news? Is it to minimize their own pain? How might you employ R. Akiba’s approach to delivering bad news?

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Bikkur Cholim — BT Shabbat 12b — #109

Rabbah b. Bar Chanah said, “When we followed R. Elazar to inquire after a sick person, sometimes he would say to him, [in Hebrew] ‘May the Omnipresent remember you for peace.’ At other times, he said, [in Aramaic] ‘May the Merciful One remember you for peace.’” But how could he do this [i.e., pray in Aramaic]? Did not Rav Yehudah say, “One should never petition for his needs in Aramaic,” and R. Yochanan say, “If one petitions for his needs in Aramaic, the Ministering Angels do not heed him because they do not understand Aramaic”? A sick person is different, because the Shekhinah (Divine Presence) is with him, for R. Anan said in Rav's name, “Whence do we know the Shekhinah helps the sick? As it is written, Adonai will sustain him on the sickbed (Psalm 41:4).” It was also taught in a baraita: One who visits the sick should not sit on the bed or on a chair; he should wrap himself and sit in front of him [on the floor] because the Shekhinah is above the sick person’s head, as it is said, Adonai will sustain him on the sickbed. And Rava said Ravin said, “Whence do we know the Holy Blessed One sustains the sick? Because it is said, Adonai will sustain him on the sickbed.”

Parshat Vayera opens, “Adonai appeared to [Abraham] by the terebinths of Mamre… Looking up, he saw three men standing near him.” Midrash explains that God visited Abraham as he recovered from his circumcision (recounted in verses immediately prior to this) and on God’s model, they learned bikkur cholim, the mitzvah of visiting the sick. This week’s TMT is passage from tractate Shabbat concerning bikkur cholim

In the midst of a conversation about the Mishnah’s prohibition (on 11a) against searching one’s garments for vermin or read by lamplight on shabbat evening, the Gemara takes an interesting turn to discuss bikkur cholim (visiting the sick) on shabbat. The underlying concern is that visiting the sick may cause the visitor to suffer; while visiting is permitted on shabbat, any suffering induced conflicts with oneg shabbat—shabbat is ideally a “day of delight.” The discussion of bikkur cholim, however, does not mention any possible conflict with shabbat. Rather, it goes in a most unexpected direction.

Rabbah b. Bar Chanah recounts that when R. Elazar visited the sick, he sometimes prayed in Hebrew and other times in Aramaic, presumably based on which language the sick person understood. The anonymous narrator, however, is surprised that R. Elazar ever couched a prayer for recovery from illness in Aramaic because Rav Yehudah taught that petitionary prayers should never be made in Aramaic and R. Yochanan taught that prayers for the ill in Aramaic are ineffectual because “the Ministering Angels” don’t understand Aramaic and therefore cannot respond. At first glance, the claim that the Ministering Angels are conversant in some languages  but not others may seem humorous, but upon further reflection, this statement is both confounding and troubling. Do we not pray directly to God? Are the Ministering Angels intermediaries? Commentators through the ages have twisted themselves in knots to explain this passage, including: angels literally don’t know Aramaic; Aramaic is an inferior language; angels do not convey prayers to God but rather carry out God’s will in response to prayers uttered to God in any language (if so, the language of prayer should be a moot point, no?); those who pray in Aramaic do so with less kavanah (intention) than if they used Hebrew (really?). It truly seems that at least some sages believed the Ministering Angels played an intermediary role conveying our prayers to God. 

The Gemara resolves the concern by asserting that the Shekhinah (God’s Divine Presence) is aware of sick people and is present for them. R. Anan supplies a proof text he learned from Rav: Psalm 41:4 assures us that “Adonai will sustain him on the sickbed.” In addition to resolving the problem created by the presumption that the Ministering Angels act as intermediaries to God, I imagine that the assertion that God is nearby and present to people who are sick is exceptionally comforting, particularly in a world that offers little effective medical care and few curative pharmaceuticals, let alone medicines to relieve pain.

The Hebrew term in Psalm 41:4 (samech-ayin-daled), here translated “sustain,” has a wide range of meanings. It connotes “support,” “assist,” “nurse (i.e., take care of),” and “feed.” The verse (Psalm 41:4) is cited twice more. It is mentioned in a baraita to explain why one should sit on the floor rather than on the bed or a chair when visiting the sick. If the Divine Presence is understood to be hovering above the patient’s head, a visitor who sits on the bed or on a chair is above the Shekhinah; in God’s presence, humility is required. Psalm 41:4 is employed a third time by Rava in the name of Ravin, to prove that God sustains those who are sick, suggesting that God feeds or nourishes those who are sick. 

  1. Does it matter what language one uses to pray? Can prayer be expressed without formal language, without words?
  2. When you visit one who is sick, where do you sit? What do you consider when choosing where to sit (e.g., the presence of the Shekhinah, the nature of your relationship with the sick person, the physical and/or emotional needs of the person you’re visiting, the possibility of contagion)?
  3. The third mention of Psalm 41:4 seems to suggest that God provides food to nourish the sick. Yet the Shulchan Aruch (YD 335:8) asserts that one of the primary purposes in visiting the sick is to ascertain their needs and make arrangements for fulfilling them. This would naturally include food. How do you understand the Gemara’s claim here? Is there possibly a suggestion here that those who bring food to the home of the sick are working as God’s hands?

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Udder Confusion — BT Chullin 109b-110a — #108

Yalta said to Rav Nachman, “For anything the Merciful One prohibited to us, [God] permitted something similar: [God] prohibited blood but permitted [eating] liver; not a menstruant, but the blood of purity; not fat of a domesticated animal, but fat of an undomesticated animal; not pork but the brain of a shibuta fish; not giruta [a non-kosher fish], but tongue of a fish; not the wife of another man, but a divorcee during [her previous] husband’s lifetime; not one’s brother’s wife, but levirate marriage; not a gentile woman, but a beautiful [captive of war] woman. I wish to eat meat [cooked] in milk.” Rav Nachman told [his] cooks, “Roast udders on a spit for her.” But didn’t we learn [in the mishnah] “The udder must be cut open”? That is only with regard to [cooking in] a pot [not roasting]. Isn’t it taught [in a previously cited baraita]: [An udder] cooked [in its milk is permitted]—after the fact, but not from the start? The same is true even from the start because [the tanna of the baraita] uses this language because he wants to teach in the latter clause: “A stomach cooked with milk” is prohibited. There, it may not [be eaten] even after the fact. [The tanna]  taught the first clause [this way], as well: [An udder] cooked [in its milk is permitted].

The story above concerns a debate about an act done intentionally that might be interpreted to violate the separation of meat and dairy foods, which is a pillar of kashrut. According to halakhah, there are acts that are forbidden whether done intentionally or inadvertently. Other acts are impermissible from the start (i.e., if performed intentionally) but after the fact (if done inadvertently) they are permissible. For example: if parve food, such as rice or lentils, is cooked in a clean meat pot, may it be served with dairy food? Joseph Karo (16th century), author of the Shulchan Arukh, wrote that it may, but only if the mistake were discovered after the fact. However, Karo himself later cited Rabbeinu Yerucham (14th century) who permitted parve food intentionally cooked (“from the start”) in a meat pot to be served with a dairy meal. Rav Nachman contrives a way to fulfill the wish of his wife Yalta to taste meat and milk together.

Yalta is the wife of Rav Nachman, the wealthy and powerful exilarch of the Jewish community in Babylonia. Yalta is mentioned several times in the Babylonian Talmud. She is consistently presented as clever, educated, and the recipient of her husband’s efforts to please her. This story, more than any other, brings all these together. 

Yalta makes a fascinating argument concerning God’s prohibitions and then marshals a clever array of facts to back it up. She claims: for everything God forbids, there is something similar permitted as compensation. She supplies eight examples: four concern food, one concerns sexual intimacy, and three concern sexual partners. In that order (which is not identical with the order presented in the Gemara): Torah forbids the consumption of blood (Lev. 17:13-14) but permits liver, which retains the taste of blood. Fat of domesticated animals is impermissible (Lev. 7:23), but the fat of undomesticated animals is not proscribed. Pork is forbidden (Lev. 11:3) but the brain of a shibuta fish, which tastes like pork, is permitted. Torah’s standards for fish (fins and scales) rules out the giruta, but the tongues of permitted fish taste much the same. Sexual intercourse with a niddah (menstruant) is forbidden (Lev. 18:19, 20:18) but there are times when blood flow (“blood of purity”) does not make sexual intimacy impermissible. Concerning sexual partners, sexual intercourse with a married woman is adultery (Ex. 20:13, Dt. 5:17) but marriage to a divorcee, even while her previous husband is alive, is permitted (presumably this carries a hint of the thrill of adultery). A man may not have sex with his brother’s wife (Lev. 18:16), yet the law of levirate marriage (Dt. 25:5-10) can sometimes require a man to marry his brother’s widow. Marriage to a non-Jew is forbidden (Dt. 7:3), yet is effectively permitted when the woman is taken captive in war (Dt. 21:10-14). Having asserted that there is always an “exception to the rule,” if one is clever enougsh to recognize it, Yalta proclaims her desire to taste milk and meat together. Rav Nachman, who wishes to please her, orders his cooks to roast an udder, presumably because the udder retains some of the milk it produced.

The Gemara now discusses whether Rav Nachman’s instructions to his cooks—intentionally planning to combine milk and meat from the start—delegitimizes the outcome. The mishnah preceding the story said: “The udder must be cut open and emptied of its milk. If he did not cut it open, he has not transgressed. The heart must be cut open and emptied of its blood. If he did not cut it open, he has not transgressed.” It seems clear enough that only milk expressed from a living animal counts as milk that may not be combined with meat. However, in the Gemara that follows, the Rabbis compare the case of the udder and the heart, claiming that the heart must be cut open even after cooking to remove the blood because blood may not be eaten under all circumstances, unlike milk which is permissible to consume. Prior to our story, the Rabbis also contrasted the case of the udder with that of the stomach of a nursing calf. While the latter is always forbidden—even after the fact—the udder is permissible before or after the fact. Thus, Rav Nachman’s stratagem to combine the udder (flesh) with its milk for Yalta is permissible.

  1. In Yalta’s novel view, God balances prohibitions with corresponding permissions. What insights can you derive from this? Does it have implications for how authorities or parents make rules?
  2. Having argued that God is as much about permission and prohibition, Yalta trusts Rav Nachman to find a way for her to taste milk and meat together. It would have been easier for him to say, “Sorry, not allowed.” Instead, he figured out a way to provide what she wanted. How is this a model for marital (and other) relationships?
  3. Many people find fulfillment in upholding religious strictures. Others feel suffocated by them. Does this story speak to those in the latter group? If so, how?

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Life in the Ark — BT Sanhedrin 108b — #107

[Every animal, every creeping thing, and every bird, everything that stirs on earth] emerged from the ark by families (Genesis 6:18). R. Yochanan said, “With their families, not by themselves.” R. Chana bar Bizna said, “Eliezer said to Shem the Great, ‘It is written, emerged from the ark by families. You yourselves, where were you?” [Shem] said to [Eliezer], “We had great trouble in the ark. Animals that were accustomed to being fed by day, we fed by day. Those normally fed at night, we fed at night. My father did not know what the zikita ate. One day he was sitting and cutting up a pomegranate when a worm dropped out of it [and the zikita] ate it. From then on, he mashed bran [in water] and when it became wormy, [the zikita] ate [the worms]. The lion developed a fever that sustained it—for Rav said: Fever sustains no less than six [days] and no more than twelve [days]. [Concerning] the avarshinah, Father found it lying in the hold of the ark. He said to it, ‘Don’t you want food?’ It said to him, ‘I saw that you were busy so I said [to myself] that I would not trouble you.’ He said to it, ‘May it be [God’s] will that you never die.’” As it is written, I said I would end my days in the nest but be as long-lived as the phoenix (Job 29:18).

Graphic representations of the Ark generally depict the animals standing on deck—the ark had no deck—and smiling like people embarking on a pleasure cruise (see graphic on the right). However, there is nothing in the Torah’s portrayal of the Noah story to suggest this. With thousands upon thousands of creatures shut up in the ark the conditions inside must have been stifling and miserable. Imagine only eight people to feed and care for them all. All this amidst a genocidal hurricane covering the earth. Why would anyone smile? The Rabbis wondered what it must have been like in the ark and what would have been required to sustain life for the year they were all shut in before they finally disembarked.

The Rabbis use Genesis 6:18 as a launching pad because the expression l’mish’p’chotei’hem (lit. by families) can be understood “according to their kind.” This is a reminder that each species lives in a unique manner: its habits of eating, sleeping, hunting, etc. The gist of R. Yochanan’s comment is: If, after the animals emerged from the ark they lived according to their natural ways (“by families”), does that imply that for the year spent in the ark, they did not? And if they did not, how could that be, since one cannot simply
change the natural life patterns of animals without doing them grave damage. The best way to answer this question is by asking an eye witness, which R. Chana bar Bizna does midrashically by recounting that Eliezer, the servant of Abraham, asked Noah’s son Shem—who was onboard the ark—“You yourselves [i.e., the eight humans], where were you [i.e., how did you manage things during that year afloat]?”

Shem then provides an account of life on the ark. His first point: It wasn’t easy. First problem: feeding schedules were difficult because some animals are diurnal and some are nocturnal, and all were to be fed according to their biological needs. Therefore, the people needed to adjust to the animals’ schedules. Second problem: the people didn’t know what food each and every animal required. Shem recalls that a creature called the zikita was a case in point. (While I don’t know what a zikita is, others have offered suggestions ranging from chameleon to bird.) The point of Shem’s anecdote is that Noah kept his eyes open and was able to learn, by watching the zikita, what its needs were and then innovate a solution to produce its food. Third problem: the preferred food of some animals was other animals. This was a non-starter given the purpose of the ark was to serve as a genetic safe. However, heaven helped by making the lion feverish enough to lose its appetite for its usual prey but not so sick that it died. Then Shem recalls the avarshinah, which the Talmud identifies with the phoenix based on a verse from Job, but we don’t honestly know what animal it is. Up until this point, the Talmud has impressed upon us the compassion the humans had for the animals in their charge. According to Shem, the avarshinah repaid Noah’s compassion by displaying compassion for him. It recognized the weight of Noah’s burden in caring for the animals and did not want to trouble him further about its own care. When Noah discovered this, he blessed it with, if not eternal life, then long life (Job 29:18 can be read either way).

This whimsical account of life onboard the ark emphasizes that compassion displayed under duress can make an enormous difference in the quality of life—and promotes survival.

  1. Shem’s anecdotes highlight four themes: (1) discerning and meeting the individual needs of others even when it causes you great difficulty; (2) learning what others need even when you don’t know; (3) God’s help when things are difficult; (4) receiving reciprocal compassion from those you care for. Why do you think the Rabbis chose these four themes? Would you have chosen or added others? How do these themes apply to your life?
  2. Do you believe that only human beings can feel and express compassion? Here, the Talmud asserts that animals are capable of discerning human needs and displaying compassion toward them. Do you agree or disagree? What has been your experience?
  3. Is there a message here about how we should treat domesticated animals and wildlife today? If so, how does this apply to conditions in zoos? How does it apply to our effect on the habitats of wild animals and their food sources? How does it apply to global warming and its effect on habitats and food supplies?

Friday, October 5, 2018

Public Appointments and Public Opinion—BT Berakhot 55a—#106

R. Yitzhak said: One does not appoint a leader over a community unless one consults the community, for it is said, [Moses said to the Israelites,] See, Adonai has singled out by name Bezalel” (Exodus 35:30). The Holy One of Blessing said to Moses, “Moses, do you consider Bezalel worthy [of the task of constructing the Tabernacle]?” [Moses] said to [God], “Sovereign of the universe, if You consider him worthy, then I consider him worthy.” [God] said to [Moses], “Nevertheless, go and ask them [i.e., the Israelites].” [Moses] went and asked the Israelites, “Do you consider Bezalel worthy?” They said to him, “If the Holy One of Blessing and you consider him worthy, then we certainly consider him worthy.”

Torah recounts that shortly after Moses descended Mount Sinai the second time with the second set of tablets in hand, he announced the elevation of Bezalel to superintend the construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), the Ark, and all their appurtenances according to God’s divine instructions (Exodus 25–27). Torah tells us: 

Moses said to the Israelites: See, Adonai has singled out by name Bezalel, son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. He has endowed him with a divine spirit of skill, ability, and knowledge in every kind of craft and has inspired him to make designs for work in gold, silver, and copper, to cut stones for setting and to carve wood—to work in every kind of designer’s craft—and to give directions. (Exodus 35:30–34) 

Torah presents the choice of Bezalel as entirely God’s. God did not consult Moses about this crucially important decision, and few readers of Torah are surprised by this. Bezalel’s name, which means “in the shadow of God,” would seem to reinforce his sui generis talent.

The premier Israeli art school, Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem (, is named for the biblical artisan who built the Mishkan.

The Sages take what seems to be a clearcut account of God’s announcement to Moses of Bezalel as God’s choice to craft the Mishkan and through clever interpretation, draw from it a teaching about the very opposite: those in power—including unlimited power—should not appoint a person to a position of leadership, even if fully qualified to hold that post, without the community’s consent. 

The Sages’ proof that God operated not in the manner that Torah seems to suggest, but by the principle they promulgate, rests on their interpretation of the word “See.” This term, they tell us, connotes “Look and tell me your opinion about this matter.” In other words, God has nominated Bezalel to serve as chief artisan of the Mishkan, but seeks Moses’ opinion before confirming the choice. Moses responds that if God considers Bezalel worthy of the assignment, Moses certainly concurs. After all, who better than God could know who is best qualified to serve in this capacity? God, however, does not stop with securing Moses’ acquiescence. God tells Moses that he must ask the community for their consent that Bezalel be elevated to this important role. Moses dutifully fulfills the mission, asking the people if they consider Bezalel, in their opinion, worthy to construct the Mishkan. They respond that if God and Moses believe him to be fully qualified and worthy of the appointment, they consent. Only then, does God confirm the nominee.

The passage is a magnificent statement of the importance of seeking and obtaining the community’s approval before assigning someone to a role of leadership and power in the  community. Even God does not make unilateral decisions; even God seeks the consent of the community for Bezalel’s nomination. This is a powerful statement about how power should be used and distributed in a functional society. Clearly, according to the Rabbis, the people find cause to trust God’s and Moses’s assessment of Bezalel’s qualifications. Just as clearly, according to the Rabbis, had the people disagreed and objected strenuously to Bezalel, God would have respected their opinion.

  1. How would you apply the Talmud’s wisdom about communal consent to the assignment of people to leadership posts? Is it practical to always seen communal consent? On a societal level: How does this speak to representative democracy? How might it speak to high-level unelected leaders with great power, especially when serious objection to them is raised? How would you apply the Talmud’s wisdom to your local community or congregation?
  2. How might the Talmud’s view apply to the current controversy surrounding the elevation of a judge to the Supreme Court who faces adamant opposition from many, ranging from ordinary citizens to (at the time I write this, more than 2,400) law school professors?
  3. If you are in a position of leadership, what can you learn from this passage that will make you a better, more effective leader? If you were in the position of promoting someone to a position of leadership whom others do not respect or consider worthy, how would you handle the situation?