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Thursday, November 29, 2018

Light in Darkness — BT Avodah Zarah 8a (part 1) — #113

Rav Chanan bar Rava said, “Kalenda is eight days following the winter solstice; Saturnalia is eight days preceding the winter solstice. And your mnemonic [to remember this]: Later and earlier You formed me (Psalm139:5).” Our Rabbis taught [in a baraita]: When the first man saw the days gradually growing shorter, he said, “Woe is me! Perhaps the world is growing dark for me and returning to chaos and void because I have sinned, and this is the death that has been decreed upon me from heaven.” Therefore he kept eight days of fasting. However, once he saw the Tevet (i.e., winter) solstice and saw the days gradually growing longer he said, “This is the natural way of the world.” He went and celebrated an eight-day festival. The following year, he established both of these [eight-day observances] as festival days. He fixed them for the sake of heaven, but they [idolaters] fixed them for the sake of idolatry.

The tractate Avodah Zarah is devoted to exploring the implications of the idolatrous practices for Jews who live among pagans and interact with them. In the mishnah that precedes this passage, R. Meir lists seven pagan (in fact, Roman) festivals. Jews may not conduct business with those celebrating these festivals for the three days leading up to them lest they inadvertently facilitate pagan observances. The first two of the seven festivals listed in the mishnah are Kalenda and Saturnalia. Saturnalia, celebrated during the week leading up to the winter solstice, entailed sacrifices to the Roman god Saturn and was marked by carnivals, partying, and gambling. Kalenda refers to the first day of each Roman month, but Gemara understands it differently.

Rav Chanan bar Rava understands Kalenda to be the eight days following the winter solstice, and Saturnalia to be the eight days preceding the solstice. He supplies a mnemonic to recall which comes first: in the well-known verse Psalm 139:6 the word  “later” occurs before the word “earlier.” Hence Kalenda is “later” than (after) the solstice and Saturnalia is “earlier” than (prior to) the solstice.
Talmud then brings a fascinating baraita that locates the origin of ancient midwinter festivals not in particular societies or cultures, but in the lived experience of all humanity, represented by Adam, the first human. Mid-winter festivals arose from the universal human experience the world grows darker and colder, the days becoming shorter leading up to the winter solstice. Perhaps this baraita explains the Rabbis’ observation that most every society has a midwinter festival that prominently features the symbolism of light in darkness. 

The baraita tells us that Adam feared that the days would continue to grow shorter until there would be nothing but darkness enveloping the whole world, all light annihilated as the world returned to the primordial chaos that existed before Creation. Adam assumed his own sins accounted for the terrifying diminution of daylight and unraveling of Creation. He hoped that if he fasted for eight days, God would accept his atonement and halt the world’s downslide into non-existence. These eight days were the shortest eight days of the year, just prior to the winter solstice.  After the solstice, Adam noticed that the days were no longer shortening; in fact, they were growing longer. He realized that the processes of nature, rather than his own actions, determine the course of the cosmos, and therefore spent the next eight days celebrating. The following year, Adam fixed both eight-day observances: eight days prior to the solstice and eight days following it. The story ends with the comment that whereas Adam fixed the two eight-day festivals for the sake of heaven, pagans corrupted them by keeping them as idolatrous festivals.

  1. Why do you think that Adam, upon realizing that the laws of nature determine the length of days, celebrated for eight days? Was it because the world would not end imminently or was it a relief to realize that his actions were not the cause of the world’s seemingly imminent demise? Why do you think Adam fixed both eight-day observances in the second year? Why keep the eight days during which the days grow shorter, as though the world is devolving back into chaos and void? Does the symmetry of the two festivals speak to you? If so, how?
  2. The baraita calls to mind the famous talmudic passage about Bet Hillel and Bet Shammai’s differing approaches to lighting the Chanukah menorah. Bet Shammai says: the first day they light eight lamps and thereafter decrease. Bet Hillel says: the first day they light one lamp and thereafter increase.” (BT Shabbat 21b) Comparing the two, perhaps Adam’s  eight days of fasting mirrors Bet Shammai’s practice in that the days and the lights grow dimmer each successive day. Adam’s eight days of celebration after the winter solstice mirrors Bet Hillel’s practice of increasing the light each successive day as the days grow longer. The Talmud presents both Bet Hillel’s and Bet Shammai’s practices as legitimate embellishment of the require to light a single candle each night of Chanukah, though in time, Hillel’s practice became normative. Given that the Rabbis represent Kalenda and Saturnalia as deriving from Adam’s two eight-day festivals (when, in  fact, Saturnalia lasted seven days), do you think the Rabbis had Chanukah in mind when they told the story of Adam’s two eight-day festivals bracketing the winter solstice? 
  3. Imagine we celebrated as both Bet Shammai and Bet Hillel instructed and kept Chanukah for 16 days: decreasing light for eight days prior to the 25th of Kislev, followed by increasing light for the next eight days. Aside from ingesting far too many latkes, how might the festival speak to the ups and downs of history, our communal lives, and our individual lives? Is there a message here about a natural cycle of times of darkness and light in our world, and maintaining the hope for light to return when we feel shrouded in darkness?

Monday, November 12, 2018

Coping with Fear — BT Berakhot 60a — #112

Our Rabbis taught [in a baraita]: It once happened that Hillel the Elder was traveling along the road [where he lived] when he heard screaming in (i.e., coming from) the city [he was approaching]. He said, “I am confident that this does not come from within my house.” Of him Scripture says: He shall not fear evil tidings; his heart is steadfast, confident in Adonai (Psalm 112:7). Rava said, “However you expound this verse—from beginning to end you may interpret it [i.e., the second clause may be understood to explain the first clause], or from end to beginning you may interpret it [i.e., the first clause can be read to explain the second]. [The verse] may be expounded from beginning to end [thusly]: He will not fear evil tidings. What is the reason? [Because] his heart is steadfast, confident in Adonai. [The verse] may be expounded from end to beginning [thusly]: His heart is steadfast, confident in Adonai [because] he shall not fear evil tidings.

Fear and misfortunate are inevitable elements of life and, for many, deeply intertwined. A diagnosis, illness, the shattering of an important relationship, loss of employment, not to mention any number of physical dangers all give rise to fear. As much as I prefer these editions of TMT to be timeless, the truth is today the Jewish world has cause for renewed fear. As the classic Jewish telegram has it: “Start worrying. Details to follow.” Many of us are again greeting an armed guard on our way into shul on shabbat, and we worry for our African American and Muslim friends and neighbors. We can draw strength from one another and the Talmud suggests a way to draw strength from God.

The mishnah (BT Berakhot 54a) that gives rise to this comment in the Gemara discusses what constitutes a prayer said in vain: any prayer hoping for an outcome that has already been determined. Mishnah provides two examples, the second of which is that if you are traveling home and hear the sound of screaming coming from your city, praying that not come from your house is a prayer said in vain—it either already is, or is not. This inspires the Rabbis to tell the story of Hillel who, upon finding himself in just this situation, expresses confidence that the screaming is not coming from his home. 

The Gemara comments that Hillel’s experience and consequent response to what would be a worrisome and frightening situation for most of us is mirrored by Psalm 112:7: He shall not fear evil tidings; his heart is steadfast, confident in Adonai. Psalm 112 delineates the blessings that redound to one who “fears Adonai.” Verse 7 is particularly apropos because hearing screams is akin to receiving “evil tidings”: both bad news and screaming are aural experiences that generate fear. Yet the second clause of Psalm 112:7 expresses confidence in God. What is the nature of this confidence? Is it a presumption of God’s protection from imminent danger, or the ability to endure inevitable fear? We cannot be certain. 

Rava explains that, in general, one can interpret a verse such as this with two clauses from “front to back” or “back to front.” This means that the second clause can be used to explain the first and vice versa. The implication is that either direction will supply the same meaning. But is this so? In the case of Psalm 112:7, we have two interpretative options:
    1. One need not fear bad news <——— full confidence in Adonai
    2. One need not fear bad news ———> full confidence in Adonai

Reading the verse “beginning to end” (#1) suggests that one who places confidence in God can hear bad news without being overcome by fear. Depending on one’s theology, this suggests two interpretative options: (a) Fear is not necessary due to the expectation that God will intervene and mitigate the bad news; or (b) Reliance on God affords one strength to cope with the fear that bad news generates (put another way: God’s presence in one’s life buoys one's strength in times of fear and danger because one knows they are not entirely alone). 

Reading the verse “end to beginning” (#2) works similarly. One can have confidence in God because or if one does not fear bad news. Full confidence in God changes how one hears the news: it doesn’t sound devastating to one who is fully confident in God to either intervene or provide strength and comfort (again, this depends upon your theology); hence it doesn’t generate crushing fear.

Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav
  1. How do you cope with fear? What helps you most? Do you lean on God?
  2. The Hasidic master, Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, is revered for many teachings, not least of  which is כל העולם גשר צר מאד, והעיקר לא להתפחד כלל “The entire world is a very narrow bridge, but the essential thing is not to succumb to fear.” (For a long time, this teaching was transmitted and translated incorrectly as: “…but the essential thing is not to fear.” Telling people not to fear is, of course, impossible, absurd, and perhaps cruel. However, encouraging people not let themselves be entirely overcome and overwhelmed by fear (as the original version does) is a reasonable and compassionate goal. Do you see a connection between not succumbing to fear—resisting the paralyzing power of fear—and Rava’s interpretation of Psalm 112:7?
  3. In light of Rava’s teaching, how would you interpret Exodus 15:20: עָזִּי וְזִמְרָת יָהּ וַיְהִי לִי לִישׁוּעָה “My strength and God’s song have become my deliverance​“? How do your strength and God’s song interact? Can they be partners is responding to fear?