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Friday, March 12, 2021

Ten Minutes of Talmud #164: Terror: Inside & Out — Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Our Rabbis taught: If there is plague in the city, gather your feet, as it is said, And none of you shall go out of the door of their house until morning (Exodus 22:22). And it says, Go, my people, enter into your chambers, and close your doors behind you (Isaiah 26:20). And it says, Outside the sword will bereave, and inside terror (Deuteronomy 32:25). 

 What  do we need the verses following, “And it says”? If you say that this matter [applies only] at night, but in the day [it doesn’t apply], come and hear: Go, my people, enter into your chambers, and shut your doors behind you. And if you say that this matter [applies only] where there is no fear inside, but where there is fear inside, when one goes out and sits in the company of other people it is better, come and hear: Outside the sword will bereave, and in the chambers terror — although there is terror “in the chambers,” nonetheless “outside the sword will bereave.” (BT Bava Kamma 60b)


INTRODUCTION

On the Israelites’ last night in Egypt, Moses instructed them to protect themselves from the tenth and final horrifying plague—the death of the firstborn—by taking a handful of hyssop, dipping it in the blood of the pesach lambs they had just slaughtered, and painting the blood across the lintel and on the doorposts of their homes. Then Moses says, None of you shall go outside the door of their house until morning (Exodus 12:22). For a year, we have lived under a lockdown, instructed to stay home as much as possible until a “morning” that is still not yet in sight. The lockdown has evoked many strong emotions, including fear, frustration, depression, and anger. With remarkable insight and wisdom, the Rabbis address the experience of living in lockdown.


COMMENTARY

In a time of plague, the Rabbis teach in a baraita, we should “gather our feet,” an expression that means we should keep them planted directly under our bodies, i.e., stay home and don’t go outside. The phenomenon of contagious infection was certainly well understood in the ancient world, even if the precise vector of specific diseases was not always known. The Rabbis quote Moses’s instructions to the Israelites on their last night in Egypt to bolster their assertion about the importance of staying home in a time of plague. Although the tenth plague was not a contagion, going outside endangered the Israelites because it placed them beyond the protection afforded by the lamb’s blood on their doorposts; once outside, the “Destroyer” does not distinguish between Israelite and Egyptian. The baraita then quotes two additional verses, one from Isaiah and one from Deuteronomy. Given the power of the first verse, the Gemara wonders why two more verses are needed. What concerns do they address, and how do they teach us to address these concerns?


Gemara first conjectures that some people will think that the prohibition against leaving home in a time of plague applies only at night, but not during the day. Perhaps people feel pressured to  go out to work or purchase food or socialize, all of which are accomplished during the hours of daylight. For many people, it’s easier to remain home at night since we (hopefully) will sleep away most of those hours. Daylight hours, in contrast, slog by, hour after lonely and worrisome hour. The verse from Isaiah addresses this all-too-human experience. The full verse says, Go, my people, enter into your chambers, and close your doors behind you; hide yourself for a little moment, until the indignation has passed by (Isaiah 26:20) and the following verse says, For lo! Adonai shall come forth from God’s place to punish the dwellers of the earth for their iniquity; and the earth shall  disclose its bloodshed and shall no longer conceal its slain (v. 21). If earth cannot conceal its slain, this must be because it is daytime.  For those who thought it was safer to leave home during daylight hours, that clearly is not the case.


Even if some people are not afraid to be isolated at home while a plague rages without, others are afraid even at home and precisely because they are deprived of human company. They may convince themselves that their need for companionship warrants leaving safety. Hence, Outside the sword will bereave, and inside terror (Deuteronomy 32:25) reminds us that as terrifying, difficult, and painful as it may be inside, going outside can be deadly. 


Our Sages recognize that fear is compounded by isolation, and may drive people to go outside seeking human companionship to mitigate fear and loneliness, even if doing so increases their physical risk. While it may not feel emotionally safe at home in isolation, it’s still not physically safe outside. If there is terror at home, there is risk of contracting the contagion outside. This is what so many have been struggling with. What extraordinary wisdom for us, who are so eager to throw off the chains of fear and isolation, to gather with friends and embrace relatives. What excellent encouragement to remain appropriately patient and cautious, and to find ways to alleviate the  loneliness and fear of someone we know.


QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS

  1. Have you experienced fear or loneliness during this year of the pandemic? How have the physical and social restrictions effected you, your friends, and loved ones emotionally? How have you dealt with those feelings?
  2. How does risky behavior on the part of those eager to throw off the “shackles” of lockdown restrictions effect others, both physically and emotionally? Are there people close to you whose choices concern you?
  3. What do you do to gather strength to endure the continuing necessity of living with restrictions? What else might you do? TO whom can you turn for help and support?

Thursday, March 4, 2021

Ten Minutes of Talmud #163: Absorbing Criticism—Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

R. Chiyya went out and taught his two nephews, Rav and Rabba bar bar Chana, in the marketplace. Rabbi [Yehudah ha-Nasi] heard [that R. Chiyya did this] and became angry. R. Chiyya came to visit him. [Rabbi] said to him, “Iyya, who is calling you outside?” [R. Chiyya] understood that [Rabbi] had taken the matter to heart. He conducted himself as one rebuked for thirty days. On the thirtieth day, [Rabbi] sent him a message: “Come.” After this, he sent [another message]: “Do not come.” What was his initial reasoning, and what was his reasoning in the end? Initially, [Rabbi] held that part of the day is like the entire day, but in the end he held that we do not say that part of the day is like an entire day. In the end, [R. Chiyya] came [on the thirtieth day]. [Rabbi] asked him, “Why have you come?” [He said,] “Because Master sent me [a message, saying] I should come.” [Rabbi said,] “But I sent you [a message] that you should not come.” [R. Chiyya] said to him, “I saw this but I did not see that.” [Rabbi] applied to [R. Chiyya] the verse, When a person’s ways find favor with Adonai, even their enemies make peace with them (Proverbs 16:7). (BT Mo'ed Katan 16b)


INTRODUCTION

When someone over whom you have authority ignores your instructions or violates your rules, how should you respond? If you come to learn that you have offended someone in authority, or violated one of their strictures, how should you respond? The world of the Rabbis was filled with such incidents, testifying to a strict hierarchy and a deeply felt concern for maintaining order, and perhaps (in some cases) fragile egos. 


In this story, R. Chiyya transgresses the rule of his teacher, R. Yehudah ha-Nasi (in the Talmud, he is usually referred to as “Rabbi”), forbidding sages from teaching Torah in the marketplace. We can only speculate on Rabbi’s reason. It does not appear to derive from concern for Roman reprisal. More likely, Rabbi is concerned with appearance. Torah study is not an activity suitable to the noisy, dirty, base, and undignified environment of the public marketplace, where crassness abounds.


COMMENTARY

When Rabbi hears “through the grapevine” that R. Chiyya has violated his rule concerning teaching Torah in the marketplace, he conveys his anger first by addressing R. Chiyya as “Iyya,” a version of “Chiyya” intended not as an endearing nickname, but rather as a disparaging epithet. When Rabbi asks, “Who is calling you outside?,” R. Chiyya comprehends he provoked his teacher’s ire by what he did. He therefore considers himself nezifah, which means “rebuked” or “admonished.” One who has been sternly rebuked by a superior—as R. Chiyya considers himself to be by Rabbi—was expected to remain home, ostracized for the duration of the ban, avoiding social interactions except to make clear his remorse for his behavior. 


In Babylonia, nezifah lasted one day and itself constituted an apology. In Eretz Yisrael, however, where R. Chiyya and Rabbi live, we see that R. Chiyya must endure ostracism from Rabbi for thirty days. On the last day, Rabbi sends R. Chiyya a message signaling the end of the ban, but then sends a subsequent message that very same day conveying the opposite message. The Gemara asks what this is about and explains that there are two ways to count time: Initially Rabbi thinks that even part of the thirtieth day counts as a full day; hence R. Chiyya’s ban is over any time on the thirtieth day. But then Rabbi decides that, with regard to nezifah, partial days do not count as full days. Hence R. Chiyya should not appear before him until the following day. (The first method applies to the rituals of bereavement: the day of burial, even if late in the day, counts as a full day of shiva.)


R. Chiyya, responding to the first note, appears before Rabbi on the thirtieth day. Surprised to see him—after all, he sent a second note, “Don’t come”Rabbi asks why he is there. R. Chiyya responds that he received a note instructing him to come. Rabbi points out that R. Chiyya also received a subsequent note countermanding the first. R. Chiyya explains he saw only the first note. The verse from Proverbs tells us that, in Rabbi’s mind, God approves of R. Chiyya and has therefore helped facilitate reconciliation and a peaceful resolution of  the conflict. 


QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS

  1. Rabbi’s first missive to R. Chiyya, upon learning that he had taught Torah in the marketplace, might come across as sarcastic and indirect. Alternatively, perhaps Rabbi didn’t want to directly reprimand R. Chiyya, but rather allow him to realize his mistake and take responsibility for it. Which do you think is happening here? What are the pros and cons of Rabbi’s approach to confronting R. Chiyya’s disobedience? 
  2. In Babylonia, nezifah was one day; in Eretz Yisrael, it could be thirty days. How do you think length and severity of one’s ostracism is likely to shape their future behavior? Do you agree or disagree with Rambam (see box at right)?
  3. When R. Chiyya visits Rabbi on the thirtieth day, Rabbi might have chosen to believe that R. Chiyya saw the second note but decides to ignore it. Instead, he believes R. Chiyya and perhaps imagines that R. Chiyya is so elated to be invited back that he came immediately and therefore was not home when the second message arrived. He gives R. Chiyya the benefit of the doubt. How does giving another person the benefit of the doubt contribute to reconciliation and resolution of conflicts?

 

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Ten Minutes of Talmud #162: The Magic of Shabbat (part 4)—Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Rav Chisda said that Mar Ukva said, “One who prays on Shabbat evening and recites Va-y’khulu (Genesis 2:1–3): the two ministering angels who accompany that person place their hands on [the person’s] head and say, And your iniquity has passed, and your sin has been atoned (Isaiah 6:7).” 


It was taught [in a baraita]: R. Yosei bar Yehudah says, “Two ministering angels accompany a person on Shabbat evening from the synagogue to their home: one good and one evil. If, when they reach home, they find a lamp burning and a table set and the bed made, the good angel says, ‘May it be Your will that it shall be like this for another Shabbat.’ And the evil angel answers against its will, ‘Amen.’ But if not [(i.e., if the home is not prepared for Shabbat] the evil angel says, ‘May it be Your will that it shall be so for another Shabbat,’ and the good angel answers against its will, ‘Amen.’”

INTRODUCTION

The past three editions of TMT have discussed a story-rich passage in tractate Shabbat: #159–the story of Yosef Who Cherishes Shabbat teaches that our investments in making shabbat a sacred and special time pay us back many times over; #160–the story of R. Yehoshua b. Chananiah’s conversation with the Roman emperor teaches a similar lesson, that observing shabbat as a holy day lends special flavor to our lives; #161–Rav Hamnuna expounds on Va-y’khulu (Genesis 2:1-3), the prelude to Kiddush on Friday evening, explaining that by reciting Va-y’khulu we can become God’s spiritual partner in the very creation of the universe. In this edition, we bring one final installment: two teachings that provide both inspiration and warning.


COMMENTARY

Rav Chisda shares an imaginative teaching he learned from Mar Ukva, the Exilarch of Babylonia, which follows logically on the tail of Rav Hamnuna’s exposition of reciting Va-y’khulu (see #161). Mar Ukva teaches that whose who go to synagogue to pray Kabbalat Shabbat and Ma’ariv on Erev Shabbat are accompanied home by two angels assigned to them by Heaven. The angels recite a verse from Isaiah that confers on them the blessing of God’s forgiveness. The story is exceptionally terse, but I imagine that Mar Ukva wishes to convey that our Friday evening prayers facilitate a review of our week (if we choose, the psalms of Kabbalat Shabbat, assembled in the 16th century, can serve to mirror not only the first week of Creation, but as a vehicle for each of us to review our personal week past). The Amidah in Ma’ariv always includes the opportunity for repentance. Our prayers at the beginning of shabbat thereby afford an opportunity to repent the mistakes or false steps we have made in the week ending and enter shabbat with a clear conscience and a clean slate. Angels may be understood as literary spiritual expressions of the manifestation of God in our lives. The shabbat angels convey the assurance that God accepts our repentance and forgives us, allowing us to enter shabbat whole. Every shabbat, therefore, can be like a mini-Rosh Hashanah, affording us the opportunity to repent and start anew. Our weekly celebration of Creation is a time for spiritual renewal and recreation. That’s a powerful spiritual gift, a  weekly reminder that we can alway change and improve.


R. Yosei bar Yehudah shares another teaching concerning the two angels that accompany a person home from synagogue on Friday evening. This teaching combines positive encouragement with warning. The two shabbat angels here have opposing, labels: “good” and “evil.” The labels do not reflect their natures so much as their roles as observers of our our lives. If, upon arriving home, the angels find our home prepared to welcome and celebrate shabbat, the “good” angel  affirms and the “bad” angel is compelled—against its will—to respond, “Amen.” This alone tells us that R. Yosei is not promoting a concept of angels as creatures or beings with agency. The point, I think, is a far subtler one about human nature.


We human beings are creatures of habit. However glorious and meritorious our intentions, we tend to do today what we did yesterday, last week, and last year. However fervently we wish to change our patterns of behavior, we find it exceedingly challenging to do so. (Consider how long new year’s resolutions last.) R. Yosei’s tale of the angels conveys this truth about human nature: whatever we did this shabbat is what we are most likely to do next shabbat. This, of course, is a double-edged sword. The angels warn us that if we don’t get it together to prepare for shabbat this week, it’s unlikely we will next week. But if we do prepare to celebrate and enjoy shabbat this week, we are likely to do so again next week—and the week after. R. Yosei encourages us to use this knowledge of human nature, of ourselves as creatures of habit, to our advantage and launch ourselves down the road we want to travel into the future.


QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS

  1. Do you consider yourself a “creature of habit?” How has that served to help you, or hold you back, in your life? What methods have you used to instill in yourself new, better habits that you wanted to take on?
  2. There is no definitive list of activities necessary to prepare for shabbat, any more than there is a canonized menu for shabbat dinner Friday evening (however much some people claim otherwise). However, with some forethought and advanced planning, household chores that must be done some time (e.g., cleaning, laundry, cooking) can be scheduled around shabbat. Similarly, we can plan family favorites to eat on shabbat. How would that look in your home?
  3. Would it help you to have an artistic depiction of the shabbat angels hanging in your home to encourage and remind you to prepare for shabbat?

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Ten Minutes of Talmud #161: The Magic of Shabbat (part 3) — BT Shabbat 119b — Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Rava said, and some say it was R. Yehoshua b. Levi: Even an individual who prays on Shabbat evening must recite: וַיְכֻלּוּ Va-y’khulu (“And the heavens and the earth were finished…”) (Genesis 2:1–3), as Rav Hamnuna said: Anyone who prays on Shabbat evening and recites Va-y’khulu, the verse ascribes to that person credit as if they became a partner with the Holy Blessed One in the act of Creation. As it is stated: וַיְכֻלּוּ Va-y’khulu (“And the heavens and the earth were finished”) (Genesis 2:1–3). Do not read וַיְכֻלּוּ (va-y’khulu) “were finished,” but rather וַיְכַלּוּ va-y’khalu “finished.” R. Elazar said: Whence [do we know] that speech is like action? As it is stated: By the word of Adonai the heavens were made, [and all their hosts by the breath of God’s mouth] (Psalm 33:6). 

INTRODUCTION

Kiddush, meaning “sanctification,” refers to prayers we recite to declare the holiness of shabbat and festivals. We generally use wine when reciting Kiddush because wine conveys joy, an attribute we associate with the holy day. There is a form of Kiddush for the eve of shabbat and another for daytime, which is recited after morning prayers prior to lunch. 


The version of Kiddush recited on Friday evening is prefaced with a biblical passage that includes the second half of Genesis 1:31 and Genesis 2:1–3. These verses characterize shabbat as the culmination and climax of Creation: There was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. The heaven and the earth were finished, and all their array. On the seventh day God finished the work that God had been doing, and ceased on the seventh day from all the work that God had done. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that God had done. The first word of Genesis 2:1 is וַיְכֻלּוּ /Va-y’khulu and thus when the Rabbis say “Va-y’khulu,” they are speaking of the verses from Genesis just quoted. 


Friday evening Kiddush is followed by the one-line blessing over wine (…borei p’ri ha-gafen) because wine will soon be consumed, and then the paragraph that is, technically speaking, the Kiddush: the declaration of the sanctity of shabbat. (You can find all three parts, complete with translations, transliterations, recordings, and a downloadable version here.)


COMMENTARY

Either Rava or R. Yehoshua b. Levi taught that even when you are eating shabbat dinner alone on Friday evening, you are nonetheless obligated to recited Va-y’khulu, which would seem to be a prelude to, or “announcement” of, the Kiddush to follow for those assembled around your table. The first thing we might notice is that the Rabbis cite both sages when they are uncertain of the teaching’s source, providing as complete a pedigree for the opinion as possible, and giving credit where credit is due as best they can.


The reason one should recite Va-y’khulu even if eating alone is because, as Rav Hamnuna taught, doing so makes one not merely a creature in God’s universe, but a co-creator of the universe with God. How can a verse that says “they were finished,” referring to all the elements of Creation—including humans, who were created on the last day!—be understood to say that we are God’s co-creators? Rav Hamnuna supplies a clever reading of first word in Genesis 2:1. In the age of the Rabbis, Torah did not yet have written vowels. Vowels points were added by the Masoretic scholars in the 7th–8th centuries C.E. The lack of vowels in their day affords the Rabbis an interpretive opportunity; they  often suggest alternative vowels to the canonical reading, resulting in a beautiful midrashic interpretation. Here, Rav Hamnuna  asks us to read וַיְכֻלּוּ va-y’khulu /“[they] were finished” instead as וַיְכַלּוּ va-y’khalu /“[they] finished.” The contextual meaning of Genesis 2:1 is that by the end of the sixth day of Creation, heaven and earth and all their array were finished; God had completed the creation of the universe. Changing one vowel, Rav Hamnuna converts the passive verb “[they] were finished” to the active verb “[they] finished,” which thereby changes “heaven and earth” from the subject of the sentence to the object of the verb. The subject is still “they” but cannot refer to “heaven and earth.” It must be God and —?—. Rav Hamnuna’s innovative reading opens the door to include people who recite these verses on Friday evening to be included in the “they” that created the universe. Rav Hamnuna is fully aware of the order of creation described in Genesis chapter 1. He understands that humanity was created on the sixth day. His purpose is not to amend the text of Genesis, but to convey a powerful spiritual teaching: In observing shabbat, we become God’s spiritual partners and co-creators. 


Can merely reciting a few verses make us God’s co-creator? R. Elazar reminds us that speech is powerful and impactful. As Psalm 33:6 recalls, God created the universe with speech. Hence, our recitation of Va-y’khulu can create for us the spiritual the Sages sought to teach. 


QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS

  1. Do you think the Rabbis’ teaching is about our desire to be God’s partner, or God’s desire to partner with us?
  2. Rav Hamnuna’s teaching encourages us to focus on the wonder of the universe and recognize how our lives have impacted the world in the past six days. How would you assess your impact on the world?
  3. The midrash below suggests that if we read “God rested” to say that God’s rest was a creative act, then what was created was rest, ease, contentment, and quiet—by observing shabbat. Does shabbat infuse your life with these qualities? If not, how might your observance of shabbat do so?

R. Berekhiah teaches in the name of R. Yehudah b. Shimon teach that one could read, and [God] rested on the seventh day from all the work that [God] had done (Genesis 2:2) as implying that God’s act of resting was itself intended to make or create something. What did God’s resting create? Undisturbed rest, ease, contentment, and quiet. (Bereishit Rabbah 10:1)

Friday, February 5, 2021

TMT #160—Shabbat Culinary Magic (part 2)—BT Shabbat 119a—Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

The [Roman] emperor said to R. Yehoshua b. Chananiah, “Why is the fragrance of a cooked shabbat dish so wonderful?” [R. Yehoshua] said to [the emperor], “We have a particular spice called Shabbat that we add to [cooked dishes] and its fragrance wafts out.” [The emperor] said to him, “Give us some of it.” [R. Yehoshua] said to him, “It is effective for anyone who keeps shabbat, but it is ineffective for one who does not keep shabbat.” 

The Exilarch said to Rav Hamnuna, “What is the meaning of [the verse], [If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your affairs on My holy day, if you proclaim the sabbath a delight,] the holy one of Adonai is honored (Isaiah 58:13)?” [Rav Hamnuna] said to him, “That is Yom Kippur, on which there is neither eating nor drinking, and Torah said honor it with a clean garment.” And you shall honor it [the next word in Isaiah 58:13]—Rav said by making it earlier; and Shmuel said [by making it] later.  

The sons of Rav Pappa bar Abba said to Rav Pappa [their father], “Those like us who consume meat and wine every day, what can we do differently?” [Rav Pappa] said to them, “If you are accustomed to [eating] early, [eat] late. If you are accustomed to [eating] late, [eat] early.”

 

INTRODUCTION

As noted in TMT #159, shabbat is the spiritual-religious climax of the week because it commemorates Creation. We spend our days working to effect change in the world, but stop for rest and restoration, and devote ourselves to appreciating the world and meditating on our place in it.


COMMENTARY

Tradition holds that R. Yehoshua traveled to Rome as an emissary and negotiator for the Jewish people on several occasions and hence Talmud records numerous conversations between him and the Roman emperor. In this charming legend, the powerful Roman emperor asks the rabbi: What makes the food your people prepares for shabbat so amazingly delicious? What is your special spice? Today he might say: what is your secret sauce. R. Yehoshua responds that observing shabbat lends special “flavor” to everything that happens on that day: even food is tastier because keeping shabbat elevates the religious, spiritual, and emotional experience of eating. Sprinkling an herb from a jar cannot accomplish what observing shabbat can. This would have been a powerful and encouraging message for Jews on the periphery of Jewish life.


R. Yehoshua b. Chananiah’s conversation with the emperor is followed by Rav Hamnuna’s conversation with the Exilarch, the highest civil official in the Babylonian Jewish community (see TMT #157), concerning the meaning of Isaiah 58:13. The verse speaks of keeping shabbat as a holy day and then refers to “the holy one (i.e., holy day) of Adonai,”  which the Exilarch thinks alludes to another holy day. Rav Hamnuna identifies the “holy one (i.e., day)” as Yom Kippur because it is geared entirely to God and not to the delight of people. Yom Kippur is a day of complete fasting. Therefore, when  Isaiah 58:13 continues, “and you shall honor it,” Rav Hamnuna understands this to prescribe wearing clean clothes on Yom Kippur. In contrast, Rav and Shmuel, the two great rabbinic sages of their day, understand “and you shall honor it to refer to shabbat (not Yom Kippur). Rav suggests it means we should change our normal schedule and eat shabbat dinner earlier than usual. Shmuel takes the opposite tack: eat shabbat dinner later than usual. The point is: we honor shabbat by doing things differently to mark the day as unique in the week.


The Sages taught that we should enjoy three complete meals on shabbat. That doesn’t sound extraordinary to us, but in the ancient world, most people ate only two meals a day. In addition, the rabbis encouraged people to indulge  in wine and better food in celebration of shabbat. The sons of Rav Pappa, the Exilarch, ask their father how they should fulfill “and you shall honor it,” given that the Exilarch’s family is wealth and likely sat down at a table laden with wine and fine food thrice daily. Rav Pappa conveys the recommendations of Rav and Shmuel, which we might have thought was advice intended for people who lack the means to indulge in delicacies on shabbat. The juxtaposition of this story with Rav and Shmuel’s interpretations of “and you shall honor it” suggests that for all of us, there are uncomplicated ways to set shabbat off from the rest of the week as special, regardless of our lifestyle or means.


The Sages taught that shabbat is a “taste of the world-to-come,” the messianic era—seasoned with the spiritual spice that is shabbat. The story of the spice that is shabbat, and Rav and Shmuel’s interpretation of “and you shall honor it” teach us that we hold the key: when we impart meaning to shabbat, magic happens in our lives.


QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS

  1. Many factors may contribute to determine how a meal tastes and how much we enjoy it, including who is present, venue, menu, and how the table is set and decorated. What factors enhance a meal for you? When it comes to shabbat dinner, what can your "shabbat spice curry" consist of?
  2. If the special “spice” is observing shabbat as a holy day, why do you suppose R. Yehoshua b. Chananiah does not tell the emperor that the spice is available only to Jews?
  3. Sweet-smelling spices are central to Havdalah, the prayers with which we bid goodbye to shabbat each week. They symbolize the sweetness of shabbat that we will miss for the coming six days. Can you come up with a selection of actual spices to cook with on shabbat by attributing symbolic meaning to each appropriate to what shabbat can mean to you?

Thursday, January 28, 2021

TMT #159 — Shabbat Magic, part 1 — BT Shabbat 119a — Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Yosef Who Cherishes Shabbat: There was a gentile in [Yosef’s] neighborhood whose property was extremely valuable. The astrologers said to him, “All your property—Yosef Who Cherishes Shabbat will come to consume (i.e., own) it.” [The wealthy man] sold all his property, bought a jewel [with the proceeds], and placed [the jewel] in his hat. As he was crossing a river by ferry, the wind blew [his hat off] and cast it into the water. A fish swallowed [the jewel]. [The fish] was caught and brought [ashore] late in the day on the eve of Shabbat. [The fishermen] said, “Who will buy it now?” They said to [the fishermen], “Go, bring it to Yosef Who Cherishes Shabbat, because he regularly purchases [special foods for Shabbat].” They brought it to him. He purchased it. He sliced it open. He found the jewel inside it. He sold it for thirteen vessels filled with gold dinarim. A certain elderly man encountered him and said, "One who borrows for [the sake of] Shabbat, Shabbat repays him.”


INTRODUCTION

According to Torah’s first story of creation (Genesis, chapter 1), the first Shabbat was the  culmination of God’s Creation. Each week, God’s “rest” following the six days of creation is re-enacted by our day of rest, which is also a celebration of Creation. The menorah that stood outside the Jerusalem Temple (Exodus 25:31–40) was a physical graphic depiction of Creation: the central pole of the lampstand represents shabbat holding the branches, which symbolize the six working days, together.


As God is said to have rested after six days of creation, we are given to rest after six days of work. Shabbat is a day for spiritual refreshment and physical regeneration.
There are myriad laws and regulations that pertain to shabbat observance; they detail what may be done, what may not be done, and how to prepare for shabbat. The story above, however, speaks to the spiritual value of shabbat in the lives of those who make it a central practice.



COMMENTARY

Yosef (Joseph) is a man whose love for shabbat is so great he is known as Joseph-Who-Cherishes-Shabbat. The focus from the beginning of this didactic rabbinic tale is the spiritual value of keeping shabbat. Significantly, we are not told how Yosef keeps shabbat, or that he fulfills every mitzvah scrupulously, but rather that he cherishes and prioritizes shabbat. We can well imagine him spending the week looking forward to the enjoyment, food, rest, singing, prayers, time with friends—whatever elements characterize Yosef’s shabbat. TGIS!


A wealthy man in Yosef’s neighborhood consults an astrologer and is told that at some point in the future his considerable wealth will pass into Yosef’s possession. Horrified, and determined to prevent this from happening, the man sells everything he owns and consolidates his wealth into one small and portable item: a magnificent jewel that he either secretes in, or affixes to, his hat. He next makes plans to transport this jewel—the sum total of his wealth—far from Yosef to prevent the astrologer’s prediction from being realized. As fans of “Young Frankenstein” know!” While crossing a river by ferry, a storm arises and the whipping wind blows the man’s hat—with the priceless jewel—into the water. A fish swallows it.


Yosef knows nothing of the astrologer’s prediction, nor the man’s extraordinary efforts to consolidate and move his wealth far from Yosef. He merely goes about his business as always. On Friday, with shabbat approaching, Yosef goes to the market to purchase food for shabbat. The fish that swallowed the jewel is brought to market late in the day, causing the fisherman to worry that it is too late to find a buyer for such a large and expensive fish. But because Yosef is dedicated to shabbat, he is more than willing to purchase expensive delicacies to enhance his experience of shabbat. As a result of his devotion to shabbat, Yosef purchases the fish. Cutting into it, he finds the priceless gem, fulfilling the astrologer’s prediction that the wealthy man’s property would pass into Yosef’s hands.


It is tempting to ask about the role of astrology in this story. At the time of the Talmud, astrology was a popularly accepted “science” throughout the ancient Near East.  The Sages expressed a variety of views, ranging from R. Yehoshua b. Levi, who believed that astrology determined some facets of life, to R. Yochanan and Rav who held that, “there is no constellation for Israel” because free will can trump destiny and our choices matter and have far more to do with the direction of our lives than do the stars. In Yosef’s case, his choice to prioritize shabbat brings the fish that swallowed the jewel into his possession. In addition, we could mistakenly interpret the monetary metaphor literally. As the nameless elder sums up the message for us: Those who borrow for shabbat (i.e., prioritize shabbat in their lives, investing time, effort, and resources into keeping it) are amply rewarded with spiritual gems.


QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS

  1. The Rabbis understand that the spiritual and emotional value of an object, relationship, event or occasion increases the more we prioritize it and invest in it. Our investment boosts its  value and meaning for us. Have you found that to be true in your life? How might you invest more in shabbat and thereby glean greater meaning and enjoyment?
  2. The cultural Zionist, Ahad Ha’am (1856–1927), famously said noted that shabbat is a pillar of Jewish communal life, a glue holding the Jewish people together.  He said: "More than Jews have kept shabbat, shabbat has kept the Jews." How have you experienced this aspect of shabbat? 
  3. What else can you do to enhance your celebration of shabbat?

Friday, January 22, 2021

TMT #158: Marital Misery — BT Nedarim 66b - Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

A man from Babylonia went up to Eretz Yisrael (the Land of Israel) and married a woman from there. He said to her, “Cook two lentils for me.” She cooked two lentils for him. He became angry with her.  

The next day, he said to her, “Cook a g’riva [lit. a very large quantity] for me.” She cooked a g’riva for him. 

He said to her, “Go, bring me two butzinei.” She went and brought him two lamps. He said to her, “Go break them on the head of the bava (gate).” 

 

Bava b. Buta was sitting as a judge at the [city] bava (gate). She went and broke them on [or: over] his head. [He said,] “Why did you do this?” She said to him, “Thus my husband commanded me.” He said, “You have fulfilled your husband’s desire. May the Omnipresent bring forth from you two sons like Bava b. Buta.”


INTRODUCTION

There are numerous shoals that alone, or in combination, can shipwreck a marital relationship. Issues of communication undoubtedly top the list. The husband and wife in this story clearly have communication problems, but the source of their miscommunication is unclear. Although both are Jewish, he is from Babylonia and she is from Eretz Yisrael, hence there are cultural differences—including language differences, which are on prominent display in this story. But we  are inclined to ask: are their cultural differences the source of their communication problem? (Is the wife the Amelia Bedelia of her time?) Or does willful miscommunication and misunderstanding arise from underlying animosity? The story highlights the ways we interpret and misinterpret others.


COMMENTARY

We are told at the outset that the husband and wife come from different backgrounds: he from Babylonia; she from Eretz Yisrael. The first reported event occurs when the husband tells his wife to prepare “two lentils” for his dinner. It is reasonable to presume he means “a small portion” because he is not especially hungry. His wife interprets his words literally and cooks precisely two lentils. Is this due to their cultural differences? Or is this a sign of a bad marriage? Another question comes to mind: Did the husband request that she cook lentils or did he demand them? How does he normally speak to her? The storyteller does not make this clear. 


The following day, the hungry husband tells his wife to cook a g’riva.  A g’riva is a dry measure, usually employed as a measure of seed used to plant a field. Once again, the wife interprets the husband’s words literally and accordingly prepares an enormous amount of food—picture five gallons of cooked lentils—far too much for one person to consume.


The pattern is now clear: the wife serves up what her husband literally requested, not what he actually wants. She enacts the literal meaning of his words rather than fulfill his needs or desires. It is therefore unsurprising—once the meaning of the term butzinei is explained—that he next asks for another kind of food and she instead brings him lamps. The husbands tells her to bring him two butzinei. In Babylonia, butzinei refers to a kind of pumpkin he is accustomed to and wants for dinner. In Eretz Yisrael, butzinei can refer to a clay lamp. Does the wife truly believe her husband is requesting lamps for dinner? Is the problem cultural-linguistic? Or something else? On three occasions, the wife has provided precisely what the husband requested (or demanded) but not at all what he wanted: two lentils, a g’riva, two butzinei. 


If the first instance made the husband angry, by now his anger and frustration are likely boiling over. He now tells his wife to take the clay lamps and break them on, or over, the head of the bava. Bava means “gate” and refers to the gate of the city, the entry point where people congregate, business is conducted, and judges hold court. Perhaps his statement was merely an expression of  his anger and frustration and he doesn’t intend for her to actually do what he has said. Or perhaps he wishes her to humiliate herself in public by doing what he tells her. By now he should be well aware that his wife is inclined to interpret his words literally. When she arrives at the city gate, it just so happens that the judge holding session is none other than the sage Bava b. Buta. Bava sits at the bava. The wife proceeds to carry out her husband’s instructions, though it is not clear if she broke the lamps on or over Bava b. Butra’s head; the Hebrew can be construed either way. Given that there is no report of injury, nor a word of complaint from Bava b. Buta, I think she smashed the two lamps against one another over his head so that shards rained down on him. That’s bad enough, no? Unfazed, Bava b. Buta asks the wife why she did this. She replies that she did as her husband “commanded” her (which may shed light on how the husband speaks to his wife). In this public setting, the sage compliments her for fulfilling her husband’s desire and offers her the blessing that she will have children who, like him, will grow up to become sages.


QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS

  1. When the wife arrives at the city gate, she is faced with a choice: the bava (gate) of the city, or Bava b. Butra, the judge. Why do you think she chose as she did?
  2. Bava b. Butra is faced with a difficult task. How should he respond in the face of an acrimonious marital relationship that has come to the point of endangering him? How does his response ameliorate the possible rancor and acrimony the wife’s act could cause?
  3. Have you ever willfully or accidentally misinterpreted the words of another? What were the circumstances and why did it happen? What were the consequences?

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

TMT #157: Reproving Leaders — BT Shabbat 54b-55a — Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

    Rav, R. Chanina, R. Yochanan, and Rav Chaviva taught: Anyone capable of protesting members of their household who did not protest is responsible for [the sins of] members of their household; [if one fails to protest the conduct of] the people of their city, they are responsible for [the sinful conduct of] the people of their city; [if one fails to protest the conduct of] the whole world, they are responsible for [the sinful conduct of] the whole world. 

Rav Pappa said: And the members of the household of the Exilarch were responsible for [the sinful conduct] of the entire [Jewish] world, as [we learn from] that which R. Chanina said: What is the meaning of the verse, Adonai will enter into judgment with the Elders of [God’s] people and its rulers [other translations: princes] [saying: it is you who have eaten up the vineyard; the robbery of the poor is in your houses] (Isaiah 3:14)? 

If the rulers sinned, [55a] how did the Elders sin? Rather say: [Adonai will enter into judgment] with the Elders because they did not protest [the sinful conduct of] the rulers.


INTRODUCTION

Among the commandments of the “Holiness Code”—so important they are placed in the physical center of the Pentateuch—is one we don’t discuss often: You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart. Reprove your kin but incur no guilt on their account (Leviticus 19:17). Its core requirement— to reprove, rebuke, reprimand those who engage in sinful conduct—makes many people uncomfortable. Most of us are unsure how to fulfill it; we worry that censuring others is hubristic and arrogant, and we fear damaging relationships in carrying it out. Those are reasonable concerns, to be sure.  


Our Sages are aware that when people engage in corrupt and sinful conduct, they affect others: their families suffer from their misdoings; their communities are adversely effected by their actions. When corrupt and sinful behavior goes unchecked, society is degraded and people are harmed. Talmud discusses the need for all of us to take a measure of responsibility by protesting.


COMMENTARY

Four sages ask us to see our lives as concentric circles of connection and engagement. First and closest is our family, the people we know best and who know us best. Beyond family is our community or city. Beyond that is the wider world we share with everyone. This presentation reminds us that we are influenced by, and in turn influence, others on all levels. When someone engages in serious wrongdoing, their actions are a ripple that spreads out across the water. Hence our responsibility to point out wrongdoing by speaking up and hopefully stop it by speaking out extends to all three realms.


Without citing Leviticus 9:17, Gemara teaches the moral/religious implications of, Reprove your kin but incur no guilt on their account. To whit: If I fail to reprove someone who sins, I am responsible for my failure to rebuke and also incur guilt for the sin committed. Perhaps you are thinking: It’s one thing to be charged with trying to stop someone from perpetrating evil they are known to have perpetrated in the past by rebuking their sinful behavior, but how can I be held responsible for a sin already committed? Consider that a first offense occurs only once; people who engage in sinful corruption generally do it time and again, and at least some people are aware of their pattern of behavior; hence, “Anyone capable of protesting… who did not protest is responsible.” But even if it were the first time, protest and reproof have the potential to reach the heart and prevent a recurrence. For the Rabbis, we have more influence on one another than we realize, and therefore the responsibility to use our influence for the good of all.


Rav Pappa extends the obligation to reprove to the Exilarch. During the talmudic period, the Exilarch was the leader who governed the Jewish community in Babylonia; he served as a liaison to the king, collecting taxes and overseeing Jewish courts, among other duties. Rav Pappa tells us that the Exilarch and his household (this probably connotes his assistants) are responsible for reproving all Jews. (I suspect “the entire Jewish world” means all Jews in Babylonia at this time.) Rav Pappa supports his contention by citing a verse from Isaiah that is phrased peculiarly: God will enter into judgment with the Elders and Rulers, suggesting to Rav Pappa that when people engage in corrupt behavior, the elders and rulers (i.e., the Exilarch and his assistants) judge (i.e., reprove) together with God.


The anonymous voice of the Gemara reads Isaiah 3:14 quite differently, and poses a very different question. In context, the verse suggests that God judges unfavorably both the elders (whom the Gemara equates with rabbis) and rulers who have cheated and robbed the poor. This allows the Gemara to flip the question: What if the corrupt behavior is perpetrated by the ruler? If the person with the greatest power engages in sinful and corrupt behavior, how are the elders complicit, as in the Gemara’s reading of it, the Isaiah verse implies? Gemara supplies its own answer: they are guilty if they did not speak out and protest the sinful conduct of the rulers.


QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS 

  1. Does the mitzvah to rebuke others make you feel uncomfortable? If so, why? Have you fulfilled this obligation? How did it go?
  2. Proverbs 9:8 (below) warns us that offering reproof can engender hostility. At the same time, it tells us that wise people accept reproof as a gift. When fairly rebuked, are you resentful or grateful? 
  3. In an age of electronic communication and social media, our influence has expanded beyond what it once was. In what ways can you speak up and speak out when you perceive wrongdoing on the part of societal leaders?

Do not rebuke a scoffer, for such a one will hate you. Reprove one who is wise and they will love you. (Proverbs 9:8)

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

TMT #156: The Power of Generosity — Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

The following is related concerning Benjamin the Righteous, who was appointed supervisor of the charity fund. Once a woman came to him during a time of scarcity and said to him, “My master, sustain me!” He said, “I swear by the Holy Temple Service that the charity fund is empty.” She said, “My master, if you do not sustain me, a woman and her seven children will die.” He rose and sustained her from his own funds. Sometime afterward, he became deathly ill. The angels addressed the Holy Blessed One, saying, “Master of the Universe, You have said that one who preserves a single life among Israel is considered to have preserved the entire world. Should Benjamin the Righteous, who preserved a woman and her seven children, die at so early an age?” They immediately tore up [Benjamin’s] decree. [A sage] taught: They added twenty-two years to his life. (BT Bava Batra 11a)

INTRODUCTION
The terms tzedek, tzedakah, and tzaddik/tzaddeket all derive from the same three-letter root, צ-ד-ק, whose fundamental meaning is “right.” Its usage is always related to this notion in the sense of justice.  Torah commands us to pursue justice (Deuteronomy 16:20). In the Hebrew Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, and midrash, all three terms inhabit a range of meanings. Tzedek connotes the abstract noun “justice;” tzedakah connotes acts of  justice in a variety of venues; a tzaddik or tzaddeket is a person who is a purveyor of justice. The term tzedakah is most often used to connote acts of generosity that correct injustice by providing people deprived of the necessities of life—food, shelter, clothing—with what they need. Hence, tzedakah is designated for the poor.  

The biblical social-agricultural institutions of the ma’aser oni (poor tithe), shemittah (sabbatical year), leket (gleanings), and pe’ah (corners) addressed and attempted to rectify the needs of the poor. They are mitzvot (“commandments”) and hence obligatory. 

Post-biblically, the Rabbis established communal charities—a kupah, in Hebrew—and assigned a trustworthy administrator to attend to the needs of the poor. In the account above, the supervisor of the communal fund is known as Benjamin ha-Tzaddik, Benjamin the Righteous. Such funds continued through the Middle Ages, blossoming into a sophisticated array of funds for a wide variety of needs, lasting well into the modern period. With them grew a cadre of trusted people to solicit and distribute contributions.

Tzedakah is a mitzvah, though the quantity one donates is not specified by halakhah. Hence, tzedakah lies on the boundary between a specific commanded act, and an act of generosity. We respond to both our sense of obligation and our inspiration to be generous.

Justice, justice shall you pursue, 
that you may thrive and occupy the land that 
Adonai your God is giving you. —Deuteronomy 16:20

COMMENTARY
The Talmud recounts a story in two scenes about Benjamin the Righteous, who appears only in this story. He is not a sage, but the rabbis must have held him in high regard because they entrusted communal funds to him to distribute to the poor, and he is known as Benjamin “the Righteous.”

In Scene One, a widow, the mother of seven children, approaches Benjamin to request funds to feed her family during a time of scarcity. This information lends greater urgency and credibility to her request, so we are unsurprised when Benjamin responds that the community tzedakah fund is empty, going so far as to swear by the Holy Temple he is telling her the truth. In times of scarcity, Benjamin must receive many requests for help. With seven hungry children to feed, the woman is desperate and persists in her request. Benjamin is moved by her plea and supplies her with money from his own wallet to sustain her family, demonstrating why he is called Benjamin “the Righteous.”

Scene Two takes place in heaven many years later as Benjamin’s decreed life-span draws to a close. The angels, having observed Benjamin’s generosity, approach God to plead on his behalf. They argue that God taught that one who saves a single life is credited with having saved an entire world. This teaching, from Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, is spun out of a creative interpretation of God’s words to Cain, “What have you done? Hark, your brother [Abel’s] bloods cry out to Me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:10) The plural here signifies both Abel’s blood (i.e., life), as well as the lives (i.e., blood) of his descendants: all those who will never be born because Cain killed Abel. By sustaining the widow and her children, the angels claim, Benjamin saved their lives, and thereby the lives of their progeny. The heavenly decree concerning the end of his life is immediately torn up and, according to an anonymous sage, he is allotted an additional twenty-two years of life, a reward for his generosity.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
  1. If you were interviewing someone to be the administrator of a communal tzedakah fund, what attributes would you look for? What questions would you ask?
  2. The story illustrates a popular rabbinic understanding of Proverbs 10:2 and 11:4, וּצְדָקָה, תַּצִּיל מִמָּוֶת “tzedakah saves from death,” that giving tzedakah rewards the giver by protecting them from death. In what ways is this interpretation true (or not true) for you?
  3. Does Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog’s description of the role of tzedakah in Eastern European Jewish life (from Life is With People, see box) sound familiar? Should this be our communal goal today? How should it be administered?
“Life in the shtetl [the small villages of Eastern Europe] begins and ends with tzedaka. When a child is born, the father pledges a certain amount of money for distribution to the poor. At a funeral the mourners distribute coins to the beggars who swarm the cemetery, chanting, “Tzedaka saves from death.” At every turn during one's life, the reminder to give is present... If something good or bad happens, one puts a coin into a box. Before lighting the Sabbath candles, the housewife drops a coin into one of the boxes… Children are trained to the habit of giving. A father will have his son give alms to the beggar instead of handing them over directly…” (Life Is With People)