Thursday, June 2, 2022

Ten Minutes of Talmud #172: Priceless Real Estate -- Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

 R. Yosei b. Kisma said: Once, I was walking along the road and encountered a person. He greeted me and I greeted him in return. He said to me, “Rabbi, where are you from?" I said to him, “I am from a great city of sages and scribes." He said to me, "Rabbi, would you like to live with us in our place? [If you do,] I will give you one million gold dinarim and precious gems and pearls.” I said to him, "My son, were you to give me all the silver and gold and precious gems and pearls in the universe, I would live only in a place of Torah because when a person dies, they are not accompanied by silver and gold, nor by precious stones and pearls, but only by Torah and good deeds, as it is said, When you walk, it will lead you; when you lie down, it will watch over you; and when you are awake, it will converse with you (Proverbs 6:22). ‘When you walk, it will lead you’ — in this world. ‘When you lie down, it will watch over you’ — in the grave. ‘And when you are awake, it will converse with you’ — in the world-to-come. And thus it is written in the Book of Psalms by David, king of Israel, I prefer the teaching You proclaimed to thousands of pieces of gold and silver (Psalm 119:72); and it says, Silver is Mine and gold is Mine, says Adonai of Hosts (Haggai 2:8).” (Pirkei Avot 6:9)


Why do you live where you do? Jobs or family determine where some of us live; others choose their location based on climate, religious, or social factors. Some of us have choice; some do not. But geography is not the “where” R. Yosei b. Kisma has in mind. R. Yosei b. Kisma was a second century tanna, who lived in Tiberias on the western shore of Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee). Tiberias was built in approximately 20 C.E. by King Antipas, son of Herod the Great, and named for the Roman Emperor Tiberias. Its seminal attribute was a spa that took advantage of numerous nearby natural mineral hot springs. What began as a pagan city came to be populated largely by Jews after the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. By the time R. Yosei lived there, and especially after 135 C.E., Tiberias, along with nearby Tzippori (Sepphoris), was a center of Jewish learning, featuring a respected academy and thirteen synagogues. R. Yosei b. Kisma is clearly pleased to live there, but we do not know if his residence in Tiberias was a matter of choice or good fortune. What was a matter of choice was his commitment to Jewish learning.


Pirkei Avot (and Mishnah, in general) includes few stories, but R. Yosei b. Kisma’s story is more like a didactic teaching than the biographical anecdote it purports to be. Consider that we do not to where or why he was traveling, the name or any identifying features of the person he met along the way, where that person hailed from, or how he had the means to offer R. Yosei a sizable fortune to move to the unnamed town. We have here a fable about the criteria one should consider in choosing where to live, but far more we have a teaching concerning how to live.

R. Yosei articulates clear and succinct criteria for where he prefers to live: he prefers a city blessed with a thriving culture Jewish learning, which he describes as a “great city of sages and scribes” — in short, in a “place of Torah.” This, he asserts, is worth far more than the precious  metals and gems of this world because, as he learns from Proverbs 6:22, Torah accompanies us in every phase of existence. Torah teaches us how to live properly in this world, how to die honorably, and assures us life in the world-to-come. We might be surprised that R. Yosei does not also quote Proverbs 8:10-11: Accept my discipline rather than silver, knowledge rather than choice gold. For wisdom is better than rubies; no good can equal her. Instead, R. Yosei quotes two other verses, perhaps because Psalm 119:72 says, “I prefer Your Torah” or “Your Torah is better for me,” and in Haggai 2:8, God proclaims, “Silver is Mine and gold is Mine,” suggests that the riches of Torah learning far exceed the value of those of worldly riches. Worldly wealth gives us comfort, but Torah learning teaches us to live righteous and worthy lives. For R. Yosei, worldly wealth is valuable only in this world; Torah learning insures life in the world-to-come.

R. Yosei’s teaching can be understood as encouragement to situate our lives in a geographical location that fosters and nurtures vibrant Jewish learning. However, we might also read it metaphorically: we should live our lives steeped in Jewish learning that fosters and nurtures in us the best we have to offer our families, communities, and the world. In an interconnected electronic world, Jewish learning is more accessible than at any point in history. Jews living far from urban centers can hop online and learn from great scholars. Jews living in small and isolated locales can find teachers, classes, and others with whom to study. Today one can access an extraordinary Jewish library merely by clicking on



  1. Why do you live where you do? Are you satisfied with the Jewish learning accessible in your local community? If not, what can you do to improve the situation?
  2. How does the wisdom of Torah — Jewish learning writ large, including Tana”kh, Talmud, midrash, Kabbalah, Musar — improve your life and help you become the best version of yourself you can be?
  3. As Shavuot approaches, tradition bids us re-commit to Jewish learning. How does the passage from Proverbs 3 speak to you? What would you like to learn, but have not yet studied?

Happy is the one who finds wisdom, the one who attains understanding. Its value exceeds silver, its yield than gold. It is more precious than rubies; all your possessions cannot equal it. In its right hand are length of days; in its left, riches and honor. Its ways are ways of pleasantness; all its paths are peace. It is a tree of life to those who hold fast to it; all its supporters are happy. (Proverbs 3:13-18)

Friday, May 20, 2022

Ten Minutes of Talmud #171—Mine and Yours—Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

There are four characteristics among human beings: One says, “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours” — this is the character of the beinuni (average, or ordinary person), and some say this is the character of someone from Sodom. [One says,] “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is mine” — this is the character of an am ha-aretz (ignoramus). [One says,] “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours” — this is the character of a chasid (pious person). [One says,] “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine” — this is the character of a rasha (wicked person). (Pirkei Avot 5:10)



People are quick to categorize others by their commonalities or distinctive features. Slotting everyone into established broad categories seems irresistible, but I doubt that is the Sages’ intent in offering us this mishnah. The Rabbis want us to consider the ethics and impact of our attitude toward property — both money and possessions — and how our attitude and economic choices inform our lives and relationships with others. It might help to display the four possibilities as a two-by-two grid with attitude toward one’s own property heading the columns, and attitude toward someone else’s property heading the rows. 

This makes it clear how the Rabbis evaluate the four combinations of attitudes toward one’s own property and that of others: what makes for desirable or dangerous ethical attitudes? The mishnah also encourages us to ask: which type am I, and why?


The two extreme approaches are the easiest to understand. The rasha (wicked), who claims everything for themself, willfully disregards boundaries and has no respect for the claims of others. If what is yours is mine, what prevents me from feeling entitled to appropriate your possessions for myself any time I want? It is difficult to imagine a society functioning with many people acting this way.

Similarly easy to comprehend is the one who claims that what is mine is yours, and vice versa; this person is foolishly ignorant of appropriate boundaries.

The chasid (pious person) is generous, but perhaps to a fault. The chasid is aware of, and acknowledges ownership of possessions, but (we are to presume) they want to share what they  have with others. Perhaps they are inspired by teachings such as that of R. Elazar of Bartota in Pirkei Avot 3:7; perhaps the chasid not only wholeheartedly believes, but is fully prepared to act on the belief that everything comes from God and therefore ultimately belongs to God; the human focus on possession is thereby a distraction from what is truly important in life.

Pirkei Avot 3:7

R. Elazar of Bartota said: Give [God] from what is [God’s], for you and what is yours are [God’s]. Thus it says concerning David, For everything comes from You, and it is Your gift that we have given You (1 Chronicles 29:14).

Arguably, the most difficult category to understand is the “ordinary” person, deemed by some the “attitude of Sodom,” a city populated by wholly wicked people (Genesis 19). At first blush, “what is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours” seems merely definitional. The challenge here is to understand why the Rabbis connect this ostensibly reasonable and neutral attitude with Sodom. The biblical city of Sodom was the epitome of inhospitality, corruption, and violence; Sodom is emblematic of social degradation, evil, and a complete breakdown of proper social order. In the extreme, unvarying adherence to legal boundaries results in a society in which people refuse responsibility for taking care of one another: they do not share their resources and donate some of what they have to those in need. Rather, they live in isolated spheres, caring only for themselves and unresponsive to the needs of others. What begins by seeming reasonable ends up cruel and evil. Perhaps the Rabbis are warning us that the “average” masquerades as reasonable, but is dangerous in the extreme, even more threatening than the rasha (evil) because the rasha is easy to recognize, while the “average” masquerades as normal and acceptable.


  1. Which of the “four types” do you think most accurately describes you? Which one would you like to most closely match? Why? 
  2. We might compare the “Four Children” of the Passover Haggadah with the “four types” in this mishnah. Just as each of us is a mix of “wise,” “wicked,” “simple,” and “unable to ask,” so, too, at various times we adopt varying attitudes toward possession. Can you identify conditions and  situations that incline you toward each of the four types in M Pirkei Avot 5:10?
  3. Clearly, the most troubling attitude is the one we would be most inclined to term “normal,” “reasonable,” or “appropriate.” Consider R. Ovadiah of Bertinoro’s commentary. He warns us of the “I-have-mine” attitude that leads some to disregard the needs of others. Do you see that attitude at play in the world around you? Do you think this attitude can be countered on a societal level?

“The thing is close to coming to the temperament of Sodom because since one who gets accustomed to this, will not want to give benefit to another, even with something that benefits the other, this one does not. And this was the temperament of Sodom because they intended to stop sojourners from staying among them, even though the land before them was broad and they did not lack anything.” (R. Ovadiah b. Avraham of Bertinoro, 15th century, in his commentary on the Mishnah)

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Ten Minutes of Talmud #170—Rethinking Our Aspirations—Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Ben Zoma says: Who is wise? One who learns from everyone, as it is said, I have learned from all my students (Psalm 119:99). Who is mighty? One who subdues their [evil] inclination, as it is said, Better to be forbearing than mighty, to have self-control than to conquer a city (Proverbs 16:32). Who is rich? One who rejoices in their lot, as it is said, You shall enjoy the fruit of your labors; you shall be happy and you shall prosper (Psalm 128:2). Who is honored? The one who honors others, as it is said, For I honor those that honor Me, but those who spurn Me shall be dishonored (1 Samuel 2:30). (Pirkei Avot 4:1)


Shimon b. Zoma was a 1st/2nd century tanna in the circle of R. Yehoshua b. Chananiah. Talmud (BT Chagigah 14b) records that he was one of three colleagues who accompanied R. Akiba into the Pardes ( the “garden” of mystical knowledge). According to the talmudic narrative in Chagigah, Ben Zoma lost control of his mental faculties in the Pardes and, as a result, died young  before attaining ordination as a Rabbi. You will find another of Ben Zoma’s teachings in TMT-80. 

Thus said Adonai: Let not the wise person glory in their wisdom; let not the strong person glory in their strength; let not the rich person glory in their riches. But only in this should one glory: in earnest devotion to Me. For I, Adonai, act with kindness, justice, and equity in the world; for in these I delight—declares Adonai. (Jeremiah 9:22-23)

This teaching may have been inspired by the prophet Jeremiah’s evocation of wisdom, might, and wealth as distractions from what is truly important. Ben Zoma goes farther than Jeremiah; he redefines wisdom, might, wealth, and honor in the context of pursuing a spiritual life.


We each have a sense of what goals are worthy and important for the lives we wish to live. We keep these goals in our sights as we walk through the world. Wisdom, power, wealth, and honor might well be the four most sought after qualities people aspire to achieve. Ben Zoma agrees, but teaches us that before we attempt to acquire wisdom, power, wealth, and honor, we should understand their true meaning. Paradoxically, wisdom, might, wealth, and honor derive not from the world without, but rather through a process of inner, spiritual growth and righteous behavior. When we truly understand them, all four are readily available to each one of us.

We are accustomed to think of a wise person as one who has accumulated vast amounts of knowledge and is recognized for their intellectual accomplishments. Ben Zoma inverts that understanding: a wise person is one who pursues learning throughout their life keenly cognizant that they can learn from everyone and therefore is open to learning from all sources. Being wise is not about stockpiling knowledge; it is about learning from all sources because true wisdom is the openness to learn from everyone. 

Similarly, we think of might as the power to control others and the ability to coerce them into  doing what we want. Ben Yoma teaches that genuine might is not the power over others, but rather over one’s self. It is far easier to lash out at others who irritate us than to hold our tongues. Self-restraint and moderation of our own negative tendencies evidence enormous might and, like wisdom, self-control is a lifelong pursuit.

It is well known that few people feel they are as rich as they would like. Even those in possession of vast wealth wish for more. Ben Zoma understands that feeling wealthy is not a function of our bank balances, but rather our sense of satisfaction with what we have. While we may still feel the need for more money or hope for more possessions, if we appreciate what we have and truly enjoy it, we are already “rich.”

Everyone craves honor. When treated with respect and admiration, we feel valued and worthy. But we have it backwards. The deeper truth, Ben Zoma teaches us, is that our focus should be on honoring others and treating them with the respect we wish for ourselves. When we do — and only when we do — are we truly honorable, whether or not we receive public recognition. There is a distinct difference between being publicly accorded honor, and honoring another person. The former may well feel more gratifying, but genuine, meaningful honor, Ben Zoma asserts, is what we give others and it is far more desirable.

All four attributes — wisdom, might, wealth, and honor — are ours for the having if we do two things. First, we must learn to recognize these attributes as soul properties attained through inner, spiritual growth, rather than as external markers attached to us by others. This is not intuitive, and is probably a counter-cultural idea in most any era. Second, we must work at self-improvement and generously share ourselves with others without focusing on acquiring something in return. The path is simple when we see it, but a challenging one to walk.


  1. Who are, or have been, the “unofficial” but invaluable teachers in your life?
  2. When have you felt most in command of yourself? Was it difficult to achieve? What helps you to control feelings and reactions you want to rein in?
  3. The understanding that we are all “created in the image of God” can be understood to say that we all contain the spark of the Divine, and reflect God’s holiness. Hence by honoring others (who are images of God), we honor God. How might this viewpoint suggest changes to incorporate into your own behavior?

Friday, April 29, 2022

Ten Minutes of Talmud #169 — God’s Presence in Our Torah Study — Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

R. Chalafta b. Dosa of K’far Chananiah said: When ten sit together and occupy themselves with Torah, the Shekhinah (God’s divine presence) abides among them, as it is said, God stands in the divine congregation (Psalm 82:1). How do we know that the same is true even of five? As it is said, [God] established [God’s] vault on earth (Amos 9:6). How do we know that the same is true even of three? As it is said, In the midst of the judges is God (Psalm 82:1). How do we know that the same is true even of two? As it is said, They who revere Adonai spoke one with another and Adonai heard and took note (Malachi 3:16). How do we know that the same is true even of one? As it is said, In every place where I cause My Name to be mentioned I will come to you and I will bless you (Exodus 20:21). (Pirkei Avot 3:6)


In the wake of the destruction of Solomon’s Temple (586 B.C.E.), our prophets asked whether God had annulled the covenant and “divorced” Israel. The trauma of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. seems to have caused our Sages to wonder whether God had lost interest or disappeared from this world. In both cases, the Sages respond with a resounding, “No!” 

In BT Berakhot 6a, Ravin bar Rav Ada says in the name of R. Yitzhak that we know God is present in the synagogue based on Psalm 82:1, the verse cited twice in our mishnah above. Indeed, this is a go-to verse for the Rabbis to assert that God is present whenever a minyan of Jews pray together. The Rabbis understand prayer to be a substitute for Temple sacrifices that can no longer be offered; they even connect the time for obligatory prayer with the times the daily sacrifices in the Temple were offered. In the same Berakhot passage (on 8a), R. Chiyya bar Ami says in the name of Ulla, “Since the day the Temple was destroyed, the Holy Blessed One has only the four cubits of halakhah in this world.” This statement reflects a sense that in the post-Temple reality, God’s presence in our world has shrunk to the domain of our willingness to obey mitzvot. Pirkei Avot 3:6, however, trumpets a subtle yet significant expansion of God’s presence. R. Chalafta b. Dosa extends the idea of God’s presence to encompass whenever Jews engage in Talmud Torah, whether a minyan or sole individual.


R. Chalafta b. Dosa, the leader of the Jewish community in Tzippori in the early second century, was a disciple of R. Meir and the father of a great sage, R. Yosei b. Chalafta. His teaching rests on the clever use of biblical verses to forward his argument that there is no minimum number required to experience God’s presence: Torah study itself evokes God’s presence in our lives.

Psalm 82:1 asserts that God stands in adat-El, the congregation of God. In context, this refers to the divine assembly of angelic beings in heaven, but the Rabbis employ the verse to refer to a congregation of Jews, claiming thereby that a minyan (quorum of 10 Jews) is sufficient to constitute an eidah/congregation. Hence, when ten study together, God joins them. But the same is true for five, because, as the prophet Amos attested, God established God’s vault on earth. In context, the term agudah means “vault,” but can be understood as “bunch,” meaning that which you can grasp with the five fingers of your hand. Hence, God descends from heaven to earth when five come together to study Torah. R. Chalafta next reduces the minimum to three on the basis of the next phrase of a verse already cited — Psalm 82:1 — where elohim means “judges.” As we know from Mishnah Sanhedrin 1:1, three are required to constitute a court (beit din) for judgment. R. Chalafta then reduces the minimum to two on the basis of Malachi 3:16: since Torah study is an expression of reverence for God and, as Malachi asserts, when two people who revere God are in conversation, God hears and takes notes—hence God is present. Finally, R. Chalafta reduces the minimum to one solitary Jew studying Torah on the basis of Exodus 20:21, in which “you” is  couched in the singular when God says, “I will come to you and I will bless you.”

 R. Chalafta teaches us that God’s presence is readily accessible to us anytime and anywhere through Torah study. Talmud Torah teaches us to see the world through a divine lens and live our lives by divine ethical priorities—by their very nature evoking God’s presence. It may be that the old adage, “The more the better” applies to both prayer and Torah study, but R. Chalafta understands that this is not always possible, and affirms that God is present wherever and whenever we study Torah. R. Chalafta’s teaching does not define or delimit the conditions of God’s presence, but rather encourages us to continually experience God’s presence by studying Torah. Particularly after the Destruction of the Second Temple, the Rabbis sensed that God needs a dwelling place now that God’s abode on earth had been demolished. R. Chalafta teaches us to create such a dwelling place for God in our hearts and minds through study.

“Each one of us needs to build God a Tabernacle in the recesses of our hearts, 

by preparing ourselves to become a Sanctuary for God and a place for the dwelling of God’s glory.” (Malbim)


  1. For some, prayer and meditation are powerful paths to feeling God’s presence. R. Chalafta speaks beautifully to the power of Torah study to evoke God’s presence. For others, communal celebrations (such as a Passover seder), listening to music, experiencing nature, or creating art evoke God. When do you experience the Divine in your life?
  2. R. Chalafta’s mishnah subtly suggests that as much as we wish to experience God’s presence — and can do so through study — God also wishes to abide among us. Does that view of God resonate for you? Why or why not?
  3. Malbim (Meir Leibush b. Yechiel Michel Wisser, 19th c) says, “each one of us needs to build God a Tabernacle in the recesses of our hearts, by preparing ourselves to become a Sanctuary for God and a place for the dwelling of God’s glory.” Have you ever experienced yourself, or an event in your life, as a Tabernacle for God? How do you think you can do that?

Sunday, April 24, 2022

Ten Minutes of Talmud #168 — Four for the Price of Three — Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

They [the five disciples of Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai] each said three things. R. Eliezer said: Let your colleague’s honor be as precious to you as your own; and do not be easily provoked to anger; and repent one day before your death. Warm yourself before the fire of the wise, but beware of being singed by their glowing coals because their bite is the bite of a fox, and their sting is the sting of a scorpion, and their hiss is the hiss of a viper, and all their words are like coals of fire. (Pirkei Avot 2:10)


In Pirkei Avot 2:8 we meet Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai, the sage who led the Jewish community when the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. He introduces his five primary disciples — in time, important sages themselves — by recounting their greatest attributes. In Pirkei Avot 2:9, we learn how they responded to their master’s questions, “What is the right way to live?” and “What should one avoid in life?” as well as the responses Rabban Yochanan preferred. Mishnah 2:10 tells us we will learn three important teachings of each of the five disciples, beginning with R. Eliezer, who teaches three principles, and adds a fourth for good measure. 

R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus lived through the Destruction and on into the second century. Tradition holds that in the midst of the siege of Jerusalem, R. Eliezer and his colleague, R. Yehoshua b. Chananiah, smuggled their master safely out of Jerusalem and joined him in establishing Yavneh as the seat of rabbinic scholarship (BT Gittin 56a). R. Eliezer held conservative views, often agreeing with the perspective of the School of Shammai. This brought him into conflict with his colleagues on a number of occasions and, eventually, into crisis over an issue of ritual purity. Refusing to accept the decision of the majority in the Sanhedrin, R. Eliezer was excommunicated. Gemara records that, wielding magical powers, he responded with fury by wreaking destruction and even bringing about the death of his brother-in-law, Rabban Gamliel, the nasi (president) of the Sanhedrin, who succeeded Rabban Yochanan. R. Eliezer’s often pugilistic and occasionally bitte relationship with his colleagues is reflected in this mishnah.


R. Eliezer offers three pieces of wisdom that readily speak to people living in any era. While each alone stands as a sound ethical teaching of proper conduct, it is likely that R. Eliezer had in mind  that the troika should address the challenge of maintaining proper relationships with colleagues. The first teaching is to prize a colleague’s honor as highly as one’s own. Optimally, colleagues are a source of assistance, support, and encouragement. But they can also provide uncomfortable competition, leading to a host of negative outcomes. If our words and actions convey that we esteem them and accord them due respect, we are far more likely to build constructive, working relationships with them. Certainly a win-win. In the Sanhedrin and in the wider world of Torah study, this is a win-win for the entire nation of Israel.

Second, R. Eliezer warns us to control our temper — advice he seems to have found difficult to apply in his own life and perhaps, as a result, appreciated all the more. One who is slow to anger and not easily provoked  is able to consider alternative ways to interpret people’s words and actions, and thereby exhibit understanding and compassion (which are easily extinguished by quick anger). Seething anger leads us to do and say things that are difficult to take back or undo, damage not quickly forgiven, let alone forgotten.

Third, the admonition to repent one day before our death raises the obvious question, “But how do we know when that day will be?” Therefore Gemara (BT Shabbat 153a) notes that one should repent every day. This teaching conveys a perspective on life and relationships that insists we take  responsibility for our errors, not allow wrongs to fester, apologize promptly, and repair relationships with alacrity. The more time passes, the harder errors and misunderstandings are to repair, and everyone suffers as a result.

As a “bonus,” R. Eliezer shares a troubling view of his experience with his rabbinic colleagues, possibly a reflection of his traumatic excommunication. The “warmth” of the fire of Torah wisdom shared in the study house is valuable. But if colleagues fail to adhere to R. Eliezer's three points of wisdom, there is danger of scholars becoming competitors and predators rather than priceless friends and colleagues. Perhaps R. Eliezer’s teachings are most profitably viewed as musar (Jewish ethics) values and priorities to aspire to. After all, every experience in life offers us an opportunity to live what we learn and succeed accordingly.


  1. Have you made efforts to protect the honor of a colleague in principle, or in order to preserve a constructive relationship, even when you did not admire (or even respect) this person? What was the result? Have you experienced colleagues failing to protect your honor? How did it feel and how did it affect your working relationship with them?
  2. The talmudic Rabbis have much to say about the destructive power of anger in our lives. Can you recall a time when you suppressed your anger to make room to consider the perspective of the person whose words or deeds offended you? Were you able to hold back your anger and see things through their eyes? If so, what was the result?
  3. It is often difficult to apologize, but it is also the case that when we offer an apology, the other person is so grateful that they, too, apologize for their part in the exchange, as rabbinic stories about Aaron convey. Has this happened to you?

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Ten Minutes of Talmud #167 — Rethinking Reward & Punishment — Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Antigonus of Sokho received [the tradition] from Shimon ha-Tzaddik (Simon the Righteous). He used to say: do not be like servants who serve the master in order to receive a reward, but rather be like servants who serve the master not in order to receive a reward, and let reverence for Heaven be upon you. (Pirkei Avot 1:3)


There is a wonderful tradition of studying Pirkei Avot during the Omer (the period from the second day of Pesach through Shavuot). In many locations, people gather to study Pirkei Avot on Shabbat afternoons during the seven weeks bridging the celebrations of the Exodus from Egypt (Passover) and the Revelation of Torah at Mount Sinai (Shavuot). Pirkei Avot contains a wealth of rabbinic wisdom and insights. It reveals much about the values and theological perspectives of the Sages and serves to launch many marvelous discussions that permit us to ponder and reconsider our personal values and view of God against how we live out our spiritual lives.

Antigonus of Sokho lived some two centuries B.C.E., long before there were rabbis. He was a Pharisee who sported a Greek name, which was not unusual following Alexander the Great’s conquest of Judea in 332 B.C.E. In Pirkei Avot’s effort to document a strong and vibrant path of the transmission of Oral Torah from Sinai to the academies of Eretz Yisrael and Babylonia, Antigonus of Sokho occupies an important spot: he was exposed to Hellenistic ideas, and reflected on both Written Torah (the Five Books of Moses) and the nascent Pharisaic tradition in this teaching that Pirkei Avot preserves for us.


Written Torah speaks at length about God’s promised rewards to those who obey the mitzvot, as well as and the punishments that will accrue to those who violate them. Deuteronomy 11:13–21 (second paragraph of Shema) is a prime example: God warns Israel that if they heed the mitzvot, God will bring rain at the proper season, insuring ample harvests and multiplying flocks and herds. If, however, they disobey, God will withhold the rain, resulting in drought and famine. It is worth noting that Torah speaks of reward and punishment in corporate terms: people obey or disobey as the nation, and as a nation they will be rewarded or punished accordingly. 

In time, some prophets hinted that the system of heavenly reward and punishment might operate on an individual level, as well, leading to a theological perspective that holds up God as a cosmic  accountant, recording our mitzvot and aveirot (sins) on a heavenly ledger. This perspective renders reward and punishment not only a national concern, but also a personal matter because it is driven by individual behavior. This latter thinking had taken hold by the time of Antigonus of Sokho.

Antigonus of Sokho understands that we all desire pleasure and reward, and we all wish to avoid pain and punishment. He does not take exception with that set of priorities, but rather directs us to consider our motivation for serving God. If we fulfill the mitzvot purely in expectation of divine reward, we diminish the meaning of obedience to God and are like servants who serve only to receive a reward, and not because service has value beyond the reward. Rather, he encourages us to view our adherence to what we understand to be God’s priorities and values (as expressed through mitzvot) as valuable service rendered for its own sake. He further advises us to always revere God, recommendation that, in context, suggests that pure reverence for God should be our primary motivation for fulfilling the mitzvot.


  1. How do you understand God? (Some consider God a Cosmic Being who controls or intervenes in the events of our world; others think of God in more abstract terms) How do the concepts of reward and punishment fit within your understanding of God? 
  2. Reward and punishment can be viewed through the lens of pleasure and pain. The trade-off between pleasure and pain was articulated as long ago as Epicurus (340–270 B.C.E.), who lived several generations before Antigonus of Sokho. Epicurus wrote (Principal Doctrine, 3), “The magnitude of pleasure reaches its limit in the removal of all pain. When pleasure is present, so long as it is uninterrupted, there is no pain either of body or mind or both together.” The 17th century philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote that human beings naturally incline toward hedonism: to maximize happiness, people maximal their pleasure and avoid pain (at least in the short term). Modern psychologists have measured social decision-making and confirmed the human proclivity to seek pleasure and avoid pain, but they also recognize the human desire to find meaning in what we do, or do not do. On the basis of Epicurus, Hobbes, and modern psychology, one might dismiss biblical reward and punishment, couched as it is in the plural (meaning that we all are rewarded or all punished together) as having no reality. Alternatively, one might reinterpret the notion of divine reward and punishment in accordance with what is most meaningful. What approach do you take?
  3. Although he does not say explicitly, it is easy to imagine that Antigonus of Sokho would have us fulfill mitzvot out of love of God, appreciation for the merit of mitzvot, and concern for the impact of our behavior on ourselves and others. With these motivations, we enhance our own lives, the lives of others, and express reverence for God. If Antigonus of Sokho had in mind that fulfilling a mitzvah is an act of obedience that is truly an act of love and appreciation of the Divine, not mere subservience, how might you incorporate that ideal into your life and practice?

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

Ten Minutes of Talmud #166: Death and Legacy -- Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

It happened that as R. Eliezer lay dying on the eve of Shabbat at dusk, his son Hyrcanus went in to remove his tefillin. [R. Eliezer] said to him, “My son, you have set aside the lighting of the [shabbat] lamp, which is prohibited [once shabbat has begun] under the category of sh’vut and for which one is punishable by karet (excision), yet you come to remove [my] tefillin, which is reshut (discretionary) and only a  mitzvah.” [Hyrcanus] left [the room] and cried out, “Woe is me, for my father’s mind has become confused!” [R. Eliezer] said to him, “It is your mind that is confused; my mind is not confused.” When his disciples saw that [R. Eliezer’s] had responded with wisdom, they went in to him and began questioning him and he answered them. He told them what was ritually impure was impure, and what was ritually pure was pure. With his last utterance of “pure,” his soul departed. They said, “This demonstrates that our Master was pure.” R. Mana declared, “Is it then only now that it is known?” R. Yehoshua went in and removed [R. Eliezer’s] tefillin. He embraced him and kissed him and wept, saying, “My teacher, my teacher, the vow [of excommunication] is annulled. My teacher, chariot of Israel and its horsemen (2 Kings 2:12).” (Jerusalem Talmud, tractate Shabbat 2:7, 5b)


R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus was one of the foremost disciples of Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai, who compared the mind of his student to a “plastered cistern” that neved loses a drop (Pirkei Avot 2:8). While both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds include narratives of his death, the Bavli version is better known. The Yerushalmi version, above, is likely earlier and served as the basis of the Bavli’s expanded version. 

Not clearly articulated, but underlying the drama, is that some years earlier, R. Eliezer was excommunicated by his colleagues (BT Baba Metzia 59b). The incident was sparked by a disagreement concerning the purity of an oven. R. Eliezer refused to accede to the majority view, maintaining that his view alone was valid. The longing of his colleagues to find a means for mending the rift in order to annul his excision prior to his death is implicit in this account of his final day. For that to happen, R. Eliezer must express halakhic opinions that comport with the majority view of the Rabbis.


The temporal setting of our story—late Friday afternoon—introduces halakhic complications. Tefillin are worn throughout the day, but not on shabbat; hence R. Eliezer’s son, Hyrcanus, wants to remove his father’s tefillin prior to sundown. R. Eliezer objects, distinguishing between two categories of shabbat prohibitions: Sh’vut (rest), mi-de-rabbanan (rabbinic) prohibitions that pertain to shabbat and festivals are intended to prevent violation of Toraitic prohibitions, or enhance the sanctity of the day; sh’vut would be violated by removing tefillin once shabbat commences. Lighting the lamps after shabbat has begun violates a biblical prohibition (mi d’oraita) against lighting fire on shabbat, carrying the far graver penalty of karet (excision), cut off forever from God and community. R. Eliezer criticizes his son’s misplaced priorities: Hyrcanus should be more concerned about lighting the lamps on time (not after Shabbat commences) because failure to do so is a far greater violation than removing tefillin once shabbat commences. 

Hyrcanus leaves the room, reporting that his father’s thinking is confused, but R. Eliezer retorts that Hyrcanus is the one whose thinking is awry. R. Eliezer’s colleagues, likely in an adjoining room due to the prevailing ban of excommunication, overhear the exchange and recognize that R. Eliezer’s halakhic reasoning is astute. This affords an opening to question him further on matters of purity—the general halakhic category that led to R. Eliezer’s excommunication. Satisfied that his current opinions align with those of the Sages, they find warrant to lift the ban of excommunication prior to R. Eliezer’s passing, literarily echoed by noting that his soul departed at the utterance of “pure.” R. Eliezer’s closest colleague and rival, R. Yehoshua b. Chananiah, then  enters and removes his tefillin. 

The story’s ending is complex. It closes on several dramatic and emotional notes with implications for R. Eliezer’s status, the arrival of shabbat, and the precise moment of R. Eliezer’s death: (1) The Rabbis declare R. Eliezer “pure”—meaning the ban is lifted. (2) R. Yehoshua removes R. Eliezer’s tefillin. (3) R. Yehoshua embraces R. Eliezer and utters words evocative of the prophet Elijah: when Elijah is taken to heaven in a chariot, Elisha describes him as “Chariot of Israel and its horsemen” (2 Kings 2:12). However, where Elisha speaks of Elijah as “my father, my father,” R. Yehoshua addresses R. Eliezer as, “my teacher, my teacher,” the appellation of greatest honor a sage could be accorded.


  1. The ending of the story is enigmatic. Is R. Eliezer still alive when R. Yehoshua removes his tefillin? Do you think R. Eliezer is reinstated prior to sundown, or do you think the story suggests that an exception is made to the general rule in this case, and the ban is lifted on shabbat?
  2. Although not explicitly stated, the story hints that perhaps the sun has set and R. Yehoshua violates a sh’vut prohibition when he removes R. Eliezer’s tefillin, which R. Eliezer explicitly noted was preferable to violating a biblical prohibition, if a choice must be made. What do you think happened? Why do you think the story is told this way?
  3. Given that R. Yehoshua’s words echo those of Elisha uttered to Elijah as he was leaving this world—still alive and not dying—is the story drawing a parallel between R. Eliezer and Elijah? How do R. Yehoshua’s words secure R. Eliezer’s legacy among his colleagues? What words have you used to help secure someone’s legacy? What words would you wish used to fix your legacy?

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Ten Minutes of Talmud #165: Does God Hear Prayer? -- Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

     R. Simlai taught: One should always first praise the Holy Blessed One, and then pray. Whence do we learn this? From Moses, as it is written, And I pleaded with Adonai at that time (Deuteronomy 3:23) and, Adonai, God, You who let Your servant see the first works of Your greatness and Your mighty hand, You whose powerful deeds no god in heaven or on earth can equal! (Deuteronomy 3:24) And it is written after this, Please let me cross over and see the good land [on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country, and the Lebanon](Deuteronomy 3:25).

    R. Elazar said, “Prayer is greater than good deeds inasmuch as there was no one whose good deeds were greater than Moses our Rabbi and nonetheless, his request was granted through prayer, as it is said, Speak no more to Me (Deuteronomy 3:26). Juxtaposed to that is, Go up to the summit of the mountain (Deuteronomy 3:27).”

    R. Elazar said, “Fasting is greater than tzedakah. What is the reason? This [fasting, is accomplished] with one’s body and this [tzedakah, is done] with one’s money.”

    R. Elazar said, “Prayer is greater than sacrifices, as it is said, What need have I of all sacrifices, [says Adonai. I am full of the burnt-offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not desire the blood of bulls and sheep and goats] (Isaiah 1:11). And it is written, When you lift your hands [I will hide My eyes from you, and even if you pray at length, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood] (Isaiah 1:15).” R. Yochanan said, “Any priest who killed a person may not lift his hands [to perform the priestly benediction], as it is said, your hands are full of blood.” 

    R. Elazar said, “Since the day the Temple was destroyed, the gates of prayer have been locked, as it is said, Though I plead and call out, [God] shuts out my prayer (Lamentations 3:8). Although the gates of prayer were locked, the gates of tears were not locked, as it is said, Hear my prayer, Adonai, and give ear to my pleading, do not disregard my tears (Psalms 39:13). (BT Berakhot 32a,b)


How does one gain God’s attention and secure God’s help and mercy? The Sages taught that we maintain a relationship with God through prayer since the Temple was destroyed and offering sacrifices is no longer possible. They were deeply invested in prayer as the primary means to serve God and to appeal for God’s mercy. Yet, as R. Elazar teaches, prayer is not the only avenue to  connect with the Divine. For one who seeks concrete response to prayer in the form of safety, fortune, or healing, the goal of engagement is clear. For those whose conception is God is more abstract, the goal of prayer may be very different and other avenues of connection are perhaps equally (or even more) desirable.


Taking Moses, the quintessential prophet and rabbi, as the model, R. Simlai teaches that the proper order for approaching God is: first, praise God; next, petition God. This order is reflected in the Amidah. R. Simlai deduces this order from verses in Deuteronomy ch. 3 that narrate Moses’s conversation with God. In preparing to petition God, Moses first pays tribute to God’s greatness (v. 24), and only afterward implores God to permit him to enter the Land of Israel (v. 25).

Gemara expands the conversation with a series of four teachings attributed to R. Elazar, perhaps in part because the first cites the next two verses in the same chapter of Deuteronomy to support the contention that God prefers prayer—or possibly that prayer is more effective in garnering a response from God?—than good deeds. R. Simlai did not compare prayer to good deeds (or anything else); he only addressed the proper order of the elements of prayer. R. Elazar notes that in v. 26, God silences Moses, and in v. 27, instructs him to ascend the mountain. In context, God rejects Moses’s plea to enter the Land and sends him to the summit of Pisgah where he can see it  even though he will never enter it. Moses’s ascent is not a “good deed,” even if undertaken in obedience to God, but R. Elazar’s interpretation invites us to ask: how do prayer and good deeds compare in the religious economy of action?

R. Elazar’s second teaching is that sacrificing one’s physical self is greater than sacrificing one’s monetary (or material) assets. This is yet another comparison worthy of consideration and discussion. R. Elazar’s third teaching is that prayer is superior to sacrifices offered on the Temple altar. For the Rabbis,  since the Destruction of 70 C.E. prayer has replaced sacrifice, but the claim that it is superior—at a time when the Rabbis were praying for the restitution of the sacrificial cult—is perhaps surprising and, like R. Elazar’s previous statements, worthy of consideration.

R. Elazar’s fourth teaching differs from the first three. It addresses an unarticulated fear: What if God isn’t listening to our prayers? Or worse yet, what if God shuts them out, as a verse in Lamentations suggests? R. Elazar summons consolation from Psalm 139:13 to reassure us that when our prayers truly matter, God will listen.


  1. How we think about the nature of God has everything to do with what we believe prayer is about. Rabbi Morris Adler said, “Our prayers are answered not when we are given what we ask, but when we are challenged to be what we can be.” What does it mean to you for your prayers to “be answered”?
  2. Which do you believe is a superior sacrifice: foregoing something personally desirable (such as food) or contributing to the welfare of another? Why?
  3. If your conception of God is not of a Being who can respond concretely to your request, how can prayer enhance your spiritual life, connect you with divinity, and inspire you?

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)


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.


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.


  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)


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.


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. 


  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?