As If : Berakhot 14

In Berakhot 14a (Daf Yomi a few days back), the Sages use metaphor — “as if” [כְּאִלּוּ, k’ilu] — to highlight the impact of certain behaviors:

אָמַר רַב: כָּל הַנּוֹתֵן שָׁלוֹם לַחֲבֵירוֹ קוֹדֶם שֶׁיִּתְפַּלֵּל כְּאִילּוּ עֲשָׂאוֹ בָּמָה
Rav said: Anyone who greets another person in the morning before he prayed, it is as if he built an altar [or “high place”].

כָּל הָעוֹשֶׂה חֲפָצָיו קוֹדֶם שֶׁיִּתְפַּלֵּל — כְּאִלּוּ בָּנָה בָּמָה
Rabbi Yona said that Rabbi Zeira said: Anyone who tends to his own affairs before he prays, it is as though he built an altar.
— B. Ber 14a

There is a “Jastrow Jackpot” (verse translation within a dictionary entry) for 14a under the word “shalom,” as in “giving peace” or “greeting”:

Ber. 14ᵃ משיב ש׳ וכ׳ may return a salutation to any person. Ib. כל הנותן ש׳ וכ׳ he who offers salutation to his neighbor before prayer, is considered as if he made him a highplace (worshipping man before God).

There is following and prior discussion about whether greeting someone before or during prayer is a matter of respect. Conclusions drawn, about when to greet without disrespecting either God or other people, are matter for another time. Here I just want to add “as if he built an altar” to the list of methods for for decision-making.

In his My Jewish Learning essay on Berakhot 15, Rabbi Asher Lopatin of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, discusses a more positive use of the concept of “altar,” that is, “the idea of elevating the human being to the level of an altar.”

In Berakhot 15, and many other places in the Talmud, the Sages portray ordinary activities of body or home as positive substitutes for Temple worship, which is no longer available. But here, in Berakhot 14, “altar” stands in for building an altar apart from the Temple (perhaps while it still stood) for the purposes of idol worship.

Together, both positive and negative metaphors around “altar” are part of re-drawing mundane word, thought, and action “as if” of cosmic importance.

As If

In the interest of being thorough, here is how Jastrow explains the expression that introduces the metaphor:

אִילּוּ , אִלּוּ [ilu] is a contraction of אִם [im, if] and לוּ [lu, “would that” or “oh that”], maybe something like, “if it were that” — or, more simply: “if.” So, “כְּאִלּוּ” [k’ilu] is “as if.”
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Gathering Sources: Bo

Some thoughts and resources for exploring the Torah portion Bo, Exodus 10:1-13:16.

This is part of a series of weekly “gathering sources” posts, collecting previous material on the weekly Torah portion, most originally part of a 2009-2010 series called “Opening the Book.”

A Path to Follow: Tefillin

Language and Translation: Bo

Something to Notice: First Commandment

Great Source(s): God’s Mailbox

Bo is next read in the Diaspora minchah January 25 through Shabbat Feb 1.

Photo: from World Wide Wrap website.

Inside/Outside Forces: Berakhot 11-13

Berakhot 11-13 include some ideas related to the previous Daf Yomi theme about worries as a source in Talmudic decision-making:

  • In 11a, we see conflicts between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai concerning what posture to use when reciting the Shema;
  • In 13a & b we learn about greeting someone (asking after their well-being) and responding to greetings, in the breaks between paragraphs of the Shema, out of respect [שׁוֹאֵל מִפְּנֵי הַכָּבוֹד וּמֵשִׁיב] and out of fear [שׁוֹאֵל מִפְּנֵי הַיִּרְאָה וּמֵשִׁיב]; and
  • In 12a, we see changes in liturgical practice in the face of “insinuations of the Minim” or “due to the grievances of the heretics” [מִפְּנֵי תַּרְעוֹמֶת הַמִּינִין] (Jastrow Jackpot for this phrase; see below);

The first example shows Sages contending with differing opinions and practices within Jewish communities. They are aware that their individual behavior, as well as their arguments, will influence future practice. They also exhibit concern over the impact of their decisions, and the conflicts themselves, on both “Houses” and the community as a whole.

The second example shows Sages contending with customs and hierarchies internal to Jewish communities — such as honoring a parent or teacher by promptly recognizing them — and in the surrounding context, such as the necessity of recognizing a king or other high-placed official.

Decision-making around individual and communal prayers thus includes impact on — and input from — one’s own Jewish community, adjacent ones, and the local non-Jewish culture. In the third example, outside forces have an even stronger influence.

Outside Forces

Rabbi Ishmael (Ber 11a) was concerned about what students might think and infer from his own posture during the Shema, and Sages consider (Ber 13a-b) how others, in- and outside the Jewish community, would react to being ignored during recitation of the Shema. In Ber 12a, faith outside Rabbinic Judaism is used as reason to alter Jewish practice, so as to clearly delineate the latter from the former.

We learn that recitation of the Ten Commandments, once a regular part of the daily service, is dropped so as to avoid the appearance of supporting “Minim/the heretics.” Per Soncino footnote, this is “[Christian belief that the Ten Commandments were the only valid part of the Torah.” This does not appear to be a ruling from the outside about what is considered seemly or permitted in a religious service. Instead, it’s a decision made internally by the Sages based on reasoning similar to Rabbi Ishmael’s above: If we continue with this recitation it will give credence to a belief we don’t sanction; so we are altering the practice to avoid any unwanted inference, now and in the future.

Notes to B. Ber 12a cite a related discussion in the Yerushalmi (Jerusalem or “Palestinian” Talmud) explaining “why we read these paragraphs every day.” Y. Ber 9a outlines parallels between the Shema and the Ten Commandments:

[1] “I am the Lord your God” = “Hear Israel Ad-nai is our G-d”;
[2] “You shall have no other Gods” = “Ad-nai is One”;

[6] “Do not murder” = “you will rapidly vanish” – someone who murders will be murdered;
— Y. Ber 9a (Sefaria Community Translation)

The whole of Yerushalmi is available on Sefaria) in Aramaic/Hebrew, with select sections translated. Another translation is provided on the blog of Rabbi Dr. Tzvee Zahavy, and The Lehrhaus posted this related discussion, “Revealed yet Concealed: the Meaning of Aseret Ha-Dibrot,”
awhile back.

More on this blog and Daf Yomi.


Dictionary Citation

Dictionary includes a “Jastrow Jackpot,” i.e., a direct citation to the verse under consideration:

תַּרְעוֹמֶת — murmur complaint quarrel

Ber. 12ᵃ בקשו … מפני ת׳ המינין they wanted to read so (recite the Ten Commandments with the Sh’mʿa in the prayers), had they not long ago abolished it on account of the seditious talk of the heretics (who declared nothing to be essential in the Law but the Ten Commandments); a. fr.—Pl. תַּרְעוּמוֹת. Tosef. Sot. VI, 1 ושאר כל הת׳ האמורות וכ׳ and all the other murmurings (against God) mentioned in that section (Job XXVII).

— from Jastrow, Marcus. A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature. [standard Talmud reference] Philadelphia, 1903-ish. Available via Sefaria.org

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Rabbinic Worries: Berakhot 8-10

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In addition to exploring sources and methodologies used for decision-making in the Daf Yomi pages, it seems important to consider challenges the Sages faced outside the academy and worries they express. In Berakhot 8-10, worries include outlaws in the neighborhood, future enslavements, and bizarre accusations:

  1. In a famous midrash (Ber 10a), Rabbi Meir is plagued by outlaws in his neighborhood and prays for their deaths. His scholar wife, Beruriah, asks his thinking and then proposes an alternative scripture reading. In this way, she convinces him to pray that SINS, rather than SINNERS, cease from the land. He does, and the outlaws repent.

  2. In Ber 9b, God tells Moses, at the Burning Bush (Ex 3:14): “Go and say to Yisrael: ‘I was with you in this [Egyptian] servitude, and I shall be with you in the servitude to the kingdoms [i.e., Babylon and Rome].'” Moses replies: “Lord of the Universe, sufficient is the evil in the time thereof!” (Or: “suffering at its appointed time”) [דַּיָּה לַצָּרָה בִּשְׁעָתָהּ]. Whereupon God tells Moses to say only: “I AM has sent me unto you.”

  3. In Ber 8b, Rava told his sons to avoid sitting on the bed of an Aramean woman, on account of “an incident” with Rav Pappa.

The rare inclusion of a woman teaching another scholar — as well as the powerful model of one partner approaching another about an issue of theology and practical behavior — is worth noting, perhaps for future exploration. The conversation between God and Moses is another worth exploring. In the spirit of the wider view, sweeping through Daf Yomi, let’s focus on a theme present in all three texts.

“An Incident”

Rava, who taught in Babylon in the first half of the 4th Century CE (died c. 352 CE), told his sons to avoid three things:

  • cutting meat in their hands,
  • passing synagogues while the community is praying, and
  • sitting on the bed of an Aramean woman.

Several explanations are offered for the latter in the text:

  • Maybe it means to never go to sleep without reciting the Shema (as a gentile would) — which seems relevant to the overarching topic of when to recite the Shema;

  • Maybe it means not to marry a proselyte woman (which is forbidden to kohanim, a priestly family) — possibly relevant to Rava’s sons or maybe superfluous, depending on the commentary consulted; and

  • Maybe it means, exactly: “don’t sit on the bed of an Aramean woman.”

The literal interpretation is then explained with reference to “an incident of Rav Pappa”: Rav Pappa, another Babylonian teacher about 20 years younger than Rava, visited an Aramean woman who asked him to sit on a bed; he refused to do so until she raised the bed cover; when she complied, a dead baby was found there.

A later commentary, “Nissim Gaon” — Nissim ben Jacob (990 – 1062 CE, Tunisia) — suggests that the woman owed Rav Pappa money and planned to accuse him of killing the child and, thereby forcing him into forgiving the debt. This provides motivation for the woman’s actions, but it does not explain, to me anyway, the overall point of this macabre tale.

Is this story meant to explain an existing adage? something akin to “Beware Greeks (even if) bearing gifts”? Is it more like a family tradition of avoiding a certain town,* because of an unfortunate happening there, a tradition repeated over time and distance until it takes on new meaning? Jastrow offers one clue.

Worry as a Rabbinical Source

Jastrow’s dictionary defines “Armit, [אֲרַמִּית]” as “gentile woman,” referencing Ber 8b, but adds the following comment:

Owing to Christian censors as well as timid Jewish copyists, many of the passages originally referring to Romans, Christians, &c, have been altered by substituting Arammi, Kuthi, Goy &c, so that only by keen criticism their real application can be ascertained.

This note reminds us of the Rabbis’ situation as part of a minority under Roman rule. The “incident” and the lesson Rava drew for his sons carries some dangerous xenophobia. The casual acceptance of that within some commentary, in future generations (including ours), is also troubling. Still, the text reflects a reality that was ever-present and defining for the Rabbis.

This incident, along with the passages cited above from Ber 10a and 9b, highlight some prominent worries of the ancient Sages: personal safety in a crime-filled world; awareness of repeated national exile and related suffering in history; and, vulnerability to majority populations in the present.

These concerns are part of how the Rabbis saw their world and, so part of how they approached envisioning a new one. Do we see things all that differently? Don’t we have similar worries — and, therefore, similar blind spots we should heed?



NOTES

Jastrow, Marcus. A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature. [standard Talmud reference] Philadelphia, 1903-ish. Partially embedded within Sefaria.org.

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Alternate Attribution
As it happens, there is a teaching about avoiding a certain town in another Talmudic passage including the Aramean woman’s bed. In Pesachim 112b, the same teaching about not sitting on the bed appears, along with three other warnings: about seeking to avoid taxes, about standing in front of an ox, and about dwelling in Shekanzib, “because [its inhabitants] are scoffers and will corrupt you to disbelief.” The same three possible interpretations are offered for the Aramean bed. Pesachim 112b mentions “the incident of Rav Pappa” but does not elaborate.

In Pesachim, this set of teachings is attributed to Judah haNasi [the Prince] (often called, simply, “Rabbi”).

Judah haNasi, who lived in Palestine and is credited with editing the Mishnah, died about 80 years before Rav Pappa was born. Moreover, according to Soncino footnotes, Shekanzib was a Babylonian city, and Judah haNasi “would have had no occasion to warn his children against living in a town in Babylonia.” This suggests to some scholars that the attribution should instead be to Rava (as in Berakhot 8b).

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Gathering Sources: Va-eira

Some thoughts and resources for exploring the Torah portion Va-eira — also: Va’eira, Va’era, or Vaera — Exodus 6:2-9:35. This is part of a series of weekly “gathering sources” posts, collecting previous material on the weekly Torah portion, most originally part of a 2009-2010 series called “Opening the Book.”

A Path to Follow: Yo in Yocheved

Something to Notice: Passover verbs

Language and Translation: Sealed lips

Great Source(s): Knowing

More Great Source(s): The Holy Name of Being.

Va-eira is next read in the Diaspora minchah January 18 through Shabbat Jan 25.

Gematria: Daf Yomi #7

In today’s reading, Berakhot 8a-8b, we find many sources of creativity and decision-making with a wide variety of results. Among the tools employed is Gematria, interpretation based on numerical equivalents of Hebrew letters.


In a wide-ranging, scripture-laden discussion about “the time of finding” [לְעֵת מְצֹא, l’eit m’tzo],” a few words are quoted from Psalm 68:21: “issues of death [לַמָּוֶת תֹּצָאוֹת, lamavet totzaot].” This additional teaching is then offered:

It was also taught in a baraita: Nine hundred and three types of death were created in the world, as it is stated: “Issues [totzaot] of death,” and that, 903, is the numerical value [gimatriya] of totzaot.
— Berakhot 8a [Sefaria.org]

Here, just for the record, is the calculation:

ת + ת = 400 + 400
90 = צ
6 + 6 = ו + ו
א = 1
903 = total.

Virtual Jewish Learning mentions a few of the Talmudic teachers who employed Gematria and cites a few examples. My Jewish Learning notes that Gematria “was not central to rabbinic literature,” adding: “The rabbis occasionally employed gematria to help support biblical exegesis, but did not rely on it heavily.”


More on Daf Yomi: Exploring Methods

Wordplay, Moral of the Story: Daf Yomi #6

The reading today, Berakhot 7a-7b, opens with R. Yohanan saying in the name of R. Yosei: “How do we know that the Holy One, Blessed be He, says prayers?” Based on wordplay in Isaiah 56:7: “Because it is not said ‘their prayer’ but ‘My prayer’ —

And l will bring them to my holy mountain,​
and make them joyful b’veit t’fillati
— in my house of prayer [or in a house of MY prayer]
their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices shall be acceptable upon My altar;
for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
וַהֲבִיאוֹתִים אֶל-הַר קָדְשִׁי,
וְשִׂמַּחְתִּים בְּבֵית תְּפִלָּתִי–
עוֹלֹתֵיהֶם וְזִבְחֵיהֶם לְרָצוֹן עַל-מִזְבְּחִי:
כִּי בֵיתִי, בֵּית-תְּפִלָּה יִקָּרֵא לְכָל-הָעַמִּים

See also Zemirot Database for several additional versions of this tune plus another, faster tune.

This verse highlights wordplay as one of the ways the ancient sages argued, learned, and made decisions.

The Moral of the Story

We then read about Rabbi Ishmael ben Elisha entering the innermost part of the Sanctuary to offer incense and finding “Akatriel Yah” [יָהּ ה׳ צְבָאוֹת, LORD of Hosts] seated upon a high and exalted throne.” God asks Rabbi Ishmael for a blessing, and he responds:

“May it be Your will that Your mercy overcome Your anger,
and may Your mercy prevail over Your other attributes,
and may You act toward Your children with the attribute of mercy,
and may You enter before them beyond the letter of the law.”
— Sefaria (adapted Davidson translation)

To this, God nods God’s head.

And this teaches us — קמ”ל, abbreviation for וְקָמַשְׁמַע לַן: “you should not take the blessing of an ordinary person lightly.”

I love the “moral of the story,” so to speak, but I am not sure I really understand how it is reached. I am not sure I can easily extract what I’ve been calling “sources of decision-making” here. I have long found this story moving, bizarre, and provocative, but I have never had the opportunity to study it in depth…

and I guess this is one more place time where that isn’t happening — a hazard of Daf Yomi is moving on so quickly. Leaving this here for now.

So Much More

Don’t want to close today’s note without mentioning that, in addition to the idea that God prays and wears tefillin — explored throughout 6a-b and 7a-b (and in the MJL essay for Berakhot 7 — we have in 7a one of my all-time favorite midrashim: When God shows Moses God’s “back” (Exodus 33) what Moses is shown is the knot of God’s tefillin. This, too, seems to call out for much more exploration into how creative interpretation is employed.
Barbie and knot

Daf Yomi: Exploring Methods” has more on Daf Yomi, including some background, external links, and a link to all posts in this category here.

Gathering Sources: Shemot

Some thoughts and resources for exploring the Torah portion Shemot (Exodus 1:1 – 6:1, sometimes transliterated Shemoth or Shemos. This is part of a series of weekly “gathering sources” posts, collecting previous material on the weekly Torah portion, most originally part of a 2009-2010 series called “Opening the Book.”

A Path to Follow: Light, Fire, and Water in Moses’ Life

Language and Translation: The Children of Israel [proliferated]

Something to Notice: These are the names

Great Source(s): Cassuto on Exodus

Shemot is next read in the Diaspora beginning with minchah January 11 through Shabbat, Jan 18.

Photo by Francesco Paggiaro on Pexels.com

What Needs Prooftext? Daf Yomi #5

In their essay on today’s reading, Berakhot 6a-6b, Laynie Solomon of SVARA outlines the radical nature of prooftexts, the ancient rabbinic practice of creatively interpreting sacred text so that it speaks to post-biblical conditions. In this case the situation involves participating in synagogue services:

…the assumption that the answer will be positive is baked into the question: Where in the Torah is it shown that God is found in the synagogue?

…The rabbis, through the creative and sacred word-play and interpretation of midrash, imagine a theology in which God is fully present with them — and therefore also with us. What if we felt this same invitation? What practices would you seek to find prooftexts for?
— the whole essay on My Jewish Learning’s Daf Yomi archive

In partial response, I suggest seeking out prooftexts for deepening equity, inclusion, and coalition:

How do we know that we must seriously heed when told a course of action of speech is hurtful or dangerous to others?

“’I erred because I did not know that you were standing in my way. If you still disapprove, I will turn back.’ [חָטָ֔אתִי כִּ֚י לֹ֣א יָדַ֔עְתִּי כִּ֥י אַתָּ֛ה נִצָּ֥ב לִקְרָאתִ֖י בַּדָּ֑רֶךְ וְעַתָּ֛ה אִם־רַ֥ע בְּעֵינֶ֖יךָ אָשׁ֥וּבָה לִּֽי׃]”
(Numbers 22:34).

How do we know that our coalitions must be more inclusive?

It is written: “Present in the city was a poor wise man who might have saved it with his wisdom, but nobody thought of that poor man. [וּמָ֣צָא בָ֗הּ אִ֤ישׁ מִסְכֵּן֙ חָכָ֔ם וּמִלַּט־ה֥וּא אֶת־הָעִ֖יר בְּחָכְמָת֑וֹ וְאָדָם֙ לֹ֣א זָכַ֔ר אֶת־הָאִ֥ישׁ הַמִּסְכֵּ֖ן הַהּֽוּא׃ ]” (Ecclesiastes 9:15).

Where do we learn to take trusted outsider’s advice?

As Jethro told Moses: “Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you [עַתָּ֞ה שְׁמַ֤ע בְּקֹלִי֙ אִיעָ֣צְךָ֔ וִיהִ֥י אֱלֹהִ֖ים עִמָּ֑ךְ]” (Exodus 18:19).

Where do we learn to walk difficult paths with others?

From “And the two went on [וַתֵּלַ֣כְנָה שְׁתֵּיהֶ֔ם]” (Ruth 1:19).

And how do we know that not all journeys are shared? 

“And Jethro said to Moses, ‘Go in peace.’ [ וַיֹּ֧אמֶר יִתְר֛וֹ לְמֹשֶׁ֖ה לֵ֥ךְ לְשָׁלֽוֹם]” (Exodus 4:18).

More on Daf Yomi

R. Yohanan’s Opinion: Daf Yomi #4

In today’s reading (B. Ber 5a-5b), we see* that a tanna [reciter] stood in the study hall/academy in front of Rabbi Yohanan (Johanan) and recited:

If one engages in Torah and acts of charity and [nonetheless] buries his sons, all his sins are forgiven to him.**

R. Yohanan responds with verses from Proverbs (16:6, 21:21, and 23:23) affirming that Torah and charity are means of atonement but asks the basis for the teaching about burying children.

An elder stands and recites in the name of Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai, linking Prov 16:6, previously cited (“With mercy and truth iniquity is expiated”), and Jer 32:18: “He repays iniquity of the fathers onto the bosoms of their children.”

Direct response to this is not recorded, but R. Yohanan’s next statement is:

Leprosy and [the lack of] children are not chastisements of love.**

The discussion goes on to consider a contradiction between this statement and another teaching which calls leprosy a chastisement of love. One solution offered is that R. Yohanan’s teaching involves visible leprosy and the contradictory one, concealed. Another suggests that R. Yohanan’s teaching refers to Jerusalem, where treatment included being banished outside the city, while the contradictory one concerns Babylon, where treatment was less extreme and isolating.

In the course of this narration, we learn that R. Yohanan buried ten children.

* Paraphrase, based on Soncino and Koren/Steinsaltz translations
** Indented text directly from Soncino translation of Ber 5b

For the list of sources considered in decision-making:

  • “um, excuse me? you haven’t a clue!” from someone who has been through an experience being discussed;
  • differing impact of a label or decision based on regional exigencies and actual differences in experience