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.”


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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).

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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

Possibilities and Persons Unconsidered: Daf Yomi #3

Ber 4a-4b shows that the Talmud, when rendering decisions, attempts to anticipate all kinds of circumstances and possibilities. The rabbis’ thoughtfulness, wide-ranging exploration, and deep concern are evident. So are their blinders and limitations.

My Jewish Learning’s note for today focuses on the famous idea (Ber 4b) of creating a “fence” around decisions to keep Jews from falling into common errors. We also see examples of consulting with advisors and with God before rendering decisions. In particular, David consults a teacher and worries over his rulings (Ber 4a; more on this below).

Possibilities Unconsidered

The appearance of the “fence” after some lengthy discussion of content and method in deciding when to recite the evening Shema shows rabbinical concern for sacred text, everyday holiness, and practicalities of life. As already noted, the Rabbis’ depth of thought and range of concern is clear. And I am trying to focus on tools the rabbis are giving us, when they share their reasoning (see Benay Lappe’s “How to Read Talmud“), rather than on the problems of the text.

We’ve seen from the beginning that the language is, in the original Aramaic and Hebrew and most English translations, entirely masculine. We’ve known all along that the Rabbis speak primarily for and to those like them, a group that appears wholly cishet male and able-bodied. Many of us are accustomed to reading around and through text that knows little about us. It’s hard work for me (cishet woman), and I know it’s harder for many others.

I’m sure that others hit snags sooner than Daf 3 (pages 4a-4b), but today I hit mine: the text explicitly mentions a woman for the first time — and she is an object, primarily of concern within heterosexual relationships aimed at procreation, rather than an actor in her own right. This was the first time that the usual mental gymnastics let me down entirely…at least temporarily.

I returned to Benay Lappe’s suggestion that we read the Talmud as though the sages were telling us: “We don’t know what parts of the tradition will stop working in your generation, but we trust you to know that. Stand on our shoulders….” Instead of sticking with the “fence” material — which is important and interesting and less challenging for me, in many ways — I refocused on the spot where I stumbled.

Prioritizing

King David appears in 4a as someone in power who prioritized study and seeking out yafeh [“well-joined,” appropriate, strong, auspicious, beautiful] decision-making:

יָפֶה דַּנְתִּי? יָפֶה חִייַּבְתִּי? יָפֶה זִכִּיתִי? יָפֶה טִהַרְתִּי? יָפֶה טִמֵּאתִי?״
did I decide properly? Did I convict properly? Did I acquit properly? Did I rule ritually pure properly? Did I rule ritually impure properly?
— B. Ber 4a

This midrash on verses from psalms shows David studying a good portion of the night. His choice of topic — miscarriages and declaring a woman “ritually clean for her husband” — seems both a sober choice and one involving personal commitment to repair:

On the one hand, he facilitated procreation and increased the population, in atonement for his part in the death of Uriyya the Hittite. On the other hand, he facilitated intimacy between husbands and their wives as atonement for his conduct with Bathsheba.
— Steinsaltz commentary, notes to Ber 4a

Based on Ps. 86:2 (“Keep my soul, for I am pious [chasid]”), David tells God how these choices set him apart from other kings who choose to gather in bunches for their glory (Jastrow Jackpot here). This effort, and others, are intended to ensure that David was “not embarrassed” through poor rulings.

…We might wonder whether David’s choice of night-time activity sets him apart from other kings or instead substitutes a different form of glory-seeking — and that, perhaps, is why the Talmud goes on to bring another teaching, using the odd dots surrounding ״לוּלֵא״ in Psalm 27:13 to suggest that David himself had doubts about his piety.

While David is not an average Jew, the general message seems to be that one should value “yafeh decision-making” above partying and pomp. David’s story also highlights asking a counselor for help, deep investigation, and seeking rulings that support health and relationships (as he understood them). A bit of rabbinic methodology also seems evident in the presentation of this story, bracketed by a discussion about decisiveness and one about doubt.

I’m also noticing, I believe for the first time, how the Talmud is interjecting the personal —

  • Rabban Gamliel’s sons out late at a wedding,
  • Rabbi Yosei meeting Elijah in the ruins,
  • David choosing study topics in need of repair

— into collective decision-making.

Choosing to study topics where one’s behavior — and, by extension, one’s community or wider world — fell short seems important. Maybe making that choice is another kind of “fence”?

Fence

My Jewish Learning’s note for today, Ber 4a-4b, focuses on creating a “fence” around decisions — חֲכָמִים עָשׂוּ סְיָיג לְדִבְרֵיהֶם.

In this case: Rabban Gamliel’s idea that reciting the evening Shema before dawn is acceptable (as in the case when his sons were up at a party and thought they had missed their chance, but he ruled they could recite at the early morning hour in which they returned home) is acknowledged as the more lenient ruling, but the “fence” is established in a more strict ruling: one should recite by midnight to avoid temptation to say, “I will go home, eat a little, drink a little, sleep a little and then I will recite Shema,” which could easily result in falling asleep first. (See MJL’s Daf Yomi archives.)

TOP

Jastrow Jackpot

יוֹשְׁבִים אֲגוּדּוֹת אֲגוּדּוֹת בִּכְבוֹדָם
Jastrow Jackpot, here, p.11 right: “Ber 4a ‘אֲ’ אֲ in companies (amusing themselves).”

BACK


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The Story and the Reasons: Daf Yomi #2

Continuing to notice what kind of sources are included in the Talmud and what use the rabbis make of them: today’s daf includes Rabbi Yosei [Jose ben Halafta] relating how he met, conversed with, and learned from the prophet Elijah:

תַּנְיָא, אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹסֵי
It was taught [in material outside the Mishnah] that Rabbi Yosei said
פַּעַם אַחַת הָיִיתִי מְהַלֵּךְ בַּדֶּרֶךְ
וְנִכְנַסְתִּי לְחוּרְבָּה אַחַת מֵחוּרְבוֹת יְרוּשָׁלַיִם לְהִתְפַּלֵּל
Once I was walking along the road
and I entered a ruined site among the ruins of Jerusalem to pray.
בָּא אֵלִיָּהוּ זָכוּר לַטּוֹב
Elijah, his memory for good, came
…לְאַחַר שֶׁסִּייַּמְתִּי תְּפִלָּתִי אָמַר לִי …
…When I finished praying, he said to me…
— B. Ber 3a

Rabbi Yosei (Jewish Encyclopedia; Sefaria) is recognized as a very important teacher of the 2nd Century CE, during the period of the Tanaaim. Steinsaltz says “one of the greatest of the tannai’m…the imprint of his teachings is evident throughout tanaitic literature” (Koren Talmud Bavli, Berakhot p.14 “personalities”).

This story includes Rabbi Yosei’s declaration that he learned three things — about when, where, and how to prayer the Amidah when traveling — from this incident:

  • one may not enter a ruin,
  • one may pray along the road,
  • one who prays on the road uses an abbreviated prayer.

The story goes on to tell of heavenly voices Rabbi Yosei heard and of Elijah’s addition of God’s perspective on those voices. The Gemara does not appear to judge the story or its narrator or dispute its conclusions. Neither does it adopt as given what Rabbi Yosei learned from Elijah. Instead, discussion moves on to provide separate reasoning for Elijah’s first teaching about not entering ruins.

So, I believe we can add folklore and personal experiences of teachers to yesterday’s list of sources that inform decision-making discussion, noting along the way:

  • there is no Talmudic objection to Rabbi Yosei changing his own practice based on his encounter with Elijah;
  • there is no Talmudic suggestion that any one else take another teacher’s private experience as proof, on its own, for new practice; and
  • the Talmud includes many forms of thinking and expression as part of its methodology.



PS — I won’t quote in depth again from “Harvey,” but I cannot help note that I personally have learned a lot from Elwood P. Dowd telling us about his encounters with a teacher, whom few can see and whom Elwood happened to come across while walking on the street alone.

Photo by Josiah Lewis

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