Luxury and Sin: A dictionary path

Is “living in luxury” the root of all “sin [chet]”?

The high holiday liturgy is filled with the word, “chet,” usually translated as “sin,” as in the prominent confession:

“For the sin we have sinned… […עַל חֵטְא שֶׁחָטָאנוּ, al chet sh’chatanu…].”

One root-meaning of chet is “[to miss], to fail, err, sin.” Archery metaphors abound this time of year. And considering how, where, and why we “missed the mark” is an important endeavor for the season. But rarely** are we asked to focus on another definition for the same root letters: “living in luxury” or “well-dressed, polished, cleansed.” Exploring the intersection of “luxury” and “sin” can be an important addition to our self-reflections.

There are plenty of resources out there for exploring the intersection of wealth, privilege, and “sin.” See this year’s Hill Havurah resources, for just one example. But here, as an offering for this season of return and repentance, is a basic exploration of the dictionary path less traveled.

**In fact, I don’t know of any such discussions and would appreciate any citations.


Please note: Geekier details appear further below, following an attempt at a more narrative approach.

Although this is my own exploration, this post was inspired by Elul studies at SVARA: The traditionally radical yeshiva, and by learning with Hill Havurah and sister organization, Mount Moriah Baptist Church.

Image is a pile of gold bricks. Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Chet I, Chet II

The biblical lexicon, Brown-Driver-Briggs, has only one long entry for “chet,” based on the root “miss the mark,” with comparison to an Arabic word with a similar root-meaning. The Jastrow Dictionary, however, offers word has two separate entries for the same root-letters: The second (II) is the commonly cited “miss the mark,” and the first (I) is “to live in luxury, to be like a nobleman, to be well-dressed, clean &c.” based on a root-meaning “to stroll idly, saunter.”

The chet I entry is filled with references to midrashic texts that develop meaning through word-play and sound associations. (The full Jastrow entry can be found at Sefaria.)

The first example finds that “chet” means “purify” through a word-play around Leviticus 1:5 (sacrificial slaughter [veshacḥat] of a bull) with “cleansing” [chat] centered on a body part that bends [shach]. (See bend below.)

Examples of “chet” used to mean “to be gratified” and “to ask petulantly” are also explored. (See gratification below.)

An example linking “chet” with luxury centers on a midrash involving Abraham refusing gifts from the King of Sodom and Daniel refusing gifts from Balshezar. (See luxury below.)

The chet I entry does not offer straightforward grammar to explain the nature of sin in biblical or rabbinic thought. It does present a fascinating glimpse at rabbinic word-play over the centuries. And the mere existence of this entry offers food for thought on links between wealth and sin:

  • What can we learn from the examples of Abraham and Daniel rejecting wealth from rulers associated with excess and oppression?
  • Why did Jastrow include this speculative exploration here? And how can it help us this season of return, repentance, and repair?
  • With this entry as preamble to the one on “missing the mark,” what might we learn about how “living in luxury” and “being accustomed to comfort” affect our ability to hit the mark in all manner of thought and action?

Further exploration of the chet I examples follow, with some additional details also linked.

Luxury and Its Rejection

The chet I entry includes several citations to commentary on the Song of Songs, Shir HaShirim Rabbah. (Jastrow uses the Latin-based abbreviation “Cant.” to refer to the bible book [“Canticles”] and “Cant. R.” to refer to the midrash collection.)

Shir HaShirim Rabbah, dated roughly to 800-1000 CE, offers homelitical explanations for each phrase in the Song of Songs. To illustrate a reflexive form of “chet” as “to show one’s self a nobleman, to be generous, proud,” Jastrow references a midrash on Song of Songs 7:7, “How fair you are and how pleasant you are, love, in delights.”

The phrase, “love, in delights,” is explained with reference to biblical incidents involving riches:

  • Abraham refuses gifts (“excuses himself”) from the King of Sodom (Gen 14:22-23) after helping the king recover captured people and goods;
  • Daniel refuses gifts (“excuses himself”) from Belshazar (Dan 5:16-17), while providing him the service of reading “the writing on the wall.”

In each case, the biblical hero would have been expected to accept goods and recognition for services rendered. Refusing could seem insulting. In these instances, however, Abraham and Daniel are praised for doing so. The King of Sodom and Belshazar are associated, in their respective biblical stories, with a variety of excesses in their conduct and oppression in their rule. Abraham and Daniel stand in contrast. Their refusals to take “earthly delights” are understood as expressing love of God.

It seems clear that both the bible stories and the midrash hold Abraham and Daniel as righteous; it is less obvious (to me, anyway) how the midrash and grammar function: Who, in the midrash, exemplifies this sauntering show of luxury?

  1. Are Abraham and Daniel showing themselves as noble, generous and proud, that is, (avoiding sin by) rejecting luxury? OR
  2. Are the King of Sodom and Belshazzar showing themselves as noble, generous and proud, that is, (committing the sin of) flaunting luxury?

Abraham is clear and succinct that his rejection of the gifts is about NOT giving credit to the apparently generous King of Sodom:

I will not take so much as a thread or a sandal strap of what is yours; you shall not say, ‘It is I who made Abram rich.’ — Gen 14:23

Daniel’s response to Belshazzar is more complex:

You may keep your gifts for yourself, and give your presents to others. But I will read the writing for the king, and make its meaning known to him….
[to Belshazzar] You exalted yourself against the Lord of Heaven, and had the vessels of [God’s] temple brought to you. You and your nobles, your consorts, and your concubines drank wine from them and praised the gods of silver and gold, bronze and iron, wood and stone, which do not see, hear, or understand; but the God who controls your lifebreath and every move you make—[God] you did not glorify!
[Eventually, Daniel is given the gifts at Belshazzar’s command, and then Belshazzar is killed.]
— Dan 5:17, 23, [29-30]

While both Abraham and Daniel end up with riches at various points in their stories, cautionary elements remain in their tales and in Jewish commentary over the centuries. (See also “Belshazzar and the Wall.”)

The chet I entry offers opportunities to consider these tales in the approach to the high holidays or in other consideration of “sin” and what it means to “miss the mark.”

BACK to Chet I, Chet II


Gratification

The chet I examples for “being raised in luxury, being delicate” include more commentary from Shir HaShirim Rabbah as well as some from Kohelet Rabbah, commentary on Ecclesiastes dated to about 750 – 900 CE. In addition, this meaning is supported by citations to the Targum, Aramaic translation of the Torah, from the early centuries of the Common Era:

The man who is gentle [דְמֶחְטֵי, d’mechtei] and refined among you will look with evil eyes upon his brother, and the wife who reposes on his bosom, and upon the rest of his children who remain.
She who is delicate [דִמְחַטַיְיתָא, dimchatai’eta] and luxurious among you, who has not ventured to put the sole of her foot upon the ground from tenderness and delicacy, will look with evil eyes upon the husband of her bosom, upon her son and her daughter.
— Targum for Deut 28:54, 56

Worth noting, if only as evidence for complex interactions between the related words and their meanings, is the entry for the word, “chitui [חִיטּוּי, חִטּוּי].” It includes both the “cleansing, purification” and the “delicacy, luxury, enjoyment” meanings of chet, citing both chet I and chet II.

BACK to Chet I, Chet II


Bend

The chet I entry includes citation to a word-play around Leviticus 1:5 (sacrificial slaughter of a bull). Jastrow’s citation appears in a passage about kosher slaughter techniques for ordinary, non-sacrificial food (Babylonian Talmud, Chullin ([חולין], “ordinary”). The meaning “to make look well, polish, dress, cleanse, prepare” is derived from a play on the Hebrew for slaughter [veshacḥat]:

Slaughter is conducted “from the place where the animal bends [shach],” i.e., the neck; it is purified [chattehu] through letting the blood run out, “cleansing.” Additional citations are to Lev 14:52 (“v’chitei ha-bayit [you shall purity the house]…”) and Psalms 51:9 (“Purge me [techatte’eni] with hyssop and I will be pure.”)

Further discussion in Chullin asks if slaughter could be conducted from the tail, which is also bent. But this is countered with the idea that the tail is perpetually bent, and the requirement is for a body part which is usually erect but bent for slaughter.

It is not explicit in the cited discussion at Chullin 27a, but it is noteworthy that “bending” is key here. The bending aspect of slaughter is also discussed at Rereading4Liberation.


BACK to Chet I, Chet II


Chet I, Chet II: More Details

A Dictionary of the Targumim, Talmud Bavli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature, edited by Professor Marcus Jastrow, was first published in 1903. It is available in many editions (although I do not believe newer versions differ from older ones). It can now be accessed through Wikipedia and Sefaria. More on Jastrow in the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia.

Jastrow thanks earlier scholars:

In conclusion, the author begs to state his indebtedness to Jacob Levy’s Targumic and Neo-Hebrew Dictionaries, where an amount of material far exceeding the vocabularies of the Arukh and Buxtorf’s Lexicon Hebraicum et Chaldaicum is accumulated, which alone could have encouraged and enabled the author to undertake a task the mere preparation for which may well fill a lifetime.
— preface 1903, p.XIII

Jacob Levy (1819-1892) published the two-volume Wörterbuch über die Talmudim und Midrashim in Leipzig in 1867-68. The same publishers issued new editions in 1876 and 1881. These include an appendix by Heinrich Leberecht Fleischer (1801-1888), described by Wikipedia as “a German orientalist.” (I think these references are only available in German.)

In Jastrow, Fleischer’s appendix to Levy’s dictionary is referenced directly as “Fl. to Levy Targ. Dict.” These references, including the one in chet I, are infrequent.

BACK to Chet I, Chet II

Chet-tet-aleph/chet-tet-yud [חטי, חָטָא] has two separate entries in the Jastrow Dictionary. The second is the commonly cited “miss the mark” (II). The first entry (I) in Jastrow for chet-tet-aleph/chet-tet-yud [חטי, חָטָא] is quite different:

[to stroll idly, saunter (v. Fl. to Levy Targ. Dict. I 424,2)] to live in luxury, to be like a nobleman, to be well-dressed, clean &c. (cmp. פנק, פרנק).

The full Jastrow entry can be found at Sefaria. And here, for convenience, are the two verbs listed for comparison:

פָּנַק (b. h.; cmp. פּוּק) [to go out,] to be a freeman; to live in luxury (cmp. חָטָא I).

פִּרְנֵק (Parel of פָּנַק) to delight; to treat with dainties.
Hithpa. – הִתְפַּרְנֵק to enjoy dainties. Cant. R. to VII, 2 מִתְפַּרְנְקִין, v. חָטָא I.

The midrash contains a repeated expression, with a reflexive form of chet: “…שֶׁהָיָה מִתְחַטֵּא, she-hayah mit-chatei…” — translated as “excuses himself.”

for Abraham: שֶׁהָיָה מִתְחַטֵּא עַל מֶלֶךְ סְדוֹם

for Daniel שֶׁהָיָה מִתְחַטֵּא עַל בֵּלְשַׁצַּר.

BACK to luxury —– BACK to Chet I, Chet II

BOTH Chet I and Chet II

There is at least one spot where the Jastrow dictionary references BOTH meanings, chet I and chet II. Jastrow entry for the word, “chitui” includes both the “cleansing, purification” and the “delicacy, luxury, enjoyment” meanings.

חִיטּוּי, חִטּוּי m. (v. חטי I, II) [reference here to the verb chet-tet-yud entries I and II] 1) cleansing, purification. Sifré Num. 126 לכלל ח׳ under the law of purification (ref. to Num. XIX, 12, Naz. 61ᵇ טהרה). —2) delicacy, luxury, enjoyment.—Pl. חִיטּוּיִין. Cant. R. to VII, 2 חיטטין (corr. acc.), v. חָטָא I.

חִיטּוּיָא m. ch. (v. preced.2) , being raised in luxury, being delicate. Targ. Y. I Deut. XXVIII, 56. [Some ed. חִיטוֹיָא.]

BACK to Gratification

Recognition and Force

After six weeks of Svara study around the concept of “overturning a betrothal,” here are a few thoughts on force and how it works in commerce and in the subset of acquisition in the ancient world known as marriage or betrothal. The bulk of this post is a PDF, and most of this in its present form will make little sense to anyone who hasn’t studied the passage in question (Baba Batra 47b-48a).

…More to come soon, I hope — the final session of our summer bet midrash is about to begin….

Meanwhile, for anyone interested, here is Adrienne Rich (1977 “Natural Resources) in conversation with the rabbinic worldview. Without attempting to translate the phrases from Baba Metzia highlighted between Rich’s verses, they emphasize “his will,” forcing him to say he agrees, his betrothals, and his use of sexual intercourse to effect a betrothal.

Gemara on THUG-LIFE

In Talmud studies at Svara: a traditionally radical yeshiva, as at houses of Jewish text study for 1500 years or more, students are asked to recite what is written from memory. At Svara, students are celebrated for giving voice to and “owning” a recitation of a few words, the whole long passage the class has been learning, or anything in between. Many of us struggle with this practice for all kinds of reasons. This session, I’ve been struggling with whether I can voice these particular words.

Over the weekend, I learned something new about a relatively common word that appears in our passage and in one that is being taught in a different class. I think it is helping me figure out some next steps in reciting, or not reciting, my particular passage this term.

Trigger warning: this Talmud passage is about legal discussion of capital punishment and executing youth; responses travel through difficult, racist territory.

The word

R’ Bronwen Mullin said her class, which is also discussing capital punishment-related texts (in a different passage, not the class I am taking this term), talked about the tiny word “Atu.” It is commonly used to introduce a rhetorical question, like “Is it because….?” in English. But, R’ Bronwen said their class did a deep dive into the meaning “Atu” — which Jastrow’s Talmud dictionary says is an abbreviation of a word meaning “for the protection of.”

אָטוּ (abbrev. of אמטול, v. אַמְטוּ). Atu — an abbreviation of amtul, which means “for the protection of” and so: “for the sake of, on account of.” (A definition appears below, and here’s a link to the entry in Jastrow Talmud dictionary at Sefaria.)

So, R’ Bronwen said, the question could be asked of the passage in which it appears: “What are you/we protecting?”

The Passage

I went back to the passage where this word appears in text I’ve been struggling to recite, from Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 68b.

Disclaimer: the ancient rabbis are here using the legal tools they had to make sure no one is ever declared “ben sorer umoreh [rebellious and wayward child]” (Deut 21:18-21)…their intentions don’t necessarily make the text easy to read:

אנן הכי קאמרינן אטו בן סורר ומורה על חטאו נהרג על שם סופו נהרג וכיון דעל שם סופו נהרג אפילו קטן נמי

Our class, taught by R’ Benay Lappe, came to a translation something like this: “So, we are saying it is because of his [past] sin that the wayward/rebellious son is executed? Rather: on account of his end [for an ultimate, later act] he is killed. And because he is to be killed for a later act, even a minor can be considered.”

אפילו קטן נמי — afilu katan nami [even small one also]

A Recitation

The particular wording that opens this section, “So we are saying,” was found in Frank’s Practical Talmud Dictionary (for “אנן הכי קאמרינן”). My study partner and I were reminded of the Plastic Ono Band chanting, “All we are saying is give peace a chance.” I even offered a little singsong: “So, we are saying: give kids a chance!” Then I started writing, a few days ago, thinking of Yoko and John in bed in 1969.

But I quickly landed with with Gil Scott-Heron and 2Pac instead:

So, we’re protecting this notion of executing a boy for his sin?

Instead of war on poverty
They got a war on drugs so the police can bother me
And I ain’t never did a crime I ain’t have to do
But now I’m back with the facts, givin’ it back to you
–2Pac, “Changes” 1998

talking blame and guilt, though he’s a minor? afilu katan nami

Or, no: We fear for his “end,” trouble he might one day cause?

“You see them?
Look at the color of their skin
That one is probably dangerous.”– 2018 Poetry Slam entry

calling him a danger, small as he is! afilu katan nami

based on a future adults (who may be strangers) imagined for him?!

“The Hate U Give Little Infants F***s Everybody”
–2Pac

condemning even the small one?! afilu katan nami

Well, I’m new here, and I forget
Does that mean big, or small?

No matter how far wrong you’ve gone
You can always turn around
–Gil Scott-Heron, “I’m New Here,” 2010

talking execution when he’s a minor, though!

The Loudest Question

What are you protecting?!

It has been such a struggle, for my study partner and me, to approach this text through the roar of “Super-predator!” “Chronic behavior problem!” “Thug!!” We’ve been hearing this chorus for much of our lives used to protect property and some people, often those who are already far safer than most, from youth perceived as threats. Across the U.S., this means primarily endangering youth of color in the name of “public safety.” Where each of us lives, this is disproportionately directed toward Black children.

How does this passage reflect — maybe help create — the idea that some people have a right to protect themselves from perceived threats: our country’s “tough on crime” policies that protect some at the expense of others, all based on that chorus of “thug!”?

And it’s that “thug” that kept leading my mind back to Tupac Shakur and then to Gil Scott-Heron. Eventually, though, 2Pac’s “THUG-LIFE” led me to another question…

Another Question

That THUG-LIFE concept, and my conversations with rabbis Bronwen and Benay, led me, eventually, to ask: Who am I protecting in not reciting that piece of Talmud?

Black children are expected to leave the house every day in places that continue to view them as a dangers — “some type of demon, killers, or something like that” (see below) — meaning their every step is a risk.

Black children are expected to learn history that, especially in the current trend toward removing all context, either erases or demonizes them — meaning every page is a minefield for them.

If Black kids of all ages — and queer kids and kids with disabilities, visible and not — can show up and try to learn from flawed texts that constantly endanger them, maybe I can recite this…even if I’m simultaneously screaming?

And Questioning Questions

In her recent piece “How We Question,” R’ Bronwen wrote about naming our intentions when we question Torah and existing rabbinic discussion. Talmudic tradition, she wrote, “always invites us into the audacity” —

the audacity of naming what our intentions are in the act of questioning; of elevating the questioning itself to a radically reparative and transformative plane. When we fail to do this, our shortcomings, our implicit (and sometimes explicit) biases, take over a situation, and the bright light of possibility is overshadowed. Hopefully, we can continue to make our fairy-Rabbi-ancestors proud by refusing to take our questions for granted. When we examine our questions we find our deepest motivations and intentions, and through that process we bring more light into the world- the light that we need to guide us in this time of crash. How we question, as our fairy-Rabbi-ancestors intuited, might be the very torch we need.

— “How We Question,” by R’ Bronwen Mullin, from Svara: a traditionally radical yeshiva (29 Adar Bet 5782, 4/1/22)

It has been hard, during this class on the rebellious child, to figure out which of my reactions to the Talmud text are really reactions to public policy discussions in my town right now and which are about one particular theological question.

There’s a sort of hidden “What/who are you protecting?” embedded in this passage. The ancient rabbis sought to reconcile their understanding of divinity with a text, apparently in God’s name, demanding the death of this wayward and rebellious child. One resolution they suggested was reading the passage in a way that protected God’s intentions — that’s how the Talmud got to the idea that the text is somehow about killing a minor for something they might someday do as an adult.

…still screaming from my place of still limited understanding: Why would anyone think it a good idea to demonize young people to “rescue God”?! And, given that the text chose that road, (how) do I voice, attempt to own, these words?

Some Additional Voices

I’mma be very honest, some adults won’t just believe in us just like that. It’s going to take them some time to believe in what we want to do and what we want to achieve in life. They think we’ll grow up and be some type of demon, killers, or something like that, but that’s not what we really are. We’re trying to build something.

Kevin Mason, 16 — “Voices of Wards 7 and 8 Youths,” DCist 3/31/22

“And, 12-year-old Isiah Jones adds, it shouldn’t be too difficult for adults to learn more about what kids need.

“’They could come find out,’ he says.”

Graphic with Torah, Deut 21:18-21, and discussion.

downloadable version with graphic and full text below


Svara teaches: The revolution will not be translated. It’s our breath and our voices that keep the ancient text alive and redeem it with our collective learning. I am not yet sure if I’m ready to “own” this particular text. It’s already been one illuminating, if incredibly difficult, journey.

…Still not resolved — and there are still four hours of class left to learn…Meanwhile: so much gratitude to Svara, R’ Benay, R’ Bronwen, all the faculty and other students, and especially my amazing chevruta. Although, of course, all the above except direct quotes from R’ Bronwen and poets, are my words and responsibility….


The revolution will not be right back after a message about a white tornado, white lightning, or white people
You will not have to worry about a dove in your bedroom, the tiger in your tank, or the giant in your toilet bowl
The revolution will not go better with Coke
The revolution will not fight germs that may cause bad breath
The revolution will put you in the driver’s seat

Gil Scott-Heron, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” 1970

From Jastrow’s Talmud Dictionary

אָטוּ (abbrev. of אמטול, v. אַמְטוּ) 1)on account of, because of, for the sake of(h. . קנסו שוגג א׳ מזיד they fined the inadvertent transgressor for the sake of the wilful one (in order to prevent wilful sin). Git. 53ᵇ; a. fr. —2) (in questions expressing surprise, indignation) is it because? do you mean to say? Ib. 7ᵃ א׳ אנא לא ידענא do I not know it myself? Ib. 30ᵇ א׳ ברשיעי עסקינן is it with wicked men we have to deal? (i.e. shall we presume deliberate sin?); a. v. fr.

DS9 for Bava Metzia 58b

This document — “Bava Metzia 58b with DS9 and related background” — was prepared in my own wrestling with text on ona’at devarim, “harmful speech,” explored at SVARA this season. Thanks to all in, and supporting, Mixed-Level Bet Midrash fall 2021/5782: teacher R’ Bronwen Mullin, Fairies Sarit Cantor and Annie Kaufman, fellow bet midrash students. Special thanks to my chevruta who was a wonderful partner in exploration.

Responsibility for this document and anything not directly attributed to someone else, is, for better or worse, mine alone. (Bava Metzia 58b can be found at Sefaria.)

Bava Metzia with Deep Space Nine

What Have You Done!?

Here is a different form of exploration around some of the same ideas, particularly the concept of blood being shed by humiliating someone… or draining away at their identity, drop by drop….and yes, I know, there are mixed metaphors in the whole “becoming white” thing.

I believe readers without sight can manage PDFs. If anyone prefers a different format, happy to try to provide.

Remedy of the Bima?

Updated August 23, 2021

Gittin 55a states that an individual who experienced the theft of a beam, which was then built into a large structure, must receive the value of the beam as reparation. This ruling is מפני תקנת השבים, due to or because of…

תקנת השבים

outside (standard) translation of takanat ha-sh’vim:* a phrase meaning “[Rabbinic] Law of Penitence”

תקנת השבים

inside (word-by-word) translation: a phrase with roots תקנ “repair” [tiken] and שׁוב “return” [shuv] — something like the “repair of the returning” or the “remedy of reparation” (“Inside” translations don’t sound like smooth English.)

תקנת השבים

This is far-fetched grammar-wise, but it captures an important aspect of what’s on my mind regarding this text. Shifting focus, however grammatically fanciful: might we read בים [bim] as related to בימה “stage, platform, bima“?

…The modern Hebrew verb, “to stage” בים, biyem, was created from בימה. The Klein dictionary (c. 1983 CE) says בימה was originally a Greek loan word, but Jastrow (c. 1883) says specifically that this is NOT so, arguing that the Greek word βῆμα would be spelled with an aleph in Hebrew, rather than a hey. Either way, though, the examples Jastrow gives for בימה are all about holding forth, making announcements, hearing from distinguished speakers, etc. So, it doesn’t seem like a big leap to bima-ing as a verb meaning to hold forth from a raised position (metaphorically and physically)….

The result would be something like, “remedy of that which is bima-ed,” suggesting that those who experienced theft are entitled to reparation from a bima, for all that was taught, from positions of power, over the centuries, continuing to build up a bigger and stronger bira [large structure] of systemic racism.

How much bima-ing has continued to raise up many laudable-sounding ideas while failing to note:

  • that we sit on unceded, stolen land;
  • that our country was historically built with stolen labor;
  • that today stolen labor continues in our prisons and other inequitable systems;
  • that some among us experience relative security built at the cost of well-being, freedom, and sometimes the very lives of others, including Black, Indigenous, queer, and other people whose human rights have long been a stolen beam still built into a structure that benefits others; and
  • that Jews have often been complacently “bima-ed” around these topics for a long time?
photo intended as a random example of a bima — image details below

Heading into the Days of Awe this year, I wonder about the need to take more responsibility, from the pew, for what goes on from the bima:

If our Jewish communities are not hearing from those who teach Torah, in its many forms, about our obligations in regard to stolen beams, then do we, from the pews, have a responsibility to “remedy that which is bima‘ed”?

How do we do that?

What if we cannot (immediately) change the bima-ing? Then what?

What, exactly, is our responsibility — individually and collectively — when it comes to learning and what we are taught to act on as a community?

This is a musing prompted by this year’s Elul learning through SVARA: The Traditionally Radical Yeshiva. For a different musing, prompted by last year’s studies, see “About that stolen beam…

beam illustration — details below


takanat ha-sh’vim: This is a transliteration of the phrase as worked out in Beit Midrash [House of Study] of SVARA: The Traditionally Radical Yeshiva. The Talmud gives us no vowels, and the work of the Beit Midrash is to explore possible meanings before settling on one or more. Deciding how to vocalize, or transliterating too soon, prematurely limits the meaning….but I’m including this, and other transliterations, here for convenience.

BACK

Image descriptions and credits:

Beam illustration: Stone Lintel Beam.jpg from Wikimedia Commons (4.0 Attribution-Share Alike), adapted annotations

Image description: simple drawing of a brick wall with an opening and lintel beam. Added notations read: “Stolen? Beam” and “Built into a large structure”

Bima Image: Synagogue of Villa Dominguez (Argentina): The Torah Ark and the Bimah

123- Villa Dominguez – Synagogue.JPG — Wikimedia Commons 4.0 Attribution-Share Alike.

Image description: Inclined smooth wooden reading table, covered in cloth, facing ornate wooden ark in a synagogue empty of people.

Doorkeepers and Ash Jugs: Berakhot 28

The story about the deposing of Rabban Gamliel continues in today’s Daf Yomi reading (B. Ber. 28). Big changes in the academy, following his removal, include dismissing the “doorkeeper (shomer ha-petach, [שׁוֹמֵר הַפֶּתַח])”:

תָּנָא אוֹתוֹ הַיּוֹם, סִלְּקוּהוּ לְשׁוֹמֵר הַפֶּתַח וְנִתְּנָה לָהֶם רְשׁוּת לַתַּלְמִידִים לִיכָּנֵס
On that day, the doorkeeper was removed and permission granted to the students to enter.
שֶׁהָיָה רַבָּן גַּמְלִיאֵל מַכְרִיז וְאוֹמֵר
Rabban Gamliel had proclaimed:
כׇּל תַּלְמִיד שֶׁאֵין תּוֹכוֹ כְּבָרוֹ, לֹא יִכָּנֵס לְבֵית הַמִּדְרָשׁ
Any student whose inside is not like his exterior will not enter the study hall.

Once the doorkeeper, along with this test (of character or purity), was removed, so many new students arrived that 400 (or maybe 700) new benches were required. On that day, there was no halakhah not fully explained, and even Rabban Gamliel was not absent.

But when Gamliel saw all the new students, he became alarmed:

דִּלְמָא חַס וְשָׁלוֹם מָנַעְתִּי תּוֹרָה מִיִּשְׂרָאֵל
He said: Perhaps, Heaven forbid, I prevented Yisrael from engaging in Torah study.
אַחְזוֹ לֵיהּ בְּחֶלְמֵיהּ חַצְבֵי חִיוָּרֵי דְּמַלְיִין קִטְמָא
He’s shown in a dream white jugs filled with ashes.
וְלָא הִיא, הַהִיא לְיַתּוֹבֵי דַּעְתֵּיהּ, הוּא דְּאַחְזוֹ לֵיהּ
That is not the case, he was shown this to appease him.

This vision is explained by many teachers as Gamliel suspecting that the newcomers to the Beit Midrash were ones whose insides did not match their outsides (white jugs containing ashes). But the editorial voice tells us this is not true but intended to make Gamliel feel better…

…pursuing Daf Yomi means leaving such powerful points for discussion some other time. Before we speed on to the next day’s page, however, it might be worth asking ourselves:

When we notice that we have been excluding people or their perspectives and concerns from our understanding, are we tempted to diminish those perspectives or people, as a way of protecting ourselves and our worldviews?


Inside and Outside

Yesterday’s post mentioned Rabban Gamliel telling a student to wait until the “shield masters (ba’alei terisin, [בעלי תריסין])” arrive before raising a point of contention. These ba’alei terisin are variously understood as those who battle over Torah, scholars who protect Torah from being forgotten, or some sort of officers who work in conjunction with the Romans.

Very near the end of Ber. 27, Roman rule is mentioned explicitly. Among the reasons given for choosing R. Elazar ben Azarya (Eleazar b. Azariah) as a leader is that he is rich and so can “if need be, pay homage to Caesar’s court.” Commentaries suggest this could involve travel expense, taxes, bribes, and other costs of appearing in front of Caesar, lobbying and negotiating.

Through the filter of Roman rule, the doorkeeper in today’s reading might look something like a contemporary security guard or a bouncer tasked with keeping out informants. But Rabban Gamliel’s entrance exam, so to speak, appears to function in other ways.

Rabban Gamliel seems to be demanding that students look and/or behave in certain ways in order to testify that their “insides” deserve to be included. This suggests that he, or his doorkeeper, can see character or intention. But then Gamliel visits Rabbi Yehoshua and apparently notices for the first time that Yehoshua works hard for a living.

R. Yehoshua responds: “Alas for the generation of which you are the leader, seeing that you know nothing of the troubles of the scholars, their struggles to support and sustain themselves!”

This returns to the inside/outside test Rabban Gamliel proclaimed, but turns it on its head:

You don’t even know what’s going on — It’s interesting, right? He said you have to be [inside matching outside], but he wasn’t looking on the inside of people. He had no idea what was going with the people….
— Rabbanit Michelle Cohen Farber, Hadran
Daf Yomi: Berakhot 28

 

Shields, Their Masters, and the Community: Berakhot 27

Today’s reading in the Daf Yomi cycle is Berakhot 27, and My Jewish Learning’s commentary focuses on a famous incident involving Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua. The essay highlights how the learning community stopped Gamliel’s attempt to publicly bully Yehoshua:

First they take away Gamliel’s microphone, instructing Hutzpit the translator, tasked with repeating and amplifying Gamliel’s words, to stop his repetition. Then they remove him from his post. Their goal isn’t to silence Gamliel, but to break his grip on the debate. The beauty of the Talmud is its many voices — reflecting the conflicting and complex views we hold as individuals and encouraging minority voices that may have fallen silent. Acting to protect that must have required considerable bravery on the part of the rabbis. But their actions were essential to preserving the multivocal, multilayered text we have today.
— “Berakhot 27,” Elaina Marshalek

The essay asks us to imagine “what might have happened to the Talmud if the rabbis had yielded to Gamliel’s culture of authority, devoid of argument and protest,” and concludes that “deposing Gamliel has the effect not only of removing a teacher who had abused his authority, but of changing the entire culture of the study hall.”

This incident includes important material relevant to how the ancient Sages make decisions. Within this story is an interesting expression, “ba’alei terisin, [בעלי תריסין],” which translates literally as “masters of the shields.” And just prior to this incident are a few words which lead to a less dramatic, but powerful, method of decision-making by the community.

Obligatory Option

Two important pairs of teachers disagree about whether the evening prayer is obligatory or optional: In 1st Century Palestine, Rabbi Yehoshua, in opposition to Rabban Gamliel, rules that it is optional; in 3rd/4th Century Babylon, Rava, in opposition to Abaye, also ruled optional (B. Ber 27b). By the 11th Century CE, however, the North African teacher Isaac b. Jacob ha-Kohen Alfasi (Rabbi Isaac of Fez or “RIF“) wrote that Maariv was obligatory based on widespread adoption of the optional practice.

Rabbanit Michelle Cohen Farber, of Hadran, explains this as a “hazakah,” something the community voluntarily takes on as an obligation. (The Daf Yomi lesson for Hadran,” lesson for Berakhot 27; more about Hadran.) This process is not nearly so dramatic as the conflict that leads to Rabban Gamliel being deposed. But it is a powerful example of Jewish communities determining, through simple repetition, what is and is not accepted practice.

Shield Masters

As the story of the public dispute unfolds, Rabban Gamliel tells the student who inquired about the evening prayer’s status to bring the matter before “ba’alei terisin, [בעלי תריסין],” “masters of the shields”:

אָמַר לוֹ: הַמְתֵּן עַד שֶׁיִּכָּנְסוּ בַּעֲלֵי תְּרִיסִין לְבֵית הַמִּדְרָשׁ.
He said to him: Wait until the “masters of the shields” enter the study hall

כְּשֶׁנִּכְנְסוּ בַּעֲלֵי תְּרִיסִין עָמַד הַשּׁוֹאֵל וְשָׁאַל: תְּפִלַּת עַרְבִית רְשׁוּת אוֹ חוֹבָה
When the masters of the shields entered, the questioner stood before everyone present and asked: Is the evening prayer optional or obligatory?

“תָּרִיס taris” is a shield, and ba’alei terisin is translated as “shield-bearers, i.e., great debaters [Jastrow dictionary]” or “champions, i.e., great scholars (NOTE: The Rabbis often applied warlike terms to halachic discussion) [Soncino Talmud].” Cohen Farber (see Hadran above) stresses the alternative suggestion that ba’alei terisin are “shield holders” in the sense of “protecting the Torah from being forgotten, which was exactly their concern in those days.”

An 11th Century Italian teacher, known as the Arukh, reads ba’alei terisin as “soldiers or police officers who were appointed by the government to support the Jewish leadership” [Steinsaltz.org] or “tough officers appointed by the Romans to give the Nasi the power to enforce their decrees [DafYomi.co.il]. This translation suggests that Rabban Gamliel did not want to pursue his dispute with Rabbi Yehoshua until security was in place.

…Although no security guards are evident in this GodCast version of the incident in Ber 27b, the overall dynamic and the mood of the “faculty meeting” seems not inconsistent with the Arukh’s reading —

Enforcement

Prior to exploring this day’s Daf Yomi, I do not think I ever considered physical enforcement of Sanhedrin decrees. And I know very little about the history of collaboration between the Sages and occupying forces. Moreover, I suspect that the Arukh’s translation of ba’alei terisin may be more about Jewish life in 11th Century Rome than in 1st Century Palestine. But the mere hint of a suggestion of policing as part of this story adds new perspectives to ponder.

Here, just by the way, is a Baal Terisin “image was taken from the Hebrew edition of the Steinsaltz Talmud, Tractate Bekhorot, page 163” found in Aleph Society glossary.

BaalTeresin
from Aleph Society

Earning Merit: Berakhot 17, 20

Lehrhaus posted a series of essays on Daf Yomi celebrations over the decades, including one on the shift in the latter part of the 20th Century from rabbinical participants alone to inclusion of “balabatim, laymen.” The essay does not focus on women’s learning (others in the series did), but it does discuss how “wives also felt invested in Daf Yomi” in 1982:

If there are men who spend time away from their homes and families learning Torah, then there are women who sit [at] home and take care of that home and of the children to ensure that the men can learn. Whether the limud of the daf takes place early in the morning (when it is then the sole job of the woman to dress, feed, and send all the children off to school) or whether the learning is in the evening (when it is then the sole job of the woman to do homework and send all the children off to bed) a tremendous share of that learning goes to the woman.
— 1982 letter to the editor of the Agudah monthly magazine, from Libby Schwartz, quoted in “The Balabatish Daf Yomi Revolution

This writer’s words reflect the spirit of a passage in Daf Yomi a few days back:

Rab said to R. Hiyya: Whereby do women earn merit? By making their children go to synagogue to learn Scripture and their husbands to the Beth Hamidrash to learn Mishnah, and waiting for their husbands til they return from the Beth Hamidrash.
— B. Ber. 17a

Women’s merit through enabling of men’s learning was, as suggested by Ber. 17a and the letter above, accepted in some circles for at least 2000 years. In recent decades, however, Jews in many circles have been challenging assumptions about women and gender more generally and otherwise changing the conversation in many ways.

My Jewish Learning’s Daf Yomi email on Berakhot 20 speaks of women, time-bound commandments, and “conversation in traditional Jewish circles influenced by the feminist movement.” The post and the additional links provided don’t mention conversations in many Jewish circles (nor does it define “traditional” — whose tradition?!). Of course, each email can only include so much, but this does seem an odd, unnecessary, and serious omission:


Non-linear Learning, Circles

As someone who travels within several Jewish circles, I am struggling with the ways in which these circles do and do not overlap when it comes to approaching Daf Yomi — particularly when it comes to gender and sexuality issues. As a person who is both excluded and included because of my gender — women are not consulted or expected to fully participate in the Talmudic project (or, more generally rabbinic Judaism as the Sages understood it), while my gender IS acknowledged — I am finding myself trying to read from within another complex Venn Diagram. Moreover, as someone new to Daf Yomi learning, I am struggling with how to keep moving when I’m still grappling with or reveling in or just musing on something from a previous page….

…As it happens, I missed the above Lehrhaus commentary when it was published on January 14. By the time I opened it (1/23/20), Daf Yomi had already reviewed and moved on from Berakhot 17, with its teaching about women gaining study merit only through their assistance to menfolk. And we are meant to be even further on from Berakhot 15, which highlights who is not consulted in the Sages’ methodology. But that doesn’t mean I, myself, had moved on….

If anyone has this stuff figured out, or even a few more clues, please share.

Hearing: Berakhot 15

It seems important to recognize who is heard and not heard in the discussion of reciting and hearing.

Berakhot 15a (a few days back, in the Daf Yomi cycle) includes much discussion of the physicality involved in reciting the Shema: how should activities such as relieving oneself, washing, and donning tefillin be conducted in preparation; what roll do the voice and the ears play in reciting.

The latter raises the question of whether a deaf person who recites Shema but cannot hear the words fulfilled the commandment or not:

הַקּוֹרֵא אֶת ״שְׁמַע״ וְלֹא הִשְׁמִיעַ לְאׇזְנוֹ — יָצָא, דִּבְרֵי רַבִּי יְהוּדָה. רַבִּי יוֹסֵי אוֹמֵר: לֹא יָצָא
One who recites Shema and did not recite it so it was audible to his own ear, he fulfilled his obligation. This is the statement of Rabbi Yehuda. Rabbi Yosei says: He did not fulfill his obligation.
— B. Ber 15a

In compiling a list of methods used by the Sages in their decision-making, it is worth noting what their methods do not include. Here, for example, they do not mention consulting deaf people about their perspectives. And, while we have seen stories about scholars and their slaves (and wives and neighbors) enter the record, as part of the decision-making process, we don’t even get, “Rabbi Hearing Guy once met a deaf man, and…”

So, just a few resources for connecting with Deaf Jews and advocates:

Jewish Resources for the Deaf — New York and Maryland
Center for Jewish Education — Jewish Advocates for Deaf Education
Yachad/Our Way — Because Everyone Belongs
Institute for the Advancement of Deaf Persons in Israel

signing
from Institute for the Advancement of Deaf Persons in Israel website

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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