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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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

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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