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.)

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Jastrow Jackpot

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

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Photo: Pixabay on Pexels.com

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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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The Day Clears Away: Daf Yomi #1

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The day clears away, [as people say], The sun has set and the day has cleared away.
— B. Talmud Berakhot 2b

‘The evening wore on’ — that’s a very nice expression, isn’t it? With your permission I’ll say it again: ‘The evening wore on.’
— Elwood P. Dowd, “Harvey” (1950)

Some thoughts on Berakhot 2B, as Daf Yomi (page/day study of the Babylonian Talmud in 7-1/2 years) begins anew, Jan 5, 2020.

NOTE: This blog was updated with additional references on 1/6/20.

The Day Clears Away

“The day clears away” is an expression used in several translations of today’s page. The rabbis are discussing when evening occurs, in the context of determining “from what time one recites the Shema in the evening.” In the process, Lev. 22:6-7 is cited as an example in the Torah of evening’s onset: When a priest has come in contact with certain types of ritual impurity, he is ritually unclean until evening…

וּבָ֥א הַשֶּׁ֖מֶשׁ וְטָהֵ֑ר
and when sunset comes, v’taheir [he/it shall be clean]
— Lev. 22:7

In the Leviticus verse, “וְטָהֵ֑ר v’taheir” is generally translated as “he [the priest] is clean” or “he will become clean.” Taheir can also mean “to be cleared away” or “to be gone,” however, and a bit of grammatical minutia suggests that perhaps the DAY clears away.

That English expression caught my attention for its sheer, if ambiguous, beauty. A few Hebrew/Aramaic notes appear below. Meanwhile, some thoughts prompted by the expression itself and its repetition in the discussion.

The Evening Wore On

At one point in the 1950 movie, “Harvey,” Jimmy Stewart’s character pauses to savor and repeat another evening-focused phrase:

At first, Dr. Chumley seemed a little frightened of Harvey, but that gave way to admiration as the evening wore on…’the evening wore on’ — that’s a very nice expression, isn’t it? With your permission I’ll say it again [Dowd pauses, as if actually tasting the words]: ‘The evening wore on.’
— Elwood P. Dowd to Dr. Chumley’s co-workers
— 1:00 mark in this clip from Turner Classic Movies; more on “Harvey,”

Evening Wore On

from “Harvey” (1950): “…the evening wore on.”

This may seem far afield from the Berakhot page, but Dowd’s love of language and the images it conveys strikes me as not unlike the Talmud’s love of Torah and the possibilities of its language. The comparison also highlights the fluidity of the Middle English participle describing a process, the “coming on of even,” a period of becoming dark — something like the rabbis’ complex and fluid experience of evening. In addition, Ber 2b includes its own bit of popular culture.

Sources of “Evening”

In “How to Read the Talmud,” Rabbi Benay Lappe writes that the Rabbis of the Talmud hoped we would hear them urging us:

“…Use our methodology. Be courageous and bold, like we were, and know that what you are doing may seem radical, but is deeply Jewish — and deeply traditional.”
— “How to Read the Talmud: Why this classic work of law, stories and wisdom isn’t really about any of those things”

Rabbi Lappe teaches us to explore HOW the rabbis made decisions as much as the decisions themselves. In this spirit, it is interesting that we see on the first page of the Talmud such a variety of sources:

  • Natural: ‘evening’ is sometime between the sun’s setting and the appearance of stars;
  • Practical: ‘evening’ is the end of the work day, or the chance to rest;
  • Torah: ‘evening’ is as mentioned in instructions around the priesthood;
  • Historical: ‘evening’ is when the priests actually used to immerse and then eat;
  • Linguistic: perhaps ‘evening’ is when ritual impurity “clears” with the end of the day, or maybe how the day itself “clears”;
  • Reasoning: ‘evening’ is defined in a logical compromise encompassing several avenues of thought and tradition
  • People say: ‘evening’ is as popular understanding has it, when the “day is past” or “cleared away.”

As we attempt to learn, and eventually learn to implement, rabbinic methodology, it seems noteworthy that what “people say” appears as a source for understanding and decision-making on the very first page of this project.


Notes

B. Berakhot 2b:

מַאי ״וְטָהֵר״ — טְהַר יוֹמָא, כִּדְאָמְרִי אִינָשֵׁי: ״אִיעֲרַב שִׁמְשָׁא וְאִדַּכִּי יוֹמָא״
What is the meaning of we-taher [v’taheir]? The day clears away, conformably to the common expression, The sun has set and the day has cleared away.
— Soncino translation

Conformably. Soncino has this phrase, while others use the more straightforward “as people say.” Frank‘s Practical Talmud Dictionary notes that “כִּדְאָמְרִי אִינָשֵׁי” means “people say” and “is used to introduce a popular saying.”

Cleared away. Jastrow Jackpot for דְּכִי:

2) to be cleared away, be removed, be gone. Ber 2b: אִדַּכִּי יוֹמָא the day is past v. טְהַר
— Jastrow, p. 307 left, under Ithpa


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REFERENCES
In recognition that the movie version of “Harvey” is now 70 years old and that maybe not everyone has most of it memorized, an IMDB link, a Wikipage, and a few words of background:

Harvey is an invisible, magical, 6′ 3.5″ rabbit who spends a great deal of time with his friend, Elwood P. Dowd. Elwood seems to have no lack of financial means, enjoys many a drink at local watering holes and makes many friends. He sums up his situation at one point:

Years ago my mother used to say to me, she’d say, ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be’ – she always called me Elwood – ‘In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.’ Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.

Elwood’s family believes his odd ways threaten his niece’s chance for a good match and try to have him committed. But the asylum director, Dr. Chumley, leaves with Harvey, leading to the “evening wears on” scene in this clip.

More on Harvey and Elwood in a drash given on Yom Kippur 5775.


RETURN to evening


Frank, Rabbi Yitzhak. The Practical Talmud Dictionary. Jerusalem: Koren, 1991. Third edition Maggid (Koren imprint), 2016.

Jastrow, Prof. Marcus. Dictionary of Talmud Babli, Yerushalmi, Midrashic Literature and Targumim. New York: Pardes Publishing House, 1950. (originally published, 1903)
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Locating Psalm 30

The Book of Psalms is divided in several different ways: into five books, into seven and thirty sets for recitation over the course of a week or a month, and by attribution and other identifiers for the purpose of study. Using these divisions, Psalm 30 has a number of locations.

Book One
Psalm 30 is in the first of the five books — counted as one, not five, of the 24 bible books. Thematically, notes Amos Hakham in The Jerusalem Commentary:

    • “psalms in the first book relate to the kingdom of the house of David at its height,”
    • those in second reflect “times of trouble and defeat,”
    • in the third, a period of humbling of the kingdom, and
    • in the fourth and fifth, exile and rebuilding.
      — p.XXXV-VI

This does not necessarily imply that Psalm 30 and others in the first book are of earlier composition. With the exception of Psalm 137 — which mentions Babylonian Exile — there are no references to extra-biblical events to help in dating; scholars disagree as to whether Psalm 137 itself should be assigned to the period in Babylon, post-Exile — with some choosing to assign it, prophetically, to King David. Generally, scholars date the Book of Psalms, overall, from somewhere between David’s reign in 10th Century BCE and post-Exile, with collection as late as 4th Century BCE.

Some contemporary scholars seek dates based on linguistic aspects, specific biblical connections, or theological ideas. Previous posts in this series have discussed attempts to assign Psalm 30 to the Hasmonean or Levitical periods, based on its superscription. Encounters with the psalm today, however, for individual and communal prayer, can incorporate ideas around Temple service, re-dedication at Chanukah, and other historical associations without dating the psalm to a specific period.


Chronology
The Rabbis discuss chronology in the Book of Psalms when asked why Psalm 3, “when David fled from before Absalom his son” (see 2 Sam 15), appears before Psalm 57, “when he fled from Saul in the cave” (see 1 Sam 22), an event which happened earlier in David’s life:

for us who do derive interpretations from juxtaposition there is no difficulty. For R. Johanan said: How do we know from the Torah that juxtaposition counts? Because it says, [The works of God’s hands] are established [סְמוּכִים] for ever and ever, they are done in truth and uprightness (Ps. 111:8).
— (B. Berakhot 10a)

“סְמוּכִים,” translated in Psalm 118 as “established” (JPS 1917) or “well-founded” (JPS 1985), can also mean “nearby,” as in “adjacent (in space)” or “around (in time).”

The passage from Berakhot continues:

Why is the chapter of Absalom (Ps. 3) juxtaposed to the chapter of Gog and Magog (Ps. 2)? So that if one should say to you, is it possible that a slave should rebel (“nations shout, people plan in vain”) against his master, you can reply to him: Is it possible that a son should rebel against his father? Yet this happened; and so this too.

Hakham calls this a “polemical answer,” adding: “But the conclusion stands regarding the system behind the arrangement of the psalms and it shows us the right way to examine the relationships between them” (p.XXXIV).

Stay tuned for some juxtapositions around Psalm 30 — as this series winds down.


25 of 30 on Psalm 30
No Longer National Novel Writing Month, but continuing the focus on Psalm 30 (“Thirty on Psalm 30”) begun as a NaNoWriMo-Rebel project. Whole series (so far).

NOTE:
Five Books:
1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106, and 107-150.
Weekly Recitation:
Sunday: 1-29; Monday: 30-50; Tuesday: 51-72; Wednesday: 73-89; Thursday: 90-106; Friday: 107-119; Saturday: 120-150.
Monthly Recitation:
…Day 4 of 30: 23-28; Day 5: 29-34….
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Siddur as Hometown: Don’t Dismiss the Travel Guide

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When the ancient Rabbis want to etch something in memory and make it part of regular practice and belief, they stick it in the siddur. I cannot specific cite a source for this pronouncement, which I included in a recent dvar torah — although Berakhot, the Babylonian Talmud’s Tractate on Blessing, is one source that lends lots of support to this idea.

The prayerbook is such a rich environment, but it’s easy to miss most of it as we pass through. We often treat the siddur like our own hometown: we can imagine why others are fascinated and seeking to learn more, but we just want to traverse it to get wherever we’re trying to reach; a travel guide for the place we’ve been living for decades seems beside the point. Additional teachings that have developed over the centuries, to explain why things are (or are not) in the siddur and elaborate on ideas contained in the prayers, can be terrific resources, though.

Here are a few:

  • The dvar torah on Parashat Re’eh, mentioned above: The Commandment to See
  • Small archive of Divrei Tefillah, words about prayer, produced by congregants at Congregation Rodfei Zedek (Chicago); dvar by Rebecca Milder is quoted in above
  • Elaborate Making Prayer Real website, with articles and webinars and more; related to book by Rabbi Mike Comins, released in 2010 (and frequently quoted on THIS blog).
  • Re-recommend exploring something along the lines of “Map Your Heart Out

Is this 1959 or 2014? Prayers for a Change

BarbieDC4MBDC Tefillin Barbie would love to focus on her passions of Jewish text and gender studies. But — don’t let that frozen smile fool you — she’s got other pressing concerns as well.

She finds, in fact, that concern for the racial tensions exploding in Ferguson, MO, and around the country dominate her prayers.

For example, upon donning tefillin in the morning (Koren Saks translation; Barbie’s own meditations):

From Your wisdom, God most high, grant me [wisdom], and from Your understanding, give me understanding.
Help me understand how our country remains so divided and how to help promote a better vision and a more just reality.

May Your loving-kindness be greatly upon me, and in Your might may my enemies and those who rise against me be subdued.
I pray in the spirit of the Talmudic great, Beruriah, who scolded her husband, Rabbi Meir for praying that “sinners be no more,” insisting instead that he should instead pray that the sins that should be no more. (See Berakhot 10a; Midrash Psalms 118)

Pour Your godly oil on the seven branches of the menora so that Your good flows down upon Your creatures.
There are so many areas of the globe in need of attention, but may our collective actions bring more divine flow to Ferguson, MO, and other spots in need of extra oiling.

You open Your hand and satisfy every living thing with Your favor.
May these straps, donned in prayer, remind me to keep my hands on productive, positive work for a better world and keep my mind away from panic, hatred, or despair.

Juxtaposing Redemption and Prayer

Once, Rav Beruna “juxtaposed redemption and prayer” — i.e., managed his morning prayers in such a way that he completed the Redemption [“Mi Chamocha“] blessing, following the morning Shema, and moved on to the Amidah [Standing Prayer] just exactly at sunrise — and laughter [and joy] did not cease from his mouth for the entire day.
— Babylonian Talmud Berakhot 9b

We prayed with perfect timing…At the exact moment that we started the Amidah, the sun peeked over the horizon.
…God was happy that we showed up….
I’ve held onto that day as being among the most divine experiences in a largely faithless life….
— David Wolkin, “12 Awkward Boys,” at DC Sermon Slam.

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“Because of this…” (Blessing and attitude, continued)

A (very) previous post discussed the idea of being too grumpy for gratitude, with a focus on one humility-prompting passage from the morning blessings:

…Master of all worlds, we do not offer our supplications before You based on our righteousness, but rather based on Your great mercy. What are we? What are our lives?….Man barely rises above beast, for everything is worthless [hakol havel]….

Because of this, we are obliged to acknowledge and thank you…
— See “Is thanks ever simple? – part 2”

In that post, Ellen Frankel and Estelle Frankel (no relation as far as I know) are quoted on the concepts of “bittul/self-surrender” and a “healthy sense of entitlement.”

Admitting such truth is not simple. It requires that we abandon our grandiose childish sense of entitlement to God’s favor. We…are puny in God’s sight. Ultimately, we can only throw ourselves on God’s mercy.

But is this abject humility an honest expression of how we feel? Must we really live our lives as though we are so worthless, as though hakol havel, “everything is worthless,” as Ecclesiastes lamented?
— Ellen Frankel, My Peoples Prayerbook
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“You Didn’t Build That” Ben Zoma Style

“How hard did the first person have to struggle to toil before he could eat a piece of bread: he seeded, plowed, reaped…But I arise in the morning and find all these foods ready for me….How hard did Adam toil before he could put on a garment…How many skilled craftsmen are industrious and rise early to their work. And I arise in the morning and all these things are ready before me.” (Y. Berakhot 9:2)

This musing, part of a longer teaching on gratitude, is found in the Jerusalem Talmud (AKA “Yerushalmi” or “Palestinian Talmud”). It is attributed to ben Zoma. Judith Abrams explains that ben Zoma “had the ability to look at the tiniest of details and learn great things from them.”

Ben Zoma is one of the four who (later, presumably) entered Pardes, the one who “looked” and went mad as a result. It is, in fact, a fine detail that sends him over the edge. In the passage above, however, awareness of details seem to contribute to what Abrams calls “an elevated state of awareness of all the gifts one has while one has them, almost as if he sees everything through a microscope.”

— from The Other Talmud: The Yerushalmi: Unlocking the Secrets of The Talmud of Israel for Judaism Today by Rabbi Judith Z. Abrams (Woodstock, VT: Jewish Lights, 2012)

Note: The same story appears in the Babylonia Talmud, Berakhot 58a.
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