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