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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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)
RETURN to NOTES

More on Daf Yomi

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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