Rabbinic Worries: Berakhot 8-10

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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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