Thursday, 31 October 2013

Shekalim 14 a, b

Daf 14 describes some of the Kohen families that are responsible for different tasks in the care of the Temple and its functions.  The criticism of some families is vivid and descriptive.  I am not clear how the rabbis were able to justify these words which might be called lashon hara.

One of the insults is worth remembering. We learn that a pious man who digs ditches has lost both his son and his daughter to water-based tragedies.  Though pious, this man cannot stop sobbing when learning of his daughter's death.  We are to learn that even those of us who are pious must sin, and all sins are punished, even small sins.  If one should doubt G-d's strict punishments for sin, we are told the following: If one should say that G-d is lax in His punishments, may his bowels be relaxed!  My criticisms would fall in the "blaming the victim" realm.

We are told that Gevini the Cryer would passionately sing and call to the Kohanim.  We look at Ben Gever who locks the gates, Ben Beivai who is responsible for the wicks, Ben Arzeh who plays the cymbals, Hugras the Levi who had the strongest, most beautiful voice, the House of Garmu who were in charge of the shewbread, the House of Avtinas who presided over the incense, Elazar who oversaw the making of the curtains, and Pinchas who dressed the Kohen Gadol.

Each of these characters or families has a story attached to them.  The Gemara describes either their righteousness, their stand-offishness; their gifts and their flaws.  Two families are villainized for their presumed vanity or secretiveness or seemingly sinful behaviour.  One of these families is vindicated by Rabbi Akiva in today's daf, described hundreds of years after the events took place.

Amud (b) covers Halacha 2, which really is a description of what we might call 'by-laws' in modern legal thought.  The minimum number of officers and their roles are laid out. The roles of those officers are explained.  It also covers Halacha 3.  Here we learn about the tokens, slips of parchment with names like "calf" written on them to be used as proof of payment for the nesachim.  I find this final halacha quite confusing; it describes the allotment of responsibilities and the ordering of payments for different offerings in different circumstances.

At the end of my first read through, it suddenly dawned on me that I should not be surprised about my confusion.  I have a tough time with modern economics.  Why would it be easy for me to understand an ancient monetary system that was an attempt at a description of Temple economics?  The pressure lessened.  But I'll keep trucking on...

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Shekalim 13 a, b

Another daf looking at consecrated animals.  At the start of 13 (a), we watch a group of rabbis attempt to justify their beliefs regarding whether or not it is ever appropriate to exchange a female animal consecrated to the Temple for another.  A female animal is only permitted in certain offerings; further, an animal requires a blemish to be exchanged for another animal to be sacrificed.  I find the arguments around this conversation to be too complex and challenging to follow without a deeper background in this area.

In Halacha V we learn that the Temple always has the upper hand: every thirty days, new prices are set for wine and flour for the altar.  However, any fluctuation in price will be in favour of the Temple treasury and not the seller.  Should the price of wine go up, the treasury will continue to pay the lower price.  Should the price of wine go down, the Temple treasury will benefit from those savings.

The next Mishna describes fifteen Temple offices along with the names of their administrators. The rabbis disagree about whether all of these fifteen served concurrently, whether these administrators were copied from another document, or whether this is a list of righteous leaders over the 420 years of the Second Temple.  Interestingly only one of these Temple administrators is singled out: Mordechai, also known as Pesachyah because of his ability to explain the meanings of mystical topics, and because he knew 70 languages.

Amud (b) brings us to a discourse on the Talmud itself and its precursors.  We begin with "may the name of the righteous be for a blessing", which may have influenced who was chosen as the fifteen administrators listed above.  The rabbis then speak of righteous Torah scholars who had died, thus being able to state that their names were for blessings.  First is Rabbi Akiva, who is credited (erroneously) with being responsible for the Mishnah, the Midrash, the Halachot and the Aggadot.  The Mishna predate Rabbi Akiva significantly.  Perhaps instead, the rabbis suggest that Rabbi Akiva was responsible for the generalizations and the specifications.

The rabbis continue their discussion with a number of lists.  Rather than elaborate on the details of those categories, they move to a justification for lists.  They note that when 'sofer' was mentioned twice with regard to Ezra the Kohen, the sofer, it referred to a sofer both writing the words and counting the words written.  Apparently the Torah is easier to remember when we use mnemonic tools like lists.  We are reminded, in the time of the Talmud, that people used to remember these important words.  Now, however, we have forgotten the words of Torah.  They were angels but we are just men. No, they were  men and we are donkeys..Just imagine if our Sages were to see us now!

But speaking of donkeys, the narrative seems to tell us, R'Pinchas ben Yair's donkey was stolen and held three days by the thieves.  After three days where the animal refused to eat, they freed it so it would not die and smell in their cave.  The donkey returned home, and continued to refuse food.  After much cajoling, R'Pinchas deduced that the animal was being stringent and required his food to be tithed before he ate.

Using the special Mordechai or Pesachya as a model, the Gemara tells us that all members of a Sanhedrin must understand all 70 languages of the world without a translator.  At least one should be able to speak all of these languages.  If four members can speak all 70 languages, then the Sanhedrin will be wise.

Further information about Pesachyah is quite remarkable. First, he is able to interpret the meanings behind where a person who is deaf and mute places his hands to divine where barley can be found on three separate occasions.  the rabbis do not seem to take note of the special powers of the person who is deaf and mute, however.

More interestingly, Pesachyah is able to interpret the words of three women who bring him their offerings.  Each of the women is assumed to be speaking of her issue as one related to menstrual blood. Pesachyah, the very early feminist, suggests that each woman is describing something unrelated to the fact that she is a woman.  For example, one of these women is in fact grateful for surviving at sea rather than describing her menstrual flow as being like the sea.  Big difference.

At the very end of the daf, we are told a bit more about other administrators of the Temple.  Ben Achiyah is in charge of intestinal illness, which he says comes to Kohenim more frequently than others.  Kohenim walk on cold floors with bear feet, eat much meat and drink frequently, leading to stomach upset.  He was able to provide wine that was helpful and not harmful for this condition.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Shekalim 12 a, b

Moving on within the theme of money and consecrated items, today's daf explores money that is consecrated for the Alter - can it be used toward the upkeep of the Temple?  Different sacrifices, different occasions, different amounts of money - all of this is contrasted and debated.

Artisans who decorate and enhance the Temple must be paid with communal funds; however, if those funds are intended for another purpose, they must be deconsecrated and then bought and consecrated again.  According to other rabbis, that deconsecration can happen directly over labour. Knowing that we are to pay labourers for their work immediately at the end of the day, I am curious about how much planning would have gone into ensuring that artisans were remunerated according to halacha.

When it comes to animals, the rabbis seem to agree that male animals should be put to use for burnt offerings while female animals can be used for peace offerings.  Different offerings dictate different sacrifices both in type of animal and in gender of animal.  The division of male and female animals in this case ensures that all animals are used and that the offerings are treated with equal respect.  Also, a flock of animals ready for slaughter at the Alter should be used at the alter.  Interesting that this appreciation of flocks of animals exists at all.

The daf ends with a more details argument regarding the gendered animals required at different offerings and where we can find proof texts for these guidelines.

There will always be people who pray for the Temple to be rebuilt so that we can return to our old practices.  I'm not sure whether these practices were ever practiced; they may be somewhat theoretical based on the writings that have survived.  Certainly we know that the rabbis wanted the Temple-based lives of our ancestors to be complex and rich with halacha, order, hierarchy and clarity of purpose.

If the Temple were rebuilt, those same people might choose for us to return to animal sacrifices.  I cannot stomach the image of hundreds or thousands of animals being led to their slaughter.  The sprinkling of blood, the azazel... it is difficult for me to imagine circumstances where I would stand up and demand the right for my people to worship G-d in this way.

These rites of sacrifice come from the same religion that has given us chevruta study methods and the obligation of giving tzedakah.  How can such cruelty and dismissal of life come from the same place as such beauty and compassion?  How can we believe that causing an animal to suffer is somehow redemptive for us?  Is it possible that G-d knew that people would want to appreciate G-d through animal sacrifices, and that G-d is patiently waiting for us to refute and reframe those antiquated rituals?

Monday, 28 October 2013

Shekalim 11 a, b

A quick run on today's daf:

We are introduced to how money is used from the fourth se'ah.  The rabbis question how and when we might actually increase the value of orphan's funds and funds for the poor.  They also discuss how artisans are paid for their work adorning the Temple when the deconsecration of items, like incense, is part of the process.  The rabbis look at money that is new and money that is leftover from the previous year.  They consider which coins should be used as payment for services rendered for the Temple rituals.  They also look at how animals, another form of tender, should be used.  We learn that consecrated items can be deconsecrated only with something/money that is unconsecrated.

All of this is interesting as the notion of consecration is such a magical notion.  We can make items holy by believing that they are holy; by putting them to use in divine contexts.  But how do we deconsecrate something?  Does the holiness leave once the item is no longer needed for its divine purpose?

To imbue an object with special power is a fantastical idea, no question.  When Jews pride ourselves on our understanding of G-d as the only G-d, how do we justify the creation of a hierarchy of spiritual essence?  And of course, we do this all of the time.  The Torah scroll is a great example.  We kiss it, we revere it; it is an object that almost emits a divine power.  And yet is is a creation of people with the generosity of cattle; it is entirely human and not at all G-d-like.  Why would a Torah scroll holy any greater inherent holiness than a tree, or even a chair?  We pour meaning into objects and words.  We consecrate them with our desire to find G-d in what is embodied; what is physical.

I find that the in-depth discussion of money, multiple offerings, and trading rules -- when mixed with the concept of sanctity -- leaves me both bewildered and intrigued.  I am utterly lost among the descriptions of different offerings and their interrelationships.  However, my mind wanders to the depth sitting right there, just below the coins.  All of this money, all of this talk of consecration - what was it for?  Clearly G-d could not sit in a throne of gold.  Why not pay the poor with the gold used to decorate the Temple?  How were people able to find the half-shekel when they had nothing?  And did enough money go to the poor?  Or, like in Toronto today, was the conversation always focused on road repair?

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Shekelim 10 a, b

Our rabbis examine the differences between donating toward offerings and donating toward items that are deemed preliminary to offerings, for example, the tunic worn by a Kohen who performs a ritual.  How can we determine which is which?  What is necessary and what is an accoutrement?  One of these arguments looks at wood for the fire used for offerings.  The proof for wood's importance is found through the actions of a family balancing the halachot of Shabbat, the offering, and the 9/10 of Av.  

We learn about the related concept of private vs. public funds.  When can there be a transfer from private to public?  The rabbis look at this question in depth.  One of their examples regards whether or not the flour used for the Omer can come from Suria, which was not part of Israel proper but was won by King David for political purposes long in the past.  Again, the question of Shabbat (and other) restrictions comes into play, in addition to what we are obliged to do and what we do by custom or for our convenience.  A complicated analysis involving a number of different opinions.

Further, we learn about how people are paid for the services that they render toward the offerings.  

In amud (b), the rabbis describe how money is spent on a rather disturbing ritual, that of the parah adamah.  A red strip of wool is tied to the head/horns of the animal that is led to a cliff and then thrown over the edge.  It costs money for the animal, the wool, the transport of the animal to the cliff, etc. etc.  That money is to come from the remainders (after the shekalim are removed on the Festivals) in the public treasury chamber.  

Rabbis assert that different ritual items are paid for with the remainders from different collections. They argue over which items are consecrated and which are not. Are decorations consecrated?  If they were alluded to in the Torah and they have something to do with the Temple, are they actually consecrated?  Without discussing the meaning of 'consecration', the rabbis argue case by case over the status of different items.

Again, the place of intention is notable.  What we intend to donate and for which purpose - this makes a difference.  In its essence, this discussion is about ethics.  When is it reasonable to break one's word?  And this issue will continue to be current.  If someone donates to the synagogue's Torah fund, meant to pay for the purchase of a new Torah, should that money be allowed to subsidize the purchase of a scroll cover for one of the existing scrolls?  Or for the purchase of a Tanach for a poor congregant who has requested that gift?  Or for the kiddush following a celebration?  How do we cope with competing needs?

It is wonderful to find a blueprint in the Talmud for how to walk through these dilemmas.  At the same time, I'm not sure that I would agree with every conclusion reached by our rabbis.  What exactly am I missing? Because I know that what's missing in my understanding is quite cavernous.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Shekalim 9 a, b

Although I generally do not blog about what I learn on Shabbat, for the sake of my future reference to the text, I'll share one note.  At the very end of daf 9, we are told brief stories about the physical benefit of learning Torah: "a man's wisdom brightens his face" (Ecclesiastes 8:1).

We cover a lot of ground in today's daf.

First, we 'conclude'* the conversation regarding the measure of a revi'i compared with a shemini.  The previous daf looked at amounts of wine permitted.

Next, we move to one of the uses of this measure, revi'i.  If an animal dies, it becomes neveilah, ritually impure, because it did not die according to the halachot of shechita.  In that status, the blood of the animal may cause its skin, as well, to be ritually impure.  The measure in question is one revi'i of blood - but is that measured in a congealed or in a liquid state?  The rabbis discuss this at great length, including an interesting commentary made by Rav Bivi regarding Rav Chanan's thoughts on some existential ideas.  These include: 'Your life will hang in the balance', 'you will be frightened night and day', and 'you will not be sure of you life'.

The Gemara begins a conversation regarding how to avoid suspicion of the person who withdraws the shekalim.  He must be checked before and after his work, of course, but what else?  The rabbis look at the length of his hair, what he might hold in his mouth.  They create a ritual where he enters with his own shekels between his fingers and adds them to the collection.

In amud (b), the rabbis address the 'layering' of the collection according to location.  The first layer is labelled 'aleph' and is covered.  That collection represents the people of Jerusalem.  the second layer is made up of the shekalim collected from surrounding cities, and the third holds the shekalim that have taken longest to arrive - those from further regions, including Babylonia.   When shekalim are removed, the shekalim left are designated as 'the remainders'.  They are used to pay for any needs that might arise for the purchase of sacrifices.

When praying for each group, all of the people of Israel are mentioned, in addition to the group represented by that collection of shekalim.

We move into a Baraita which describes the path to spiritual enlightenment, as told by Rav Pinchas Ben Yair:
Diligence brings
cleanliness, which brings
purity, which brings
holiness, which brings
humility, which brings
fear of sin, which brings
piety, which brings
divine inspiration, which brings
resurrection of the dead, which brings
Elijah, who is remembered for good.

Interesting commentary on each of these practices follows.  Diligence is said with regard to accuracy and speed in one's practices.  Cleanliness might refer to ritual purity, which requires physical cleanliness that leads to spiritual cleanliness. On the other hand, it might refer to being free from sin due to one's diligence in prayer and practice.  Purity is the repentance; the spiritual cleansing that happens following physical cleanliness.  Holiness is described as taking steps beyond the mitzvot, ie. abstinence from different pleasures.  This runs contrary to other ideas I have heard regarding Judaism and pleasure.

Humility refers to self-effacement, which naturally would lead us to a fear of the sin that we have admitted we cannot avoid.  Fear of sin, though, refers to reverence for G-d.  When we are in awe of G-d at all times, we cannot bear to take on things that might lead to sin.  We are vigilant.  Piety refers to going beyond the letter of the law not for oneself but to please G-d.  Divine inspiration means that G-d is with us at all times; we are privy to secret information in the Torah.

And if we reach this stage of spiritual enlightenment, we move more deeply into the realm of the supernatural.  Resurrection of the dead tells us that we would be like Elijah and Elisha, who have power over the dead.  This also refers to the notion of turning the hearts of the wicked toward goodness.  If we speak of spiritual deadness, a person who reaches this level of enlightenment can bring those people 'back to life'.  And the last stage, Elijah, suggests that we will merit the return of Elijah - either for the world, or, at least, for ourselves.

Not to be outdone, another Bariata on spiritual enlightenment is shared in the name of Rav Meir:
Anyone who is a permanent resident in the land of Israel;
who speaks Hebrew;
who eats produce in a state of taharah (ie. non-sacred food prepared according to stringent halacha);
who recites the shema in the morning and in the evening;
it will be said that he is worthy of the world-to-come

Finally, we look at a new Mishna.  We learn that terumah was used for daily offerings, the additional offerings, and their nesachim (meal or drink offerings).  The omer, the Two Loaves, the Panim Bread and the pulic offerings were paid for with terumah.  In addition, terumah was used to pay those who watched over the fields on the shemittah year, thought volunteers were acceptable.

Portions of today's daf looked much like the shelves of the self-help sections in our book stores.  "The Steps to Spiritual Enlightenment" would be a great title.  In fact, it would be great fun to write a self-help book based on today's daf.  But it would not be particularly appealing.  People are looking for a quick fix, not: "Follow all of the laws with the intent to be perfect" - and that's just step one.  Although I do not follow orthodox halacha at this time, I can't help but wonder at my desire to make life as easy as possible.  Perhaps true spiritual connection comes from a place of struggle and effort rather than from a place of letting go.  Or perhaps it's all about finding the balance.

* does anything in the Talmud ever conclude?

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Shekalim 7 a, b

Our focus on 'what to do if...'; when the Shekalim contribution goes wrong, continues with today's daf. What if a nazir dies before donating?  What if another person dies after the Shekalim have been designated but before they have been collected?  And on...

Halacha 5 and a new Mishnah: Surplus funds collected for redeeming captives who have been redeemed go toward redeeming other captives (now or in the future).  The same for poor people who have already been given funds - the suplus then goes to to other poor people.  Similarly, when dead people's funeral arrangements, etc., do not require further funding, the surplus funds go toward the needs of other dead people.  However, if the money is designated to any one individual captive or poor person, the excess funds go to those individual people.

Regarding surplus funds dedicated to a specific dead person, the rabbis argue.  Gemara: heirs get the surplus; R. Meir: Elijah the prophet will determine this unresolved point of law and so the funds are set aside; R. Natan: a monument for his grave is built with the surplus funds.

Some interesting ideas come from these suggestions.  Rav Yirmiyah challenges Rav Idi of Chutra, saying "I never stated my opinion categorically. How are you so certain that I am wrong?".  I am pulling out this particular quotation not for it's point of reference but its reflexivity.  This ancient text has recorded not only a disagreement, but analysis of that disagreement.

A Baraita teaches that we use designated funds only for the purposed agreed upon. However, should a community leader use money earmarked to buy a cloak for one person to buy a cloak for another needy person (assuming that the first person already has a cloak), we should not question that decision.  Why not simply change the halacha to reflect our values and behaviours?  Why not say that we can change the designation of a gift if that gift will not benefit it's target?  Jewish legal tradition is tremendously particular when it comes to the maintenance of minhag and halachic consistency.  However, it leaves room for divergent behaviours when it comes to deciding on how to care best for a community in need. Progressive because the community needs might be met?  Regressive because we maintain a problematic power structure?

Finally the rabbis consider the pros and cons of building monuments.  Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel shares a beautiful teaching: we do not make memorials; words are their memorials.  In discussing this idea, the rabbis agree that a memorial is not appropriate for a righteous person.  Instead, his [sic] teachings will live on in the study halls and his inscriptions will last longer than any monument.  I am drawn to the notion of memory as something tangible.

A story about the egos of our rabbis (well, that's my take) follows this  conversation. Rav Yochanan was a large man who needed assistance walking.   When walking while leaning on a colleague, Rav Yochanan becomes upset with Rav Eliezer, ostensibly because R. Eliezer was hiding from him rather than "inquiring after my welfare," ie. greeting Rav Yochanan.  Although a number of rabbis try to convince Rav Yochanan that he should not think badly of Rav Eliezer; that the customs are different in Babylonia, it is not no avail.  And then it comes out: Rav Yochanan is upset because Rav Eliezer has not been naming Rav Yochanan as the source of his teachings.  To end the dispute, Rav Yaakov bar Idi suggests that Rav Eliezer does not quote each of Rav Yochanan's teachings just as Joshua does not give appropriate credit to Moses for all of his teachings.

The rabbis go on to discuss the importance of naming one's sources, both for current purposes and for merit in the World-to-Come.  There are some interesting references to the World-to-Come, and how we might benefit from students stating our name in the earthly realm.  In particular, when a student speaks the teaching and its source, "their lips move with them in the grave". The rabbis note that this is impossible, but the more esoteric meanings are discussed further.

We are told that Rav Yochanan was angry for fear that he would not benefit as is his right in the World-to-Come.  However, the Gemara notes that surely the Heavens would know the source of any teaching!  And thus it seems that all are making excuses for Rav Yochanan's rude and disrespectful behaviour.  The status of Rav Yochanan forces other rabbis to run around placating him.  But what does it say of a great rabbi when he holds on to shallow, silly disputes?  Should a rabbi of great status publicly criticize a disciple?  And when that public criticism was based on dishonouring his teacher... this seems petty and far below the concern of a rabbi as learned as Rav Yochanan.

Again, the Talmud allows us to see the human behaviour of our Sages.  Rav Yochanan demonstrates everyday emotions and behaviours: anger, indignance, pride, embarrassment, stubbornness, self-centredness.  The rabbis who attempt to placate him show other human traits: eagerness to please, desire for acceptance, desire for peace, feeling compelled to creatively stretch the truth for a 'greater good', etc.  All of this is recorded.  We cannot pretend that our Sages found out how to live without anger.  As the Talmud is one step more recent than the Torah, we can feel that much more validated in our own struggles with unwanted emotions and behaviours.  And as Abraham and Sarah were not perfect, our Sages were not perfect, and we are very far from perfect.  

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Shekalim 6 a, b

Today we learn about what to do with excess.  We are commanded that the rich give no more than one shekel, and thus excess contributions can go to the voluntary communal offerings.  Or, some rabbis argue, they are chullin, and are not consecrated at all.

Some of the coins and their values are alluded to:
Biblical half-shekel = six garmesin*

darkon (basic currency during the Persian Empire) = two selaim
sela (basic currency after the collapse of the Persian Empire = two shekels = four dinars
teva (next basic currency) = half a sela = one shekel
dinar = half of a teva = one quarter of a sela
tabaah = two dinars

Joseph was sold by his brothers for twenty silver dinars, which is five selaim
The cost of pidyon haben for the first born of Kohanim is five selaim
Because the sin of the golden calf happened at the sixth hour, some rabbis suggest that we give six garmesin as our Shekalim

For most offerings, extra money that was designated to a particular collection cannot be transferred to another particular collection.   It must be donated to the voluntary communal offerings.  Some exceptions include surplus money set aside for olah is used for olah; similarly, extra minchah funds go to the minchah fund and extra shelamim offerings go to the shelamim fund.  Shelamim as animal offerings that have not been slaughtered at the proper time.  Surplus pesach offerings are allowed to go toward shekalim, and surplus collections for poor nezirim are used for sacrifices for other poor nezirim.

In amud (b) the rabbis extend their discussion to the Pesach offering.  I would not have believed that the rabbis had more to say about the korban after learning Masechet Pesachim.  However, I should have known better.  They discuss which animals are allowed to be used as the pesach offering.  An olah is excluded, for it could come from the flock or from cattle, and only those animals 'from the flock' are permitted.  The asham is also prohibited, as it comes from a flock of sheep, but it cannot come from goats, which are also 'of the flock'.  Further, the korban must not be a female animal, nor can it be over one year old.

At the end of the daf, the rabbis question what would be the halacha regarding a person who begins the shechitah with one intention and ends with another.  Could the rabbis imagine that a person would change their intentions in a split-second?  or is there a longer process of shechitah that I don't fully grasp?

Again it is clear that our Sages are defining and redefining categories.  Our halachot are like boxes that hold all parts of human existence.  There is almost always a right answer, a better thing to do.  And we are certainly learning to strive toward that type of definition and structure.  However, at the same time. our Sages offer us their unsolved debates as well.  We learn in today's daf that the rabbis leave the question of piggul status unresolved with regard to an offering that may have become invalid in itself as its human companion changes his/her intention.  The rabbis did not have to include their unresolved discussions.  If these great minds are unable to find a solution in their boxes, they must be teaching us that there will be times where we must live between boxes.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Shekalim 5 a, b

Continuing from yesterday's discussion, we end the first section of Shekalim at the start of today's daf.  Further complications about the two brothers-in-law and their obligations and/or exemptions regarding the kolbon and the ma'asser.  Just before beginning chapter two, the rabbis state their different opinions on what services the added kolbonot should be spent.

In chapter two, we learn more detail about the practices of Shekalim
  • shekalim can be converted into gold darkonot for easier travel to Jerusalem
  • shekalim were deposited into collection chests both at the Temple and in each Jewish community
  • if money is stolen en route and terumah is not yet taken, it is as if money was stolen from the Temple
  • if the same happens but terumah was previously taken, it is as if the money was stolen from the townspeople
The rabbis discuss a number of questions in detail.  First, they examine the merits and disadvantages of converting shekalim into pearls, for example, instead of darkonot.  Apparently darkonot maintains its value well.  They describe the differences between treatment of guards who are paid and unpaid.  Interestingly, paid guards are liable for theft or loss of items they are guarding.  When funds are returned after having been stolen, the rabbis discuss what should be done with the new shekalim versus the old shekalim.  The Mishna tells us about a number of cases where money that is designated elsewhere is used toward the obligation of Shekalim.   The rabbis look at the concept of me'ilim, the sin of using a Temple offering for one's own benefit.

Debate about how whether or not money designated for one purpose can be used for another purpose reminds me of cooties, or magical powers.  It also makes me think about obsessive compulsive disorder.  How busy must our minds be, continually determining whether or not we have inadvertently crossed an invisible line between proper and sinful behaviour?  It is enough to make me wonder whether Jews have greater genetic dispositions toward OCD, as those of us who were meticulous about these details were surely those who would be the most pious and thus of the most valued in our communities.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Shekalim 4 a, b

Another day to learn things I've never even thought about before.  Although my son's bar mitzvah portion, Ki Tissa, begins with a counting of the males in the community as marked by coins.  After his first read-through last year my son announced, "that's the same as taxes."

And so here we are.  Today we begin with the kolbon, which is an additional 1/12 or 1/24 of the half-shekel donation.  The value of a half-shekel became slightly higher than the value of the shekel around Adar because of their importance.  Thus if a person paid for himself and his friend with a full shekel, known as a sela, there was a slight loss of potential collection.  The kolbon made up that difference.  In addition, the half-shekel should be as close to pure silver as possible, just like the 'thing' that G-d showed to Moses.  The kolbon makes up for the imperfections and worn down edges of the half-shekel.

Those who were not obligated to make half-shekel payments were also exempt from the kolbon.  The Gemara details different individuals and groups that must pay and those that are excused from payment.

A longer discussion of the Kutim ensues.  When are they allowed to participate in donations to the Temple?  These converts to Judaism have been mentioned before, and it would seem that the Jewish community was suspicious of Kutim, even generations after their conversions. The reasoning behind denying Kutim their obligations as Jews originates in the duress under which Kutim converted.  Some Jews believed that Kutim in fact continued to worship idols and thus should not be considered full members of the Jewish community.  However, the rabbis argue through a good portion of today's daf about multiple circumstances and the associated rights/obligations of Kutim/idolaters.

It would be nice to think that today's Jewish community is more accepting of converts.  In fact, the opposite is the case.  Rabbi Seth Farber spoke in Montreal just this past week about the secular laws in Israel (as dictated by an ultra-Orthodox rabbinate) to demand 'proof' of one's Jewishness or else be denied a marriage licence, etc.  This evaluation of whether or not a person is Jewish 'enough' has very deep roots in our history.  Of course, our Sages - and current Jewish thought - has always been concerned about the lines that separate one thing from another.  But that is a larger topic.

Amud (b) follows a number of discussions, one of which is the confusion surrounding what to do when two brothers bring a sela together.  Further questions related to their obligations with regard to the ma'aser, the sacrifice of one of ten animals as a peace-offering.  A concept called bereirah, "retroactive clarification," is introduced.  Bereirah suggests that we can determine an object's legal status through noting actions around a future event.   Some rabbis, including Rabbi Yochanan, did not accept the validity of this principle.

Sunday, 20 October 2013

Shekalim 3 a, b

What an interesting masechet.  Shekalim begins with the notion of taxation and like a drop in a still lake it ripples out, touching topics that include the rituals surrounding gravesites, slavery, the lunar calendar, farmers' rights, and on and on...

Without the time to give the proper attention to today's daf, I will again highlight a number of details.

  • Regarding "attending to all public needs," we learn that a number of services were performed:
    • many trials and legal proceedings  
    • burning the parah adumah, the red heifer, so that its ashes can be used to reinstate ritual purity
    • the marking of graves with lime*
    • either completing all sotah determinations, or declaring the need for sotah trials**
    • decapitating a calf to remove suspicion regarding an unsolved murder between two towns***
    • boring a hole in the ear of a slave who wishes to remain in the service of his/her master after six years of slavery
    • removing the locks from protected communal water cisterns until the end of summer 
  • Regarding the removal of kilayim:
    • originally inspectors weeded a mixed field and put the offending weeds on the farmer's land
    • realizing that transgressors used inspectors to both weed their fields and prepare food for their animals, changes were introduced
    • inspectors first threw offending plants into the road where it was unusable for animals
    • inspectors then looked for intermixed plants and declared fields 'ownerless' if offending
    • anyone who cleared the unwanted plants from the field could then claim that field
  • Regarding lechet, the gleanings touching the ground and/or left for the poor:
    • Sages argued about whether or not lechet should be subject to tithes; whether the poor should have to donate a portion of their found food to the Kohanim
  • Regarding the collection of shekalim:
    • Moneychangers first facilitated the collection of half-shekels from Adar 15; from Adar 25 they sat at the Temple and collected late payments
    • Women, minors, slaves, converts, and others were exempt from this collection
    • Some people were allowed to give if they so desired
    • Others who did not actively contribute to the maintenance of the Temple; who were not redeemed from slavery at the Red Sea were not allowed to give
    • Kohanim were treated with kid gloves, so to speak: they were obligated to give but were not coerced or pressured to give.  They argued about giving toward their own maintenance
    • Boys over 13 with at least two pubic hairs were allowed to contribute
    • Men at age twenty and above were obliged to contribute
So far, Shekalim is a fascinating read.

* I do not understand how stones are marked with lime.  Limestone? Lime juice?
**one of the more bizarre ancient rituals regarding the ability for women to have a voice. Thankfully, the bitter waters would not cause illness and death and so most women would be declared innocent of adultery (unless the water was tampered with, of course).
***The first time that I have fully understood this ritual.  I wonder whether we might want to move away from practices that harm animals to represent our own innocence.  It is hard to imagine that this was in fact G-d's intention.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Shekalim 2 a, b

A new masechet with a new focus.  We begin to learn about shekalim, the half-shekel tax paid by all Jewish men over the age of twenty.  As this daf begins, some of the more basic facts stand out for me.  Today I feel compelled to review those building blocks.

  • on Adar 1, Jews are reminded of the upcoming payment of shekalim
  • on Adar 1, Jews are reminded to check soon for kilayim, the sprouting of intermixed seeds
  • Purim falls of Adar 15 and work is allowed
  • on Adar 15, Megillat Ester is read in walled cities
  • on Adar 15, annual repair of roads (cities) and streets (alleys and/or country roads) begins
  • on Adar 15, annual repair of mikvaot begins
  • on Adar 15, graves are marked with a white line that resembles the colour of bones
  • on Adar 15, Jews search for kilayim in their crops
  • on Nissan 1, shekelim are due, paid to the Temple Treasury Chamber
  • Shekalim refers to the half-shekel paid in antiquity
  • Money for communal offerings were withdrawn from the Temple chamber at three times annually
  • In a year with Adar 1 and Adar 2, shekalim were announced at the start of Adar 2
  • All half-shekel donations must be in Jerusalem by Nissan 1, thus in Babylonia the shekalim proclamation must be made earlier to ensure timely arrival and thus full participation as Jewish citizens
  • Whether the amount for all is a shekel or a half-shekel, "the rich can give no more and the poor can give no less"
For a student who is quite unfamiliar with the practice of shekalim, this first daf is helpful as it provides an overview of its basic principals.  What I take from today's daf are a few key points:
  • Jews are to pay taxes to fund the upkeep of community services
  • That tax is per male adult regardless of income or status
  • An advance reminder is given to all communities
  • The date of collection is connected to the reading of Megillat Ester
There is an understanding of communal responsibility for communal services.  Further, there is an understanding that these services are for all community members and thus there should be equal financial contributions by all community members.  There is not any explanation yet as to why a rich person should pay the same as a poor person, though payment might be a hardship for the poor.  The Sages also do not address the reasoning behind only adult men paying for the services used by all (perhaps because they are the citizens with any funds?).

We'll see where the rabbis take us tomorrow.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Pesachim 120 a, b

In this last daf of Pesachim, we begin at the end of the seder.  The rabbis tell us that we must end our meal with the afikomen.  However, we can only eat while we are still hungry; we are not permitted to gorge ourselves with food.  Somehow that detail has been lost over the years.

We are told that we are to consider the mitzvot to eat matza and bitter herbs Torah law.  In the Torah, we are obliged to eat of the Paschal lamb and not these other items, which are rabbinic in origin.  However, since the Temple has been destroyed and we cannot fulfill the mitzvah of eating of the korban, the rabbis tell us that we are commanded to eat matzah and maror at this time.  It is so important to do these mitzvot that we are told that an uncircumsized man and a person who is ritually impure are also obliged to eat matza and maror.  In the Torah, the Paschal lamb is specifically forbidden to those people.

What would be a broader reason to include these 'outsiders' in these particular mitzvot?  I'm guessing that as today, Pesach has been a defining annual pilgrimage for Jews - but to our homes, our families, where we then appreciate that we were freed from Egypt.  Even one who is not circumcised; one who is impure are encouraged to be part of our larger Jewish family at Pesach.

We are commanded to eat matza for 6 days. The rabbis understand this in context; it suggests that we should eat matza for at least 6 days but to avoid bread or foods that rise for 7 days.

If one or two people fall asleep at the table, it is considered an interruption and we are allowed to continue eating on awakening.  However, if the entire group falls asleep, different rules apply.  The meal must end.  I wonder how frequently people fell asleep at the table. It is easy to imagine that many guests (and hosts) would eventually fall asleep.  Then the rabbis distinguish between dozing and sleeping.  When we are dozing, we are "asleep but not alseep; awake but not awake,"  A story is told of Abaye watching Rabba sleep.  When asking his master whether or not he was asleep, Rabba replied, "I'm dozing".  Dozing allows us to eat of the Paschal lamb, unlike sleeping.

The daf ends with a conversation about what must be done before midnight.  Hands can become ritually impure if they come into contact with the paschal lamb or other items after midnight.  They can become piggul if the meat is prepared without the proper intention and they can become notar if they touch leftover sacrificial meat.  Thus a number of foods must be eaten before midnight.

Pesachim's focus on the seder rituals in its last dapim was intriguing and very satisfying. When I began my learning, I hoped to find threads connecting my experience with that of my ancestors. I have found that an much more.  And although I can become frustrated with the sometimes antiquated understandings of our Sages, I so appreciate their struggles to find meaning through the text.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Pesachim 119 a, b

Close to the end of the masechet, we are also close to the end of the seder.  Today the rabbis discuss the treasures of Egypt, when and why we say blessings before what is blessed, and the afikomen as the last food eaten at the seder.

It is rumoured that the Egyptians removed all of the gold and silver of the country when they attempted to flee Egypt.  The Gemara tells us the path of those treasures from one generation to the next.  I had not heard this tale before, and it would be interesting to share this passage in our family seder in years to come.

An interesting tale describes what will happen in the world-to-come when G-d throws a banquet for the descendants of Isaac.  Abraham will be called to bless a cup of wine at the end of the meal.  He will refuse the honour, as Ishmael came from him.  He will present the cup to Isaac and ask him to say the blessing.  Isaac will refuse because Esau came from him.  Isaac will ask the same of Jacob, who will refuse because he married two sisters - and though that was legally allowed at the time, Jacob will know that it became prohibited.  Jacob will offer the cup to Moses, who will refuse to say the blessing because he did not merit entering Eretz Yisroel.  And Joshuah, to whom Moses offers the cup and blessing, will refuse the honour because he did not have any children.  Finally, David will accept the cup and opportunity to say the blessing from Joshua, as Tehilim/Psalms stated, "I will lift up the cup of salvation, and I will call upon the name of the Lord" (Psalms 116:13).

Each patriarch has a mark of imperfection.  Some of these 'marks' are not consistent with the flaws I would have chosen; for example, I think that Abraham sending his wife into the harem of a King to save himself was more heinous than fathering a less favoured child.   Interestingly, King David does not consider his dalliance with Batsheva to be similarly damaging.  This tale helps us to understand our rabbis conceptions of what is good and what is evil, what is acceptable and what is unacceptable.

At the end of today's daf we examine the afikomen and why it is eaten at the very end of the meal.  Again it is fun to find references to halachot still practiced today.  I had not imagined that the rabbis discussed that custom, to eat at least an olive-bulk of matzah at the end of the meal, in with such vigour.  Learning Pesachim has offered great insight into our current practices.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Pesachim 118 a, b

And today's daf is a tough one for me.  Difficult both in its meaning and in its reasoning.

Two very difficult ideas:
1) the toil of working is twice as difficult as the pain of childbirth, and
2) every person is rewarded or punished according to his/her ability to withstand that reward/punishment

There is some discussion noted regarding these ancient opinions, but those discussions do not mitigate the damage done by the words themselves.  Generations have been influenced by these ideas; ideas that are judgmental, lacking in compassion, and unverifiable.  These ideas blame victims for their own suffering and minimize the pain of labour - in a time when women often died in childbirth.

Much of amud (a) rejoices in homiletic explanations of why we recite the Great Hillel.  Hillel includes praise for G-d regarding the exodus from Egypt, the parting of the Red Sea, giving the Torah, resurrecting the dead, and the pangs of the Messiah.  The Great Hillel also includes praise for G-d "who gives food to all flesh," (Psalms 136:25).  I find these challenging, for I am not convinced that verses from the Tanach can be so definitively interpreted and applied, especially when those interpretations consistently benefit the rabbis and their system of leadership.

The daf goes on to tell a story about these 'messianic pangs', including fiery furnaces and ministering angels of hail and fire.  It tells other stories of the parting of the Red Sea that I have not come across in the past: the fish praise G-d and the Kishon River plays a significant role in the redemption of the Jewish people.

Much of today's learning is based on Psalms.  Sadly I have little knowledge of these tehilim, and so I find myself lost in the arguments and proof texts.  It seems that the rabbis focus on Rome and other non-Jewish centres in their conversations.

It is a strange experience, being humbled and feeling righteous at the same time.  I recognize that I know next to nothing about the wisdom of our Sages.  They held miraculous amounts of information in their minds, and they were able to access and apply that information in high-stress, challenging situations.  I know little of their lives, their languages, their expertise.  And yet it is evident that they were simply human beings who were desperate to establish themselves as powerful, like the rest of us, to ensure the physical and psychological safety of themselves and their families.  So it is impossible for me to read their words without critique.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Pesachim 117 a, b

Our last mishna stated that we should all say "halleluya".  But what does that mean, and where does it come from?  The first part of today's daf examines some possibilities.  The rabbis wonder whether halleluya is one or two words.  They also question the authorship of the Book of Psalms, or Tehilim, where 'halleluya' is said to be the most important of the ten expressions of praise.

The rabbis argue about whether the 'ya' is in a form of the name of G-d, or whether it is a shortened form of an expression of praise combined with 'hallel'.  If halleluya includes G-d's name, there are implications: the word is divine, the expression of these praises are divine, and we should give special attention to these words.

The ten expressions of praise in Tehilim are nitzuach, niggun, maskil, mizmor, shir, ashrei, tehila, tefila, hoda'a and halleluia.   Did King David author all of these works of praise?  The rabbis share possible evidence of this authorship by assuming that kalu, said at the end of each song, is actually a contraction of kol elu, meaning that 'all of them' were written by King David.

From here the rabbis take an interesting turn.  We learn that some of the rabbis believe that David wrote about himself when writing in the singular and that he wrote on behalf of the Jewish community when he wrote in plural form.  The rabbis then ask about how we compose prayer; how we pray.  Do we pray in a state of anger, or sadness, or joy?  Elisha is said to have listened to minstrels when angry to bring back the spirit of the Lord.  And the rabbis manage to turn the beautiful idea of our lips being dripping with lilies to our lips dripping with bitterness, suggesting that we should be afraid of our teachers.  Rabba is said to have joked with his students before lecturing so that they were not as terrified when he began to speak.

The rabbis look more closely at Hallel.  They note that G-d often repeats that we do things "for My sake".  They also note that we say "halleluya" at the end of a number of verses, often followed by the start of a new verse. One of our notes by Steinsaltz teaches that we do not end verses about tragedy or destruction with "halleluya".  The rabbis then discuss the ordering of verses and they move toward understanding the formulae of other prayers.   The last of these examines prayers for Shabbat and for Shabbat and Festivals, where small differences are hotly challenged.  I learned from these arguments that Rava stated our usual practice: prayer is communal while kiddush is an individual obligation.  I also learned that the Elders of Pumbedita, when accepted as correct in their practice, put an end to the communal interruption of a prayer leader when that person chants something unusual; not yet accepted.

The daf ends with a new mishna focusing on the third and fourth cups of wine at the seder.  When they are to be poured and when they are to be drunk.  However, we are introduced to the Gemara's first questions about this mishna.  The rabbis wonder about generalizations that might be drawn from drinking for Grace after Meals and for Hallel.  They also wonder about whether or not we can drink between the third and fourth cups, whether there should be a fifth cup, and the dangers of intoxication at this point in the seder.

Again I am faced with the reality of our ancient leaders vying for power and for the establishment of their rabbinical institution.  It is amazing to me that this rabbinical tradition has lasted as long as it has; so many rules and protocols based on little more than people's homiletic interpretations of Torah text.  I wonder how ultra-orthodox scholars read Talmud; how they understand the Divinity that is said to be part of this process.  I see human beings -- with all of our longings and logic and desperation -- throughout.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Pesachim 116 a, b

A huge of our Pesach traditions are founded on the teachings of today's daf.

We begin with a discussion of charoset: what it represents and how it should be made.  Charoset should be thick like the mortar that Jews used to build as slaves, and it might contain spices like cinnamon and ginger to symbolize the hay that Jews were made to lift as slaves.  It should contain apples, which Abaye tells us represents the apple referenced in the Song of Songs - which symbolizes the Jews leaving Egypt.  A stretch, certainly, but interesting.  The rabbis debate about whether or not it is a mitzvah to put charoset on the table.

Why would we eat charoset if it is not a mitzvah? As introduced in yesterday's daf, the liquidity of charoset is said to kill the 'poison', which might be some sort of insect or bacteria -- or evil spirit that remains on the hands - in the vegetables that will be dipped.  We learn about what neutralizes poison:
bitter herbs - charoset
lettuce - eat a radish
radish - eat leeks
leeks and all vegetables - hot water

An incantation helps, too.  We can say, "Poison, poison, I remember you, and your seven daughters and your eight daughters-in-law."  Not surprisingly, it is the power of lots of younger women who hold the damaging, negative power in this case.

We learn about the four questions, said by the son when the father pours the second of four glasses of wine.  The mishna states clearly which questions are asked in which order and why.  The rabbis wish to ensure that the children are engaged and active participants at the seder.  They are concerned that children are asking questions appropriate to their age and intellectual development.  THis suggests that rabbis were aware of developmental differences; they did not expect every child to be a Torah scholar in the making.

Rav Nachman speaks to his servant, who is named as Duru in the Talmud.  "When a slave is freed and his master gives him gold and silver, what should the slave say to him?" Daru says, "He must thank and praise him." Rav Nachman explains that if this is the case, Daru has exempted  us from reciting the question, "Why is this night different...", for Daru had already explained the essence of the entire seder.  Rav Nachman immediately began to recite the answer, "We were slaves...".

I am curious whether Daru is mentioned elsewhere in the Talmud. To name a servant is unusual, and to use the servant's words as our guide is exceptional.  I wonder about Rav Nachman's behaviour in general and about other instances where the rabbis interrupted their exclusive rights to all power structures.

Amud b begins with the very familiar instructions on the three things that must be included in the seder evening: an explanation of matzah, maror, and the Paschal lamb.  These explanations are followed by the obligation to say and teach Exodus 13:8, "because this is what the Lord did for me [and not for my ancestors], when I came out of Egypt".  Part of the text of the Haggadah is described next, where we are to "thank, praise, glorify, extole, exault, honour, bless, revere and Laud the One who performed miracles for our forefathers and for us... He took us out from slavery to freedom, from sorry to joy, from darkness to light, from mourning to a Festival, and from slavery to redemption.  And we say Halleluya", followed by hallel.

The rabbis discuss why hallel is separated into two parts and when we should stop reciting hallel.  A note suggests that we split up hallel to allow the children to eat rather than to fall asleep during the first portion of the seder.  Again, the recognition of the needs of children and the desire to engage them is apparent.

The rabbis discuss a difference between the roasted shankbone and the other symbolic foods on the table.  Why do we not raise the meat as we raise the other foods?  The rabbis agree that we would not want the meat of the seder to be confused with the roasted meat of the Pesach offering, which was raised at Pesach when the Temple was standing.

The final conversation in today's daf regards whether or not a person who is blind is obligated to recite the Haggadah.  The rabbis use different proof texts to argue their points.  I found it difficult to follow these arguments; it would seem that the reason for excluding a blind person from the mitzvah has something to do with not being able to 'point' at someone or something.  Again, this point was not lear to me.

Today's daf was great fun to learn as its words were incredibly familiar.  The careful and sensitive decisions of the rabbis regarding the importance of the seder is easy to find.  We have created our own family Haggadah based on many different versions of the text.  I am thinking that today's daf would be put to very good use as a photocopied resource at the seder.

Saturday, 12 October 2013

Pesachim 115 a, b

Today the rabbis clearly refocus on the halachot of Pesach.  They discuss whether or not mitzvot nullify each other; about combining mitzvot and how those combinations might change other halachot.  Hillel (not Hillel the Elder but the late Nasi from Eretz Yisroel) shares his belief on eating matzah together with bitter herbs: one who eats matzah, which is obligated by Torah law, with bitter herbs, which is obligated by Rabbinic law, has nullified the Torah law of mitzva of eating matzah.  This concept is discussed further regarding dipping into a liquid and washing one's hands.  Dipping required handwashing.  But do we wash our hands twice if we dip twice?

From this conversation we move into questions about how we should eat matzah, bitter herbs and charoset.  They wonder about how the meal should be served and how the four questions should be asked.  We need not chew the matzah to observe the mitzvah of eating matzah; we must chew the bitter herbs - taste their bitterness - to observe the mitzvah of eating bitter herbs. And the rabbis bring back the concept of combining mitzvot:  if we eat the two together, we have observed the mitzvah of eating matzah but not of maror, for we have not experienced their full bitterness.

It would seem that people ate at individual tables.  We are taught that each person should have both matzah and charoset in front of them on this small table.  That table is then removed after the seder rituals but before the meal.  The Gemara tells the story of Rabbi Abaye sitting before Rabba when Abaye was a child.  When the tables were removed, Abaye asked why they were removing the tables before the meal.  Rabba stated that Abaye need not ask one of the four questions,  as he already asked why this night is different from all other nights.

At the end of the daf, Rav Shmuel wonders about lechem oni, the bread of the afflicted (Deuteronomy 16:3).  Different spellings of oni affect the meaning of this phrase.  Suggestions include 'bread over which one answers many matters', and 'bread of the poor'.  The bread of the poor might imply that a slice of bread - or a piece of the matzah, rather than a loaf - should be eaten.

Daf 115 is the source of a number of mitzvot that I practice each year on Pesach.  It continues to amaze me when I see the origins of my traditions.  They are based on the thoughts of a group of scholars.  The halacha has no direct link to the 'word of G-d', or even to Torah law much of the time.  Instead these men argue what they believe using the words of Torah as proof - at least some of the time.  What a legacy, this connection to the rabbis through text and ritual.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Pesachim 111 a, b

Just noticed that this was filed as a 'draft'.  Whoops.

Daf 111 is a treat.  We learn more about the belief system of our ancestors - and not about 
G-d and G-d's power.  Instead, we learn about demons and witchcraft.  These are the daily scourges of our rabbis and their communities.  One after another, facts are shared on how to avoid demons and how to put oneself at risk.  As a reader in the 21st century, it is overwhelmingly clear that the rabbis are telling us how they managed to feel some semblance of control over their chaotic lives.

We learn about the dangers of urinating between things where demons might walk; the dangers of women sitting across from each other, facing each other - where they most certainly are practicing witchcraft.  We are told about Reish Lakish's avoidance of four things: drinking borrowed water, stepping over spilled water, walking between two palms or between a palm and a wall.  The rabbis provide us with many caveats lest we avoid all travel and/or drinking.  We learn about the dangers of a dog, a palm tree, a woman, a pig and a snake.  All of these are associated with witchcraft.  

Women are particularly demon-provoking, it would seem... or perhaps their penchant for witchcraft, mentioned at least twice in today's daf, is more powerful when a person's defenses are weakened by demons.  We are told that a person at the beginning of her monthly menstruation can kill one of two men if she walks between them.  At the end of her period, she will only cause one to fall ill.  

Amulets and incantations can be used to mitigate the effects of the predatory demons.  Men can recite the names of demons with a reminder that they carry no power, reciting text that begins and ends with "G-d" or "lo" (no).  Men can switch places with each other to throw off the demons.  They can find protection at times by riding on a donkey while wearing shoes. Thank goodness there are effective remedies.

Amud (b) describes different demons and where they live.  Different trees can house different demons.  Hard wood trees are different than soft wood trees; the shadows of trees can be particularly dangerous.  The Gemara tells the story of sixty sheidei demons living in a tree.  When an amulet is written to guard against one demon, a celebration was heard from within the tree: "The Master's scarf is like that of a Torah scholar, but we checked the Master and he does not know the blessing [over the scarf]".  Another Sage knew that a sorb tree would hold sixty sheidei wrote a new amulet against sixty demons.  He then heard "Clear your items away from here".  

As an aside, Steinsaltz explains in a note that Torah scholars wore scarves on their hats to demonstrate that they were married.  Interesting that men might show their marital status along with women.

We learn that some demons, like the ketev, come in two types - one that comes out before noon, swirling in kutach, and the other that emerges in the afternoon, circling in a goat's horn. Different demons appear at different times of the month; some are particular to certain months.  When Abaye sights a demon and trades places with his colleague, he is called to task.  Abaye explains that it is not time for the other rabbi to be harmed -- Abaye is poor and struggling while his colleague is prosperous.  It seems that demons are particularly interested in things that are holy, in people that are disadvantaged, in those who are weakened in some way.

At the end of today's daf, we move into warnings that seem to be straight-up superstitions, not connected even to demons.   Some of what we learn: Rav Yosef teaches that blindness is caused by combing dry hair, drinking from a dripping barrel, and putting on shoes while one's feet are still wet from bathing.  Hanging food in the home causes poverty, but not meat or fish (as that is customary).  Keeping bran in the house does the same, and leaving crumbs in one's home, particularly sprinkled about on erev Shabbat or on Tuesday nights, invites demons (not to mention mice).

Our final paragraph offers a few choice tips: Nakid is the administering angel over foods.  Naval is the administering angel over poverty.  A dirty home invites Naval, while a clean home invites Nakid.  A plate placed over a jug causes poverty.  Drinking water from a plate causes eye pain.  Eating cress without washing one's hands will cause a person to be afraid for 30 days.

All of these advisements, these words of wisdom, seem ridiculous to a modern student of the text.  And yet this was just as real as other halachot that our Sages shared.  This text is said to be the oral Torah, the word of G-d given to Moses at Sinai and passed down to all of us.  How do we decide which passages are valid and true and which passages are ancient superstition?  To pretend that every word is holy, G-d given, seems to be silly.  But to throw away everything seems equally wrong.  But how to choose what to keep and what to leave?  Liberal Jews around the world ask these questions every day... with very different answers.

Pesachim 113 a, b

Another delightful window into the minds of our Sages as they share advice with their sons and their communities.  Most of this blog will be a recounting of these lists, as they are entirely engaging with no commentary.  But I will make my own list to begin:

  • These lists remind me of modern self-help books, for example "Four ways to improve your financial future" or "Seven mistakes that will lead to heartache".  
  • Our Sages tell us more about themselves and the contexts of their lives than anything else.  When one rabbi specifically mentions three different ways that girls and women will lead to the his downfall if he is not careful, certainly we can understand that gender and power were prominent issues in his life.  Perhaps he was abusive; perhaps he lived with horrible women.  Either way, he used his power as a Torah scholar to validate his views.
And with that introduction, here we go:

Rav to Rav Asi:

  • Don't live in a city where horses do not neigh and dogs do not bark [for security reasons]
  • Don't live in the city where the mayor is a doctor [see yesterday's daf; conflicted roles and possibly directed at Asi himself]
  • Do not marry two women
  • marry a third woman [so that one wife will tell you what the other two are plotting]
Rav to Rav Kahana:
  • Turning over a carcass is better than turning over one's word/promise
  • Skin a carcass in the market and take payment, but do not say 'I am a priest' or 'I am a great man and this matter disgusts me'
  • If you go up to the roof, bring your food with you
  • If one hundred pumpkins in the city are one zuz [inexpensive], place them in the corners of your clothes [treat them well]
Rav to Chiyya, his [sickly] son,
  • Do not drink medications [lest you become addicted]
  • Do not leap over a ditch
  • Do not pull out a tooth
  • Do not provoke a snake
  • Do not provoke a gentile
Rav said that there are three things one should not provoke: a small gentile, a small snake, and a small Torah scholar, as all will grow up and look to avenge this wrong.

Rav to Ayvu, his son: 
  • I struggled to teach you halacha but did not succeed so I will teach you mundane matters
  • Sell your merchandise while the dust is still on your feet
  • Anything you sell you might regret except for wine [which may go bad]
  • Open your purse [to accept payment] and then open your sack [to give your goods]
  • Better to earn a kav from the ground than a kor from the roof [to make less money but have greater safety]
  • Dates in your storeroom: run to the brewery to sell them
  • Keep up to three se'a of dates
Either Rav pappa or Rav Chisda said, "If I were not a beer manufacturer I would not have become wealthy".  Sudana, Arabic for brewer, means a pleasant secret [sod na'e] and acts of loving kindness.

Rav Pappa:
  • Anything that you acquire through transfer of ownership requires collection
  • Any sale on credit is uncertain and even if it comes to fruition, the money is bad [difficult to collect]
Rabbi Yochanan speaks of the people of Jerusalem:
  • When you go to war, don't go out first - go out last; you will enter the city of refuge fist
  • Better to make Shabbat like a weekday  and not be beholden to anyone
  • Exert yourself to be with one upon whom the hour smiles
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi:
  • Do not indulge  in a shameful act in public because of the incident that occurred [between David and Bathsheva]
  • If your daughter is grown, better that you free your Canaanite slave and give him to her [than let her find a husband on her own]
  • Be careful with your wife with regard to her first son-in-law.  Why? Rav Chisda said because of licentiousness and Rav Kahana said because she might give him your money.  
Ravbi Yochanan says that three people are among those who inherit the World-to-Come:
  • One who lives in Eretz Yisroel
  • One who raises his songs to study Torah
  • One who saves a small amount of wine, even when poor, to recite havdala after Shabbat
also, he said that there are three types of people who are proclaimed as good by G-d each day:
  • The single man who lives in a city and does not sin
  • A poor person who returns a lost object to its owners
  • A wealthy person who tithes his produce in private
Rav Safra's face lit up at this, but he was knocked down by Rava, who explained that this is for other scholars like Rab Chanaina and Rav Oshaya who were cobblers who would not even look up to meet the eyes of the prostitutes in their shop.

The Gemara speaks of three people who are loved by G-d and three people who are hated by G-d:
  • One who does not get angry
  • One who does not get drunk
  • One who is forgiving
  • One who says one thing with his mouth and another in his heart
  • One who knows testimony about another but does not testify for him
  • One who observes a sin but as a single witness does testify [serving only to ruin a reputation]
The Gemara cites instances of this type of incident, and questions whether a Jew is allowed to hate another Jew.  Leviticus 19:17 tells us "you shall not hate your brother in your heart".  The rabbis tell us that it is in fact a mitzvah to hate a Jew who has sinned, for Proverbs 8:33 tells us that The fear of G-d is to hate evil".  The Gemara goes on to discuss whether or not one should share this kind of damaging information with the trangressor's teacher.

The Sages taught that there are three people whose lives are not lives [due to suffering]: the compassionate, the hot tempered, the delicate.  They taught that three groups hate other members of the same group: dogs, rooster and the Persian priests.  And prostitutes.  And Torah scholars in Babylonia.

Is that a joke in the midst of these lists??

Converts, slaves and ravens love each other, for they are humble and fearful.   No one can endure four types of people: an arrogant pauper, a wealthy person who denies monetary wrongs, a lecherous old man, and a leader who uses power over the community with no reason.  And one who divorces his wife once, twice, and then takes her back again.  The Gemara shares some sympathy for this man, stating that he might be stuck in this situation earlier because he cannot afford the ketuba and needs someone there to care for their children.

Canaan commanded his sons with five matters, normal behaviour for slaves: love one another, love robbery, love promiscuity, hate your masters, and do not speak the truth.

I find this last statement fascinating for its lack of insight.  From the 'owner's' perspective, slaves love these things and hate their masters and they lie.  But from the perspective of a person who is 'owned', any sexual behaviour would be judged as promiscuity, and affection for each other as love, any opportunity to get what they need to survive - through robbery, or lying - would be justified.  Could it be that our Sages were so far removed from the experience of being a slave in Egypt that they would judge their own slaves this harshly?

Six matters regarding a horse: it loves promiscuity & war, it's demeanour is arrogant, it hates sleep, it eats much and excretes little.  And it will try to kill its master in war.  

Seven are ostracized by Heaven: a Jew without a wife, one with a wife but no sons, one with sons who are not raised to study Torah, one who does not tefillin and tzitzit, one with no mezuza, one who goes without shoes.  And one who does not celebrate together over a brit.

And a few more things:
  • "You shall be wholehearted with the Lord your G-d" (Deuteronomy 18:13) teaches us not to consult with astrologers.  
  • "Because a surpassing spirit was in him, the king thought to set him over the whole realm" (Daniel: 6:4) teaches that when we know that another person is greater than us in even one respect, we must treat him with respect.
This suggests to me that we must treat every single person with respect, as everyone is better than us at something. 
  • Rabba bar bar Chana tells us that after a woman observes her days of ritually pure blood, she cannot engage in intimacy right away. When is she permitted?  Rav tells us that she must wait a set interval of time for the ritual impurity of niddah - either one day or one night.
Our daf ends with one paragraph regarding many different names for the same Sage.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Pesachim 112 a, b

Although the rabbis attempt to move back to the mishna in question, they cannot seem to stop themselves from talking about demons, superstitions, witchcraft and incantations.

We begin by learning that failing to wash our hands after bloodletting, cutting our hair or cutting our nails will cause us to feel afraid. Touching our nostrils will also cause fear, and touching our foreheads will cause us to sleep. Leaving food and drink, even covered, under the bed will attract demons. Tuesday and Friday nights are dangerous and thus we cannot drink water without reciting psalms, or the names of the demons and an admonishment, or we should perform ritualized actions. We cannot drink from rivers/ponds at night without similar actions.

We return to the mishna for a moment, regarding the four cups of wine given to the poor. Rabbi Akiva suggests that one should treat Shabbat like a weekday to avoid taking charity. This is modified by others - if a person has enough money for one week: 14 meals, s/he need not ask for extra meals on Shabbat. But if s/he is already taking charity, s/he should ask for Shabbat provisions as well. Either way, a person should find a way to make Shabbat special.

And we move back into the realm of clear superstition. Rabbi Akiva told his son, Rav Yehoshua, seven things:

1) don't sit in a high point in a city and study (lest you are interrupted)
2) don't live in a city where the leaders are Torah scholars (lest they spend no time leading)
3) don't enter your house or another's house suddenly (be like G-d, who asked where Adam was in the garden)
4) don't deny shoes to your feet
5) arise early and eat in the summer and be strong to withstand cold in the winter
6) make Shabbat like a weekday and don't be beholden to others
7) put effort into befriending those upon whom the hour shines

Rav Pappa shares advice: Do not buy or sell from another person, but form a partnership with him.

And back to Rabbi Akiva, in jail, when Rav Shimon ben Yochai begged for Akiva to teach him while imprisoned. Rabbi Akiva noted that he was afraid that they would be found out, to which Rav Shimon answered, "will you be reported to the government? [ie. you are already in jail! What more can be done to you?]. Answering: "more than a calf wants to suck, a cow wants to suckle," Rabbi Akiva taught further through metaphors:
  • if you are going to strangle yourself, use a tall tree [ie. when asking about halachot punishable by death, speak with lofty scholars]
  • when you teach your son, teach him from a corrected text
  • do not cook in a pot in which your colleague cooked his food [ie. don't marry the ex-wife of your colleague as she may judge you harshly compared with him, because she may think of him while you are intimate, a no-no]*
  • it is a mitzvah and good for the body to eat fruits without payment, meriting a wife and healthy children

Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi gave his sons four pieces of advice:

1) Do not live in Shechanziv as its people are 'mockers' and will draw you into mockery of Torah
2) Do not sit on the bed of an Aramean woman [meaning do not marry a convert OR say the shema before bed OR learn from Rav Pappa, who had to flee his town when collecting money from a gentile who had him sit on her bed and then accused him of killing her baby, whom she had placed under the bed]
3) Do not avoid paying taxes, for you will lose your assets
4) Do not stand in front of an ox leaving the marsh

Abaye tells us that these things lead to leprosy: hide, fish, cup, water, eggs, white lice. We are given the reasons for each connection. Rav Pappa tells us to wear shoes when entering a home with a cat in it lest we step on bones of a caught serpent. He also tells us to avoid entering any home in the dark, for fear that one could step on a snake. Rabbi Yishmael ben Rabbi Yosei tells us not to inflict a blemish on oneself, not to go up against three people who likely will turn against you, and not to look over a potential purchase with interest. He also instructs us not to be intimate with one's wife for one day following ritual immersion, to ensure that her flow does not continue. Finally, Rabbi Yishmael tells us not to go out alone at night due to demons,** not to stand naked in front of a candle, and not to enter a new bathhouse for a year to ensure that it is a stable structure. And this is where we move into epilepsy.

Apparently the rabbis believed that we can cause and prevent epilepsy in children through our actions. Engaging in intimacy while an infant is in the bed can cause epilepsy. This result can be avoided if one can block the baby from the couple with one's hand, if the baby is at the head and not the food of the bed, or if the baby is over one year old.

The daf ends with two stories, both about a demon who meets up with a Torah scholar and admits to his power. In each case the scholar grants the demons some access to inhabited places - in limited ways, ie. on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

The extent to which our Sages were consumed with beliefs regarding supernatural creatures is fascinating. How can we reconcile these beliefs with our modern understandings of Torah and the supremacy of G-d alone?  We watch our Sages give advice to their children, to each other, and to us.  The incantations used draw upon text, but the superstitions themselves and the majority of their remedies are not at all based on Torah.  How did these concepts manage to get into the Talmud?  They must have been so ubiquitous; such commonly-held beliefs that they were not questions.  As an aside, it is not suprising that women's menstrual blood was part of today's discussion, as it seemed to hold almost magical power.  I hope to read and think more about these concepts over the days and months to come..

* although our notes do not interpret this, we are told that "all fingers are not equal". When marrying a widow, she might compare her new husband to her past husband. But his fingers? I am imagining that this is a euphemism...

** we learn on a side note by Steinsaltz that this had practical implications. Demons were said to be out in force at night, but on Tuesday and Friday nights, people were usually at home anyhow. On Sunday and Wednesday nights, rural folk would walk through the night into town for market days on Mondays and Thursdays. The following nights they would return. Thus Tuesdays and Saturdays could be deemed 'dangerous'.