Monday, 31 March 2014

Beitza 2 a, b

Are we allowed to take an egg from a chicken that has been muktze, set aside (ie. not to be used) on a Festival or on Shabbat? Beit Hillel says no and Beit Shammai says yes.  Usually Beit Shammai is stringent; why is it lenient regarding a chicken and an egg?  

The rabbis wonder whether the egg is part of the chicken and not its own entity.  They wonder whether or not a chicken can be slaughtered on a Festival or Shabbat.  They debate about the status of objects that are created during a Festival or Shabbat.  They compare this situation to one where items on a table might be moved after the fact.  And of course the rabbis remind us of other issues where Beit Hillel is stringent and Beit Shammai is lenient.

Back to the egg.  The rabbis want to understand what we can move, what we can carry, what we can prepare, what we can consume.  We are reminded that we cannot prepare food on Shabbat for a Festival the next day - and vice versa.  An egg moved on Shabbat can't be cooked, of course, because it is Shabbat.  In fact, on Shabbat we are not permitted to use things that have 'fallen' - even a fruit - that same day that it has fallen.  And what if the egg is still in the chicken?  This is very unusual.  We know that halachot are not intended to influence unusual situations, so that egg can be used. 

Our rabbis begin Masechet Beitza with interesting, multi-layered concepts that grab the attention of their students. Although it is not discussed directly, the rabbis touch on the notion of  'being'.  When is an egg a separate being?  When is it part of its mother?  This debate - and a similar debate regarding a woman and her fetus - is openly discussed by our ancient Sages.  Amazing that the depth of modern conversation is so meaningless much of the time.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Sukka 56 a, b

The end of today's daf is worth the entire masechet - well, in terms of my time and energy.

We begin the last daf of Masechet Sukka with a question about blessings.  Which blessings do we recite first, second, last?  And what about on Shabbat?  We learn about a debate between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai over which is said first, the blessing over the day or the blessing over wine.  We know from modern practice that the blessing over wine is said first.  Guess whose argument won?  Beit Hillel, of course.  They argued that the more frequent blessing - the blessing over wine - takes presinecne. They also reasoned that the wine causes the kiddush to be recited; the kiddush is followed by a sanctification o f the day.

I had not known that the ark was not to be left empty.  Instead, the priest on watch would ensure that fruits of the season were sacrificed when there were no other offerings to give.

Our final Mishna of Masechet Sukka is concerned with the watch on Festivals just before or after Shabbat.  Those on watch would either stay late or begin early.  The Mishna ensures that those priests receive their shrewbread which are distributed on Shabbat.  The Mishna states numbers of loaves that are shared.  Only Rabbi Yehuda suggests that the incoming priests take seven loaves and the outgoing take five (when the loaves are distributed on Shabbat).  We learn, as well, where in the Temple this division took place, that the ring used to help with animal slaughter was fixed in place, and that the niche where knives were stored was sealed.

The Gemara seeks to clarify whether or not the watches have equal roles and responsibilities when they serve at different times.  Rev Yehuda's challenge allows the rabbis to discuss a larger question through the particulars of the distribution of shrewbread: how do we compensate people for different work when all roles are valued equally, but some are more important or more time consuming than others?  How do we live with the practice of "equal but different"?  

In feminist analyses of Tanach, much thought has gone into this question.  Perhaps we all have different roles; each is a part of the whole and none is more important than another.  However, why is it that we focus on some roles more than others?  Why do we compensate some roles more handsomely than others?  A traditional response would include the argument that these imbalances are the doing of people, as we are imperfect, and not the intention of G-d.  But we do laud our Sages - and they certainly lauded each other - more than we glorify their mothers, wives, daughters.  If the Sages were biased in their interpretations of G-d's Torah, how can we go against them to create a more balanced and equitable and, perhaps, G-d-like understanding of Torah?

We learn about some of the problems facing our ancestors regarding this watch.  There were 24 families assigned to this duty.  The Bilga watch had a terrible reputation.  That reputation was based either on repeated lateness of some of the family members, or because of Bilga's daughter, Miriam.  The rabbis tell us that Miriam married a Greek soldier and was shunned from the Jewish community.  At some point, she returned and actually kicked at the altar, calling it "wolf, wolf - you consume the property [sheep] of the Jewish people but you do nothing when Jews are facing poverty and homelessness".  The rabbis interpret this as blasphemy, of course.  They wonder whether such words should be blamed on Miriam, her parents, or the entire Bilga family.

Wonderful to end Masechet Sukka with words that allude to a strong tradition of social justice.  Though our rabbis do not praise Miriam for her words - in fact, they do the opposite - those words are evidence of a long line of Jewish women who are not able to quietly accept the notion that people should trust in ritual to enact G-d's justice.  Miriam instead reminds us that there have always been and will always be voices that loudly question the interpretations and practices of those in power.  Why are we giving our hard earned resources to the altar when we are continuing to struggle?

I want to be clear - Miriam criticized the ritual itself.  She was not opposing G-d or the unknown will of G-d.  Miriam opposed a ritual practice that did not lead to the result that it promised.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Sukka 55 a, b

We listen to the voices of our rabbis as they determine which psalms are sung on which days of Sukkot; when the trumpets are sounded.  They use their voices to debate what is said and what is sung and what is played.  It would seem that the experience of rejoicing on Sukkot is facilitated through sound.

The rabbis discuss differences in what should be read on intermediate days verses what should be read on Shabbat.  They wonder how to ensure that we are chanting the appropriate prayers when we might not know which day is which.

Amud (b) begins a new Mishna.  It describes what animals are waiting to be sacrificed over the holiday of Sukkot.  Additionally it teaches us exactly which animals should be sacrificed on which particular days.  It focuses on the watch, the people who rotate shifts caring for and preparing the animals for sacrifice.  The rabbis would like to believe that the rabbis rotate their shifts so that priests can witness different sacrifices.  In particular, the rabbis speak about the sacrifice of bulls.

This conversation makes me wonder about the ease with which these offerings took place.  Seventy bulls are said to have been sacrificed in the Temple when it was standing.  Seventy bulls!  And those are just one animal!  How could this have been accomplished?  Even for the korban Pesach, how would that number of families bring their offerings to the Temple? Surely there would have been chaos, disorder, and mistakes in halachic practice.  Perhaps the notion of sacrifice has always been an idea.  Perhpas our history is not one of ubiquitous sacrifice.

Another Mishna is introduced, this time mentioning the 24 priests who rotate through the Temple services over the course of Sukkot.  It notes that the watchpeople might have been those who distributed food, including the shewbread, over the course of the holiday.  In the Gemara the rabbis want to understand how the watch could be treated equally.  They wonder whether all of the holidays are treated in the same manner, as well.    

It is clear to me that I am missing a step in this argument.  Hopefully tomorrow's daf will help to clarify today's text for me.

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Sukka 53 a, b

We learn more about the Celebration at the Place of the Drawing of the Water for the Sukkot libations.  This was a party.  The light was so bright that women could do their field work in the nighttime.  Hillel the Elder was said to tell people that he was at that party If I am here, everyone is here; if I am not here, who is here?  This is said to mean that we are solely responsible for our actions. 

Further, the rabbis note that Hillel said, "to the place that I love; there my feet take me" and "If you come to My house, I will come to your house; if you do not come to My house, I will not come to your house".  The first statement refers to our own agency.  The second regards Hillel's love for the Temple. G-d will meet us when we look to G-d both in a communal setting and in private settings.

The Drawing of the Water was a time to celebrate.  We are told about some of the levity of our Sages.  The rabbis juggled with knives and fire and wine and eggs before King Shapur 2nd of Persia, who is noted to have had an appreciation of Jewish customs.  We learn that people were encouraged to break oaths immediately and face the punishment (flogging) if those oaths were made in vain.

We are told a story about David as he dug the drainpipe system.  The waters rose from the depths and the people feared drowning.  David asked if anyone knew whether or not it would be allowed to write the sacred name on a shard of earthenware and throw it into the depths, thus stopping the water.  When no one spoke, David threatened them with strangulation. Someone stepped forward and suggested that a similar process was allowed for a suspected sota, and thus it should be permitted in this situation.  The shard was thrown and the water ceased rising.  

In response, David attempted to understand measurements of water and land; he attempted to rebuild the stairs of the Temple.  This brings the rabbis to another story regarding musicians standing on these stairs.  They wonder how to count the stairs: from the bottom to the top or from the top to the bottom?  In addition, they debate whether people face the east or whether their backs face the east - what would be the implications of these interpretations?

A new Mishna teaches us about a communal "clock".  We learn that the shofar was sounded between 21 and 48 times each day.  A certain number of blasts would sound in the morning, in the afternoon, in the evening.  Different blasts would tell people that it was time to ready for Shabbat; that it was time to begin havdala.  The rabbis argue about how many blasts are sounded at different times.  They wonder how many blasts are counted when sounding tekia and terua.  They also wonder about the pauses between blasts; how do we measure these blasts?

I find it almost painful to watch the rabbis debate things like the count of shofar blasts and numbers of stairs.  Does it really matter where each musician stood on the Temple stairs?  Do we truly believe that G-d wants us to replicate these interpretations in order to hasten the coming of Moshiach?  These calculations seem all too human to me.  From what I glean of G-d, which of course is not much, I cannot imagine that G-d would be interested in such petty, meaningless minutiae.  The only important component of this struggle is the notion that we do struggle to know what is wanted by G-d.  In my mind, however, we are destined to get that wrong.  The G-d that I know does not care about minutiae; instead, G-d resonates with peoples' striving for goodness.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Sukka 52 a, b

When the Messiah comes, there will be a great funeral.  What will happen at that great eulogy, the eulogy for the Messiah ben Yoseph or perhaps the eulogy for the yetzer ha' ra, the evil inclination?  First, men and women will be separated.  The rabbis comment on how important it is for men and women to be separated at times of levity, even if the evil inclination is dead.  Second, people will cry.  Why would we cry for the end of the evil inclination?  Because we are sad that we could not overcome such a great mountain of evil.  Or, if we have succumbed to the evil inclination easily, we cry because we were unable to resist something as small as a strand of hair - or a spiders' web.  

In a note, Steinsaltz teaches us about the evil inclination:
  • it has seven names
  • each level of evil is worse than the next
  • it is the source of all evil in a person
  • it conceals the good as the foreskin conceals [the good?]
  • it corrupts pure thoughts in the heart
  • it works purposefully, planning this vengeance
  • it entraps us by using artifice
  • once captured, it is hard to move - like stone
  • it acts stealthily, as it is hidden in our hearts
Interesting that magical thinking is encouraged when it comes to the concept of evil.  None of these characteristics are based on logic or science.  The rabbis go on to find verses in the Tanach that will verify their ideas.  However, I would argue that this understanding of evil is based on metaphor and experience.

The rabbis want to understand why the yetzer ha'ra is so difficult to counter, even for righteous people. Abaye tells a story: he overheard a man and a woman speak about rising early to travel together on the road.  Abaye, sure that they would be overcome by yetzer ha'ra, followed them at some distance to stop them should they begin to sin.  At the end of their journey, having kept the halachot, he overheard them saying that the other was a pleasant travelling partner.  If it had been someone I hate, thought Abaye, referring to himself, he would not have been able to overcome the yetzer ha'ra.  Seeing him despairing on a doorpost, an Elder taught him that one who is a greater person has a greater evil inclination to overcome.

Amud (b) continues to describe the yetzer ha'ra; its strength, its power, its tenacity.  One of the major themes of this conversation is the yeter ha'ra is being within the person. It lives in us and aims to overcome us.  When we allow the yetzer ha'ra even to undermine one tiny part of ourselves, we will be at the mercy of its overwhelming, gradual usurping of our personality.  This will extend beyond the grave; we will continue to face the yetzer ha'ra in the world-to-come.

Rabbi Yochanan quotes Hosea to explain why we should have sexual relations in moderation.  If we have sexual relations frequently, it is as if we are starving "the organ"; it craves even more.  If we have sexual relations infrequently, we are satiated.  Hosea tells us that when G-d gave us food, we ate until we were full - and then we forgot about G-d (13:6).  While this isn't a perfect metaphor, it allows us to understand the rabbis' views on healthy sexual behaviour.

We learn that the rabbis believe that G-d regretted four creations: Exile, Chaldeans, Ishmaelites, and the Yetzer Ha'ra.  How could G-d regret anything?  A note tells us that G-d could not regret anything, but these four creations cause G-d pain.  The yetzer ha'ra is on the list because it leads to the exile of G-d's people, for they were corrupted.  Micah (4:6) hold this prooftext.  I wonder that these other three concepts/peoples are listed as well.  Perhaps these are the four things that the RABBIS regret in G-d's creation.

The rabbis continue to imagine the end of days.  They name four craftsmen (Zecharia 4:3), the seven shepherds and the eight princes (Micah 5:4).  The people chosen are both historical giants, including patriarchs, and more 'modern' leaders, including a great Sage. 

We end the daf by moving back to the Mishna.  In looking at the descriptions of the ladders and the menorah, we learn about the son of Marta.  He had tremendous strength.  A note teaches us that Marta was the son of Baitos, from a prominent wealthy family.  Marta had great influence in her lifetime; she is mentioned in the Talmud!  But we learn that she died of starvation following the destruction of the second Temple in the streets of Jerusalem.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Sukka 51 a, b

Today we learn more about musical instruments/performance as part of the Temple service.  The rabbis want to know who performs this music.  Musicians were thought to have high status; so much so that their daughters could be married to Levites.  Thus could the musicians be slaves, Israelites or Levites?  Most rabbis agree that the essence of the song is found through the voice, and instruments are accompaniment.  They debate who might be elevated through this practice.

It is understood that offerings were accompanied by music.  An interesting thought; libations would be beautiful with music accompaniment.  Animal sacrifices, however, might not be so pleasant.  The rabbis debate about whether rejoicing overrides Shabbat; whether the song of the drawing of the water overrides the Festival of Sukkot.  The Gemara concurs with Rav Yosef: this 'extra rejoicing' in song does not override the Festival nor does it override Shabbat.   

The rabbis look at singing, playing flute, and playing trumpets.  We learn in a note that the flute was played during all Festival days - 12 days each year.  Even if those days were to fall on Shabbat, the flute would be played.  Finally, the rabbis find a number of examples of using the instrument of the voice together as one with other instruments.  

A new Mishna walks us through the Drawing of the Water.  We are given detailed descriptions of that day, including a list of instruments played: the lyre, the harp, the cymbals, the trumpet, and countless other instruments.  A note teaches us that dancing lasts into the night.  Sukkot is a time for rejoicing beyond that of any other Festival - the rabbis seem to understand that at its height, rejoicing involves music.

We learn about what was likely the Temple built by Herod, likely 60 years after the destruction of the second Temple.  It is this Temple that the rabbis describe as they walk us through the Drawing of the Water.  They describe the immense beauty and grandeur of this Temple.  though it held hundreds of thousands of people, the rabbis teach us that Jews would sit in groups based on profession.  A lone person would enter and find his friends, thus ensuing that he would be found a job in that field.  When people could not hear the prayer recited, an officer would wave a flag so that the people would know to say 'amen'.  A note reminds us that we do not say amen to a prayer when we have not heard the prayer - they resolve this dispute, of course.

Finally, we learn more about separated seating for women and men.  We learn that the women and men would laugh and cavort and mingle from their places in this Temple.  After attempting to rectify this situation, the rabbis separated the sexes completely by putting them on completely different floors.  Until today, when men and women are seated on different floors, the women are placed on the upper floors.

Today's daf is filled with interesting facts about music and about synagogue traditions.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Sukka 50 a, b

Were snakes a common danger in Talmudic times?  The rabbis are concerned about water that has been consecrated for use as a libation.  That water is not to be left overnight.  The rabbis wonder about straining the water if it is left for a time uncovered; they ask whether the water can be left if it is covered.  The example used to discuss these possibilities is a snake's venom.  It is noted that venom in water will sink or disperse, while venom in wine will rise to the surface.  Did snakes frequently slither around at night, leaving their venom in vessels of wine or water?  If this is even a possibility, I am reminded at how different peoples' fears must have been at that time. Rather than being bitten by mosquitoes, my ancestors were fearful of snake bites and lurking venom.  Truly terrifying fears.

We begin Perek V with a short Mishna: the flute of the Drawing of the Water (from Siloam) was played for five or six days, depending on when Shabbat fell.  Playing the flute did not override Shabbat nor the Festival.  Steinsaltz teaches us in a note that instruments are not played on Shabbat both because they do not promote the restful environment of the day and because instruments can break and might be fixed on the day of rest.  Additionally he teaches us that flutes were the most significant instruments of this time, either because of their volume in the Temple or because they carried the tune of the Priests.  Music was only part of the sacred service.

The Gemara wonders: what is the primary essence of song? Singing through the mouth? or playing a tune with instruments?  Perhaps the essence of song is singing accompanied by instruments.  The Levites sang through their daily offering.  We are told that only a song that is part of the Temple service would override Shabbat.  The rabbis consider whether the flute, a wooden vessel, is fit or not fit.  We learn that Moses' flute was made with a reed, and wood was chosen as the appropriate vessel for a flute because it allowed for the most pleasant sound.  Other instruments were allowed to be played in the Temple, we are told in a note.

The rabbis move from this conversation about music and musical instruments into one regarding the construction of another item, the menorah.  The rabbis are demonstrating the differences among two hermeneutical principles.  The first is generalizations and details and the second is amplifications and restrictions.  If general statements are generalizations and not amplifications, then the rabbi arguing his point will create logical categories and will use details - specific examples - to prove his point.  If general statements are amplification, however, the rabbi arguing his point will say that the general statement can be applied to many other situations - amplifying the statement - and that the restrictions - specific examples - are used only to limit the generalization.  Thus amplifications are more inclusive tools.

Using these hermeneutical principles, the rabbis continue to discuss the candelabra and the significance of its construction.  

One of my favourite parts of learning Daf Yomi is when I have the opportunity to better understand the hermeneutical principles employed by the rabbis.  Those larger systems of thought and argument are so necessary in understanding the context in which this learning is situated.

Sukka 49 a, b

Amud (a) is brief, teaching us about the physicality of the Altar.  First,  we learn that the altar requires a ramp, a horn, a base and/or the shape of a square to be kosher.  Rabbi Yosei bar Yehuda adds that it requires a completed surrounding ledge, as well.

The remainder of amud (a) looks at the drainpipes of the altar.  When blood, wine and water libations run down from the altar into the Kidron Valley, they pass through drainpipes.  The rabbis suggest that these drainpipes were created as part of the six days of creation.  How could this be?  Looking to the Song of Songs for proof, the drainpipes are compared to images including "The hidden of your thighs",  and "the handiwork of a skilled workman" (7:2).  These metaphors could be referring to the concealed, hollow network of drainpipes/water channels. "In the beginning" (Genesis 1:1) or bereshit could be read as bara sheet, the drainpipes that are connected to the Foundation rock that sits beneath the altar.  The rabbis continue with these metaphors to prove their connection.

We learn that ever so often the young priests would be asked to clean the drainpipes, particularly where the liquid libations would meet the ground.  A note teaches us that those congealed substances would be burned in the Temple courtyard.  The rabbis connect fantastic, other-worldly mysteries to something as mundane as a drainpipe.

But how do we deal with wine that has been consecrated but has not descended through the drainpipes?  Are we misusing consecrated property?

Without solving this dispute, the rabbis turn back to metaphors from the Song of Songs to describe the drainpipe.  Asides from this conversation include the notion that Abraham, as the first convert, is the patriarch who will be surrounded by princes of other nations.  As well, these 'princes' may or may not refer to Abraham's daughter, who was called prince.*

Interestingly, Rav Anan taught that "the hidden of your thighs" is like Torah study done in private.  The thigh should be concealed by clothing and Torah study should be done privately, with modesty.

This takes us on a lovely jaunt with Rabbi Elazar who comments on Micah 6:8: "It has been told you, O man, what is good , and what the Lord does require of you: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your G-d".  Justly: justice.  Mercy: acts of kindness.  Humble walking with G-d: caring for the dead and accompanying a poor bride to her wedding canopy, both of which are done without reward.  Thus giving charity and studying Torah should be all the more so conducted privately.

Rabbi Elazar also teaches that one who performs charity is greater than one who sacrifices all other offerings, for it is stated: "To perform charity and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than an offering" (Proverbs 21:3).  He teaches that Acts of kindness** are greater than charity, as Hosea 10:12 says: "Sow to yourselves according to charity, and reap according to kindness".   When we sow, we may or may not eat.  When we reap, we certainly will eat.  The immediacy of this mitzvah proves its superiority.

More on Rabbi Elazar: the reward for charity is paid according to one's acts of kindness.  We must set our priorities based on the need of the person we are helping.  He tells us that anyone who performs charity and justice has filled the whole world in its entirety with kindness, for "He loves charity and justice; the earth is full of the kindness of the Lord" (Psalms 33:5).  We should leap into acts of kindness.  And for those of us who are "G-d fearing", leaping should be a simple task - going above and beyond our obligations to show kindness.  

The Sages teach that kindness is greater than charity:
1) Charity is done only with money; Kindness can be done with money or with one's self
2) Charity is done for the poor; Kindness is done for the poor and for the rich
3) Charity is given to the living: Kindness is done for the living or for the dead

Rabbi Chama bar Pappa speaks about people who have chain, grace, about them.  These people must be G-d fearing, he reasons, as they are emulating G-d as described in Psalms 103:17, "But the kindness of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear Him".  Rabbi Elazar says that  when Proverbs 31:26 says that "She opens her mouth with wisdom, and a Torah of kindness is on her tongue", it is speaking of Torah studied for its own sake.  Torah studied for an ulterior motive is not of kindness.  Some say that Torah studied in order to teach it to others is also a Torah of kindness.

What an intriguing look at kindness, charity and Torah study.

* An interpretation based on Psalms 47:10, where "O prince's daughter" is referring to "The princes of the peoples are gathered, the people of the G-d of Abraham".

** defined as "helping someone in need"

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Sukka 48 a, b

After establishing that Shemini Atzeret is a Festival unto itself, the rabbis further their arguments.   A new Mishna teaches that Hallel and rejoicing are mandated for eight days, just as they are required on the other days of Sukkot.  And then the Gemara finds further proof texts regarding the observance on the evenings and the direction to rejoice.

A Mishna tells us that the mitzvah of sukka is 7 days.  When we finish eating, we shouldn't take down the sukka immediately.  Instead, we should take down the vessels from mincha (afternoon) on out of respect for the last day of the Festival.  The Gemara  discusses what should be done when this does not apply.  Some people do not have vessels.  Instead, they can light a lamp in the sukka to distinguish the last day from the other days of Sukkot.  But what if the sukka is large and the lamp lighting was already permitted (small sukkot cannot accommodate lamps because of the fire risk, it seems).  The rabbis agree that different vessels can be permitted into the sukka in these cases.  The underlying message is that things should be distinguishable from other Festival days.  Again, we notice our rabbi's concern with creating a barrier between 'this' and 'that'.

Another Mishna, the last of today's daf, teaches us about the water and wine libations of Sukkot.  We learn how to full a golden jug with water from the Siloam pool and to fill two silver basins on the Altar.  Those basins are perforated with 'nostril-like' openings, where one is larger than the other to help regulate the flows of wine and water.  It is permitted to mix the libations - after the fact.  In order to distance themselves from Alexander Yannai, the Sadducee-educated Hasmonean King, who once spilled this water on his feet, the priest must raise one hand as he pours.  Finally, this Mishna teaches that the wine and water are collected and protected earlier for Shabbat to avoid any exposure.

In breaking down these directions, the Gemara begins with the notion of joy.  With joy we draw the water from the Siloam spring.  The rabbis tells stories about two heretics named Sasson, Joy, and Simcha, Happiness.  They fought over which was more important.  When Sasson's name was mentioned first, he found proof for his superiority.  However, Simcha could do the same.   We learn in a note that the rabbis are confused with the placement and meaning of these stories.  Perhaps this is a mockery of the heretics in Isaiah who attempted to appropriate Torah hermeneutics in a grab for power.

I love that we believe that self-referential text is 'post-modern'.  Is the writing of antiquity post-modern, too?

The Gemara clarifies how the priests approach and leave the altar.  Other than the water libation, the wine libation and the bird sacrifice as a burnt-offering, the priests approach from the right, circle the Altar three times, and descend on the left.  In these circumstances, the priests approaches from the southwest corner - where the rite is to take place - and immediately descends the same way.  Steinsaltz teaches us in a note that the circling is omitted to ensure the purity of the wine/water and to ensure that the bird is not overcome by the smoke of the Altar.

Hard to imagine that a bird might be overcome but all of the other animals would not mind the smoke.  Perhaps birds were most difficult to restrain.  Another distasteful reminder about the Temple services.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Sukka 46 a, b

We focus on blessings in amud (a).  Which blessings do we say when we are binding the lulav?  Entering the sukka?  Entering an adjoining sukka?  Why do we say each particular blessing?  Do we say blessings each day; each morning and each evening?

A number of themes wind through these conversations.  One regards rejoicing.  When we celebrate Sukkot, our primary experience is joy.  If our thoughts or feelings are elsewhere, this will affect the efficacy of our blessing and thus the fulfilment of that mitzvah.  Another theme - which is clearly related - is the attempt to understand what we are commanded to do and why (ie. what is G-d's intention) we are intended to do those things.  The rabbis wonder whether or not we should state every blessing separately if we have a number of mitzvot to fulfil at the same time.

The rabbis compare the blessings of sukkot to other blessings.  They speak about which prayers are recited when Jews don tefilin.  They speak about which prayers are recited when Jews witness lit Chanukah candles.  The rabbis present variations of these basic experiences and note which prayers are recited in those situations.  All of this allows them to feel more confident about their numerous halachic decisions regarding the recitation of blessings on Sukkot.

Amud (b) looks at the timing of specific mitzvot: when we are allowed to use the etrog for anything other than the mitzvah?  We are told that the children eat this fruit following the holiday - when is that? The eighth day?  The ninth day if it follows Shabbat?  Does this refer to both adults and children?  And what are we obliged to do (or to refrain from doing) during that time we call twilight, between the sundown and the stars becoming visible?

Rabbi Zeira teaches two fascinating points.  The first advises adults not to give their lulavim to children on the first day of the Festival for reasons associated with legal acquisition.  The second reminds us not to promise something to a child and then break our word, for that teaches children to lie, which is chastised in Jeremiah 9:4.  

The daf ends with thoughts regarding Shemini Atzeret, otherwise thought of as the eighth day of Sukkot.  How does that day differ from the other days of Sukkot? Are we allowed to benefit from the lulav on that day?  We learn that Abaye teaches us to maintain the status of these ritual items on a day that might be miscalculated and actually could be the seventh day of Sukkot.

Again and again I note that the rabbis are demonstrating their attempts to codify, restrict and categorize human behaviour in a complex web of halachot.  Even in a daf like Sukka 46, because of which we are given numerous halachot, the rabbis' focus is as much on creating and maintaining social norms as much as the are about these laws.  Discussion followed by rules does not mean that we follow the rules and forget the process. The bottom line is not necessarily the bottom line.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Sukka 45 a, b

A new Mishna tells how willow branches were part of the Sukkot rituals.  Motza, a town close to Jerusalem, would provide very long willow branches which would stand at the sides of the altar. The branches were tall enough to drape above and over theAltar.  With shofar blasts, people would circle the altar once each day and call out, "HaShem, Hoshia Na! HaShem, HaSelicha Na!" (Psalms 110:25) and possibly more.  On the seventh day of the holiday, the would circle the altar seven times after saying, "it is beautiful for you, Altar", and "To the Lord and to you, altar."  On erev Shabbat, people would place their willow branches in golden pots filled with water to keep the branches from becoming dry.  Rav Yochanan ben Baroka says that we also place palm leaves at the ground by the altar on the seventh day of Sukkot.  Also, on that last day, children take apart their lulavim and eat their etrogim.

Without commenting on all of this Mishna, I must state that the "beautiful for you, altar" smacks of an idolotrous tone not usually found in modern Jewish thought.  To imagine the Altar being complimented; the altar somehow 'hearing' our words sounds as though the altar is somehow godlike.  Highly problematic.  I wonder if this is why Rabbi Elazar follows this immediately with "to the Lord and to you, altar."

The Gemara first explains that Motza is a town that was originally a Roman military colony.  Its name refers to being exempt (motza means 'removed') from the king's taxes.  It goes on to describe the dimensions of the altar and the required length of the willow branches.  A number of rabbis look to a quote about enhancing the joy of this holiday after the first day.  Next, a number of different rabbis teach us that when we use fruits and branches in mitzvot, we fulfil those mitzvot only when the items are positioned in the same direction that they grow.

I finally understand why we flip the etrog and why we hold the lulav in a lengthwise position.  I am going to take note of other rituals that include produce to ascertain whether or not this particular guideline is generalizable.

We move into a bizarre set of statemnets made by Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai.  Apparently in his years of hiding together with his son, Rabbi Elazar, in a cave, Rabbi Shimon had revelatory experiences.  He recounts many ways in which he and his son are two of the world's 36 righteous people.*  Apparently he was respected to such a great degree that the other rabbis did not chastise this behaviour, nor did they discount his assertions.  He states that he can 'see' G-d through a mirror-like partition, just as Moses was said to do.

I'm pleased to see that the rabbis discuss my concern regarding the lauding of the altar as if it were a holy entity.  They resolve this conflict by stating that the statements about the altar and about G-d are distinct and separate enough to satisfy any concern regarding impropriety.

The rabbis examine the requirements of the date palm.  Rabbi Levi shares a lovely analogy.  He compares the Jewish people to a date palm.  The date palm has only one heart; the Jewish people have only one heart, together, that we direct toward our Father in Heaven.

The daf ends with a conversation about why we bless the lulav each day and we bless the sukka only once.  The rabbis share a number of answers.  My preferred response comes from Rabba bar bar Chana who tells that Rabbi Yochanan saw the mitzvah of sitting in the sukka as Torah law for all seven days, with no distinction between the mitzvah in the day time or at night.  The taking the lulav, however, is time bound, and is thus a new mitzvah each day.

*Abaye stated that there are always at least 36 people who greet G-d's glory every day with righteousness.  A note teaches that this number might suggest the existence of a perpetual Sanhedrin court.


Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Sukka 44 a, b

The rabbis compare practices surrounding the lulav and the willow branch.  They focus on the willow branch: its appearance, number and use.  The rabbis look backward to try to understand whether the willow branch must be taken on its own or whether it can be combined together with the lulav.  Do we walk it around the Altar?  Do we wave it?  Do we thrust it to the ground?  They debate about the timing of our Sukkot rituals.  They wonder how the rites of the willow branch were added to our Sukkot rituals to begin with.  This opens a questioning of prophetic influence on rabbinic interpretation. 

A short conversation concerns the rights of those with "physical defects" [sic], ba'alei mumin, and thus the rights of priests with these differences.  Is the rite of the willow branch in fact a time when everyone - truly everyone - can enter the Temple between the Entrance Hall and the Altar?

The inherent discrimination against those whose physical bodies are different from the norm is jarring and upsetting.  We know that these understandings of difference, holiness, appearance and halacha continues to plague more observant communities.  Of course, many Jews find these interpretations and halachot to be offensive and antiquated.  However, not enough commentary has been popularized to help the larger Jewish community integrate the notion that "all bodies are equally capable of approaching holiness".  And our community includes large numbers of people with physical disabilities.  Shame on us.

Finally, the rabbis note a number of halachic decisions that were made in similar ways.  They begin with waving the willow branches without reciting a blessing: this was decided upon based on a story told by one rabbi to another.  They describe a ruling regarding a pious man who wanted to ensure that others were not sinning by benefitting from his olive field during the Sabbatical year.  Through this story, the rabbis know that hoeing is permitted during the Sabbatical year if it is being done to seal cracks and not to maintain trees.   To end these examples, the rabbis share the story of one who walked too far from home on Shabbat and could not find even a small fried fish (salted, breaded and fried in oil and vinegar) on Shabbat.  This proved that one must leave enough time to travel and then prepare sufficient food for Shabbat.

Oh, those rabbis and their stories.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Sukka 43 a, b

While the Temple stands, Jews should take the lulav to the Temple even when the first day of Sukkot falls on Shabbat. We also learn that in modern times, we do not take lulav to the synagogue on Shabbat.  Why would the rabbis allow this carrying on Shabbat in Temple times?  Usually we are not permitted to carry from the private to the public domain on Shabbat, which could easily happen (ie. exiting an eiruv) while walking to the Temple.  In addition, usually we are not permitted to carry beyond four cubits within the public realm on Shabbat.  The rabbis are willing to find reasons to make an exception.  One of these is that our determination of dates might not be correct.  As we know, none of our dates were known for certain, as they relied upon sightings of stars.

What is amazing to me is that the rabbis are willing to consider this particular argument for this particular reason.  What was so important about the act of taking the lulav to the Temple on the first day of Sukkot?  Why were the rabbis willing to break the halachot of Shabbat?  What were they afraid might happen if they insisted that people take lulav at home when the first day of Sukkot falls on Shabbat?

The rabbis elaborate on the Mishna further: the first day as different; those in outlying areas as different, whether or not we need a verse to allow moving the lulav, how different rabbis understand the requirement of taking lulav during the day versus during the night.  One of the concepts used is the principle of verbal analogy, which is explained in a note.  when the same word/phrase appears in two different places in the Torah AND a halacha is stated explicitly regarding one of these instances, the same halacha must apply to the other word/phrase.  Thus verbal analogies apply to linguistic similarities rather than similar concepts.  They must be based on ancient tradition - we cannot create new verbal analogies today.

Does this apply to the halacha of residing in the sukka during the day versus during the night, as well?  The rabbis attempt to apply the same verbal analogy and discuss where it works and where it does not work.

So many rules and principles and guidelines to help us understand the intentions of the Torah.  And yet so many of those structures are created by people.  We like to believe that G-d gave us hints toward understanding the Torah.  Why would it take this much work to find G-d's intended patterns?  How do we know that we found the 'true' intentions?  As I have mentioned numerous times, it seems more than likely that the creative human spirit has found a treasure trove in Torah; a puzzle to be solved.

Most of amud (b) is devoted to understanding why we are to break the laws of Shabbat to carry the willow branch around the altar for seven days.  The basic reasons:

  • Torah law overrides rabbinical halachot regarding Shabbat
  • we should publicize this Torah law
The rabbis wonder what is different about the willow branch and the lulav.  They question whether carrying the willow branch simply coincides with Shabbat or whether it in fact overrides Shabbat.  They wonder whether we did not march with the willow branch at all; perhaps we placed it standing against the altar.  This would break no halachot of Shabbat.  Then the rabbis argue about whether we circle the altar with the willow branch or with the lulav.

Attempting to solve this dilemma, Abaye tells of the Boethusians (said to be a sect that disagreed with rabbinical authority, like the Sadducees), who would hide the Jews' willow branches under stones near the altar, causing ignorant Jews to break the halachot of Shabbat by lifting the stones on Shabbat to retrieve their branches.  Interestingly, Steinsaltz shares a note: scholars have discounted this possibility, as Boethusians would not know the halachot of lifting on Shabbat.   How telling that Jews would suggest such malintent.  

This reminds me of today's Jewish community that is continually looking for those who are trying to do us in.  Of course there is true anti-semitism in the world and we are at risk as a small people.  However, we are speaking about different sects of Jews - those who follow rabbinical law and those who interpret Judaism differently.  Just like the Orthodox and the Reform of today.  To tell a story about a group of people as if it were truth; to discredit another group of Jewish people -- this is something special that we Jews have done to each other for thousands of years.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Sukka 42 a, b

Continuing their discussion of taking the lulav, our Sages wonder how to measure the mitzvah of taking.  When can we say that we have fulfilled the mitzvah - as we pick up the lulav?  And what of an error?  Other errors are discussed.  Is one exempt from performance of a mitzvah if there has been an error?

The notion of beginning and ending an action is part of a larger, recurring conversation about boundaries between 'this' and 'that' in the Talmud.  How do we define when one action starts and another ends?  And what are the ramifications of those boundaries?

A new Mishna teaches us that a woman can receive the lulav from her husband or son.  She can also return it to the water where it rests between uses.  She can add fresh water or change the water for the lulav on the Festival.

Our Gemara notes that once the lulav has been taken on Shabbat, it is no longer set aside - thus a woman can take it as well.  And once that action is permitted on Shabbat, the other actions are also allowed (changing water, etc.).  This helps to counter the argument that women are only allowed but not required to take the four species.

The rabbis choose to pay close attention to a related Mishna that tells us that once a child can wave a lulav, he is obligated to do so.  They further that argument, reminding us that he must say the first verse of the Shema once he can speak, that he must be bought tzitzit once he can keep them properly, that he must be given a talit katan once he can wrap himself in clothing, and that he is permitted to take pure food once he understands how to protect his hands from ritual impurities.  Our notes teach more specifics about these customs.  While all communities institute these requirements by the age of 13 and one day, many begin the training much earlier.  It is customary to begin teaching the Hebrew aleph-bet, for example, at age three.

We then learn that we are allowed to eat the meat that is properly slaughtered by a minor, as long as it is supervised by an adult.  In addition, we must step back 3-4 cubits from a minor's urine or feces before praying or reciting Shema.  When?  Once a child is able to eat an olive bulk of grain in the same amount of time taken for an adult to eat a half-loaf of bread (thought to be 3-4 egg bulks or 3-9 minutes).  Finally, if the minor can eat an olive bulk of roasted meat and can determine what is edible (the example provided is when a child throws away a pebble but chooses to eat a nut).

There is a huge amount of information packed into this daf - so far!
Some of the points I would highlight:

  • fathers held the obligation of teaching their sons religious ritual practice, animal slaughter, academics, dressing, some bathing, and some feeding.
  • fathers were expected to be aware of their sons' minute developmental changes 
  • children did not put pebbles in their mouths (that example is surprising to me!)
  • a loaf of bread was small - think about the size of 6-8 eggs
  • the four species were kept in water to keep them from spoiling (not a familiar custom to me)
  • Prayer and reciting Shema are so holy that they cannot be done close to urine or feces (a reminder from Masechet Berachot)
The end of amud (b) begins Perek IV.  Most of amud (b) is a new Mishna followed by the beginning words of Gemara.  We learn that the lulav and the willow branch are taken either six or seven days (depending on whether or not Sukkot falls on Shabbat).  The full hallel with water libation is said for the seven days of Sukkot and for the Eighth Day of Assembly, Shemini Atzeret.  The water libation is offered on the Alter for seven days, and the flute is played in teh Temple for five or six days, depending on when Shabbat falls.  This adds to the enjoyment of Sukkot.

Our Mishna continues, explaining that Shabbat lengthens the Festival by a day if the first day falls on Shabbat.  The rabbis question the practice of bringing lulavim to the Temple and leaving them there.  Just imagine, all of these lulavim on a bench, with hundreds of people fighting to identify which ones were theirs!   How could this work?  Fights would break out!  In fact, one note tells us that Alexander Yannai was pelted with etrogim, leading to a massacre, when he was in power.  Another note suggests that different practices regarding carrying the lulav was thought to create barriers between different Jewish communities.  Finally, we learn in a note that at some times in history it has been dangerous to identify oneself through carrying the lulav.

The Gemara begins by clarifying why we are not allowed to take the lulav on Shabbat.  We are only moving it, after all.  In fact this prohibition represented a fence drawn around moving the lulav, lest we ask for direction on waving it on Shabbat, which is not allowed.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Sukka 39a, b

It is confirmed that we recite our blessings before we perform a mitzvah.  Even so, the rabbis argue whether or not this is the case regarding the mitzvah of lulav.

A new Mishna helps us with a halachic question.  If we buy a lulav from an am ha'aretz during a Sabbatical year, the seller throws in the etrog free of charge.  This is because we are not permitted to buy or sell Shevi'it, Sabbatical-Year produce.  My immediate questions: wouldn't the sellers jack up the price of the lulav on Sabbatical years to cover their losses on etrogim?  And why does this apply specifically to the am ha'aretz?  Is this because they might not know the laws and thus a reminder?  Let's see what the Gemara has to say.

I was close in my guesses.  Not sophisticated enough, of course, but moving in the direction of the rabbis.  They ask, what if a seller does not wish to give the etrog as a gift?  The answer?  Raise the price of the lulav to incorporate the cost of the etrog.  And why go through this farce?  Because we are unsure whether the am ha'aretz will appropriately guard the halachot of Sheviit.  Interestingly, am ha'aretz are permitted to sell enough food to purchase three meals with their earnings.  This would imply that the rabbis were helping regular people to have enough substenance to survive over Shabbat.

Some rabbis argue that fruit from fields that were safeguarded over Shevi'it were not to be used.  Those who harvested the fields declared 'ownerless' would be paid on Shevi'it, but only for the harvesting and not for the cost of the produce itself.  Some rabbis say that we can eat fruit from fields declared 'ownerless'.  Others believe that we could eat fruit from fields safeguarded by Gentiles only.

Rav Sheshet wonders about the fruits not subject to Shevi'it.  Why should we have to pay only three meals worth of money to someone who has harvested food that is ownerless?  There is a question as to whether or not these particular foods are capable of sustaining life.  To understand sustenance as a concept, the rabbis turn to our understandings of manna.

Finally, the Gemara wonders why we do not treat the purchase of lulav with the same scrutiny?  This launches a conversation about when different types of food are considered to be Sabbatical produce.  Etrogim take a long time to grow and then ripen.  They grow from rainwater enhanced by irrigation.  They can grow at any time of year and not in limited seasons.  Finally, they do not fall to the ground - the must be picked.  In the end, the status of the etrog is determined at the time of picking the fruit from its tree. The lulav, in contrast, is said to have grown in the sixth year rather than the seventh.

In which ways is the etrog like a vegetable?  This conversation is opened at the end of our daf.

Did regular people, the am ha'aretz, benefit from the Shevi'it?  Or did they resent this requirement of extra work, uncertain income and the potential drama of these changes?

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Sukka 38 a, b

How should we shake the lulav?  Different Jewish traditions have moved in different directions.  All agree that the shaking motion is pushing away evil forces in the world - wind and dew that is harmful.  But some believe that we should pull it back and forth; others, as I've learned through the Ashkenazi tradition, believe that it should be shaken as well.

An aside - Rav Acha bar Ya'akov would say, "this arrow in the eye of Satan" while shaking the lulav.  Others criticized him for attracting Satan's attention. Further, how dare Rav Acha bar Ya'akov state that his actions are affecting Satan?  G-d's intervention is the action that matters.  In fact, only someone as comfortable with magic as this rabbi could say something so overreaching.  No one else should model after him, they assert.

A new Mishna teaches that one is coming along the way and has no lulav, he should take the lulav before he does anything else.  We learn about the timing of taking lulav, too.  If he has not taken lulav, he can take it in the afternoon - we are permitted to fulfil the mitzvah of lulav at any time of the day.

The Gemara clarifies.  Does one interrupt his meal to take the lulav?  Or does one not interrupt the meal, for one can take the lulav at any time?  Rav Safra concludes that both are correct: when there is opportunity to take lulav after the meal, there is no need to interrupt one's eating.  Rava suggests that there is no difficulty, as the halacha to take lulav is Torah law, but the timing of taking the lulav in the afternoon is rabbinical.  With Rav Zeira, they continue this argument.  Perhaps we are speaking about the day of the Festival.  Are all days requiring the same halachot?

Another Mishna: hallel should not be repeated word for word after hearing a Caananite slave, a woman or a minor.  "May a curse come to him", it says!  When an adult male recites hallel, it is necessary to repeat only 'Halleluya' after each phrase.  The minhag or custom of the land is the law, and so one should recite a blessing before hallel if that is the minhag.

The Gemara tells us that a son may recite a blessing on behalf of his father; a slave on behalf of his master; a woman on behalf of her husband.  However, the Sages say "May a curse come to a man whose wife and children recite blessings on his behalf due to his ignorance".   We can see the entrenched patriarchal system; we watch the sexism become entrenched as we read.  Still, today, men will look to these words to justify why women cannot recite blessings in a leadership capacity.  We should take note: the curse comes to a person when he has his wife/children recite blessings for him due to his ignorance.  Thus if a man knows this halacha and still wants his wife to recite the blessings, should this too be reason for a curse?

Amud (b) looks more closely at hallel and different community customs around it.  Often we are told that we should respond to "Halleluya" (Psalms 113:1) by repeating that same word/verse.*  Other phrases spoken by the prayer leader are not repeated but requisite responses are listed.  We learn that  a person who hears a passage [and then responds to it] is equivalent to the person who spoke the passage.
 Certainly this is connected to our practice of reciting "amen" following prayers.

The remainder of today's daf considers various proofs. They seem to concur that if we cannot respond "amen" after hearing a prayer, it is enough to think about the meaning of that prayer.  The rabbis think about whether hearing is more powerful than reading - and it would seem to be so, as the proof texts chosen all look at situations when a prayer is heard rather than read.

Our last piece of learning is shared by Rava.  He teaches that there are times when we do not repeat the verse read aloud.  For example, when we hear "Blessed is the one who comes", we should respond with the rest of the verse: "in the name of the Lord".  This suggests to me that one complete idea can be repeated; two ideas in one verse must be stated in its entirety.  But perhaps my interpretation is wrong.  Steinsaltz reminds me to put G-d first: when a verse contains G-d's name, we cannot split that verse; take G-d's name in vain.

* and other verses, like  "Hodu l'hashem, ki tov", Thank the Lord for He is good (Psalms 118:1), "Hashem, hoshia na "(Lord, please save us and "Hashem, hatzlicha na" (Lord, please grant us success) -- both from Psalms 118:25).

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Sukka 37 a, b

What about the lulav?  We have spent lots of time on different species but we have not thought about the halachot surrounding the lulav itself - well, not yet.  In amud (a), the rabbis consider which ways we should hold the lulav.  First they speak about roofing for the sukka again - they discuss whether to boards used to build the roof must be made of one of the four species.  But then they focus in on the lulav: do we leave room for a hand to hold the lulav directly when we bind it?  Or perhaps we should not touch the lulav with our hand at all.  They wonder about other instances where we do not directly touch something sacred, including water for sanctification - and the Torah itself.  Their consideration includes a discussion of trees, their heights, blessings, enticing aromas and our wilful appetites, and how we hold the species to reinforce our respect for the lulav.

A new Mishna teaches about when we should wave the lulav during Hallel.  "Thank the Lord for he is good" and "Lord please save us", as Beit Hillel suggests?  Or perhaps "Lord please grant us success", as Beit Shammai teaches. Rabbi Akiva decides that "Lord please save us" (Hoshia na) wins out, as he observed both Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehoshua waving their lulavs only during that verse with all of the people taking that cue.

Why waving, asks the Gemara?  Because 29b teaches that the lulav must have at least three handbreadths - enough to wave it.  Where would they wave it?  The rabbis turn to other Masechtot to better understand how to wave the lulav.  Masechet Menachot 61a teaches about waving by the altar on Shavuot.  And Exodus 29:27 teaches that waving includes upward and downward motions.

The rabbis use this opportunity to suggest different meanings that underpin the act of waving.  Perhaps it is affirms G-d's power over all of the directions; Heaven and earth (Rabbi Yochanan).  Perhaps we request that G-d put a stop to the harmful winds from to and fro; the harmful dew from above and below.

Our rabbis use proof texts from halachot developed by other rabbis.  The circular nature of the Talmudic reasoning is both frustrating and fascinating.  

Monday, 10 March 2014

Sukka 36 a, b

We continue learning about the etrog.  What kinds of damage can the etrog endure and still be part of the mitzvah of lulav?  What blemishes or problems inside of the etrog will cause it to be unfit?  The rabbis look at factors including holes, cracks, splits, piercings, liquefication,* swelling, spoiling, pickling, boiling, colouring,** blanching, size and shape, and state of ripening.  Each of these is detailed and argued to determine the fitness of the etrog.  Every year when I buy an etrog, I look at it, bring it to my nose to inhale its unique, serene aroma, and I admire its physical shape and texture.  I had no idea what had already gone on with my etrog: someone had examined it for all of the listed factors to ensure its halachic fitness.  I wonder how many etrogim are discarded every year.  Are they composted?  Made into jam? 

Some of my questions about yesterday's daf were explained in today's learning.  I was not clear on how the rabbis were able to use tithing and related practices to determine the fitness of etrogim.  Today I learned from Abaye that tithing is applied to things that grow from the ground, which were determined to be fruit.  An etrog that is too young or too small or green in colour might not be considered fruit at all.  It is not 'beautiful'.  And if it is not a fruit, it cannot be tithed.  I know that I am still missing information about how this works, but it was fun to put together these particular puzzle pieces.

Amud (b) takes these considerations further.  We cannot purposefully use a mold to shape an etrog into another shape and use that etrog for our mitzvot.  The etrog must look like an etrog.  But what does that mean, to look like an etrog (I am reminded of Plato's forms).  And although an etrog that is missing a small portion because of a mouse is unfit until that section is removed - because it is repulsive - Rabbi Chanina would take a bite from his etrogim and then use them for the mitzvot.  The rabbis enjoy debating about how this was possible.  Did he have many etrogim?  Did he interpret the halachot differently?  

In order to understand one of the rabbis' debates regarding etrogim, we learn about another debate.  What is interesting to me is not the debate but the learning about societal norms that comes from this debate.  On Shabbat, apparently our halacha allows us to carry three stones (they debate about the size of those stones) with us when we go to the bathroom.  We are permitted to break the Shabbat requirement 'not to carry' in order to preserve human dignity.  So we learn again (this was also detailed in Masechet Shabbat) how people cleaned themselves after defecating.  But using only stones sounds both ineffective - and painful!  

We conclude today's daf with a Mishna: Rabbi Yehuda teaches that we should bind the lulav only with one of the four species.  Rabbi Meir counters that string and even gold rings were used to bind the lulav.  However, one of the species was also used as binding in these circumstances.

Rava extends Rabbi Yehuda's ruling to include the trunk of each tree.  If we use another substance, we are carrying more than the four mandated species.  He goes on to teach that this argument is connected with the construction of the sukka.  Should we only use the four species to construct the roof of the sukka, as well?

Thinking about the binding of the lulav, I cannot quite picture the material used.  Certainly it is a natural fibre, though.  I can picture the casing that holds the four species.  It is a long, rectangular basket woven of what must be leaves from the palm tree.  But I am imagining that those leaves are treated somehow.  Perhaps I'm wrong... and I am not sure at this point whether I will look this up or whether I'll have to wait for next Sukkot to find out.

*the rabbis compare etrogim that are fine on the outside but liquefied on the inside to animals' lungs that have been damaged to the point of liquefication.  They discuss some of that halacha, which includes examining the bronchial to determine whether they are intact.

**if an etrog is dark, it might be called a Kushite etrog.  The theory is that etrogim in Kush were darker than average etrogim.  If all etrogim are darkly hued, they are fit.  If they are extremely dark, they are unfit.

Sunday, 9 March 2014

Sukka 35 a, b

We begin with the Gemara of yesterday's Mishna regarding which etrogim are fit.  Are beautiful fruit those fruit that look pretty?  The rabbis guess that a beautiful fruit refers to a fruit that tastes similarly to its trunk.  The etrog meets this standard, as does the pepper tree (black pepper).  However, the pepper fruit is tiny and thus at least two or three fruits would be required to meet the required size - but we have been told to use one fruit only.  The rabbis wonder if the fruit was not intended to be hadar, beautiful, but another similar word.

The rabbis move into a complex conversation regarding the status of the etrog and its fitness as a consecrated object.  The are are concerned about whether we are discussing etrogim of second tithe, whether we are discussing an etrog of orla - and whether or not they have any monetary value.  They wonder whether or not they can use the taking of challah - based on the matzah, bread of affliction - as an analogy.  I am not fully clear about these particular details.   I understand the rabbis' reasoning, but the concepts that they are assuming we have mastered are still challenging for me.

If an etrog is of impure terumah, it is unfit because we are not permitted to eat it.  The rabbis name a number of ways that the etrog might become impure.  If an etrog is of second tithe in Jerusalem, it is fit. Regarding the blemishes on the exterior of the fruit, the rabbis discuss exactly which blemishes they are discussing.  They continue to be concerned about the physical beauty of the fruit.  We are taught about many possible blemishes and when the etrog is deemed fit.

Today's daf was a combination of very familiar halachot and extremely alien concepts.  It is both intriguing and frustrating to engage with a text that draws me in and immediately block me out.   I can't put the responsibility for this on the text, though - this is about my learning and my lack of knowledge.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Sukka 34 a, b

The rabis discuss the arvei, the willow branches of the Sukkot.   The word arvei is plural, argues Aba Shaul, so what are the roles of the willow branches?  The willow branch is referenced a number of times: that placed together with with the lulav, of course; that which is brought separately from the lulav to the Temple on Sukkot; that which of the halacha of the ten saplings (which are protected on the days leading up to the Sabbatical year to save those young plants); and that used with the water libation on the Altar on each day of Sukkot.

The rabbis wonder if the willow plant is the same tree that is "placed by great waters".  They debate the edging of the leaves and attempt to determine which willow leaves are fit.  The rabbis also debate whether or not a willow and a tzaftzafa are the same plant.  And did the tzaftzafa become known as the chalfata?  

The rabbis are intrigued by this possible change of name.   For example, Babylonia was also known as Bursif in different generations.  What are the halachic implications of such a change?  They examine this question in a number of other contexts.  They note that it is of particular importance that we do not change the name of places.  Why?  Because a woman's get, or divorce contract,  requires the name of the bride's town.  And if her get is invalid because the town's name has changed, she cannot legally remarry.  

A new Mishna in amud (b) tells that Rabbi Yishmael said: the mitzvah of the four species is to combine three myrtle brances, two willow branches, one lulav and one etrog.  The myrtle branches are fit whether or nto the top of one is severed.  Rabbi Tarfon teaches that even if the tops of all three are severed, it is fit.  Rabbi Akiva siad that there is one lulav and one etrog; one myrtle branch and one willow branch. 

The Gemara tries to make sense of these different opinions.  The rabbis argue about whether or not we can assume that we know how to deal with one of the species just because we have instruction about how to manage another.  They argue about the number of branches required and the state of those branches. They even argue about who's argument is more lenient and whether the community requires education - particularly in the marketplace, where sellers could take advantage of people's ignorance.

In his commentary, Steinsaltz notes that there is some debate regarding whether or not additional branches can be added to the lulav to enhance its beauty.  Certainly we are prohibited from adding a fifth species, for that would be adding to the mitzvot.  But to create larger bundles could also ensure that more people participate in a proper mitzvah (including the blessing, which can be recited only if the branches are fit -- more branches would lead to a greater likelihood of fit branches).  

Our daf ends with a final new Mishna.  An etrog is unfit if it is completely dry (using a needle to measure moisture) or if it had been stolen; if it was from an asheira (tree used for idolatry) or an idol-worshipping city.  An etrog is unfit if it is picked within the first three years of its tree's growth and if it is of impure terumah - or otherwise questionable status.  In this last case, though, Beit Hillel deem it fit. In Jerusalem, one cannot take such an etrog ab initio - but it is fit, regardless.

The Mishna gives us more detail.  The etrog is unfit if the majority of it is blemished.  It is unfit if the pitom is missing, if it is peeled, split, pierced or is missing anything (but what about that needle-test??).  Blemishes on the minority of the fruit; missing stems; pierced without anything missing from the fruit (ahhh...) - these are fit.  But Kutim etrogim, leek green etrogim, those that are smaller than an egg bulk - these are unfit.  No etrog is too large to be fit.

What detail!  What rigour!  How happy am I that I count on somebody else to ensure that my lulav is fit!

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Sukka 32 a, b

Amud (a) is devoted to the fitness of the lulav.  Is it bent?  Where? How much?  Is it curved?  In which direction? Is there a central twin leaf? If so, has it been removed?  Is it bound?  Are we examining one leaf or multiple leaves?  There are specific rules regarding the fitness of the lulav suggest the rabbis had significant expertise in palm leaves.

The rabbis comment on the Mishna's statement that leaves from the palms of the Iron Mountain are fit.  Apparently, south west of Jerusalem is a valley where smoke rises between two palm trees.  That smoke is thought to be the entrance to Gehenna.  A note by Steinsaltz teaches us that this valley was called the valley of ben Hinmon; this is the source of the word 'gehenna'.  It is believed that in ancient times, Molech, the Canaanite god, was worshipped there.  That worship may have involved child sacrifice.  Understandably, this knowledge may have evolved into the idea of a site or source of hell.

We then enter a discussion regarding the height of different leaves.  This argument might determine that a lulav from the Iron Mountains is in fact unfit.  The rabbis argue about heights of the lulav, the myrtle branch and the willow branch.  When Rabbi Tarfon makes a statement that Rava believes is erroneous, he says "May his Master forgive Rabbi Tarfon". How humiliating!  But an interesting way to insult or disagree with another scholar's arrogance.

We end the daf with a new Mishna: a myrtle branch that was stolen or dry; that is of an asheira or a city incited to idolatry; that is severed at the tops of at the leaves; that has more berries than leaves is unfit.  One can pick off the berries, but only before the Festival begins.

The Gemara wonders whether the myrtle is the dense-leafed tree mentioned in Leviticus 23:40.  I wonder whether the rabbis craved the outdoors; they studied indoors all day and much of the night. Perhaps this opportunity to discuss the natural world was cherished and prolonged.  It seems bizarre to discuss such simple things at such great length.  If the leaves are bent, it isn't kosher.  What's to discuss?  But clearly our Sages were interested in the ways that trees grew.  They were interested in the way that the natural world provided proof of G-d's intentions as described in the Torah.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

Sukka 31 a, b

Is a stolen sukka fit for use by the robber?  The rabbis argue about the section of our Mishna that describes a stolen sukka or sukkot roofed with stolen wood.  Rabbi Eliezer deems such a sukka unfit, while the rabbis deem it fit.  We walk through a debate about how one can steal a sukka.  Through this, I learn that land cannot be stolen.  I also learn that often we think of items as being borrowed rather than stolen.  And although a stolen sukka should not be fit, the rabbis seems to go to some effort to allow those who 'squat' in another's sukka to have fulfilled the mitzvah.

We leann that an old woman sat in Rav Nachman's court, complaining that the Exilarch stole her wood to build his sukka, and thus the sukka is hers.  Rav Nachman does not listen to her, and so she screams, how dare you not listen to me?!  I come from a wealthy, influential family - we owned over 300 slaves!  You must listen to me!"  Rav Nachman told the Sages that she was a woman who screamed, but that she was owed only the monetary value of the stolen wood.

The rabbis move on from here to discuss the value/exchange of one of the larger beams.  For me, this old woman's complain demonstrates an interesting juxtoposition of connected issues.  She is demanding to be heard as a woman of means.  This suggests that she had reason to believe that social status could influence decision-making.  She was denied  her request, though she spoke of her entitlement.  However, she was also a woman and she had been wronged, two experiences that might suggest a more vulnerable experience of the world.  At the end, the rabbis ignore her and at the last moment, offer her a ride home.   The intersection of class, sex, volume, advocacy skills, vulnerability, wealth and victimhood are all examined in this one story.

Now the rabbis consider the dry lulav.  The lulav should be beautiful, just like the etrog, right?  Perhaps not.  Perhaps both are meant to be visually pleasing, but independently of each other.

And our daf ends with a discussion about the etrog.  How large must it be? How small?  We know that it must be beautiful, but how do we define beauty beyond "not dry"?  What should we look for in its colour and leaves?  These larger questions about beauty are fascinating.  So often we equate beauty with what is seen as 'a healthy shell' - but truly, the think perfectly flawless people that we think of as beautiful are not healthy at all.  They are made up and computer-edited and simply 'thin'.  Do we know whether or not they are "too dry" on the inside?

Not my most eloquent metaphor, but hopefully the point is clear:  our rabbis struggle with how to define beauty just as we do.  Inner beauty versus outer beauty applies to many parts of our lives.