Thursday, 31 July 2014

Megilla 21 On Public Readings

Before beginning Perek II, the rabbis complete their explanations of why certain practices are done any time during the day and others are performed any time during the night.  Part of this conversation includes why we eat the afikomen before midnight at the Pesach seder.  The afikomen represents the paschal lamb, which was to be sacrificed during the night.  The rabbis have us eat the afikomen before midnight to ensure that it is eaten before sunrise.  Talk about a creating a fence!

Perek II begins with a Mishna about public readings.  First, we learn that the Megilla may be read from a standing or sitting position.  Next, we learn about public Torah readings. 

On Mondays and Thursdays during the morning service:

  • and on Shabbat in the afternoon service
  • three people read from Torah
  • no more or fewer
  • do not conclude with a reading from Prophets
On Rosh Choesh and intermediate days of Festivals,
  • four people read from Torah
  • no more and no fewer
  • do not conclude with a reading from Prophets
  • the person beginning (at the start) and the person ending (at the conclusion) the readings should recite blessings
  • the middle person should not recite blessings
A principle:
  • On any day where there is an additional offering AND is not a Festival,
  • ie. chol hamo'ed days and Rosh Chodesh,
  • four people read from Torah
  • on Festival days five people read from Torah
  • on Yom Kippur six people read from Torah
  • on Shabbat, seven people read from Torah
  • no fewer people can read but additional readers are permitted
  • conclude with a reading from Prophets
  • the person beginning and the person ending the readings give blessings, but the middle people do not give additional blessings
A note reminds us that we read from one scroll on Shabbat unless there is an additional portion read, in which case we use two Torah scrolls.

The Gemara begins with a discussion of standing versus sitting where reading Torah.  Standing is a sign of honour, but it can be difficult to do.  The rabbis turn to examples from our ancestors.  It is noted that Moses stood while studying easy material and sat when studying more difficult material.

Regarding how many people can recite the Megilla or the Torah aloud, the rabbis share different ideas. It seems that they want to ensure that we hear the Torah being read by one individual voice.  The Megilla, however, is more 'popular', and the rabbis are not concerned that people will not hear it even if they listen to ten voices at the same time.  

The rabbis wonder about how and what we hear, too. We learn that the Torah reading can be translated to other languages so that congregants can understand. But the reading should be in Hebrew as well, and the translator(s) should be quieter than the Torah reader.

The Gemara explains which blessings we should recite before and after reading the Megilla.  Following these blessings, our rabbis justify why sometimes we have three readers and sometimes more.  They also wonder why and how we should be dividing the verses (at least ten) that will be read.  They look to the roles of Jewish people (Kohanim, Leviim, Yisraelim) and to the sections of the Torah (Pentateuch, Prophets, Writings).  They look to the Ten Commandments and to the ten utterances with which the world was created. 

Among their continued deliberations is a change to the Mishna's direction regarding blessings before and after readings.  In case a person enters the service without having heard a blessing, it is necessary that the blessings be repeated between readers/portions.  

Today's daf has been particularly illuminating for me because it answers questions that I have wondered about for years.  In fact, I even asked my rabbi about these questions, but I did not know enough to know how to ask. My question: why do we have this tradition of seven readers on Shabbat?  Why do we say the blessings that we say - when we say them? Why does this change, depending on the holiday or day of the week?  The answer, "it is written in the Talmud", had not left me satisfied.  What I wanted to know was exactly what I read today: when was it suggested, why was it said, who debated these decisions and on what grounds, and how can I find the source?  How thrilling to find so many answers in one daf!

This is why I wanted to study Talmud.  Not to find the answers to a few questions, but to find the deeper sources and the development of my traditions.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Megilla 20 Any Time of Day/Any Time of Night

The rabbis add to their dispute about whether or not a person who is deaf can recite the Megilla (and be heard by others to meet their obligations to hear the Megilla).  They move back to the example of the Shema.  The Shema is to be heard and spoken because of its wording, "Hear O Israel...".  However, Rabbi Meir believes that the Shema does not need to be spoken aloud, for the following phrase from Deuteronomy (6:6) are "(and these words) that I command you today shall be in your heart...".  Because the "words"of the Shema go after the intent of the heart, hearing is not required; the words need not be spoken aloud; people who are deaf can lead this prayer.  This is followed by another example of people who are deaf fulfilling mitzvot that - by the letter of the law - are not obliged.

Contrary to this example, we learn that minors are not exempt from their exemption!  Rabbi Meir argues about minors doing the mitzvot of terumah based on his own experience.  Through this example we learn another principle: one cannot teach a proof text based on his own experience.

A new Mishna teaches that certain acts must occur after daybreak - before sunrise but after the first light of sun:

  • read the Megilla
  • perform a circumcision
  • immerse in a mikvah
  • sprinkle water of purification (regarding ritual impurity due to contact with a corpse)
  • immerse in a mikvah following two days non-bleeding for every one day of menstrual bleeding

The Gemara walks us through each of these requirements, providing prooftexts as they go.

Of particular interest is the rule regarding women's immersion.  Why are these women not 'covered' by the first guideline regarding immersion?  The rabbis suggest that this extra reminder is necessary because women have to remember to count their days without bleeding without counting half-days, as might happen for a man who is a zav.  Zavim are able to immerse the same day that they witness discharge in certain situations; this is never the case for women who have menstruated.

Amud (b) explains the last  guideline in our Mishna: if one does these things after daybreak, they are valid.  The Gemara discusses our understandings of day and night, based on the verses in Genesis 1:5.  G-d called the light day means that becoming lighter means daytime.  And the darkness He called night means that which becomes darker and darker is called night.  But wouldn't that mean that night would be any time after sunset?  How could this be when we know that we require three stars to be seen before we call the evening 'night'?  The rabbis turn to teachings of Rabbi Zeira to help confirm that 'daybreak' has the same meaning as 'day'.

We are introduced to another new Mishna.  If something is allowed during the day, it is allowed at any time of day.  If something is permitted at night, it is allowed at any time of night.

Daytime, any time, is also appropriate for 

  • reading the Megilla
  • reading Hallel
  • sounding the shofar
  • taking the lulav
  • the additional prayer
  •  the additional offerings
  • Confession over the bulls (brought by the Sanhedrin or High Priest to atone for mistakes they had made in their instructions given to the people)
  • declarations regarding tithes on Pesach
  • confession of sins on Yom Kippur 
  • placing hands
  • slaughtering
  • waving
  • bringing meal-offerings near the altar
  • scooping out a fistful of flour from a meal-offering to burn on the altar
  • burning the flour
  • pinching the necks of turtledoves/young pigeons as offerings
  • receiving the blood of an offering in a vessel
  • sprinkling
  • having a sotah (a woman suspected by her husband of adultery) to drink the bitter waters
  • breaking the neck of the heifer (when a corpse is found outside of town and it is unknown who killed it)
  • all steps in purification process of the leper
The following acts can be performed at any time during the night:
  • reaping the omer
  • burning the fats
  • burning the limbs of burnt offerings

Where is it written that these things must be done during the day or night?  The Gemara finds prooftexts for each of the listed actions.  We end today's daf with the justification for the trial of a sotah during the day.  Using the word "Torah" as their marker, the rabbis note that "the priest executes this Torah" on the sotah (Numbers 5:30) and that "According to the Torah... and according to the judgement" (Deuteronomy 17:11).  Because judgement is done only by day (Deuteronomy 21:16), the sotah's process must be done by day, too.

Amazing, the meticulous detail that has gone into the creation and recreation of this document over centuries.  I have heard it said that the Torah is a blueprint - if that is true, the details of the Talmud are like the tiny, precise notes that accompany that blueprint.  Just amazing to witness the thousands and thousands of hours that have been dedicated to each phrase that I read.

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Megilla 19 Where, From Where, Whom and Getting Hit on the Head

Beginning with a new Mishna, we learn about what to do should we enter a walled city – or a an unwalled city – on the 14th of Adar.  Like in other similar situations, we are taught that this depends both upon where we reside (our recitation follows the minhag of our city of residence) and upon our intention when travelling to or from a place.  We are told that when in doubt, we should read the Megilla in both cities; in the unwalled city on the 14th and in the walled city on the 15th.

Secondly, our Mishna tells us from where the Megilla should be read.  I had always assumed as taught by Rabbi Meir that the full Megilla was recited, as that has been the tradition of my community.  However, the obligation is not as clear.   Rabbi Yehuda suggests that we read from Esther 2:5, “There was a certain Jew…”.  Rabbi Yosei tells us to read from Esther 3:1, “After these things…”.

Our Gemara, of course, discusses in depth all of these differences of opinion.  During that conversation, we are introduced to a new phrase: Umachu la hamocha, They hit (the halacha in question) on its head.  This phrase tells us that the rabbis have found a way to create leniencies.

Amud (a) also notes that within the Megilla itself, Megillat Esther is referred to as both a book (9:32) and a letter (9:29).  This is significant in a number of ways, as books and letters imply different practices.  For example, letters cannot be included in the Torah.  Thus Megillat Esther must be written either on a separate scroll or with markedly different sizing and stitching that the other writings in the Torah. 

Amud (b) introduces a new and very difficult Mishna.  It states, “Everyone is fit to recite the Megilla except for a person who is deaf, an imbecile, or a minor.  And Rabbi Yehuda says that a minor is allowed to recite the Megilla”.  Is the Megilla similar to the Shema and the Birkat HaMazon, in that it must be heard aloud when read?  Does that justify the exclusion of a person who is deaf?  The rabbis suggest that Rabbi Yehuda certainly was speaking of a minor who is proficient at reciting the Megilla.  For the sake of consistency, should those who are deaf or ‘imbeciles’ be included, as well, if they are proficient at reading the Megilla? 

We are taught that Rabbi Yosei said in the Jerusalem Talmud, “And you will give ear to his mitzvot,” (Exodus 15:26).  This is a source that justifies the exclusion of those who are deaf.  However, we are reminded that Rabbi Yehuda spoke of those who can speak but cannot hear.  These people were obliged to teruma.  Thus should they be obligated to recite the Megilla?  And can others who hear that Megilla being read rest assured that they have fulfilled the mitzvah of Purim?  The rabbis back up, suggesting that if we have heard such a person recite the Megilla, certainly we have met our obligation ab initio.

Steinsaltzs shares a note that teaches that when we hear a recitation by one who is obliged to recite, we have met our obligation.  However, some people continue to suggest that men have not met their obligation if they hear the Megilla recited by a woman.  Defining the halachot according to their intended meaning is very different from simply following halacha.  We argue that we are interpreting what the rabbis meant to say.  But how does anyone know what was meant?  And how might this help us understand the exclusion of so many Jews from the mitzvot?

Monday, 28 July 2014

Megilla 18 Two Thousand Years of Megillat Esther... How Did They Do It?

Our rabbis continue their discussions regarding yesterday's Mishna.  

They begin by questioning what prayers will be said when the Temple is rebuilt.  Does the blessing of thanksgiving follow Priestly Benediction?  or the other way around?  And is the prayer for thanksgiving actually necessary if prayers have been recited at the sacrificial service?  The rabbis wonder if we have not already given our prayers of thanksgiving.  Further, they wonder what must be said in praise of G-d, if anything.  Psalms 65:2 tells us that "for you, silence is praise", and that Ravi Dimi said "In the West, they say: A word is sela (one coin); silence is two."  

A perfect segue into their discussion of reading the Megilla by heart being forbidden.  Like with Amalek, where Deuteronomy teaches us both to "remember" and "not to forget", the rabbis understand our recitation of the Megilla as involving both reading and speaking/hearing aloud.

Regarding the question of language, it is clear that our Sages want us to understand the meaning of the Megilla.  Though they argue about how and why this is done, they agree that we should understand the meaning of the Megilla.  This is why we are permitted to hear the Megilla in our own languages.  And because most Jews understand at least a bit of Hebrew, we are told, it is also permitted for us to hear the Megilla in Ashurit.  Greek is the only contentious language, and it would seem that the politics of the day were responsible for that anomaly.

The rabbis end amud (a) with examples of we can figure out the meanings of strange words by hearing them used in context.

The rabbis turn to the order of the Megilla.  They are clear that we must read the Megilla in order, but we are allowed to take long pauses - long enough to complete the reading - while we are completing the recitation.  They tell us about an argument between the customs in Pumbedita, worth Rav Kahana and Rav teaching us about one length of pause, while Rabbi Mona in Sura teaches a more stringent length of time.  The commentary tells us the importance of this difference is that Rabbi Shmuel went against Rabbi Mona - and the majority of rabbis - in siding with Rabbi Yeduah ben Beiteira.  This means that the rabbis can rule against a majority in cases of siding with greater stringency.  I find that interpretation disturbing, for I do not wish to think that stringency is desirable.  Instead, I like to think that all rabbis have the opportunity to argue their opinions, and the Talmud records it all.

Moving along, the rabbis note that we are even allowed to doze off while reading the Megilla, as long as when we are awakened we can remember details when our friends mention them to us.  

Our last discussion is about the writing of Megillot.  What do we do if one letter is forgotten or misprinted?  What if  a word is omitted from the text but the reciter is able to remember that one word and insert it while reading aloud?  Although we are not supposed to recite the Megilla from memory, it is clear that our rabbis are looking for ways to allow for leniencies.  They want Jewish people to hear this story for generations to come, even if not to the letter of the law.  And, amazingly, it worked.  Along with my community, I listen to the recitation of Megillat Esther every year.  I listen to the Hebrew and I read along in English, and so I both hear the recitation and I understand the story.  Two thousand years in the making...

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Megilla 17 Dying at a Righteous Age, Reciting the Megilla and the Amida in Order

Perek I ends with the rabbis' calculations of the ages of some of our patriarchs.  We know that ages are not mentioned of all of our ancestors.  The rabbis had determined that only the most righteous of people were listed with their ages when they died. But Ishmael's years were mentioned as well.  This leads to a conversation about his behaviour later in life.  Did Esau not marry into this family?  And perhaps Ishmael became truly righteous in his later years?  The rabbis do not mention whether Ishmael might have been righteous early on, too.  They prefer to create consistency in other ways.

Perek II begins with a new Mishna.   It teaches that the Megilla must be read in order, without reciting it by heart.  In addition, it must be read in a language that one understands and/or in Hebrew - Ashurit.  We can read the Megilla with breaks.  As well, we are permitted to read the Megilla with commentary and corrections as long as we intend to fulfill our obligation at that time.  Finally, the Megilla used to recite from must be written in Ashurit and written in ink on parchment.

The Gemara notes similarities and differences between reciting the Megilla in order and reciting Hallel, the Shema and the Amida in order.

The rabbis speak about the recitation of the Torah.  What language should be used?  They note that when the word "hear" is used, in particular with the recitation of the Shema, we understand that one should b able to understand its words.  

In understanding the order of the Amida, we learn that a midrash suggests each of the 18 prayers refers to a generation of the Jewish people in order of history.  Thus we begin with a prayer for the patriarchs (and matriarchs] and end with a prayer for moshiach.   Our daf ends with the rabbis continuing to justify the placement of each blessing, ending with the ninth blessing.

It strikes me that much of our tradition is dependent upon deep respect for those who have come before us.  The rabbis look up and down for any way that they might understand that logic of their predecessors.  There must be a way to understand those words, even if they have to turn to magical thinking.  The opposite happens in our modern societies.  We look to easily disprove the truth that came before so that we can replace it with our own, obviously more clever thinking.  I am a big believer in multiple truths; in critical thinking.  But somehow it seems as though we have moved a bit too far away from a place of respect.  In order to critique something, shouldn't we have to know what that thing is?  How can we critique traditional Torah law without truly looking at its origins and what it says?  Without assuming that those who have come to this in the past were smart, and creative, and challenging to dismiss?

Megilla 16 Expounding and Exaggerating

Today the rabbis complete their retelling of the Megilla.   They digress to discuss Benjamin and his brothers and they end with a discussion of the importance of Torah study.

Our Sages go to great effort to create back-stories to flesh out the Megilla.  One example follows Haman's humiliating walk through the streets.  As we know, that march was intended for Mordechai by Haman.  Our rabbis elaborate in order to explain why Haman ended his march with his head covered, in mourning.  Apparently his daughter was watching from a top story, watching for Mordechai.  Thinking that she was seeing that Jewish enemy of her father, she threw feces on his head.  When she realized that this was her father, this daughter threw herself from the upper balcony to her death.  Thus Haman was forced to cover his head, and was in mourning due to his loss.

These are impressive stories!  Why the rabbis felt it necessary to create such elaborate stories is beyond my understanding. And why certain narratives, like the Megilla, is expounded upon in such depth while other stories (whether Biblical, Tamudic, or otherwise significant) are left is a mystery to me.

At the very end of today's daf, the rabbis offer reasons that Torah study is  more important than other pursuits.  In particular, Torah study is more important than saving lives,  building the Temple and honouring one's father and mother.  I find this absolutely compelling.  How could our Sages advocate Torah study ahead of saving a life?  Clearly their agenda - to promote their own profession - is at the heart of such statements.  

Friday, 25 July 2014

Megilla 14 The Prophetesses

The Gemara shares many stories today, including:
  • A comparison of Achashverosh's and Haman's hatred for the Jews (different problems in their fields)
  • 48 prophets and 7 prophetesses told of the 613 mitzvot, but the only change to the Torah was the addition of the recitation of the Megilla
  • Do we recite Hallel on Purim?  Or is the Megilla actually a form of Hallel?
  • Is Hallel only sung to celebrate certain miracles?
  • A review of some of the prophets
  • Prooftexts for the prophetesses: Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah, and Esther
Each prooftext tells us in part how our Sages viewed women, particularly when women held power.  The stories are different from each other, each fascinating in its own way.  It is notable that the story of Abigail suggests a prior knowledge of the halachot regarding menstrual blood.  Because of Abigail's cunning, the rabbis suggest that women are always thinking ahead.  

Unfortunately, after sharing their respect for these prophetesses, the rabbis take a step back.  Rav Nachman suggests that it is unbefitting for a woman to be haughty, and that we know that Deborah and Huldah were both haughty.  A prooftext is provided for each of these claims.  We also learn that Deborah means hornet and Huldah means marten, both of which are "loathsome". Thus these prophetesses should have known to control their haughtiness - they already had names predicting bad behaviour.

At the very end of our daf, the rabbis argue about the lineage of our prophetesses.  Were they of pure descent?  Or perhaps were they descended of prostitutes and converts?  Ending our daf on this note leaves me to wonder that the rabbis felt it necessary to question our prophetesses.  Yes, they do question the lineage and the personal traits of men, but to do this to the only women in places of power seems almost calculated.  How uncomfortable were our Sages with the idea that a number of women held places of power?  If they left our prophetesses unquestioned, what might this have meant to the lives of the women who lived beside these rabbis? And to the rest of us, who came later?

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Megilla 13 On Names and Embellishment

We continue to learn the interpretations of our Sages as they study the words of Megillat Esther.  They examine names at the start of amud (a), noting why particular names suited particular people. When they look at Esther, they note that her full name is Hadassah.  This name could reflect multiple traits.  

It is notable that our Sages add tremendous colour to the narrative of the Megilla.  They introduce full, detailed conversations between Haman and King Achashverosh, for example.  Each story is accepted (or put aside in favour of another story) and it becomes part of the larger narrative.

As a child, I did not learn the Megilla separate from some of these commentaries.  For example, Queen Vashti did not come to her husband to show off her beauty, dressed in her royal crown.  I learned that Queen Vashti was in fact wearing only her crown, and she refused to dance naked for the King and his guests.  This interpretation of nakedness is not in the actual Megilla; it is an embellishment suggested by our Sages to explain why Vashti did not follow her husband's rule.  Vashti is thus perceived as somehow lude, even though she does not wish to participate in the King's pride-filled game.  

Much of what I have been hoping to learn in these studies is the difference between Torah text and Gemara.  When my education is as limited as it has been, it is too difficult to imagine sorting through halacha from one law to the next.  Instead, delving into Talmud allows me to recognize what has been taught based on Gemara, on Torah law, and on minhag, or custom.  An invaluable lesson!

Today's daf also covers Achashverosh's choice of Esther, her actions upon entering Achashverosh's community, the notion of G-d noticing people's righteousness through modest behaviour by our foremothers, and Haman's first interactions with Achashverosh regarding denigrating the Jewish people.

Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Megilla 12 Vashti and the Importance of Interpretation

As the rabbis continue to explain the Purim story by line and by word, their creativity is at the forefront of my mind.  They embellish the scroll’s words with stories that are sometimes so far-fetched that I am shocked at their nerve.  These interpretations are accepted as truth both because of the status of our Sages.  However, countless other side-stories could explain the words in the Megilla.  A great responsibility, to have one's interpretations taken as undisputed truth for thousands of years.   

Vashti has been a character with few words but many interpreters.  In today’s daf, we are presented with a specific view of Vashti: libidinous, cruel to the women – especially the Jewish women – who serve  her,  vain, and likely being punished by G-d.   Even thought the text suggests that Vashti is modest, for she does not wish to appear naked before the King and his guests, the rabbis find reason to suggest otherwise.  She developed leprosy just at that moment, perhaps.  Or she grew a tail and was embarrassed.  Is it possible that Vashti was simply a woman who had some power but ultimately was controlled by her King?  According to our Sages, we should see Vashti as wicked, which means sexual, willful, and hurtful.  What do we learn about women from our rabbis' interpretations of Vashti? 

This desire to paint the characters in our history as “all good” or “all bad” is dangerous.  I have always learned that Judaism does not hide from the faults in our ancestors.  But in many circumstances – particularly with regard to ‘secondary’ players – and women are almost always secondary players – we learn a two-dimensional interpretation of their characters.

When I think about the ways that we villainize those who fight against us today, it is easy to recognize this pattern of thought.  It is much easier to argue with a person who is perceived to be ‘different’ from us than to do the same with someone who is 'like us'.  We apologize for those whom we see as similar to us.  We have compassion for them; we understand their motivations.  To paint a person - or a group of people - as wicked is a way of dehumanizing them.  Once we have set another apart from us, we can be sure that we will find little common ground.  

The rabbis go on to describe both the ‘angels’ who are sitting with Achashverosh and the way in which he begins to choose a new wife.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Megilla 11 Hu Achashverosh: Consistently Wishing to Rule the World

The rabbis walk through the Megilla, hoping to understand each statement and its significance.  For example, the name of Achashverosh is broken down and analyzed.  Out of many passages and words that are examined, one stands out for me.  That is the use of "hu" before the name of Achashverosh.  The rabbis note that we also see this pronoun used before the names of other 'great' leaders.  Avram, hu Avraham, or Avram, this is Avraham, is one example. The rabbis wonder why Achashverosh would be included in the company of Avraham, Moses, Aaron and King David.  They decide that 'hu' represents someone who was consistent in his character throughout his life.  Wicked or righteous.

The second part of today's daf looks at Achashverosh as one of the kings who 'ruled the world'.  The rabbis name a number of kings and assess whether or not they ruled the world.  The world was a very small place for our rabbis.  They name provinces that are close to each other and assume that the kings ruled between these two provinces, signifying that they ruled the world.  They count the numbers of provinces said to be held by each king, noting that the numbers do not always match.  Our rabbis also look at the number of years that each of these kings reigned.  

Again I find it fascinating to imagine a world where the Torah and all related writings were the basic, 'scientific' blueprints for everything that there was to know.  Although I know that many people still live according to this kind of understanding, most of us do not.  What are we missing as we search beyond Torah for truth?  And, of course, what are others missing when they confine themselves to the Torah in their search for truth?

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Megilla 9 Translating the Torah

Continuing with yesterday’s conversation, our rabbis speak about the languages of Torah, mezuzot and tefilin.  They discuss the beauty of the Greek language and the differences between Hebrew of the times and Ashurit, what we know as modern Hebrew script.  Originally, the rabbis agree that Torah can be written in Greek* but that mezuzot and tefilin must be written in Ashurit.  However, the rabbis agreed that all are best written in Ashurit.

A story is told of King Ptolmy II, who ruled Egypt approximately 300 years BCE.  He wished to have the Torah translated to Greek.  To ensure that the translation was done properly, he asked 72 elders to sit in separate rooms to complete their translations.  It is said that each of the 72 rabbis translated using the same words and phrases – including numerous changes.  For example, they wrote “G-d created in the beginning” instead of “In the beginning, G-d created…”, or ‘Bereshit bara Elohim…’  They did this so that Ptolmy could not misinterpret Genesis 1:1 as, “The beginning created G-d”.  Each example suggests another way that the 72 elders knew that they should change the words of the Torah to reflect G-d’s supremacy and oneness. They also ensured that they did not insult Ptolmy with their translation and that the Jewish people were shown in a positive light.

Today’s daf includes two more Mishnayot with Gemara and the beginning of one additional Mishna.  The first discusses the difference between the High Priest and his second.  We learn that the difference is the bull offering and wearing eight versus four priestly garments.  The second looks at great public altars used by communities and small altars used by individuals.  Public altars are used for mandatory vows, while individual altars can be used for all voluntary offerings.  Rabbi Shimon suggests that offerings that are compulsory and without a set time must be offered at the Temple.

It is fascinating to see that the Talmud includes a story about elders changing the words of Torah.  If the words of Torah are the words of G-d, do we ever have the right to change those words?  Are we allowed to change G-d’s words for the sake of others’ understanding or compassion?  Or to best represent our understanding of G-d?  Certainly I “translate” Torah when I explain the meanings of phrases and ideas.  Of course, I do not do this in the same way at the same time as 71 other people.  But perhaps there is some room here to stretch our understandings of how to translate Torah.

* a specific miracle involved translation of the Torah that allowed the Torah to be written in Greek. 

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Megilla 7 Is the Megilla Divinely Inspired?

We are told that Esther said, "write me for future generations", and variations of that sentiment.  The rabbis interpret this as a desire to have the Purim story included in the Torah.  As a story where Jews win a war against "Amalek", however, the rabbis share their concern about the political implications of that inclusion.  They wonder whether:

  • we are permitted to include more than three mentions of our success over Amalek
  • the scroll of Esther renders hands impure
  • the scroll of Esther is Divinely inspired
The rabbis discuss this last question in great detail. Many passages from the Megilla are quoted to prove that G-d must have spoken directly to at least one of the story's players.

Amud (b) begins with a conversation about food and gifts.  Who gives to whom? How much food is given?  Money can be given - if it is used to help people enhance their Purim meal.  

We end today's daf with two new, short Mishnayot.  The first discusses the difference between Festivals and Shabbat.  The focus in this case is on food preparation for these holidays, where the rabbis are more lenient with food preparation for Festivals. 

A story mentioned earlier in the Talmud is repeated today.  We are told that on Purim we should drink so much that we cannot differentiate between the phrases "Haman is cursed" and "Mordechai is blessed".  The rabbis offer many interpretations, from the use of numerology to drinking until we fall asleep.  We are told the story of Rabba, who drinks so much that he slaughters Rabbi Zeira.  He begs for help and G-d restores Rabbi Zeira to health.  Again, our rabbis help us understand this miracle by suggesting a number of options: perhaps Rabbi Zeira was drunk and asleep, then awakening.  Perhaps Rabba had Rabbi Zeira drink until he fainted.  Regardless, both rabbis agreed that "Miracles do not happen every hour," and they chose not to repeat their experience.

The second examines the differences between Festivals and Yom Kippur.  Rather than focusing on food preparation, we now focus on punishment for transgressing the halachot of each holiday.  Shabbat and Yom Kippur desecrations are punishable by karet and lashes.  But on Yom Kippur, lashes are stayed.  This is related to a larger examination of the laws of multiple consequences in Masechet Ketubot.  A principle: when more than one punishment applies to the same crime, only the most severe consequence is applied.

Women are mentioned in two interesting ways in today's daf.  First, Esther is said to want to be cannonized in Torah.  Is this referring to Esther herself?  Or is this a metaphor; the ideal that the Megilla begs to be included?  Second, we are told that "one's sister is excluded" when the rabbis are discussing how the punishment of karet is applied in cases of incest.  Whenever women are mentioned, it is worth asking "why now?", as this is such an unusual occurrence.  

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Megilla 6 Name that City; the Labour of Learning; Adar II

Sometimes cities have more than one name.  Our rabbis discuss the names of cities including Tiberius and Tzippori.  They wonder about whether and how these cities are linked with which other names.  Characteristics of cities - including their size, their inhabitants, their 'treasures' (sea creatures and sand) and topography are noted in the suggested names/translations.  The rabbis' arguments are detailed and complex, juxtaposing these characteristics and the various names with  proof texts taken from Torah.

The rabbis further examine places that are described in Torah.  They use verses to understand better the locations of the captured tower of Shir, synagogues and study halls/ theatres and circuses in Edom, Leshem, Ekron/Caesarea, and Jerusalem.  They speak of the competition between Caesarea and Jerusalem over many centuries.  Caesarea was often ruled and populated by Gentiles while Jerusalem was ruled and populated by Jews.  However, Caesarea was a significant hub of Jewish learning, as well.

A number of phrases are quoted with similar meanings: follow those who are good rather than following those who are wicked.  Rabbi Yitzchak teaches that if a person says to you I have laboured and not found success, do not believe him.  If s/he says I have not laboured but I have found success, do not believe him.  But if s/he says I have laboured and I have found success, believe him.  This is interpreted as a reference to Torah study.  Learning is hard work but it always leads to success -- the learning in itself is a process of success.  But Torah cannot be leaned simply and without work.  When it comes to business, however, hard work does not necessarily lead to success.  We need heavenly intervention as well.

In amud (b), we learn a conversation regarding what to do with wicked people. Do we stand up to them and provoke them, or do we leave them alone?  A number of different passages are quoted, sharing different ideas about this question.  We are told in a note by Steinsaltz that we should assume that a wicked person who is having good fortune should be treated well, and not badly, as he is probably being helped by heaven.  However, if this person is on trial and the trial has begun, we should use our knowledge about his character as we judge him.

Ulla describes Rome, part of southern Italy known in the time of the Gemara as "Greek Italy".  It is said to be divided into 365 areas, each of which hosts the king's (the Roman Emporer's) dinner meal once each year.  Each person, whether living in Rome or visiting, receives an allowance from the king.  The bathhouses are cared for meticulously, as well.

A new Mishna tells us that the Megilla is to be read in the month of Adar that falls closest to Nissan - which would be Adar II in leap years.  However, if the year is intercalculated after the Megilla has been read in Adar I, the Megilla is read again and gifts are redistributed to the poor.

The Gemara wonders about eulogies and fasting, which are also part of the practice of Purim.  They speak about which factors - reading the Megilla, giving gifts to the poor, eulogizing the dead, and fasting - are dependent upon which other factors to properly observe halacha on Purim.

Megilla 5 How to Deal With A Well-Respected Rebel

Before beginning a new Mishna, we review some of the rabbis' thoughts about what to do when Purim falls on Shabbat.  The notion of "the proper time" is examined.  Shabbat is always observed and always at an understood, predetermined time. But what is "the proper time" to read the Megilla?  

Our new Mishna teaches us about large cities/villages, observance of the fast of the Ninth of Av/Hakhel, and eulogizing and fasting in villages that read the Megilla on the 14th of Adar/the 15th of Adar.

The Gemara explains that a city must have at least ten idlers, or congregants who are not paid to be at the service, to qualify as a city. The difference between city and village is important because it determines whether the Megilla reading might be postponed when Purim falls on Shabbat.  The rabbis note that we count years by months, and we count months by days.  Our calendar is predetermined and we cannot arbitrarily move celebrations without ample justification.  

At length, the rabbis discuss factors that might  allow the Megilla reading to be postponed.  Those factors include other guidelines, like the fact that we do not advance calamities, like the observance of the fast on the ninth of Av, but we might postpone them.  The also include practices like offerings on Festivals, placing hands on Festivals, and moving dates of other Festivals like Shavuot.

We are presented with the unusual actions of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi.  He planted a sapling on Purim when labour was prohibited, he bathed on the seventeenth of Tammuz, and he tried to abolish the fast of the Ninth of Av even when the Sages disagreed with him.

Much of amud (b) is devoted to understanding these actions.  The rabbis might have characterized Rabbi Yehuda HaNavi as a man who has sinned, or they might have understood him as a man with different interpretations of Torah practice.  They did neither of these things.  Instead, they walk us through complicated possible explanations for his behaviour.  In each case, Rabbi Yehuda HaNavi was following halacha to the letter of the law.  This type of argument allows the rabbis to present their community as unified, even when they are fully engaged in argument.

Our daf ends with a question about walled cities.  We know that those living in cities that were walled from the time of Joshua celebrate Purim on the 15th of Adar, postponed from the 14th of Adar.  All others celebrate on the 14th of Adar.  But what if we aren't sure whether or not a city has four walls?  The Gemara uses Tiberius as one of its examples.  Tiberius is a walled city, but the fourth wall is the sea.  The sea blocks the city from intruders... but is the sea the same as a wall for the purposes of reading the Megilla on the 15th of Adar?

Monday, 14 July 2014

Megilla 4 Who, How and When: Women and the Poor

Our rabbis look back at walled cities and try to determine when the walls were built.  How old are these cities?  Who ordered the walls built?  Do the walls look old enough?

The rabbis move along to the concept of who is obligated to read the Megilla.  Rabbi Yahoshua ben Levi states that women are obligated to read the Megilla for they were part of the miracle.  This is an unusual statement, for women are not obligated to participate in time-bound, positive mitzvot.  Commentary by Steinsaltz teaches that our rabbis suggested different reasons for Rabbi Yahoshua ben Levi's decree.  First, women would also have been killed by Haman, so women - as well as Canaanite slaves! - should give thanks by reading the Megilla.  Additionally, Queen Esther helped to facilitate the miracle of Purim.  Given Esther's participation, we are reminded that women should not be the main focus of the celebration.  Of course, note on halacha suggest that women can read the Megilla but men are still obligated to recite the blessings.

We also learn about and when the Megilla should be read. The rabbis agree that we should read the Megilla at night and repeat it the next day.  There is an argument that a reading during the day should be good for the entire day.  Notes explain our rabbis' explanations for this contradiction - perhaps individuals have different obligations than communities; perhaps we are supposed to read the Megilla as well as studying the Mishnayot.  It is continually inspiring to note our rabbis' creative thinking when it comes to rectifying seemingly unsolvable problems with halacha.

Our rabbis consider the possibility of moving the date of the Megilla reading to ensure that villagers are saved an extra trip to the city and thus are able to have adequate food and water.  If all people are obligated to read the Megilla, it should not cause undo hardship to perform this mitzvah.

Rabba declares that the Megilla must be read by everyone, but it cannot be read on Shabbat.  Why not?  Not everyone can read, and thus people will bring scrolls to be read by others.  Carrying their Megillot more than four cubits in the public domain would be going against Shabbat halacha.  In addition, people might be so preoccupied with their own obligations to read the Megilla that they would not remind others to desist from carrying on Shabbat.  Now that's a fence!  But this particular fence is one that creates a lessening of the pressure on people... to avoid reading the Megilla on Shabbat will make better the lives of the poor, even though the fence is created due to a stringency.

Megilla 3 Translations, Interruptions, Mourning Practices and Walled Cities

We begin with a discussion of translation.  The rabbis debate whether or not translation is a helpful service.  Translating the Talmud from Hebrew to Aramaic is said to be helpful in a number of ways, including reducing the number of arguments among the Jewish people based on misinterpretation.  It would seem that we continue to argue about interpretation, regardless of translation.

Translation of the Song of Songs and of Daniel are hotly contested.  The rabbis continue to try to protect the Jewish people from our own writings.  Recently, it was announced that a particular ultra-orthodox group is publishing a newly edited version of the Torah specifically for women and girls.  This new version omits the 'racy' parts of the Torah.  My translation: it omits any images of women that are not what men are choosing.  The notion that people are not capable of comprehending, analysing and debating what they have read is, in my mind, an offense of their rights and freedoms as human beings.  But that is a longer conversation.

Is the Megilla reading more important that Torah study?  What else should be allowed to interrupt Torah study?  The rabbis explore this question.

Women are allowed to mourn in certain prescribed ways.  For example, they cannot clap or cry out in their mourning, where one woman calls and the others repeat her words on most Festivals and intermediate days.  However, when a Torah scholar dies, they are certainly permitted to engage in this spirited mourning.  I understand that this helps the people to value Torah scholarship, but this ruling seems far too self-serving to be classified as a practice "in the name of Torah".  

We end today's daf with some new considerations.  The rabbis wonder about walled cities.  Walled cities are given special status regarding the reading of the Megilla.  But what counts as a walled city?  The rabbis begin their investigation of this question.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Megilla 2 When to Read the Megilla; Learning Halacha and Learning Our History

We begin Masechet Megilla with a Mishna that teaches us about reading the Scroll of Esther, Megillat Esther, on Purim.  We are told the specific days that we must read from the scroll: The 11, 12, 13, 14 or 15 of Adar.  We are told that whether or not one's city is walled may affect the day when the megilla is read. We are told that when the city was walled might be a significant factor, too.  Finally, the Mishna describes the coordination of these dates depending of multiple factors.  The Gemara expounds on these instructions, determining which factors might influence the timing of the reading of the megilla.

Today's daf shows us the rabbis imagining what life was like in the time of Esther, which was between the First and Second Temple eras. They debate about what was written in the scroll, what was written in Torah, and what they believe was the reasoning for their ancestors to construct the megilla in the way that they did.  

That is our tradition: building and rebuilding, creating and recreating, remembering and conjecturing our collective past.  We want to know what our ancestors did, for past generations were always more pious, more knowledgeable, closer to G-d.  The notion that we want to know how things were done in the time of the Temple so that we are prepared for the Temple's return is not the entire picture.  In addition, we look back not just to 'get it right' but to know who we are based on from where we have come.

The major difference between halachically observant Jews and all other Jews is that we 'other Jews' do not necessarily recognize the authority of past generations.   That sounds obvious.  In truth, it is a significant difference. When a Jew learns Talmud to improve their halachic practice, their process is very different from a Jew who learns Talmud to learn about our ancestors and their lives.  But both Jews will learn halacha, and both Jews will learn about the lives of our ancestors.  

Friday, 11 July 2014

Ta'anit 30 Reasons for Mourning; Reasons for Celebration

Most of today's daf details the 9th of Av.  We learn what we are permitted to do - and what is prohibited.  Many different calamities are commemorated on the 9th of Av, and we learn about these as well.    At the end of today's daf, we completely shift gears.  The 15th of Av is a day of celebration.  We learn what miracles and relationships are commemorated on that day.  As well, we learn some of the customs  of celebration.

Like many of the dapim of Masechet Ta'anit, we learn about how the rabbis make connections between their ritual practice and their reading of Torah.  Some of their connections seem logical; for example, we are told to lessen our pleasure on the eve of the 9th of Av, leading up to the fast.  This is interpreted as halving our portions of cooked food and wine, among other things.  We are told that this is not Torah law; it was taken from a baraita.  But we have none of those documents, nor do we have a direct quote.  So even the seemingly 'logical' interpretations are based on questionable evidence.  

I don't want to forget a couple of the stories shared in today's daf.  First, there is a midrash that teaches us that the first generation of Israelites in the desert were instructed to dig their own graves on the for the 9th of Av.  They would then sleep in those graves.  Some people would die every year.  On the year that ended that first generation's sojourn, no one died on the 9th of Av.  The Israelites found this strange and they continued sleeping in those graves for a week.  They assumed that they had gotten the date wrong and the 9th of Av was still to come.  On the 15th of Av, however, they could tell by the New Moon that they were 'off the hook'.  They rejoiced.

Another story tells us about the celebrations on the 15th of Av.  We learn in the Torah that the daughters of Zepholehad were told that they could inherit their father's land (even though they were his daughters and not his sons) but they had to marry within their tribe.  We learn that the rabbis interpret this limitation as lasting only one year.  From the following year, on the 15th of Av, Israelites were allowed to marry across tribes.  This is true cause for celebration.

I am continually struck by the creative interpretation, beauty, meaning, and seemingly random proofs  that our rabbis have recorded in the Talmud.  

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Ta'anit 29 Reaching for G-d but Never Knowing G-d

Some highlights and thoughts from today's daf:

  • Did Manasseh put an idol in the Temple on the 17th of Tammuz?  One idol had a cryptic message written on it: "You want to destroy the Temple: I will help your hand".
  • The rabbis attempt to find the dates for different calamities described in the Torah
  • The rabbis try to prove the date that the first Temple was destroyed
  • A story is told of Rabban Gamliel.  An officer was looking for the man "with the nose" - that was determined to be Gamliel, who stuck out from the rest like a nose from a face.  The officer privately asked Gamliel for a promise of the World-to-Come if he spared Gamliel's life.  Gamliel swore to this.  The officer then killed himself resulting in the decree for Gamliel's life to be rescinded.  Gamliel then heard an Eternal voice telling him that the officer was in the World-to-Come
  • When the first Temple was burning, many scholars threw themselves into the flames.
  • Just as the month of Av brings bad fortune to Jews, the month of Adar brings good fortune
  • Some actions are allowed before the 9th of Av and some are not.  Some actions are permitted in preparation for Shabbat and some are not.  In particular, the rabbis discuss laundering.  They also discuss specific days of the week regarding laundering - and regarding reading from the Torah.
There is a great amount of effort and energy put into figuring out how the Torah is logical and consistent.  At the same time, we are encouraged to remember that we cannot understand the Torah or the will of G-d.  That tension between what we want to know and what we cannot know is part of the reason that Judaism has stayed alive for millenia.  We are pushed to study and learn and make connections and come closer to understanding G-d.  Simultaneously we live with the reality that we cannot explain much of what we experience in this world.  A worthy struggle.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Ta'anit 28 How to Shorten the Service: Hallel, the New Moon, and the 17th of Tammuz

On certain days, morning and afternoon and evening prayers are recited and the priestly and non-priestly watches are enacted and hallel (a set of prayers of gratitude said only on fast days, Festivals, or days commemorating a miracle) is recited.  This makes for a very long day of prayer.  The rabbis debate about possible changes on those days, including omissions of prayer,  and individual recitations of Torah verses by heart, etc.  

Still today, in my own synagogue there are many views about whether or not any part of the service should be shortened on a given day.  To see that our Sages were also concerned about the length of their services is inspiring!  Though perhaps it should be deflating, as we continue to struggle with the same issues for 2000 years.

As they begin to explain which families had the responsibility of bringing different offerings, the Gemara shares some stories of ingenuity.  In Greece, Jews were first stopped from bringing first fruits to Jerusalem. Generations later, another family was unable to bring wood for the fire of offering.  The rulers of Greece at those times were actively preventing Jews from our worship.   

Regarding the blocking of the first fruits, Jews put dried figs over their fruits and carried large pestles.  "We are using those large mortars to preserve our figs," they said, and they were allowed to pass and thus deliver their fruits.  In the second scenario, people used the wood to build ladders, and told guards that they were going to collect doves from the dovecoats. They dismantled the wood on arrival and left it to fuel the flames for offering.

The Gemara then lists the genealogy of those who contributed to offerings on the twentieth of Av, the twentieth of Elul and the first of Tevet.  

The rabbis argue over whether or not there is a non-priestly watch at all on days when hallel is recited.  Further, they debate whether or not hallel is recited on New Moon holidays.  We learn again that customs are respected almost as much as rabbinical and even Torah law.  

Finally, the Gemara begins a discussion about the five calamitous matters that occurred on the 17th of Tammuz.  The first is when Moses smashes the two tablets after witnessing the Israelites dancing before the golden calf.  The rabbis deduce that this happened on the 17th of Tammuz because Moses ascended the mountain on either the 6th or 7th day, hearing from G-d on the 7th.  He then was there for 40 days and nights - with 16 days remaining in Sivan, we are brought to the 17th of Tammuz.

On the 17th of Tammuz, we are told that the walls of Jerusalem were breached, Apostemos burned a Torah scroll, and Manasseh placed an idol in the Temple.  The rabbis use their strategic logic to explain that all of these matters occurred on the17th of Tammuz.  They are wise to do so; a day of mourning carries much more meaning if we ascribe to it many losses.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Ta'anit 27 The Priestly Watch and The Non-Priestly Watch

There are two major ideas that stay with me from today's daf.  The first is that the priestly watch is taken very seriously.  The second is that the non-priestly watch involves recitation of Torah verses and the rabbis are concerned that we always recite at least three Torah verses.

The non-priestly watches are observed by any Israelite, not necessarily a Kohen or Levi.  The rabbis explain that 24 priestly watches were established to ensure that the offerings made by the community were witnessed by the community.  David was the person who recommended 24 priestly watches over Galilee and Jericho.  Before his decision, Moses had instructed Itamar and Elazar that each would be responsible for four priestly watches - eight families in all.  

Each day, the fast was taken on by a representative of that priestly family. They would ascend to Jerusalem and pray that the daily offering would be received with favour.  Simultaneously, representatives from the non-priestly watch would stay in their assigned towns and fast, praying on different days.  On Mondays they prayed for those at sea, on Tuesdays for those in the desert, on Wednesdays for children with croup, and on Thursdays for pregnant and nursing women.  Fridays and Saturdays  were exempt because of Shabbat, and the rabbis debate about why Sundays were also free from fasting and specific prayer by the non-priestly watch. Fear of arousing anti-semitic fervour in their Christian neighbours comprise most of that discussion.

One of the more interesting reasons for foregoing the fast on Sunday is offered by Reish Lakish.  He suggests that we are given an extra soul on Fridays and Saturdays that allow us to enjoy the true glory of creation.  At the conclusion of Shabbat, that soul is taken away again.  Reish Lakish argues that we require Sunday to mourn the loss of that extra soul.  Personally, I love Reish Lakish's thinking in its practical applications: a full weekend!   

It is notable that sick children and pregnant/ nursing mothers are given special consideration.  Usually the discomfort of women and children does not merit the attention of our rabbis.  But here, the non-priestly watch is specifically asked to pray for these concerns.  Why?  Could it be that the non-priestly watch is more connected to the discomfort and the pain of the people? The priestly watch is made up of those who are often immersed in isolating tasks.

Our second focus is on the portions recited by the non-priestly watch.  The rabbis argue about which verses should be said.  They also argue about how those verses should be assigned.  We learned previously that the portions are sometimes shared by two people and sometimes said individually.  Some portions are made up of five verses.  Splitting the portion between the groups of chanters, sometimes only two verses of Torah are recited, but we know that we must recite at least three verses at a time.  The rabbis come up with creative and interesting suggestions to solve this challenge.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Ta'anit 26 Special Days: of Priestly Blessings and Dancing Girls

We begin Perek III of Masechet Ta'anit with a very long Mishna.  This Mishna teaches us when Priests recite the priestly benedictions - with their hands up - four times each day on fast days.  These days include communal fast days, non-priestly watches, and Yom Kippur. On each of these days, a fourth prayer service is added to the day.

The Mishna goes on to outline the details of these special fast days.  In particular, we learn about the non-priestly watches over the communal offering where pious individuals from the entire community are chosen to be with the offering 24 hours each day. Non-priestly watch days include the recitation of sections of Bereshit according to the day of the week and the day of creation described in the Torah.

Looking at the closing prayers of Yom Kippur, we are reminded that the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur are our most joyous holidays.  On both of those days, wood is burned and women dance in the fields all dressed in white.  Their clothes are all borrowed from each other to divert attention from wealth.  They call out to the boys to choose themselves wives.  However, they also quote from Psalms (30:31-2) to remind young men that beauty is not as valuable as righteous behaviour.  How amazing that the orthodox world of today would consider this sort of behaviour immodest!

The Mishna also lists the calamities that befell the Jewish people on the 17 of Tammuz and on the 9th of Av.  I can't help but wonder whether or not the rabbis questioned the accuracy of these dates.  Surely some of these great minds recognized our need to organize and attempt to understand the timing of our downfalls.  So much of Talmud reminds me that we desperately crave knowledge - or at least a sense of mastery.

The Gemara, which only begins part-way through amud (b), discusses some of the reasons that prayers were not said in the afternoons.  Apparently, priests might drink alcohol over lunch.  Drunkenness while leading prayer is a great sin.  Thus the prayers are not said and the risk of inebriated prayer-leadership is eliminated.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Ta'anit 25 Who Warrants a Response From G-d?

The Gamara tells us tale after tale of our righteous rabbis and their direct line to G-d.  When the people need rain, certain rabbis have miracles performed when they cry out.  Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa is one of the rabbis who more consistently has his prayers answered.  We hear fantastic stories of rain falling, bread appearing in ovens from nothing, vinegar turning to oil for Shabbat light... one miracle is performed simply to save poor Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa's wife from embarrassment.

Some rabbis do not have their prayers answered, however.  The rabbis explain this by detailing errors in how or why the prayers were uttered.   More about this shortly.

Amud (b) teaches about Psalms (92:13) where the righteous are compared to both palm and cedar tress.  The Gemara walks us through different varieties of palms and cedars, their root systems and their growth patterns, to help us understand the Jewish people through these metaphors.

Our daf ends with a conversation about when (and whether) the fast should cease after the rain has fallen.  The rabbis suggest that we end our fast and celebrate G-d's gift if the rain comes before the ninth hour of the day.

Again, I find many of the rabbis' arguments to be both self-serving and self-congratulatory.  How can the rabbis focus on their special connection with G-d?  Do they truly believe that study and righteousness will lead to supernatural power?  Perhaps they are thinking of their requests of G-d as a type of prophecy.  In my mind, requesting something from G-d and expecting a direct response is not a Jewish concept.  Clearly my ideas are based on modern ideals rather than those of antiquity - and of the tradition of our rabbis.

One other thought - are there orthodox Jews who, right now, are grappling with guilt because they did not get the desired answer to to their prayers?  And do they believe that they didn't pray properly? Or that they weren't righteous enough to merit a direct answer from G-d?