Sunday, 31 August 2014

Moed Katan 21 More Mourning Rituals

As we continue to learn the rites of mourning, we encounter some interesting parallels.  Before speaking of those, the basic content of today's daf can be summarzied as discussions around:
  • whether mourners sit or stand in comparison with those going through chalitza
  • overturning the bed
  • learning - is the mourner going to be comforted by learning? or distracted?
  • wearing tefilin on the first, second, third days of mourning
  • greeting people/being greeted at days 1-2, days 3-7, up to day 30, up to 12 months mourning
  • when and how we speak words of consolation to mourners once past the 30-day mourning period
So the Gemara is quite clear - generally we are not learning about mourning rituals that were in place at the time of writing.  And when we are looking at established rituals, the rabbis are often unclear as to why we do those things.  Over and over, the rabbis tell us what different Sages did in different communities.  Based on these actions, the rabbis decide what should be formally ritualized.  

The rabbis discuss rituals that might have taken place in the past.  They share stories regarding different practices.  The rabbi with the most clout tends to create the halacha which has been taught, then, from generation to generation for literally thousands of years.  

Again it is jarring to confront the origins of our current ritual practices.  Sometimes very established, seemingly meaningful rituals are actually based upon "maybes"; interpretations made thousands of years ago.  What if those interpretations were simply opinions of those with social stature, education, and power?  What if those very important mourning rituals are based on sources that I cannot grasp - or with which I disagree?

Ultimately, and I come to this over and over, Jewish rituals continue to provide me with comfort, community, and questions.  The fact that generations have said these same prayers before me, bowed at the same time, sat in lower chairs when in mourning and not worn tefilin at certain times when mourning - all of these rituals are imbued with the meaning that has been instilled in each of them over those generations.  I don't need to understand and I don't need to agree - I just need the rituals.  

But i do need to learn - to know the sources behind the traditions.  Hence daf yomi.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Moed Katan 20 Mourning Rituals

We delve into Jewish mourning rituals in today's daf.  The rabbis debate and then decide who mourns for whom, on which days, and for how long.  They consider where these traditions come from (using proof texts and customs described in aggadot).   The rabbis spend a good chunk of time on understanding when mourning days are foregone because of the requirement to celebrate on Festival days.  

Many of the mourning rituals described in today's daf are practiced regularly among even less observant Jews. To comfort a mourner by refraining from greeting; to demonstrate mourning by rending clothing and by removing shoes - these are other example are detailed today.  

On occasion, the seven-day shiva period continues to be shortened due to the timing of 'conflicting' holidays.  I have spoken with numerous friends and acquaintances who feel cheated out of their seven-day mourning.  In less observant communities, the traditions of mourning are so deeply expected that they have taken on greater importance than almost any other Jewish ritual practice.  

Part of me wishes that the larger Jewish community was more aware of other Jewish rituals - the celebrations and the rest; the fasts and the learning.  Every day could be built around these rituals, each bringing greater meaning to otherwise dull tasks.  But another part of me appreciates that there must be something particularly special about our mourning rituals to have allowed them to survive when so much else is ignored.  

Friday, 29 August 2014

Moed Katan 18 Nails, Moustaches, and the Power of the Written Word

We learn about Pinchas and his brother, Mar Shmuel.  Pinchas tells his brother that he did not cut his fingernails because he has been in mourning for a friend.*  He says, "if your friend died, you wouldn't be thinking about your fingernails either." This is followed immediately by the loss of Mar Shmuel's friend. Mar Shmuel throws his cut fingernails at Pinchas, angry that Pinchas made a statement "like an error that stems from a ruler." (Ecclesiastes 10:5)  This euphemism suggests that people can be like kings who order that they wish someone dead, and the servant of the king carries out that task.

We learn a number of arguments regarding whether nails can be cut on intermediate Festival days. We learn about trimming moustaches The rabbis turn their thoughts to laundering clothing on the Moed as well.  We also learn that the Pharoh in Moses's time was said to be "the lowest of men", which was taken literally.  The rabbis agree that the Pharoh was one cubit tall.  The Gemara mentions that in addition to his short stature, the Pharoh had a beard one cubit long and a penis even more than one cubit long.

Daf (b) introduces a new Mishna that teaches us what we are permitted to write and what we are not allowed to write during the Intermediate Festival Days.  The first one listed, betrothal, is discussed at some length.  The rabbis wonder how betrothal is permitted when it clearly focuses many people on joy that has nothing to do with the Festival itself.  They suggest that writing ensures the intention to betroth without a formal betrothal.  This can come in handy when another man is also interested in marrying the bride.  

At the end of the amud. we learn a bit about the notion that all of the men in the camp were jealous of Moses because the women found him attractive.  They also consider when rumours are true.  They suggest that rumours that last more that one and one half days are false.  The rabbis consider other amounts of time as well.  They note that a person who has enemies is different: it will be assumed that those enemies are responsible for the rumour.

The very end of our daf includes a new Mishna.  We learn that bills of sale cannot be written  on Intermediate Festival Days - unless a person is not trustworthy.  In addition, religious documents are not written on the Moed.  

I wish that our rabbis were able to find and use more direct prooftexts.  As it stands, their interpretations are clearly interpretations. 

* Fingernails are disgusting, we are told, but toenails are less so.  Further, teeth and hands can be used to cut fingernails in otherwise prohibited circumstances, but scissors and tools cannot be used.  Finally we learn that the disgusting nature of fingernails should force us to throw them away or burn them.  If a pregnant woman steps over those nails, it is a "tradition" to believe that she will miscarry.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Moed Katan 17 And Still More Ostracism; Hair and Nail Cutting

The rabbis continue to look at the practice of ostracism in amud (a).  In amud (b) they move back to the topic of cutting hair - and now nails - on the Intermediate Festival Days.

We are told a number of stories that help us understand exactly when, why and how people were ostracized.  Along the way, we learn a great deal about power dynamics among Torah scholars, the effects of social status, mourning practices, and other gems.  

One of my favourites regards Rav Yehuda's maidservant, who ostracized someone who hit his adult (either over 22 or 24 years of age) son.  She noted that he broke the halacha of "placing a stumbling block before the blind" (Leviticus 19:14).  An adult son is likely to hit back, which would be breaking one of our most important Torah laws.  Thus this maidservant is described as both wise and upstanding, and her ostracism does not need to go before the court.

We are told about this incident as part of a larger story.  Rav Yehuda had ostracized another Torah scholar, but Rav Yehuda died before the punishment was completed.  The ostraized man, who is not named, goes to great lengths to release the decree.  However, it is decided that he must live the remained of the three years of ostracism.

A great deal of thought is shared regarding ostracizing Torah scholars.  Can they forego the courts if they note behaviour that is consequenced with ostracism?  Can they ostracize themselves?  Can they nullify those decrees?  The rabbis note the importance of public versus private transgressions.  They wish to set only the most positive examples of behaviour when they are in public.  In private, however, sins carry a different significance.  

It is noted that no one should learn from a Torah scholar who is not 'upright' in public.  Even if he is Torah giant.

We also learn about how mourners, priests, nazirites and others should deal with hair and nail cutting during Intermediate Festival Days.  Specific prohibitions are directed at these groups.  The Gemara looks at the exceptions to these rules: when is a priest, for example, permitted to cut his hair during the Moed?

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Moed Katan 16 Admonition, Pressure, Excommunication - And Of Course, More Ostracism

Yesterday we began to learn about ostracism.  Today the rabbis elaborate about ostracism as a tool for societal maintenance.  They wish to ensure that ostracism is used appropriately.  Thus we learn that one can be ostracized for disrespectful behaviour or for refusing to pay money owed.  In the first case, a person must serve their full time - thirty days.  In the second case, a person might be able to end their ostracism early.  For this to occur, the person who has been ostracized must have made amends.  All three (if there are three) people who have ostracized that person must agree to release him/her of this burden.  A shofar, sounded at the start of the ostracism and at the end of thirty days, can be sounded early.  

We learn that the rabbis are careful not to tarnish reputations without cause.  They consider cases where a person is ostracized and dies within those thirty days.  They wonder about whether ostracism follows a person from one city to another - considering whether they are travelling to or from their own city.  The rabbis look to sources to explain why we ostracize.  They look at how we ostracize: first with warnings at court on Monday, Thursday and the following Monday.  Then with hardafa, which is defined as 'pressure', which could mean anything from solitary confinement to actual ostracism.  Then with ostracism for thirty days - and another thirty days, if required.  Finally, an unrepentant person is consequenced with excommunication.  This process is not the same as nezifah, admonishment, which requires a person to behave as though s/he feels ashamed - the public treats him/her no differently when s/he is admonished.

The rabbis share stories that elucidate the practical applications of these halachot.  One of the stories notes that a woman is admonished for failing to pull her leg in to ease the path of a Torah scholar.  Admonishment seems to be the consequence for rudeness rather than for blatant defiance.

One of the rabbis' stories focuses on the Song of Songs, "Your rounded thighs are like jewels..." (7:2).  This verse is used to prove that the Torah should be kept hidden and not studied in the marketplace.  It is alternatively used to prove that charitable acts should be kept hidden.  How amazing to see the varied, justifiable ways that our tradition has been interpreted and taken root.

Digressing because of this verse, our daf ends with a lengthy review of King David's words and actions.  

Monday, 25 August 2014

Moed Katan 15 Ostracism

As we learn about what is prohibited on the Intermediate Festival Days, the rabbis draw parallels between these days and days spent in mourning.  Today's daf and other parts of Perek III are even permitted as learning material on days when learning is prohibited.  The laws of mourning are outlined throughout these passages.

The rabbis cover a number of mourning practices, but they focus on the larger categories of ostracism, rending clothing, and laundering clothing.  Proof texts are provided to help us understand the origins of these practices.  We learn that ostracism in mourning includes covering one's upper lip, or refusing to speak to or be greeted by other people.  We learn that mourners do not launder their clothing, which becomes black with grime.  We learn that sexual relations are forbidden when in mourning due to an encounter between David and Batsheva.  The proof texts for these practices are clearly interpretations; however, our practices in mourning are solid and unchanged. We have continued to recreate the meaning that our rabbis attached to these rituals two thousand years ago.

Some thoughts about ostracism.  We learn that there are three stages of banishment from the community.  The first is ostracism, or menudeh.  It is a warning.  The second is an intermediary stage called, according to the Ra'avad, shamta.  The most serious stage is excommunication, or mucharah.  The seriousness of banishment is obvious; without community, one cannot survive in the times of the Talmud.  We are told that selling water in dry areas is an acceptable job for one who has been placed outside of the community: a solitary, small business.  

I appreciate that the rabbis note the power of greeting - or not greeting - our neighbours.  Small acts such as these can hold great meaning.  The rabbis understand that without the acknowledgement of our presence, we lose our place within the social structure. Without that grounding; without that context for relationships, we lose our sense of self.  Ostracism was a warning.  I would bet that it usually worked.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Moed Katan 14 Caring About What the Neighbours Think

We continue to learn about the halachot of the Intermediate Festival Days.  Today's daf focuses on a number of specific examples: shaving and cutting hair - particularly for those who have travelled and for babies; laundering clothing - particularly for zavim and those who vowed not to do so; ostracism as a means of discouragement.

The rabbis want to ensure that we do not show others that we are flaunting the general halachot of the Moed.  Every 'exception' might be called out as an excuse for others to behave with leniency.  The rabbis argue over specific points often because these halachot are rabbinical.  It is a principle to treat rabbinical halachot leniently so that the spirit of the halacha is primary for the community.  Torah law, however, should be treated stringently and fences are built to ensure that they are not crossed, even inadvertently.  Thus the rabbis debate whether or not it is appropriate to leave a baby uncomfortable with long hair.  They wonder, why not let someone who was just released from prison wash his clothing on the Moed?  

The focus on "what the neighbours think" is a large part of today's daf.  The rabbis seemingly work to manipulate the power of peer pressure to encourage strict observance of halacha.  They go into great detail about how the person who only has one shirt will demonstrate his degree of poverty.  For of course, everyone should understand that this man is washing his shirt on the Moed only because of true necessity and not because it is alright for everyone to launder their clothes on the Moed.

This pressure continues to influence observance today. We do not generally tell each other how to practice our halachot, especially as liberal but observant Jews.  We do, however, notice each others' observance.  In more traditional communities, Jews sometimes monitor each others' practice.  This kind of social control has its benefits, but the danger of continual judgement can be devastating psychologically and emotionally.  I have worked with women who have been crushed by the judgement that they and their children have faced in the orthodox community because of different interpretations of halachic practice.

If there were one way of practicing Jewish halacha; if we could be certain that we understand G-d's will, Jewish observance would be simple.  But even in the most observant communities there is place for interpretation and creative thought.  When judgement is used as a form of social control, it places unnecessary strain on good people who are already attempting to practice according to the halacha that they understand.  All of us react to judgement - some of use try to please everyone while others use that same judgement to drop all attempts to "get it right".  I believe that the more we can be compassionate with each other as practicing Jews, the more we encourage halachic practice.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Moed Katan 13 Buying, Selling, Retrieving... and Thinking for Ourselves

Because of the need to know what is permitted activity on the Moed, we learn about the daily routines of our ancestors.

Today the Gemara tells us about moving residences and moving furniture, picking up items from an artisan, buying and selling things in the market like spices, and caring for our produce, like figs that require covering.

The rabbis debate about what should be appropriate actions on the Intermediate Festival Days.  They generally take into account the spirit of the days - celebratory.  Simultaneously they balance this with the importance of the days - requiring a different set of rules than weekdays or Shabbat.  Often the rabbis rule that we are permitted to do things on the Moed that cannot wait until after the end of the holiday.  For example, food can be purchased, items can be retrieved or given away (as this will heighten feelings of joy).  However, if these things can be done reasonably before the holiday, they should be completed before the holiday.  

I picture people moving furniture from their home to the adjacent yard, delighting in the knowledge that their neighbours will have the furniture that they need.  I picture people hurriedly shopping for spices, being careful to do so without drawing attention, for this could have been done before the holiday - but is permitted.  I imagine running to retrieve a new cutting board from the artisan across the street.

It is difficult for me to imagine a lifestyle that requires permission to perform these daily tasks.  The rabbis whose words we read have held such tremendous power over people's lives.  I recognize the benefits - psychological, emotional, physical, spiritual - that can accompany a ritualized, structured life.  At the same time, when we give our decision-making power over to another person, even if that person is a great rabbi, we lose some of what is G-d-given to each of us: the ability to think for ourselves.  This tension is forever present in my reading of the Talmud.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Moed Katan 11 Financial Hardship... and Ordinary Hardship

We know that we are permitted to work on the Moed if refraining from work would cause financial hardship.  Today's daf explores what 'financial hardship' means.  It uses a number of situations to explore the fences built around this concept of financial hardship.  Coincidentally, one of those examples is a fence.

Beyond financial hardship, the rabbis are concerned about related issues.  One regards communal service: is a person permitted to work on the Moed if s/he is not working for him/herself but for the community?  Further, if a person must work in order to survive day-to-day, and not to prevent financial hardship, is his or her work permitted?

I admire the rabbis for including this last question.  Certainly the risk of financial hardship is very real.  However, to experience financial hardship one must have some means that can be lost.  For those living in profound poverty, financial hardship does not exist.  It is the hardship of day-to-day life that creates risk.  And thus the rabbis are wise to ensure that people in this situation are cared for in our halacha, as well.

The rabbis wonder about an extremely small home that requires a balcony around the roof: is it permitted to build this balcony on the Moed?  There may be no financial risk at hand, but safety could be an issue.  The rabbis wonder whether such a small home should be defined as a house at all.  They consider the notion of safety and of community involvement.  

In amud (b) the rabbis consider the example of olive pressing.  If a person cannot complete their work before the Festival because their staff do not come to work, or because they are in mourning - both 'reasonable' excuses - can the work be completed on the Moed?  The process of olive oil production is outlined.  We learn that olives are too hard and must be packed together to soften before oil extraction can occur.  If they are left for too long, the harvest would be wasted.  We are advised that is is permitted to 'turn the olives'.  This means that we can do the minimum amount of work required to save the olives and use their oil.  

Learning about the strenuous, pressured and critical steps in food production is one of the surprising pleasures about learning daf yomi.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Moed Katan 10 Millstones and Food Preparation

There are a lot of things that I don't know.  Of those things, I know more about just about anything than I know about millstones of antiquity.  Today's daf offers an insider's view to the ins and out of the millstones used to grind grain into flour.

We learn that it is permitted to build a stove on the Moed.  We are also permitted to service a millstone.  Both of these activities are critical elements of food preparation, which is also allowed on the Intermediate Festival Days.  But what exactly are we permitted to do?

The rabbis note that the millstone might work in a number of different ways.  The stationary circular stone likely needs no repair, but the upper circular stone may need modifications - it may have grooves or a rough surface that require maintenance.  As well, the hole into which whole grain is distributed might need servicing.  The rabbis discuss whether our Sages were referring to one or more parts of this stone.  

We learn about millstones that turn using the force of water.  I am curious about millstones that require animal or, just as concerning, human force to operate.  This job of moving in circles would have to be described as arduous labour.  Would the rabbis consider that work to be permitted?  

We also learn that the work permitted should be work that can be done without the expertise of a specialist.  As soon as a 'professional' is brought in, it seems that we enter a different category of labour.  

Again I am reminded of the work that is permitted to prepare food.  Why is this labour, generally done by women, unquestionably permitted?  And rather that ensuring that food preparation is as simple as possible, our halacha permit 'loopholes' so that women can do even more work.  Creativity is encouraged to ensure that food is as exquisite as possible on Shabbat.  But this question is part of a much larger discussion about gendered divisions of labour.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Moed Katan 9 Weddings and Delays: balancing celebration on the Moed

Usually we are encouraged to celebrate on the Intermediate Festival Days.  However, we are not permitted to mix one joyous occasion with another joyous occasion.  We have learned that people are not to marry during the Moed, even though a wedding is a happy event.  The Gemara helps us understand some of the possible origins of this halacha.

King Solomon ruled that the completed Temple was to be consecrated over a two week period.  The celebration was required to end by the start of Sukkot.  Thus some rabbis believe that two celebrations should not be combined.

But if the celebrations lasted for two weeks, they interrupted Yom Kippur.  We learn that the Jewish people may have eaten and drunk on Yom Kippur, for they were taking part in a consecration of the Temple which must have involved animal sacrifice.  Somehow they are forgiven for this transgression, and they even go home happy - in accordance with the halacha to be joyful on celebrations.

The rabbis wonder whether we should be permitted to delay a celebration at all.  They consider whether a part of a beit hamikdash might be left incomplete.  However, that too is discouraged - we are to run to perform mitzvot and thus we should never delay the completion of such a building.

We are reminded that the only celebration that should be delayed for the sake of joy during a Festival is a wedding. Ritva suggests that this is due to the inordinate amount of work that it takes to serve food at a wedding celebration.  Certainly some people are not able to joyfully celebrate the day.

Monday, 18 August 2014

Moed Katan 8 Bones and Marriage

We learn about two major ideas in today's daf.  First, we learn about moving the bones of one's relatives on the Moed.  Second, we learn about marriage on the Moed.  In both situations, the rabbis create halachot that reflect a balance between encouraging joy on the Festivals and encouraging joy for the Festivals themselves during the Moed.

Steinsaltz teaches us in a note that in times of the Mishna, deceased bodies were brought to caves where they decomposed over the course of a year.  After the year passed, relatives would collect the remaining bones and bring them to the family burial plot.  Collecting the bones was considered to be a joyful activity.  This seems strange, but we are told of a number of reasons to feel joy: the maggots have left, the soul is certainly in heaven, the bones are about to be placed properly.  The joy of transporting these bones must be considered against the joy for the Festivals in and of themselves.

The rabbis discuss marriage during the Moed.  Most marriages are forbidden.  The remarriages of people who were previously married to each other is one exception.  The Festivals are joyful times; why not encourage marriages at these times?  The rabbis are concerned that the joy of marriage will overwhelm the joy for the Festivals themselves.  There was also a concern regarding marriage feasts - perhaps people would specifically schedule wedding celebrations during the Moed to save the expense of two feasts.   Thus marriage during the Intermediate Festival Days is discouraged.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Moed Katan 7 Different Traps; How to Evaluate Nega Tzara'a

Our rabbis continue to provide us with examples of doing things differently on Intermediate Festival Days.  How do we capture small animals, for example?  In an unusual manner.  And what is an unusual manner?  The rabbis describe methods of catching and disposing of rodents.  Usually, they are caught in holes dug around the plant they might be targeting as food.  On Intermediate Festival Days, a contraption is rigged both below and above the rodents so that a hammer is dropped from above and the creatures are squashed from below.  It is difficult to imagine that this alternative is less work than ordinary trapping methods. But it is certainly different.

We move to the question of tzara'at, often translated as leprosy.  On weekdays, this skin condition is checked by a Kohen to determine whether the lesion, nega, is ritually pure or ritually impure.  But what about Intermediate Festival Days?  If a priest is consulted about a nega, he is allowed only to pronounce it ritually pure.  Should he be permitted to stay silent if the nega is ritually impure?  This would affect the person's wife, family, etc.  The rabbis debate whether or not a priest should look at nega tzara'at at all on a mode katan.

Again, we can see the shift toward leniency.  On Shabbat and other Holy Days, the importance of stringency is repeatedly stressed.  But on Intermediate Festival Days, the rabbis are extremely careful to balance the prescribed joy we should be feeling (and the desire to cause no problems following these days) with the need to keep all halachot.  

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Moed Katan 6 What is Permitted? Irrigation, Trapping Moles, and Destroying Anthills

We learn about three topics today.  First, the rabbis discuss gravesite markers such as stones marked with lime.  They consider whether or not fields have been ploughed, the edges of the field, the likelihood of unknown corpses in a field.  All of these considerations help us to determine whether or not we might contract ritual impurity through contact with that field.  

The second topic regards irrigation on intermediate Festival Days and during Sabbatical years.  Their overriding concern is to minimize any damage done to plants.  In particular, they are very concerned about the viability of young trees.  If irrigation might help avoid financial crisis after the intermediate days or after the Sabbatical year, the rabbis find ways to ensure that irrigation is permitted.

Finally, the rabbis take apart a Mishna regarding trapping animals on these special days/years.  They note that trapping moles and mice in orchards and/or fields of grain should be permitted.  However, some rabbis believe that this should be done in an unusual manner when practiced on special days.  I am very fond of this principal in Talmudic thought: the importance of doing things differently on Shabbat and other special days.  Difference in our actions represents our understanding that the days are different from regular weekdays.  Personally, I find this particular halacha very attractive and much more palatable than many other guidelines and laws regarding special days.  It digs down to the meaning of special days: thoughtfulness, conscious awareness of difference, presence in the moment.

One funny and helpful piece of advice was shared by Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel.  He teaches us how to destroy an ant colony - which is permitted on our special days.  We should trade earth from two ant hills and share them with each other.  The ants will then fight with each other and die.  Abaye further elucidates on anthill destruction.  He reminds us to choose anthills that are at a great distance from each other.  If those anthills are somehow connected to each other, the ants will recognize their long lost cousins and continue to thrive.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Moed Katan 4 To Irrigate, to Hoe and yet to Impress the Stein Family Next Door

As part of clarifying what we should be doing during Sabbatical years, the Gemara explains the exegetical principal known as gezeira shava, or verbal analogy.  When a word/phrase is mentioned in two different places in the Torah and a halacha applies to one of those, that halacha is said to apply to the other word/phrase as well.  Thus the concept is not considered to be as important as the words themselves.  Sometimes the words of a gezeira shava are permitted to be used interpretively when they are not identical but their meanings are similar.  

In order to understand a difference of interpretation of a gezeira shava, we are told that the rabbis are able to come to an agreement.  In one circumstance the rabbis are speaking about when the Temple was standing.  In the other, the rabbis are referring to times since the destruction of the Temple.

We look at irrigation, collecting rainwater, tools used in irrigation, flowing water versus collected water,  pools of water, and on and on.  The rabbis want to understand whether or not we are permitted to irrigate our fields on Intermediate Festival Days.  Are we using excessive effort?  How do we define 'excessive'?  Are the tools being used appropriate given the holiday?   Are the fields going to suffer because of the lack of water if we do not irrigate?

Again, we note that the rabbis are concerned that their interpretation might hurt the agricultural work of the Jewish people.  They work to create halacha that recognizes this potential hardship.  Why, then do the rabbis create halacha without similar consideration when they are discussing the lives of women?  Or the lives of others who lack power in the larger community?  

As part of this consideration the rabbis turn their minds to maintenance of the fields in other ways: pruning, picking, hoeing, digging channels around plants, etc.  They discuss the importance of these tasks to ensure a healthy crop.  At the same time, they mention the importance of 'image': one should not be seen hoeing, for others might not know that the person hoeing is doing so within halachic restrictions.  This concern with "an appearance of halachic compliance" continues to be a strong motivator in our modern Jewish societies.  I do not walk into a store wearing my kippah on Shabbat because I do not want to look as though I am properly representing halacha.

Looking at blocked rivers and other works of public importance, the rabbis are clear about our practice: we should be doing any maintenance that fills a public need on the Intermediate Festival Days.  It is wonderful to read that the rabbis understood the importance of public needs and the requirements of rejoicing as well as they did citizens' private needs and legal concerns. 

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Moed Kattan 3 Sabbatical Year Preparation: the Ten Saplings

During the Sabbatical year, there are four categories of labour that are punishable by flogging.  These are sowing (and pruning, a subcategory), reaping (and gathering, including grape-picking, a subcategory).  Torah law dictates these restrictions and this punishment.  The rabbis discuss Torah law that is handed down from Moses on Mount Sinai and Torah law that is written.  They wonder whether there might be exceptions to this halacha of flogging.

To avoid punishment at all, it is necessary for the rabbis to create clear guidelines around these practices.  Exactly when must one end their sowing in advance of a Sabbatical year?  What about other related practices, including watering, fumigation, mending?  Beit Hillel tell us to use Shavuot as a marker, while Beit Shammai tell us to wait until we notice seasonal signals.  

It is clear that the rabbis want us to benefit from fresh produce for as long as possible.  They clearly wish to minimize the inconvenience and suffering of their communities.  They also want to get it 'right'. The rabbis want to be careful to set their fences very carefully - finding that sweet spot between stringency and leniency.

We learn today about the law of the ten saplings.   If ten saplings are planted in a field at a particular time before the Sabbatical year, the field may be tended for longer.  Fewer than ten saplings would mean that only the ground just beneath the trees could be tended.  More than ten saplings would constitute an orchard, and the trees might survive without our intervention.  

These agriculturally based laws recognize that the long-term health of our produce is key to our survival.  Care for the land and the land will take care of us.  Somewhere along the line we have forgotten the importance of that consideration.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Moed Kattan 2 Irrigating the Fields both Literally and Figuratively

Masechet Moed Kattan is devoted to the halacha of Intermediate Festival days.  Because of related halacha around Shemita, or Sabbatical years, we will also learn about those related conversations.  Today we begin this exploration with a Mishna that teaches us about limitations on irrigation on Intermediate Festival Days.  It also tells us about public work, both on those days and on other special days.

We are told that we can only use certain types of spring water to irrigate.  Further, we can only collect or carry that water in particular ways.  Why?  Because irrigating is watering, and watering is close to the sins (on Shabbat) of sowing and of reaping.  The act of watering moves the soil, just as in those two acts.  However, if the plant will die without that water, we are permitted to irrigate - but only using a naturally occurring spring.  Clearly the rabbis are attempting to reduce the possibility of intense physical labour on the Intermediate Festival Days.

Our Mishna also speaks about work done for the public - road repair, bathhouse repair, etc.  This work is permitted, we are told.  A clarification is offered: those repairs should be done only for things that service our physical needs.  Any other work can - and should - wait.

I noticed two places in today's daf where irrigation was compared with a physical love affair between husband and wife.  In both examples, the man is said to be the dry field and the woman is the water, satiating and relieving him of his thirst.  In one of those examples, the irrigation system is said to be like a virgin bride.  I have no difficulty with this beautiful, sensual imagery.  These metaphors continually speak to the male as the protagonist, the subject; the female is someone who services her husband.  Again, I have no difficulty with that concept - except that in my reading so far, this caring behaviour has not been reciprocated.  But perhaps I am asking too much of my ancestors of 2000 year ago.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Megilla 32 Torah Rituals Then and Now

Masechet Megilla ends with a conversation about rituals around Torah reading.  Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yehuda disagree about stringency.  Rabbi Meir believes that when reading from the Torah, the reader should touch the spot where the reading starts with an intermediary (a cloth; a yad).  Then the reader should state the blessing.  Following this, he should begin the Torah reading.  Rabbi Yehuda believes that when saying the blessing, the Torah should be covered.  This stringency ensures that the congregation understands the translator's intention and does not believe that the blessing on the Torah is written in the Torah.  Rabbi Meir says that this is obvious, for the blessing is repeated before each parasha is read.

Steinsaltz provides us with numerous versions of these practices in his notes.  I was delighted to understand the "why" of another ritual that I have witnessed and not fully understood.

The sanctity of the Torah and items that come into direct contact with the Torah are considered to have the greatest sanctity.  We learn about how to properly furl, unfurl, close and dress the Torah.  Most of these practices help to ensure that the text of the Torah is not damaged should, G-d forbid, the scroll fall and/or rip.  Again, having dressed the Torah numerous times, it is deeply satisfying to understand why these rituals have become carved in stone, so to speak.

At the end of today's daf we are reminded of what we are to do on the Festivals.  Leviticus 23:44 tells us that "Moses declared to the people of Israel the appointed seasons of the Lord".  Thus we are to read the portions that describe each Festival on that Festival.  Further, the Sages taught in a Baraita that we are to use each Festival to learn the halachot of that Festival.

Learning the origins of customs and rituals is terribly significant.  There is a joke of the woman who cut off the corner of her roast before putting it into the oven.  She learned this from her mother, who learned it from her mother.  But why was this done?  It would feel wrong to prepare a roast with the corner attached, but did its removal come from Torah?  or was it based on a health concern?  or something else?  Asking her grandmother about this ritual, the woman learned the origin of the removal: her great-grandmother's roasting pan was too small for the full roast.

We ascribe meaning as a matter of course.  Learning about the origins of our rituals helps us to understand what was meaningful to our ancestors.  We can then add that meaning to our own experience of practice.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Megilla 31 The Recitation of the Curses of Leviticus; To Demolish or to Build?

At the start of today's daf, the second-to-last in Masechet Megilla, we continue to learn the Mishna on which parashayot to read during different Festivals and holidays.  We learn that on fast days, one person reads the full list of blessings and curses.  On Mondays, Thursdays and Shabbat afternoons, we follow the regular order of parasha readings.  In Leviticus 23:44 we are taught that Festivals and holidays include a focus on the characters that are part of those special days.

The Gemara specifies which parashayot are read.  As well, they add to the Mishna's recommendations to reflect current practices.  For example, the diaspora celebrates two 'first' days of Pesach.  The rabbis explain which parashayot to read on each day, although the Mishna only provided instruction for the 'first' day.  The rabbis create mnemonics to help us remember what to read when.   They refer to baraitot to further explain our practices.  Notes help us to understand traditions that accompany these readings.

Steinsaltz teaches us that when a portion is split to accommodate multiple readers, each section should begin and end on a positive note.  This is because  we do not say blessings over calamities.  On fast days we hear the blessings and curses, and so this is particularly relevant to remember when examining today's daf.

If we are thinking that it might be alright to pause and switch readers during the recitation of the Leviticus curses, Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar has news for us.  He teaches: if old men say "demolish" and young children say "build", then demolish.  Why should we do a seemingly destructive act? Because when elders say "demolish" what is done may actually be 'building'.  Further, the 'building' done by children may actually be demolition.  We can't trust our own opinions, he teaches.  Instead we are to follow the advice of our rabbis.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Megilla 30 Shabbatot of Adar; Readings for the Festivals

Our last Mishna taught us what Torah portions to read during the four Shabbatot in and around the month of Adar.  The Gemara continues to provide us with specific details about those portions, including exactly what to do when Shabbat lines up with different special days, fast days, etc.  

Although it might be useful for me to list the suggested parashayot and other details, I am choosing not to do so.  There are two reasons for this.  First, these details are less interesting to me that the process by which the rabbis state their claims. And incidentally in this particular daf, the rabbis do not provide prooftexts for their reasoning.  The Gemara shares different rabbis' reasoning based upon their own opinions.  A novel way to argue one's point!  

The second reason is a reflection of the complicated calendar structure that is articulated today.  Although I understand most of what I have read regarding months, days and associated readings, the 'outliers' still elude me.  To truly understand the rabbis' arguments, I would have to sit for some time with a calendar and create a system of marking different days for different purposes- including Rosh Chodeshes, Fast Days, weekdays, etc.  

Amud (b) ends with a new Mishna. It teaches which parashayot to read on different Festivals:

  • 1st day of Pesach: Festivals (Leviticus 22:26-23:44)
  • Shavuot: "Seven weeks" (Deuteronomy 16:9-12)
  • Rosh HaShana: "On the seventh month on the first of the month" (Leviticus 23:23-25)
  • Yom Kippur: "After the death" (Leviticus 16)
  • 1st day of Sukkot: Festivals (Leviticus 22:26-23:44)
  • Other days of Sukkot offerings of Sukkot (Numbers 29:12-39)
  • Chanukah: Princes (Numbers 7)
  • Purim: "And Amalek Came..." (Exodus 17:8-16)
  • Rosh Chodesh: "In the beginnings of your months" (Numbers 28:11-15)
  • Non-priestly watches: "Act of Creation" (Genesis 1:1-2:3)

Our commentary helps us understand this last direction.  The Jewish people were divided into 24 watches, where weekly, in turn, each watch would send representatives to Jerusalem.  They would act as witnesses to the sacrificial service.  Others left behind in that watch would fast from Monday to Thursday, pray, and read Genesis 1:1-2:3).

More of this Mishna to come in tomorrow's daf!

Friday, 8 August 2014

Megilla 28 How to Live for a Long Time; How to Use a Synagogue

We examine two major issues today. The first is how our rabbis justify and explain their longevity.  A number of different rabbis answer this question.  Many concept are repeated.  Of course, I find some of their reasoning more appealing and some less so.  Some of the explanations that I enjoy include the idea that they were rewarded for treating others with respect, for not taking pleasure in the misfortune of others, for  being openhanded with money (letting others keep the change).  However, modesty was not explicitly mentioned.  It always surprises me when I read the rabbis' descriptions of their own exemplary behaviour.

The second major issue discussed today is the use of a synagogue.  Clearly, an abandoned synagogue should be rebuilt.  In fact the rabbis suggest that we do not pick any grass that is growing in an unused synagogue.  We allow the synagogue to look unkempt so that people will be moved to rebuild.  In functional synagogues, we should be careful to use them only for prayer and study.  Frivolity - including eating, drinking, speaking idly, speaking about business - should be avoided.  The punishment for doing such things is harsh, including fasting, lashes, and ongoing silence in the synagogue. The rabbis note that scholars might be forced to eat or change clothes in the synagogue, and so such things are permitted.

Again today's daf points to the very marked social ladder of ancient times.  And Talmud scholars sit at the top of that ladder.  We learn that 'history is written by the winners'; Talmud is a brilliant example of a historical document that preaches the superiority of those who wrote it.  And I do not say this with any intended disrespect - the rabbis were brilliant.  However, if the social make-up of antiquity were different, we might also learn about the thoughts and reasoning of other, less privileged ancestors.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Megilla 27 Sanctity, Change of Ownership, and Prayer

We have been discussing whether the sanctity of a place or object is changed when that place or object is sold.  Today's daf begins with that conversation.  We are reminded that a study hall is considered to be of greater sanctity than a synagogue.  This means that a study hall should not be sold so that it will be used as a synagogue.

To further this exploration of levels of sanctity, the rabbis discuss which scrolls may be place on top of other scrolls when they are stored in the arc.  After debating some of the options, the rabbis note that often there is no choice but to place one scroll on another.  In fact, when we furl the scroll, we are similarly placing words of greater and lesser sanctity beside each other.  

Before beginning another Mishna, the rabbis speak about what to do when we are asked to give charity while visiting another town.  There is a line of thought about taking care of people who are needy.  However, those who are in our own villages should take priority.  It will be interesting to see if this line of thought continues on through my reading of the Talmud.

A short Mishna teaches us about individuals versus communities when it comes to the sanctity of items.   A comparison is made between communities and cities; individuals and villages.

Another Mishna is introduced.  We move into the topic of purchases, interest, permanent sales, and other financial transactions.  The rabbis explore when we might be allowed to reverse a sale.  We also learn that only four uses are prohibited in a former synagogue after its sale: as a bathhouse, tannery, mikvah, and lavatory (because nakedness and offensive odours would insult the previous sanctity of that place).  

Our daf also touches upon two more ideas.  First, the rabbis consider the implications of urinating in the same place where one prays (within four cubits).  Second, the rabbis boast about their prayer and the ways in which they are rewarded for those prayers.  

I continue to be fascinated by the discussion of 'levels of sanctity'.  The concept of sanctity seems to be similar to that of ritual impurity.  It is a state that may or may not be reversed given specific circumstances, actions and intentions.  Although sanctity seems 'positive' and impurity seems 'negative', in fact they are simply two states of being.

Megilla 26 Does Sanctity Last? Creating - and Discarding - What is Meaningful

Based on a new Mishna, we learn about two issues today.  First, the rabbis discuss village shuls that are to be sold. Does a synagogue maintain its sanctity after being sold?  Are we permitted to sell a synagogue or other things that have been imbued with sanctity?  The second discussion focuses on sanctity in general.  Do items lose their sanctity?  Which items?  How can we reuse articles that protected G-d's name?  Does anyone own property in Jerusalem?

Although the specifics of the rabbis' conversations are fascinating, today's daf stirs up questions about today's practices of ownership, sanctification of animate objects, and the nature of holiness. 

Can an item hold on to its sanctity?  Why would some items maintain their quality of holiness while others can not?  

I have wondered about the seder plate.   The maror, the beitza, the charoset - these foods became much larger than foods during the seder. They were metaphors, representations of our physical, psychological and emotional states.  The meaning imbued upon those foods created a sanctity; a power surrounding them.  And at the end of the seder, what are we to do - throw them into the compost with other wasted food?  I have been told in the past to hold on to those items, watch them wither, and note when and how their meanings change over time.  According to today's daf, though, we should be composting those foods without a second thought.  They are not directly protecting the name of G-d, and thus they lose their sanctity at the end of the seder.

When the rabbis worry about selling a synagogue in a village, they are not worried about the potential desecration of a sacred place.  They are concerned that a publicly owned property might be sold without the consent of the myriad of owners/community members.  

The rabbis do note that an old or broken synagogue should not be torn down until a new synagogue has been built.  This can become problematic if the new synagogue is being constructed using materials from the old synagogue.

The idea of sanctity is particularly fraught with challenges within Jewish thought. Other than G-d's name, we are not to think of sanctified objects as particularly powerful.  That fleeting power suggests that we are the ones who create holiness with our intentions and our conscious use of items.  

G-d's name is different - and so Torah scrolls and anything used to protect the words written in Torah are to be used with great care.  When old or broken, those items must be reused in a role that is similarly sanctified.  For example, Torah covers that protect G-d's name can be ripped and used to cover the body of one without means who has died.  But frayed fringes on a tallit need not be buried; they did not protect G-d's written name and thus they can be discarded.

Today's daf is exactly what I hoped to learn when I began learning Talmud.  Hopefully tomorrow's learning will continue along this line of questioning!

Sunday, 3 August 2014

Megilla 24 Who Does What and Why

We learn four different Mishnaot today.  Here is a basic outline with some explanation-point-commentary.

  • We learn that when reading Torah, we pause for the translator to translate one line at a time.  When reading from the Prophets, the translator can translate three lines at a time.  However, if those lines are each 'a paragraph' in themselves, we must pause after each line for translation.  This suggests that an accurate translation of Torah and Prophets is very important to our rabbis.
  • We learn that reading the haftara ordinarily may accompany other honours: saying the blessings before and after the Shema (which includes a blessing on the stars, sun), standing in front of the ark to recite the Amida, and raising hands as part of the Priestly Blessing (if he is a Kohen).  The Mishna speaks about minors, people who are blind, and those whose clothes are torn thus their arms/shoulders are bare.  Each of these community members is allowed to read the haftara, but may be restricted from other honours.  
    • Interestingly, a minor would - theoretically - never be naked in front of the Torah, for nakedness implies that one is sexually aroused and ready to be immediately sexually active.  This cannot apply to a minor, we're told.  
    • Another point - we learn that a person who is blind can say the blessings before the Shema as long as he was once able to see the light of the night sky.  This is because light must benefit the person who is giving thanks for that light.  However, another argument helps us understand the valuing of people with different abilities.  We are told that light still benefits a person who is blind, for other see the blind man who holds a torch and they will tell him what lies in his path.  Since he benefits from the night sky, should he not be allowed to say the blessings of the Shema?
  • It is understood that the congregation does not look at Kohanim as they recite the Priestly Blessing.  A Mishna teaches that if a Priest's hands are blemished - for any reason - they should not raise their hands in this blessing, for the congregants will look at them.  This sparks a discussion among the rabbis.  What if people are used to seeing this priest's hands?  What if the entire town has similar hands?  What if the priest's hands are covered by the tallit, as is the custom in some communities?  
    • Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi defends those who have 'different' hands by suggesting that some of the rabbis pronounce words improperly due to their place of origin - should they be removed from the Sanhedrin?
  • Finally, we are told that people who insist on leading prayers unconventionally - wearing clothes without colour (white), wearing tfilin that are round, or wearing sandals/bare feet cannot lead prayers.  The Gemara tells us that they are turned away not because this dishonours our tradition or because it is against Torah/rabbinical law.  Instead, they are turned away because these practices are those of heretics.  The rabbis are afraid of the infiltration of Sadducees or other heretical communities.
Much conversation today about how we define the "us" of "us and them".  It seems to me that ancient Judaism was focused upon creating itself as much as it was about maintaining itself.  Unfortunate that so much of that work relied on emphasizing silos of difference.

Megilla 23 Respect for the Congregation/When is a Minyan Required?

Amud (a) reflects more of our rabbis' conversations about reading Torah.  On different occasions, there are different numbers of readers for different numbers of days.  We are offered more prooftexts so that we can understand the origins of our rabbis' assertions.  Of note is the recommendation from Tosefta (Megilla 3:11) when there are seven readers: all people can read Torah on those days, including women and minors. However, the Sages said that a woman should not read the Torah out of respect for the congregation.  

There is no note to help us understand the rabbis' thinking.  Thus I would suggest that "respect for the congregation" means that men would not want women, who are of significantly lower status, to be 'disrespectful' of male authority by taking on roles of religious leadership.  Thus it is not a religious imperative but a social rule that teaches that women do not read Torah.

Amud (b) opens with a new Mishna.  It teaches that we require a minyan, ten men (although it is unclear whether this is truly meaning ten men or ten people) to do the following things:

  • recite the blessing before the Shema (porsin)
  • pass in front of the ark (to repeat the Amida)
  • lift their hands in the Priestly Blessing
  • read Torah in public
  • conclude with a haftara/reading from Prophets
  • standing and sitting (for eulogies)
  • recite the mourners' prayer or comfort mourners (in two lines after the funeral)
  • recite the bridegrooms' blessing
  • conduct a zimmun/invite people to Birkat HaMazon, saying G-d's name
  • redeem consecrated land by less than nine men and one priest
  • assess the value of a person who  pledges his/her value to the Temple by less than 9 men and one priest
The rabbis look to a number of sources to better understand the requirement of ten men.  Gezerah Shavahs, verbal analogies, where we learn about ten men being separated from the others (Numbers 16:21) and the evil congregation of ten spies (Numbers 14:27) offer two sources.  

Regarding standing and sitting, the mourners' blessing and the bridegrooms' blessing, blessings of Birkat HaMazon - these are all taken as self-explanatory.  It seems that it is understood that ten men are required to create a community capable of communal prayer.  Perhaps we will learn more about the rabbis' reasoning.  

The rabbis note that it is difficult to value a person who has consecrated oneself.  Rabbi Abbahu offers a helpful tip: just as slaves are valued, we should value these people.  And slaves are to be inherited as possessions, just like one's land.  Thus slaves - and those who consecrate themselves to the Temple - should be evaluated similarly to how land is evaluated.

Sometimes our learning feels incredibly modern; simple to apply to modern questions.  Today is not one of those days.  Every part of today's daf feels antiquated - which it is!  What is amazing is that it is ever simple to connect the daily daf with our lives, 2000 years later.