Wednesday, 30 December 2015

Gittin 18: When Can a Woman Remarry?; Fighting; How Many Witnesses?

The Sages wish to clarify how long a woman must wait after divorcing until she may remarry.  Specifically they wish to know when to begin counting the days toward three months. Rav says that giving the get counts as day one.  Shmuel says that the moment that the get is written, the three month period commences.  Three months is significant because the rabbis wanted to ensure that we would always know who was the baby's father.   If a woman conceives just before she receives the get, (or before it is written), and she marries within the next three months, we might not know who the father is.  This might create concerns regarding forbidden and/or undesirable sexual relationships.

What if the document was written early?  What if the agent takes his time delivering the get?  While the rabbis have different opinions, they are swayed by the fact that there is no chance that the husband would be secluded with his wife while an agent delivered her her get from overseas.  The halacha is that the three months begins at the time that the get is written.  The rabbis then question when the ketubah becomes a debt that must be paid out before the shemita year (when all debts are forgiven). 

The rabbis discuss what to do if a man changes his mind about the divorce within the first 10 days after the get was written - when there is a delay in delivery of the get.  Is leniency allowed here?  Again, such a situation would be bizarre and unusual.  However, the rabbis note that this would be a public matter, where many witnesses could attest to when the couple could be heard fighting and when the fighting ended.

That last point shed light on a number of points - was fighting the only reasonable sign of a divorcing couple?  Or was a fighting couple that was also divorcing thought to be having sexual relations when they stopped fighting?  Further, did everyone hear everyone else's fights all of the time?  Was there any privacy at all in ancient times?  Was the only reason for 'seclusion' sexual in nature?

Our daf ends with a conversation about who can sign the get as a witness.  How many people are at the signing of the get if one says "all of you" to those present? What should be done about disqualified witnesses, such as relatives?  What about those who witness but sign at a later time?  Are gets valid in such questionable circumstances?

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Gittin 17: A Habara; Writing And Signing On The Same Day

We begin with learning about a time when a habara, a Zoroastrian/Persian priest, interrupted scholars to insist that there is no light other than in the temple.  Notes in Steinsaltz teach us that usually the Sages think harshly of the Romans and well of the Persians due to how they treated Jewish communities.  In this case, though, the Zoroastrians moved into power in Persia in the 3rd century CE, bringing problems with them. 

The rabbis return to their questions about two agents bringing a get from overseas.  Rabbi Yochanan and Rabbi Shimon disagree in a new Mishna: must the get be written and signed on the same day or the same night?  Must both agents witness the writing and the signing of the get, or is one witnessing the writing and both witnessing the signing enough?  Perhaps Rabbi Yochanan was concerned that a man might try to protect his wife who was adulterous because she was also his niece and he would change the dates of the get.  But Reish Lakish would argue that adultery is uncommon and the Sages would not make a ruling based on an uncommon occurrence.  Rabbi Yochanan suggested that husbands might change the dates on a get to cover up inappropriate use of his ex-wife's usufruct property.

Again we see the rabbis trying to protect women from men who might use the get to control the lives of their wives.  Interesting that since the inception of these rules, they have been used inappropriately.  Also interesting that since the inception of these rules, rabbis have been attempting to interpret the laws to protect women who were financially, physically and otherwise vulnerable depending on the whims of their husbands.

Gittin 16: Ritual Agency 'In Part'; Two Agents, Four Statements?

Washing hands properly is required to ensure that one's hands are ritually pure.  The rabbis discuss whether or not one might become ritually impure through the use of water improperly.  This includes things like part of a hand being washed, transferring the moist water from that hand to another object, connecting two parts of water in an attempt to create a larger, ritually pure pool of water, etc.  The rabbis consider whether or not a mikvah is kosher if it begins with exactly 40 se'a of water and one person immerses and then leaves.  Two people could immerse simultaneously and become ritually pure, but in the first scenario, the second person would enter a mikvah with slightly less than 40 se'a of water.

We learn in a note by Steinsaltz that mikvahs were often dirtied by the many people entering them.  People began to rinse off in drawn water following the ritual immersion.  To ensure that the primary importance of immersion in the mikvah would not be lost, the rabbis ruled that immersion in drawn water/falling water would cause ritual impurity.

In cases of seminal emissions (whether intentional, unintentional, or during intercourse), men were permitted to immerse half of their bodies while nine kav of drawn water was poured over the other half.  Immersion had to be completed before touching certain items or partaking of terumah (immersion with ritual purity achieved at nightfall).  However, notes teach us that the custom today is usually much more lenient: men need not immerse at all following an emission and they are permitted to pray, study Torah, and say the shema without transgressing laws of ritual purity.

Amud (b) brings us back to the questions about agents, witnesses, and gittin brought to Israel from foreign lands.  The rabbis discuss cases where two agents bring the document together.  Perhaps one attests to witnessing the signing and the other attests to witnessing the writing.  While our Sages did not make decrees based on unusual cases (such as this), Rabbi Yehuda deems the get valid.  Even without witnesses consistent with other forms of law, in this case, he states that the document would in fact be written and signed for her sake.  

Our daf ends with a tale about Rabbi bar bar Chana who is visited by Rav Yehuda and Rabba.  They ask him whether or not two witnesses must both state that they witnessed the writing and signing of a get delivered from overseas.  Rabbi bar bar Chana reasons that they need not validate in this particular way.  All they need to state is that the husband has ordered them to bring the document; if the husband ordered its delivery, he must have written and signed the document.  And thus the husband would have no grounds for further recourse.

It is fascinating to compare the rituals around ritual impurity for men and for women.  What are the customs that have been maintained?  Why have other rituals fallen aside?  And if the rituals for male ritual purity have diminished and yet men continue to be "Torah Jews", why can't we begin to change to rules regarding women's ritual purity without fearing the destruction of Judaism as we know it?  Many orthodox women suffer under the current stringent halachot of ritual purity.  Why must these customs be maintained in ways that can distance women from their Jewish connections?

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Gittin 15: The Power of the Messenger

We know that the wishes of a person on his or her deathbed would be considered to have been written, signed and witnessed.  But is this true in all cases?  Perek I ends with the tale of Rochel, who was ill.  She asked that her brooch (or something like a brooch) be given to her daughter, for it would be worth twelve hundred dinars.  When she died, the Sages fulfilled her wishes.  Rabbi Eleazar and Rabbi Ya’akov disagreed.  Her inheritance should go to her sons.  But her sons were considered to be wicked (whether or not for this participating in the brooch-transfer, I’m not sure).   They wanted the value of the brooch to be split due to uncertainty in the halacha.  This becomes a conversation about fulfilling the requests of those who are healthy and not just those on their deathbeds.

Perek II brings us to a new Mishna and a new set of considerations.  How much wiggle room do we have regarding writing, signing and witnessing of the get before it is delivered by an agent?  The Mishna walks us through the options when a witness brings a get written overseas and says:

  •   It was written but not signed in my presence
  •   It was signed but not written in my presence
  •   All of it was written but half of it was signed in my presence
  •   Half of it was written but all of it was signed in my presence
  •   It was written in my presence and signed in the presence of this other witness

In these cases, the get is invalid.

  •  It was written in our presence but signed in the presence of only one of us – Rabbi        Yehuda says this is valid
  •  It was written in the presence of one of us bug signed in the presence of both of us

The rabbis say that the get is valid.

The Gemara engages in a lengthy debate regarding the validity of the get. They consider the importance of witnessing signatures over other factors.  They speak about the ratification of other legal documents.  They wonder if the agent might be one of the witnesses mentioned.  They consider how much of the writing would have to be witnessed in order to validate the witnessing of the writing.  One line? Two lines?  Which ones?  They even apply halachot regarding the addition of a new law to an existing law by looking at embankments – when a five-handbreadth wall is added to an existing five-handbreadth wall in order to make the wall the requisite height to form a Shabbat eiruv.

Our daf ends with another comparison.  This time, the rabbis looks at washing one’s hands in a quarter log of water.  We know that an exception is made for two washing their hands, one over the other, even though some of the quarter log of water will stick to the first person’s hands and not wash the other person’s hands.  Surely if such a leniency – or an extension of a law – can be made in that case, we can find ways to accommodate the witnessing of the get that is not in perfect accordance with halacha.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Gittin 14: Rituals of Aquisition

The rabbis discuss cases providing examples of what to do when sent to deliver money to someone who isn't there.  Sometimes the money has been borrowed, sometimes it has been offered as a type of collateral, and sometimes it seems to have been forgotten.  The rabbis walk us through a number of cases where the recipient is missing for some reason.  Who should receive the money, the inheritors of the missing person?  The inheritors of the person who sent an agent to get the money? Others? Or should the money be split and shared?

The rabbis consider problems that arise when the halacha is unclear, such as cases where money is split between two seemingly deserving parties.  The rabbis want to understand the intentions of the original senders.   Should the agent be permitted to decide what to do, as he was the person who best understood the sender's wishes?  Is it better to deprive a party of half of their entitlement to ensure that the party in the "right" should receive at least half of what is theirs?  How much importance should be given to the rights of the dead; the need to fulfill deathbed wishes and the wishes of those who can no longer advocate for themselves?

Obviously there are differences between these examples and the example of a woman who is being divorced via an agent.  But the rabbis are helping us to understand a fuller context by allowing us to better understand financial halachot regarding other matters of contract law.

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Gittin 12: Owning a Person (Slave or Wife) - When Do the Responsibilities End?

The rabbis continue to discuss what we can learn about divorcing their wives by comparing their wives with slaves.  Must one always sustain a wife or a slave?  What if s/he is sent to a land of exile? What are some of the exceptions?  Why?  Does a man hold his wife's earnings?  His slave's earnings?    Does he hold their excess earnings?  Does the provision of sustenance mean that a man must pay for others' costs, or does he pay them and they pay for their own costs?

The rabbis attempt to understand how a slave owner could say to his slave, "Work for me and I will not sustain you."  Had he consecrated the hands of his slave, so that any work over that worth one peruta would be given to the Temple?  Was the slave owning his owner money, for the medical costs associated with losing his hands?  

A wife and a slave might face different consequences regarding the provision of terumah if they were to be 'freed' from the bonds of marriage/slavery to a priest.  It may be to the wife's detriment but to the slave's advantage regarding the halachot of teruma.  This is because a wife can no longer be sustained without access to teruma, while a slave can continue to partake of teruma.

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Gittin 11: Assimilation, Contracts and Agents Creating Detriment

We are told that there are different implications when the names on a document are obviously Gentile names.  The Gemara even shows us a number of examples: Hurmiz, Abbudina, Bar Shibbetai, Bar Kidri, Bati and Nakim Una.   What if the names are not obviously Gentile, but might be Gentile?  Examples of those names are shared as well.  These could be Jews who took on Gentile names. Jews living in Gentile lands might have names that are not Jewish at all.  Raba introduces a conversation about documents written in Persian - when are those documents considered to be valid?  

These conversations continue even today.  When Jews assimilate, how can we know that these Jews are Jewish 'enough' to validate documents?

A new Mishna teaches us that the rabbis disagree about whether or not a get and/or a bill of manumission might be rescinded after the fact.  One argument reminds us that one can benefit a person away from that person, but one can harm a person only in that person's presence.  

Another difference between the two cases is that a man need not sustain a slave but he must sustain his wife.  The rabbis wonder about whether or not teruma is owed to the slave of a priest.

The Gemara tells a story about Rabbi Yirmeya dozing while Rav Huna and Rav Yitzchak bar Yosef discuss the question of whether or not someone can benefit monetarily from the detriment of someone else.   The Gemara ends with the example of peah that is collected by someone as an agent.  That person is obligated to give that peah to the next poor person who walks by.

Gittin 10: Kutim (Samaritan) Witnesses

The rabbis discuss the limitations of a Kutin, a Samaritan, witness on different documents.  This conversation moves from the halachot of retraction (according to both Torah and rabbinic law) to the halachot of betrothal.  Does one set of halachot prove an interpretation in a different context?

We learn a new Mishna: Any document that has a Samaritan witness is invalid except for bills of divorce and manumission.  Rabbi Gamliel was in the town of  Otnai when he stated that a bill of divorce was valid; it had the signatures of Samaritan witnesses upon it.

Why these two exceptions?  The rabbis consider the case of matzot: Samaritan matzot is not only considered to be kosher for consumption on Pesach, but it also may serve as the fulfilment of the mitzvah to eat matzah on Pesach.  Clearly the Samaritans were considered to have upheld the letter of the law and the spirit of the law in that circumstance.

Rav Pappa suggests that bills of divorce and manumission both require the presence of both witnesses when the other witness signs the shared document.  A Jew would not sign a document signed by a Samaritan who did not keep the letter of the law.  And a Jew would not sign a document if he believed that an ‘unworthy’ Samaritan would be signing the same document.  And so the Samaritan’s signature is valid in these cases.

Today’s discussions doe not seem to be about witnesses.  Rather they are focused upon whether or not Samaritans are part of the the Jewish community when it comes to halacha.  There seem to be multiple opinions on how to include and/or exclude Samaritans from the larger Jewish population in the time of our rabbis.

A second new Mishna in today’s daf teaches that all documents produced in Gentile courts are valid, except those of divorce and manumission.   Rabbi Shimon says that even those are valid, as they were spoken of if they were prepared by common people and not in court.

The Gemara considers some of the differences between bills of sale, gifts, and scrolls of severance.  We learn here that dina d’malchutah dina, the law of the kingdom is the law.  I have heard this particular phrase in many different contexts over the course of my life.  It is understood still that Jews are to follow the law of the lands in which we live.

Monday, 21 December 2015

Gittin 9: Bills of Divorce and Bills of Manumission

The rabbis compare the documents that free women from marriage to the documents that free slaves from ownership.   Beginning with a discussion of bills of manumission declared upon a slave-owner's deathbed, the Gemara walks us through witnesses reading and signing these documents if those witnesses cannot read nor write.  One particularly interesting point is that the slave who has been emancipated erroneously (while on his deathbed the owner has freed his slave through a process that should only take place after his death), retains his status as a free man, though he might not receive any property given to him at that time.  This is because people now know him as a free man.  Interesting, for the former slave has not been free for long!  Was this an excuse to keep a person emancipated?  Or a legal trick?

A new Mishna focuses in on the comparison above.  If an agent brings a document from oversees and cannot attest to seeing it written and/or signed, the witnesses ratify the document.  Bills of divorce and of manumission are similar in that they are accepted without the signatures of witnesses if brought from overseas.  This stands as long as the agent delivering the bill attests that it was written and signed in his presence. 

The Gemara wonders if the agent or if witnesses might have been or become deaf and mute to warrant such leniency.  We then learn that there are three ways that these documents are similar.  

  • Delivery overseas and testimony of witness are the same
  • A Gentile/Samaritan is permitted to act as one witness on these documents
  • These documents can be prepared in Gentile courts
Rabbi Meir had suggested a fourth similarity: witnesses were free to sign within a stencil - a paper with the shapes of the letters in their names ripped out.  However, this was not included by the other rabbis.  

The Gemara points out that other similarities exist: both documents cannot be attached to the ground when written.  The rabbis also discuss further what can be done with a deed before or after the death of an owner/husband.  

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Gittin 8: Borders

The rabbis continue to discuss the borders of Israel.  These are significant to gittin because a get must be written, signed and witnessed while being placed directly or indirectly on the ground.  If a get is written in a boat, the boat must be touching the earth beneath the water for the get to be valid.  When a get is written on a boat there is greater leniency regarding whether or not the boat is within the limits of Eretz Yisrael.  

It is interesting to read the rabbis' regarding Israel.  Many of the places mentioned in our text continue to exist approximately two years later.  And those same borders are questioned and debated today.

There are other implications regarding the borders of Israel.  Within the borders, the land (and air) is considered to be ritually pure.  That means that many laws, including that of shemita and of other agricultural laws like tithing only take effect within the holy land.  The rabbis debate whether or not the land of Syria should be considered to within the land of Israel, "like a suburb of Jerusalem".  Does that mean that contracts can be signed by an agent of a Jew on Shabbat?

We end on the very disturbing note of slavery.  Does a slave who brings a contract ending his term of service maintain his property if he is outside of the land of Israel?  We will return to this conversation with tomorrow's daf.

Gittin 7: Various Halachot

A number of pieces of wisdom from today's daf:

  • A man should not terrorize his home for fear that people could cause him to sin (for example by serving him the severed leg of an animal still alive)
  • When annoyed with another person's transgressions, Rabbi Eliezar tells Mar Ukba to simply say "resign yourself to the Lord and wait patiently for Him"
  • Music and drink are not always recommended at tables where there is wine
  • Bridegrooms do not wear garland crowns at their weddings
  • All people must give charitably according to their means
  • A get written on a boat at sea is considered to have been written within the land of Israel when the boat is relatively close to the shore
  • A simple pot (likely pottery that has not been fired) is used for many purposes - garbage collection, plant pot, etc.
  • The rabbis debate the northern boarders of Israel along the Mediterranean sea - their debate continues today!

Thursday, 17 December 2015

Gittin 5: Agents; Balancing Stringencies and Leniencies

We have learned that an agent must claim that he witnessed both the writing and signing of the get when he delivers that get to the wife.  What are some of the differences between what is said by an agent or messenger of a get and what is said by the husband or wife themselves?  The wife might be able to say the same thing; that she was witness to the writing and signing of the get.  But not a husband.  Why not?  The rabbis suggest that a husband might use that stringency to claim that he did not in fact witness the writing or signing of his own get, thus leaving his wife in a state of limbo as an aguna.

Another interesting juxtapositioning of lenient and stringent guidelines is introduced at the end of today's daf.  Bar Hadaya was an agent who insisted on inspecting every letter of the get as it was written to ensure that he would be able to answer questions honestly and accurately if he was challenged on his witnessing of the writing and signing of the get.  The rabbis warned against such stringencies.  They were concerned that husbands would use such practices to suggest that other gets were in fact invalid.  

Again we note that the rabbis are very aware that some men refuse their wives the get, essentially putting women in a situation where they risk forbidden sexual contact or where the husbands marry again without having divorced their first wives.  While multiple marriages were allowed by the letter of Torah law, they were forbidden by rabbinic law and they were only minimally acknowledged in Torah law.  

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Gittin 4: What's Difficult About Being Outside of HaAretz?

We begin with the rabbi's discussion about the agent who brings a get to a wife from a husband who is overseas.  That agent must claim that he witnessed the get being written and being signed.  Why is that so important?  The rabbis consider what it means to be overseas.  Where are the exact boundaries of Eretz Yisrael at that time?  Perhaps cities were too far from HaAretz to have halachic experts living there, and the get was not written or signed according to halacha.  

One of the rabbis' conversations considers the moving borders of HaAretz at that time.  Each different hegemonya could have leaders who restrict movement to another hegemonya.  

The rabbis also consider the particular errors that might be made when writing the get outside of HaAretz.  One of these is writing the document on something that is still attached to the ground.  The example used is a tree that has not yet be cut from the ground.  If the document is written while still attached, was it also signed while still attached?  

I have not learned about this particular halacha before Masechet Gittin, where it has been mentioned twice within the first two dapim.  It will be interesting to learn more about the implications and reasoning behind this particular halacha.  

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Gittin 3: Witnesses; For Her Benefit?

Amud (a) clarifies some of my confusion over daf 2.  A husband might claim that the get he sent ahead with an agent is actually invalid; that he did not write and/or sign it.  In addition, he might not have intended to create the get for his wife's benefit.  The presumption in this case is that the woman is still married, for if she is considered to be unmarried she is liable to remarry illegally and face severe consequences.  

A woman cannot act as a witness in cases of contested gets, for any case regarding forbidden sexual relationships requires two male witnesses.  Other types of cases allow women to act as witnesses, including those cases that require only one witness.  The Gemara elaborates on all of these points and more as it walks us through whether the agent acting as a single witness to the writing/signing of the get is a leniency or a stringency.

The Gemara considers how many people are required to testify at the hearing of a contested get.  Three people would make a full court.  The rabbis consider who might be a credible witness: the husband himself?  The wife herself?  The agent?  Others?  The Gemara also wonders whether in fact the get must be written for the wife's sake.  Perhaps this is not the case at all.

The Gemara notes that the rabbis are concerned about the welfare of wives who are waiting to be divorced.  They do not wish for women to be agunot, wives without marriages who are awaiting their gittin.  They see these women as at high risk of taking part in forbidden sexual relationships.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Gittin 2: Agents, Witnesses and Gittin

We jump right into Masechet Gittin that discusses the get, the Jewish bill of divorce.   Our first Mishna advises us regarding gittin, bills of divorce, that are delivered by agents.  When a husband is living overseas -- beyond Akko to the north, Rekem to the east, and Heger to the south -- he is permitted to deliver a get to his wife via an agent.  The agent is required to say that "the get was written in my presence and signed in my presence".  He must assert his witnessing of the get even when moving from one hegemonya,* district, to another.  The rabbis argue about the boundaries that define what is inside and outside of Israel.  They also note that signatories can be used to answer a husband who claims that the get has been forged.

The Gemara wonders why the agent must declare that he both saw the get being written and that he saw the get being signed.  The rabbis consider whether or not the get has been written for the wife's sake.  The rabbis discuss how many witnesses are required to verify the validity of a get.  Perhaps a get was not written by a scribe who understood that it must be written for the wife's sake?  Perhaps the husband found a get that magically had his and his wife's names on it and he was using that false get to save money.

The vast majority of "ordinary judicial scribes", even outside of Israel, would understand the halachot of gittin compared with those of other contracts.   That assumption of validity affect the ways that witnesses might be used and/or discredited.   We learn that cases of gittin are special because witnesses might be testifying for forbidden sexual relations - that means that at least two witnesses are required.  A note teaches us that if a witness tells a man that his wife was adulterous, the husband can ignore him for he is only one witness.  However, if that husband believes the man and his wife does not deny the claim that she has been adulterous, the husband should divorce her and pay the value of her ketuba.  There are two witnesses in this circumstance.

A number of questions have arisen from this very first daf of Masechet Gittin: What is the alternative of writing a get for the wife's sake?  Is there a malicious or selfish way of writing a get?  Wouldn't a wife receiving her get be divorced regardless of the intention of the writer?  And what are the witnesses witnessing - the wife's behaviour?  the husband's signature? the delivery of the get by an agent?  Are two witnesses required in all of these cases, or can the agent serve as one very reliable witness?  

Those are just some of the questions that jump to mind... it looks like Gittin will offer some enticing learning.

* is this related to the word hegemony, which acknowledges the power of a state?

Sunday, 13 December 2015

Sota 49: When Everything Went Bad

Masechet Sota ends with much mention of the sota ritual.  However, the text does remind us about the ending of different rituals and practices.

First, we are reminded that rabbis will be rewarded for good behaviour - talking about Talmud while with other scholars, learning Torah in a state of poverty.  Rabbis will be consequenced for negative behaviours, as well.

The rabbis then discuss the notion of lost taste and aroma when piety is lacking.  This becomes a conversation about fathers loving their sons while those sons adore their own sons rather than their fathers.

The final Mishna of Masechet Sota teaches about what ceases after which event.  Following one war/death, there was a loss to teh Jewish people:

After the war of the Vespasian, bridgrooms could not be crowned and drums could not be played
After the war of Titus, brides could not be crowned and children could not be taught Greek
After the Bar Kochva Revolt, the last war, there was a debate over whether or not brides could be paraded
Death of Rabbi Meir - no more parables
Dealth of Azzai - no more diligents
Death of Zoma - no more exegeses
Death of R. Akiva - no more Torah
Death of Chanina ben Dosa - no more men of action
Death of Yasai the Small - no more pious people
Death of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai - no more glory of wisdom
Death of Rabban Gamliel the Elder - no more honour of Torah, purity or asceticism
Death of Rabbi Yishmael ben Pavi - no more glory of the priesthood
Death of Rabbi Yehuda NaNasi - no more humility or fear of sin

What does this mean?  people were filled with shame, violent and "smooth talking men" gained power, and people ceased looking for answers through enquiry.  Rabbi Eliezer the Great understood this to mean that from the day that the Second Temple was destroyed, each generation has deteriorated.  

Much of the remainder of this last daf of Sota tells of the world without these qualities.  The rabbis also clarify the type of drum that was forbidden, the types of crowns that were disallowed, and different opinions about discouraging the use of the Greek language and/or the study of Greek wisdom.  

The very final words of our daf are telling.  We are reminded of the last line of the Mishna (Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi's death hastened the end of humility and fear of sin).   However, Rav Yosef said to the tanna who reviewed this Mishna "Do not teach that humility ceased, for there is someone - me." Similarly, Rav Nachman said to that same tanna, "Do not teach that the fear of sin ceased for there is someone - me."

From this final paragraph I take two lessons.  The first is a pshat reading: these positive qualities have not been destroyed.  There is still hope for our future as a good people.  My second reading is quite the opposite: both rabbis suggest that they demonstrate laudable qualities.  However, someone who has humility will not say that s/he is humble.  And someone who is fearful of sin, for example, the sin of pride, will not advertise his fear of that sin.  And so we are left with an ironic and yet poignant set of statements as we end Masechet Sota.

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Sota 48: How the Jewish People Changed After The Loss of the Temple

In Sota 47 a Mishna teaches that Yochanan the High Priest took away the declaration of tithes.  He also nullified the action of the awakeners and the strikers at the Temple.  Today's daf begins with clarification of those rulings.  The rabbis were concerned that much produce was not tithed properly. Yochanan the High Priest addressed this uncertainty.

A number of roles at the Temple are described: the awakeners called out, "Awake, why do you sleep, oh Lord" (Psalms 44:24) when the Levites were awake.  Yochanan found this unnecessary and ended this action.  The strikers would beat potential sacrificial animals to stun them before sacrifice, as the strikers would cut animals' foreheads so that the blood would block their eyes from witnessing their own deaths.  Such actions were thought to be problematic because 1) they were similar to how sacrifices to idols were treated, 2) they created blemishes on animals that should be unblemished, and 3) a damaged membrane in the brain could result in the animal dying within the year which makes the animal disqualified for sacrifice. It is shocking to my modern sensibility that this is not problematic because it is needlessly cruel.

Yochanan the High Priest ended this practice by introducing 24 metal rings that were secured in the Temple courtyard, The animals' heads would go through those rings and then the animals would be secured.

A new Mishna teaches us about other things that were nullified after the Temple was destroyed and the Sanhedrin ceased.  These include:

  • song during feasts (from Isaiah 24:9: With song they shall not drink wine")
  • the shamir worm
  • sweet honeycombs
  • pious men within the Jewish people
  • the urim vetummim* (after the early prophets died)
  • each day is cursed
  • the fruit has lost its taste
  • fruit has lost its fat
  • all has been consumed by promiscuity and witchcraft
The Gemara begins by challenging the declaration that song cannot coexist with wine.  The rabbis consider situations where song is said to be forbidden by prophets.  They also describe the need for those who pull boats or row in unison to sing while they work.  It seems that Rav Chisda noticed that some people, like weavers and rowers, were singing innocently, while others were singing lewd lyrics.  Rav Chisda the prohibition and people sang again.  There is a reference here to a change in the price of ducks, but I am unclear about how this is connected to our discussion of song.

Rav Yosef suggests that it is a song's call and response between men and women that is problematic because it encourages licentiousness.   Isaiah is quoted as saying that a number of instruments, including the harp, the psaltery, the drum and the pipe are very dangerous when combined with wine. A note teaches us that this list of instruments extends to all instruments.

The rabbis try to determine which prophets are the "early prophets", after which there was no use of the umim vetummim.  David, Samuel and Solomon?  Was this the same time that the Divine Spirit left the Jewish people?  What about the Divine Voice - for how long was that heard?  The rabbis speak of a number of different elders and how they were treated in death; the phrase, "Oh pious one, oh humble one, student of..." is shared to reflect the honour bestowed on those rabbis.

The rabbis go on to describe other differences, and negative differences, in particular, that occurred.  We learn more about the shamir worm, which was said to to somehow cut through the stones that we used to build the Temple with King Solomon.  Without that worm, there was no way to rebuild the Temple.   We also learn more about the decreased quality of silk/glass, honey, and the faith of the people.

It is fascinating that today's daf focuses on what the rabbis do not know: when did things change?  What exactly changed at that time?   They are so similar to us, looking back 2000 years to try to better understand intentions and meaning.  However, these monumental events had just occurred, relatively speaking.  

*the precious stones representing the 12 tribes that were placed on the High Priest's breastplate

Thursday, 10 December 2015

Sota 46: The Heifer Whose Neck Will Be Broken; Accompaniment as Protection

Amud (a) holds the Gemara based on the previous Mishna.  How is the heifer whose neck will be broken different from the red heifer?  The rabbis consider minute details, including words indicating when the yoke is applied and the intention of the heifer's owner.  The conversation moves toward how far a yoked heifer would have to walk to be disqualified, and what other references there are to the word eitan meaning strong.

The rabbis argue about whether the word "which" in "Which may be neither worked nor sown" (Deuteronomy 21:4)  is a reference to the past or to the future.  Then they argue about whether this sentence is a generalization followed by a detail; whether which" is an amplification.  

The rabbis speak to us about who accompanies the Elders.  In other circumstances, such accompaniment is followed by winning wars and protecting cities.  The rabbis continue to share stories about people who are accompanying each other, protecting each other from harm like Torah.  One story, about Elisha (II Kings 2:23), is discussed at greater length.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Sota 45: A Found Corpse

The rabbis use agricultural halachot to help them figure out the halacha regarding a found corpse.  Some of what is discussed includes:
  • The size of the Sanhedrin required (23)
  • The location of the Sanhedrin consulted (closest city to the corpse; Jerusalem is excluded)
  • How a found corpse compares with found sheaves in a field
  • Halachot regarding the ownership and responsibility for forgotten produce; produce that has 'floated' to a location other than its owners
  • Who owns a field
  • The case of one sheaf covering another - can the lower sheaf be classified as forgotten, for it is concealed, while the upper sheaf is classified as floating?
  • Can this picture help us to understand who is responsible for corpses that are found one atop another?
  • In the following cases, if a person was slain by the sword the judges break the neck of the heifer regardless of the corpse's location:
    • slain - killed by a sword but not strangled
    • slain - excluding one who is found twitching, in the throes of death
    • in the land - excluding those concealed in a pile of stones
    • lying - excluding one who is hanging from a tree
    • in the filed - excluding one who is floating on the surface of the water
    • other terms are added by Rabbi Yosei bar Yehuda
A new Mishna teaches that two heifers are brought if the corpse is found precisely between two cities with the same population.  It also tells us that Rabbi Akiva tells us to bring the body to the head should the head be severed.  The measurements should be taken from the nose of the corpse.  Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov says that the head should be brought to the body and that the measurement is taken from the navel.

The rabbis discuss a number of issues, including:
  • The possibility of measurements so precise that cities can be equidistant from a found corpse
  • The implications of met mitzvah, where an unknown corpse is to be buried where it is found
  • Whether the body is formed from the head or the intestines while in utero.
We are introduced to one last Mishna.  It teaches about the actual ritual of the heifer.  After the measurements are taken, the Elders of Jerusalem return home.  The Elders of the city closet to the corpse bring a young heifer (blemishes don't matter but the heifer must be able to survive one year and cannot have worked) to a strong stream.  The break the heifer's neck from behind, using a cleaver.  That ground cannot be sown or worked.  The Elders then wash and recite, "Our hands did not spill this blood, nor did our eyes see" (Deuteronomy 21:17).  This statement suggests that the Elders did not contribute to the unknown person's death directly or indirectly.  

An interesting, very long daf.  I love that I continue to learn so much (though I recognize that I only learn a sliver of what I might learn about this text with more resources).

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Sota 44: Exempt from War?; The Red Heifer

After mentioning that a corpse imparts ritual impurity extending four cubits when it is in a graveyard (but only four handbreadths in a number of other circumstances), the rabbis return to their conversation illuminating our last Mishna.

The Gemara clarifies who counts in the category of betrothed.  Rabbi Yosei Hagelili suggests that one who is “fearful and fainthearted” (Deuteronomy 20:8) is a soldier who is betrothed to an unsuitable partner.  He is feeling that way because of the knowledge that he has sinned.  The rabbis note that one is not actually punished with flogging until one has actually engaged in sexual intercourse with an inappropriate wife, for at that point he has “profaned his seed” which is forbidden (Leviticus 21:14-15).

Regarding the order of the Mishna’s directives: one that has built; one who has planted, and then one who has betrothed – why are these placed in this order when they are repeated from Deuteronomy (20-5-7)?  The rabbis argue about potential meanings.  Is one to “work in the field” to acquire money, then buy a home, then take a wife?  One of the other possibilities is, of course, based on the lives of the rabbis: “Prepare your work outside” is studying Bible and Mishna; “make it fit for yourself in the field” is the study of Gemara, and “build your house” refers to good deeds. 

The rabbis also consider the meaning of “new wives” and the fact that a man who leaves his new wife to fight transgresses two prohibitions: to be home with his wife for a year and to not add to the war effort as a new groom.

A new Mishna teaches us that the officer who instructs the soldiers is referring to specific people when he speaks of the fearful and fainthearted.   Perhaps these men are those who have married unsuitable women, and they are fearful because of their sins.   In fact, officers are placed at the front and back of the units.  Not only do they guide, assist and protect the soldiers, but they beat soldiers with iron rods when they attempt to run from the battlefield. This is because one fearful soldier can affect the entire unit.

We then learn that all people, including the groom in his room and the bride in her wedding canopy, must go to war if the battle is obligatory.  Women fighting with men?  The rabbis address this ‘difficulty’ by suggesting that women were required to serve in non-combat roles.  Alternatively, they say that this was simply a turn of phrase from the Bible and not a suggestion that women actually fight in war.  Again, the rabbis interpret based upon their socially constructed understandings of what is best rather than upon discerning G-d’s will.

The Gemara begins with a conversation about transgression of rabbinical law in comparison with transgression of biblical law.

The rabbis actually change one of the sentences in the Mishna.  Originally it says that “because the beginning of fleeing is a downfall”.  They realize that this makes much more sense if they exchange the word placement: “because the beginning of the downfall is [the act of] fleeing”.  Again, why can the rabbis sometimes insists on the sanctity of wording and at other times change the wording to suit their interpretations?

Before beginning Perek IX, we are reminded of a halacha from Sukka 25a: One who is performing a mitzvah is exempt from performing another mitzvah.  This is stated with regard to a debate about which wars were necessary – all of Joshua’s wars.  The rabbis state that King David’s wars, which were fought to expand territory, were elective.  How might the rabbis understand the recent wars in Israel?  Some are certainly expansionist in nature… but what were the official boundaries and what would be considered extra territory?  That question alone has caused battles to flare.

Perek IX begins with a new Mishna.  It speaks of a found corpse.  In such a situation, the Elders and Judges are called together with either three or five of the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem.  These men look at the corpse.   Together, an odd number of them walk through the ritual of the red heifer.  This ritual is not performed if the corpse is buried under stone or otherwise hidden.  As well, the process is not necessary if the body is found close to a border, near a city populated mostly by Gentiles, or a well populated Jewish city with a large rabbinical court.

The Gemara tells us that the community will be spoken to in the Hebrew language.  It reasons whether the number of Judges from the Sanhedrin should be three or five, and it reminds us that those chosen should always be the most distinguished and respected in the community.  Our daf ends with a question: why would the Elders be mentioned separately from the Judges?  The question is not answered at the end of our daf.