Thursday, 21 March 2013

Eiruvin 13a, b

Today's daf breaks from the long arguments regarding alleyways and crossbeams.  We are introduced to stories about Rabbi Meir, to concepts about Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai.  For me, much more palatable learning.

Rabbi Meir was a disciple of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yishmael.  We are told the story of Rabbi Meir as scribe, where Rabbi Akiva said nothing when Rabbi Meir put copper sulfate into his ink (which creates a more permanent bond).  However, Rabbi Yishmael chided Rabbi Meir when watching him scribe.  Rabbi Yishmael reminded Rabbi Meir that one error in his work could change the entire world. This is a critical lesson, whether taken literally or figuratively (in my work, I am forever speaking about the potential good that can be done with one smile).  However, the comment seems punitive and harsh, especially when compared with Rabbi Akiva's non-judgemental approach.

12a continues to tell us about the times when permanent ink is important - Torah scrolls - and the times when it is detrimental - sota scrolls.  I will not take this opportunity to discuss Sota, but I'm looking forward to future analysis.

Rabbi Meir is now described in more detail.  He is said to have been brilliant, respected by his entire generation.  Rabbi Meir began to organize the oral Torah and the halachot; that redaction was completed later by Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi.  Rabbi HaNasi tells us that he learned as much as he did because he faced the back of Rabbi Meir; had he faced his front, Rabbi HaNasi would have been that much more learned.

Because Rabbi Meir questioned the leadership of the time, his name was left out of many discussions in the Talmud.  He is said to have been born to Roman parents who converted to Judaism.  Rabbi Meir lost his two sons and his wife, though his he continued to have his daughter.  He was well respected but led a difficult life.

12b ends with a famous story about Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai.  After three years of arguing back and forth about whose opinions represented G-d's intent, a Bat Kol (heavenly voice) replied, "both these and those are the words of the living G-d, but the Halacha aligns with Beit Hillel".  It is noted that Beit Hillel were agreeable and forebearing.  However, both the teachings of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel should be taught.  Though Beit Shammai's teachings were more insightful, Beit Hillel was able to hear Beit Shammai's arguments, and thus halacha ultimately follows their lead.

An extrapolation given to us: anyone who humbles oneself will be exalted by G-d; anyone who exalts oneself will be humbled by G-d (12b). In addition, following a two and a half year argument between these two houses, some said that it would be better had humans not been created than to have been created.  When discussed further, it was understood that now that humans HAVE been created, one should scrutinize one's planned actions (toward mitzvot and away from sin) (12b).

Today's daf offers a number of contrasts between two seemingly polarized ends.  Rabbi Meir's brilliance and fame are contrasted with his tragic family life and his poor treatment in the Sanhedrin.  Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai are contrasted and balanced: compassion and leniency with harshness and stringency.  Human character traits of pride and despair are contrasted with character traits of humility and critical self-reflection and goal-setting.

In this one daf, we are offered a perfect arc.  One character, Rabbi Meir, rises and falls; rises and falls.  Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai are in conflict and then at peace; at conflict again and then again in a place of understanding.  Finally, humans who are interacting with these people alternately boastful and humble; depressed and inspired.  We are left with a message of hope: in keeping our pride in check, we will be able to hear others' views with humility; we then must create thoughtful plans for our self-improvement.

What a treat to come across a daf that is bursting with overt meaning and beauty.

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