Thursday, 27 February 2014

Sukka 25 a, b

Our new Mishna teaches us three things:

1) one who is walking on their way (to perform a mitzva) is exempt from the mitzvot of sukkot
2) the ill and their caregivers are exempt from peforming the mitzvot of sukkot
3) it is permitted to eat and drink casual meals outside of the sukka

Daf 25 covers much of the first teaching.  What does the baraita mean when it says that one is on a path to perform a mitzvah?  The rabbis look to Deuteronomy 6:7, where the rabbis had interpreted similar wording in reference to reciting the Shema.   The rabbis use this interpretation and note that grooms are exempt from reciting the shema.  

We learn that men who marry virgins - and possibly men who marry widows, as well - are exempt from performing a mitzvah - that of reciting the shema - because of his preoccupation with performance of the bit mitzvah that follows the wedding.  For days grooms are allowed to ignore this mitzvah.  

But where did the idea come from; one is allowed to forgo the performance of one mitzvah if one is in the midst of performing another mitzvah.  We learn that at Pesach, two men were exempt from bringing their offering as they were impure from carrying a corpse to the Temple.  They were allowed to wait until the second Pesach to perform the mitzvah of bringing their offerings.  

The rabbis turn their attention to mourners.  Why are mourners required to perform the mitzvot of sukkot?  If grooms and those who are impure are allowed to forgo their obligations, why not mourners?  The rabbis suggest that mourners are not exempt because they can continue their mourning rituals in the sukka.  However, they note that mourners are allowed to forgo residence in the sukka if they find it impossible to perform the rituals of mourning while in the sukka.  For the most part, however, mourners are required to fulfill their obligations regarding the mitzvot of sukkot just like they are not exempt from other obligations.

The daf ends with a lively discussion about whether all of the groomsmen are allowed to forgo wearing tefillin; saying the shema; etc. due to their preoccupation with the wedding and care of the groom.  The rabbis go on to consider whether or not the newlyweds should also reside  in the sukka.  Would they be offered enough privacy?  Would the wife be forced to be alone with other men when the groom occasionally leaves the sukka?

Today's daf was easy to follow.  It focused on one point and I was able to follow the arguments with relative ease.  I have been wondering about those who put together all of these disparate, multi-layered commentaries and references.  It is almost impossible to imagine how to decide which details should go where. Two points: I'm thrilled it was done, and I'm thrilled tat I was not asked to perform the task.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Sukka 24 a, b

Our Sages are concerned that we might eat or drink before terumah and/or tithes have been separated.  What do they suggest?  They use a wineskin as an example.  What if it bursts? How might we figure out  how to tithe the remains?  Could we drink when it had not been tithed?

And when we use an animal as the wall of a sukka, should we be worried that the animal might die?  It is noted that in Yoma we learned that the High Priest takes on a second wife lest his wife dies while he is praying; he needs a family to pray for.  Should we have two different standards of atonement?

The rabbis continue to discuss the notion of an animal as a partition; a wall.  They debate over whether or not a person or another animate object can be a partition; whether or not something that moves can act as a partition.  How much might we have to tie something down.  Is the sukka automatically unfit if the walls can move in the wind?

The rabbis now consider the earlier Mishna limitation: an animal cannot serve as a surface upon which one can write a get.  Some of our Sages argue that this is in direct contradiction with other instruction, where a get can be written upon the horn of an animal or the arm of a slave, as long as the arm is not cut off to share the message.  They diverge into a conversation about a man who puts a condition into his get.  As long as the condition is short-term and does not bind the wife to her husband, it is fine.

A new Mishna teaches that in the case of a sukka using tree branches as walls, the sukka is fit.  These walls must be fit, however.  The Gemara discusses different types of trees and how much these walls are allows to move before the sukka will be ruled invalid.

Sukka is the first masechet I have learned that refers often to other masechtot that I have learned.  So we hear about Eirivin and Yoma within one daf.  Fun!

What's not fun is reading about the use of animals as walls, as writing surfaces.  Again, noone worries about the suffering of the animal, just the death of the animal and what that might incur based on halachot of ritual impurity.

I have been learning Ketubot in chevrutah with Rabbi Audrey Pollack over the past three years - the opposite of learning daf yomi!  Reading about the laws of divorce in the context of constructing Sukkot  is very bizarre.  Those laws leave women terribly vulnerable to their husbands and ex-husbands.  For example, a note in Steinsaltz teaches us that thought the condition in a get is not meant to last more than 30 days, as that binds a woman to her husband, many rabbis believe that the condition can in fact last a lifetime.  How are two people divorced when there is no legal divorce??

A final thought today referring to a sukka built in the trees whose branches reach down.  Perhaps this was intended to mean that the sukka was built between two trees where the branches hung down as walls.  The rabbis seem to think that we are thinking of a sukka built under a tree.  But how would one have a fit roof under a canopy of branches?

I am learning that the process of constructing a sukka is infinitely more challenging that n I had ever known.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Sukka 23 a, b

Rabbi Akiva and Rabban Gamliel set up a sukka on a boat.  The sukka blows away with the wind.  "Some sukka," says Rabban Gamliel.  He implies that it should never have been called a sukka, as it could not stand up to the wind.  "Ah," says Rabbi Akiva. "You are mistaken.  A sukka is unfit if it is on land and it cannot stand up to unusually strong winds.  But on the water, a sukka is fit when it can stand up to typical land winds. Also, a sukka is a temporary residence. Thus this sukka was fit."

Much of the remainder of today's daf is devoted to a very disturbing concept: using animals, live creatures, as part of the construction of the sukka.  No tools would be used to attach the animals to the rest of the sukka, thank goodness, but the animals would be secured in place with rope.

First, the rabbis ask whether or not a sukka is truly fit if it is built atop an animal.  The sukka is a temporary structure, after all, but it must last seven days. If we cannot climb onto the animal on the first day of the Festival, how could the sukka be deemed fit?

Next, the rabbis wonder about using an animal as a sukka wall.  They note that animate objects cannot be used to designate alleyways on Shabbat, to mark private domains around wells, to cover graves, or to be used to write gets.  

Of course animals cannot be used as walls!  That is cruel and unnatural.  It would create great distress for the animal.  None of these objections are discussed by our rabbis.  Instead, they are worried about invalidating the sukka.  And that would be because 
1) the animal could die
2) the animal could flee
3) the animal could crouch.
All of these concerns are spoken to when the rabbis explain that the animals would be secured in place from many directions, including from above, by ropes.  Thus the animal might die but could not move.  It could not physically flee.  It could not physically crouch.

The rabbis are unconcerned with the animals necessary suffering.  They are, however, concerned about setting up a situation where someone might die.  They look to the case of a priest who travels and ensures that his wife can eat terumah in his absence by writing a note asking that she not eat terumah from one month before he dies.  He could die at any time, but the presumption is that he is alive until there is conclusive proof of his death.  The rabbis note a similar assumption in the case of a ketubah, where a man ensures that his wife is divorced (and thus need not take part in a levirate marriage) by writing preemptively that he divorces her one hour before his death.  The assumption is that he is alive, however.

I cannot get my head around the insensitivity with which the rabbis discuss their use of animals.  I doubt that they were seriously considering residing in a sukka while listening to an animal die as it was forced to stand as a wall of that sukka.  However, to even discuss such a possibility without any concern for the experience of the animal is disconcerting.  Did everyone feel this way about animals in that time and place?  Did they believe that animals were created to be utilized by humans and thus being a wall was the same as pulling a plough?  I cannot help but notice my disappointment in the rabbis -- and my judgement of a very different social reality.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Sukka 22 a, b

We begin the daf with a new Mishna.  It teaches that when a sukka is meduvlelet and when the shade is more than its sun, it is fit.  As well, when the roofing is thick and the stars cannot be seen through the roofing at night, the sukka is fit.  First, the rabbis want to understand the meaning of meduvlelet.  Does this refer to an 'impoverished' or thinly roofed sukka?  A sukka in layers, where the reeds cross over each other at specific points?  A disordered sukka? A sparse sukka?  Each of these possibilities is described in some detail.

One of the possibilities is the principle of lower and cast.  This is not explained in our notes, unfortunately.  It seems to refer to a way of categorizing beams that are a certain distance from each other.  Lavud is a comparable principle, but the two are not applied to the same question at the same time.

Amud (b) calls upon halachot learned in Masechet Eiruvin.  Crossbeams are used at alleyways in certain circumstances to allow carrying on Shabbat.  Similarly, a sukka can be rendered fit if crossbeams of certain widths are placed at particular distances to each other in the construction of the sukka.

Rav Pappa teaches about the concept of zuz v'istera, the light is like the zuz coin above and the istera coin below.  A small hole in the roofing of a sukka the size of a zuz can create a spot of sun or shade the size of an istera on the ground below.  Clearly, even with all of these challenging concepts, the rabbis wish to provide people with clear, meaningful direction on the construction of the sukka.

Of note: Beit Hillel rules that a sukka is fit if the roof is thick and the stars cannot be seen; Beit Shammai rules it unfit.

The daf ends with a new Mishna: a sukka built atop a wagon or ship if fit and one may ascend to enter it on the Festival.  However, while a sukka built in a tree or atop of an animal is fit, one may not ascend to enter it on the Festival due to prohibitions against climbing trees or animals on chagim.  The remainder of the Mishna offers guidance on entering sukkot built in these structures when there might be different numbers of entrances on the ground and also higher, on the tree or animal.

Sukka 21 a, b

A fantastical story illustrates the rabbis' concern regarding similarities between tents and sukkot regarding ritual impurity.  The story involves the rituals surrounding the red heifer, which required the utmost strictness regarding ritual purity.  Apparently, some women and children - we are not told whom these people are - resided in courtyards atop of rocks.  We learn that children had no opportunities to come into contact with ritual impurity (however, we know that women menstruated and even gave birth in this place; beneath the rocks there could be "graves in the depths").  Children aged seven and eight are said to have been responsible for collecting and delivering cups of water critical to the red heifer rituals.  The courtyards were made by people, and the rabbis agree that the legal status of a naturally existing tent is the same as that of a human-made tent.  I am not clear on how they reach this conclusion based on their story.

After wondering whether these children sat on doors or oxen, the rabbis wonder about creative understandings of 'tents'.   Do animals act as tents?  They protect shoes and other items place beneath them, right?  Oxen also protect shepherds from the sun, "and the rain from the rain".  A quote from Job (10:11) reminds us that the backs/skin of oxen and other animals, including humans, are created to protect our innards.  Thus oxen are not like tents.

The rabbis continue to argue.  Are sukkot temporary or permanent residences?  Are tents temporary or permanent residences?  They digress and discuss a verse from Psalms 1:3: "...Which brings forth fruit in its season and whose leaves do not wither."  The rabbis take this to mean that the conversations of the rabbis are of great importance - the fruit, the leaves and the stems.  This justifies their conversations today regarding oxen.  All parts of their discussions are of value.

We end the daf with a new Mishna: the Rabbis say that a sukka is fit if supported by two legs of a bed. Rabbi Yeduda teaches that the sukka is fit only if it can stand on its own. The rabbis argue about this possibility, wishing to avoid situations where the sukka is truly supported by the bed, where the bed frame could impart ritual impurity, and where the bed might render the sukka a temporary or permanent residence.

Today it struck me that the rabbis are spending much time and effort on beds in sukkot.  Were they used there for structural purposes?  It seems more likely that people were moving their beds into their sukkot so that they could truly dwell there over the Festival.  But how big were these sukkot to house beds, eating areas, living spaces, etc.?  We know that there is no limitation on the size of a sukka.  Perhaps they were huge!  But what about the poor, who could not afford such space?  And what about those who were making the pilgrimage to Jerusalem - did they also move their beds into the sukka?  Much easier today, with cushions and sleeping bags.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Sukka 20 a, b

It is time to roof the sukka.  But what if we don't have easy-to-find schach?  Amud (a) continues the examination of sukka roofing requirements with a special focus on matting.  The mats discussed are made of natural fibres - why not use a mat to roof a sukka?  The rabbis teach us about specific questions we should ask about mats.  Are they small or large mats?  Are they mead to be slept upon?  Are they susceptible to ritual impurity due to contact with a corpse?  What about ritual impurity with regard to treading?  If the mat might become ritually impure, it cannot be used as roofing.

Among other things, amud (b) teaches us a specific consideration regarding mats as roofing.  If the mat has an upturned edge, it is not fit to use as roofing.  This is because the upturned edge is defined as a 'wall'.  Once it has a 'wall', the mat attains the status of 'vessel'.  Vessels are susceptible to ritual impurity.  

Our daf ends and Perek II begins.  We are introduced to a new Mishna that teaches about sleeping: if we sleep beneath the bed in the sukka, we have not fulfilled our obligation.  Rabbi Yehuda tells us that an old custom of sleeping beneath the bed didn't bother the Elders.  Rabbi Shimon adds a story about Rabban Gamliel's Cannanite slave, Tavi, who slept beneath the bed.  Rabban Gamliel defended Tavi, saying that slaves are exempt from time-bound, positive mitzvot.

The Gemara begins its examination by looking at the 10 handbreadth height requirement.  They continue their examination by considering the legal status of a tent.   Beds and tents could have similar status regarding ritual impurity.

It is interesting to me that the rabbis spend so much time understanding and explaining what we cannot do and why we cannot do it.  Why not simply impose their understandings of what we must do?  Our tradition is founded upon this desire to debate, to understand, to argue, to explain.  I suppose that the study of daf yoni is simply one way of entering that tradition.  It is impossible to truly debate without understanding what it is that we are debating!

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Sukka 18 a, b

Rabbi Meir and Rav Huna, son of Rav Yehoshua, attempt to understand why a particular sukka is fit when it has more than four handbreadths of unfit roofing.  They decide that because there is four by four handbreadths of fit roofing in the middle, the unfit roofing is invalidated. 

Abaye introduces ways that we can diminish the sukka that has a space of three handbreadths. He tells us to use the principle of lavud.  The rabbis argue over whether lavud can account for a space in the middle of a sukka.  Both rabbis look to halachot regarding carrying in an alleyway to provide rationale for their positions.  Halacha related to ritual impurity and corpses and sky lights is invoked to further discuss the use of the principle of lavud.

Rabbi Yehuda bar Elai  teaches that a house breached and then roofed over is a fit sukka.  Rabbi Yishmael son of Rabbi Yossei says to him, "my teacher, explain."  The reply: "This is how my father explained it:"  Four cubits between the wall and the breach make the sukka fit; less than four cubits leave the sukka unfit.  Rabbi Yehuda bar Elai teaches us more, this time about fish.  Abramis (small, mullet-like fish) are permitted.   Rabbi Yishmael, son of Rabbi Yosei, says again , "My teacher, explain."  He says, "this is how my father explained it: abramis from water with kosher fish are permitted; those found with unkosher fish are forbidden.  The rabbis then share some interesting, mostly antiquated ideas about why fish swim in different places.

The amorim disagree about whether or not a sukka is fit if it is a roofed portico without posts on the open side.  Abaye believe that the roof is fit because the walls extend and seal.  Rava says that the sukka is unfit because the walls do not extend and seal.  Abaye concedes, agreeing that the walls do not extend and seal in this particular circumstance.  Apparently the structure must be permanent and at least three walls must be standing so that people cannot inadvertently walk through the structure.

The Gemara compares this argument between Abaye and Rava regarding whether or not the walls descend and seal with that of Rav and Shmuel regarding a roofed portico.  Rav and Shmuel argue about whether or not the roof descends and seals, creating a private domain surrounded by partitions.  These definitions determine the functioning of people in and around those places.   

Today's learning leads me to imagine the rabbis creating these rules.  What a bizarre set of halachot!  Is this religion so much different than other religions with odd obligations and customs?   Although the rabbis identify multiple proofs for their arguments, it is tough to imagine the rabbis creating more seemingly arbitrary guidelines on how to live.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Sukka 17 a, b

Today's daf keeps me humble.  Very humble.  I am reminded that I know just about nothing.

Amud (a) begins with a Mishna.  We learn:

1) if the roofing is more than three handbreadths from the walls, the sukka is unfit

2) if there is a breach (a hole) in a home's roof and one wants to create a sukka, there must be less than four cubits of remaining roof for the sukka to be fit.  

3) a courtyard surrounded by a portico on three sides (covering an internal courtyard) where the walls are extended to the roof and a courtyard covered with unfit roofing cannot become fit sukkot

The remainder of today's daf is the Gemara on this Mishna.  Our Sages want to understand exactly what is meant by this Mishna.  Why some details and not others? Why certain repetitions?  Why do rules apply in some circumstances and not in others?

A number of concepts are used repeatedly to better understand the Mishna. One is lavud, or joining.  If we can use the principle of lavud to join breaches, then the sukka can become fit.  In order to understand which items can be used, however, the Gemara engages in a new exploration.  A sukka cannot be fit if it is constructed with items that can contract ritual impurity.  If the roof were to become impure, the people sleeping or eating beneath it also could contract that ritual impurity.  Thus the rabbis spend a good amount of time detailing which fabrics can contract ritual impurity at which sizes.  Which fabrics should be used in the construction of a sukka?  

The principle of the curved wall continues to elude me.  I understand that in some circumstances it is understood that the wall is mentally stretched to cover the edge of the roof.  It is unclear to me how that might affect whether or not the roofing itself is unfit.

Our rabbis examine the relationship between the size of the sukka and its roofing/walls.  If there is space on the roof, a new problem is created.  What size sukka has what size roof?  And can the walls be made of animal hides, each hide able to contract ritual impurity under different circumstances and at different sizes?  The fear of ritual impurity is significant here, and I can't help but wonder if it might be related to a reaffirmation of power structures.  

We end the daf with questions asked earlier.  Why must four-cubit boards join together to be unfit?  Shouldn't they be unfit anyway, simply due to their size?

First of all, I have difficulty with the principles outlined today.  I know that I am missing the nuances that can be all-important when we attempt to understand the words of our Rabbis.  The background understanding of ritual im/purity is critical, and I am continuing to piece together my picture of how this might have worked.

I don't want to end my learning of daf yomi, but sometimes I want to throw it all up in the air and find a private tutor regarding some of the most basic Talmudic concepts.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Sukka 16 a, b

I thought that we were finished with Masechet Eruvin some time ago.  How long will it take me to learn that we never finish anything in Talmud; we will always come back around to our learning?  Today's daf is complicated, and I will not do it justice.  Not only because I do not fully grasp the text, but because there is more detail than I can repeat in this blog.

Can part of a bed become ritually impure?  If so, which parts?  What are the essential parts of a bed frame, anyhow?  And how are bed frames used?  We learn that bed frames included long and short boards, four legs, and a number of holes or pegs used to secure ropes upon which the bedding was placed.  Sometimes the bed frame was made up of only two of these boards and the bed was supported by a wall.

We are reminded that a sukka's roof cannot be made of anything that can become ritually impure.  This includes worn vessels, mats of reeds or grasses, or large mats.  In addition, a sukka must be planned in advance.  It cannot be carved into a haystack or another pile of grain, for it was not made with the intention of filling the mitzvah.  In addition, the roof will be too thick.

We come to a new Mishna that describes the walls of the sukka.  The rabbis repeat that sukkot require 10 handbreadths of height.  However, what if the bottom of the wall ends before the floor?  If the wall is built from the top down, does it require less than three handbreadths of distance to the floor to be fit?  How would that change if the wall begins at the ground and is measured upward?

The Gemara introduces concepts taken from Eruvin to discuss this quandary.  The rabbis turn to questions of a different nature: carrying on Shabbat.  Partitions are built into cisterns placed between two courtyards, one above and one below the water line. Somehow these partitions help people to know the origin of their water and thus whether it is permitted to carry that water on Shabbat.  

Transferring this concept to the sukka is problematic. The sukka is built according to Torah law but the partitions in a cistern are built according to rabbinic law.  Leniencies might not apply to the construction of a sukka.  

The rabbis tell a story of sheets placed over partitions in Tzippori.  They have different ideas about whether those partitions were partial partitions or full partitions, whether the sheets were carried to the partitions on Shabbat or already placed there, whether there were one or two rows of posts lined up as partitions... and so on.

At the end of the daf the rabbis teach us about the concept of lavud, the joining of adjacent objects under certain circumstances, and how it might apply to the sukka walls.  We know that a wall must begin within three handbreadths from the ground.  At its height, the wall does not have to reach the sukka's roof.  Thus if a mat were placed across side of the sukka, the principle of lavud would allow the wall to 'stretch' both down to the ground and up to the roof of the sukka.  

In one daf, we move from furniture to roofs and then to walls.  We hear about baraitot, mishnayot; ancient disputes and 'new' debates.  The rabbis quote numerous principles.  And still I find it difficult to understand some of the most basic facts of the daf.  Hopefully tomorrow will help to clarify some of the more challenging passages.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Sukka 15 a, b

Boards that are four handbreadths or less - how can we say that they are fit to cover a sukka?  Apparently Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai had a dispute about this. Or perhaps they did not have a dispute.  Today's daf is about what makes an argument as much as it is about the argument itself.

Rabbi Yehuda tells us that Beit Shammai instructs us to move all of these boards and also to remove on of the boards to render the sukka fit.  Beit Hillel tells us that doing one of these actions is enough.  Finally, Rabbi Meir says that it is enough to just move one of the boards.

The Gemara shares attempts to understand these opinions - where they come from and how they might intersect.  For example, perhaps Beit Hillel was referring to the principal that states that we should "prepare it, and not from which it has already been prepared".  Thus we must take a new action to render an item fit for roofing a sukka.  Or, the Gemara tells us, the decree of "moving the boards is not enough; removing one board causes the sukka to be fit" is behind these assertions.

The rabbis then argue over whether or not Beit Hillel, Beit Shammai and Rabbi Meir were in disagreement.  They call on the notion of ritual impurity in general, the principle of the curved wall, the size of the boards and other larger ideas to demonstrate that the dispute is extremely limited in its scope.

A new Mishna is introduced.  It tells us that a sukka is fit if there is space between metal skewers or long bed boards.  The spaces must be equal to the size of the boards, and they must be filled with halachically fit roofing. It goes on to say that a hollowed out bag of grain cannot be used to make a sukka.

To the end of the daf, the rabbis discuss the first part of this Mishna.  They consider the placement of the skewers/boards and the placement of the halachically fit schach.  They also look at how skewers/boards might become ritually impure.  If they could be construed as vessels, and there was any metal in their construction, these skewers/boards could invalidate the sukka.

I wonder if our Sages became openly angry with each other when they disagreed; especially when they disagreed with regard to a past rabbi's opinion.  I can't imagine that they did not often take these arguments personally.  They were arguing today about how big another argument might have been.  It must have taken a specific type of personality to thrive in that kind of competitive, hostile, intellectually driven setting.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Sukka 14 a, b

We ended yesterday's daf with a new question: can we invoke change in an item's status simply through thought, or is it necessary to take some sort of action to demonstrate that change?  Today's daf begins with further discussion about that issue. The Gemara clarifies how thought and action affect ritual impurity.   If a vessel is in a state of ritual impurity, it can change status when one takes action toward changing its status. Thus an unfinished vessel becomes ritually pure as its artisan lifts it to finish it.  A principle: action can negate an item's status based on action or thought; thought can never negate an item's status.  

The rabbis go on to discuss the ritual purity and status of handles left on the threshing  floor.  In particular they look at the word besasan, translated as either trampled or 'untying its binding'.  They also look at the pitchfork, eter, as an example of a untensil.   We're told that Rabbi Eleazar shares an aggadic teaching on why a pitchfork is like a prayer: "And Isaac entreated (vayetar) the Lord for his wife because she was barren" (Genesis 25:21).  From this we learn that  G-d will turn G-d's mind from cruelty to mercy just as a pitchfork will move hay from one place to another.  Did they actually use the word cruelty?  The rabbis understand that this word is used to contrast with and thus emphasize G-d's attribute of mercy.

A new Mishna tells us that Rabbi Yehuda sanctions boards for use as roofing on the sukka.  Rabbi Meir does not.  The Mishna continues: a board four handbreadths wide may be used to roof the sukka as long as a person does not sleep under that board.  The remainder of our daf looks at these statements.

The rabbis question whether or not these wide boards are kosher for use on a sukka.  Could they be considered connected to each other based on the principle of lavud?  What about boards between three and four handbreadths wide?  How are boards less than four cubits different from reeds, which all agree are fit to use as roofing?  What about turning these boards on their sides?  And what about other placements of these boards?

One of the more interesting questions (according to me) asks whether some of these things might deem a sukka fit in times of danger.  So if the authorities do not want Jews to practice their religion and thus sukkot are not allowed by law, can people use four-handbreadth wide boards?  Wouldn't this look like one was building a regular house?  

First off, this teaches us about home building in ancient times.  It would seem that four-handbreadth boards (ie. wide boards) were used regularly as roofing.  What was used to cover those board to protect people from rain, wind and/or sand?  Or was roofing often replaced?  Did roofing always touch the walls of a home?  Where would a person find a four-handbreadth board?  Were they expensive?

By the way, Rabbi Yehuda tells us that he does not believe that we should use four-handbreadth boards to roof our sukkot even in times of danger.  He asserts that people could find three-handbreadth boards just as easily.  And anyway, non-Jewish authorities would not know the difference, anyhow.

Rabbi Yehuda voices the opinion of many of my friends.  When we behave according to a paranoid view of the world (ie. they're going to notice this imperfection and then their anti-semitism will be sparked), we do not further our Jewish practice.  To create stringencies based on fear makes little sense, particularly in North American Jewish communities.

Sukka 13 a, b

What is fit to roof a sukka?  We have already learned that roofing must not be attached to the ground.  We have been taught that roofing must come from the earth, and so we cannot use animal skins as roofing, for example.  Today the rabbis consider a number of other possibilities.

First they discuss what should not be used to roof a sukka.  A plant that emits a foul odour or a plant that will shed its leaves are not fit for use as roofing, for they will cause dweller to exit the sukka.  In this context, the rabbis discuss thorns and shrubs, which leads to the question of binding.  What do we do about plants that are naturally bound together at one end?   Huts that are made of willow branches are both naturally and unnaturally bound.  As these unnatural bindings can be undone after sale, willow branches are deemed fit for the roof of a sukka.

But what about branches that could impart ritual impurity?  To answer this question, the rabbis speak about what can be used as a bitter herb on Pesach.  They also wonder about whether or not  there are handles on these foods.  Steinsaltz shares a note that tells us not to worry; this question will be covered in much more detail in Masechet Okatzin.  I am grateful for this as the discourse on handles is both complex and new to me at this point.  Finally, in this discussion we are told that branches that have less food than wood and leaves are fit to roof a sukka.

Our daf ends by asking what happens when someone cuts down a branch with the intention of using its fruit for food, but then s/he changes her/his mind and wants to use the branch to roof the sukka.  The thought is not enough to negate her/his initial intention.  Instead, an action must be taken to assert that the function of the branch has changed.

This final idea is fascinating to me.  We cannot simply change the meaning of an object by changing how we think of that object.  Instead, a concrete action demonstrates that change.  I wonder how this might be applied to other parts of life.  I understand that I am suggesting that this idea refers to things more mundane than mitzvot.  For example, if I first intend that my car is a thing to take me from point a to point b, I think of it in a particular way.  But if I think of my car as a thing that provides me with safe and comfortable shelter while I travel, the meaning of my car has changed dramatically.  Perhaps if I put a flower in my car, or - more meaningful, for me - if I actually cleaned up my car and took the action of making it a sacred space, the car would truly change, too.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Sukka 11 a, b

The rabbis think their way through whether or not a covered bed beneath a sukka invalidates the sukka.   They discuss different types of coverings/netting and different heights.  Whether or not the cover blocks the roofing is important, as is a height of less than 10 handbreadths.  The bed can be temporary or permanent, however, and the sukka might still be fit.

We learn in a new Mishna about grapevines, gourd vines and ivy.  The sukka is unfit if the plants are placed and then the roof is placed, and the amount of other roof is smaller than the roof with vines.  However, the sukka is fit if the fit roofing covers more than the unfit roofing.  It is also fit if the vines are cut; we are not allowed to use plants that are still attached to the ground.  

In their attempts to understand the meaning and timing of cutting the vines, the rabbis argue about the tzitzit, the ritual fringes on our prayer shawls.  When should the fringes be cut? What if they are cut earlier/later in the process?  How can this help us understand the preparation of our sukkot?

From here, our Sages consider other preparations for Sukkot.  They examine how and why the lulav is gathered and tied together.  Our daf ends with a move back toward the question of the construction of sukkot.  The rabbis remember that we construct sukkot based on a verse that speaks of the cloud that descends on us as our dwellings   Perhaps the Israelites did not sleep in sukkot at all; perhaps they used the cover of that cloud.  We begin a conversation about the construction of sukkot as an interpretation in itself.

Similar to learning Yoma in December and January, it is strange to learn Sukkot in February.  I feel as though I should be taking notes on "how to".  But I am not learning Talmud primarily to better understand halachot.  I am learning Talmud to better understand the reasoning behind halachot.  Hopefully, these blogs will help me to find the daf that will be most helpful when I am looking for halachic information.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Sukka 10 a, b

Continuing with yesterday's discussion, we learn that there are times when the lower sukka is fit and the upper sukka is unfit.  The example given describes the lower roof as allowing more shade than sunlight while the upper roof allows more sunlight than shade.  In addition, the roofs of both are within 20 cubits of the ground.  

Alternately, there are times when the upper sukka is fit and the lower is unfit.  The example of this is when both sukkot have roofs that allow more shade than sunlight, but the roof of the upper sukka is less than 20 cubits from the roof of the lower sukka.

We learn in a note that there are numerous commentaries about these statements, which do not seem to be consistent upon first read-through.  Eventually the rabbis agree that fit sukkot adhere to complex laws, particularly regarding roofing.  

The rabbis continue to discuss the fitness of two sukkot, one upon the other, with regard to different measurements: the height of the upper sukka's roof, the distance between the upper and lower roofs, any barriers that might intercede between the roof and the ground.  From this discussion the rabbis move to a Mishna that examins those barriers.  They discuss the use of a sheet within a sukka.  Although area is important (a four by four cubit area must be uncovered, etc.), it seems that intention is just as significant in this consideration.  Is the sheet serving as decoration?  Is it intended to cover a bed, or to shield the dwellers from falling leaves?  A sheet covering a four-post bed invalidates the sukka, but a sheet covering a two post bed allows the sukka to be fit.

Decorations are discussed at some length. The rabbis are careful to specify whether or not hangning decorations will change the area of the sukka.  They tell a number of stories regarding both the fitness of a sukka and the appearance of fitness.  As always, we build a fence around the mitzvot to protect the sanctity of those mitzvot.  The rabbis tell us that drying a shirt on a sukka could be misinterpreted as condoning an unfit roof.  Then again, we learn that they find loopholes to explain their actions rather than insult the Exilarch.

We end the daf with a great example of using one argument to prove another.  The rabbis discuss what is done when a person is naked, in bed, wanting to recite the shema.  Of course s/he should put his/her head outside of the netting (out of respect for our prayer and G-d, the body should be clothed when reciting the shema).  Does this prove that the netting of a sheet/tent is not clothing?  How might this affect the halachot of the sukka?  Then again, the rabbis continue, perhaps this netting is ten feet above the person.  In that case, the netting would not be 'clothing' at all, but a roof where the bed is a residence.  Or might there be another interpretation?

The arguments of Masechet Sukkot are relatively simple compared with other halachot that I have been learning.  However, they draw upon many other masechtot.  As a true novice, I cannot even recognize how much I do not know.  At the same time, I am able to grasp so much more of this learning after having studied every day for the past year and a half.  Amazing.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Sukka 9 a, b

A new Mishna teaches us of about sukkot that are built more than 30 days before the Festival.  Beit Shammai deems these sukkot unfit, while Beit Hillel deems them fit.  However, Beit Shammai concedes that the sukka can be fit if it is modified before the Festival.  The modification can be a handbreadth of roofing, or any measure that stretches along the length of the sukka.  The Gemara looks to clarify and find proofs for their assertions, including questioning when we prepare for Sukkot and whether or not the wood used for the sukka is sanctified.

Rav Yehuda quotes Rav to prove that we must be stringent in how we practice the mitzvot.  He uses the example of tzitzit that are woven with sub-standard thread.  In fact, he asserts that the thread for tzitzit must be found, woven and tied with the intention of fulfilling the mitzva of tzitzit.   Thus the construction of the sukka must be intentional from start to finish, according to Rav Yehuda.

Amud (b) begins with another Mishna: a sukka built under a tree is like a sukka built in a house: unfit.  A sukka built on top of another sukka might be unfit; however, Rabbi Yehuda says that the lower sukka is fit as long as there are no residents in the upper sukka.

The Gemara moves into a discussion of why a sukka under a tree is unfit.  First off, we are supposed to step out of our homes and into the sukka, which is why sukkot cannot be inside of our homes.  And if a tree is like a home, then the sukka under a tree is automatically unfit - there is no need for other proofs.  But of course the rabbis do not stop there.  They question the shade/sunlight of the tree, the placement of the tree's branches, when the tree was planted, the existence of unfit roofing (ex. grapevines), and other mitigating factors.  The rabbis are mindful of the fact that at least four by four cubits of the roof must be fit.

Regarding the instance of a sukka atop another sukka, the rabbis argue about whether we are commanded to reside in one sukka or in two sukkot; the wording of the mitzvah might be unclear.  Rabbi Yirmeya suggests that there are times when both upper and lower sukkot are fit, when both are unfit, when the upper alone is fit and when the lower alone is fit.

When are both fit?  When the lower sukka benefits from the greater measure of shade in the upper sukka AND when the upper sukka is less than twenty cubits high.  

When are both unfit?  When the upper sukka is more than twenty cubits high, though the shade is greater than the sunlight in both sukkot.

There is a picture of this 'piggybacking' sukka in the Koren Talmud.  I have to wonder how often people built one sukka on top of another sukka.  Perhaps the hot weather and small courtyards encouraged people to become creative in their construction.  Or perhaps this seemed like the most appropriate interpretation of 'living in sukkot', plural dwellings.  Whatever the reason, it is tough for me to imagine dwelling in a double sukka for the week of the Festival.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Sukka 8 a, b

Today's daf includes mathematical calculations, always difficult for me to follow.  Even more so because the calculations are at best approximations and at worst simply inaccurate.  The rabbis are attempting to determine the measurements of a fit round sukka.  How would we measure 4 by 4 cubits, the minimum, when we have no corners to use as reference points?  To do this, the rabbis imagine of a square surrounding a circle and they create markers (a diamond within the square).  However, the measurements that they discuss are incorrect, as we learn in a note.

The rabbis speak about a number of booths and whether or not they might be appropriate sukkot.  They consider related implications: is this a permanent structure or not?  should a mezuza be affixed on this structure?  Is the roof constructed specifically to allow more shade than sunlight?  As long as these booths are in accordance with halacha, they are considered fit.

One example of these booths is that of the Kutim, the Samaritans.  This community learned the mitzvot according to Torah law alone, though they were influenced by the larger Jewish community at one point in time.  A significant rift exists between Kutim and mainstream Jews because Kutim have not accepted rabbinical law.  Interestingly, when looking at rabbinical instruction on the construction of sukkot, we are taught that sukkot of Kutim are fit as long as their roofs allow more shade than sunlight.

At the end of our daf, the rabbis outline specifically which booths are permitted and which are considered unfit.  Booths for Gentiles, women, animals, Kutim (for those not obligated); shepherds, fig driers, guards of fields, guards of produce (impermanent booths), and booths "of any sort" are fit.  However, they must be built with shade in mind, have fit roofing, and have at least one handbreadth of roofing added.

Today's daf reminds me that our Sages are always looking for a balance between stringency and realistic practice.  If a pre-existing booth is sitting in someone's field, why would s/he build a sukka?  As long as the booth adheres to most of the halachot of sukkot, our Sages deem it fit.  The meaning of the sukka is of the greatest importance.  

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Sukka 7 a, b

Partitions... where should they be placed?  What is the appropriate shape of a sukka?  Should it be rectangular, like an alleyway?   If there is the measure of an expansive handbreadth at the end of one wall, in which direction should that partial-wall face?  Does it count as a third wall?  And what about a doorway; could that count as a third wall?

Our rabbis compare and contrast the requirements of a fit sukka with the requirements of partitions regarding Shabbat domains.  The considerations are similar, and so it seems to make sense to understand the halachot of sukkot with the halachot of Shabbat partitions.  However, many differences force the rabbis to reexamine these considerations.  Shabbat partitions help us understand what we can carry from one domain to another - they define the domains.  Sukkot partitions help us to build a structure - and that is all.  The functions and consequences of these different halachot are significant.

What about roofs placed over alleyways and walls built around wells?  The rabbis consider many circumstances that might serve as sukkot.  In this context we are reminded that we are permitted to infer halachot from stringent to lenient situation, but we are not to assume that a stringency can become more lenient based on a lenient halacha.  

Our rabbis consider the end of this last Mishna; there should be more shade than sunlight in the sukka.  What does this teach us about the construction of a sukka's roof?   We look at the placement of the roof taking into consideration the movement of the sun and the nature of the sukka's walls.  In this discussion, the rabbis offer very different opinions.  It is said that "all hold that the sukka must be a stable structure, just like a permanent residence".  However Steinsaltz teaches in a note that whenever we read "all hold that..." regarding many diverse opinions, we should understand that the halacha is not in accordance with that statement.  The Gemara uses this tool to teach us that we are to value multiple opinions.

This is particularly resonant today.  As I write this blog, it is 9 Adar, 5774 (Feb. 9, 2014).  9 Adar is a commemorative day for Jews killed in ancient (and in more modern) times.  Originally, it marks a conflict between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, resulting in many deaths.  Today we are thinking of 9 Adar as a time to think about constructive conflict rather than destructive distancing.  Pardes in Jerusalem has created wonderful workshops toward this end (  It is particularly heartwarming today to learn about our Sages' attempts to systematize our thinking about how to construct 'difference' so that all opinions are preserved and valued.

Looking at the shapes and placement of sukkot, our Sages argue about what might be fit or unfit.  A round sukka? A sukka that narrows at the top like a dovecoat?  What a bout a sukka that is on a boat? How permanent does this temporary structure have to be?  The rabbis disagree about many of these details and we are left with a sense of our Sages passion regarding the details of this metaphor.  We are to sit in a sukka - we are to feel closer to G-d and to remember our ancestors' dwellings in the desert.  We are to recall the decoration of the Ark cover and the partitions of Shabbat domains to help us create sukkot.  But each minute detail of how this is done is up for debate with our rabbis.

Sukka 6 a, b

The Mishna in daf 2(a) outlines many requirements of the sukka in a few short lines.  The first of these speaks of the height limitations of a fit sukka.  In a deep exploration of the importance of those measurements, amud (a) lines up other halachot where measurements are key.  For example, more than a fig-bulk cannot be eaten on Yom Kippur; a grain of barley tells us the size of a piece of bone that would change a priest's walking path if that bone fragment were found on the road.  

In addition, the Gemara reviews some of the laws surrounding immersion. In particular, they focus on how we measure interpositions between the body and the water of a mikvah.  Exactly how do we understand the different rules for the immersion of hair and skin?   The rabbis could have reminded us of a mikvah's measurements; instead they look at halachot regarding how we measure the barrier between skin and water.

In amud (b), we learn about the walls of the sukka.  Although there are supposed to be at least 2 and 1/2 walls in a fit sukka, the rabbis assume that three walls are standing. They then speak about the size of the walls in a fit sukka.  Perhaps, because we know that a fourth wall need only one handbreadth to be called a wall, the third wall need not be more than that, either?

Using Leviticus 23:42-3 as their source, the rabbis create meaning of each wall.  In fact, they argue, each wall reminds us about a halacha regarding the sukka iteslf.  There are some disagreements between rabbis, but they seem to generally agree that the walls of the sukka can be used as objects that help us to recall related halachaot.  

In an attempt to clarify, the rabbis often confound the questions at hand.  However, for a beginner like me, these are also good opportunities to better understand some of the more basic Talmudic facts and assumptions .  

Thursday, 6 February 2014

Sukka 4 a, b

We witness the creation and finalization of halachot in today's daf.  First we learn about raising the floor of a sukka to decrease its height.  Next we learn about shade and sagging roofs.  Then platforms within the sukka are considered.  We look at "curved walls" and at dug out portions of a sukka floor.  In most of these cases, the rabbis turn to related case law to determine these halachot.  After deciding how/whether that case law should apply to their current question, the rabbis state when a sukka is fit and when it is unfit.

Some of the halachot discussed are familiar to me; when learning about Sukkot, we are taught some basic rules about the construction of a sukka.  However, many of these halachot are new to me.  Why would I think of putting a platform in a sukka?  When would its roof be 20 cubits high?  Our ancestors' detailed design questions teach us about their use of sukkot.

Amud (b) focuses on a number of related questions.  They wonder about partitions: how far can they be from the sukkah wall?  What about pillars; what about posts?  If they are placed at the centre of the sukka; if they support the roof; if they do not touch the ceiling - how to they affect the fitness of the sukka?  The rabbis speak about the sukka built on top of a home's roof.  How should the sukka's walls be placed to ensure that the sukka is fit - when it is at the centre of the roof? when it is at the edge of the roof?  And a post that can support one handbreadth in each direction of a right angle might be called "double posts".  But there are limitations here, too.

At the very end of the daf, the rabbis look to the construction of the ark and its cover to find proof for the specific construction of a sukka.

Clearly the rabbis are always concerned that a sukka has at least two full walls and a partial third wall, that its roof is built according to distinct specifications, and that the area of the sukka is between greater than the minimum area measurement.  Perhaps, as I have thought in the past, the construction of the sukka is detailed for those community members who are skilled with their hands rather than with their logical reasoning.  Of course some rabbis were good at both, but most people are not highly skilled in such disparate areas.  However, the skill of building might also be independent of the skill of design.  Both are required in the construction of sukkot.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Sukka 3 a, b

There must have been a good reason for the Sages to ignore the 20 cubit roof on Queen Heleni's  sukka.  Perhaps her sukka was in fact 4x4 cubits, in which case the height of the sukka might be acceptable.  Or perhaps it was her sukka alone, and her sons inhabited another larger sukka, thus leaving her alone with a very high roof - Queen Heleni is not obliged to sit in the sukka at all, as she is a woman, and thus her sukka need not be 'kosher'.  Perhaps her sukka was made of a number of rooms.   So many possibilities!  Is it also possible that our Sages overlooked her errors because she gave so generously to the Jewish people?

Our Sages consider the size of a sukka.  Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagree about both the minimum size of a sukka and about whether a sukka must fit a person's head, table, and most of his/her body.  This seems to be one of the rare cases where the halacha follows Beit Shammai on both counts.  

But how large does a house have to be in order for us to call it a house?  The rabbis share many arguments that prove that a house must be larger than 4 by 4 cubits. For example, laws regarding the sale of a home, leprosy of a home, placing a mezuzah on a home, and joining a home to other homes/communities through eruvin all require that that home is larger than 4 by 4 cubits.  Thus a sukka, which is a temporary home, must be at least this size.

In amud (b), the rabbis put much effort into understanding halachot regarding eruvin, connecting homes to establish a Shabbat limit in which people can carry.  They examine other times that we have used the measure of 4 by 4 cubits; other ways that we determine what is a house and what is not a house.  They even question other types of permanent and temporary dwellings.  All of these considerations help them to better understand the minimum area requirement of a sukka.  

What stands out for me as I read through today's daf is the detailed information shared regarding eruvin that was not included in Masechet Eruvin!  I learned that masechet with great effort and more than a little bit of determination, and I never came across some of the facts that a learned from today's daf in Sukka.  This experience makes me marvel yet again at the rabbis' abilities to cross-reference texts that have no clear beginning and no clear ending.  The Talmud is like a huge, circular bowl, where we can get swept into one current that reaches through time and place, focusing on one topic.  Or, instead, we could stick to one side of the bowl and understand all that was happening at one point in time, while missing out on the larger context.  Or we could dive in and out, continually coming across connected component.  It seems to me that the first time through the Talmud is like a brief introduction to that same text.  We have to know it to learn it, if that makes any sense.

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Sukka 2 a, b

Our masechet begins with an argument between Rabbi Yochanan and the rabbis.  The Mishna speaks to the height of a sukka's roof.  What happens if it is more than 20 cubits?  It moves on to tell us more about the structure of a sukka: it must be more than 10 handbreadths high, have at least three walls, and allow for more shade than sunlight inside of the structure.

The Gemara reminds us of a similar argument in Eiruvin, where an alleyway is not to be more than 20 or less than 10 cubits high.  It also reminds us that the arguments surrounding an alleyway are rabbinic in origin.  The sukka, in contrast, is specifically commanded by G-d in the Torah to have certain measurements and characteristics.  The stage is set for the seriousness of this discussion.

Rabba, Rabbi Zeira, Abaye and Rava present verses from the Torah that would prove their arguments.  Each argues why they roof must be less than 20 cubits: to remind inhabitants that they are in a sukka and not a permanent dwelling; to ensure that shade is provided by the roof itself; to block the rain that might otherwise soak the inhabitants.  Rabbi Zeira argues that a sukka is permitted in a valley that blocks all sunlight, for if the mountains were moved, the sukka's roof would provide shade.  

The Gemara notes many arguments not applied by these rabbis.  For example, we know from Isaiah 4:6 that the sukka will serve to protect us from the heat of the day.  And we learn that this is a metaphor: G-d will shield and shelter G-d's people.  Additionally, the height of the sukka roof is not significant; the issue is whether or not we notice the roof.  As long as the walls reach the roof, Rabba argues that the sukka is permitted.  Our eyes are drawn up the walls to the thatched roof where we remember that this is an impermanent structure.

The rabbis continue to debate the height of the sukka's roof, now focusing on the size of the structure itself.  If the sukka is larger than four cubits by four cubits, the shade provided by the roof will differ as the sun moves across the sky.  The rabbis go to great lengths to understand how and when the sukka might be shaded when it is smaller and larger.  

From here, the rabbis wonder how large a sukka must be - is room enough for a table and a person's head and body enough?  The rabbis agree that four cubits by four cubits should be the smallest permitted sukka.

We learn a wonderful story about Queen Heleni of Lod.  Rabbi Yehuda reminds us that some sukkot have had roofs 40 or 50 cubits high.  In fact, Queen Heleni had such a sukka and no one objected.  Perhaps, argue the rabbis, she built a sub-standard sukka. After all, she was a woman and therefore not obliged to observe the mitzvot.  But what about her seven sons?  They would be subject to the mitzvot and thus the roof should be an accepted height.  How old were they?  Grown, Torah scholars?  Or were they minors and not yet obligated, either?  The rabbis are certain that at least one of her children would be seven years old and not requiring his mother's constant care.  But is that when children are obliged to reside in the sukka - once they are able to care for themselves?  

It is understood that Queen Heleni, as a convert and a generous and righteous woman, would follow the advice of the Sages when building her sukka.  And the walls may not have met the roof!  At the end of today's daf, the rabbis are considering deference to the practice of a woman.  

Monday, 3 February 2014

Yoma 88 a, b

We are not allowed to bathe on Yom Kippur.  However, we are allowed to immerse in a regular fashion if that is required in order to pray: in the times of the Talmud, that included women who were menstruating, new mothers, zavim/zavot and men who had seminal emissions, among others. Much of this immersion was done in the evening, and so the immersions on Yom Kippur would wait until after ne'ila and the evening service.  In the modern Jewish world there is no set time for immersion.  However, we are told that the rabbis searched for the proper time for required immersions on Shabbat.

An interesting thought about immersion: we learn that those who had the name of G-d written on their skin were obliged to take extra effort to cover that writing so that it did not smear or smudge. Why were people writing G-d's name on their skin?  We know that tattoos of G-d's name are not permitted (Mishna Makkot Perek III Ch.6) as they were permanent.  But writing G-d's name on one's body - in what context might this have occurred?  

The current halacha regarding a seminal emission on Yom Kippur is shared in Steinsaltz's notes: if the emission is wet, it is to be wiped off.  If it is dry or dirty, only that part of the body should be washed. Even if his usual custom is to immerse after an emission and before prayer, he is not to immerse on Yom Kippur.

Boy, do these rabbis ever enjoy talking about semen.  They end Masechet Yoma with a number of different personalities chiming in about what it means when one witnesses a seminal emission just before Yom Kippur.  It is a sign of good things to come?  Of a bad year?  Is it foretelling a lack of lust or 'hunger' on Yom Kippur and thus an easier fast and a better judgement?  If he dies over the year, perhaps G-d offered him the seminal emission to ease his fast on this, his final year.  

I also wonder about the decreasing importance of male ritual impurity over the generations.  Certainly males continue to have seminal emissions, both voluntary and involuntary.  Why would the requirement for immersion not apply to them?  Women continue to immerse following our monthly ritual impurity.

The very end of our masechet is an interpretation of Isaiah 53:10 as said by Rav Dimi: "Seeing semen on Yom Kippur is a sign that one will live a long life, grow, and raise others."  By rights, seeing menstrual blood should offer women the same promise.  Both involve witnessing evidence of the stuff of potential life.  Why must women's ritual impurity continue to carry the burden of 'dirtiness' when men can 'wipe it off' and move on?  

Yoma has offered us much to think about regarding Yom Kippur, from the antiquated and the mundane to the ephemeral.  A beautiful and illuminating text to learn.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Yoma 87 a, b

Those who are righteous are compared with those who are wicked.  The rabbis find many sources to justify their ideas about what happens when we are good; the consequences of being bad.  We learn that our behaviour affects the lives of countless generations that will come after us.  We also learn that power corrupts us.  A righteous person becomes wicked through the throne, but the true King is never corrupted.  And we learn about Tavi, Rabban Gamliel in Yavne's Canaanite slave.  A note teaches us that Tavi was an extraordinary scholar; he could not be released from servitude but was highly respected nonetheless.  Tavi was a slave because of his father's wickedness, we are told.

Returning to the Mishna that began two days ago, the rabbis wonder about atonement. Clearly we cannot plan to both sin and then beg forgiveness.  

We move into the mode of asking for forgiveness between two people.  These halachot are very familiar to most Jews of North America, I believe.  We learn that between two people, G-d will absolve us of our sin if we ask forgiveness.  But not by saying, "I'm sorry." Rabbi Chisda teaches that we must apologize in three ways: We say, I have sinned, I perverted what was right, my sin did not profit me", as taken from Job 33:27.  Rabbi Yosei bar Chanina agrees with the three part apology, but he suggests, "please, please forgive my transgression, and now please forgive", this idea taken from Genesis 50:17.  If we owe money, we must pay that money back.  If the wronged person dies before accepting our apology, the apology is repeated at his gravesite with ten people as witnesses.  A note reminds us that the apology should be accepted after the third attempt; if a teacher has not accepted our apology, however, we must continue to beg forgiveness.

We hear stories about rabbis and their experiences with apologies.  Rav Zeira would wait, pacing, for those who had wronged him to arrive.  This was to make it easier for them to apologize to him.  Rav went to a butcher hoping to receive his apology on the eve of Yom Kippur.  On the way, Rav Chuna, Rav's student, predicts that a person named Abba would kill someone.  Rav Chuna watched the butcher, Abba, kill himself unintentionally while slaughtering an animal.  I'm not quite clear on the message of this - apologize without delay or your death will be foretold??

This bizarre story is followed by a fascinating story about Rav, who restarted his Torah portion over and over as different rabbis entered the synagogue late.  Finally, Rav decided that he must complete the portion, insulting the latecomer Rav Chanina.  Although Rav apologized for his rudeness every year for thirteen years on Yom Kippur, Rav Chanina refused to grant forgiveness.  How could this be?  Shouldn't Rav have stopped after three attempts to beg forgiveness?  Shouldn't Rav Chanina have accepted Rav's apology?  We are told that Rav went beyond the letter of the law, for he was very pious.  As to Rav Chanina - he was protecting his position as the Rosh Yeshiva in Jerusalem.  Rav Chanina had dreamed that Rav was hung on a palm tree, apparently indicating that Rav would become Rosh Yeshiva.  Rav Chanina knew that Rav could not become Rosh Yeshiva without usurping his own place; his delaying forgiveness encouraged Rav to become Rosh Yeshiva in far-away Babylonia.

The rabbis now turn their attention to the timing and placement of the mitzvah of confession, vidu'i.  Before Yom Kippur begins? or at what point in the service?  What if a person sins on erev Yom Kippur but the vidu'i is said before that sin?  And is the confession said more than once?  During the Amida?  When, exactly, in the middle of that prayer?  Different rabbis offer different first lines:  Rav, Shmuel, Levi and Rabbi Yochanan suggest specific words to begin our confession.   Rabbi Yehuda and Rav Chamnua suggest word to express our apologies.  More rabbis suggest different expressions of confession; they wonder where we should sit and where we should stand while focusing on these powerful words.  The rabbis are sincerely concerned that each individual is able to focus his/her mind and soul on these prayers.  

We see the origin of the ne'ila prayers, the closing prayers of Yom Kippur.  The rabbis argue about exactly which words should be used; whether or not we should confess during or following the amida said by the prayer-leader; whether or not we say the evening prayers following ne'ila.  The halacha tells us that evening prayers are recited following ne'ila - even though it is a mitzvah to eat and drink following Yom Kippur.  However, this service is not required.  Amazingly, this halacha continues exactly as it is written in every shul I have attended for Yom Kippur - Conservative, Reform, Traditional Egalitarian, Modern Orthodox - we recite the evening prayer, but perhaps with greater speed and less gravitas than usual.

How amazing to read the roots of such sacred, deeply felt traditions.  Having participated in leading prayers on  Yom Kippur, it is with great awe that I note the similarity of my services to those of my ancestors.  Although, of course, as a woman, my experience would have been very different from my female ancestors.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Yoma 86 a, b

Repentance is the theme of today's daf.  Does it work?  How does Yom Kippur offer us opportunity to change after we have made mistakes?  A long-standing practice of mine is addressed, as well: we should always be on our best behaviour.  For example, as a prominent Jew in my community, if I am to eat non-Kosher food, I am modelling that eating non-Kosher food is generally acceptable.  Similarly, if I shop on Shabbat or if I steal something, I might inadvertently alter people's ideas of what it means to be a Jewish leader.  Now, I'm not a leader in any official capacity - and as a child, when I also practiced this way of being, I was not a leader by any means - but that tradition of social responsibility was a strong Jewishly informed value that continues to influence my behaviour.

To sin is to transgress; either to not perform a positive mitzvah or to perform a negative mitzvah.  The rabbis disagree: is it worse to break a positive mitzvah or to break a negative mitzvah?  The first asks that we act, the second asks that we do not act.   Repentance atones for positive mitzvot and for negative mitzvot that can be corrected (through performing appropriate positive mitzvot).  Repentance suspends punishment and Yom Kippur atones for sins that are punishable by karet, the death penalty, and "full fledged negative mitzvot" (ie. those that cannot be corrected by performing positive mitzvot).

We learn in Exodus 20:6 that G-d does not absolve us when we take the name of the Lord in vain. All other similar prohibitions, therefore must be absolved.  Any sin worse that this (and including taking G-d's name in vain), is absolved by Yom Kippur.

Taking G-d's name in vain is serious business. We learn that when we repent, we are absolved from punishment either on the spot, on Yom Kippur, or on Yom Kippur with a mitigated punishment - depending on the sin.  For example, a sin that is punishable by karet can be atoned if one repents on Yom Kippur; suffering will serve as the punishment instead of death. But Isaiah is unequivocal: we will not be atoned for desecrating G-d's name until we die.

Taking G-d's name in vain does not refer to swearing alone.  I tend to think of desecrating G-d's name as using G-d's actual name or as using G-d spoken names in non-sacred contexts.  But that is not what our Sages are talking about when they speak of taking the Lord's name in vain.  For a Torah scholar, any prohibition of a Torah law is considered to be a manner of taking G-d's name in vain.  Abaye is careful to pay both butchers half of his payment in the butcher shop, for example.  Before he leaves, he brings both butchers together to show them payment has been made and to settle any change owed.  If others saw Abaye leave without paying - even though he was paying on credit - they might think that it was alright to steal.

The rabbis tell us that we must read Torah, learn Mishna, serve Torah scholars, be fair in business dealings, and be pleasant to people.  If we do not do these things, we desecrate G-d's name.  However, if we do these things that are asked of us, we demonstrate G-d's love here on the earth.

We can repent based on love, fear, or suffering.  Suffering is the lowest of these three options: almost all people will repent when we are suffering, for we are eager that the suffering end.  But to repent based on love of G-d or fear of G-d is said to be rare.

Jeremiah (3:22) says, "Return, you backsliding children I will heal your backsliding", which implies that repentance is open to all of us.  However, in (3:14) Jeremiah clarifies: only certain people will be able to repent ("one from a city and two from a family").  This is resolved through understanding that the first phrase is speaking of repentance through love and fear while the second is through suffering.  And then Rabbi Levi uses Hosea (14:2) to remind us that we are told to "Return, Israel, to the Lord your G-d".  Rabbi Levi reminds us that repentance is sent directly to G-d.

Amud (b) continues with the theme of repentance.  A number of rabbis share their thoughts.

  • Rabbi Yochanan tells us that G-d hears our repentance even if we commit a sin as terrible as adultery - a first husband should not take back his adulterous wife, but G-d will take us back.   
  • Rabbi Yonatan tells us that when we repent in Jacob's (sins?), we will be redeemed when Moshiach comes (Isaiah 59:20).  
  • Reish Lakish teaches that intentional sins are treated as unintentional.   Iniquity (from Hosea 14:2) refers to an intentional sin, but it is referred to as 'stumbling'.
  • The Gemara tells us that Reish Lakish goes so far as to say that repentance turns intentional sins into 'merits': repenting out of love turns sins to merits.  Sins remain unintentional when we repent out of fear.  
  • Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani tells of Rabbi Yonatan: Repentance makes us live longer.  The proof text is Ezekiel 18:27 where we learn that when a wicked man turns from his wickedness, he will preserve his life.
  • Rabbi Yitzchak tells us in the name of Rabba bar Mari: People may or may not be appeased by words of repentance.  G-d, on the other hand, will always be appeased by our words - G-d considers our repentance a favour.
  • Rabbi Meir tells us that all people are forgiven when just one person repents (Hosea 14:5 tells us that G-d will heal their backsliding when hearing repentance from one person)
How do we know when a person has truly repented?  Rav Yehuda suggests that when a person does not sin when presented with a perfect opportunity to sin (especially when s/he has sinned in that way in the past), s/he has fully repented.  A publicized sin requires a public repentance.  A sin against G-d, not known to the public, should not be repented publicly.   

Rabbi Ysei bar Yehuda quotes Amos 2:6 and Job 33:29 to prove that a person can sin and be forgiven three times.  The fourth time that s/he commits that sin, s/he is not forgiven.  

The Tosefta note that we do not confess a sin that we confessed last year on Yom Kippur.  Instead, we confess if we have repeated them.  A lovely quote from Proverbs 26:11 is used as a proof text: As a dog that returns to its vomit, so is a fool who repeats his folly."  Rabbi Eliezer ben Ya'akov disagrees.  We are praiseworthy if we confess a sin again, for we always see our faults (Psalms 52:15).   When that idea is challenged, Rav Huna tells us that a sin committed again is permitted.  The Gemara reinterprets: it must be that Rav Huna means that sins seem as if they have become permitted when we repeat them.  In confessing our sins on Yom Kippur, we are not meant to be general.  We are to look at our own individual sins.  

The rabbis tell us that Moses and David good leaders of the Jewish people as they both speak of their disgraces in terms of writing: Moses wants his sins to be written explicitly.  David does not want his sins to be written at all, for private sins are forgiven.  Each of them has a proof text for his view.

The Gemara compares Moses and David to two women who are being flogged in court as punishment for their sins.  The first engaged in a forbidden sexual relation while the second ate the forbidden, unripe figs in a Sabbatical year.  The second woman asked that her sin be publicized - she did not want people to think that they were both being flogged for a sexually-based sin.  The court hung unripe figs from her neck and announced her sin before the flogging.  In turn, Moses wanted his sin to be announced publicly so that people would not think he was being punished for the sin of the golden calf; the report of the spies.  

The rabbis are concerned that people who sin grievously might be seen as 'just another person who has sinned'.   Our daf ends with another concern of our rabbis: those who are wicked - people who continue to sin without repentance - cause their own destruction.  They think about things that are forbidden, leading to karet.  And, in fact, people who are in positions of authority cut their lives short.  Judges and others in authority have ample opportunity to err in every judgement, and misjudgement is punishable by death at the hand of heaven.