Sunday, 29 June 2014

Ta'anit 19 When to Cry Out

A very long Mishna makes up most of amud (a).  So far we have considered what people should do when the rain has not fallen.  But what about other calamities?  This mishna tells us when to "cry out" - when to declare immediate fast days.  These might even be on Shabbat.  It begins with a description of crops that are problematic.  At what point do we fast and "cry out"?  From houses collapsing to wolves being seen in inhabited neighbourhoods; from pestilence and blight to gentile attacks and flooding rivers, we are allowed to cry out for help.

We also are shown several general examples of "crying out".  Choni HaMe'aggel was asked by his community to beg G-d for rain.  He drew a circle around himself and said that he would remain there until G-d brought rain to the community.  When a light shower fell, he asked for more. When copious amounts fell quickly, he asked for less.  And then a steady amount of rain fell for a long time.  When the people asked him to beg G-d to stop the rain, he suggested that they wait until the rain rose above the level of the Claimant's Stone.  Shimon Ben Shettach, King Alexander Yannai's brother-in-law and the Nasi, wanted to criticize Choni but could not do so because of the great results.

Finally, this Mishna also speaks about when we should end our fasting if our requests are answered.

The Gemara begins to take apart this Mishna by examining the notion of vegetation that has dried out.  They look to signs of drying out.  They wonder about how we might determine what is a food shortage and what is a famine.  The rabbis consider which types of rainfall might be helpful or detrimental to the crops and to the trees; to the people and to the animals.  They consider the time of year that this might happen and the needs of the community at that time.  A note reminds us that we should not pray for rain in the summer months, because we are not to pray for miracles.  

Any event that will result in death is cause to "sound the alarm" immediately.  However, the rabbis share their different opinions about when the alarm should be sounded around events that might or might not result in death.  And when trees might not produce fruit during the Sabbatical year, we may need to sound the alarm immediately as well.  Why would this be an emergency?  Without that fruit, the poor will starve.  And so this is treated as an emergency as well.  An alternative interpretation is that we are sounding the alarm on behalf of the Gentiles who are not subject to the laws of the Sabbatical year.

Finally, we Rabbi Elazar ben Parata teaches from a baraita that since the Temple fell, the rains have not been sufficient for our needs.  Steinsaltz shares two interpretations of this statement.  First, we learn that there may have been a prayer said in the Temple service that focused on rainfall.  Without the opportunity to say that prayer, we have not had enough rain.  The second interpretation suggests that the thread that was hanging in the Temple used to tell us whether or not our sins were appeased by Azazel.  We could see the string turn while and know that our sins were forgiven and we could see the string stay red and know that we had to pray further for forgiveness.  Without this sign, G-d would have to find another way to show us that our sins were not forgiven -- this would be done through withholding or 'playing with' the rain.

My Judaism does not expect G-d to hear my individual prayers - or even my community's prayers.  How would these rabbis explain G-d's response to the people's prayers on the Holocaust that went unanswered?  Instead, I participate in prayer that is less specific; dedicated to G-d's good will and our willingness to act in the name of that good will.  Those prayers always are answered - there is always some goodness present, even in the worst of times.  

To take this one step  further, I wonder if people who try to keep all of the mitzvot in today's world believe that one mistake might be punished by G-d.  Might they believe that they have that degree of direct communication with G-d?  If so, they would experience a very different way of living as a Jew.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Ta'anit 18 Prohibiting Fasting on Celebratory Days

There are two fast days - Adar 13 and Adar 12 - that the rabbis argue we should not fast and we should not eulogize on.  They tell stories about these two days.   My understanding is that these two days in Adar are to be celebrated, and thus we are prohibited from afflicting ourselves at the same time.

13 Adar was know as Yom Nicanor.  Nicanor was a Greek general who would wave his arm at Jerusalem and claim that one day that land would be his.  Nicanor wills killed by invading Romans.

12 Adar is known as Yom Trayanus.  Trayanus was a Roman officer who had two Jews killed.  The following day, he was removed from his post and killed by his own superiors.

The Gemara discusses Ta'anit Esther, which is considered to be different from other fasts.  We celebrate the Jewish victory over Haman on that day.  Ta'anit Esther is used to explain a couple of different concepts - both of which are still fuzzy for me.  The concepts consider what should or should not be done the on the day before a fast day.  There seems to be some tension between observance the day before a special day and observance on that special day itself.  

One of the more confusing - and interesting - factors at play is that our halacha changed over time.  The observance of Yom Nicanor changed; the observance of Purim changed in response.  Our traditions might seem static, but they are in fact alive and pliable.  It is the community that determines how rigid we want our halachot to be.  With learning, thoughtful consideration and consultation, our halacha must reflect the needs of our changing communities.  Today's daf reminds us that this has been done numerous times over the course of the past 2000 years. 

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Ta'anit 16 A "How-To" Guide: Keva and Kavana

Yesterday's daf introduced a long Mishna explaining what the community actually does on fast days.  Today's daf shares the rabbi's varied and creative interpretations of those instructions.  They create a mnemonic to remember the order in which rituals proceed: square, ark, sackcloth, ashes, ashes, cemetery, Moriah.  

Generally speaking, each ritual is explained as demonstrating our feelings of humility and vulnerability in the face of G-d's power.  The rabbis both beg and cajole G-d; they even bribe G-d (with the threat of harming a baby animal in the same way that we are being harmed).  The rabbis also remind us that our most important acts are those that prove we are not continuing to make the same mistakes again.  The sackcloth is important, for example, but not as important as its message, which is to remind us to be humble, without thought of status, and to continue behaving in that way even when we have nice clothing to wear.

Daf (b) focuses on the shofar blasts - the timing of the blasts, the order of the blasts, the meaning of the blasts.  The rabbis focus on both the perfection of this ritual and on the intention of the blower and the listener.  We are to think about repentance; we are not to focus on the visual cues of these rituals.

Every meaningful custom has to weight the power of keva and kavana; of ritual and intention.  Often community members claim that traditional Jews focus too much on the keva.  Others assert that more progressive Jewish movements have too little kavana - all is keva.  I believe that both of these views are incorrect, in general.  Orthodox Jews can have tremendous kavana as they go through the rituals of prayer.  Those physical rituals can trigger and emotional response that is grounded in love and spirit.  Many progressive Jews have great keva, but that keva is non-traditional.  It has been created and developed to meet the needs of each community.  Whether we use the keva of our ancestors or we create keva, we Jews know in our bones that we need structure; we need ritual.  Without ritual, we lose community.  Without community, we lose Judasim.

It struck me during today's daf that our entire tradition is based upon keeping alive a religion that essentially died when the Temple was destroyed.  How bizarre to still practice rituals based on something lost over 2000 years ago!

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Ta'anit 15 In Order of Importance: Fast Days, Rituals & Gan Eden

We begin with fascinating words by Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak.  Not all are fit for light, and not all are fit for gladness/happiness.  The righteous with light, and the upright with gladness.  This is because "Light is sown  for the righteous" and "gladness for the upright in heart" (Psalms 97:11).  I want to better understand the meanings of righteousness and of upright behaviour.  The implication is that light, a more spiritually pure experience is different than the reward of happiness or gladness.   

Perek II of Masechet Ta'anit begins with a very long mishna.  It outlines the six prayers that are added to the 18 prayers of the amida on fast days.  Those on the priestly watch are expected to fast less than those in the patrilineal family.  As the fast days progress, these community members have different obligations regarding fasting and other behaviours.  The mishna also outlines on which days of the week fast days are to be scheduled.

The Gemara begins to examine this mishna by looking at how people actually observed the fast days.  Did they go to synagogue?  In which order would people take burnt ashes and place them upon their heads.  First the Nasi, then the Deputy Nasi, and then every member of the community.  But is this what Rabbi Yehuda taught us?  The Gemara tells us that Rabbi Yehuda taught us that yes, we observe rituals of greatness in order of greatness.   But when the ritual involves a curse or a dishonour, we begin with the "least important member of the group" and ascend.  

The proof text for 'greatness'  is found in Leviticus (10:6) when Moses spoke to Aaron and then to Elazar and to Itamar.  Because Aaron is "more important" than his sons, we can assume that greatness travels from the greatest person down through the ranks.  The proof text for our rituals when dealing with a curse is more intriguing.   We are told that "the serpent was cursed first and  afterward Eve was cursed and afterward Adam was cursed".  And so Adam is the most important, followed by Eve, followed by the serpent.

What if Adam is not the most important person in this group, but instead he is simply the person who participated least in the betrayal?  And so the serpent is cursed first because of its role in the story and not because it is a less important creature?  To assume that Adam is more important than Eve, and that his status is what allowed him to be cursed last, fits very nicely with the world view of the rabbis who were creating these interpretations.  

Perhaps, just perhaps, if even one woman (well, one woman might be pushed aside by the men, so let's say three women) were part of this particular rabbinical discussion, this proof text using Adam as the 'most important' person might not have been defensible.  Perhaps - and this is a long shot - the rabbis would have been forced to examine something other than a hierarchical analysis of merit.  And if that had happened, well, who knows how our tradition might have evolved?

Ta'anit 14 How Social Hierarchy Affects Prayer

So the community is undergoing a series of fasts because there has been no rain.  What are pregnant and nursing women to do?  The rabbis are unequivocal - women who are pregnant or nursing are not allowed to be stringent.  They are not permitted do participate in all of the fasts.  The rabbis argue about which fasts are most stringent, most difficult, etc.  They generally agree that women who are pregnant or nursing should not participate in the middle fasts of the series.

Part of me is so happy to see that our rabbis understood the special needs of pregnant and nursing women.  A more cynical part of me wonders whether this was about the needs of women or the needs of our collective children, the inheritors of Abraham's lot.  Women are far more valuable when we are caring for children - especially when we are pregnant, but also when we are nursing.  Perhaps I will remember that meeting the needs of children (ie. meeting the needs of their mothers) is what all people want, regardless of our gender or sex. 

In their discussion about "sounding an alarm", the rabbis compare different cries.  The shofar is compared with the trumpet.  But then the rabbis remind us about the call of the human voice when one is in distress.  Might the "alarm" be represented by people crying out - crying out in prayer?

This notion of prayer as a cry is very meaningful for me.  Having led the chant of Kol Nidre for many years, I understand the difference between a whisper and a mournful cry.  There are many ways that we can call out to G-d, that we can sound an alarm, that we can bring attention to our immediate concerns.  Prayer is so often an experience of rote recital.  Should we be thinking of prayer as an experience of sound?

Our rabbis wonder why the residents of Nineveh, a place that does not experience rain in the summer, would call out for rain.  Might this be an error?  I am curious why people would only pray for things that we can logically receive.  If I were living in the hot, dry climate of Nineveh, why wouldn't I pray for rain?  Even if my crops were not dependent on that rainfall, all of life is dependent on water.  I believe that I must be missing out on a basic premise regarding the prayer for rain.

Our daf ends with two more considerations.  The first attempts to understand why shops would be permitted to open their doors "a little bit" on Monday but perhaps more, or for longer, on Thursday.  Why might this be?  The rabbis do some fancy footwork to explain the types of shopping that might be required on those different days.  The second consideration looks to understand how people of different classes greet each other.  The rabbis note that people of 'importance' should not humiliate themselves - unless they are certain that their efforts will be rewarded.  The rabbis are careful to instruct each other against arrogance or pretentiousness.  However, they understand the importance of their role in the community.

This conversation about social class, access to prayer, and worthiness is much larger than I can tackle today.  The good news seems to be that our rabbis were concerned with these issues and they discussed the implications of different actions.  They recognized that the poor had needs just as they themselves had needs regarding leadership.  The bad news is that the rabbis seem to lean toward both creating and maintaining a social structure that is static.  

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Ta'anit 13 Young women - looking good and feeling horrible

What about bathing during an individual fast?  When and how are we permitted to bathe?  The rabbis look to our other rituals around bathing: on the 9th of Av, during periods of mourning.  Some of the factors to consider include:

  • hot water vs. cold water
  • immersing the entire body
  • immersing the hands, face and feet only
  • using natron (a natural cleaning agent), sand or no cleaning agent
  • whether or not water is plentiful
  • one's location: how cold is cold?
  • the experience of pleasure when bathing in cold water
  • when and how one might shave
  • when and how one might wash clothing
We learn about different rules for girls who reach a 'marriageable' age.  In this ancient context, young women who are now eligible to be married, ie. between 12 and 12.5 years old, should not make themselves unattractive to potential suitors when they are in mourning. The rabbis discuss what this might mean.  Should these young women be permitted to bathe in cold water?  In hot water?  Or is this not referring to bathing at all but to hair colour and eye makeup?

It is clear that girls under 12 are allowed to be 'unattractive' when they are in mourning.  But girls over 12 are on display, even when they are mourning the loss of their fathers.  Unthinkable that girls should be forced to care about their looks before their losses?  We have a strong tradition of similar values in our modern, mainstream society.

What about older women; those who are already betrothed or even those who are married?  Are they permitted to render themselves as full mourner, unattractive, smelly, concerned about feelings more than appearance?

The daf ends by returning to a conversation about where to place the extra prayer within the amidah when one has vowed to take on an individual fast.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Ta'anit 12 Vowing to Fast as an Individual

The Gemara covers a number of conversations regarding those who vow to fast as individuals:

  • Can a fast last only a few hours? (yes, with conditions)*
  • When should one take on an individual fast?  That day?  The afternoon before? (the afternoon before is ideal, and this intention must be stated within the amidah prayer either aloud or internally)
  • How do we mark the ending of a meal and the beginning of a fast?  The start of sleep and the beginning of a fast? (this is more tricky...)
  • dozing: Rav Ashi defines dozing as when "one is asleep but not asleep, awake but not awake; that if they call him he will answer, but he cannot  give a reason.  And when we remind him, he remembers it".
  • When is one allowed to 'borrow his fast and repay the fast' at a later date? (yes, with conditions)
  • What is the difference between dream fasts and other individual fasts? (some say we should disregard dreams; others say that dream fasts should be undertaken the day following the dream, even if it falls on Shabbat, as this aligns with our observance of Shabbat)
A new Mishna compares this with individuals who join in a collective fast.  We learn how the community calls out to G-d for rain.  If the rain does not come, they move to the next stage of imploring G-d for help:
  1. Three regular fasts
  2. Three additional fasts: people can eat/drink during the day ('erev fast day'), and on the fast day they are prohibited from working, bathing, smearing themselves with oil, wearing shoes, marital relations; bathhouses are locked
  3. Seven severe fasts (thirteen in total not including three fasts taken on by individuals): in addition to the above, they sound the alarm and they lock the stores, opening them only on Monday and Thursday for a short time in the evenings to allow people to prepare for breaking the fast and for Shabbat.
  4. No more fasts, but more hardships: fewer business transactions, building, planing, betroths, marriages, greetings.  Individuals resume fasts on Mondays and Thursdays. 
When rain falls after Nisan, it is considered to be a curse (I Samuel 12:17).  

At the very end of our daf, Abaye describes fast days: From the morning until the middle of the day they look for flaws in city business.  Moral or other problems might be the cause of 'Divine punishment'.  The next quarter of the day is used to learn a portion from the Torah, a portion from the Prophets, as was advised in Nehemiah (9:3).

*Rav Yochanan was known to refuse dinner invitations from the Nasi by claiming that he had undertaken an individual fast -- and then he ate at home.  Lying to spare the feelings of others goes way, way back.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Ta'anit 11 Self-harm through fasting: then and now

We learn about a few main ideas today:

  • When the community faces a famine, should individuals be compelled to fast?  If most others are fasting, should we not share the distress of our community?
  • We are not supposed to cause ourselves distress.  So should we fast on all fast days?
  • Can individual fasts be very short; a few hours?
These conversations remind me of a larger issue: self-harm as a form of devotion.  Most religions encourage ritualized self-harm as a form of intensive prayer.  Judaism is often taught as a religion that does not condone self-harming behaviour.  Indeed we are told specifically to care for our bodies, for they are modelled after G-d.  But fasts are a notable part of Jewish ritual, and fasts are a form of self-harming behaviour.  Of note - a person who is too ill to participate in a fast is not permitted to fast. Today's daf shows us an argument between those rabbis who believe that fasting can be a sin (as we are practicing self-harm) and those who believe that fasting is a reasonable way to be in relationship with G-d.  Ultimately, we know that it is meritorious to fast.  In our modern times, we know that those who are devout will do whatever they can to fast, often against medical and rabbinic recommendation.

Many women struggle with eating disorders.  In particular, the Orthodox Jewish community has rising numbers of young women who struggle with food and size preoccupation.  Some suggest that this tragedy has much to do with the combination of two factors: the increased pressure to present well (i.e. thin) in the shidduch process, and the structured, food-preoccupied, ritualistic nature of traditional Jewish life.  Today's daf brings all of this to the forefront.

We are allowed to take on our own individual vows.  Traditionally, fasting is a reasonable way to express one's vow.  Our rabbis note that people should not say that they are behaving righteously when they are doing otherwise in private.  In fact, the stones and beams of one's house will act as witness to our behaviour.   It is amazing to me that the rabbis struggled in the past with the same questions that we face today.  Perhaps they weren't concerned with young women's body image, but they knew that there is a fuzzy line between righteous and self-harming behaviour.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Ta'anit 9 Precocious Youth and Predicting Rain

As they discuss the interpretation of verses, we are introduced to the youngest son of Reish Lakish.  Rabbi Yochanan, Reish Lakish's teacher, colleague and brother-in-law, challenges Reish Lakish's son.  This child is thought to be 7 or 8 years old at the time, and he holds his own in a debate about Torah.  However, the child's responses strike me as somewhat rude.  At the end of their conversation, the wife of the late Reish Lakish pulls her son inside, saying, "Come away from Rabbi Yochanan, so that he does not do to you as he did to your father."  Reish Lakish died following an angry look from Rabbi Yochanan after a heated argument.

We are told about the three good providers in the desert: Miriam with the well, Aaron with the cloud, and Moshe with the manna.  Proof texts back the arguments of our rabbis.

We are told about Rav Pappa, who was often hurt because he was treated disrespectfully by other scholars.  Rav Shimi bar Asha once witness Rav Pappa fall asleep after prayer.   He heard Rav Pappa pray to save him from embarrassment of Shimi.  Following this, Rav Shimi bar Asha was more respectful of Rav Pappa.

The rabbis question how our prayers for rain are answered.  If a righteous person prays for rain, his prayer should be answered.  But his neighbour's field would also benefit from that rain, and the neighbour might not be deserving of this blessing.  Does the rain fall for the sake of an individual, or for the sake of the community?  This questioning brings the rabbis to explain how the clouds tell us about rainfall.  One philosophy includes the concept of upper waters, the oceans, vapour, and rainfall. The Gemara alludes to the functional understanding of the water cycle in antiquity.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Ta'anit 8 How to Get What We Want Through Prayer

If a student's studies are difficult for him, like iron, what should be done?  Different rabbis quote different sources to different ends. Perhaps go easier on him. Perhaps have him work harder.  Perhaps have his friends intercede with his teacher.  Rashi believes that he should learn with others, while other rabbis tell us that he should study alone.

Ecclesiastes (10:11) teaches that "if the snake bites before it has been charmed, the charmer has no advantage".  The rabbis take this to mean that we must know the proper prayers for rain to ensure that we get that rain.  So that is our first lesson on how to get what we want through prayer: pray properly.

But how do we know how to pray properly?  Rabbi Ami teaches that we must put all of our souls into our prayers, even with our hands turned upward, for our prayers to be heard. Shmuel however has said that all prayer is heard whether or not the pray-er is sincere.  The Gemara accounts for this difference by teaching us that Shmuel is referring to communal prayer while Rabbi Ami is referring to prayer while we are alone.

Rabbi Ami strengthens his point by alluding to the story of the pit and the marten.  We learn that a man saved a woman who had fallen into a pit.  They pledged themselves to each other, as witnessed by the pit and a marten.  Later the man married another woman and their two children died - one by falling into a pit and the other by a marten. The man realized his error and returned to the woman he had rescued.  A nice story - except for the wife who lost two children and then her husband.  But this story is used to teach us that if a pit and a marten hold us to our word, how much more powerful must be the power of G-d's commitment?

In amud (b), we learn that both rain and the heavens closing are compared with women in childbirth.  In Deuteronomy 11:17, we learn "And he will close up the heavens".  This is compared to a woman who is in childbirth but does not give birth.  Her pain helps us to understand G-d's pain when G-d closes the heavens and keeps the rain from us.  In a number of places, rain is compared to childbirth, for it falls and then plants are 'born' and then blossom.  Verses regarding Sarah and Rachel's experiences of childbirth are used as proof texts.  The rewards (and the consequences) of 'praying properly'.

Between a rock and a hard place: in Shmuel's time, the people faced a plague and a draught at the same time.  How should the people pray?  The Gemara reminds us that we must pray for one of two troubles as G-d will attend to our other difficulties without the need for prayer.  Rabbi Ziera faced a decree of persecution; Jews were not allowed to fast.  He instructed the community to forgo the fast as it could be done after the decree was lifted.  So now we know that we should focus our prayer on one, big ask rather than focusing on many of our competing needs.

The daf ends with a number of examples of acts of G-d that can be called a curse; how our pray can change G-d's mind.  We learn from Rabbi Yitzchak that "a blessing is found only in an object that is hidden from the eye" (Deuteronomy 28:8).  This means that G-d does not want to draw attention to G-d's miracles, for they are rare and we should not upset people's understanding of the natural order.  In addition, this suggests that our prayers and vows said privately are that much more likely to be fulfilled, for we are doing these actions for G-d and not for others who have been witness.

The theme of today's daf seems to rest on the notion of sincerity of prayer.  And we might pray that we are understanding these instructions properly!

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Ta'anit 7

What a fun daf!  We continue to discuss rainfall.  In amud (a), the rabbis compete with each other.  Rabbi Abbahu states that rainfall is more important than something else - resurrection of the dead.  Rav Yehuda teaches that rainfall is as great as the giving of Torah.  These statements are proven with restating the notion that resurrection of the dead is just for righteous Jews; Torah is just for Jews.  However, rainfall is for everyone, including Jews who sin and all human beings.

The rabbis move into other interpretations.  Through verses from Proverbs and Deuteronomy, we learn some of the many ways that Torah scholars are worthy.  These metaphors are beautiful but incredibly self-serving.  Of note are the many ways that scholars who study alone rather than in groups will become fools.  That would be referring to me.  Though I cannot even call myself a scholar.

Some of the more poignant points:

  • As iron sharpens iron; Torah scholars sharpen each other in halacha
  • How is a man "like a tree in a field" (Deuteronomy 20:19)? Taken from the verses before and after this verse:  because Torah scholars are also cut down if they are not worthy but left to flourish if they are strong
  • Why is the "Torah like a tree of life if we lay hold upon it" (Proverbs 3:18)? Like a twig can ignite a tree, minor Torah scholars can sharpen great Sages 
  • Rabbi Chanina: I've learned much from my teachers, more from my colleagues, but from my students, more than all of them
Some thoughts about Torah scholars and water:
  • what does Isaiah mean: "To him who is thirsty bring water" (21:14) and "Ho, everyone who thirsts, come for water" (55:1)?  teachers should seek out great students of Torah; all people should find opportunities to learn Torah ourselves
  • Rabbi Oshaya: Torah is compared to water, wine and milk. Why?  These liquids are preserved best in clay pots; Torah is best learned by those who are humble.
  • Rabbi Yoehoshua ben Chananya, an unattractive man, spoke with the daughter of the Roman emperor.  She insulted him: "Woe to glorious wisdom in an ugly vessel".  He told her to tell her father to store wine in gold and silver vessels.  When the wine turned sour and the daughter explained what had happened, Rabbi Yahoshua ben Chananya was summoned.  He explained, "Just as she said tot me, so I said to her."  The emperor responded, "but there are handsome people who are learned".  The rabbi replied that had they been ugly, they would have been more learned!  Water, wine and milk require attention so that they do not spoil; matters of Torah are forgotten without attention.
I think that Rabbi Yehoshua might have been hoping for a wife as a reward for that last retort.  No commentary tells us what happened, unfortunately.

In amud (b) we move back to the causes of and remedies for drought.  The idea is that we can control the rain with our halachically righteous practice and with our prayer.  Personally I find this extremely disturbing.  I can appreciate the power of prayer as energy.  I can imagine that thousands of prayers being directed at the same 'place' might be powerful.  But powerful enough to change the weather?  That is hard for me to fathom.  I am decidedly uncomfortable with the notion of G-d answering our prayers. I do not believe in an active G-d; a G-d who has 'ears' to 'hear'.  That comes far too close to a belief system that blames people for our circumstances.  That is not my Judaism. 

Monday, 16 June 2014

Ta'anit 6

Today we learn about those first and last rains.  The rabbis disagree about when is the first rain, the second rain, the third rain.  We read arguments about which months were intended, why each month might be appropriately placed, and how the first rain's placement would define the second and third rains.  Rabbi Zeira provides us with some interesting interpretations.  He want us to relate the rainfalls to peah, where the poor gather food freely from the corners of every field in the land.  The timing of the rain helps us to define the timing of this process as well.

The rabbis teach us about alternate meanings of the words of our Mishna.  They touch on how rainfall is measured, where it must fall, what other rituals it determines.  This includes a handbreadth of rain below the surface of the soil.  It also includes the notion that rainfall, rovia, penetrates - rove'a.  Thus the rainfall is in fact like a husband to the earth, which, when penetrated, births the fruits of nature.  Further, rainfall is said to be a curse if it falls on only part of a country.

The rabbis share many varied and creative ideas about the meanings of rain.  The daf ends with an example of a blessing of thanksgiving to be said over one of these three rainfalls - or a rainfall that marks the end of a drought.  Obviously, rain was one of the most critical components of of our ancestors' lives.  Without rain, there would be no food, little drink, no animals, no life.  

However, the rabbis continually compare rainfall to a sexual relationship.  Invariably, the husband is said to somehow nourish or penetrate or implant within the wife, who is still and waiting for his arrival.  This heteronormative, traditionally gendered notion of sexual relations does not usually bother me.  In context it is a beautiful metaphor for connectedness and growth.  Today these words pushed at me, making me wonder about the sexual relationships of our Sages.  Did they see their wives as inactive?  As waiting to be impregnated by an active male? Surely they experienced the wide range of sexual experience that most humans experience.  When do they make reference to those behaviours - or other behaviours - that are less traditional; less accepted?

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Ta'anit 5

A whimsical and philosophical daf today - at least according to me.

We begin with a Mishna about praying for rain.  When do we stop saying our prayer for rain?  Rabbi Yehuda says that we say this prayer until the end of Passover.  Rabbi Meir says that we say this prayer until the end of the month of Nissan based on a proof text from Joel (2:23).

The Gemara begins with descriptions of the year that rains fell in Nissan.  The rabbis speak about times of draught; of thirst and hunger.  A story is told about a miracle: after those first rains in Nissan, the second rains fell only days later.  The people had followed the advice of their prophets and had sown the land in time to reap the benefits.  The story ends with a lesson: those who went out in tears came back with joy. 

We may believe that our efforts are for nought.  We may sow our fields, put in the hard work that is demanded of us, and not expect to be rewarded. But in the end, we can trust that our work will yield a crop; we will eat on our ways home.  A lovely idea.

Rabbi Nachman and Rabbi Yitzchak discuss a story told by Rav Yochanan.  In Kings, when there was a famine for seven years, what did the people eat?  Rabbi Yochanan names the food for each year, ending in horror as taught in Isaiah (9:19) in the seventh year they ate their sons and daughters; in the seventh year they ate the flesh of their own arms.  Steinsaltz does not comment specifically on this travesty.  A note mentions that this was said to have happened as it was recorded in Kings II.

We then switch tracks and learn about Jerusalem as a city below, on Earth, which is attached to a Jerusalem above, in the World-to-Come (Psalms 122:3).  When the rabbis wonder why G-d might not be able to enter the sacred city of Jerusalem (Hosea 11:9), they consider the possibility that G-d cannot enter G-d's own city of Jersusalem above until Moshiach comes.  This suggests that G-d is like those of us in the diaspora who are exiled from Jerusalem for now.  

Rabbi Nachman and Rabbi Yitzchak continue their discussion.  Like the city of Jerusalem below and above, they look at another instance of "two in one".  This time the discussion is about idolatry, which they agree is one sin that counts as two sins.  They name a number of ways that this can be proven.  One describes the Kittites who worship fire thought it can be extinguished by water - which is idolized by another sect.  They also speak of our first two commandments which both allude to idolatry.

These two rabbis now speak about King Samuel, who was righteous and yet died young, at age 52.  Could he have been punished for an unknown sin with karet?  No-one wants to believe that this could be possible.  Instead they decide that a person who dies at 52 has not died before his/her years and thus karet refers to an even younger death.

Once Rabbi Nachman and Rabbi Yitzchak were eating together and one asked the other to begin a conversation about Torah. The other reminded him not to speak - even of Torah - during a meal to protect one's health, for food could become lodged in the wrong place.  Perhaps the rabbis were simply tired of talking to each other?  But in all seriousness, we learn in a note that this is still practiced in some communities today.  It is quite difficult for me to imagine Jews silent during all meals.

After the meal, they discussed Rabbi Yochanan's notion that Jacob did not die.  How could this be possible?  Well, he lives on through his  seed.  And because he was a flawless person, we can expect great things from his children, as well.

Two last stories about these rabbis.  The first is disturbing to me. Rabbi Yitzchak tells Rabbi Nachman that any man just saying the name of a particular woman: Rachav, Rachav, will have a seminal emission right then.  When Rabbi Nachman challenges this based on his own experience, Rabbi Yitzchak modifies his statement: I was referring to a man who knew her [in the Biblical sense] and who recognized her.  

Is Rabbi Yitzchak married to Rachav?  Is he suggesting that he had sexual relations with her?  Was this a socially acceptable topic of conversation after dinner?   What were the circumstances of this woman?  Such a bizarre statement reminds me that our Sages were simply people of their time, with similar character flaws in imperfections as we have today.  

Finally, Rabbi Nachman asks Rabbi Yitzchak to bless him.  Rabbi Yitzchak tells the story of a man in the desert - hungry, thirsty, tired.  He comes across a tree by water that offers him fruit, shade and drink.  The man wishes to offer the tree a blessing.  But it has sweet fruit, wonderful shade and thirst-quenching water already!  So the man blesses the tree saying, may it be G-d's will that your saplings that plant from you be just like you.  In this way, Rabbi Yitzcha blesses Rabbi Nachman by asking that G-d make his children just like him.

Today we observe the relationship between two rabbis and the wisdom - and folly! - that comes from their conversations.  A beautiful blessing to end a truly esoteric, interesting daf.  

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Ta'anit 4

Much of today's daf helps us to understand the process by which our Sages decided when to pray for rain.  Ultimately their decision considers the needs of both the Diaspora and Israeli communities.  This leads me to believe that halachic considerations should be flexible in modern circumstances as well.  In this ancient circumstance, a community that will be damaged by excessive rain does not have to pray for rain at the same time as another community, where rain is desperately needed.  How can we apply this considerate decision-making to today's dilemmas?  Perhaps our prayers can reflect our contexts.  Perhaps we can pray for different things at different times, as our needs are diverse.

At the start of our daf, we learn some of our Sages precious gems of wisdom regarding anger.  We are told that both Rava and Rav Ashi justify anger in Torah scholars. Clearly they are angry because they should be angry based on their Torah learning!  They find proof texts taken from Jeremiah 23:29.  Rabbi Abba  uses different proof texts to suggest that Torah scholars are tough, not harsh.  And Ravina stops this conversation with Ecclesiastes 11:10: Even so, one is required to teach himself to act gently, as it is stated: "And remove anger from your heart, (and put away evil from your flesh)".

Steinsaltz shares some very helpful notes.  He tells us that generally speaking, anger in Torah scholars is discouraged unless one is 'acting as if' he is angry to draw attention to a point.  In fact, Torah scholars should learn how to push their anger away.  Even if they are angered because they are extra-sensitive to the sins of others, they should be pleasant, never angry.

I am imagining these Torah scholars, frustrated with their memorization, either very hot or very cold in stuffy, smelly rooms together.  They are obliged to have wives and many children, whether or not they can afford to feed those children.  They may be working and also learning.  Demands from the community, demands from their families, demands from their colleagues and the heads of the Yeshivot. Politcs.  Antisemitism.  General physical discomfort as they age.  And they are not supposed to get angry!?  I wonder who learned to do this and how it was done.

As a therapist, I work with people every day who are struggling to feel more 'in control' of their emotions.  I am waiting to learn more about how our Sages actually achieved this degree of control -- if they did.  Did they use similar techniques to those used today?  Was meditation part of their practice of emotion regulation?  Hopefully I will learn more over the course of this study.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

Ta'anit 2

Our masechet begins with reasoning surrounding a familiar prayer said in the second blessing of the Amidah: mashiv haruach umorid hageshem, He makes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.  The rabbis argue about whether this should be said in the winter as it is, or whether it should be said all year with the addition of b'onato, in its own time.

We learn about respect for the strength of the rain.  Our commentary tells us that rain is related to the concept of resurrection, as it brings what has died back to life.  In Kabbala, the rain is said to be a manifestation of G-d's tzimtzum, or G-d's contraction or withdrawal from us.  Simultaneously it is a manifestation of G-d's chesed, or loving-kindness.  We are presented with multiple interpretations of rain and its effects.  

We are told that Rabbi Yochanan describes three things that are in G-d's control alone: rainfall, birthing, and resurrection. Proof-texts are provided, including Rachel and Leah, where G-d "opened her womb".  Thus it was G-d and not the women themselves nor an agent of G-d who cause the fetus to gestate.  In Israel ("the West") livelihood is added to this list.  Rabbi Yochanan is said to have put livelihood aside for all jobs are dependent upon rainfall, which is dependent on our observance.

Amazing that we continue to use these same words in our daily prayers.  The all-importance of rain and its power is remote to people like me who live without fear of flooding or draught.  In fact, people like me are so disconnected from the cycles of nature that we expect our food to be packaged and available from the grocery store regardless of the weather.  And yet we pray for wind and rain.  Perhaps there is value in maintaining our ancient prayers -- we are forced to remember the power of rain and wind.

The rabbis wonder why the prayer for rain coincides with the start of Sukkot.  Is it related to other mitzvot involving rain: the water libation? the lulav?  This brings the rabbis to a discussion about the appropriate times to pray for rain.  Which day of Sukkot?  Which time of day?  

We end the daf with the rabbis sharing some interesting proof texts where they find references to the letters of the word mayim, water: mem yud mem.  It is beautiful to watch their connections take shape, but I sometimes find these interpretations to be without adequate reason.  Not that their arguments make no sense, but that their arguments are somewhat self-serving and other proof-texts could have been used to prove a completely different perspective.  


Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Rosh Hashana 35

Today's daf is the last of Masechet Rosh Hashana.  It is a short daf, with only amud (a), and it expands upon the conversation regarding when we are obligated to pray for ourselves and when a shaliach tzibur can pray on our behalf.

The rabbis try to unpack who is obligated to pray on regular days compared with who is obligated to pray on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.  One of the major points of agreement is that people can say "And in your Torah it is written" without saying the following list of blessings and still meet their obligations.  The rabbis concede that average people may not learn a long list of prayers by heart.

We learn a bit more about the establishment of prayer as a fundamental requirement of Jewish observance.  Rabbi Elazar tells us that we should always "arrange our prayer in our minds" before praying.  This may refer to only Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur and or it may refer to prayers all year.

Rav Yehuda always arranged his prayer first in his mind and then prayed. However, we are reminded, Rav Yehuda was different, for he was busy with Torah study and would pray only every thirty days.  

Praying only every thirty days?!  I know many, many people who would jump at 'observance' if that meant that one was busy with Torah study rather than prayer.  Clearly, prayer was not yet a fundamental part of Jewish ritual life.  Prayer is jarringly different from sacrifice, offerings.  The ritual is different, the smells and tastes and sounds and physical activity levels are different.  Offerings are visceral.  They would force us to wake up.  Prayer, on the other hand, can evoke sleep in the most devoted person, for the physical component of prayer is limited and constricting.  How did our rabbis manage to convince the community to pray three times each day?  Especially when Rav Yehuda was not praying?

We end the daf with a conversation about people who were not praying for themselves for they were working in the fields.  There is a debate: should those people be 'covered' by the shaliach tzibur, for obviously they were working in the fields against their wills?  Or should those in the field be obligated to say the prayers themselves?  Should people be punished for our lack of observance to halacha? Or should we be considered victims of 'circumstances beyond our control' and allow the larger community to take responsibility for us?

This debate exists today as well.  Should we accommodate the needs of our fellow Jews who work on Shabbat?  Or should those who are in 'circumstances beyond their control' be called to task?  Who should be allowed to determine whether those circumstances are truly beyond our control?  And how would that be determined?  One person might find it easy to stand up to a teacher or boss who expects our participation on Shabbat; another might find that kind of interaction devastating.

The conversation is taken one step further by adding conditions of the priestly blessing.  Apparently, no-one can be behind the priests while they recite their blessings.  The sides are alright.  But those in the fields who are obviously working because they are in circumstances beyond their control are included in these blessings.  Rabban Gamliel suggests that those in the city who do not go to synagogue are a different story.  They are obligated to prepare the prayers and to pray on their own.  

This suggests that there was a difference between the city and the fields when it came to compelling one to work.  Was this about antisemitism, which could go on in the fields but would be frowned upon in a city?  Or is this about the social status of those who work in the fields?  Or perhaps the financial need of those who work in the fields?  When using the Talmud to explore social norms and mores of this ancient era, it is amazing to sniff out clues.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Rosh Hashana 34

We are close to the end of this masechet and where do the rabbis focus their attention?  On the sounding of the shofar.

We walk through a detailed analysis of which blasts are sounded in which order, which blasts were similar to or different from each other, the relative length and meaning of each blast, and how the groups of blasts are organized.  One of the more interesting comments suggests that the terua might consists of both whimpering and moaning sounds.  The Gemara tells us that when a normal person experiences a bad event, the moaning is followed by whimpering and thus the blast mimics this sound.*

All of this is performed in our modern services.  It is quite overwhelming to imagine the rabbis attempting to establish a proper order of blasts - and that at Rosh Hashana, I follow those instructions today.

To be clear, the rabbis are very serious about which blast goes where and why it should be so.  Although I cannot imagine that G-d would punish us for misinterpreting or erring in our hearing the shofar blasts, many believe that these exact determinations can be the difference between life and death.

Amud (b) recounts a discussion about a prayer leader saying prayers on behalf of others verses blowing the shofar on behalf of others.  One of the more important considerations is Torah law and rabbinic law.   The prayers are rabbinic in origin, and thus their recitation is not as critical as hearing the sounding of the Torah.

It strikes me that we are reading about the establishment of prayer as much as we are reading about anything else.  Prayer replaced sacrifice in the Temple.  Much of the Talmud focuses on describing Temple rites that will be all-important when the Temple is rebuilt at the time of Moshiach.  But without the Temple, the rabbis had to give the people something to do while they waited for its reestablishment. What could be better than very clearly determined prayer?  But the rabbis do recognize that their suggestions and interpretations are not as meaningful as the words of Torah.

* Does this suggest that there is something inherently sad about sounding the shofar?  It is meant to be a proclamation of G-d's kingship.  So why would sadness be attached to that?  Are we meant to feel G-d's sadness because He is judging us?

Monday, 9 June 2014

Rosh Hashana 33

The rabbis explain their application of our last Mishna.  We had learned about restrictions placed on sounding the shofar on Rosh Hashana when it falls on Shabbat.

Of interest are the restrictions placed on women and children. We are told that women are not obligated to lay their hand on offerings; however, they are permitted to do so.  The rabbis argue whether the halacha on women's obligation to sound the shofar is similar.  Children are discussed in two groups: minors and those who have reached the age of thirteen.  Minor children are encouraged to practice the shofar, even sounding the shofar on Shabbat, until they have learned how to blow the shofar properly.  Older children are restricted from sounding the shofar on Shabbat when it is Rosh Hashana unless they are sounding the shofar ritually.  

It was especially intriguing to watch the rabbis consider the education of children of ritual practice.

A new Mishna teaches us the order of the shofar blasts: tekia, terua, teruot.  It also describes how long each blast should last.  There is some debate about this.  Rabban Gamliel disagrees with the Gemara, which states that each individual is required in the prayers of Rosh Hashana just as the prayer leader is requried to say these prayers.  Rabban Gamliel says individuals are not obligated, as the prayerleader fulfills the obligation on behalf of the community.  

The Gemara discusses these sounds: whimpers, moans.   It also describes the shofar used as proclamation of the date.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Rosh Hashana 32

We are discussing the additional prayers on Rosh Hashana.  In a new Mishna, the rabbis list an order of prayers.  Rabbi Akiva shares a version that is slightly different.  The Gemara shares verses as proof texts for the inclusion and order of each prayer.  The order listed is:

  • Patriarchs
  • Mighty Deeds and the Sanctification of G-d's name
  • blessing of the Kingship included in Sanctification of the Day
  • blowing the shofar
  • blessing of Remembrances
  • blowing the shofar
  • blessing of Shofarot
  • blowing the shofar
  • blessing of G-d's service
  • blessing of Thanksgiving and the Priestly Blessing
We learn that Rabbi Akiva's practices were followed in Judea and the surrounding areas. In the north, in the Galilee, the people followed the interpretations of Yochanan bar Nuri.  We continue this tradition today: we are obliged to follow the customary practices of the town in which we live.  If we move to a new place, we are allowed to maintain our former practices but we must practice them privately for reasons of social adhesion.  

We learn in a new Mishna that we are supposed to say ten utterances of the Kingship, ten utterances of the Remembrances, and ten utterances of the Shofarot.  However, saying only three of each is acceptable. And what are these utterances?  The Gemara explains that the first come from King David in the Book of Psalms, "Praise Him with...".  The second come from the Ten Commandments at Sinai: "And He said...".  The last may have come from the phrases in Genesis: "And He said"; however, this is disputed.

Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri clarifies that we must say at least three of each for they correspond to the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings.  Alternately they correspond with the Priests, the Levites and the Israelites. 

Our next Mishna teaches that we do not mention verses of Kingship, Remembrance or Shofar that mention punishment.  In addition, we might be told to begin with Torah and conclude with Prophets; Rabbi Yosei tells us to conclude with averse from the Prophets.

The Gemara discusses general interpretations of these instructions as well as practical questions and applications.  Some of the more broad rules include:
  • it is permitted to include verses that describe the punishment of Gentiles
  • we must choose verses that focus on G-d's remembrance of the collective and not individuals
  • verses that speak of revisiting are similar enough to remembrances to include them 
  • We must be careful to look to our Sages to determine how many times each verse mentions Kingship
  • Verses chosen as Shofarot should be directly related to sounding the shofar
The Shema is one of several verses used as an example of conflict between rabbis.  Some believe that it is a statement of Kingship while others disagree.  The rabbis debate each verse as they attempt to establish into which 'category' of utterance it might fit.

A new Mishna teaches us about leadership of the Rosh Hashana service. The prayer leader, or one "who is passing before the ark", that is the second prayer leader who sounds the shofar.  When the Hallel is recited, the first prayer leader [for the morning prayers] recites the Hallel.

The Gemara questions why the second prayer leader sounds the shofar in the afternoon.  Is it because everyone has arrived by that time?

Needless to say, this continues to be a conversation in congregations worldwide.

The Gemara goes on to note that persecution may have been a factor as well.  The guards might have left by the time the shofar was sounded in the afternoon.  The Hallel may have been recited early for similar reasons.  In addition, rabbis suggest that the Hallel was said in the morning to reflect the mood of the people; we had not begun to feel the true weight of G-d's judgement so early in the day.

Our notes detail the customs of sounding the shofar, including the tradition of a scholar blowing the shofar, the prayer leader only calling out the blasts, and permission to recite Hallel on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur though it is not required as part of these services.

Our final Mishna in today's very long daf notes that one may not pass the Shabbat limit for a Rosh Hashana shofar.  One may not uncover a buried shofar.  One may not climb a tree, ride an animal, or swim to find a shofar.  One may not cut the shofar to prepare it.  One may put water or wine into the shofar to clear its sound - it may be placed, as this is not a prohibited labour.  Children should be instructed and encouraged to sound the shofar on Rosh Hashana.  If one sounds the shofar without intention of fulfilling the mitzvah - and if one hears these blasts - neither has fulfiled his/her obligation.

The Gemara asks why these laws are necessary: shouldn't the negative actions (like swimming or climbing, which could lead to transgressing Shabbat prohibitions) be outweighed by the positive mitzvah of the shofar?  Rabbis argue that these negative actions are treated as if they are not rabbinical but Torah law, and thus the shofar sounding does not outweigh their importance.  

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Rosh Hashana 31

On each day a different psalm is selected for the Levites to recite (or sing).  The rabbis choose these psalms based on connections between them and what was done on each day of creation.

The same decision is made regarding Shabbat afternoon prayers.  We learn about the ha'azenu prayer, which is divided according to a mnemonic.  

The great court of the rabbis called the Great Sanhedrin was forced to move to different parts of the land.  It is said that the Sanhedrin moved from Jerusalem to Tiberius in ten stages.  

Similarly the rabbis teach that the Divine Presence travelled on ten journeys.  The first was in the Ark and the last was in Heaven.  A note tells us that the Jewish peoples' increasingly bad behaviour led to G-d leaving us on our own.

We are told to go to the Great Sanhedrin itself when we must stand before a court.  Even if the head rabbi remained in one of the the cities along the way, Jews facing justice were expected to travel.

A person refusing to see the judges in the Sanhedrin or who did not accept their ruling was first issued a  peticha, an opening or a warning of impending excommunication.  If s/he continued to refuse to comply, s/he would be issued an excommunication order, or a shamta.

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai issued nine ordinances regarding Jewish ritual practice. A number of these are detailed in today's daf.  One regards the crimson thread that is cut in half and tied both to the scapegoat and to a rock.  That thread will turn white if the azazel has indeed atoned for our sins.  

Interestingly the rabbis comment both on the meaning of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai's ordinance and upon the context of his ordinance. Since he commented on the crimson thread at a particular time, he must have been alive at that time.  Thus the rabbis conclude that other rabbis with competing ordinances were alive at that time as well.

Even the rabbis of antiquity were learning Torah in part to understand the social and contextual implications of their predecessors.  Makes me feel slightly better about where my interests lie as I continue to struggle with the text.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Rosh Hashana 29

Just before we begin a new Mishna, the rabbis remind us of the importance of intention.  The person hearing the shofar must focus on the act of hearing.  The person sounding the shofar may not have to focus, because simply by sounding the shofar they are intentionally performing the mitzvah of calling out to the community.

Our Mishna reminds us that Moses could raise his hand and the Israelites prevailed against Amalek; he could lower his hand and the Israelites would suffer (Exodus 17:11).  Similarly, it reminds us that when people who were bitten by a snake looked at the serpent constructed on a pole (Numbers 21:8) they would live.  Could this be that Moses' raised arm or the serpent had power over the Israelites?  Or, suggests the Mishna, were these simply tools to help the people look up to the sky, ie. turn to G-d.

In discussing who is obligated to sound the shofar and who is obligated to hear the shofar, we move into a fascinating area of discussion.  What about women, minors, people who are deaf and/or mute, those without capacity to understand the mitzva, those who are half-free or half-slaves, those who are tumtum, who have not developed clearly gendered sexual organs, or those who are androgynous, who have both male and female sexual organs?  The Gemara suggests that we are all obligated to sound the shofar and to hear the shofar from our own kind. This gets tricky with those who are called tumtum, for we do not know the sex of each person who is tumtum.  Androgynous people, however, are able to sound for women and for men, as they are of the same kind as both.

We can see that the notion of discreet sexes posed a number of difficulties for our Sages.  Clearly people were as varied in antiquity as we are today.  However, today's post-modernist understanding of difference allows for more than one truth; more than one reality to exist at the same time.  We are not forced to understand the world through concrete categories.  If our Sages had been able to understand sex as beyond binary; perhaps as monolithic, like blue houses and red houses are all categorized as houses - perhaps our traditions would have included many more leaders and thinkers - women as well as men, trans Jews as well as simply gendered Jews.

The Gemara goes on to discuss when one should perform a blessing or another mitzvah, like reading the book of Esther, for the sake of others' obligations to hear those words.  Clearly our rabbis wish to end Perek III with the emphasis being upon the spiritual intention behind sounding/hearing the shofar.

Perek IV begins with Rosh Hashana 29 (b).  It introduces the idea of sounding the shofar when Rosh Hashana falls on Shabbat in very limited contexts: only in the Temple?  Only in cities with at least 23 judges, like Yavne?  Only within the synagogue rather than in the street?  Only in Jerusalem?   The rabbis note that we can find contradictory instructions on whether or not to sound the shofar on Shabbat.

The rabbis wonder why we are permitted to sound the shofar on Shabbat in the Temple if it is not allowed anywhere else.  According to Torah law, sounding the shofar is a skill rather than a labour and thus it is permitted. But could the shofar be a musical instrument?  Might it need fixing? What if one carried it more than four cubits?  The rabbis are aware of the fences that they build around Torah law.

We learn a great trick used by RabbanYochanan ben Zakkai.  He was in the Great Sanhedtrin in Yavne when Rosh Hashana fell on Shabbat.  He told the Beteira brothers, the halachic experts at the time, to sound the shofar even though it was Shabbat.  "Let us discuss this first," they replied.  Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai insisted that they sound the shofar first and then discuss the matter.  The brothers agreed to this.  Following the blowing of the shofar, there was no discussion.  Why?  For after the shofar had been sounded, these rabbis could not rule that their actions had been erroneous!  And so sounding the shofar on Rosh Hashana when it falls on Shabbat was permitted.

Did the brothers really miss this ruse?  Hard to believe.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Rosh Hashana 26

We learn two mishnayot today. First, we learn about the shofar as the primary mitzvah of Rosh Hashana. All shofarot are permitted except for those made from cows. This is questioned; does the word kevel, horn, hold meaning here? We are told that Joshua 6:5 speaks of all shofarot as horns.

The Gemara discusses whether or not all shofarot can be called horns. It details a number of different arguments regarding what might make a kosher shofar. In addition, it shares our rabbis conversations regarding what makes a 'horn' and whether the word 'shofar' might contain interpretive meaning.

The rabbis segue now, sharing their thoughts regarding words used in different places that have meanings in Aramaic and/or Hebrew. Of interest to me: in Galia, menstruating women are called galuma. The rabbis suggest that this comes from geluma da, separated from her husband. In the district of Ken Nisrayya, a bride is called a ninfi, meaning beautiful view, as in the nof cited in Psalms 48:3.

A story is told of Levi, who was told in a strange land that "someone kava'ed me". Levi asked at the study hall what this meant, and he was met with derision. Kava means to steal. Rava said to Rav Ashi that Levi was wrong to leave. He should have asked questions like "How did he kava you? With what? etc...". In this way Levi could have deduced the meaning of kava.

Continuing their discussion of word play, the rabbis cite four circumstances where they learn the meaning of unusual words using Rabbi Yehuda haNasi's maidservant's voice. She is given a good amount of airtime in this very male-centred text.

The following Mishna provides more detail on the shofar: it should be straight made from an ibex; its mouthpiece should be gold; it should sound a long blast while trumpets - one on each side of the shofar - sound short blasts. However, shofarot of Fast Days are made of the curved horns of rams; the mouthpieces are silver. They are placed outside trumpets which sound the longer blasts while the shofarot sound short blasts. The rabbis disagree about which of these two practices is used on Jubilee years.

The Gemara discusses this difficulty. When should one 'bend' his mind, likening oneself to the shofar? Discussing the question metaphorically and literally, we watch the rabbis play with words to best understand its intention. A note teaches us that in fact we use the curved shofar of a ram on Rosh Hashana.

Sunday, 1 June 2014

Rosh Hashana 25

*Note that among other fascinating topics, Rosh Hashana 24 touches on 'graven images' and art; what it means to create likenesses of G-d's attendants.

Some highlights from today's daf:

  • Accepting two witnesses report on the New Moon, Rabban Gamliel decreed Rabbi Yochanan, agreeing with Rabbi Dosa ben Horkinas in rejecting that account, to travel and pay money on "Yom Kippur"
  • When he acquiesced, Gamliel kissed him as said something like: you are my teacher as you've taught me Torah in public, and you are my student as you have put my word above your own interpretation
  • Rabbi Yehoshua notes that we have three unnamed judges in a Jewish court just like we had 70 unnamed judges in the first court of Moses and Aaron
  • Since Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi told Rabbi Chiyya to sanctify the New Moon at Ein Tav, we have all repeated his 'sign' of sanctification: David, king of Israel, lives and endure
  • Rabbi Akiva comforts Rabbi Yochanan according to the Gemara.  He explains a proof text suggesting that it is up to us together to set the date of the New Moon, even if we are wrong, G-d will accept this date.  Thus people are encouraged to interpret, even when our interpretations are wrong.
  • The rabbis discuss which person is 'better' than others of their generation - this conversation is the extension of another reason to leave judges unnamed: we can't say, "oh, but when Moshe and Aaron were judges, they would have done things differently!"
Amud (b) begins Perek III with a new Mishna:
If the court and all Jews were interrogated, but did not say "Sanctified before nightfall [so that the 30th day passed and the new month is a full 30-day month].  If the court alone saw the new moon, two members of the court should stand and testify before the others, and they should say "Sanctified, sanctified".  If three people saw the new moon and they are part of a court, two should stand and seat their colleagues nest to the remaining person.  The two standing judges should testify before the three seated judges ant he the seated judges should say, "Sanctified, sanctified".  The procedure is necessary because an individual is not authorized  to declare a month alone.  A court of three is required.

The Gemara raises difficulties:
  • Why all of the Jewish people and the court saw the New Moon?  The court is added to prove that the court is required to declare the New Moon.
  • Why should it say that the witnesses are interrogated?  If witnesses were interrogated,but the court as no time to say "Sanctified" then the previous month is intercalated and rendered a full moth of 30 days
  • Why interrogate if the previous month is already known to be full month of 30 days? To teach that the court cannot sanctify the month at night.
  • Why not treat the sanctification of the month like monetary cases?  This is related to judgement, which can be done only during the day.
The daf ends with our rabbis discussing the importance of process being followed even if members of the court witness the New Moon themselves.  There must always be two witnesses, just as Moses and Aaron were told about the New Month together (Exodus 12:1-2).  As well, the court must be held to the highest standards for the sake of community trust.