Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Chagiga 23: Ritual Purity "What Ifs"

The rabbis explore the minutia of ritual purity through stories.  Through this conversation we learn that the ashes of purification are transported using a hollow reed.  We also learn that the spittle of an am ha'aretz - not a zav, but an am ha'aretz - can render sacrificial objects ritually impure.  A vessel might be impure after immersion until the sun sets - or, according to some rabbis, it might be ritually pure earlier.

A story is shared regarding a difference in ritual between the Sadducees and the rabbis.   Sadducee tradition would have us wait until sunset to claim an immersed vessel ritually pure.  The rabbis changed their traditions, purposefully demonstrating the difference between their "proper" interpretation and that of the rabbis.  Such a performance seems almost childish in today's context.  

It also makes me wonder whether the Sadducees' interpretations might have been just as valid as those that we continue to follow today.  Are our traditions based on something that arbitrary?  Is it just that the rabbis "won"?   Then again, I'm sure that many would argue that the rabbis "won" with G-d's help; clearly, 2000 years later, we are doing what we were supposed to do. I

Our daf ends with a brief exploration of the concept of "one".  This is a special treat for me, as I am fascinated by the notion of where "one" begins and ends. In the text, our rabbis explore whether items in a vessel might be counted individually or as a whole.   This has implications regarding ritual purity: if a person who is ritually impure touches a vessel, is every item within the vessel now ritually impure?  Or is just an individual item impure?

While our rabbis are only too aware of the dangers inherent in separating the larger Jewish community into chaverim and amei ha'aretz, the world of halacha demands distinctions and demarcations.  This is no different.  The continued struggles between the Orthodox and other s might be something too ingrained to shift.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Chagiga 22: Ritual Purity: How to Carefully Create Community

We delve into the purification processes regarding vessels for sacrificial food, non-sacred food and terumah. The rabbis go to great lengths describing which vessels must be immersed.  A large part of their debates is underscored by a sociological reality: some people do not follow the halachot, but they should not be alienated from the community.

The rabbis are clear: certain vessels will be impure in certain situations.  But if we tell an am ha'aretz that his/her evaluations can't be trusted, we are pushing them to create alternative, even less sanctified practice. But how can a chaver  (one who follows halacha) borrow a vessel from an am ha'aretz  (one who does not follow stringently) and use it?  And how can s/he be sure that s/he is not being disrespectful toward the am ha'aretz?  

The rabbis come up with some solutions: always immerse a vessel borrowed from an am ha'aretz; it will be ritually pure after sundown.  Trust an am ha'aretz in certain circumstances.  But are these enough to maintain the relationship required amongst the Jewish people?

This societal structure continues.  Some Jews consider themselves to be today's version of chaverim: they are stringent with themselves and members of their communities regarding the mitzvot.  Others would be today's version of amei ha'aretz.  According to the chaverim, that would be all of the rest of us, though I would argue that many Jews are truly observant without being shomer Shabbat, for example.  The amei ha'aretz are those of us who are Jewish in name but do not maintain an Orthodox standardized religious practice.  

The tensions between these two communities continue, as well.  There is often animosity between these two groups of Jews, each perceiving the other group to be misunderstanding Torah interpretations and to be misrepresenting each other.  Although we share similar cultural practices and many values, we create a chasm between the two groups.  Our daf mentions that amei ha'aretz might be friends with chaverim and/or with priests.  More importantly, our daf demonstrates that the rabbis are concerned that we include each other; that we are respectful of each other.  In particular, chaverim are told to behave respectfully toward amei ha'aretz, who might be easily turned away from more stringent Jewish ritual with any provocation.

I am one of those Jews who has a foot in each world.  For many years I have tried on different orthodox practices.  Some have gelled and stayed and some have not.  All of these experiences have deepened my understanding of what it means to be a Jew.  At the same time, I enjoy some practices that are not in accordance with our halachot.  Rather than feel guilty about this choice, I have come to use those experiences to deepen my connection with my identity as a Jew who is free to learn, to choose and to act.  Had I been pushed away by overzealous orthodox input, I might not be learning Talmud today.  The wisdom of our rabbis continues to influence our lives in profound and meaningful ways.

Sunday, 28 September 2014

Chagiga 21: Teruma, Sacrificial Offerings, Non-Sacred Food and Ritual Purity

Today was one of those days where the text assumes knowledge of a huge amount of information.  I am going to review the pieces that I have picked up:

  • Teruma is the donated food that is eaten by the priests
  • Sacrificial food is what is offered by groups of people and then eaten on Festivals
  • Non-sacred food might travel along with other foods
  • Food is carried to Jerusalem in vessels that are pure
  • Teruma does not require the same degree of ritual purity as do sacrificial offerings
  • To ensure the purity of vessels, they must be immersed
  • The rabbis argue about whether or not a smaller vessel can be successfully ritually immersed within a larger vessel
  • The rabbis wonder whether there might be an interposition in the immersion due to the vessels touching each other and thus not being fully in contact with the water
  • The rabbis note that the size of a vessel's opening must be as large as or larger than a wineskin to allow water to connect from one bath to another
  • Ten stringencies regarding sacrificial food will be detailed in Chagiga 22
  • The first five of those stringencies are based on Torah law and apply to sacred and non-sacred food
While Talmud scholars would note which rabbis were arguing which details; which lines of argument were augmented, I am satisfied at this point to untangle and distill at least the basic premises from this text.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Chagiga 20: Guarding Against Ritual Impurity With Intention (and with other guidelines)

Today we dive into the world of ritual purity.  For those of us with extremely limited backgrounds in this area, even the concept is challenging.  What is so special about a vessel?  Is impurity just a grown-up version of cooties?  Did this have anything at all to do with managing cleanliness? With curbing contagion? Taking the words at face value, I understand that things fall into different categories, again, and that those lines must be strictly maintained.

The rabbis spend much of the daf walking us through case examples to consolidate their opinions.  Their two major points today are 
1) sanctified objects have greater susceptibility to ritual impurity than more common objects, and
2) our intention to guard the purity of an object is critical

We learn about women who approach their rabbis to determine whether or not their handiwork is ritually impure.  In both cases, the rabbis note that the women had not intended to guard for ritual purity.  Lo and behold; upon questioning, both women had intermittently invited ritual impurity into their crafts.  

Amud (b) ends with a new Mishna; a beginning for Perek III.  It explains that sacrificial food is more susceptible to ritual impurity than teruma.  This might seem surprising.  Teruma must be ritually pure; it is fed to the priests.  Sacrificial food is eaten by amei ha'aretz, people who do not take notice of these stringencies.  Our rabbis teach us in a note that priests will be mindful of every bit that enters their mouths, while amei ha'aretz require greater protection from inadvertent sins.  Thus sacrificial food must be that much more guarded from ritual impurity.

Details including wet/dry influences, different degrees of ritual impurity, the ability of vessels to transmit or protect one from ritual impurity... these concepts are described as well in today's daf.  Hopefully we will be provided with more detailed instruction regarding these very complicated concepts as Chagiga continues.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Chagiga: What Cannot be Touched; What We Stop Each Other From Touching

Amud (a) of today's daf is absolutely amazing. Aggadic tales that help us to understand the rabbis' understandings of G-d's nature.  Amud (b) was similar to hitting a brick wall after flying through the air.  For me, anyhow.

Rabbi Yochanan teaches that G-d was not found in the wind, the earthquake or the fire.  But after the fire, there was a still, small voice, and the Lord passed by.  

We are told that demons are like angels and like humans.  Through this discussion, we learn about the angels.  The rabbis believe that they can eat and drink, multiply and think, walk upright and speak and excrete like animals.  

In explaining why we should not think about Creation, the rabbis note that the chaos before Creation is not for us to know.  From here they discuss the nature of a rainbow and the dangers involved in staring at it directly.  We are told that searching for the substance of a rainbow is similar to searching for the substance of G-d.  The perfection and beauty; the ethereal quality of mist and refracted light - this seems all too real to us.  

I believe that part of this prohibition is teaching us not to search too hard, in general. When we stare at a rainbow, do we continue to admire its sublime, blissful existence?  Or do we look for those tiny water droplets and the direction of light that is refracting?  Our nature leads us to be logical; to search for answers.  But we are not meant to find all answers.  We cannot know the nature of G-d, regardless of how long we look.  And when we spend our energy on that search, we miss the beauty of what we have, now, in this moment.

Again we are reminded that we are not to disgrace G-d's name in public.  When we are unable to control ourselves, we are to cover ourselves in black and to leave any public centre.

Amud (a) ends with a reminder about trusting our bodies.  Modern customs suggest that we always trust out bodies. However, ancient wisdom suggests that we are liable to fall into the grasp of yetzer hara.  We are told not to trust intimate friendships - this all suggests that our rabbis feared that Jews would not follow the rabbis and their halachot.

Amud (b) shares a Mishna regarding placing our hands on the head of an offering.  It teaches that a number of rabbis believe that we should not place our hands during a Festival because that could be considered labour.  Another group of rabbis, including Hillel, are more lenient.  The rabbis come to discuss whether or not physical strength must be involved in placing one's hands.  This leads them to discuss whether women are obligated, not obligated, or even prohibited from placing their hands. 

A story is told of a group of women who are given an animal to sacrifice; they do this together, as a group, exactly according to halachic instruction.  The rabbis suggest that this might be done to please the women.  But if women are not obligated, is this not allowing them to add to the mitzvot?

It is discussions like this one that remind me of the rabbis serving their own agenda as they interpret and create halacha.  In this case, it is determined that women are in fact prohibited from sacrificing the offering.  How might it hurt the rabbis if women were to continually practice this ritual?  First off, the women might not be as available for other things - including preparing and serving food, caring for children, etc., if they create a minhag that encourages religious practice.  Secondly, if women were allowed to sacrifice, what else might they be allowed to do?  And how would this also be a detriment to men's lives?

Today's daf weaves together the most esoteric and essential quality of religious thought with some of the most enduring acts of disengagement imaginable.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Chagiga 15: The Value of a Heretic

Before jumping into today's fascinating learning regarding Torah scholars who behave badly, I have to mention the very start of amud (a).  The rabbis are discussing how a woman who says she is a virgin could possibly become impregnated.  We are told that Shmuel states that it is in fact possible to have intercourse with a woman and see no blood; leave her hymen intact.  He has done this several times, he says.  Rather than laughing at him, the Gemara recounts the rabbis acquiescence. Not everyone can do what Shmuel can do, they say. Certainly not!  

The rabbis cite an incident where they consider the distance between the Heavens, the firmament, and the earth.  They think of the face of G-d hovering over the waters; the distance between different waters. The distance between two blurry places is described poetically as the distance between two cups lying together or between two blankets, one atop another.  Such beautiful, soft images.

The remainder of today's daf teaches more about the life of Elisha Acher.  His sins include stating that the angel Mitatron is seated beside G-d, hiring a prostitute and picking a radish on Shabbat (ie. not following Shabbat halacha) and becoming too intimate with the practices of others, including the Gnostics and the Greeks.  He would hum Greek tunes continually.  Small children would tell him of his wickedness, memorizing verses about the incalcitrance of the wicked.  He was shunned from Jewish community and his teachings were silenced

Except that Rabbi Meir continued to learn from him.  Rabbi Meir is one of our most highly respected Sages, and Acher would ask questions of Rabbi Meir after he had turned and ended his halachic practice.  It is almost as if Acher was taunting his student with these questions.  In today's perspective Acher might be diagnosed with ODD, oppositional defiance disorder.  He could not stop himself from creating conflict, particularly with those in power. However, perhaps his questions allowed the rabbis to think more comprehensively and clearly about their interpretations and understandings.

We are faced with the question of how to treat a person who is highly learned in Torah and yet is not practicing halacha; one who knows Torah but does not use that knowledge to maintain the power structures as they stand.  The rabbis wonder whether he should be excommunicated or whether he must be treated with respect for he holds the holy words of Torah.  The soft fruit of a date can be eaten but the skin thrown away, the rabbis argue.  We can treat his deep knowledge of Torah with respect while discarding or ignoring his unwanted behaviours.

This makes me wonder about halachic practice today, both by children who are not interested in halacha and by adults, like me, who learn but do not use that learning to better practice the mitzvot.  Perhaps we should not be thrown away; perhaps we should be of value simply because we are carriers of the words of Torah.  And perhaps we should be valued simply because we are created in the image of what is divine; life itself should be respected.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Chagiga 14: Sod; Four Went to the Orchard

We are deep into aggada, the stories that our rabbis use to explain concepts that might be more difficult to grasp than simple, logical halachot.  These include the Creation of the universe, the Divine Chariot, the nature of good and evil; G-d's will and human will, and the discussion of these topics.

There is too much written today to summarize in the time that I have given myself.  A broad-stroke outline would include:

  • good and bad people distributed throughout the generations
  • the reward for keeping our mitzvot is that G-d will share the secrets that we cannot fathom, sod, with us when we enter the World-to-Come
  • conflicting verses regarding the image of G-d as both old and youthful; the two thrones in heaven
  • the eighteen curses: those things listed today that will be taken away from Jerusalem
  • dealing with a reversal of power
  • Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai kissing Rabbi Elazar ben Arach: the latter found a way to express his thoughts about the Design of the Divine Chariot which caused the sky to open with fire and the trees to speak poetry
  • Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Yehoshua speaking of the Design of the Divine Chariot followed by rainbows and other beauty in the sky
  • Those Sages who expounded to each other about the Divine Chariot
  • Four who entered the 'orchard', pardes; three of whom were changed by what they saw while Akiva survived due to his deep knowledge of Torah.  
  • Elisha Acher who ate too much of his desired knowledge, or honey, and became sick - a heretic
The daf ends with a discussion of the status of a pregnant woman who is a virgin - is she allowed to the High Priest?  And whether or not a dog, a non-kosher animal, can be castrated.  We learn about the dog in today's daf: animals are G-d's creatures and they should be allowed to procreate.  I wonder if this was written in times like these, where we attempt to protect animal rights by doing the exact opposite?

Today's daf has probably been the inspiration for the continued practice of Jewish ritual over millenia.  We are told about the rewards of living with the unknown.  We are given supernatural stories that promise us wonders beyond our dreams - all we have to do is observe the mitzvot.  How desperate we are, all of us, to understand the deeper, unanswerable questions.   How eager we are to accept simple explanations.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Chagiga 13: Secret Learning: the Divine Chariot, the Angels and the Electrum

After the esoteric musings of Chagiga 12, we continue to explore verses that discuss the levels of the firmament and the secrets of Creation.  

Without divulging the actual content of these teachings, the rabbis discuss how these materials should be studied.  We learn about the preferred age and the disposition of those who learn.  We are told which special individuals are privileged to have that information.  However, there are limitations on most of us.  In fact, even Rabbi Elazar called himself unworthy to learn the secrets of the Divine Chariot.  When Rabbi Yochanan offered to teach him, Rabbi Elazar said that he was too young to learn; Rabbi Yochanan died before Rabbi Eleazar felt old enough to learn.  And when Rabbi Asi offered to teach him, he stated that had he been meant to learn these secrets, he would have learned them already.  

Magical thinking is described in today's daf.  For example, reading Ezikiel could lead to great danger, which is the result of reading about and understanding the 'electrum'.  We are told that animals that sometimes are on fire and sometimes speak; that lightening and fast-moving creatures are part of this experience of the mechashmal, the electrum.  We are told about the angels seen by Ezekiel and by Isaiah.  The differences in their descriptions are chalked up to where they lived: as a villager, Ezekiel might have been more impressed and thus more elaborate in his description.  Alternately, a note shares that the Zohar teaches that Ezekiel may have enhanced his description of the Divine Chariot to bring hope to the people who were at a very low moment.  The Gemara continues to try to reconcile differences in descriptions of faces and of wing-length.

Our daf ends with a discussion about another contradiction regarding the angels. How large were these troops?  Numbers differ.  Are they referring to numbers of angels in each troop, or numbers of troops?  Are those troops ministering to G-d or to the river Dinar?   And where does this particular river flow?

I find these dapim on the more ephemeral components of Jewish thought to be both deeply satisfying and deeply distressing.  In yesterday's daf, G-d was described as a thin green line, around which are layers of firmament.  This was profoundly moving for me, as when I pray with my eyes closed, I see a thin line.  I have always felt that that line is G-d.  Does this mean that G-d might be housed in that thin line?  Or might it mean that there is a physiological 'vision' of a thin line when one meditates on G-d?   And that I am sharing that experience with the Sages?  In either case, how very exciting!  

However, at the same time, I cannot quite grasp most of what is described in these dapim about G-d.  Is that because the material is complicated and I am not yet able to understand?  Is it because I have not yet been provided with enough information to understand?  Or is it because the material is meant to be elusive, especially to those like me (not learned, a woman, etc etc.)

It is 2014 as I write this, and we are well into the month of Elul - Rosh Hashana is only days away.  There could not be a better time for me to be introduced to this material.

Friday, 19 September 2014

Chagiga 11: Teaching Complexity with Great Caution

We end Perek I with more examples of which positive mitzvot might be like a mountain suspended by a hair.  The rabbis consider a number of different options - which halachot are directly Torah based and which are only alluded to in the Torah.  One of our learnings is that Mishnaot were created in good part to fill in some of the 'gaps' in Torah instruction.

Moving into Perek II the rabbis consider a new Mishna, this time something that seems quite detached from Chagiga.  We are told about topics that should not be discussed with students in different groupings.  Specifically, the rabbis refer to the laws of forbidden sexual relations, the laws of Creation (notes suggest that this could mean the natural world; it could mean the six days of creation), and the laws of the Divine Chariot (notes tell us that this refers to the metaphysical).   A good deal of amud (b) is devoted to why only one or two or three students should be 'dangerous learners' of each of these topics.  

What is more interesting to me is the idea that these topics are somehow risky at all.  Steinsaltz explains in a note that this Mishna is placed here to help us understand the complex, profound considerations undertaken when approaching G-d and when discussing other halachot.  We should be careful how we think about teaching; students can make assumptions and decide on their own that their interpretation of Torah is more appropriate than the teachings of the rabbis.  

Our tradition continues to focus on continuity over innovation.  Perhaps this is the key to Judaism's longevity: we have built into religious practice the necessity of 'following the leader' rather than studying and interpreting on our own.  Yes, we are encouraged to ask questions, but we are assured that there are greater thinkers who have struggled with the same questions.  We feel connected to a chain of scholars and our questions - if not our answers - are validated.  Thus our tradition changes culturally, but in very limited ways.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Chagiga 10: Consent; Mountains Suspended by a Hair

A fascinating daf today about Talmud - and a number of concepts. Before that begins with a new Mishna, we end yesterday's conversation.  It seems that "that which is crooked cannot be made straight" might be speaking of a woman who has been raped.  The rabbis remind us that an Israelite woman who consents to an extramarital affair is forbidden to her husband.  However, if she has been raped, she is in fact allowed to her husband again.  However, a Kohen woman is not allowed to her Kohen husband after a rape.  The notion of consent is critical to the rabbis understanding of women's status; whether or not she can be made "straight".  This is challenging in too many ways to mention.

Our new Mishna teaches that the dissolution of vows has nothing to support their halachot.  They fly in the air.  The halachot of Shabbat, Festiva peace offerings and misuse of consecrated property are like mountains suspended by a hair - they have little basis in the Torah, but their halachot are numerous.  Monetary law, sacrificial rites, ritual purity and impurity and the halachot of those with whom sexual relations are forbidden have something to support them, and these are the essential parts of Torah.

The Gemara goes on to suggest numerous possible understandings of this Mishna.  Surely they were speaking about only very specific halachot: the vows of a nazirite in certain circumstances, digging a hole on Shabbat, errors of sacrifice on Festivals and personal agency used well and inappropriately regarding consecrated items.  They almost seem apologetic, as if it is obvious that this Mishna could not refer to the larger study of Talmud; that would be impossible.  

However, many of the laws that we learn through Talmud learning are mountains held up by hairs.  This has ended up as one of the running themes through this blog.  So much of the interpretation done by the rabbis is clearly based on their own biases and interpretations; their perspectives and limitations.  It is amazing to find this phrase here, in the Talmud, tucked away in the thousands of pages of inquiry.

Still, we have to examine the threads - and the mountains.  A mountain is just as interesting whether it is supported by full scaffolding or by a simple thread, easy to break.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Chagiga 9: When We Are Late With Our Offerings

A new Mishna tells us about what happens when we are late bringing our offerings.  It quotes Ecclesiastes 1:15, where we are told that which is crooked cannot be made straight, and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.  The rabbis ask how this might apply to someone who has made a mistake like missing the opportunity to do a mitzvah on the first day of the Festival.  Usually that phrase is used to describe the result of a forbidden sexual relationship - we cannot change the status of a mamzer.

The Gemara begins by examining the last days of the Festivals.  Is Shemini Atzeret a separate holiday of its own?  Or is it the last day of Sukkot?  Why call it atzeret, which translates as 'stop', when we already know that we are to stop doing labour?  Why the number seven - is this similar to mentions of the seventh month?  The rabbis consider the notion of inclusion/exclusion of celebration based on time.  And we continue to discuss the special status of Shemini Atzeret.

Turning to the notion of 'redress', the rabbis wonder how we can correct a mistake.  Was the person unfit to offer on the first day and thus the second day is fine?  They compare this to the experience of a nazirite who is forced to bring two offerings because he becomes ritually impure on the eighth day after purifying himself.  They think about whether or not the night is included in the counting of days.  Further, they look to rules governing the second Pesach (an opportunity for those who missed the first Pesach to bring their offerings 30 days later) and the rules governing zavim to help them understand how to interpret this Mishna.

A note teaches us that the night is not counted as part of the following day.  Instead, "night is considered part of a date whose time has not yet arrived."  

Finally, our Gemara discusses other possible meanings of the line from Ecclesiastes, That which is crooked cannot be made straight, and that which is wanting cannot be numbered.  We are introduced to the scholar Bar Hei Hei, a convert, who debated with Hillel.  Perhaps this phrase is referring to not saying the shema, and to being out of the consensus reached by one's friends to perform a mitzvah.  Another argument between them regards the verse from Malachi (3:18), where we learn about distinguishing between the righteous and the wicked; between he who serves G-d and he who does not.  Hillel points out that those who do not serve G-d might also be righteous - like one who reviews his studies one hundred times verses one who reviews 101 times.  He explains this world of difference and then reminds us of the importance of going above and beyond our expectations of ourselves in serving G-d.

Does poverty teach us good character - unwanted, but good for us? Shmuel or Rav Yosef thought so.

Perhaps this refers to Torah scholars who leave the study of Torah. Of course, the rabbis must have flirted with this idea, but there were such strong sanctions against such a decision that it would rarely happen. 

Crookedness refers to one who was once straight.  Even a man who has intercourse with his sister can repent (redress) - but if a child is born, he cannot become straight.  Others argue that simply having intercourse with a married woman is enough to 'stay crooked', for even without having a child who is a mamzer, her relationship with her husband is now forbidden to her and thus her marriage is ruined.  Thus the seducer/violator must remain crooked. 

More about this tomorrow...

Monday, 15 September 2014

Chagiga 8: When the Halachot Don't Work: Wrestling with Multiple Truths

The burnt offering of attendance is for G-d.  It burns until it becomes smoke which is given to G-d.  The Festival peace offering is for rejoicing.  It is eaten by the adult male who is obligated to attend as well as his family and anyone else he brings into his group.  Today's daf looks at some of the practicalities surrounding these offerings.

When might it be necessary to combine more than one animal as a peace offering?  Is this allowed when sacrificing a burnt offering? The rabbis think about combining sacred and non-sacred offerings, monies, etc.  They consider the strict proofs that suggest direct answers, and they consider proofs that speak to different circumstances (for example, do those who have lots of property and few people to feed bring the same offerings as those who have no property and many people to feed?).

At the end of amud (b), we are introduced to an argument between Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan.  They are arguing about a similar point: whether we must consume all of the peace offering on the first day, or whether some of that offering can be cooked on the first day but eaten on the second day.  This would be particularly important when families sacrificed, say, ten animals.

Today the rabbis are forced to blur the finite lines that separate one category from another.  The idea of combining sacred and non-sacred is threatening; it could lead to other decisions where the halachot do fit the needs of the community and thus the halachot are modified.

This notion of G-d-given Torah poses tremendous difficulty for our rabbis, who wanted desperately for their teachings to be carried out in the 'real' world.  The rabbis want all of this to 'make sense'.  Consistency, logic, reason - with these tools we should be able to devise principles that allow us to correctly interpret the meaning behind G-d's words.  And yet sometimes things don't fit.  Today's daf offers insight into how our rabbi manage that situation.

There is permission in our modern world to change our beliefs, change our opinions, to believe in a higher power or not, to use post-modernism to inform our critiques or to sit within a closed, classical thought structure.  Which is better, to have a million options that will never truly satisfy us or to have only one option that offers at least the feeling of 'knowing'?  I suppose it depends on who we are, where we are in our lives, what supports we have in our environments, and where we believe we will find a more meaningful truth.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Chagiga 7: Is Appearance a Mitzvah Without Measure? Which Offerings When?

The rabbis want to understand what is involved in in the mitzvah of appearance at the Temple.  Perhaps the mitzvah of appearance should be included in the mitzvot listed at the start of Masechet Peah.  Some mitzvot, Peah teaches, are without measure.  These include a number of agriculturally based mitzvot, some mitzvot of human action, and mitzvot of pilgrimage.  Thus appearance at the Temple would be a logical addition.  

The rabbis want to clarify how many times a person should/can appear at the Temple, how the first day of a Festival might be different from other Festival days, what should be offered, what other gifts should be brought, etc.  In examining these questions, they find themselves facing some of the halachot regarding offerings.  Are people bringing burnt offerings, Festival peace-offerings, or gifts of rejoicing? Or all three?  The rabbis review some of the details of these different offerings and their implications.

Years ago I participated in a Talmud workshop class with Rabbi Elyse Goldstein and a group of a dozen other students.  Over the entire semester, we learned that first verse of Peah.  In chevruta, we broke down the sentences and researched their possible implications.  What might it mean, "things without measure"?  What kind of measure?  According to whom?  How can anything be without measure?  It was my first experience of advanced Talmud learning and I was hooked.

Often I worry that I do not retain enough from this learning.  However, when reading today's daf, I was able to immediately understand the multiple, concurrent nuances and contexts that the rabbis might be considering when they questioned whether the mitzvah of appearance is without measure.  The details might be foggy, but the larger concepts are very clear - a wonderful surprise as I learn these unfamiliar, challenging dapim.

Saturday, 13 September 2014

Chagiga 6: How do Mothers Rejoice? and a Debate About Offerings

We know that all males are obligated to appear in the Temple. Minors are exempt. Why were minors not obligated, ask the rabbis? Children were taken by their fathers from Jerusalem to the Temple Mount as long as they could sit on their fathers' shoulders. Rabbi Zeira is particularly frustrated - if they can make it to Jerusalem, why not a bit more, to the Temple Mount? Abaye points out that the entire family came to Jerusalem. If the children were able to hold their fathers' hands, they could continue on to the Temple Mount.

The story of Hanna is used in a baraita to explain further. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi said in the name of Hillel that Hanna kept Samuel with her until he was weaned. A note teaches us that weaning took place at 24 months. Although she was also obligated to attend and rejoice, Hanna did not do so in order to attend to the needs of Samuel, whom the rabbis say was extra-sensitive.

I can't help but wonder if Hanna might have been worried that Samuel, promised to G-d, would be taken early from her had he continued on that journey.

An argument between rabbis is alluded to in Steinsaltz's notes. We learn that women's rejoicing, when they were mothers, was either delegated to their husbands or was achieved by journeying together with their husbands. We can see that the personhood of women is debated. Is she an independent individual, obligated to fulfil mitzvot herself? Or is she the belonging of her husband; her obligations either met or denied by him?

We learn that children who might be healed of a disability that would exempt them are not obliged; they do not have to learn to do these mitzvot "just in case" they are healed in adulthood. A more general principle is taught: Where an adult is exempt by Torah law, a child is exempt by rabbinic law.

Much of the remainder of today's daf looks at the burnt offering. The rabbis begin by arguing about the worth of a burnt offering. Soon the rabbis are wondering about when different sacrifices were offered and what prooftexts can be found to support their arguments. Because of this debate, we learn a number of larger ideas:
  • The Festival peace offering (Hillel) and possibly the burnt offering (Shammai), may have existed before G-d's words were spoken on Sinai
  • Moses offered only general, rather than specific, laws on Mount Sinai
  • Hillel (then R.Akiva, R.Yosei ben Galili): the sacrifice at Mount Sinai was a daily burnt offering (communal)
  • Shammai (then R.Elazar, R.Yishmael): the sacrifice at Mount Sinai was an offering of appearance (individual) 
  • Original sacrifices may not have involved skinning and cutting
  • We don't know whether or not the general Jewish population did sacrifices while in the desert

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Chagiga 4: Exclusions: the Androginus, Tumtum, Women, Minors, those Marginalized, and More

"All males" are obligated to appear at the Temple during the three Festivals.  The rabbis use this phrase to help them define who is obligated and who is not.   The androginus is said by the Master in a baraita to be "a being unto itself"; something neither male nor female and intended by G-d.  The tumtum has some male genitalia as well, but can be considered a halachic uncertainty because his penis is not visible.  An uncertainty is usually not mentioned; however, the tumtum is mentioned in this case because people might assume certainty due to the existence of the tumtum's testicles.

Women are clearly not included in "all males".  They are also not obligated because appearing is a positive, time-bound mitzva, and women are exempt from mitzvot in that category.  Non-Jewish maidservants are exempt as well, for they are even less obligated than Jewish women.  Male slaves are also less obligated than Jewish women, and so they too are not obligated to appear.  The rabbis find a fun argument that allows them to include minors, however.  Minors are obligated to appear if they have reached the age of training according to rabbinic law.

Those who are ritually impure and those who have not been circumsized are exempt from attending at the Temple.  The rabbis teach us that while we understand that those who are ritually impure might be exempt, why would uncircumcized men be exempt?  We learn that these two states are considered similar.  This melding of categories helps the rabbis reestablish and maintain separation between Jewish and all other people.

When they discuss those who are blind in one eye, the rabbis turn to verses to prove that these people are also exempt.  They use a verbal analogy, a gezera shava, to explain that all males shall appear, yera'e, and will see, yireh.  This suggests that two eyes are required in order to appear.  We are told that Rabbi Huna cried when he read this verse.  Would a Master call to his slave and then forget about that slave? He asks. 

Those who smell because of their of their work are exempt as well. Our notes explain that this is not because they are offensive to others.  It is because others will respond offensively to them, trying to exclude them.  This approach is the opposite of modern 'progressive' thought, where we are encouraged to change the majority's offensive behaviour rather than exclude those who are already disadvantaged and marginalized.  I find myself wondering what G-d's intention might be regarding this response.  Should we exempt the marginalized people and save them from humiliation?  Or should we insist that others behave generously?  Does G-d - or do the rabbis - know that the general population is truly incapable of respectful behaviour, regardless of halacha?

We end the daf with a list of verses and circumstances that cause different rabbis to cry.  We are told about an instance when the Angel of Death takes the wrong Miriam.  He took the raiser of babies, when he had intended to kill Miriam the raiser (braider of women's hair).   This discussion touches upon the fundamental question of the will of G-d.  Do the rabbis believe that the Angel of Death is a force that works independently of G-d's will?  Or is accidental death a part of G-d's plan?

Why would the rabbis work so hard to exclude many categories of people but find ways to include minor boys?  Perhaps they wished to begin the full separation of boys from others, denoting their superiority and the responsibilities to come.  Perhaps they wanted to teach the boys what they must do when they attend before the serious obligations begin.  I'm sure that there could be other reasons as well.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Chagiga 3: Disability and Ascention; Teachers and Students; Multiple Truths

In order to justify their interpretations, the rabbis use a literary tool known as gezera shava.  This is an analogy based on words used in two different places.  Those words might be similar in spelling, or sound, or meaning.  In some way, those words will be proven to have influence over the meaning of two texts.

To explain why those who are deaf might not be obligated to ascend or to appear to the Temple on the three Festivals, the rabbis use a number of these analogies.  They consider whether or not having hearing in one ear makes any difference.  The rabbis also consider those with at least one artificial leg.  They use the specific words in the Mishna and connect them with words from the Torah, demonstrating that there is a larger scheme that perhaps we can comprehend if we just use our creativity and tenacity.

Two fascinating stories about teachers and students are presented to us.  The first involves Rabbi Yehoshua, who is greeted by his students.  He asks them what they studied that week in the study hall with Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria.  They answer that nothing novel was learned; they already learned everything they could from Rabbi Yehoshua.  But there is always something novel in the study hall, Rabbi Yehoshua insists.  The two students share stories from their learning to the delight of Rabbi Yehoshua.   The second story tells us why the two students hesitated.  Perhaps they had the tale of Rabbi Eliezer (Elazar), who was greeted by his students.  When a student answered Rabbi Elazar's question with the correct halacha but an incorrect reason for that ruling, Rabbi Elazar tells him to hold out his hands - which catch his eyeballs as they fall from his eyes.  Then Rabbi Elazar cries - not for the student, but for the misinformation learned in a class that he was forced to leave.  When Rabbi Elazar feels better, the student's eyes are healed.

We end the daf with a debate about the characteristics of an 'imbecile'.

One of our notes remind us of the oft quoted Talmudic phrase: both these and these are true; the word of the living G-d.  There is more than one truth contained within the words given to Moses.  There are many truths.  This appeals to me tremendously.  It suggests that we keep the words of those who 'lost' the battle of logic in the Gemara.  It tells us to continue searching, for there might be further truths not yet known.  And it suggests that we cannot rely on others to teach us "the way".  We must search for meaning that speaks to us; it is waiting for our search.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Chagiga 2: Who Must Attend; Who's On the Outside

Masechet Chagiga teaches us about ascending to and appearing at the Temple on the three Festivals.  We begin this exploration with a Mishna that explains three components of these tasks: who should attend, who should not attend - with specific attention paid to minors, and the cost of an appearance.  That appearance is, our notes teach, a burnt offering.

The first words of the Mishna tells us that all people are obligated in appearance (entering the Temple and sacrificing an offering) except for a long list of people.  In order: a deaf-mute, an imbecile, and a minor; a tumtum and a hermaphrodite - androginos, and women, and slaves who are not emancipated, and the lame, the blind, and the sick; and the old, and the one who is unable to ascent on one's own legs.

Our notes remind us that 'tumtum' refers to a person whose genitals are indistinguishable as male or female.  'Hermaphrodite' refers to a person who has both male and female genitals. It is understood that a tumtum will 'become' clearly male or female later in life, and at that point in time his/her obligations will follow those of her/his gender without prejudice.  The normalcy of these physical differences is telling; they are not connected to a discussion of sexual preference or orientation.  How progressive for a somthing that was conceived over two thousand years ago!

The Gemara jumps into a discussion of slaves and free men.  Is a person obligated to appear if he is half free and half slave?  What if a person is blind in one eye and sighted in the other?  In answering these questions, the rabbis consider whether  a half-slave/half-free man is allowed to work when he wishes or not.  And because a man who is half-slave is not allowed to marry, he must be freed by his master.  The mitzvah of procreation is more important than other mitzvot.  The rabbis consider whether the man who is blind in one eye can see; whether he can be seen in an ordinary way.  If not, then he is not obligated to appear.

The Gemara notes that the deaf-mute is linked with the imbecile and the minor.  It suggests that all three are not of "sound mind".  They look at those who can speak but not hear; hear but not speak.  They look to sources including Psalms to understand what these experiences mean.  Ultimately the conversation is limited in this particular discussion.  Sometimes I consider looking through every reference in the Talmud to deafness, for example, to more fully understand the rabbis' thinking.  I want to grasp why they found certain normal physical attributes so offensive. 

Monday, 8 September 2014

Moed Katan 29 "Go To Peace": From Strength To Strength for Moshiach

We end Masechet Moed Katan with the shortest daf I have seen: only one half of amud (a).  An esoteric and meaningful choice of ending, however.

It is not simple for the soul to leave the body, the rabbis tell us.  They use a number of metaphors to help us understand that not only does the soul resist leaving the body; the body holds on to the soul.  

We learn that we should be particular with our words when we are leaving people who are dying and people who have died.  Saying "go in peace", lech b'shalom, is different from "go to peace", lech l'shalom.  "Go in peace" speaks to the present experience of peace that a person has achieved.  "Go to peace" suggests that there is a timeline to a person's state of mind.  We are wishing this person to move forward into a state of peace.  One of the proof texts for this explanation is that the lamed in the word "to", or "l'", is the tallest letter in the Hebrew aleph bet.  Pointing upward, it is directing us toward a place of peace.

Finally, the rabbis praise those who go from the study hall to the synagogue or vice versa.  These people are following the words of Psalms (84:8), "they go from strength to strength, every one of them appears before G-d in Zion".  The rabbis teach us that while we must balance work with study and prayer, we are truly working toward the understanding of and observance of mitzvot when we move back and forth from study hall to synagogue.

In fact, the rabbis suggest, the greatest Torah scholars continue to go from strength to strength even when in Heaven.  They continue to move back and forth until G-d is in Zion and all people will be at peace.

The entire Talmud is predicated on a desire for Moshiach; Moshiach will come only when we are observing the mitzvot; the mitzvot can only be observed completely when the Temple is rebuilt; we must understand every mitzvah so that when the Temple is rebuilt we will be ready.  

But what about those of us who come from a modern, less traditional perspective?  What if my version of Moshiach is simply a metaphor for the energy that will surround us when we are able to do good for each other?  Can I honestly hold that the mitzvot are a necessary ingredient in the coming of that Moshiach?  Does it matter that I keep some of the mitzvot, or am I hastening Moshiach's arrival by "picking and choosing" the mitzvot that hold meaning for me?

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Moed Katan 28 When We Die

We are diving deep today, digging into the topic of death.  Beginning with women's deaths in childbirth and their appropriate burials, we are told that Miriam, like Moses, was killed with a Divine kiss.  A note explains that this image would be inappropriate, and thus we have to find proof texts to understand that Miriam died either like Moses or like Aaron.  Once discussing the death of our ancestors, the rabbis immerse themselves in this topic.

First, they look at the meanings of deaths at different ages.  A ripe age is 60, as that was the age described in a proof text.  Seventy is old age, and 80 requires strength.  The rabbis try to understand when we can attribute death to the punishment called karet, or death at the hand of Heaven.  Karet is one of the most severe consequences that a Jew can suffer.

Some of our Sages believe that the age of death is due to fate - nothing more and nothing less.  The deaths of Rabbi Chisda and Rabba are used as an example.  Both were great scholars.  When each of them prayed for rain, we are told, it rained.  And yet Rabbi Chisda saw sixty marriages in his family, lived with sustenance even for the animals and with great wealth until the age of 82.  Rabba, on the other hand, saw sixty calamities over the course of his life.  All of his children died, and his family did not have enough of the simple food that they ate.  How could this be G-d's will?  Instead, fate controls the lifespan of our Sages.

This opinion is very much in line with modern philosophies regarding G-d's involvement in our lives.  These rabbis would have understood the Holocaust as acts of human depravity rather than acts of G-d's will.  And though we think of the Holocaust as a major defining moment in Jewish understandings of G-d, certainly the Jewish people were subject to similar tragedies (perhaps without the means of the 20th century) by the time that this Gemara was spoken.

The Angel of Death is the next topic that intrigues our rabbis.  They discuss the stories of different rabbis and their interactions with the Angel of Death.  It seems that the Angel of Death can be delayed but not cancelled.  One story tells of Rabbi Chisda, who lived so long because his mouth never ceased speaking words of Torah; the Angel of Death was unable to interrupt him.  Finally, the Angel of Death sat on the ceiling of the study hall, causing the wood to creak.  At that moment, Rabbi Chisda looked up and stopped speaking.  This was enough of a pause for the Angel of Death to take Rabbi Chisda.

A new Mishna, the last of Masechet Moed Katan, tells us how and when women should wail, lament, and clap their hands in mourning.  We learn that on Chanukah, Purim and Rosh Chodesh, women can wail and clap their hands. On intermediate days, Rosh Chodesh, Chanukah and Purim, they may clap their hands and wail but not lament.  Wailing is when all women cry out together.  Lamenting is when one person speaks and the others answer together.  Jeremiah (9:10) tells us that Jews were told to teach our daughters to wail and lament.  Finally, the Mishna teaches that G-d will destroy death forever, wiping away  tears from all faces (Isaiah 25:8).

Women from different communities would cry out different things.  The women of Shekhantziv are said to be very wise; they often spoke in riddles. The rabbis tell us that they would say the following things:

  • woe over him who is departing
  • woe over the pledge
  • woe over over him who is departing, woe over the pledge
  • the bone has been removed from the jaw and the water returns to the kettle
  • wrap and cover the mountains as the son of the high and distinguished
  • lend a cloak fine wool for a free man whose sustenance has been depleted
  • runs and tumbles at the ford and he borrows
  • our brothers, the merchants, will be examined at their places
  • death is like death, and suffering is like interest

The rabbis tell us many different ways that we "do unto others as we would have done to us" with regard to eulogizing, burying, praising, wailing, and being humble.  

A baraita is shared about eulogies for the sons of Rabbi Yishmael.  Four great Sages came to comfort him.  Each one spoke without interrupting the other, speaking of proofs that Rabbi Yishmael's sons will be honoured and that they were important and special people.  Although this seems comforting, it also has an air of competition about it.  Hopefully Rabbi Yishmael was comforted by their words. 

At the end of today's daf, we learn that the prooftext for waiting until a mourner to speak until one responds is in Job.  Job spoke first; only then was he spoken to.  This custom continues today.  The rabbis continue in this vein and speak about who sits at the head of the table in different circumstances. They also speak of who has the honour of reciting Grace over Meals following the supper.

Moed Katan 27 Overturning Beds, Honouring the Poor, and Mourning Excessively

Mourners were told to overturn their beds when in mourning.  Amud (a) describes many of the practicalities surrounding this custom.  It was to be done to every bed in the home of a mourner, whether s/he slept in those beds or not and whether s/he lived in the town of the deceased or not.  Beds were turned back to an upright position on Shabbat, for Shabbat is not a day of mourning.  Even if only one day of mourning remains following havdala, mourners are to overturn their beds again.  A decorative bed is not overturned, nor is a dargash.  It seems that the dargash may have been a leather bed that was usually used for decorative purposes.  The rabbis go to some length to describe these beds.      

It seems that part of the point of overturning beds is not discomfort (for sleeping in a chair or on the floor is not allowed; beds must be overturned).  Instead, overturned beds were noticeable.  Thus visitors would understand immediately that they were in a house of mourning.

A new Mishna teaches us about bringing food in simple containers to the house of a mourner.  It speaks about receiving lines and about not setting down the bier while it is being carried to discourage eulogies on the street.  As well, it tells us never to set down the bier of a woman, in case blood escapes to the street and her honour is affected.

The Gemara focuses on socioeconomic difference and attempts to maintain the honour of those who are disadvantaged.  Though the rich might do things in certain ways, they are told to follow the customs of the poor so that poor people are not dishonoured.  Similarly, all people must use fragrance in the room of those who have died to ensure that those who have intestinal disease (and thus require fragrance) are not dishonoured.  Similarly, to avoid pointing out which women were menstruating and which people were zavim, the utensils of all people were immersed following death.  This ensured that laws of ritual purity were protected while the honour of women and zavim were also protected.

We learn that all people were wrapped in inexpensive linen or hemp when being prepared for burial.  When mourners were ready to move on from being consoled, their heads were covered and so they nodded their heads slightly to indicate their readiness to move forward.  As well, we learn that people were encouraged to be careful when stomping their feet in mourning lest they injure themselves.

So many guidelines:

  • mourners and those who are ill are allowed to be seated while others must stand
  • mourners should not prepare their own first meal of mourning - if food is exchanged in times of mourning, that arrangement cannot be discussed
  • when a person dies in a city, all work must cease until s/he is buried unless there is a group designated to take on this task - even so, the city stops working for the burial
  • we cannot grieve excessively: three days of mourning, seven days of eulogizing, and 30 days without cutting hair or ironing clothing
  • those who lose their only child are thought to be in greater distress; the rabbis argue whether this might happen because of a transgression committed earlier (possibly repeatedly, and thus seeming permitted to him/her)
We are told the story of a woman with seven sons who grieved to excess over the loss of one of her sons.  Rabbi Huna warned her to cease, but she did not, and lost son after son.  Finally, he warned her that she herself would die if she did not stop mourning excessively.  She died.  This seems terribly harsh.  In context, such mourning was seen as a refusal to accept G-d's will.  Alternatively, it is seen as a punishment for other sins.  How harsh this seems in today's context.

Rabbi Levy shares the last story of today's daf.  He says that a person who suffers a loss should imagine that a sword is between his thighs (or perhaps his shoulders) for the first three days of mourning.  For the seven days of eulogizing, s/he should imagine that sword in the corner, still threatening.  For the remaining thirty days, it is as if the sword is following him/her through the market.  Rabbi Levy is suggesting that we are at risk of dying ourselves when we are in mourning.  The birth of a baby in the family would signify an end to this risk.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Moed Katan 25 How to Honour Torah Scholars After They Have Died

Upright people, those who have not committed grave sins or avoided mitzvot, should be honoured upon their deaths.  We rend our clothing for them, thought they do not have to know any Torah - even Torah scholars.  

Torah scholars are the royalty; the movie stars of our Jewish past.  Everyone is to rend our clothing for them, for they were like our parents. The remainder of amud (a) is devoted to stories about how rabbis are honoured in their deaths.

Rabbis did not rend their clothing for Rabbi Safra, for they thought him to be less of a scholar than others.  Rabbi Safra would travel with business.  A scholar of halacha but not aggada or Bible, the rabbis were not certain that the presence of his name in their learning made him worthy as a scholar.  Of course, Rabbi Safra was an upright man!  Wasn't that enough to warrant rent clothing?  Alas, the rabbis discussed this too late in the process and missed the opportunity to show honour for Rabbi Safra by rending their clothing.

Rabbi Huna did not agree with the opinion that a Torah scroll should sit on a person's bed.  Following his death, some rabbis wanted to honour Rabbi Huna by placing a Torah on a bier with him.  The Gemara notes the procession that followed Rabbi Huna's coffin as it travelled from place to place.  The skeleton must be intact for such demonstrations of respect to be permitted.

We are told a fantastical tale about Rabbi Huna's burial next to two scholars who rose from the grave in flames when Rabbi Huna's coffin approached.  Though Rabbi Chagga left the coffin and ran, he left it in a standing position where Rabbi Huna could protect himself [sic], and so this behaviour was considered reasonable.

When a Torah scroll is burned, the letters detach themselves from the parchment and float to heaven.  Similarly, our souls float to heaven when we die.  Thus people and Torah scrolls are considered to be similar; holy containers for their content.

Amud (b) shares famous eulogies.  Beautiful words and fascinating stories are shared.  Magical stories of revenge are plentiful, too.  Rav Ashi's displeasure in how some rabbis will eulogize Ravina is so great that their feet become crooked.  

A number of surreal 'natural' events are associated with the death of great scholars - storms, destruction, etc.  The poetic language used to describe and honour rabbis following their deaths seems motivated both by grief and by pressure.  It is clear that rabbis are judged harshly based on the eulogies that they present to honour other rabbis.  In this powerful, close-knit community, it is critical to be respectful of others at all times.

Moed Katan 24 More Mourning on Shabbat: Wealthy vs. Poor Families and their Babies

We learn the rituals of mourning on Shabbat.  Generally speaking, we do not display any signs of mourning when we are in public.  But alone, we are encouraged to practice any mourning ritual that feels right.  There are some restrictions, however.  A mnemonic is used: Peh (periat rosh, uncovering the head), chet (chazarat kera, reversing the torn garment), and zayin (zekifat hamitta, standing the bed upright) MUST be performed.  Nun(ne'ilat hasandal, wearing shoes), tav (tashmish hamitta, marital relations), and reish (rechitsat yadayim, hand washing) are optional mourning practices on Shabbat.

The Gemara discusses types of head coverings, sexual relations and mending rent garments with greater specificity.  

Today's daf includes a conversation about how to mourn infants.  Before 30 days, the infant not considered 'viable', and a less formal mourning process is suggested.  After 30 days, however, we are instructed to incorporate more - but not all - of the mourning rituals that are in place for adults.  

From this conversation, the rabbis discuss the meaning of lost infant.  They agree that losing a child is more tragic for poor families for a number of reasons.  The rabbis suggest that a lost child represents a loss of future income and support; the loss of the only joy in in a poor person's life.  They note that eulogies are performed for children at different ages then the child is from a wealthy or poor family.  

The rabbis consider how the thirty days of mourning are counted when the Festivals (including the High Holy Days) interrupt the mourning.  

Our daf ends with a new Mishna: During intermediate days of Festivals, mourners do not rend their clothing, remove clothing from their shoulders, eat a donated meal (unless given by a close relative of the person who died).  While the mourner sits on an upright (not overturned) bed, comforters are obligated to provide the first meal after the burial.

Again I note the fascination between what is public and what is private; what others see of our behaviour and what we keep behind closed doors.  It seems that there is at least one reason for this focus.  We do not want others to break their halachot because they are watching us break our halachot; this contagion is kept to a minimum when we keep our practice private.  This may not only represent a push toward conformity.  Instead it may be a way to continually create a society where the needs of the group are considered to be as important as the needs of the individual.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Moed Katan 23 Mourning: Marrying, Observing Shabbat, and Dealing with Dissent

Mourners are to behave differently than other people.  The rabbis suggest that the first four weeks of mourning involve specific ways of interacting with the community. During the first week , s/he does not leave his/her home.  This makes sense, as the mourner is being visited continually at the shiva. During each successive week, the mourner is able to communicate more with other members of the community, slowly joining his/her place in the synagogue and speaking aloud.  

The rabbis wonder when mourners are allowed to remarry. These guidelines are dependent upon whether the mourner is mourning a relative or a spouse.  In the case of a spouse, the rabbis argue when it might be appropriate to remarry. They consider issues including the need for childcare, the experience of loneliness, the availability of a partner with whom one can procreate, respect for the memory of the deceased, and respect for the new wife [sic] who might be subject to comparisons with the deceased wife.  

Men and women are considered separately.  While there are numerous considerations regarding men who consider remarrying, women are encouraged to do so early on in her mourning experience.  This difference is striking.  In most situations we are not learning about how women are to observe the rituals.  Often it is assumed that women are exempt (for women are exempt from mitzvot that are deemed time-bound and positive).  But in this case, the rabbis consider how their halachot affect women.  Why?

Amud (b) focuses on mourning and Shabbat.  Are we allowed to mourn on Shabbat, or does the 
'delight' of Shabbat override our right to mourn?  Which mitzvot must we continue to observe on Shabbat?  Are we asked to observe all or none?  And what difference might it make whether we are observing in private or in public?  Does it matter how the community might understand our experience of mourning?

Today's daf shares an example of one of the most special features of the Talmud: the immortalization of truly dissenting opinions.  In one section of amud (b), we are told that mourners partake in all mitzvot of Shabbat.  It provides a list of examples.  On that list is donning tefillin - which is not permitted.  Tefillin cannot be worn at all on Shabbat.  The Gemara explains how one could have included tefillin on their list.  Was it a mistake?  A general statement of examples rather than a literal list?  Or, perhaps, was this list provided by one of the rabbis who believes that we are permitted to lay tefillin on Shabbat?

Not only do the rabbis include this dissenting opinion, they discuss it.  They do not pretend that all rabbis agree with halacha, even after the establishment of that halacha.  There is a level of confidence and foresight in the act of including dissenting viewpoints.  A lack of fear.  What a pleasure to read!

Monday, 1 September 2014

Moed Katan 22 Who Says? Rending Clothing and the Hierarchy of Mourning Rituals

Today we watch the rabbis use different explanations to justify agreed-upon mourning rituals.  The consider what should be done if the 'principal mourner' (eldest male and/or husband of the deceased) leaves the house of mourning for more than three days.  Apparently, mourning is done as a group.  The rabbis consider how to count the mourning days for a person who is joining the other mourners after their mourning time has begun.

While discussing who made a certain point, the rabbis digress and speak about which rabbi suggested that a cow with a punctured but sealed intestine is kosher.  They stay on this point for some time.  

The remainder of today's daf compares how we mourn our parents with how we mourn all others.  The rabbis share various halachot of mourning, each time noting how much more pronounced our practice should be when mourning our parents.  Some examples include wearing one's garment with one shoulder showing (men only) and avoiding social gatherings.  

The example of rending one's clothing is detailed and very telling.  It notes the differences between men and women in rending clothing; women cannot show the skin of their chests, and so they rend an inner garment and turn it around.  The outer garment is also torn - by hand, and irreparably, if done for a parent.  It seems that people layered their clothing, which is interesting in a Babylonian climate.   

Today's daf ends with a description of how to honour a Sage and a Nasi.  Sages are to be treated as fathers and thus mourned similarly. The Nasi, however, is of a different status altogether.  He is not only a descendant of Hillel the Elder, but of King David.  Thus he is mourned with even greater fervour.  

The stark difference in people's roles, expectation and status are striking when we examine these halachot of mourning.  It is difficult to understand why a woman should have fewer obligations of mourning than a man.  It is impossible for me to understand why the loss of a labourer is less important that the loss of a Sage.  The Sages continue to allot tremendous significance to themselves, both in life and in death.  Yes, they were incredibly important, but a focus on the importance of humility seems to be missing from most of their recorded conversations.