Monday, 19 December 2016

Bava Metzia 84: Bellies and Genitals; Yochanan and Reish Lakish

What a fantastic daf!  Today's daf includes more agadah than has been present in all of Bava Metzia put together.  Well, maybe not quite that much, but today's daf is a set of stories. And good stories at that!

After learning about Rabbi Elazar ben Shimon's large stomach and the surgery he undertook (using natural sedation, see BM 83), we learn that he was teased because of his weight.  People said that he and Rabbi Yishmael ben rabbi Yosei, another heavy rabbi, could fit two oxen under their stomachs without touching their bellies because they were so large.  And then possibly to undercut the criticisms of a noblewoman, people discuss whether or not rabbis with large stomach have proportionate (or wildly disproportionate) members.

Rabbi Yochanan's appearance is up for discussion next.  He is said to be as beautiful as a spectacular vessel filled with pomegranate seeds, rimmed with roses.  When it is lit properly, that essence compare to Rabbi Yochanan's beauty.  Rabbi Yochanan is clearly aware of his own beauty.  He is said to have suggested that he sit outside of the mikva so that women will see him after ending their period of nidda and they will think of him when they sleep with their husbands.  Then their children might look like him.  

A story is told of Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan's first meeting.  Rabbi Yochanan was swimming and Reish Lakish, the leader of a group of bandits, chased after his beauty.  "You are good for Torah study", said Rabbi Yochanan, seeing Reish Lakish's strength.  "You are good for women," observed Reish Lakish, seeing that Rabbi Yochanan was more beautiful than most women.  Rabbi Yochanan promised Reish Lakish his sister, who was even more beautiful than him, if Reish Lakish agreed to study Torah.  Reish Lakish agreed, and the two were important chevruta for years.  It is said that once he agreed to this, Reish Lakish was unable to swim for his clothes - he lost his physical strength. 

Long into their friendship, Rabbi Yochanan said something about Reish Lakish's previous behaviour as a bandit.  Reish Lakish was insulted, and the two fought.  Rabbi Yochanan was offended: I brought you to G-d!  Reish Lakish became ill due to Rabbi Yochanan's upset and did not leave his home.  Even with his sister's begging and explaining, Rabbi Yochanan refused to speak with Reish Lakish, who then died.  Rabbi Yochanan did not recover from the loss of his companion and lost his reasoning.  The rabbis wished for his suffering to end, and Rabbi Yochanan died.  

Much has been surmised about the relationship between Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish.  There is a sexual tension to this relationship.  The continual mention of Rabbi Yochanan's appearance, the swapping out of Rabbi Yochanan for his even more beautiful sister, the partnership, the quarrel, the tragic end to their relationship.  It is easy to imagine that these two wanted to be lovers if they were not actually physically intimate.  Today's daf offers permission for two grown men to have a chemical attraction to each other.  It suggests a long term relationship that is passionate, intellectual, spiritual and based in part on physical attraction.  

We then learn about Rabbi Elazar's choice to self harm.  His attendants would place sixty blankets beneath him at night, and in the morning they would be filled with blood and pus.  His wife kept him from the study hall and fed him sixty types of relish to build his health.  He would invite the pain to increase during the night, and his wife became upset with him and left for her father's home.  Sixty sailors arrived with sixty sailors who had sixty purses containing sixty types of relishes which he would eat.  Rabbi Elazar's wife sent their daughter to look in on him.  He was healthy and ready to go to the study hall.  There, sixty students brought sixty cloths with possible menstrual blood to consider; he ruled all of them permitted to their husbands.  When the rabbis scoffed at this, Rabbi Elazar suggested that if he was right, all will be boys and if he was wrong, one would be a girl. He was right, and all of the boys were named Elazar in his honour.  Now that would be one difficult classroom to teach.

Some interesting information is shared about Rabbi Elazar's wife.  She was berated for keeping him from the study hall.  However, before he died, he trusted her to keep him in the attic instead of being improperly buried by rabbis irate that Rabbi Elazar had ruled to lock up thieves who were their relatives.  She kept him in the attic for twenty-four years.  His hair would fall out and blood would be on his scalp (signifying that he was still alive). Rabbis would stand at their door and listen for his voice to direct them.  The people attributed his presence to the protection they had from wild animals.  The rabbis officially learned that he had not been properly buried, and brought him to the cave where his father was a buried.  A snake with its tail in its mouth had to be asked to leave the front of the cave for Rabbi Elazar to be buried there.

The daf ends with stories about Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, who grew up alongside Rabbi Elazar, who was an orphan.  HaNasi was often jealous of Rabbi Elazar's superior reasoning and Torah knowledge.  HaNasi's father comforted him by reminding him that genetics had much to do with Rabbi Elazar's genius.

From penis size to scholars in love, today's daf has a lot to offer.  And what a lovely break from this very long, very repetitive masechet.

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