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I think this is a really interesting question the Talmud in Sanhedrin deals with, using the model of Moses and Aaron.

If two people disagree about something involving money, they can sue in court and have the court issue a ruling over who is right. There will be a clear winner and a loser and it will be unambiguous who is who, and this may result in bad feelings lingering between the two parties afterward. The result may be just according to Torah law, but that justice may not necessarily be the only thing that matters in the interpersonal relationship.

So suppose you valued peace between people more than you valued getting the 'correct' resolution to the dispute. You might, when approached by two disputants, suggest that rather than trying their case in Beit Din, they first talk to a mediator or arbitrator who can help them figure out a way to settle things out of court in a way that makes everyone get something. According to Talmudic law, such a mediation agreement is generally binding- if both parties agree to the settlement, they can't then go to a Beit Din and ask for justice, unless there was some corruption in the selection of the mediator.

This might seem like a better approach in a lot of situations. Some of the Rabbis in Sanhedrin say it's an obligation on the judge to suggest mediation if they think it will help. But others raise really salient objections.

What if you're a judge and two disputants come to see you. One is rich and powerful, the other is poor. They start telling you about the case and ask if you'll judge it for them. You hear enough detail to know that if you hear the case, the rich man is likely to lose. Is it corrupt for you to suggest mediation, knowing that the outcome will likely be better for the rich man than if you were to enact full justice? Perhaps, because you're not supposed to favor a rich man over a poor one as a judge. BUT what if the virtue of peace is greater than the virtue of justice? Perhaps it's more important to achieve a resolution where both the rich and poor men are satisfied, even though it means harming the poor man financially?

The classic homiletic is that Aaron was rodef shalom, a pursuer of peace at all costs. Whereas Moses believed in seeking true justice even when it harmed the peace.

The Talmud finds a middle ground. Its rule for judges is that they can propose mediation if they fear that they will be forced to rule against the powerful person, however once they hear enough of the case to know that they are likely to rule against the powerful person, they cannot propose mediation. That is, it's corrupt to act when you are sure that your actions are benefitting the rich person, but when it's merely a possibility that it will benefit the rich person, it's okay even if you're hoping for that possibility.

Within this principle, the dispute is between Rabbi Shimon ben Menasya and Resh Lakish over when the moment is when they've heard too much of the case to offer mediation. Rabbi Shimon holds that as soon as they've heard the case, they've heard too much. Resh Lakish holds that even after they've heard the case, as long as they've not made up their mind, they can suggest mediation. This seems to be a dispute about optics vs. intention. Rabbi Shimon ben Menasya thinks optics matter for justice, if the appearance is there that the judge pushed for mediation to favor the powerful person, it is a corruption of justice, while Resh Lakish thinks that so long as the dayan didn't act corruptly, the optics are less important than the pursuit of peace.
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I noticed the Daf Yomi cycle of daily Talmud study was working its way around to the start of a new tractate and decided to try to get back on board. Sanhedrin daf 2 started last Tuesday.

I picked up Daf Yomi at the beginning of the cycle and learned all of Berachos and the first quarter of Shabbos before I fell off. That was a couple of years back, I think I lost momentum when we lost power for a week after Sandy and never regained the habit. This time around, I'm still figuring out how to build the habit- I've slipped behind a couple of days already.

Masechet Sanhedrin contains the laws of the Jewish legal system- courts and judges and the evaluation of evidence and so on. It also contains digressions of all sorts because the Talmud is the most ADD legal text ever. I'm given to understand that the court system described in Sanhedrin lasted only a couple of hundred years at most, in the Second Temple era, and when the Gemara is describing its details, after the Churban, the system was largely no longer in place. So I think understanding its meaning in a modern setting requires a little bit of creativity- you have to try and read it as a philosophical exploration of the meaning of justice and the best ways to attain it. You also need to recognize it as an act of creative historical reconstruction on the part of the Rabbis, the analysis required to rediscover the legal system that represented for them not merely a lost cultural and legal heritage, but an ideal of perfected justice. The legal system described in Sanhedrin is a fusion of what we would think of today as a typical secular legal system, with wise, theoretically neutral judges appointed to adjudicate interpersonal conflicts and exact punishment for violators of the law, alongside a theocratic legal system where mystical invocations of God's name reveal the just path forward. God's guidance of just judges underpins the system, which doesn't truly hold together in the absence of God.

Nonetheless, a lot of the teachings of Sanhedrin still have value today, both as general principles of how to attain fairness in resolving interpersonal conflict, and as the guiding ideas of the much scaled back Jewish legal system of Batei Dinim we have today. I was just describing to my father- an experienced lawyer who recently became a worker's compensation court judge- the fascinating Jewish legal conflict between two Brooklyn pizzerias across the street from each other. He was surprised by the field trip the Dayanim took to visit each pizzeria. That sort of trip is pretty much unheard of in the American legal system, where the judges' job is to listen to evidence presented to them by the parties and reach a judgement based only on legally presented evidence, not to act as investigator seeking evidence on their own. My father has complained from time to time about lawyers failing to present evidence in front of him that he believed would make it easier to rule in favor of their client, either out of laziness or some more complicated legal strategy. In those cases, all he could do was ask the lawyers if they had the evidence he was looking for, not go out and seek it. But in the Beit Din system, the responsibility of the Dayan is to reach a just conclusion even if it requires seeking information withheld by the parties.
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Somehow today is Page 63 of Berachos on my Daf Yomi schedule and I am on schedule. I've been at this for two whole months. Berachos only has 64 pages, so I'll be finishing tomorrow. Can we make an online siyum? One of my Rabbis told me that the yeshivish joke is "Bo Shabbos, Bo Menucha", though. He warned me that in general Masechet Shabbos, which follows Berachos in the Daf Yomi cycle, is a lot more technical, a lot more difficult, and a lot lighter in storytelling. So we'll see if I can still keep up.

Recently it's been particularly high on storytelling in comparison to legal debate, because the topic for the last few prakim of Berachos is miscellaneous blessings, and there isn't all that much detail to argue. I've mentioned before that I really love these miscellaneous blessings because they call attention to the sorts of amazing things in the world around us that are easy to take for granted. A blessing on thunder and lightning. A blessing on seeing a beautiful mountain. A blessing on smelling something nice. A blessing on seeing a friend again for the first time in a while. (Though I think this might be a joke. According to Rava, the blessing on seeing a friend for the first time in a year is "Baruch... mechias hamesim." - "Blesses is the one who raises the dead." Sometimes it's really hard to tell if the Talmud is punking you.)

Also, on Daf 62, the kabalah of the bathroom. And on Daf 61, Rav Sheshet and the disintegration rays shooting out of his eyes. I told one of my friends that the Gemara is like the best fantasy novel ever. I seriously am taking many notes for things to use in rpg adventures.
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There's a pretty pointless argument on Daf 44, about which Rabbi ended the Al HaMichya blessing in which way. Al HaMichya is the blessing said after eating foods that don't constitute a meal sufficiently to say the full Grace After Meals. Remember, I explained a few weeks ago that the Grace After Meals is said because of a Biblical verse that says "V'achalta v'savata uverachta' You shall eat and you shall be satisfied and you shall bless. If you are not satisfied, that is, if you haven't eaten a full meal, you are not obligated to say the Grace. However, the Rabbis wanted to bless even if this weren't an obligation, to show that Israel is grateful for the food God provides even when it's not sufficient to make a meal. So they instituted Al Hamichya over snacks like eating fruit or eating baked goods like small cakes.

Al Hamichya's ending varies depending on what food was eaten. There is a specific ending for fruit. And it goes something like "For the land and for the fruit", that is, thank you for providing us with those things.

The Gemara cites Rav Chisda as saying it thus "For the land and for its fruit." And it cites Rabbi Yochanan as saying "For the land and for the fruit." It's a subtle distinction, which the Gemara says is because if you're in Israel, you say a different blessing than if you're outside Israel, because 'the land' refers to Israel, the land that God gave to the people of Israel, and the fruit of Israel are considered a special gift to the people of Israel.

But the Gemara raises an objection and immediately reverses itself: Rabbi Yochanan lived in Israel and Rav Chisda lived in Babylonian exile, so they would have said the opposite blessings of the original attribution mentioned. This reversal is accepted and the Gemara moves on.



It's a pretty pointless argument, as I said, but it's interesting for illustrating clearly a few themes I've mentioned before.

First, that the Talmud is the codification of an oral tradition. There are mistaken attributions being worked out over the course of its pages, and gaps in the transmission, and misunderstandings along the colossal game of telephone, and the Rabbis are aware of this and they do their best to apply logic rather than merely transmit information senselessly. If something is brought to them that doesn't make sense, they tear at it until they make sense of it.

Second, attribution matters. A law being brought by Rabbi Yochanan means something different than a law from Rav Chisda. I'm forty pages in and starting to get a better feel for the case of characters, who they are, what their approaches are, and that's making following along a bit easier in some cases, and this was one. I knew that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was living in Israel, so I anticipated the Gemara's objection ahead of it. That is tremendously satisfying. The Gemara is immensely complicated and contradictory, but there is a rhyme and reason to it that comes of knowing its contours intimately.

Still, let's ask a question on this. As I've said many times before, the reason to study the Talmud isn't to learn the laws, it's to learn how to interpret the laws. From that perspective, knowing Rav Chisda from Rabbi Yochanan is almost besides the point, right? They're the specific, but what we're trying to learn is the general. I keep saying that it's a pointless argument, and there's a reason I keep saying it. Whichever blessing you say, you're well within the bounds of Jewish law. So sure, I get an egoboost from solving the 'puzzle' hidden in the attributions. It's fun to treat the Talmud as a puzzle with secret answers hidden in its opacity, but the answers to the puzzles aren't valuable in and of themselves a lot of the time.

I think that's wrong, though. Firstly, the techniques used in these unimportant cases also work in the important ones. By practicing on sections in the Talmud that I don't care too much about, I'm gaining comfort to apply to the sections that are going to take a lot of study and effort to work through. Secondly, for all I say that it's about the general and not the specific, that's not wholly true. I say Al Hamichya, and even if it doesn't matter too much which blessing I say, studying the intention behind the law in all of its esoteric minutiae infuses meaning into my prayers and refocuses my attention. And thirdly, the mirror works both ways. Just as learning about the personalities teaches me hidden things about the laws, learning about the laws teaches me hidden things about the personalities and the lives of those expounding it. And that matters to me because these people are my ancestors, the still-breathing soul of my people. Learning about Rabbi Yochanan matters in and of itself, because of the point I'm about to discuss.


Third, Israel's unique status and the relation of Israeli and Babylonian Judaism at the time is important to the Talmud because it was composed as the exile was taking place. Judaism was negotiating a transition from a sacrifice-oriented cult with a Temple in Jerusalem to a prayer-oriented religion without a Temple. Yochanan ben Zakkai was at the center of that- he established the Sanhedrin at Yavneh, led the Sanhedrin as it reformulated the rules for this new Judaism, and was responsible for creating a whole new kind of Judaism. This was a traumatic process that saw the spinning off of a variety of sects from Judaism, ranging from those we hear of no longer to um... Christianity.

One of the lenses that I am studying the Talmud with is the historian's lens. There is so much that can be learned about the shape of modern day Judaism through learning about the decisions made in that crucial moment 2000 years ago, because that was really when Judaism took a lot of its modern shape. A surprising number of things haven't changed since then. And Rabbi Yochanan and Rav Chisda were at the center of that, of the move from an Israeli Judaism to a Judaism of exile and hope for redemption, and this tiny, pointless argument about the blessing over fruit encodes part of the tension of that moment.
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One of the ways studying Berachos has already impacted my life is the way it has shed new light on my prayers. This is one way in which Berachos makes a great opening to Shas- its subject matter is something that all observant Jews need to know. It's also one of the peculiar difficulties of Berachos- we've all grown up with this knowledge in the background, so it can be hard to focus when we think we already know where the Rabbis are going. Right now, the Talmud is discussing certain basic order of blessing rules which I've known since I was five years old, like saying borei p'ri ha'etz before shehakol. I'm fascinated with a lot of it, but there are parts where I need to struggle past my assumption that I already know this to dig deep into the meat of the why.

However, some of it has already been useful. Specifically I noticed a couple things in my davening.

First, there is a discussion of which parts of Shema require specific enhanced attention. One set of Tannaim hold that it is only the first section that deserves this attention, because the first section begins with the word 'Shema'- "LISTEN". Another set hold that the whole thing requires special attention because of a variety of hocus pocus about how concentrating on the Shema will give you long life and good health. I'm not big on these specific correlative effects between prayers and God answering prayers, but I appreciate the ideal of being able to give special focus to the whole Shema because it is such a central statement of Jewish identity and faith.

What I like about the debate is that it presents me with two goals, one more attainable than the other. First, I can focus on the first section and try my best to get everything I can out of it. But I can hold out focusing on the entire thing with specific focus as an ideal that maybe in the future I'll be able to reach. That mixture of easier and harder objectives for improving my prayer is a great boon, because it gives me something I can work on immediately without letting me feel like when I achieve it I have perfected my prayer.


Another thing I keep getting is, incidental to the main thrust of the Gemara's discussion, great insights into the Psalms. I just read a fascinating little thought about a Psalm that is recited every Sunday morning as the daily Psalm, and it made that routine, weekly repetition have a little more meaning. The line is "Lashem ha'aretz umlo'a"- "The earth is for the Lord, and all of its contents." The Talmud compares that to a line from another psalm "Hashamayim shamayim ladoshem, v'ha'aretz natan livnei adam"- The heavens belong to the Lord, but the Earth he gave to man." This is a contradiction! The Gemara is a very serious about contradictions, which in generally is reshaping the way I look at the Bible. It would have been so very easy to dismiss the difference as having no legal implications. The Psalms are poetry and David's poetic license allows him to switch metaphor from Psalm to Psalm without implicature. But that doesn't fly for the Rabbis. So they have to resolve this contradiction to prove that the divinely inspired Psalms that they accepted into their Torah do not contradict each other. Their answer is thus: When the Jews obey God's laws, he gives the Earth over to them, but when he is wrathful he reminds them that he created the world and it is his to do as he wishes with.

I was reading that Psalm and came across the line and remembered this thought, and it made my prayer a richer experience, because it gave me themes to think about when I recited the line, a reason to pause and look twice and actually think about word choices.


Also, somehow I have hit Daf 42. I slipped a few days due to WorldCon, but have slowly caught up. I will be saying this endlessly for the next seven years if I keep up, but I can't believe I have made it this far on schedule.
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So I partially wrote up a rant about something that frustrated me with regards to the daf from Saturday, but as I kept reading I got past the frustrating part and into a really interesting discussion of the meaning of prayer. So you don't get the rant about Kol Ishah, you get the musings on the Shemoneh Esrei.

The Shemoneh Esrei is one of Torah Judaism's most fantastically dry jokes- The name means "Eighteen", but it consists of nineteen benedictions. It's the centerpiece of every Jewish prayer service, a concentrated period of time in which one is to recite a carefully devised, wide-ranging set of prayer formulas quietly. Though it is regimented and formalized, it is also one of the best opportunities in the prayer service for personalized supplicatory prayer.

There is a lot going on in the Shemoneh Esrei and I'm really excited to see the Talmud's approach to discussing the prayer. The part I have studied this far has only broached one major philosophical question and a few technical details that relate to the major philosophical question. The major philosophical question is framed thus: Was the prayer Shemoneh Esrei devised by the Patriarchs or was it devised as a substitute for Temple sacrifice?

The argument for the Patriarchs is based on a trio of Bible verses that show that Abraham engaged in a prayer in the morning, Isaac engaged in a prayer 'toward evening', and Jacob engaged in a prayer at night. Thus, Abraham introduced the morning prayer service, Isaac introduced the afternoon prayer service, and Jacob introduced the evening prayer service.

The argument for Temple sacrifice is based on a few technical details of the way we implement the prayer services. The timings of the prayers, when they can be performed, are argued in a Mishna in the exact same terms that the timing of Temple sacrifice were argued- a dispute between the unnamed Tanna Kamma and Rabbi Yehuda, with Rabbi Yehuda holding for stricter end times. Also, on holidays we say an additional "Musaf" Shemoneh Esrei which has no patriarchal derivation, but is based on the additional sacrifices offered on festivals.

But it's not really a technical argument, it's a philosophical argument. It's about what you think prayer is for and what you think prayer accomplishes. The Temple sacrifices had several purposes, but quite often those purposes were specific. You offer a guilt offering when you have accidentally sinned, to seek atonement. You offer a thanksgiving offering when your harvest goes well. Prayer as substitute for Sacrifice envisions prayer as a procedural rite, to be performed thrice daily like putting a coin in a vending machine and getting a candy bar out. That's unnecessarily dismissive, because there is a lot of powerful intention and symbolism in both sacrifice and prayer. You aren't putting a coin in, you're putting your desires and your commitment and your faith into the machine and letting the machine transform you. But it's still procedural and mechanistic.

But prayer as derived from the Patriarchal model is prayer as a conversation with God. Guided mechanistically by an ancient Hebrew formula that can sometimes knock the life out of the prayer, but giving us an opportunity three times a day to engage with God the way the Patriarchs did, as partners in God's plan for the World.

Those are the terms of the debate. And while I think most people today gravitate toward the Patriarchal justification when I frame it that way, the Rabbis mostly come down on the side of the Temple sacrifice approach, and it's worth thinking about that.

The most obvious reason is because the Beis Mikdash, the Temple in Jerusalem, had been recently destroyed. These Rabbis were hunting for a new Judaism in a post-Temple era and replacing sacrifice with prayer filled a hole in the spiritual lives of their flock, in much the same way that faith in Jesus as Messiah filled that hole for many early Christians. Yet my dad's Koren edition of the Talmud points out in a footnote that prayer had already begun to be introduced as a parallel to Temple sacrifice well before the destruction of the Temple, and synagogues had been established across Israel. Perhaps one can seize this as evidence of the Patriarchal schema- that even before the destruction, people searching for more meaning in their lives had drifted toward an older and more personal kind of worship.

But I think it's about the value of ritual as ritual. The Rabbis value ritual even when we don't understand its every nuance. I believe that we learn in the doing, that the greatest way to learn why God commanded the Sabbath is not to study Heschel but to set aside a day to rest, honor God's creation of the World, and actually feel the architecture in time that Heschel describes. That the greatest way to study the Exodus is to dedicate a week to reliving it, as theatrically and physically as possible. That the greatest way to experience the Giving of the Law at Mount Sinai is to stay up all night experiencing Torah in its most intimate glories. Because when you do those things, it's an endless string of tiny "Ah-ha moments." The Sabbath makes sense as a commemoration of creation when you're doing it in a way that it doesn't when it's a thing you're only contemplating.

The Shemoneh Esrei is invaluable as a personal connection to God, but the real hidden power lies in reciting its formulas and growing into the formulas as you grow in your faith. When you can recognize that like Temple sacrifices, it's the mechanistic and procedural becoming a vehicle for spiritual uplift that really drives Jewish prayer.
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One of the things I've been really struggling with on this Daf Yomi project is how much time to spend on attribution.

Atrribution is super-important to the Talmud. The vast, vast majority of the time, when a ruling is given, it's given in someone's name. "Rabbi Akiva taught ..." or "Rabbi Yehuda taught..." or "Rabba used to say..." or often the more circuitous "Rabbi Yochanan taught in the name of Rabbi Yehuda."

There are a lot of reasons for this. One is that attribution can tell a story. Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai ran competing schools during the Tannaic period and often disagreed. We almost always rule according to Rabbi Hillel, but seeing attribution to Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai is a signal that this is a debate that actually happened, as opposed to the other kind of attributive conflict, when a Rabbi of a later generation disagrees with a Rabbi of an earlier generation. We interpret those differently- in general, Rabbis of a later generation can't overrule Rabbis of an earlier generation, unless they can prove that they're not actually overruling the previous generation's ruling, but rather drawing a different distinction.

Another is that this was an oral tradition before it was a written tradition, and attribution assures us that the tradition was kept alive, that these interpretations of laws were not just made up out of nowhere. Just as citing sources in an academic paper or work of journalism is a safeguard on the quality and integrity of the research, attribution in the Talmud is a safeguard on the integrity of the tradition. And the Talmud is just as honest when there are holes in that integrity. If the Talmud isn't sure who said something, it'll list both conflicting attributions, or say "this is hearsay, but..." And often the Rabbis of the Talmud will present laws as "A Rabbi visited Israel and saw that they were doing the law in this way and reported back." From exile in Babylonia, this kind of intelligence was central.

A third reason is to teach us about these Rabbis. The Talmud isn't just a book of laws. It's also a history book, a record of the history of these people in this time, how they lived their lives and what they aspired to. Whenever they get a chance, the Talmud gives us the favorite maxims of these Rabbis, stories of their wives, stories of their children. When I learned a few years ago that Rabban Gamliel the Elder is claimed as a Catholic saint, it hurt deep in my heart because I know him so well and most Catholics don't know who he is. I request Talmud RPF for PurimGifts because the Talmud is full of amazing character drama, like the relationship between Rabbi Meir and his wife Beruriah that inspired [personal profile] daegaer last year.

There are lots of other things that attribution does. But as I said, I struggle with how much time to spend on it. Daf Yomi is difficult because these texts are so dense and so well-studied that to completely cover a page of Talmud takes a lot of time. This is opposed to the goal of getting a page done every day. If I spend time on attribution, on picking apart why each Rabbi said what they did, what their historical context was, what the redactors of the Talmud were saying with their juxtapositions, I will gain a lot of insight, but that will mean time not spent gathering the insight from the main legal arguments in the text, and those also demand a lot of time and attention to grasp.

It's a balance to reach. It takes seven and a half years to finish shas at the breakneck pace of a daf a day. That's thousands of pages. And the reason it's as short as it is is because the Rabbis took every shortcut imaginable in cramming as much density of ideas into the book. The Talmud is full of cryptic abbreviations, coded allusions, polysemy and hidden stories. Its attributions are one of the keys to those puzzles, but on the other hand at one level the Talmud is functionally a book of laws and getting too deep into those puzzles can be just a distraction.

I'm 22 pages in and at this point I have a couple of general thoughts. One is that part of me is dumbfounded that I've sustained it this far. I've occasionally had to do two pages in a day to catch up for a missed day, but mostly I've been disciplined. The other is that seven years is a really long time. But the third thought is that I'm really glad that I'm doing this, and I'm really glad that I've been writing these blog posts because I feel like they're helping me think things out, and I hope that other people are learning from or enjoying these posts as well.
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Yesterday's daf discusses the laws about whether a woman is obligated to say Shema, as part of a broader section on situations in which various people are not supposed to say Shema. This naturally leads to discussing other things which women are or aren't obligated to do, because if I were licensed to diagnose millenia-old legal textbooks with 21st century neurology conditions, I would say that the Talmud is the most ADD book ever written.

One of the things discussed is something that actually comes up fairly frequently in real life, so it's more interesting than a lot of other things in the Talmud: Can a woman lead Grace After Meals and be chiyyuv for a man? The fascinating answer is: Sometimes.

To review in case there are actually any goyim trying to follow along... Often rather than everyone saying a prayer, one person says the prayer and everyone else answers 'Amen'. The general rule is that a person answering Amen counts as if they'd said the prayer themself, especially if the person who said the prayer had intent to be 'chiyuv', to satisfy the obligation of the other people. There are a few reasons why this is practical and significant in Jewish practice, with the biggest being that books were once rare and a group of Jews might only have a single copy of the prayer, which might be difficult to share if everyone needed to say the prayer individually. And in some cases, where the prayer needed to be said simultaneously by a group, like the Shemoneh Esrei, reciting the prayer individually one at a time as the book is passed around might be impossible. Even today, where in most situations everyone can afford to have a copy of the prayers, there are a number of cases where by tradition we have one person recite and everyone say Amen, and Grace After Meals is one of them.

However, there is a principle that if you are not obligated to do a law, you cannot satisfy someone else's obligation. Women are exempted from a number of obligations on the basis that they are time-bound, positive commandments, which means that if there is a specific time of day where a commandment must be performed, and it is a positive requirement to do something rather than a prohibition, women don't have to do it. The reason for this is fairly sexist- the Talmud prioritizes the performance of their womanly household tasks over the performance of positive time-bound mitzvot. There is a debate between two Rabbis over whether the Grace After Meals is time-bound. Some say that since there are defined times for eating breakfast, lunch and dinner, it is a time-bound commandment. Others say that since we eat whenever we're hungry, it is not time-bound. In order to resolve this dispute, the Mishna rules that women have to say Grace After Meals, but according to one side, this is a Torah obligation and according to the other side this is only a Rabbinical obligation added as a 'fence' just in case the other side is right, since in any case, women are always allowed to perform the mitzvot that they are not obligated to perform.

Thus, since there is uncertainty about whether a woman is obligated to say Grace After Meals by the Torah, there is uncertainty about whether she can satisfy the obligation of a man to say Grace. According to the opinion of one side, since a woman is obligated to say Grace by the Torah, she can fulfill the obligation for a man. According to the other side, though, since the obligation is only Rabbinical, she cannot fulfill the obligation for a man with a Torah obligation.

But wait, there's more! The Gemara brings an ruling that stated that wives can say Grace for their husbands. So does that mean the opinion that women are obligated by the Torah is right? Not necessarily. According to the opinion that women are obligated by the Torah, we're okay. But according to the other opinion that it's Rabbinical, women can say Grace for their husbands only when the husband's obligation to say Grace is Rabbinical! When is this? The Talmud derives that there is a minimum amount of food that obligates you to say Grace, because the commandment to say Grace is 'v'achalta v'savata uverachta' : You will eat and you will be satisfied, and you will bless the Lord. Thus, if you eat but not enough to be satisfied, you do not need to bless, according to the Torah. But the Rabbis added a blessing you say when you haven't eaten enough to say the full Grace, so this only a Rabbinical obligation to say Grace. Thus a woman's Rabbinical obligation to say Grace because eating might not be considered time bound and a man's Rabbinical obligation to say Grace even when he hasn't had enough to be satisfied put them both on the same level of obligation, and a woman can say Grace for the man.

Contemporary Judaism builds up so many levels of 'fence', and so many levels of distance between the original analyses and our present understanding of the law, that sometimes it's profound and powerful to go back to the original reasoning of a rule we practice on a regular basis. I've spent my whole life knowing that in most cases, a woman can't say Grace for a man, but I haven't given much deep thought to why. Some of the reasoning makes sense- I recognize why, in a dispute, we defer to the answer that leaves us on safest ground and don't assume the ruling that gives the most leeway. Other parts of the reasoning are sources of struggle for me- I do not have all the answers yet when it comes to Jewish gender roles, and why women are exempted from the Mitzvot in order to tend the household. But having the whole story in front of me is one of the reasons why this Daf Yomi program has been so enjoyable for me so far.
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On Daf 18 of Berachos there's a discussion of the rules of saying prayers in cemeteries, as part of an overall discussion of when a person is exempted from saying the Shema and the Tefilah. This rapidly devolves into a discussion of ghost stories, because this is the Gemara and there are few things it loves more than ghost stories. The central debate of the daf is about whether the spirits of the dead are aware of things that go on in this world. Some say they are, and bring ghost stories that offer evidence for this position. Some suggest they only know what's reported to them by other dead, and similarly offer proofs. Some suggest that the dead are cut off from our world, and offer Biblical verses from the Psalms as their evidence.

But before that debate kicks off, they discuss, as I said, the question of when one is exempted from saying prayers in a cemetery. According to the majority opinion, the reason one is not supposed to say the Shema or wear Tefillin in a cemetery is because of a Biblical prohibition on 'mocking the poor', which it interprets in this situation as referring to those with the misfortune of being dead. And it falls in this category because the dead, regardless of what other conclusions the Talmud draws about them later, are unable to say prayers or praise the Lord. Rav Chiyya goes so far as to add a prohibition specifically on dragging the fringes of your tzitzit on the ground of a cemetery, within four amot (six feet or so) of a grave (and some say anywhere in a cemetery).

And I think this is one of those times where the didactic, inspirational power of the Gemara's ghost stories is apparent. Even if we don't accept the ghost stories stam, the idea that taking the opportunities we have to praise the Lord because when we are dead we will no longer possess those opportunities is a meaningful idea. And moreover at the same time we have a beautiful kal vachomer- if we are obligated to show respect and not mock the dead, how much more so are we obligated to show respect for and not mock the living.

And the Gemera has, as usually, embedded these philosophical principles in a supremely practical halachic rule, so that as we go through the motions of our everyday life, we are reminded of our mortality and the opportunities it gives us if we choose to seize them. It turns morbid thoughts of mortality into constructive ones. As Jews of a contemporary bent we wrestle often with 'fences' around the law and how absurd they seem. Why go to the effort of safeguarding our practice by performing a safeguard against an act we would never actually do? Nobody will ever mistake chicken for red meat, so why avoid mixing milk and chicken to prevent mixing milk and meat? But this kal vachomer is a partial reason. If we build good habits, we will be prepared to confront the situation which is actually significant. If we train ourselves to show respect even to the feelings of the dead, we will be prepared when it matters to show respect to fellow members of our community. And this holds true regardless of whether you believe in ghosts.


As I contemplate the memory of my great-aunt, who passed away last Sunday evening, I find strength in the Gemara's ghost stories, and their hidden meanings.
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A couple of dapim into Masechet Berachos there's a passage where Rabbi Meir discusses being given a minor prophecy by the spirit of Elijah while praying in a ruin of Jerusalem. The Gemara seizes on this to discuss the laws regarding going into ruins of Jerusalem, viz: You're not supposed to do it. Why?

The Gemara gives three reasons.

One: Suspicion. Which is glossed by one translator as "[Sexual] suspicion" and by another as "Suspicion [of prostitution]". The overall theory is that you're going into this abandoned building you have no reason to go into, so probably it's frequented by unsavory types and used for illicit liaisons. Therefore even if you're not going in to participate in an illicit liaison or a drug deal or selling illegal merchandise, you still shouldn't go because if you're seen, people will suspect you of being involved in something like that.

Two: Danger of falling ceilings. It's a ruined building, so it stands to reason that there might be structural failures.

Three: Demons. Apparently the ruin might be haunted by demons and you'd be putting yourself at risk by going in.

The Gemara then discusses these reasons in more detail, interrogating the rules to see where the exceptions might be. [livejournal.com profile] jaiwithahat posted an interesting post a week ago about assuming a worst possible scenario and using it to test your logical position, and that's basically what the Gemara does. For example, what if you enter the ruin with a chaperon, so that you're above suspicion? What if it's a new ruin, so that you know it's still structurally sound? What if you are a morally strong person the demons can't attack? This, it concludes essentially, is why three separate distinct reasons were given. The Gemara isn't concerned with suspicion, demons, or structural failure on their own terms here, or it would have warned about those things, not about entering ruins. The Gemara is trying to find an exhaustive, no-excuses reason why one should never enter ruins.


[personal profile] freeradical42 has argued to me (not specifically on this topic) that there comes a point in your study of the ancient Rabbis' teachings where you will just have to face the fact that these great men (and very occasionally women) were wrong about how the world worked. They didn't know physics, they didn't know biology, they were extremely superstitious, and many of the Laws they bring out are based on their inaccurate knowledge. He argues that there will be moments where the only path forward is to disregard their teachings and dismiss the Rabbis as superstitious and backwards. And this is a classic example of such a case, with the Rabbis' claim that ruins are infested by demons. I think a little more humility is in order.

There is a school of thought called Charedism (the word means 'pious ones') that says that if the ancient Rabbis wrote about demons, that means that we are obligated to believe in demons. As a Modern Orthodox Jew I reject this. There is no evidence of the existence of demons and good arguments from the Bible on why we shouldn't believe in their existence. At the same time, there are lots of reasons why you shouldn't enter an ancient ruin in Jerusalem that wouldn't be politic to mention in writing. As symbols of Jewish unity the ruins of Jerusalem were potent. If Jews were seen entering it might spark accusations that they were plotting a rebellion. At the same time, the Rabbis weren't exactly in a position to write freely about ways to hide a rebellion. It's not all that unreasonable to suppose that 'demons' are a sort of code, a way to speak about dangers the ruins posed that weren't to be mentioned aloud. Additionally, it's not all that hard to speculate that the Rabbis wrote about demons BECAUSE they were limited in their knowledge of physics, but they understood that the world held dangers they didn't understand and needed a way to codify those unspecifiable fears. Just how it's not all that hard to imagine that descriptions of rhinoceroses could lead to ancients believing in unicorns- discovering rationality underlying a superstition can let us appreciate the rational basis for beliefs that we today reject as improbable from a position of greater knowledge. One doesn't need to reject the teachings of the Rabbis just because they write about demons.

The bottom line is, the Rabbis needed a language to explain the law of not entering ruins, and they found a language they found viable. And we can be uncomfortable with the invocations of demons, if we want we can seize this as a reason to ignore the decisions of the Rabbis, or we can try to understand where they were coming from, why they came to the conclusions they did, and thoughtfully learn what we can take out of the Rabbis' teachings despite their superstitions. Very, very occasionally I'll take the former approach, but mostly I prefer to take the latter.
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I'm a little hesitant to make this post, but I suppose I ought to. The new Daf Yomi cycle began this past Friday and for the moment I'm attempting to participate.

Daf Yomi is a recent Jewish custom, perhaps a century old, of attempting to study a single page ('Daf') of the Talmud every day until you've made it through the whole thing, which takes roughly 7 years at that pace. Study can be done alone, in pairs called chavrutas, or in group lectures. The idea is that a daf is a small, manageable amount that people can study even if they're not isolated in a yeshiva setting studying all day. And the idea is that if we have a shared cycle, on any given day thousands of Jews will be studying the same page. It's a beautiful statement of religious unity. When the last cycle was completed last week, tens of thousands of people gathered at Giants Stadium to celebrate the achievement.

The Talmud, for those who are unaware, is the primary source of Jewish law outside the Bible. Jewish tradition separates the Torah given at Sinai into two parts: The Written Torah and the Oral Torah. According to a section of the Mishnah called Pirkei Avot, God delivered both to Moses at Mount Sinai and Moses began the continuous oral transmission of the Oral Torah by explaining it to Joshua, and Joshua in turn taught the council of elders, the first incarnation of the judiciary body that came to be called the Sanhedrin.

The Oral Torah was eventually codified first in the Mishnah by a Rabbi named Yehuda haNasi (Judah the Prince), and later in the Gemara, a sort of metacommentary on the Mishnah. But it's important to recognize what the Oral Torah is and isn't. The Oral Torah is not a set of laws that God transmitted to Moses but didn't want written down. We're not talking gnosticism and mystery cults here. The Oral Torah is a set of approaches to understanding laws. Neither the Mishnah or the Gemara consist of statements of law. They consist of statements of different Rabbis' opinions of the law, followed by arguments over those opinions. The purpose of studying Talmud is not to learn the laws of Judaism, but to learn how to interpret and understand the laws of Judaism. In a number of cases, after discussing different contradictory opinions, the Talmud does not identify which one is right, or even which one is followed. Sometimes the Talmud tells us that both answers are acceptable. Sometimes it says that there is a right answer, but we won't know until the Messiah comes. The Talmud models a number of different jurisprudential approaches in the opinions of its scholars. Famously, there are nearly a hundred different disputes alone between the school of Rabbi Hillel and the school of Rabbi Shammai in the Talmud.

Studying Talmud is an incredibly challenging and profoundly rewarding intellectual and spiritual exercise. It requires logical rigor, the ability to make creative leaps, fluency in deep Biblical esoterica, and a strong grasp of both Hebrew and Aramaic. I possess at least some of those things.

So I've started studying on the cycle, and will hopefully maintain the self-discipline to study a page every day. It's roughly a half-hour to an hour of time committed every day, depending on how difficult the subject matter is and how many secondary sources I consult to answer questions.

People- keep me honest! Ask me how I'm doing. Ask me to share things I've learned! Ask me questions.

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