This week we get into the longest extended discussion of poverty relief in the Babylonian Talmud. Along with the serious business of assessing, collecting, and distributing taxes for infrastructure and poverty relief, there is the serious business of meeting Elijah the Prophet, and watching Rabbi Judah the Prince deal with famine. Also, should Sages pay taxes?
As always, deepest gratitude to Eli Ungar-Sargon for sound editing.
After a hiatus as a result of the sukkot holidays and a sojourn to DC to attend the JStreet conference (which will make some of you think I’m a leftie, and some think I’ve gone over to the right), Daf Shvu’i returns. The simple premise is that we learn a page of talmud every week. We started at the beginning of Tractate Baba Bathra and this week finish page 5b and study 6a and most of 6b. If you want to follow along, the daf is here or here.
As always, deepest thanks go to Eli Ungar-Sargon for sound editing.
The framing of the Yom Kippur ritual in Torah is fascinating and disturbing. In the Torah the Yom Kippur ritual, which is actually the one off desert ritual of cleansing the Tabernacle of sin, which was then converted by the Holiness code, and then the Rabbis, into the annual Yom Kippur Temple ritual, is introduced with the following verses:
And God spoke to Moses after the death of Aaron’s two sons when they came forward before God and died. And God said to Moses: “Speak to Aaron your brother, that he not come at all times into the sacred zone within the curtain in front of the cover that is on the Ark, lest he die. For in the cloud I shall appear over the cover.”
As one of the great Hassidic masters says: והספיקות רבו/and the questions are many. In these two verses, God speaks to Moses twice, וידבר ה׳ and then ויאמר ה׳, but only after the second introduction “and God said to Moses” do we hear what God said. Aaron only had two sons, so would it not have been enough to say Aaron’s sons rather than Aaron’s two sons? The verse says that God spoke to Moses after the death of Aaron’s two sons. This might imply that it was immediately after the death of Nadav and Avihu—but that happened a while ago, and God has said many things between then and now. Also, speaking of Nadav and Avihu, why did the Torah not mention them by name rather than just saying Aaron’s two sons? Why is the incident of Nadav and Avihu’s deaths described as בקרבתם לפני ה׳ וימותו/when they came forward before God and died, rather than offering an explanation for why they died as in Leviticus 10, where it says that they brought foreign or strange fire before God? The verse here seems to be saying that they merely came “close to” God, or “came before” God and they died.
This week’s page of Talmud is Baba Bathra 4b-5b. Fittingly for the week of Yom Kippur, the discussion is, in part, about what happens when different principles of justice clash in disputes between neighbors when there are class and power differences. Enjoy. Comments are more than welcome.
This is a class that I gave at and for Bend the Arc: Jewish Action last night (9.12). It is the beginning of thinking toward a theory of political action from out of Jewish sources. The class itself is about 45 minutes. (There are introductory comments for the first 10 or 15 minutes.) The source sheet for the class is here.
At the end of the class Rebecca Green, the SoCal organizer suggested a number of ways to get involved and do something. Here they are:
In the wake of the antisemitic shooting at the Chabad synagogue in Poway, CA, where Lori Gilbert Kaye was killed and four others were injured, I was interviewed by Steve Chiotakis for his KCRW show Greater LA. Listen to the show here.
There is an interesting little argument about the meaning of one of the more popular symbols on the seder plate. The “seder plate” holds symbolic foods which tell the story of Passover. There are bitter herbs which are reminiscent of the bitterness of slavery, there is a shank bone which is symbolic of the Passover sacrifice, there are green vegetables or herbs which are resonant with the Spring in which the Exodus took place. Then there is haroset. If you have ever taken part in a seder, or learned about one, you know that while haroset is supposed to play a supporting role—it is eaten together with the bitter herbs to sweeten the experience—it takes a more central role as a respite from the matzohs and the bitter herbs. There are many recipes for the sweet haroset paste which vary based on country of origin, family traditions, and personal taste. Even Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish philosopher and jurist, published his haroset recipe in his commentary on the Mishnah.
As children, many of us were taught that the haroset is symbolic of the mortar which the Israelite slaves were forced to use to build bricks (cf. Exodus Chapter 5). Many recipes do yield a reddish brown colored paste which might look brick-like. However, the sweetness of the haroset, for me, always stood in stark contrast to its symbolic function—remembering bitter hardship.
I. One of the interesting though less well known customs of Passover is to leave the doors of one’s house unlocked all night. The custom is tied to the fact that the night of the liberation is referred to as leil shimurim/night of vigil or watch in Exodus (12:42): “It is a night of watch [leil shimurim] for the Lord, for taking them out of the land of Egypt, this night is the Lord’s, a watch [shimurim] for all the Israelites through their generations.” (Robert Alter’s translation.) The word shimurim, whose only biblical appearance is in this verse, can be understood in the sense of preserving, or waiting for; or in the sense of guarding or being guarded. The custom of leaving the doors unlocked is tied to this latter sense of being guarded. The night of Passover is a night that is guarded or protected for all the children of Israel, and therefore the security of a locked door is superfluous.
This custom reflects and ties together some of the major themes of the holiday.
The final plague which God inflicted upon the Egyptians was the killing of the first born sons. Prior to this plague, God had ordered the Israelites: “None of you shall go outside the door of his house until morning.” (Exodus 12:22) Then “in the middle of the night” God killed all the Egyptian first borns. Why were the Israelites forbidden to leave their houses during the hour of destruction? Rabbi Aharon Shmuel Tamares (1869-1931) says that the reason is so that the Israelites would not be involved in the cycle of violence. Only God, Godself would put an end to the structures of an oppressive society. God would extract vengeance but Israel would not. The cycle of violence—first oppression and then vengeance—would be disrupted. Israel would be free to live outside of this cycle, with no need of vengeance. This was the dream.
Purim is hard. The way we usually deal with that
is by making it into a children’s holiday and then a frat party for the adults.
That way we don’t have to deal with the Purim story and its implications.
If we don’t want to go the children’s party/frat
party route there are two adult choices.
On the one hand, the Purim story itself is a dark
tale of dubious redemption. As the story ends, Mordecai and Esther have gained
the upper hand and slaughtered all their enemies. However, they have only done
this at the pleasure of the manipulative and manipulated King Aheuserus. While
at the beginning of the story the king gave his ring to Haman with permission
to wipe out the Jews, the story ends with the king giving the ring to Mordecai
and Esther with permission to wipe out those who might harm the Jews. The rub
is that the ring still belongs to the king. It is obvious that sometime in the
not too distant future, a new Haman will arise who will seek to destroy the
Jews and the king will give him the ring.
The rabbis of the Talmud characterized the Purim
story as happening just after the
Jews were supposed to be redeemed. Purim is the reckoning with the lack of
redemption. For this reason the fourth century Babylonian Rabbi Rava says that
one of the obligations of Purim is to get drunk to the point of being unable to
distinguish between Mordechai and Haman. In the long arc of history there is no
difference as long as Ahaseurus is in charge. We all dance to the same fiddler.
We are all caught up in the same system of oppression.