Monday, November 1, 2010

Talmud...where would I be without you?

Hey World,

So today was a pretty great day. I just wanted to share. I've realized (yet again) that learning especially Talmud really just feeds my soul. Seriously, when I learn things and when I'm challenged it just puts me in such a good place. You know those "chicken soup for the soul" books that used to be super popular, and how they had ones for specific people? Chicken soup for the teenage soul (own that one) or chicken soup for the Jewish soul (I think my mom owns that one) or chicken soup get the idea. Anyways my book Chicken soup for the Becca soul would basically just be talmud. That took a while to explain that metaphor haha.

Anyways yeah I spent a while today in the library preparing for my Talmud class tomorrow. I went over the section of Talmud we did last class because it was weird and I didn't totally understand it and then I started to prepare some of the stuff we are going over tomorrow. It just felt good to go over it slowly and not feel the pressure of keeping up with all of the Hebrew speakers, and hopefully I will be able to contribute more (that is if I can stop being a wimp and getting freaked out at the idea of speaking Hebrew in front of the class).

(disclamer, the rest of this is pretty Jewy...)

So a little summary of the texts we did in class last week/what I got when I reworked it today...We started out with a text from the bible, deuteronomy 21:1-9. This passage basically talks about what you should do if you find a dead body in between two towns and you don't know what happened to this person, it describes the ceremony that needs to happen if this is the case. It's pretty weird. Here is a translation if you want to read/browse it (it's a little old school cause its the 1917 JPS translation, but I wanted to cut and paste and this is what is on the net):

1 If one be found slain in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee to possess it, lying in the field, and it be not known who hath smitten him; 2 then thy elders and thy judges shall come forth, and they shall measure unto the cities which are round about him that is slain. 3 And it shall be, that the city which is nearest unto the slain man, even the elders of that city shall take a heifer of the herd, which hath not been wrought with, and which hath not drawn in the yoke. 4 And the elders of that city shall bring down the heifer unto a rough valley, which may neither be plowed nor sown, and shall break the heifer's neck there in the valley. 5 And the priests the sons of Levi shall come near—for them the LORD thy God hath chosen to minister unto Him, and to bless in the name of the LORD; and according to their word shall every controversy and every stroke be. 6 And all the elders of that city, who are nearest unto the slain man, shall wash their hands over tin heifer whose neck was broken in the valley. 7 And they shall speak and say: `Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it. 8 Forgive, O LORD, Thy people Israel whom Thou hast redeemed, and suffer not innocent blood to remain in the midst of Thy people Israel.' And the blood shall be forgiven them. 9 So shalt thou put away the innocent blood from the midst of thee, when thou shalt do that which is right in the eyes of the LORD.

So after that we read a Mishnah that elaborates on this ritual (Sota perek 9, 1-9) and then we went on to a story in the Gemara (talmud) that uses this concept of a body that is found in a weird way. You can find this story in tractate Yoma 23a-23b. I'm not going to do a full translation because that would be super long and crazy, but I will summarize:

So it opens up with a story that was found in the Mishnah about two priests that were running up a slope to get to the temple for the sacrifice (they both wanted to be first so they could do whatever they needed to do because only one person could do it). The Talmud goes on to introduce this story again. So as it goes there are two priests running up the slope and they are about equal, then one gets in front of the other, but not so far in front and the other guy takes a knife and stabs him in the heart. (wahhh wahhhhhh). Then Rabi Tzadok gets up on the platform in the temple (I don't really understand temple lay out, but this is a high up and very public place) and he says: We are brothers, the house of Israel, listen, and then he cites the verse about finding a slain person out in the field. Then all the people burst into cries.

This is odd because the case described in deuteronomy is not the case here. Here people know who killed the priest, whereas is deuteronomy it is describing what to do when you don't know what happened. This could either mean the priest didn't really know his halacha, or, as the gemara argues, he brought up this verse to increase the sadness of the people. Which worked I guess because they did all burst into tears...

Then the father of the child priest (yes, new detail apparently the priest was young) finds his child and he is still not dead he is kind of twitching. The father says: He is your sin offering (expatiary sacrifice) and my son still is twitching so the knife is not impure... WTFFFFFFF. Right? A father just came across his dead child and the thing he cares most about is the knife being impure? Yes this knife is an important one because it was used for sacrifices at the temple and was very hard to purify, but still, ummmm someone just got killed. Following what the father says there is a discussion about the purity of the knife, and they are still trying to figure it out, no mention of the kid.

The Talmud learns from this that the people of Jerusalem back in the day cared more about the purity of the temple objects than the spilling of blood (killing). Whaaaa?! There is more discussion of this later that (or at least how I understood it) reasoned that Israel had become desensitized to killing because one of the kinds of Israel, Menasseh, had killed so many people while he was king (they use the verse from 2 kings 21:16). So the Israelites cared less about death than they previously had, but their level of concern for the temple objects had stayed the same.

This explanation is still very problematic for me. I wonder where this story came from and what it is trying to teach its audience. Could it possibly be criticizing the temple cult? Criticizing their concern for the tools they use for sacrifice over the concern for human life? Those priorities seem awfully backwards. This seems like the most logical explanation to me.

To back up my idea I have proof (woot). So in this story in the Mishnah (yomah chapter 2), which came before the gemara so it is probably the most basic version of the story only speaks about the two priests racing and then one getting hurt and as a result a policy of casting lots is imposed for deciding who does parts of the sacrifices. So probably what happened is this story, in the gemara was added to to give a more unfavorable view of the priests in the temple. The story is elaborated on and the element of the knife being pure or impure is incorporated, which is definitely the more problematic part. The reason they wanted to criticize these priests is really anyones guess, I would argue that it is because the gemara is being composed in a time without the temple cult because the temple was destroyed, so the rabbis are trying to distance themselves from it and validate the new type of Judaism that they are developing/continuing which is one that emphasizes study and prayer, not sacrifice.

Did that make any sense??? Was that interesting at all?? I hope so, let me know if there are things I need to explain better in the future, I know I didn't explain a bunch of the technical terms, but I figured if you were still interested you would probably know a few of them. If I assumed incorrectly I apologize.

So after all my studying I went to a beit midrash (a short, casual study program). It is through the Israeli rabbinical program, but a few of us American students participated too. We are studying masechet kiddushin. This is the first masechet I actually studied, so it's funny to come back to it, but we really only got through a few pages so I won't have any advantage after like the first two weeks haha. It was a great class, very relaxed, but I got to do some text study and had a fun chevruta. Also my Talmud teacher is running the class and we were joined today by another talmud professor and the head of the Israeli rabbinic program (and there were like 8 of us) so it definitely was not too shabby. haha

Last night was halloween, and I just thought I'd mention it because I felt a weird solidarity with all the people who had costumes on. Halloween does not happen in Israel, or most countries that aren't America (I think)...It is weird to feel a connection to Americans because in America I don't. I guess it's just being away.

And with that I will end my super long (and nerdy) blog entry.

Happy 4 month anniversary to me :-)


  1. would you mind clarifying who you mean when you say "we"? I see your profile says you are in Australia, and I think there are some there, but I guess you would know better than I.