Monday, March 20, 2006

Reflections on Berachos 4ab

Here are a few excerpts and reflections on the Talmud daf -- Berachos 4ab


This is what David said before the Holy One, Blessed be He: Master of the Universe, am I not devout? For all the other kings of the East and the West sit among their company in their glory, but as for me, my hands are soiled with blood, embryos, and afterbirths which I examine, in order to permit a woman to her husband. And not only that, but I consult Mephiboshes my teacher about everything I do, and I ask him: “Mephiboshes, my teacher, did I judge correctly? Did I declare “exampt” correctly? Did I declare “tahor” correctly? Did I declare “tamei” correctly? And I was not embarrassed to do so.

In the early pages to Halakhic Man, Rav Soloveitchik writes:

Our aim in this essay is to penetrate deep into the structure of Halakhic man’s consciousness and to determine the precise nature of this “strange, singular” being who reveals himself to the world from within his narrow, constricted “four cubits” [Berakhot 8a], his hands soiled by the gritty realia of practical Halakhah [see Berakhot 4a] p4

While even the idea of David reviewing blood, embryos and afterbirths in order to determine if a woman is tamei (ritually impure) or tahor (ritually pure) is almost impossible for my twenty-first century mind to accept, it makes immensely real how interwoven Halakhah was with everyday life and how far away it is from an otherworldly type of mysticism. One more quote from the Rav, which I believe I shared before:

If you desire an exoteric, democratic religiosity, get thee unto the empirical, earthly life, the life of the body with all its two hundred forty-eight organs and three hundred sixty-five sinews. Do not turn your attention to an exalted, spiritual life rooted in abstract worlds. p44

In discussing whether one can recite the Shema only until midnight or all the way until dawn, it says: [4b] As was taught in the following Baraisa: THE SAGES MADE A FENCE (i.e. a safeguard) FOR THEIR WORDS . . . AND WHOEVER TRANSGRESSES THE WORDS OF THE SAGES IS LIABLE TO DEATH

The “fence” that they discuss in these lines is that a person (a man – women are not bound by “time-bound” commandments) should go the synagogue to pray before going home. Otherwise, the person may have a little to eat and drink and then fall asleep and fail in his obligation.

The discussion continues on why someone is “liable to death” for transgressing this Rabbinic ruling, while not for all the others. At this point it simply says that it is way of making it very clear that it is compulsory.

Just a note about the death penalty in the Talmud. We will see it mentioned very often. But in the introduction to the Sanhedrin tractate from Artscroll, they define that it is the Lesser Sanhedrin (twenty-three judges) who can sentence a person to death and only after he was warned just prior of the consequences by two witnesses. Also they say that a court that actually sentenced a person to die once every seven years was called a “destructive court.” So while, the death penalty is mentioned often, it seems like it was used very infrequently.

The next section begins a discussion that will take place throughout the tractate – what are the specific prayers and what are their order? At this point the discussion centers on whether one says the Shemoneh Esrei or Amidah (known simply as “the Prayer” in the Talmud) before or after the Shema and whether one must connect the redemption blessing that follows the Shema directly to the beginning of the Shemoneh Esrei.

Just to be clear when there is this type of discussion – all defense and arguments are initiated from and totally reliant on some word or phrase from tradition (Torah, Prophets, Writings, Mishnah, etc.). So this one focuses on the words from the Shema “when you lie down and when you arise.”

Next a line that has effected Jewish and Christian prayer for 2000 years –

[4b] Why, R’ Yochanon has said that – in the beginning, i.e. before one begins the Prayer, he should say the verse: My Lord, open my lips, that my mouth may declare Your praise.

This ruling from the Rabbis has made its way into the Divine Office of the Catholic Church and the Daily Office of the BCP of the Anglican Communion!

More discussion on what the prayer for the day consists. Here there is a claim that Psalm 145 must be recited three times every day. Of course, they ask why this Psalm. First, they claim that is because it follows the order of the aleph beit (though we will learn a few lines later that it does not include a line for the letter nun) but they also say that it is because it contains the line You open Your hand and satisfy the desire of every living thing.”

I find this line a lovely description of the ever-creative “hand” of God in all of creation as the creative force binding together and creating anew the infinite universes.

This daf closes with an interesting discussion of the angels Michael, Gabriel, Elijah and the Angel of Death – you probably didn’t know that to accomplish their missions: Michael performs his in one flight, Gabriel in two, Elijah in four and the Angel of Death in eight (though during the time of the plague he went in one flight)! There is a commentary on the Angel of the death that is interesting: “Since the mission of the angel of death is to kill people, he may not fly straight to his victim; rather, he must stop seven times along the way to give the person multiple chances to repent.”

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