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Talmudic Treasures by Rabbi Ziona Zelazo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Sunday, July 30, 2023


Kamtza and Bar Kamtza then and today - Gittin 55b-56a

With the current situation in Israel being so disturbing, the democratic uncertainty hanging over the heads of Israelis (and American Jews), the conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians, Hareidi and secular Jews, the Right and the Left political wings – it is difficult to understand and is paralyzing. I decided to post some of my thoughts.

I would like to discuss a well-known Talmudic story about Kamtza and Bar Kamtza, which I think draws some parallel to today’s reality in Israel. It presents a symbol of a social pathology among the Jewish people in Jerusalem during the 1st century BC. Social divisions which had hate and disrespect. This division came to the worse point when informing each other to the Roman emperor happened. This, the rabbis believe, what brought the destruction of the 2nd Temple.

But I will first start with another parallel to what is going on in Israel. I read a Facebook post by Rabbi Haviva Ner-David from Kibbutz Hanaton in Israel. She runs a mikvah in the kibbutz called Shmaya: A Mikveh for Mind, Body, and Soul, and is also an author of many books.

She shared that she was invited to do a ‘story hour’ at the English library in Tzfat with her children's book called ‘Yonah and the Mikveh Fish’. Her website clearly states that she is a woman post-denominational rabbi who runs the only mikveh in Israel that is open to all to immerse as they choose, and yet, she was invited to present to an observant community.

The majority of the population in Tzfat is Hareidi – Ultra-Orthodox (super religious observant) and her audience were women and kids who were Ultra-Orthodox. Rabbi Haviva expected to find a religiously open-minded group of participants, but that was not what she found.

She read out loud the first page -- which is about Yonah, a kindergarten girl, waking up excited to be going to the mikveh. When Rabbi Haviva read the second page, which is about Rabbi Rebecca (kippa and all) explaining to a group of inter-racial Jewish children what a mikveh is -- one mother interrupted her and told her to stop reading because she didn't want her children to hear such heresy. Rabbi Haviva was amazed, as she was invited as a female rabbi to speak to a religious community, and then felt that she was punched in her face by their a refusal to hear her out.

“I stopped reading. I am not a woman who likes to force my opinions on others. I would not have asked to come there; I had been invited.

But when one of this woman's kids asked me to read another book instead, I was stunned, even appalled -- not blaming the kids but, rather, their mother who did not say a thing to reprimand this rude behavior. It took me a few moments to gather my equilibrium and say ‘no, I had come to read this book, the one I wrote. So they left’. “

A few minutes later, another mother showed up. She was dressed more liberally than the woman in the wig and stockings who had stopped Rabbi Haviva. This mother was warned about the content of the book, but the mother agreed to listen. Rabbi Haviva read the story and an interesting discussion developed in spite the fact that there were 2 different worldviews presented.

“One of the three boys who stayed to listen to the story was proud of himself when he guessed the surprise ending. I rewarded all three boys with fishy crackers. And neither the boys nor their mother (who also partook) checked the package to make sure it had a kosher symbol. I had gained their trust. That made me happy”.

It is clear that there is a clash between 2 different communities, trying to live in one space, but not always knowing how to integrate ideas in a respectful way. Rabbi Haviva was open to hear the audience out and learn about their ways, but the religious audience were not willing to hear her out. It is like the new term: “Israel and Yehuda” as used by Israelis today. Many promote the idea that the State of Israel should split into a federation or into two separate states – conservative/observant and liberal.

And now, let us return to the 1st century CE Talmudic story in Gittin 55b-56a:

    The Gemara explains: Jerusalem was destroyed on account of Kamtza and bar Kamtza. This is as there was a certain man whose friend was named Kamtza and whose enemy was named bar Kamtza. He once made a large feast and said to his servant: Go bring me my friend Kamtza. The servant went and mistakenly brought him his enemy bar Kamtza.

The nost came and found Bar Kamtza sitting at the feast. The host said to Bar Kamtza: you are my enemy. What then do you want here? Arise and leave.

Bar Kamtza offers to make peace with the host, first by offering to pay for the food he eats, then for half of the expenses of the party, and then for the entire party, but the host remain angry and insisted Bar Kamtza leaves the party.

Finally, the host took Bar Kamtza by his hand, stood him up, and took him out.

…and the rabbis did not protest.

    After having been cast out from the feast, Bar Kamtza said to himself: Since the Sages were sitting there and did not protest the actions of the host, although they saw how he humiliated me, learn from it that they were content with what he did. I will therefore go and inform against them to the king.

    He went and said to the emperor: The Jews have rebelled against you.

    The emperor said to him: Who says that this is the case? Bar Kamtza said to him: Go and test them; send them an offering to be brought in honor of the government, and see whether they will sacrifice it.

    The emperor sends along with Bar Kamtza a three-year-old calf to be sacrificed as a peace offering in the Temple in Jerusalem. On the way, Bar-Kamtza purposefully slightly wounds the animal in a way that would disqualify it as a Jewish sacrifice.

    The Sages thought to sacrifice the animal as an offering due to the imperative to maintain peace with the government. Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolas said to them: If the sages do that, people will say that blemished animals may be sacrificed as offerings on the altar.

    The Sages said: If we do not sacrifice it, then we must prevent Bar Kamtza from reporting this to the emperor. The Sages thought to kill him so that he would not go and speak against them.
Rabbi Zekharya said to them: If you kill him, people will say that one who makes a blemish on sacrificial animals is to be killed. As a result, they did nothing, Bar Kamtza’s slander was accepted by the authorities, and consequently the war between the Jews and the Romans began.
Rabbi Yochanan says: because of the actions of Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkolos the Temple was destroyed and the Jews were exiled from the land.

There are a few points that I want to make;

It hurts to note that what existed in the past – the shaky relations among the Jews in Jerusalem, continues to be seen in modern Israel. History repeat itself. Going further from the collective problem to the personal responsibility for proper behavior, we see it is also missing. Note that the host’s name, who shamed the unwanted guest in public is not even mentioned. Revisit the above Facebook story and note the way the mother in Tzfat treated Rabbi Haviva. And the silent rabbis?? Nothing to be proud of either. This is another kind of bad behavior. The rabbis did not defend Bar-Kamtza, and the other mothers in Tzfat said nothing when Rabbi Haviva was asked to stop reading. The point -- Keeping mitzvot should NOT exempt them (or any of us) from Derech Ertez דרך ארץ (Hebrew for way of the land - correct conduct).

Lastly, Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkolos is also an example of a questionable behavior -- he made a decision between not sacrificing a blemished animal or not. By his fear to transgress a Jewish law (halacha) he chose to sacrifice the future of the Jews and he knew that the outcome of this decision will not be good. Clearly, today, the Israeli government seems to be going this direction, by catering to the religious parties and sacrificing the rights of secular Israelis.

Yes, we see bad social behavior repeating itself. I just wonder whether it will ever be possible for the conflicted parties to take an example from Hillel and Shamai, that in spite of their ideological - theological differences, they showed respect to one another, and even have their kids marry.

The question remains – What kind of future can we expect for Israel?

I posted only small pieces of what is going on today in Israel. I hope that you could understand where my discomfort level lies. But – my last question is:

Is it possible that each one of us has a Bar Kamtza in us? That when we are hurt, insulted or disputed, we are ready to hurt, to damage and take revenge too? Or could we also be on a split road, when we need to decide or take sides in such a way we are carful not to cause harm?

I pray for peace among the Jewish sisters and brothers soon.







Monday, August 31, 2020


Yevamot 121a: Swimming in the rough waters of crisis

     Crisis is a term everyone I know is familiar with and experiencing it. It is something that has been around in each generation, going back all the way to Biblical times. We know that a “crisis” can take many different shapes and forms; counting from personal, to social collective, and to global platforms. I imagine that many of us consider the COVID-19 as being present in all of these platforms. Its also being manifested on the physical, emotional, psychological, economic, political, nationwide and worldwide levels.

    There are different ways how to handle crisis. Each one of us deals with challenges and struggles in their own way. Some internalize the issues, others seek to have conversations that might relief emotions, or others just fear with panic. It is not my intention to point a finger to any one way to actually manage a crisis, but I have 2 midrashim from Talmud Bavli, which demonstrate to us the main points I raised.

 Have a look at these stories from Yevamot 121a;

Story 1:

“Rabban Gamliel said: Once I was traveling on a boat, and I saw a boat that shattered and I was grieved over the Torah scholar who was on board. And who was it? Rabbi Akiva. But when I disembarked onto dry land, he came, and sat, and deliberated before me about halakha. I said to him: My son, who brought you up? He said to me: A plank from the boat came my way, and to every wave that approached me I nodded my head".


Story 2:

“Rabbi Akiva said: Once I was traveling on a boat, and I saw a certain boat sinking at sea, and I was grieved over the apparent death of the Torah scholar who was on board. And who was it? Rabbi Meir. But when I disembarked at the province of Cappadocia, he came, and sat, and deliberated before me about halakha. I said to him: My son, who brought you up from the water? He said to me: One wave carried me to another, and that other wave to another, until I reached the shore, and a wave cast me up onto dry land.”                                                                                            

    These stories, which show up on the same page of the Gemara, seem to have a lot in common. First, the rabbis use water as the metaphor for crisis. Interesting. Water could be life giving and cleansing, and at the same time – it could also be dangerous with uncertainty. So, although the challenging experiences, the rabbis survived the harsh waves.

Secondly, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Meir survived from drowning at sea. Both were respected rabbis that were cherished by their teachers; Rabban Gamliel, who was Rabbi Akiva’s teacher, and Rabbi Akiva, who was Rabbi Meir’s teacher. And thirdly, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Meir did not resist the waves. There was no panic and no fighting back. They saved their energy to focus on what can be their inner strength to help them survive. Focus on the NOW.

 So what is the difference between these 2 stories?

 At first glance, we will notice that what is different is “a different attitude to the crisis”.

 In Rabbi Akiva’s case, he holds on to a board that fell off the boat. It is said “daf” which in Hebrew refers to a page in the Torah. He is holding on the essence of Torah, which means - faith. And when nodding to each wave that passes he shows gratefulness that he survived just another wave. This is also a source of strength to accept the reality as is. I imagine that when accepting a crisis, it might be easier to deal with it later.

 In Rabbi Meir’s case, who is also holding his position and just allowing the waves to carry him closer and closer to shore, we see how he shows his acceptance to the crisis by “going with the flow”.

 Rabbi Akiva was active, while Rabbi Meir was passive. Hope, faith, surrender… can work if we choose to.

   What I learnt from these 2 stories about myself is that I will not judge or condemn someone who deals with crisis in a different way than I do. I will remember that although there are different ways to deal with crisis, there is also a way to reach out to those who struggle, to show them they are not alone, and demonstrate care and compassion.

What about you? Any other comments you can share?


Monday, August 12, 2019

TB Sanhedrin 97a - Hear the truth even if it hurts? Part 2

Wouldn’t it be great if we could live in a world which is all justfull, peaceful and truthful in the interactions between people? Yes, this is the IDEAL world, but not the ACTUAL world. I think it is fair to say that man’s nature is to lie or to be false — as King David cried out, “all men are liars” (Psalm 116:11), and see the verse “Stay far away from a lie” in Exodus 23:7. In the real world, there are different reasons to lie, and even Halacha allows times when we are permitted to lie, in order to ensure peaceful human interactions. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler (1892-1953 Orthodox rabbi, Talmudic scholar, and Jewish philosopher of the 20th century) also argues that, “Sometimes it is necessary to deviate from the truth, such as when the truth will not help but will cause injury.”

The rabbis were struggling with this ongoing friction. It is expressed in the next Talmudic parable about an imaginary and ideal land called Kushta (the Aramaic word for "truth"). No one ever lies, and as a result, no one dies before their time. When a visitor tells a neighbor that his wife is not home, in order not to embarrass her by stating that she is washing her hair, his two sons die. The Kushtaites expel this person. Even in the IDEAL world a LIE existed.

TB Sanhedrin 97a
Concerning the lack of truth, Rava says: Initially I used to think that there is no truth in the world. [1]
There was one of the Sages, and Rav Tavut is his name, and some say Rav Tavyomei is his name[2] who was so honest that if they were to give him the entire world, he would not deviate from the truth and would not lie.
He (Rav Tavut) related the following story to me (Rava):
One time he came to that place and Kushta was its name, and they would not tell a lie, and no one from there ever died before their time.

Rav Tavut married a woman from among them, and had two sons from her.

One day his wife was sitting and washing the hair on her head. Her neighbor came and knocked on the door.

He thought: It is not proper conduct to tell the neighbor that his wife is bathing.

He said: She is not here. [3]
Since he deviated from the truth his two sons died.

The people residing in that place came before Rav Tavut and said to him: “What is the meaning of this?”[4]
He said to them: “This was the nature of the incident”, and told them what happened.

They said to him: “Please leave our place and do not provoke premature death upon these people”.
This imaginary story is amazing. Here, TRUTH is equated with LIFE and A LIE is equated with DEATH. To state that not telling the truth and death are synonymous is powerful. It raises many questions;

Did Tavut’s children die as a result of divine punishment?

Doesn’t it seem that the punishment exceeds the severity of telling a harmless lie?

Why did Rav Tavut shake the moral and value system of Kushta? Was he ignorant of the norms in Kushta? Or was he aware of it but his wife’s privacy was more important? I am sure that what Rav Tavut did would have been accepted in an ordinary society. But note that the people of Kushta only expelled him from town as he could not commit to their society’s norms and did not belong there. They did not expect him to change.

OR-Perhaps this parable comes to caution us about the impact of a lie and what could happen to people when they tell a lie… That when you lie you put extra stress and worries in your life, that once you tell one lie you will be drawn to tell another… and another? And as a result, people can die before their time? In Kushta no lies, no stress, no premature death.

Kushta is a legend of the ideal world, not the real world. In the real world, the “black and white” thinking is not possible. One cannot simultaneously live in the Land of Truth and also in the Lands of Justice and Peace. The challenge is to know how to operate in the “grey area” and avoiding the stressful impact of not being truthful. It seems like it is actually moral to be in the grey area.

Would you be happy to live in Kushta?

[1] The story begins with the denial of the existence of truth in the world. This is quite a striking claim. Is there really “no truth in the world”? Rashi notes that Rava was lamenting that there is nobody who always speaks the truth and nothing but the truth.
[2] Whose very name means “good” or perhaps “good every day”. This name does not appear anywhere else in the Talmud but here.
[3] Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (1910 – 1995, Israeli Orthodox rabbi, posek, and rosh yeshiva of the Kol Torah yeshiva in Jerusalem) ruled that one may have a member of the household tell an uninvited guest, or caller, on the phone that the “master” is not home – even if he is. One is under no obligation to see or speak to someone just because they would like to speak to you—though depending on the circumstances, it may be the correct thing to do.
[4] But what is reasonable everywhere else is not so in Kushta. The people of Kushta were people who could not tolerate a lie under any circumstances regardless of the reason.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Ketubbot 16b-17b - Hear the truth even if it hurts? Part 1

     In an Esquire article entitled “I Think You’re Fat”, A.J. Jacobs reports on his one month experiment he calls “radical honesty.” He told the truth in situations in which he normally would have lied. He found that people actually do tolerate truth, and that it opened the door to truthful responses from his friends and colleagues.

     But, when his old friend’s wife died, Jacobs could not tell him that he did not care for the poems that he [his friend] sent him for his opinion. Jacobs lied, saying they are very good. Despite his commitment to the truth, he says, “I can’t trash the old man.”

At the end of the month, Jacobs concluded that had he been honest 100 percent of the time, rather than the 90 percent he achieved, he “would have gotten beaten up, fired, and divorced.”

     To be honest, this essay resonates with me. Being an Israeli, I did not know what a “white-lie” is. I was “honest” with people, until I realized (as I became more and more Americanized) that this has to stop. I found that there is more cost than benefit associated with complete honesty. Being honest means at times to humiliate people or hurt their feelings. A ‘white lie’ can establish peace.

     I am still conflicted. Truth and peace reflect opposing ethical values. These are in a constant state of conflict. Is there a way to bridge between the two?

     There are many stories In the Talmud, which illustrate this conflict. I will start with the famous disagreement between the schools (Beit) of Hillel and Shammai. They debated the question: How does one praise a bride on her wedding day, especially if she is not the perfect looking bride? Beit Shammai favors truth, whereas Beit HiIlel prefers peace.

TB Ketubbot 16b-17a 

“The Sages taught: How does one dance before the bride? i.e., what does one recite while dancing at her wedding?
     Beit Shammai say:
One recites praise of the bride as she is, emphasizing her good qualities.
     And Beit Hillel say: One recites: ‘A fair and attractive bride’.
Beit Shammai said to Beit Hillel: In a case where the bride was lame or blind, does one say with regard to her: A fair and attractive bride? But the Torah states: “Keep you from a false matter” (Exodus 23:7).
     Beit Hillel said to Beit Shammai: According to your statement, [with regard to one who acquired an inferior acquisition from the market], should another praise it and enhance its value in his eyes or condemn it and diminish its value in his eyes? You must say that he should praise it and enhance its value in his eyes and refrain from causing him anguish.”

     The details of the wedding etiquette make us think deeper. Perhaps they come to teach us about human nature. We all face these dilemmas. Sometimes we need to be like Hillel and use ‘white lies’ to bring peace, and sometimes we need to be like Shammai, to stay with the truth and honesty. Even though in the end of the story, the rabbis side with Hillel and prefer that one tells a ‘white lie’, it is also clear that 
Shammai is not rejected by our tradition, and is included by the students of Hillel.

     This is about balance and discernment. If we use too many white lies, it will destroy trust between people. If we are too honest all the times, we will not have friends...

Let us ask; Is it always necessary to be a 100 percent honest all the time? 

Is it beneficial? 
Is being considerate without hurting someone is actually more beneficial?

....and oh... who would want Rabbi Shammai at their wedding...?:))

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Sanhedrin 92b - Music and Song in the Key of Life

     Music is important in my life for many reasons. It helps me create certain emotions whether happy, calm, sad, angry, scared, etc. It makes me feel productive while I work, and it facilitates a holly connection to the divine while I meditate. Many will claim that music is also magical and therapeutic, like a medicine. 

     Indeed, science confirms that music stimulates more parts of the brain than any other human function. May it be so, the use of music can be traced as far as the biblical times. We are familiar, for example, with the song Moses sang right after the exodus from Egypt, or the dance song that Miriam did with musical instruments.

     Here is an interesting insight about the life force of music, written by my guest writer, Rabbi Steven J. Rubenstein, BCC, director of chaplaincy services at the Jewish Senior Life, in Rochester, New York

In Ezekiel 37:5-12 we read;

5. Thus said GOD to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you and you shall live again.

6. I will lay sinews upon you, and cover you with flesh, and form skin over you. And I will put breath into you, and you shall live again. And you shall know that I am the LORD!”

     God re-connected the bones of all those individuals whose lifeless bodies were buried in the valley below. God gave them muscles and sinew, and then attached flesh before blowing the breath of life into their inanimate bodies.

     This might reflect a story of hope and the spiritual resurrection of God’s people. But we do not know what happened to these people who were revived. Ezekiel stops there. Were they really ALIVE?

     The sages of the Talmud asked this same question and tried to find answers. In Tractate Sanhedrin 92b we find an interesting commentary;

דתניא ר"א אומר מתים שהחיה יחזקאל עמדו על רגליהם ואמרו שירה ומתו. מה שירה אמרו? ה' ממית בצדק ומחיה ברחמים ר' יהושע אומר שירה זו אמרו (שמואל א ב, ו)

     This is as it is taught in a baraita, that Rabbi Eliezer says: T  he dead that Ezekiel revived stood on their feet and recited song [of praise] to God and died.

“And what song did they recite”? [Asks the Gemara’s narrator]

“The Lord kills with justice and gives life with mercy”.

Rabbi Yehoshua says that it was this song that they recited: “The Lord kills, and gives life; He lowers to the grave and elevates” (I Samuel 2:6).

     Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua speak to the power of God to restore life at will, but the idea of music and singing seems to strengthen the life force within these corpses that were revived. To be REALLY alive, one must sings!

     We are told that music is the universal language of humankind because the notes that we sing go beyond words. Singing is a powerful way in which to convey what is locked in our hearts and our souls as we give our emotions the freedom of expression.

     This Talmudic interpretation of Ezekiel’s dry bone revival made me also think- “What song did they sing? What song gave them the strength to face death a second time, and how might that song help me when it is time for me to face the inevitable when it is time for my soul to cross the threshold into a new dimension of living?”

     I would like to express my gratitude to the music therapists who work for Skilled Nursing Facilities and for Hospice, as well as the volunteer groups that provide music for those who are approaching the end of their lives. I have watched with awe and wonder how they provide residents with the courage and the consolation that they need to travel on into the next realm of living.

     For the caregivers who are affected by music and song and draw strength to care for their loves one and at times, letting go at end of life. It is truly a magical moment of sacredness, when songs carry the themes that relate to the messiness that sometimes accompany our relationships, such as “forgive me, I forgive you, I love you, thank you (gratitude), and good bye...”

     In the parlance of Talmud discussion, here is a suggestive list (not a comprehensive list) of meaningful songs for hope, for letting go and love.

Jim Croce, Time In a Bottle.
Terry Jacks, Seasons in the Sun
Frank Sinatra, I Did It My Way
Sarah Brightman and Andrea Bocelli, [Celine Dion], My Heart Will Go On
Bette Midler, Time to Say Goodbye, Wind Beneath My Wings 

Josh Groban, You Raise Me, Up by

     I am particularly touched by Psalm 150 which includes an orchestra of God’s chorus. The voice of each us when we breathe stands above all. “Kol hanishama tehallel Yah! Every breath we take praises Yah, the God of Breath.” I use this phrase as part of the “vidui” with individuals who are at the end of life, to let them know that every breath is holy.

     Perhaps the one thing that I might have in common with the individuals that were given new life in the vision of Ezekiel, and then experienced a second end-of-life ~ with a song in their ears ~ is the desire to know that I travel this road, not alone but in the presence of angels, God messengers. So, it is not out of place to say that the final song to be heard would have these lyrics in mind, in sleep as well as in end-of life:

May the angel Michael be at my right,
and the angel Gabriel be at my left;
and in front of me the angel Uriel,
and behind me the angel Raphael...
and above my head the Sh'khinah (Divine Presence). 

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Count your [morning] blessings; Sotah 60b

     Those of you who know me, know that I am not a morning person. But from what I see in our Jewish morning rituals it might be that there are many others out there that are not fond of a morning wake up process either. Behold, our sages, with their wisdom, installed special morning prayers, which should help us wake up, move gradually from the sleep state to the wake state, and slowly gain awareness of our bodies, mind and spirit. I specifically refer to Birkot HaShachar, the morning/dawn blessing.[1]

     The Gemarah in Sotah 60b lists blessings that invite the worshippers to focus on the daily gifts that God restored for them. They move us through the natural process of waking up, like opening the eyes, standing up, getting dressed, etc.

Here are the blessings. I left out a number of them from this ritual (I wonder if you, the reader, can guess why):

When one awakens, he recites: 
My God, the soul You have placed within me is pure. 
You formed it within me, You breathed it into me, 
and You guard it while it is within me. 
One day You will take it from me and restore it within me in the time to come. As long as the soul is within me, I thank You, 
O Lord my God and God of my ancestors, Master of all worlds, Lord of all souls. Blessed are You, O Lord, who restores souls to lifeless bodies.

Upon hearing the sound of the rooster, one should recite: Blessed…Who gave the [sekhvi], the rooster (or heart) understanding to distinguish between day and night.

Upon opening his eyes, one should recite: Blessed…Who gives sight to the blind.

Upon sitting up straight, one should recite: Blessed…Who sets captives free. Upon dressing, one should recite: Blessed…Who clothes the naked, as they would sleep unclothed.

Upon standing up straight, one should recite: Blessed…Who raises those bowed down.

Upon descending from one’s bed to the ground, one should recite: Blessed…Who spreads the earth above the waters, in thanksgiving for the creation of solid ground upon which to walk.

Upon walking, one should recite: Blessed…Who makes firm the steps of man.

Upon putting on his shoes, one should recite: Blessed…Who has provided me with all I need, as shoes are a basic necessity.

Upon putting on his belt, one should recite: Blessed…Who girds Israel with strength.

Upon spreading a shawl upon his head, one should recite: Blessed…Who crowns Israel with glory.

What is special about these blessings, which I call a ritual?

     There is a Jewish belief that our sleeping state, symbolically, is a mini-death, טעמא דמותא, a crisis, which we need to overcome on a daily basis. We are to make a smooth transition from the nocturnal state of sleep, to the diurnal state of awakening. From an anthropological perspective, it would be proper to apply Victor Turner’s assertion that rituals we perform help us make transitions in life. Thus, we have our morning blessings recitation, a ritual we perform daily to move on from this Mini-Death of being out of control during our sleep to the awakening and gaining back control. And with this I face few problems which I put forth with questions but no answers;

     1. If it is about waking up and prepare for the day, why don’t we do stretches and deep breathing while we recite these blessings? Some synagogues have the custom to stand [still] while reciting these blessing. Others have the custom to be seated. Either way, when standing or sitting, I think that it is taking away from the personal experiential meaning of these blessings. [I only experienced movement during these blessing at Jewish Renewal services].

     2. Do we actually take the proper time at the synagogue to gradually internalize the meaning of each step? Can we please slow down the pace with each blessing?

     3. Do these blessings set aside those individuals who are blind, deaf, or in a wheel chair? I ask myself over and over again how does it feel for those who cannot see, or hear, or are not able to walk? I wonder what subjective meaning they create for themselves. It is true that commentators did ask similar questions. For example, should one recite hearing the sound of the rooster even if one did not or could not hear the rooster crow, or should a blind person make the blessing of who gives sight to the blind? (The Rambam thinks one should only recite if the corresponding occurrence is relevant to him or her. The Ramban, on the other hand, argues that everyone should say all of the blessings).

     With these questions in mind, I want to stress that one should feel completely free to assign a non-literal meaning of the blessing. Perhaps, the rooster could be the human insight to discern between night and day, good and bad. Or blindness could be the moral or spiritual avoidance we show at times. Or, freedom will mean that we be free from all types of tempting restraints. And lastly, while we recite these Birkot Hashachar we may acknowledge our privilege to have all the things we need. Especially when we know that there are many families who cannot afford to buy appropriate clothing, and that it is our social duty to dress the naked.

     Let us make the mornings happy and productive. Let us count our blessings. Amen!

כי מתער אומר אלהי נשמה שנתת בי טהורה אתה יצרתה בי אתה נפחתה בי ואתה משמרה בקרבי ואתה עתיד ליטלה ממני ולהחזירה בי לעתיד לבא כל זמן שהנשמה בקרבי מודה אני לפניך ה' אלהי ואלהי אבותי רבון כל העולמים אדון כל הנשמות ברוך אתה ה' המחזיר נשמות לפגרים מתים
כי שמע קול תרנגולא לימא ברוך אשר נתן לשכוי בינה להבחין בין יום ובין לילה כי פתח עיניה לימא ברוך פוקח עורים כי תריץ ויתיב לימא ברוך מתיר אסורים כי לביש לימא ברוך מלביש ערומים כי זקיף לימא ברוך זוקף כפופים כי נחית לארעא לימא ברוך רוקע הארץ על המים כי מסגי לימא ברוך המכין מצעדי גבר כי סיים מסאניה לימא ברוך שעשה לי כל צרכי כי אסר המייניה לימא ברוך אוזר ישראל בגבורה כי פריס סודרא על רישיה לימא ברוך עוטר ישראל בתפארה

[1] These Blessing were once said at home immediately upon waking up (the Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer), but later were integrated into the regular morning prayer service out of concern that they were not being said at home.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

The toxic impact of Anger – BT Pesachim 66b

BT Eruvin 65b attributes the teaching of Rabbi Ilai:

A person’s character can be discerned by three things: koso (“his cup”), kiso (“his purse”), and ka’a’so (“his anger”). This refers to our behavior with drinking alcohol, with money, and with anger.

One of the most persistent emotion that we all experience is the feeling of anger. Occasionally we express anger without being aware of it and it shows in the way we talk, the words we use and even with certain body language that is different from the regular state of being relaxed.

But there are also those who express anger in violence. Anger that is expressed with a temper tantrum (yes, I have seen adults), hitting others, or it could be as simple as punching the wall.

I often ask myself whether it would be better to internalize anger and not express it in any way. Would it be better to smile all the time and seem like a nice person and not rage at everyone? I think that this would be unhealthy. Living with a mask is difficult. It takes a lot of energy and builds pressure. On the other hand, if we externally express anger, we equally damage ourselves and others. Articles in the Journal of Medicine and Life and Psychology Today make it clear that the feeling of anger stimulates the stress hormones, specifically corticosteroids and catecholamine, which leads to body metabolic modifications, vascular problems, and heart problems. And that “A strong emotion that is accompanied by arousal of the nervous system, anger produces effects throughout the body. But if you express it, you’re not necessarily better off”.

So, the dilemma remains.

In BT Pesachim 66b we read how the sages viewed anger and its consequences. The following section that is taught by Reish Lakish is related to his personal tragic story. He died as a result of anger.

Reish Lakish was first a robber or gladiator. After meeting with Yochanan he married Yochanan’s sister, became a student of Torah and then his study partner. They both worked well together. One day, they had an halachic discussion about the purity of knives and weapons. Yochanan alluded to Reish Lakish’s life as a bandit, in which a knowledge of weapons was a matter of habit. Shocked and insulted, Reish Lakish responded in anger. They refused to speak to one another or forgive one another. Yochanan died of a broken heart, and Reish Lakish died shortly thereafter from the pain of it all.

Here is the text:

Resh Lakish said: As to every man who becomes angry: if he is a Sage [wise man], his wisdom departs from him; if he is a prophet, his prophecy departs from him”.

Following is the example of Moses, who lost his wisdom due to anger, and forgot the laws that the priest Eleazar taught him; “And Moses became angry at the commanders of the army…” (Numbers 31:14). [And, in this portion of the week, Moses loses it again in the case of the Golden calf].

The example for lost prophecy is Elisha, the disciple of Elijah. He loses his prophetic ability because the anger he had for King Yehoram of Israel. “And Elisha said to the king of Israel, “What have you to do with me?!” (2 Kings 3:13), and it is written: “And now get me a musician.” As the musician played, the hand of Adonai came upon him [the spirit of prophecy] (2 Kings 3:14).

The Gemara continues:

“R. Mani b. Pattish said: Whoever becomes angry, even if greatness has been decreed for him by Heaven, is cast down”.

The Gemara is stressing that anger is not beneficial. It seems to be a universal feeling. Like what the Buddha taught: “You will not be punished for your anger; you will be punished by your anger.” Or like what Mark Twain used to say: “Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.”

What are we to do with it? There is a lot to think about and there are many ways in which one can examine her/his feelings.

Next time we feel anger, ask - is there an appropriate / justifiable time to either expressing it or not?

Next time we feel anger, be mindful of the fact that what we might say we might regret forever.

Or, perhaps, discover the inner forces that trigger our anger. Would it not be wonderful if we could convert all these feeling to positive acceptance of life with lots of forgiving and strength?