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Thursday, February 19, 2015

“T’Ain't What You Do (It's The Way That You Do It)” / Baba Batra 7b


In 1939 Ella Fitzgerald recorded “T’Ain't What You Do (It's The Way That You Do It)”[1] with Harry James and Jimmie Lunceford. Classic swing. It begins:

When I was a kid about half past three
My ma said "Daughter, come here to me"
Said things may come, and things may go
But this is one thing you ought to know...
Oh 't ain't what you do it's the way that you do it
'T ain't what you do it's the way that you do it
'T ain't what you do it's the way that you do it
That's what gets results

It’s unlikely that Sy Oliver and Trummy Young, who together wrote “T’ Ain’t What You Do…” had Talmud on their minds, but the title fits a sugya that begins on Baba Batra 7b with a mishnah about community assessments.

The mishnah discusses building improvements on communal property of two kinds: a common courtyard adjoining several residences, and a city. This post is concerned with the first of the two. It was common for people to live in homes that opened onto a common courtyard. In order to control who has access to these areas, people would often construct walls, gates, and doors with crossbars. The Talmud’s discussion of this topic has resonance today, as we see gated communities popping up across the landscape of American cities. The context and reasons proffered today are not identical with those of two millennia ago, but neither are they entirely different. An examination of Talmud’s concerns can help us sort out the issues we face in our own society.

Nearly two decades ago, Edward J. Blakely and Mary Gail Snyder (authors of Fortress America: Gated Communities in the United States) wrote in Architecture of Fear that gated and walled communities, once the province of the affluent, are increasingly becoming the preference of the middle class:

It has been over three decades since this nation legally outlawed all forms of discrimination in housing, education, public transportation, and public accommodations. Yet today, we are seeing a new form of discrimination—the gated, walled, private community. Americans are electing to live behind walls with active security mechanisms to prevent intrusion into their private domains. Increasingly, a frightened middle class that moved to escape school integration and to secure appreciating housing values now must move to maintain their economic advantage. The American middle class is forting up…This segregation by income and race has led groups within the hyper-segregated environment to wall and secure their space against the poor, as in Pacific Palisades on the California coast, to protect wealth, or, as in Athens Heights in inner-city South Central Los Angeles, to protect property values[2]

In 1998 Blakely and Snyder noted that gated communities are often built as “security zones” against crime—and not only for the affluent.[3]

This phenomenon is not limited to the United States. Zaire Zenit Dinzey-Flores notes:

Residential gates for the rich have also led to the rise of gates for the poor—in favelas in Brazil, South African townships, peripheral urban migrant settlements in China, and even in some public housing developments in the United States. The built environment sorts and segregates people, physically and symbolically distinguishing communities from one another. Whether one is locked inside or kept outside is determined by one’s race, class, and gender. In both kinds of gated communities, controlled access points restrict movement in and out.[4]

Security housing clusters, and even entire cities, with walls, gates, doors, and locks are hardly a new phenomenon. In the ancient world, cities were walled to stave off invasion. Smaller communities erected barriers to keep out thieves.

But what about the poor who do not live behind gated communities? In the world of the ancient Near East, a world without governmental welfare subsidies, food stamps and SNAP[5], Child Nutrition Programs, and Medicare, the poor were dependent, primarily, on four sources for sustenance: (1) The Ma’aser Oni (the poor tithe mandated by Torah[6]); (2) Pe’ah (the corners of the farmers’ field were left unharvested for the poor to glean[7]); (3) the shemittah (sabbatical) year harvest[8] that was permitted the poor; and (4) tzedakah. The first three are sporadic and not dependable on a daily or even yearly basis. Therefore the mainstay of the poor was always the largess of the local community: the day-to-day handouts that sustained individuals and families who couldn’t make ends meet. And this where we meet a discussion in Talmud about the needs of the poor that teaches us that T’Ain't What You Do (It's The Way That You Do It).”

(I’ve added [A], [B], and [C] as references, to make the discussion that follows easier to…well, follow.)

MISHNAH: [A] [A resident of a courtyard] may be compelled [the Hebrew term can also mean “coerced” or “forced”] to [contribute to] the building of a gatehouse and a door for the courtyard. Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel says: Not all courtyards require a gatehouse. [B] [A resident of a city] may be compelled to contribute to the building of a wall [around the city], a door, and a cross bar. Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel says: Not all cities require a wall. [C] How long must a person reside in a town to be counted as a citizen of the town? Twelve months. If, however, he purchases a house there, he is immediately considered to be a citizen of the town.

Before moving to the Gemara, let’s examine this tripartite mishnah.

[A] The Rabbis tell us that people who live around a shared courtyard can be compelled to contribute money to build a gatehouse and a door to enclose the courtyard. Since the gatehouse and door benefit everyone, the cost is shared among all the residents, even if not all of them desire it.

Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel demurs a bit by pointing out that a gatehouse is not always needed, and therefore it is not always permissible to compel people to contribute to its building. Perhaps his concern is what micro-economists term the Shared-Cost Effect, defined by the Oxford Index (of Oxford University Press) as, “The consequence that a market in which one person chooses the product and another person pays for it will be less price sensitive than a market in which the same person both chooses and pays.” The example given by my economics professor in college hits close to the home of this mishnah: If a group of 15 homeowners living on a private street decide to repave their road, the cost will be borne by them all communally. Each will contribute, say, $10,000, but enjoy the benefit of the $150,000 road. As a result, they are more likely to choose an even more expensive project, since each one pays only a fraction but benefits from the whole. This is especially the case in which a small sub-group makes the decision for the entire group. Could it be that Rabban Shimon has this concept in mind and is concerned lest a small group imposing unnecessary and costly assessments on others because their personal benefit/cost ratio is high?

[B] The mishnah next takes up the question of three improvements to a broader community: a city. In particular, the mishnah has in mind three elements that would ostensibly improve the security of the city: a wall, a door, and a cross bar, which would serve to prevent people from entering against the desire of the residents. In the case of the crossbar, I think we’re talking about something like this:


 The Rabbis tell us that it is permissible to require people to contribute funds for the wall, door and crossbar. Rabban Shimon, however, points out that not every city needs a wall, again suggesting that it is not always permissible to compel people to share the cost.

[C] Finally, the mishnah asks: At what point is a person living in a city considered to be a citizen for the purposes of requiring them to contribute financially to the construction of gatehouses, doors, walls, and crossbars? The answer is 12 months if you rent; immediately if you purchase a house.

We are talking here about a type of taxation, though we might prefer the term “assessment.” The mishnah addresses an assessment akin to those paid by owners of condominiums. The image this conjures up of walls and gates certainly inspires comparisons with gated communities popping up all over the country. If the residents feel that certain improvements are desirable, how is it determined that they are needed and that everyone must share the cost?

The mishnah leaves us wondering about a number of things: Does everyone have to pay for these constructions? What if some people desire the improvements and consider them necessary, but others disagree? Do all people benefit equally from the improvements? If not, does that make a difference when it comes to who pays? Do rich and poor pay equally?

Gemara will begin to answer these questions. In this blog post, we take up the opening section of the Gemara:

GEMARA: This is to say that a gatehouse is an improvement? There was a certain pious man (chasid) with whom Elijah would converse until he made a gatehouse; then Elijah no longer conversed with him. This is not a difficulty [i.e., contradiction]. In the one case, [the gatehouse the Mishnah permits is located] inside [the door of the courtyard]; in the other case [the gatehouse that caused Elijah to stop conversing with the pious man is located] outside [the door of the courtyard]. Or, if you want you may say that [the Mishnah-authorized gatehouse] is [built] outside [the door to the courtyard] and yet there is [still] no difficulty: this [gatehouse that caused Elijah to stop conversing with the pious man] had a door; that [Mishnah-authorized gatehouse] had no door. If you want, you may say that this [gatehouse] has a door and this presents no difficulty: This [gatehouse to which Elijah objected] has a lock; that [gatehouse which the Mishnah authorized] has no lock. If you want, you may say that this one and that one [each[ has a lock and still there is no difficulty: The lock of this [gatehouse to which Elijah objected] is on the inside; the lock of this [gatehouse authorized by the Mishnah] is on the outside.

Gemara will attend to some of the questions we raised, but first it presents its own pressing concern, which we get a whiff off through a short story about a man whom the prophet Elijah visited regularly until the man erected a gatehouse for his courtyard. What is Elijah doing here? Tradition holds that Elijah has a special concern for the poor. I Kings 17:1-16 tells the story of a poor widow who feeds Elijah and in return God insures that her flour and oil containers never run out.

In the world of the Talmud, it’s not unusual for Elijah to return to earth and visit people; he often attended the Study House of R. Yehudah ha-Nasi (BT Baba Metzia 85b). When Rabbah b. Abbahu is unable to find enough time to study because he is struggling to make ends meet, Elijah gives him a financial boost (BT Baba Metzia 114b). The Rabbis tell us Elijah sits among the leprous beggars at the gates of Rome (BT Sanhedrin 98a) awaiting the opportunity to herald the coming of the messiah. Just as the flour and oil never ran out, neither did marvelous stories about Elijah. Later Jewish folklore is replete with stories of Elijah returning to the world from his abode in heaven in order to assist poor people. Isaac Leib Peretz’s “Seven Years of Plenty” is among the most famous and popular.

Elijah’s relationship with the pious man, therefore, does not come as a surprise. But in the next breath, Gemara tells us that after the gatehouse went up, Elijah stopped speaking with him. What is it about the gatehouse that so bothered Elijah he stopped speaking with his friend? And why is Elijah’s opinion in this halakhic matter of such importance? Elijah is not a source of halakhah, but he has the authority of moral suasion.

We will need to deduce Elijah’s objection from the four possible explanations that follow in Gemara because the text does not tell us directly. Let’s take them in turn. Perhaps the structure of the Gemara is easier to see if laid out in this way:

A.   Mishnah permits people to construct gatehouses at the entrance to shared courtyards, but clearly Elijah objects to the gatehouse the pious man constructed. There appears to be a contradiction here between what Mishnah allows and what Elijah approves.

B.    There must be a difference between the style of gatehouse permitted by Mishnah, and the style of gatehouse Elijah finds objectionable. What could the difference be? Mishnah does not say, so Gemara conjectures four possibilities:

#1.  Elijah objects to a gatehouse located insight the door to a courtyard, while Mishnah permits a gatehouse located outside the door to a courtyard.

But if you claim that in both cases the gatehouse was built outside the courtyard door, let’s suppose that the difference is:

#2.  Elijah objects to a gatehouse with a door; Mishnah permits a gatehouse without a door.

But if you claim that in both cases the gatehouse had a door, let’s suppose the difference is:

#3.  Elijah objects to a door that locks; Mishnah permits a door that does not lock.

But if you claim that in both cases the door locked, perhaps the difference is:

#4.  Elijah objects to door that could only be opened from the inside; Mishnah permits a door that can be opened from the outside (as well).

Gemara is concerned about people outside the courtyard being able to gain access to the people inside the courtyard. It is troubled by people walling themselves off from the poor who might be seeking much-needed tzedakah such that they cannot hear them. It would seem that it’s not what you do, but how you do it. Building a gatehouse is not, in and of itself, a problem, but where you locate it makes a world of difference. If the gatehouse is inside the door of the courtyard, it presents a double barrier between a poor person in need of funds and the people living inside the courtyard. When the poor person calls out, there is a good chance he might not be heard through two barriers.

But—perhaps, Gemara reasons, the pious man in the story did build the gatehouse inside the door of the courtyard. What did Elijah object to in this case? Gemara offers a second alternative: Perhaps the problem Elijah saw was that the pious man built a gatehouse that itself had a door, which a poor person might be hesitant or afraid to open, and therefore could not gain access to the courtyard and the people in it. In this scenario, we are to understand that the Mishnah intends a gatehouse without a door.

But—if you claim that both gatehouses had a door, which implies that Mishnah permits a gatehouse to have a door, then what is the difference between the two cases? Gemara offers a third alternative: Perhaps the gatehouse door built by the pious man has a lock, preventing a poor person from entering and seeking help, while the gatehouse permitted by the Mishnah does not have a lock and therefore allows the poor access to the courtyard.

But—you will claim that both the gatehouse constructed by the pious man and the gatehouse which Mishnah permits have locks on the door, Gemara offers a fourth and final alternative: The pious man designed his gatehouse so that the lock opens only from the inside of the courtyard, thus barring people outside from entering; the gatehouse authorized by the Mishnah would locate the lock on the outside, so a poor person could open it and enter.

If your head is not yet spinning from all these possibilities, let’s return to the underlying concern, as illustrated by Elijah’s disassociation with the pious man. It is deemed of great importance that a poor person be able to gain entrance to the courtyard, the place he will find people who might offer him alms. He needs assistance, and they need to fulfill their obligation of tzedakah. Win-win. The primary message I hear in this short passage of Gemara is that there is no one element that prevents the mitzvah of tzedakah from happening: not the gatehouse, nor the door, nor the lock. It is how they are arranged that spells the difference between what Mishnah authorizes and what Elijah disapproves. We need to take care how we do things and what the end result is.

This message is reinforced by the fact that our story tells us that Elijah’s erstwhile confederate is a chasid (“pious person”). If our chasid built a gatehouse in such a way that Elijah refused to converse with him and severed their connection, is he truly a chasid? Pious people don’t do impious things, do they? The passage serves as a warning to us: It’s far too easy to rely on “it’s permitted” (the letter of the law) without considering the ramifications and consequences of what we are doing.

God instructs Moses: Do what is right and good (ha-yashar v’ha-tov) in the sight of Adonai… (Deuteronomy 6:18). What purpose does this verse serve, given that Torah has specified literally hundreds of mitzvot for Moses and the Israelites to follow? Both Rashi and Nachmanides explain that this verse tells us that merely doing what is required is insufficient; we are to live in such a way that we act lifnim mishurat ha-din (“beyond the letter of the law”). This means that we are obligated to consider the consequences of what we do and weight that along with the purpose of the mitzvot. The chasid did what Mishnah permits, but not how Mishnah intended it.

I once heard a story told of Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik: A poor man approached him the day before Pesach and asked if it were permissible to use milk, rather than wine, for the Four Cups at the Seder. Rabbi Soloveitchik reached into his picket and gave the man five rubles. “So much?” his wife asked. “Surely one ruble is enough to buy wine.” “Yes,” he replied, “that is true. But if this man feels he needs to use wine because he cannot afford milk, he cannot afford proper food for the seder either, so I gave him enough to buy the food and wine he needs.” According to the mitzvah of tzedakah, one ruble would have sufficed, but Rabbi Soloveitchik had the insight to understand that what was needed was more.

Ultimately, halakhah will not insure that we do the right thing; only we can do that.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


[2] Blakely, Edward J., and Mary Gail Snyder. “Divided We Fall: Gated and Walled
Communities in the United States.” Architecture of Fear. Nan Ellin, ed. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1997.
[3] “They may be center city or suburban, in rich or poor areas, but gates are primarily a protection from some threat, real or perceived… They are looking to protect themselves from crime and from traffic, wanting their homes secure, their streets safe to walk on, their children protected from speeding cars and predators. Sometimes unwilling, sometimes unable, to flee to the higher ground of the suburbs, they shore up in place.”
Blakely, E.J., and M.G. Snyder. (1998). "Separate places: Crime and security in gated
communities." In: M. Felson and R.B. Peiser (eds.), Reducing crime through real estate
development and management, pp. 53-70. Washington, D.C.: Urban Land Institute.
[4] Zaire Zenit Dinzey-Flores, “Gated Communities for the Rich and the Poor,” Contexts (Fall 2013). The full article can be read at:
http://contexts.org/articles/gated-communities-for-the-rich-and-the-poor/.
[5] The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program serves low-income individuals and families.
[6] Deuteronomy 14:28 mandates the ma’aser oni (tithe for the poor): “At the end of three years you shall bring forth all the tithe of your produce in that year, and shall lay it up inside your gates; And the Levite, because he has no part nor inheritance with you, and the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow, who are inside your gates, shall come, and shall eat and be satisfied; that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hand which you do.” (See also Deuteronomy 26:12.) The ma’aser oni was also known as the “third tithe” and amounted to 1/10 of produce grown in the third and sixth years of the sabbatical seven-year cycle. While certainly a help to the poor, this was hardly sufficient to sustain them, and needless to say, Deuteronomy 15:4 (“There should be no poor among you, for Adonai your God will bless you in the land that God is giving you for an inheritance to possess”) had not been fulfilled by 135 C.E. when there was no longer a means for collecting the ma’aser oni. The Gemara is written in Babylonia between the 2nd and 6th centuries; there is no longer a system for collecting and distributing agricultural tithes.
[7] "When you [plural] reap the harvest of your land, you [singular] shall not reap all the way to the corner of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest.  You shall not pick your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger; I the Lord am your God.  You shall not steal; you shall not deal deceitfully or falsely with one another." (Leviticus 19:9-11)
[8] “Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but in the seventh you shall let it rest and lie fallow. Let the needy among your people eat of it and what they leave let the wild beasts eat. You shall do the same with your vineyards and your olive groves.” (Exodus 23:10-11)

Sunday, January 11, 2015

מפני דרקי שלום “For the Sake of Peace” / BT Gittin 60

This blog has been too long quiescent. It feels good to revive it.

After exploring the first chapter of Masechet Gittinwhich recounts graphically the disaster of the Destruction of the Second Temple and the Bar Kochba rebellionwe find ourselves at the other end of that bloody tunnel in a new mishnah (which is why I used the term sloggingup above, whose broad headline, appropriately enough, is מפני דרקי שלום Mipnei Darkei Shalom (for the sake of peace).

The primary enterprise of the Rabbis is to create Judaism on the foundation of Scripture and out of the ashes of the Second Temple. They sought to shape a tradition that, itself, would generate a culture that transcends time and place. What is required to accomplish this modest goal? It could not depend upon the Temple service, which came to a grinding halt when the Babylonians destroyed the Temple in 70 C.E. It could not be tied exclusively to the Land of Israel, because Jews had been widely dispersed throughout the Roman empire and beyond by the time the Rabbis are engaged in this enterprise. It must preserve memories of the peoples beginnings (hence the centrality of the story of the Exodus in both prayer and the festival cycle) and nurture a sense of ultimate purpose: redemption. It must provide distinctive identity, a strong sense of community, and foster a will to remain part of a people, even when times are difficult and even under conditions of duress and persecution. Above all, it must nurture hope. Thats not too tall an order, is it? How does one craft rules, laws, and customs to shape a new set of religious practices, and sustain and nurture a traumatized people? And not just for the present, but also for a future we cannot foresee? We find the Rabbis engaged in this endeavor on many occasions, including here at end of Gittin chapter 5, which is devoted to מפני דרקי שלום Mipnei Darkei Shalom (for the sake of peace).

Mishnah Gittin 5:8 enumerates a long list of communal customs and structures implemented but the Rabbis for the purpose of minimizing quarreling and rancor within a local community. In other words, the expressed intent of these rules is to foster harmony. In this blogpost, I will discuss the first ruleconcerning the order of people invited (or eligible) to read Torah in the synagogue. I will relegate considerable background material that you might find helpful to footnotes.

Mishnah Gittin 5:8 (59a) begins:    
אלו דברים אמרו מפני דרקי שלום: כהן קורא ראשון ואחריו לוי ואחריו ישראל מפני דרכי שלום.
Mishnah: These things they said (established) for the sake of peace: A kohen [one descended from a priestly family] reads from the Torah first, and after him a levi [from the levitical tribe], and after him an Israelite, for the sake of peace.

If Torah had ordained a regular public reading of Torah that the Tannaim knew and practiced in the first two centuries of the Common Era, there would be no point to telling us the obvious.[1] Although we dont know the details of how and when Torah was read in the Mishnaic period[2], it was clearly a staple of Jewish life. Mishnah Gittin 5:8 assumes a regular Torah reading and asks how the honor of the actual reading is distributed. At the time the Mishnah was set down, those who read also recited the blessing over the Torah. In time, the functions of reading and blessing were separated because not everyone possessed the skills to read and chant Torah, and so the Mishnah discussion, while ostensibly about reading Torah, pertains to the distribution of aliyot, the honor of blessing the Torah. This is of great interest today because the Torah reading lies at the heart of our communal ritual life: Torah is read four times each week (Monday, Thursday, Shabbat morning and afternoon), as well as on chagim, Rosh Chodesh, fast days, and minor festivals. What is more, there are three aliyot every Monday and Thursday; four on Rosh Chodesh; five on festivals (four on each of the intermediary days); six on Yom Kippur; and seven every shabbat. While it would seem that there are many opportunities to read, in a large community (or even a not-so-large community) not everyone will be invited for an aliyah and thereby honored. Its easy to imagine people hoping to be invited for an aliyah and forming resentments about who is invited to read and in what order, and raising objections that so-and-so doesnt deserve the aliyah, and even worse. (People do not always behave at their best, even in shul.)

The Mishnah reserves the first slot for a kohen (priest) and the second for a levi (levite) each time Torah is read. The first two slots are positions of prominence, according the kohanim (priests) and leviim (levites) special honor. Why are these aliyot reserved for kohanim and leviim at all? In a society whose leadersespecially in the synagogue and bet midrash (study house)are rabbis accredited by their learning and intellect, why not reserve the first aliyah or two for rabbis?

In a post-70 C.E. world, with the Temple in ruins and not likely to be rebuilt in the foreseeable future, the Rabbis sought to honor and preserve the structure of Jewish society and concretize the memory of the Temple in the evolving Jewish practice of their time: the order of aliyot-honors recalls the days of the Temple and the prominence of the priests. For the Rabbis, the sacrificial service has been replaced by the prayer service. It is probably unthinkable to them that the priests and levites, whose roles and duties in the Temple were central to its operation, should not be elevated in some symbolic way in the Synagogue.

Gemara explains that the first aliyah is reserved for a kohen because, as R. Matnah points out, Torah says, Moses wrote down the Torah and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the Ark of the Lords covenant, and to all the elders of Israel (Deuteronomy 31:9). R. Yitzhak Nafcha offers another excellent prooftext: The priests, sons of Levi, shall come forward; for the Lord your God has chosen them to minister to Him and to pronounce blessing in the name of the Lord(Deuteronomy 21:5). Since we already know the priests to be from the levitical tribe, R. Yitzhak Nafcha points out, the verse must be alluding to the proper order of disseminating aliyot: kohen first; levi second. R. Chiya bar Abba offers a third prooftext: And you shall sanctify [the priest](Leviticus 21:8); here, the remainder of the verse that Gemara does not quote is important: because he offers the food of your God; they shall be holy to you, for I the Lord who sanctify you am holy. The priests role in the Temple worship is highlighted in this verse. When the Temple stood, Israel offered sacrifices to God. Now that the Temple is destroyed, Israel offers prayers to God. The climax of the prayer service is the reading of Torah. Surely the priests should have a prominent role.

Three beautiful prooftexts, yet it is not entirely clear whether the Rabbis are arguing that the kohens claim to the first aliyah is mi dOraita (i.e. explicit in Torah and therefore ordained by God) or whether the verses cited serve only as asmachta (to buttress a ruling that is mi drabbanan (on rabbinic authority, but not toraitic). I suspect that the Rabbis understood their decision to be on their own authority and established the rule to fix a visible place of communal honor for kohanim and leviim whose status was left dangling after the Destruction.

Why, then, couch this rule as being מפני דרקי שלום (for the sake of peace), which presumes a need to limit squabbling and dissent concerning who should receive aliyot? That in itself suggests that the rule is mi dRabbanan. The Rabbis are asserting themselves into the leadership void left by the Destruction and exert authority over the community. In the Temple, sacrifices to God were mediated by the priests; in the study house, and by extension in the synagogue, Gods will for the people was mediated by the Rabbis[3]. Establishing a special, honored role for kohanim and leviim who were suffering genuine loss of communal status and no longer had a tangible role to play in public life could only help. That this role was deeply meaningful, centered as it was on the communal Torah reading, but also largely ceremonial, worked to the Rabbisadvantage, as well. Perhaps the Rabbis sought to propitiate and mollify the kohanim at a time when there was still hope that a third Temple would be built, even if there was no realistic expectation of that happening. The kohanim, who had been disenfranchised by the Destruction and superseded by the Rabbis, now had a fixed place of honor and function in the community. By reserving the first two aliyot for the priests and levites, the Rabbis set in concrete their roles in the community: figureheads without genuine authority.

The Gemara discussion that follows, concerning what to do in a situation when no kohen or levi is present when the Torah is read, then comes as no surprise. The situations proposed happen today as well. If there is no kohen present, do we simply skip the kohen aliyah? Do we substitute a levi for a kohen? Can two kohanim read consecutively? Can two leviim read back-to-back? The Gemara decides by a simple and respectful criterion: we avoid doing anything that would permit or encourage others to question the credentials of kohanim and leviim. For example, R. Yochanan reasons that a kohen should not read immediately following another kohen because people might interpret this to mean that the bona fides of the first kohen had been discredited. By the same logic, if two leviim read in succession people might presume one of them is not truly a levi, but not know which one was inauthentic. As a result, both would be discredited. The Sages sought to insure that those of levitical lineage would neither suffer embarrassment nor be the cause of argument in the synagogue. In a sense, this rule helped smooth the on-going social and cultural transition from Second Temple Judaism to Synagogue-and-Study-House-based Judaism.

This makes the next section of Gemara particularly interesting. The conversation segues to two queries posed to R. Chelbo by the people of the Galilee region. Both questions arise from the mishnahs designations for the first two aliyot.[4] The first question posed by the Galileans is: Who reads next after the kohen and levi? Strange question, given that the mishnah already answered it: an Israelite (i.e., any other Jew). I suppose, therefore, the question is: may the remaining aliyot be given to just any Jews, and in any order? By now, you surely realize that the answer is no, because otherwise the question would not have been raised.

R. Yitzhak Nafcha delineates five categories of community members for the remaining five aliyot:
1.     Torah scholars who are official community leaders.
2.     Torah scholars who are qualified to be official community leaders.
3.     Sons of Torah scholars whose father are official community leaders.
4.     Administrative leaders of the synagogue.
5.     Anyone else.

According to R Yitzhak Nafcha, the next two aliyot are reserved for rabbis and the one after that for their sons (a pinch of nepotism here?). In all, six of the seven aliyot on shabbat are reserved for people with particular status and position, including two for the levitical tribeand three for the rabbis and their families. Only one aliyah is open to the Common Man.[5] R. Yitzhak Nafchas stratagem takes the hierarchy imposed by the Mishnah much farther. Given that it is customary today to give aliyot to those about to be married, one who is becoming bar/bat mitzvah, parents of a newborn, and people observing yahrzeit, it becomes clear that were R. Yitzhak Nafchas game plan put into practice, it would be nearly impossible to meet both the requirements of the Gemara and the needs of a congregation. An ordinary Israelite (thats most of us) would rarely be honored with an aliyah, but some people would be given aliyot frequently[6]. The result would be anger, competition, arguments and resentmenta situation very far from the peace and goodwill the Mishnah set out to assure. Perhaps R. Nafchahs scheme is included because it speaks to the social hierarchy the Rabbis seek to establish, envisioning themselves at the top of the ladder, the leaders and caretakers of a community emerging from Destruction and hunkering down for a long-anticipated future in the Dispersion.

Placing this rule under the banner of מפני דרקי שלום (for the sake of peace) raises a question: If narrowing the possibilities by imposing a hierarchical order and designating certain aliyot for certain groups of people reduces the likelihood of arguments, resentments, and squabbling, then would an extreme narrowing serve to foster more peace, or inspire more resentment? How do we balance that with the goal of trying to retain a tangible memory of the Temple service within the prayer service? Perhaps מפני דרקי שלום (for the sake of peace) would be better served by more flexibility than R. Yitzhak Nafchas game plan would allow.

The Rabbis were in the business of shaping culture through halakhah (Jewish law) and minhag (custom). They crafted practices and structures in an attempt to preserve memory, promote values, publicize mission, and protect the community from disintegrating influences and forces from within and from without. Thats a very tall order and, while worthy, not every decision they made continues to serve their purposes in other times and venues. From the vantage point of the 21st century, we can recognize that it is nothing short of remarkable how well they did. But standing in the 21st century, there are times when we can also recognize that their underlying goals might be better served by adjusting the structures they set down.


[1] Torah itself, tells us that God specifically inscribed the stone tablets and gave them to Moses to instruct the Israelites (Exodus 24:12). Deuteronomy tells us that Moses wrote down the Torah and passed it along to the priests and elders, instructing them as follows:
מִקֵּץ שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים, בְּמֹעֵד שְׁנַת הַשְּׁמִטָּה--בְּחַג הַסֻּכּוֹת.  יא בְּבוֹא כָל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֵרָאוֹת אֶת-פְּנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, בַּמָּקוֹם, אֲשֶׁר יִבְחָר:  תִּקְרָא אֶת-הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת, נֶגֶד כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל--בְּאָזְנֵיהֶם.  יב הַקְהֵל אֶת-הָעָם, הָאֲנָשִׁים וְהַנָּשִׁים וְהַטַּף, וְגֵרְךָ, אֲשֶׁר בִּשְׁעָרֶיךָ--לְמַעַן יִשְׁמְעוּ וּלְמַעַן יִלְמְדוּ, וְיָרְאוּ אֶת-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, וְשָׁמְרוּ לַעֲשׂוֹת, אֶת-כָּל-דִּבְרֵי הַתּוֹרָה הַזֹּאת.
Every seventh year, the sabbatical year of remission, during Sukkot, when all Israel comes to appear before Adonai your God in the place that [God] will choose, you shall read this Torah aloud in the present of all Israel. Gather the peoplemen, women, children, and the strangers in your communitiesthat they may hear and thereby learn to revere the Adonai your God and observe faithfully every word of this Torah. (Deuteronomy 31:1-12)

Clearly, the tradition of reading Torah publicly is an ancient one. But every seven years is a far cry from every Monday, Thursday, and Shabbat, as well as new moons and festivals. Joshua is said to have read the the entirety of Sefer ha-Torah”—every word that Moses had taughtto the assembled people of Israel when they entered the Land after the conquest of Ai (Joshua 8:34-35). And the Book of Nehemiah affords us the first glimpse of how a public reading was choreographed in the ancient world when Ezra the Scribe read and translated the Torah to those who returned from exile in Babylonia at the Water Gate on Rosh Hashanah (Nehemiah ch. 8). The Mishnah describes public readings connected with the Temple service, both for the High Priest (M Sotah 7:7 and M Yoma 7:1-3) and for the king (M Sotah 7:8). The latter appears to be based on the Deuteronomy and Nehemiah traditions cited above.

By the First Century, however, there were synagogues in which Torah and Prophets were read on shabbatot and chagim (festivals). Isomer Elbogen writes: The reading of the Torah and the Prophets is one of the most ancient liturgical institutions; it is very likely that the reading of Scripture was the occasion for the first communal assemblies for the purpose of prayer. Elbogen is suggesting that gatherings to read Torah gave rise to prayer, rather than Torah readings being incorporated into prayer gatherings. Like the prayer service, the Torah reading has undergone change; this development occurred almost completely outside the sources available to us, and we can do no more than make conjectures about it.Elbogen further suggests that that the earliest practice may have entailed reading Torah only on special shabbatot and chagim, and the weekly cycle of shabbat reading evolved from this. In any case, market days (Monday and Thursday) and shabbat, occasions that attracted large gatherings, were natural times for public reading and teaching.
[2] How much Scripture did the people read? And on what sort of schedule? The Babylonian Talmud is a much later witness, coming several centuries after the Destruction in 70 C.E.; it tells us that the Jews of Eretz Yisrael completed the reading of the entire Torah in three years, which is generally understood as the original triennial cycle (BT Megillah 29b). Supporting this is a geonic work cited by Joseph Heinemann cited in “The Triennial Lectionary Cycle,” JJS 19 (1968), p. 42 that states that the Jews of Eretz Yisrael celebrated Simchat Torah—and thus the completion of one cycle of reading—every 3.5 years.
[3] A point emphasized rather unambiguously in the story of the vote concerning the oven of Achnai in BT Baba Metzia 59b.
[4] Gemara records that R. Chelbo did not, himself, know the answer to either question, and therefore asked R. Yitzhak Nafcha. Herein lies a wonderful example for us: Its fine to admit we dont know something and ask someone who does; it appears that Gemara is going out of its way to provide us with this example, because there are two such questions that R. Chelbo passed along to his colleague.
[5] I don’t intend to address the issue of women in this blogpost; that is a separate and complex topic.
[6] Which, in fact, happens in many communities. If the goal is to “spread the wealth” and be as inclusive as possible, the structure may work against the goal in some communities.