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Sunday, May 2, 2010


The end of this tractate is unusual for two reasons. First, while the Mishnah generally is ahistorical, this passage focuses on the losses caused by the successive revolts against Rome. Second, in contrast to other tractates, this tractate does not end with a nechemta, words of consolation or uplift .

David Kraemer notes the Mishnah’s typical silence on the destruction of the Temple, the conversion of Jerusalem to a pagan city, and the Bar Kokhba rebellion.
“Given the historical context in which this document was produced, we should expect to find in it significant responses to the events of the day. Yet, carefully as we might look… there is little in the Mishnah that relates to history at all. But it is not only the silence that startles, Equally surprising is the fact that, despite the destruction of the Temple 130 years before, a major proportion of the Mishnah’s laws is devoted to the Temple…” (Responses to Suffering in Classical Rabbinic Literature, pg. 53)
So the direct mention of the destruction of the Temple and the loss of the sages at the end of this tractate is striking.

The last mishnah of the tractate records the decrees that followed the unsuccessful revolts:
“In the war against Vespasian they decreed against the wearing of wreaths by bridegrooms and against the wedding-drum. In the war against Titus they decreed against the wearing of wreaths by brides and that a one should not teach Greek to his son. In the last war [Bar Kokhba’s] they decreed that a bride should not go out in a palanquin inside the town. But our rabbis permitted it. (B. Sotah 49a)
The very last passage of the tractate (less two sentences) laments the death of 13 notable sages of which these are the last several entries:
“When Ben Azzai died, diligent students came to an end. When Ben Zoma died, exegetes came to an end. When Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel died, the locust came and troubles multiplied. When Rabbi died, troubles were doubled. When Rabbi died, modesty and fear of sin came to an end. (B. Sotah 49b)

These closing passages, which account for one-third of the last chapter, mark over 40 losses of the kind cited above. Institutions were lost, sages were killed, virtuous behavior disappeared while social, ethical and natural troubles increased. One feels the weight of a community in dissolution.

Considering the tractate as a whole, I realize that this conclusion had been foreshadowed at the beginning. In a sense the entire tractate is a metaphor; the ritual of the Sotah, the unfaithful wife, is the story of the unfaithful people. The ordeal of the bitter waters is paralleled by the Roman destruction.

On the first page of the tractate we learn that marriages are rooted in the very fabric of Creation.
“Rabbi Judah said in the name of Rav: Forty days before the creation of a fetus a Divine Voice goes forth and declares that this child is designated for that one. (B. Sotah 2a)
They are holy, as is our own covenant with the Holy One, conceived before Creation and sealed by the Torah.
“Six things preceded the creation of the world. Some were actually created; others merely arose in God’s mind. These are they: Torah and the Throne of Glory were created, the Patriarchs, Israel, the Temple and the Name of the Messiah only arose in God’s thought. (Genesis Rabbah 1:4)
The bond of marriage, like the covenant between Israel and God, is a holy creation that sustains the world.

Rabbi Hisda, however, voices a warning early on. At first it sounds like he is only commenting on family dynamics:
“Rabbi Hisda taught, “Unfaithfulness in the house is like a worm in a sesame plant.” And Rabbi Hisda said, “Temper in the house is like a worm in the sesame plant.”
The continuation of his teaching, particularly when read against the background of the closing passage of the tractate, clearly draws the parallel with the fate of the nation.
“In the beginning, before Israel sinned, the Divine Presence rested on every one of them, as it says, (Deuteronomy 23:15) For the Lord your God walks with you within the camp… Once they sinned, the Divine Presence separated from them, as it says, (Deuteronomy 23:15) Lest He see some unseemly thing in you and turn away from you. (B. Sotah 3a)
The discussion of the Sotah, the unfaithful wife, lends itself to the discussion of the destruction of Jerusalem, the Temple and all that it stood for.

Given the arc of its discussion, what nechemta, consolation, could be offered at the end of this tractate? By all accounts the devastation caused by Rome in response to the Jewish Wars was massive. The Temple would not be rebuilt. The loss of Jerusalem turned out to be permanent, reinforced by the Emperors Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian; and eventually sealed by the ascension of Christianity after the conversion of Constantine. There was little to lift one up after so great a loss.

Similarly they did not have recourse to the great Sages who brought Torah forward into the new, post-Destruction age. Rather they lamented the deaths of the great sages and with each of them the loss of that sage’s particular skill or virtue. They recounted the spreading disaster; the growth of natural, social and ethical troubles.

The last two lines of the tractate sound odd to me given the long list of losses that precede them, but they may be the only possible nechemta. The last sentences come in response to the Mishnah’s assertion that when Rabbi [Judah Ha-Nasi] died, modesty and fear of sin came to an end.
“Rabbi Joseph said to his Tanna [the one who repeated received traditions], “Do not include the word ‘modesty,’ for I am still here.” Rabbi Nahman said to his Tanna, “Do not include the words ‘fear of sin’ for I am still here.”
In response to the tremendous loss and devastation, the decimation of the population and the death of so many Sages comes a modest ani, I am here, which echoes the response of Abraham when God first called; hineni, here I am. Rabbi Joseph and Rabbi Nahman stand firm in the face of devastation. I hear in their response the power of one person to resolve to carry on the tradition. It is a stance of courage, a singular commitment that preserves our tradition.

© 2010 Rabbi Louis Rieser

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