Thursday, October 29, 2009

The "spirit" of jealousy (Sotah 3b)

Rabbi Rieser wrote, “The very idea of the Sotah ritual is repugnant.” In this posting, I want to address the Sotah ritual itself and a passage in the gemara that questions what kind of “spirit” inspires a husband to feel the sort of jealousy that sets this all in motion.

The ninth commandment forbids coveting. It’s unusual for Torah to command or prohibit an emotion (how is it even possible?) yet jealousy is so insidious that Torah makes the effort. How do we dissipate a toxic emotion when there is a risk it can boil over into violence?

People in the ancient world did not enjoy the benefits of police, an extensive court system, legal restraining orders, locking doors, and home alarm systems. If a man became overcome with jealousy and believed his wife to be involved in an illicit affair, he could be a real danger to her. I googled “jealous husband kills wife” and found an alarming number of articles chronicling horrific examples – and in some cases there were restraining orders. Anger given over to rage is perilous, and the anger of presumed betrayal in an intimate relationship can explode and become homicidal.

What does one do with a man whose jealousy is boiling over yet there is no evidence that his suspicions are valid? I would contend that the ritual of the Sotah is a valve for releasing pent-up jealous rage, hopefully before violence ensues.
…If any man’s wife has gone astray and broken faith with him in that a man has had carnal relations with her unbeknown to her husband, and she keeps secret the fact that she has defiled herself without being forced, and there is no witness against her – but a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about the wife who has defiled herself; or if a fit of jealousy comes over one and he is wrought up about his wife although she has not defiled herself – the man shall bring his wife to the priest… (Numbers 5:11-15)
The ordeal of the Sotah involves elements that are unquestionably demeaning to the woman: her dress, her hair, the concoction she must drink, the whole manner of the ritual. With a defined course of action and priests overseeing the entire ritual, which is held in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) or Mikdash (Temple), there are several layers of control in place so that the jealous husband is less likely to attack his wife.

Most importantly, the “decision” is out of all human hands; it is in God’s hands alone and thus cannot be questioned once rendered. The woman drinks a potion containing a bit of ink, some dust, and water. Perhaps not nutritious, but unlikely to cause serious harm. (Have you heard the saying, “You have to eat a peck of dirt in your life”?) The horrific consequence of drinking the potion if guilty of adultery – that her genitals will fall out – is unlikely to occur. Rather, the ritual would most likely exonerate the woman. Moreover, if she had indeed been engaged in an adulterous affair, and if she were pregnant by her lover, the ritual covered that exigency, too. The Sotah who underwent the ritual and survived was rewarded with fertility – a special gift of recompense from God. This child would be considered her husband’s – no question of paternity. This precludes branding an innocent child a mamzer.

The entire ordeal is public, and this too is important. Everyone now knows that the husband’s jealousy overcame him and that he put his innocent wife through a horrendous ordeal. This alone could serve as a check on future emotional outbursts and behavior. I would imagine that a husband who put his wife through such an ordeal only to see her both exonerated and pregnant would be a man with a fair stock of guilt to work off and a long road to walk to make up to his wife what he had put her through. Perhaps this was the best-case scenario in a world without police, locks, and marriage counselors, for promoting reconciliation. Far from perfect, but possibly effective.

The Rabbi, interpret kin’a as “warning” rather than the pshat, “jealous fit.” Jealousy can lead to chaos and violence; a warning might lead to repentance and reconciliation. But on what basis is a warning issued? Somebody must have seen something; there must be a witness. Yet Torah says that there were no witnesses. While the simple meaning of the text is inescapable, picturing the reality of the situation is far more difficult for the Rabbis as it is for us.

The Rabbis wonder about the “spirit of jealousy” that overcomes the husband. The word ruach generally has positive connotations, but not always:
A tanna of the academy of R. Yishmael taught: A man does not warn his wife unless a spirit enters him, as it is said: And the spirit of jealousy came upon him and he became jealous of his wife. What is the meaning [of the word] “spirit?” The Rabbis identify it as a spirit of impurity, but R. Ashi says it is a spirit of purity. It is logical accordingly to the view of the one who declares that it is a spirit of purity, because it was taught (in a baraita): and he became jealous of his wife lends the husband permission. These are the words of R. Ishmael. But R. Akiba says it is an obligation. It is well if you say that it means a spirit of purity, then everything is right; but if you say that it means a spirit of impurity, [can there be] permission or an obligation for a man to bring a spirit of impurity into himself?
Rashi tells us that the source of the “spirit of impurity” is satan who incites the husband to accuse his wife. The spirit of purity inspires a similar warning, but with the intent of insuring her decency. Did the Rabbis see these “spirits” as from without (good angels and satan) or from within (the yetzer tov/good inclination and the yetzer ra/evil inclination)?

R. Ashi of the academy of R. Yishmael, holding that it is a good spirit that inspires the husband, tells us that the husband thereby has permission to warn his wife, but not an obligation. R. Akiba, however, holds that the husband is obligated to warn the wife. The Rabbis point out that if the impetus could come from an impure spirit, then the man ought not have permission, let alone be obligated by it. R. Akiba, for whom no word is extraneous, will eventually argue (on 3b) that the double use of the root kuf-nun-aleph in Num. 5:14 makes the act of warning an imperative.

It appears that the Rabbis would like to ascribe to the man good motives, but leave open the possibility that he was truly overcome by a “fit of jealousy.” Yet, having defined kin’a as “warning” in order to place a layer of control (safety) on the process, they feel constrained to presume it was a spirit of purity. The hole dug by jealousy and even sincere attempts to curtail its consequences grows deeper and deeper, messier and messier. No wonder we have the ninth commandment!

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, October 25, 2009


Let’s admit it from the outset. The very idea of the Sotah ritual is repugnant. Here is the summary from The JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, commentary by Jacob Milgrom, 2004:
An irate husband suspects that his wife has been unfaithful. Having no proof, his only recourse is to bring her to the sanctuary where she undergoes an ordeal. The priest makes her drink a potion consisting of sacred water to which dust from the sanctuary floor and a parchment containing a curse have been added. The curse spells out the consequences. If she is guilty, her genital area will distend and she will no longer be able to conceive. If, however, the water has no effect on her, she is declared innocent and she will be blessed with seed.
The Torah text (Numbers 5:11-31) is yet more graphic. I cannot imagine it.

It is hard for me to envision the moment when the Sotah ritual is invoked. The couple has a married life together. The husband could simply ask for a divorce – the laws of divorce are reasonably simple. But this husband is caught between a desire to preserve the marriage (presumably) and a fear or suspicion that his wife has been unfaithful. What must he be feeling toward her to make her drink these “bitter waters” that will cause her genitals to fall out if she is guilty? What must she think of him, especially if she is innocent? How could they possibly reconcile? But I am getting ahead of myself.

As we begin our study of this tractate I am aware that the sages had choices in how to present this material. In the next tractate – Gittin, on divorce – the sages jump right in to the details. The opening mishnah is concerned with a Get (bill of divorce) brought from overseas and the discussion immediately asks what makes such a document valid or invalid. When the Jerusalem Talmud opens our tractate they set the stage from the first words:
One should not make such accusations of jealousy toward her jokingly, or casually, or in a light moment, or in the midst of harsh arguments, but with solemn conversation. (Y. Sotah 1:1)
The sages who compiled the Yerushalmi understood that the issue is serious and they set the tone for the subsequent discussions from the first. That is exactly what I would have expected, but in the Babylonian Talmud the sages choose a different approach.

About half way down the first page of the tractate we find a discourse on marriage. The sages acknowledge that marriage is a mysterious and difficult proposition, perhaps best left to One with Divine powers. Rabbi Bar Bar Hannah said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: Making matches is as difficult as splitting the Red Sea. Finding the right match, he suggests, is miraculous. It is no surprise that marriage requires constant work to keep the two partners in balance. A different approach is offered: 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. Truly, these marriages are made in heaven. The Gemara places this teaching in opposition to the statement of Rabbi Bar Bar Hannah, as if to say marriages aren’t so hard since they are Divinely decreed even before birth. Hah! No one I know pretends that it comes so easily. I believe it adds to the mystery. Whether it is God splitting the Red Sea or making Divine decrees before we are conscious, finding your bashert (intended) is hard.

In the wedding blessings we affirm that this couple is indeed unique in all the world. We ask the Holy Blessing One to “grant perfect joy to these loving companions” as if they were the first humans in the Garden of Eden. The wedding blessings depict an idyllic scene; just these two lovers enthralled in a moment of perfection. Implicitly the wedding ceremony suggests that God brought this man and woman together, just as Adam and Eve were Divinely paired.

But why should the sages be reminding us of the good times now, at this moment, when the suspicious husband is about to go public with his accusations? This moment seems to be as far from Eden as one could be.

I believe the sages take note of the husband’s decision not to pursue divorce. It could be that he doesn’t pursue divorce out of anger. He is so sure of his claim that he wants to exact a terrible price from his wife by making her undergo this cruel ordeal and suffer the consequences. But it could also be that the husband is truly unsure. Caught between his desire for his wife and his desire for certainty regarding her behavior, he opts for this middle ground. The sages seem to view the glass as half full – his desire for her offers some hope of preserving their marriage.

The sages recognize we are at a fragile crossroads. The couple who once stood under a huppa, marriage canopy, as if they were the blessed couple in the heart of Eden now stands at the brink of disaster. Before entering into the sad, but necessary deliberation about the legal processes of the Sotah ritual they pause to remind themselves and us of the holy bond with which we are tampering.

What do the sages gain by this approach? It is, I believe, too easy to become a technocrat, caught up in the details. One could follow all of the procedures – cross all the t’s and dot all the I’s -- and forget about the two people at the heart of matter. A marriage hangs in the balance, and if you do not honor the holy bond that once drew this man and this woman together it will snap. The sages focus first on the holiness of the marriage as a counterweight to the technical details. As long as you recall the love that once drew these two together you will not act too rashly to at this tense moment. Perhaps love might stir once again.

© Rabbi Louis Rieser

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Oh the web that jealousy weaves! (Sotah 2b)

We have begun studying masechet Sotah, which concerns the ordeal imposed by a husband on his wife when he suspects her of having committed adultery but lacks evidence or witnesses. It is described in graphic detail in Numbers 5:11-31. (You may find this article on the subject interesting and helpful.)

This is uncomfortable material for a great many people. Our Rabbis are uncomfortable with it, as well, but seemingly for different reasons than we might have.

For me, a preliminary question is: how did we get to this dangerous juncture in the marital relationship? Torah is explicit: there are no witnesses to testify that the wife has committed adultery but nonetheless the husband is overcome by a fit of jealousy and accuses her of unfaithfulness. Jealousy is both a deeply human emotion (I cannot imagine any other species experiencing jealousy) and also a highly dangerous and destructive emotion.

In the opening misnah, the Rabbis attempt to impose a legal structure on the situation to place limits on the husband’s behavior and perhaps contain the potential volcanic eruption of his emotions. Torah tells us that if the man has a fit of jealous rage (ruach kin’ah v’kinei et ishto – Num. 5:14) he brings her to a priest to undergo the ordeal. The Rabbis immediately read kin’ah v’kinei to mean that he issues her a formal warning, and they proceed to discuss how many witnesses are required to be present to attest to the warning.
If one warns his wife [not to associate with a particular man]. R. Eliezer says: he warns her on the testimony of two witnesses, and he makes her drink [the bitter waters] on the testimony of one witness or his own personal testimony. R. Yehoshua says: he warns her on the testimony of two witnesses and makes her drink on the testimony of two.
In this way, the Rabbis attempt to impose order in a potentially dangerous situation, lest it get out of control. In requiring witnesses, there is at least a modicum of assurance that the husband’s anger will not boil over into physical violence. The witnesses can either mitigate the intensity of his emotion or, if need be, physically restrain him, should he become overwrought and attack his wife. Reigning in strong emotions is not small feat.

Yet the gemara immediately becomes entangled in the complexity of trying to legislate behavior when the root cause is jealousy, suspicion, and anger, rather than evidence.
IF ONE WARNS HIS WIFE. Only after the fact, but not in the first place. Hence our tanna holds that it is forbidden to warn [her that she may not seclude herself with another man].
The gemara will eventually conclude that the husband may warn his wife only after he has witnesses to her seclusion. But prior to that, it is inappropriate to warn her because after all, what is he warning about? There is no foundation to his suspicion.

This inspires mention of a teaching attributed to Resh Lakish that addresses my preliminary question concerning how the relationship reached this volatile juncture:
R. Shmuel b. R. Yitzhak said: When Resh Lakish began to expound on the Sotah, he said: They only pair a woman with a man according to his deeds, as it is said: For the scepter of wickedness shall not rest upon the lot of the righteous (Psalm 125:3). Rabbah b. bar Hanah said in the name of R. Yochanan: It is as difficult to pair [a husband and a wife] as was dividing the Reed Sea; as it is said: God sets the solitary in families: God brings out the prisoners into prosperity (Psalm 68:7). But it is not so, for Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rab: Forty days before the creation of a child, a Bath Kol (heavenly voice) issues forth and proclaims: the daughter of So-and-So is intended for So-and-So; the house of So-and-So is for So-and-So; the field of So-and-So is for So-and-So! There is no contradiction; the latter point refers to a first marriage, and the former to a second marriage.
Three comments are offered. First, Resh Lakish suggests that a man whose deeds are worthy is rewarded with a faithful wife. (Confession: the image that comes to mind is, “Good, Fido. Sit, Fido.”) Is this to say that a man who is unrighteous deserves a wife who is unfaithful? or that a man who is unrighteous drives his wife to adultery by his deeds? This is a claim riddled with moral problems and questions about Resh Lakish’s understanding of human free will.

Second, we are introduced to a teaching of R. Yochanan: making a good match is an exceptionally difficult achievement. It can be a key to the riches of life and a source of personal redemption. Is all the effort on God’s part, or ours?

Rav Yehudah answer that question. God stands behind the chupah, having planned the match prior to conception. Given how much hard work and effort go into a successful marriage, and further that even good people who make sincere efforts often see their marriages end, we might wonder: does this mean that a successful marriage is not dependent upon human behavior? How could that possibly be?

The Rabbis seem aware that whatever theory they proffer, they’re boxing themselves in. So they conclude that God pre-ordains first marriages, but the second time round, we’re on our own. (I cannot help but wonder if, since many of the Rabbis at this time were probably arranging matches for their own children – which their children had to affirm or could negate – if they were putting God’s imprimatur on their own choices.)

How did we get to this dangerous juncture in the marital relationship? It seems to me that the answer is not found in the opinions of Resh Lakish or Rav Yehudah, but rather embedded in the words of R. Yochanan: It is as difficult to pair [a husband and a wife] as was dividing the Reed Sea. Both the husband and wife must make the effort, and if they allow God into their marriage, so much the better, but no extraordinarily difficult task is guaranteed success.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Thursday, October 15, 2009


I love the Talmud. I believe it forms the foundation of Jewish life since the time of its composition, even if not all Jews agree on its meaning. Nonetheless I acknowledge that the Talmud has a well-earned reputation for drawn out logical examinations of many subjects. True there are many folktales, anecdotes and other material included in the Talmud, but logic is what made its reputation.

So I was tickled to read of a classic sleight of hand technique used to resolve a dispute. In order to appreciate the story it is helpful to know the characters.

The B’nei Bathrya have deep roots in the Talmud. They are mentioned as interim leaders of the community in the time following the death of Shemayah and Avtalion in the late 1st century B.C.E. Our episode occurs about a century later, so the people mentioned in our passage would have to be their descendants. In our story they exert a conservative influence and that is consistent with their historic role as interim keepers of the tradition in the time of Hillel.

Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai is the central character in reshaping Judaism after the fall of Jerusalem. He was secreted out of Jerusalem by his students, petitioned Vespasian to establish a new center at Yavneh and was granted his wish when Vespasian was appointed Caesar in accord with Yohanan’s prophecy. (B. Gittin 56a-b) The extended passage that continues after our story details nine innovations that ben Zakkai instituted at his new center in Yavneh. No surprise that his changes provoked a response from the more conservative forces.

Our story comes from B. Rosh Hashanah 29b.
When the Temple was destroyed, Rabban Yohanan b. Zakkai arranged that the shofar would be sounded wherever there was a court.
According to a Baraita: Rosh HaShannah once fell on Shabbat and [the people of] all the cities came together [in Yavneh, to hear the shofar].
Rabban Yohanan b. Zakkai said to the B’nei Bathyra, “Sound the shofar!”
They said to him, “Let us discuss [the issue].”
[Yohanan] said to them, “Sound the shofar and then we’ll discuss.”
After they had blown [the shofar] they said to him, “[Now] let’s discuss [the matter]!”
[Yohanan] said to them, “The horn already has been heard in Yavneh, and, after the fact, one does not reconsider.”

Once the B'nei Bathyra acquiesced, they had lost the argument. The deed was done and it was too late to take it back. Yohanan’s dismissive response, “The horn has already been heard…,” seems almost a joke. Can you hear him thinking, “I can’t believe they fell for that?”

There is more here than meets the eye. The B’nei Bathyra seek ways to preserve the old traditions, and they wish to hold a discussion to find the most congenial match. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai knows that the most important thing is to do it. For the health and the growth of the community it is essential that the shofar is sounded in a timely manner. The tension here between conservative and progressive voices has a contemporary feel to it.

To give the B’nei Bathyra their due, it is reasonable that interim leaders would be conservatives. Even today when a church or a synagogue employs an interim minister or rabbi the prime directive is to maintain a steady course. They are not the ones who have led the community to its present place nor will they be the ones to chart the course going forward. Their main goal is to stabilize a community in transition and to prepare them so they will be ready to move forward under new leadership. According to the Talmud, here and elsewhere, the B’nei Bathyra were the interim leaders, so of course they seek to restrain Yohanan ben Zakkai.

The question on the table is how to apply a set tradition in radically new circumstances. It could have taken a long time to clarify the rules that apply to the sounding of the shofar, meshing them with the limitations of Shabbat, and coming to an acceptable conclusion. While a conservative voice may have wanted to make sure it was all done according to the rules, Yohanan ben Zakkai did not have that time.

Remember that ben Zakkai was a man on a mission. He understood that the practice of the Temple could no longer hold; the Temple was destroyed and we had to transform the practices so they could fit our new circumstances. He could not afford to be conservative. The fate of the Jewish people depended on finding a compelling way to make Judaism accessible wherever the Jews were. Of course he would say, sound the shofar now.

This is where the story of an ancient sleight of hand trick meets our own day. Change is happening all around us. Every year the Forward names its 50 most influential Jews. Look at the rabbis on that list are creating new pathways for modern Jews. Check out the independent minyanim being formed by young activist Jews in major metropolitan centers from New York, to Chicago, to DC, to LA. Review the list of organizations at the Slingshot Fund, groups they consider to be among the most creative and effective Jewish organizations current today. There are dozens of new initiatives growing up on the edges of the Jewish community, creating new ways for disaffected Jews to return to the fold. They are blending our inherited traditions with new approaches to strengthen the community.

For many years the response to our fading numbers has been to discuss. The plethora of “continuity” programs asked if your grandchildren would be Jewish, but that was the wrong question. The young Jews establishing these new pathways are much more direct – how can I be Jewish. The blend of modern sensibilities and traditional practices is invigorating a new generation. Like Yohanan ben Zakkai they are not waiting for the discussion to come to a conclusion. They are seeking their own funding, advertising in secular media and over the web and doing it now.

I applaud their initiative and want them to know that they stand in a proud tradition that reaches back to Yohanan ben Zakkai and the founding of Yavneh.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Built-in Flexibility and Creativity (Rosh Hashanah 32a)

For those who feel Judaism is excessively rigid and rituals are overly prescribed, the passage on Rosh Hashanah 32a might just be a breath of fresh air. Here the Rabbis discuss the liturgy of the shofar service that is part of Rosh Hashanah Musaf. They enumerate several possibilities for the liturgy, as well as suggest numerous ways to think about meaning of the shofar blasts. In the end, they do not prescribe, leaving wonderful wiggle room and an open door for us to enter into their world of possibilities and innovate our own. What could more in keeping with the theme of a new year than to contemplate new possibilties of meaning?

The Shofar service of Musaf features three themes:
  1. Malkhuyot (God’s sovereignty)
  2. Zichronot (Remembrances)
  3. Shofarot (Revelation)
The Mishnah on Rosh Hashanah 32a informs us that we should recite no fewer than 10 verses of Scripture in connection with each of the three themes. However, R. Yochanan b. Nuri says that if one recites only three verses in connection with each theme, that person has fulfilled his/her obligation.

As the conversation in the gemara unfolds, however, there are more considerations and several options. Perhaps the background here is that Jewish tradition around the shofar service liturgy has not yet gelled. Perhaps this is an arena where gemara builds flexibility into tradition.

The gemara first asks why we recite 10 verses. R. Levi says they correspond to 10 expressions of praise in Psalm 150. Rav Yosef claims they correspond to the Ten Commandments. R. Yochanan suggests they correspond to the 10 utterances with which the world was created (Genesis, chapter 1). These rationales – praising God, obligations toward God, and Creation – correspond to the three themes themselves. Rosh Hashanah is an annual celebration of God’s coronation and hence praise is utterly fitting for the sovereign of the universe -- Malkhuyot. Zichronot recalls when shofarot were blown at the revelation at Mt. Sinai and verses recalling the Ten Commandments and our obligations to God as expressed in Torah are fitting. Shofarot harkens to a future time when the shofar of redemption will sound to herald a new Creation.

Gemara next explores the difference between the Mishnah’s opinion, and that of R. Yochanan b. Nuri. Perhaps R. Yochanan b. Nuri means three verses each from Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (Writings) for each of the three themes? If so, his total comes to nine, only one less than the tanna kamma (Mishnah’s original opinion). But if R. Yochanan b. Nuri intended a total of three verses – one each from Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim – then the difference between the two opinions is considerably greater.

Gemara attempts to resolve this by saying that while a minimum of 10 verses for each theme is required, one who recited seven verses for each has fulfilled his/her obligation, because seven corresponds to the seven heavens, and cites no less than R. Yochanan b. Nuri as the source for saying, one who minimizes should recite no fewer than seven verses, but if one recited only three verses for each [theme], corresponding to the Torah, Prophets, and Writings – and some say corresponding to the Kohanim (priests), Levites, and Israelites.

It seems clear that the precise number of verses is not yet fixed as this text is written, and the Rabbis are looking for a rationale for setting the number. To summarize, they offer explanations for 10, 7, and 3 verses:

10 –
expressions of praise in Psalm 150
10 Commandments
10 utterances of creation
seven heavens

Torah, Prophets, Writings
Kohanim, Levites, Israelites
These rationales invite us to consider the sound of the shofar in many religious contexts:
  • among a community of worshipers that places a premium on the peoplehood or nation of Israel (Kohanim, Levi’im, Ketuvim) who are united around sacred texts (Torah, Prophets, and Writings) and the traditions and obligations that arise from them;
  • among a community of worshipers acknowledging God’s sovereignty in their personal and communal life;
  • among a community of worshipers acknowledging God as the Creator of the universe, the author of life and health who has brought us as far as this new year and hopefully will keep us alive to see the next new year;
  • among a community of worshipers acknowledging God as the God of the cosmos who abides not only in our presence but in the Seventh Heaven, the God who’s oneness unifies all.
This passage has the effect of encouraging us to explore many options for finding meaning in the sound of the shofar and for structuring a service – which can change from year to year – to express that meaning.

Monday, October 5, 2009


Two journeys are mapped out in the closing chapter of B. Rosh HaShannah, both related to the destruction of Jerusalem. The first describes the journey of the Shekhina, God’s Presence, in advance of the Babylonian destruction of the Temple in 586 BCE. The second details the wandering of the Sanhedrin, the Great Court, following the devastation of Jerusalem by Rome in 70 CE. The two journeys tell related stories.

The context is important. The chapter opens by contrasting the traditions that prevailed in Jerusalem before the Roman destruction with those later established by Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai in Yavneh, where he re-established the Sanhedrin following the war. The contrasting traditions dealt with iconic moments in Jewish life: the sounding of the shofar on Shabbat Rosh HaShannah, the waving of the lulav, the declaration of the new moon. According to ben Zakkai, what had once been restricted to the Temple could now be done in the provinces. These modifications allowed the community to continue ancient practices.

Just before the text moves on to detail other traditions established by Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai the Gemara on 31a notes that the Shekhina, God’s Presence, and the Sanhedrin, the Great Court, took parallel journeys:
Rabbi Yehuda bar Idi said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: The Shekhina [left Israel prior to the destruction by the Babylonians] by ten steps as recorded in Scripture corresponding to ten exiles taken by the Sanhedrin [after the Roman destruction], as recorded in Gemara.
While the Mishnah told us that the innovations of Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai occurred following the destruction of the Temple, the comment of Rabbi Yehuda bar Idi gives us a better feel for the extent of the disaster. The Shekhina and the Sanhedrin were both in exile, though in different ways. The survival of the Jewish people was at stake.

The Shekhina left Israel by ten steps in advance of the Babylonian exile.
The Shekhina [left Israel]. From Scripture we know that it went from the ark-cover to the Cherub, from the Cherub to the threshold, from the threshold to the courtyard, from the courtyard to the altar, from the altar to roof, from the roof to wall, from the wall to the city, from the city to the mountain, from the mountain to the wilderness, and from the wilderness it ascended and dwelled in its Place.

The text cites the Scriptural source of each step along this journey. Ezekiel witnessed the Presence of the Lord in the courtyard, and Amos at the altar. Micah sees God in the city and Hosea confirms the ascent of the Shekhina from the wilderness to heaven: as it is said [Hosea 5:15]: “I will return again to my Place, [until they acknowledge their guilt and seek my face].” Hosea, the prophet of faithfulness, offers an explanation. Our sins led to the exile of the Shekhina from the city, from the land, from the covenant people. The destruction that follows can hardly be a surprise.

The Shekhina's departure reverses the path that first led to Jerusalem. The ancient journey that began at Mt. Sinai, a place in the wilderness, moved through the desert to the land of Israel, to Jerusalem, and finally to the Temple Mount. In leaving, the Shekhina once again retreats from the Temple, to the country side and to the desert before ascending back to heaven. Nonetheless, Hosea holds out a bit of hope. When we acknowledge our guilt and seek God's face, return will be possible. And it must have worked, because the people did return and the Temple was rebuilt.

Following the Roman destruction of Jerusalem Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai requested permission to establish a court at Yavneh. Though permission was granted the Sanhedrin wandered from place to place. Our Gemara asserts that these wanderings paralleled the exile of the Shekhina centuries earlier.
Correspondingly there were ten exiles of the Sanhedrin, as recorded in Gemara: from the Chamber of Hewn Stone to the market, from the market to Jerusalem, from Jerusalem to Yavneh, from Yavneh to Usha, from Usha to Yavneh, from Yavneh to Usha, from Usha to Shefaram, from Shefaram to Beth Shearim, from Beth Shearim to Sepphoris, and from Sepphoris to Tiberias. And Tiberias is the lowest of them all.

Again each step in the journey is recorded, even the back and forth movement between Yavneh and Usha. When this route is drawn on the map of Israel it seems to wobble back and forth. It reminds me of Cain’s fate as a wanderer on the land and his cry to God in Genesis 4:14 – Here, you drive me away today from the face of the soil, and from your face must I conceal myself, I must be wavering and wandering on earth… (From: The Five Books of Moses, Trans. Everett Fox, Schocken Books, 1995, pg. 27). Step by step the journey proceeds, falling from the mountain heights of Jerusalem to Tiberias on the shore of the Galilee.

If the wanderings of the Sanhedrin mirror those of the Shekhina, is that good or bad? Does it signal our demise? It describes our fall from grace, ending below sea level. Can we go any lower? If you attend a 12-Step meeting you will hear each person tell of how they fell until they hit rock bottom. Aware they could no longer rely on their own resources, they put their lives in the hand of their Higher Power and began the long road to recovery. Is that why we sank down to Tiberias?

Not all was lost. Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai must have known our recovery was possible. There would have been no other reason to recreate our traditions. His innovations and modifications, which begin this chapter, are not nostalgic, but restorative. Citing Isaiah 52:2 he declares - ‘Shake yourself from the dust; arise!’ With determination he asserts that our own actions can reverse the journey.

As his heirs we need to listen to ben Zakkai’s message. Nostalgia will not suffice. We survived because he was willing to say that what once was had to change. Ancient practices were reshaped and reinterpreted. He took the tradition into his own hands so that it might serve in new circumstances to praise the Holy Blessing One. Today we continue to reshape traditions and to create new ones. Like ben Zakkai we too have taken the tradition into our own hands. May the Holy Blessing One “prosper the work of our hands.” (Psalm 90:17)

© Rabbi Louis Rieser