Tuesday, October 22, 2013

How altruistic is giving tzedakah supposed to be? / Yerushalmi, Peah 5

I recently listened to a Freakonomics podcast entitled, “How to Raise Money Without Killing a Kitten”[1] (designed, as you might guess, to launch a fundraising campaign for the podcast).  University of Chicago economist John List, who has studied charitable giving in America, marshaled data to shoot down the “myth” of altruism. People are driven by “purely self interest,” often the warm glow they derive from giving. List advises that to induce people to give more money, we should appeal to what giving can do for the giver (such as the “warm glow” effect), or alternatively employ the strategy, “if you don’t give today this [i.e., the benefit you derive from the cause] will actually be taken away and you will no longer be able to use it.”

Is altruism a Jewish value? Is it one the Sages expect, support, and seek to cultivate? Or do they operate under the assumption that people need a self-serving motive to give generously? Tzedakah is a mitzvah, but it differs from “charity” because tzedakah is a commandment and not caritas, which is given out of pure altruistic love and therefore optional. Torah (in the broad sense that includes Talmud) seems to prefer the pragmatic to the idealistic; the poor are hungry today.

Tzedakah tatzil mi-mavet. “Tzedakah saves from death” is found in the Book of Proverbs (10:2 and 11:4) and the Rabbis quote it liberally. Hyperbolically, the Rabbis tell us:

R. Yehudah says: Ten strong things have been created in the world. The rock is hard, but the iron cleaves it. The iron is hard, but the fire softens it. The fire is hard, but the water quenches it. The water is strong, but the clouds bear it. The clouds are strong, but the wind scatters them. The wind is strong, but the body bears it. The body is strong, but fear crushes it. Fear is strong, but wine banishes it. Wine is strong, but sleep works it off. Death is stronger than all, but charity saves from death, as it is written, Righteousness [tzedakah] delivers from death (Proverbs 10:2; 11:4). (BT Baba Batra 10a)

How altruistic is that? R. Chiyya b. Avin learned from R. Yochanan that we find this expression not once, but twice, in Scripture because tzedakah saves one from both an unnatural death and the punishment of Gehenna (BT Baba Batra 10a). Perhaps tzedakah tatzil mi-mavet, which does not appeal to altruism, is a good fundraising strategy.

The Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) offers a wonderful discussion of tzedakah in Masechet Peah 5a. There is no pretense of altruism here. R. Abba boldly states that God protects those who give tzedakah to the poor from having to pay a variety of taxes and levies imposed by the Roman government. This is the good kind of payback:

R. Abba said: If you give of your funds to tzedakah, the Holy One blessed be God will guard you from tributes, fines, head taxes, and tithes [levied by the Roman government].

I understand that my contributions to MAZON are tax deductible, but R. Abba is promising me that God will arrange a tax credit. Others will have to pay the government assessments, but I will be somehow exempt. It seems a brazen claim. The Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) makes a similar claim, while paying lip service to altruism: it is preferable to give for the sake of the mitzvah itself, but in the end, God will recompense the giver.

R. Yehudah b. R. Shalom preached as follows: In the same way that a man's earnings are determined for him on Rosh Hashanah, so are his losses [i.e. expenditures] determined for him on Rosh Hashanah. If he finds merit [in the eyes if God], then, share your bread with the poor (Isaiah 58:7) [i.e., if he gives tzedakah to the poor] but if not, then he will take the wretched poor into his home (Isaiah 58:8) [the wretched tax collectors will arrive on his doorstep].

An example is the nephews of Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai. [Rabban Yochanan] dreamed that [his nephews] would lose seven hundred dinarim that year. He accordingly pressured them to give tzedakah; he convinced them to give all but seventeen dinarim [of the seven hundred]. On the eve of Yom Kippur, the Government sent and seized [the remaining seventeen dinarim]. R. Yochanan b. Zakkai said to [his nephews], “Do not fear [that you will lose more]; you had seventeen dinarim and these they have taken [i.e., they cannot take more].” They said to him, “How did you know that this was going to happen?” He replied, “I saw it in a dream.” “Then why did you not tell us?” they asked. He replied, “Because I wanted you to do the mitzvah [of giving tzedakah] for its own sake,[2] without knowing you would lose the money anyway.” (BT Baba Batra 10a)

R. Yochanan b. Zakkai receives divine intelligence (the dream) that on Rosh Hashanah God determined that his nephews would lose a great deal of money in the year just beginning. He coerces them into giving most of it—all but 17 dinarim—to tzedakah. As a result, when the Roman tax collector come to town and knock on their door, they have a mere 17 dinarim to hand over. Better the money should be in the hands of the poor than in the hands of the Roman government. This passage raises some troubling questions: If Rabban Yochanan must pressure his nephews into giving—indeed hounding and coercing them, as the story suggests—they are certainly not the models of altruistic generosity. Rather, tzedakah is here a scheme to avoid paying taxes: if you don’t have it, you can’t pay it. Or, as economic John List expressed the fundraising tactic, “If you don’t give today this will actually be taken away and you will no longer be able to use it.” Tzedakah here is a tax dodge, echoing R. Abba’s contention that God protects those who give tzedakah from the tax collector’s reach.

In the Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud), the Gemara supports R. Abba’s troubling contention with a story about King Munbaz[3] who lived in the first century of the Common Era. (The Bavli has a version of this story, as well, in Baba Batra 11a.)

King Munbaz arose and dissolved all his possessions [to feed] the poor.  His relatives sent [a message] to him saying: Your forefathers added to what was theirs and their fathers, while you have squandered what is yours and your forefathers! He said to them: All the more so! My forefathers stored away [wealth] on earth, while I have stored away [wealth] in heaven, as it is says, Truth springs up from the earth and tzedakah looks down from heaven (Psalm 85:12). My forefathers stored away treasures that do not yield fruit, while I stored away treasures that yield fruit, as it is said, Say of the tzaddik that it will go well because he will eat the fruit of his deeds (Isaiah 3:10). My forefathers put away that which the [human] hand has the power [to destroy], while I have put away that over which the hand has no power, as it is said, Tzedakah u’mishpat) are the foundation of his throne (Psalm 97:2). My forefathers put away money, while I have put away souls [i.e., saved lives], as it is said, [The fruit of the tzaddik is a tree of life] and one who acquires souls is wise (Proverbs 11:30). My forefathers put away [wealth] for others, while I put away [wealth] for myself, as it is written, it will be for you tzedakah [before the Lord your God] (Deuteronomy 24:13). My forefathers amassed [wealth] in this world, while I amass [wealth] for the world-to-come, as it is said, Charity will save from death (Proverbs 10:2 and 11:4).

Munbaz’s relatives are appalled that the king is depleting the family’s storehouse of riches accumulated over many generations, “squandering” them by distributing money to the poor. We might presume that previously they could tap into it for their own purposes. Munbaz, however, is invested in assuring his chelek in olam ha-ba (his portion, or reward, in the world-to-come). While King Munbaz’s actions can only be described as righteous, his motivations are hardly altruistic. He fully expects to be compensated in olam ha-ba, yet the Rabbis applaud his intentions and hold him aloft as a model of righteousness. They place in his mouth all their arguments concerning the benefits of giving tzedakah.

All of this seems at first glance a far cry from the idealism expressed in BT Ketubot 67b, which seeks to interpret the claim in Deuteronomy 15:8 that we are to give someone in need, Sufficient for whatever he needs, even if that borders on the ridiculous, or indeed leaps entirely over the border (e.g., Hillel running like a horse before a recipient of tzedakah, providing expensive meats and wines to the poor). But Ketubot 67 does not deny the payoff of tzedakah; rather, it focuses on how to go about the important business of distributing money to those in need.

Fundraisers remind us that the size of a donation is not as important as habituating people to giving. The Rabbis accept human nature for what it is and seek to maximize the good that can come of it.

R. Dostai ben R. Yannai preached: Observe that the ways of God are not like the ways of flesh and blood. How does flesh and blood act? If a man brings a present to a king, it may be accepted or it may not be accepted; and even if it is accepted, it is still doubtful whether he will be admitted to the presence of the king or not. Not so God. If a man gives but a farthing to a beggar, he is deemed worthy to receive the Divine Presence, as it is written, I shall behold Your face in tzedakah, I shall be satisfied when I awake with Your likeness (Psalms 17:15]). R. Eliezer used to give a coin to a poor man and straightway say a prayer, because he said it is written, I shall behold Your face in righteousness [i.e., when I perform an act of righteousness, I will be able to behold God’s countenance]. (BT Baba Batra 10a)

The Rabbis are pragmatists. They see no problem in people feeling good about the acts of righteousness they perform. The better we feel, the more we are likely to do. Truly, as R. Yehudah teaches:

Great is charity, in that it brings the redemption nearer, as it says, Thus said the Lord: Observe what is right and do what is just (tzedakah), for soon My salvation shall come, and my deliverance be revealed (Isaiah 56:1). (BT Baba Batra 10a)

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[2] In Mishnah Pirke Avot 1:3 we find: “Antigonus of Socho received the Torah from Shimon ha-Tzaddik. He used to say: Do not be like servants who serve their master for the sake of receiving a reward, but be like servants who serve their master not upon the condition of receiving a reward; and let the fear of Heaven be upon you.”
[3] Munbaz II (also written Monobaz) was the first century C.E. king of Abiadene, which is in present-day Iraq. King Munbaz was the son of Queen Helene (d. ~56 C.E.) and Munbaz I. Josephus (I.c. #5) writes of Queen Helene’s generosity, describing how she had corn brought from Alexandria and dried figs from Cyprus to distribute during a famine. It appears that Talmud may have transferred credit for her deeds to her son, Munbaz II.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

R. Berekhiah's prescient warning

In yesterday’s post I noted that Mishnah Peah opens with two lists of mitzvot that share common characteristics. The first list is:

These are the things [i.e. mitzvot] that have no measure: peah (corners of the field), bikkurim (first fruits), rei-ayon (appearing at the Temple on the pilgrimage festivals, gemilut chasadim (deed of loving kindness) and talmud torah (Torah study).

Mishnah is telling us that Torah did prescribe fixed minimums or maximums for these mitzvot. We might well ask: How much of my field must I leave for the poor to glean (peah)? For that matter, may I declare an entire field peah? How much of my early harvest must I bring to the Temple (bikkurim)? Do I have to travel to Jerusalem for all three pilgrimage festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot) each year, or would one suffice? How many kind deeds fulfill my obligation of chesed? How much Torah, or how much time studying, fulfills this mitzvah?

While Torah does not establish fixed amounts, we should not be surprised that the Rabbis do. They are not fans of doing the bare minimum. But before they get to that, an interesting question is raised on J.Peah 2b. What other items might have been included in the Mishnah’s list of mitzvot without minimum or maximum measure? Torah describes other obligatory rites without prescribing precise amounts.

R. Berekhiah asked: Why dont we include in the list of items without a specified limit [stated above in the mishnah] the following as well: the quantity of dust used in the ordeal of the sotah (Numbers 5:11-31), the quantity of ashes used in the rite of the red heifer (Numbers 19:1ff.), the quantity of the yebamah’s spittle (Deuteronomy 25:7-10), and the quantity of blood of a bird offering of a metzorah (Leviticus 14:1-8)?

[A brief interlude to explain the four practices mentioned here. If you’re familiar with them, skip this paragraph. (1) Torah prescribes a complex ordeal for a woman whose husband, wrought with dangerous jealousy, believes her to have committed adultery but has neither proof nor witnesses. The ordeal entails her drinking a concoction of water into which is mixed the ink that inscribed the curse of the sotah — the suspected adulteress — and some dust from the floor of the Temple precinct. Torah doesn’t say how much dust to use. (2) There are several levels of ritual impurity described in the Torah, the highest of which is ritual impurity imparted by contact with a corpse. The only way to remove this purity is through the ashes of a perfect red heifer that has been slaughtered in a prescribed manner and thoroughly burned to ashes. The ashes are mixed with water and sprinkled on the someone who has corpse impurity. Torah does not provide a recipe to tell us how much water and how much ash. (3) The institution of the levirate marriage is ancient. If a man dies without having fathered a child, his brother is obligated to marry his widow, and the male child resulting from that union inherits from the deceased brother. If, however, the brother of the deceased refuses to marry his brother’s widow, Torah prescribes a public ritual to declare that this marriage will not take place and the widow is free to marry another man. She removes her brother-in-law’s sandal and spits in his face, both of which are negative symbols of what should happen to a man who refuses to fulfill this obligation to this deceased brother. As Mishnah reminds us, Torah does not say just how much the woman must spit on her brother-in-law. (4) A metzora, person who suffers from any of a number of skin ailments lumped together under the umbrella term tzara’at (and often mistranslated “leprosy”), is rendered ritually impure by this condition. The ritual for recertifying the metzora as ritually pure entails the slaughter of a bird and the use of some of its blood in the ritual. Torah does not specify how much blood.]

R. Berekiah asks why these four mitzvot are not included in Mishnah’s list of commandments for which Torah does not prescribe a minimum or a maximum measure. Good question! Also an interesting set of mitzvot. Note that R. Berekiah did not include the minimum amount of matzah one must eat on Pesach to fulfill the mitzvah to eat unleavened bread; the Rabbis tell us, however. Nor did he include the maximum height of the walls of a sukkah, which the Rabbis also tell us. Clearly, he wants to make a distinction between these mitzvot and those listed in Peah 1:1.

Here is the Yerushalmi’s answer:

We include in the Mishnah’s list only items that if one increases the quantity in doing them, this does not constitutes an additional commandment. [Concerning R. Berekhiah’s four examples] even if one increases the quantity in performing the rites, doing so does not constitute a [greater] mitzvah.

There is a natural tension in the halakhic system between fulfilling commandments because they are commanded, and attempting to perform them to a greater extent. Is bigger always better? Is more always better? We know that the Sages champion the concept of hiddur mitzvah (making a mitzvah more beautiful). B.Shabbat 133b lauds a particularly beautiful shofar or Torah scroll and R. Zeira expresses the opinion that one should be willing to spend even one-third above the normal price to fulfill hiddur mitzvah (B.Baba Kamma 9b). R. Ishmael, commenting on This is my God and I will glorify Him (Exodus 15:2), says: Is it possible for a human being to add glory to the Creator? What this [verse] means is: I will glorify God in the way I perform mitzvot. I will prepare before God a beautiful lulav, beautiful sukkah, beautiful tzitzit, and beautiful tefillin. [Mechilta, Shirata, ch. 3, ed. Lauterbach, p. 25.]

At the same time, Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi taught:

Be as attentive to a minor mitzvah as to a major one, for you do not know the reward for each of the mitzvot. Consider the cost of a mitzvah against its rewards, and the rewards of a transgression against its cost. (Pirke Avot 2:1)

Rabbi presumes that people are calculating their reward in olam ha-ba, the world-to-come (which is not mentioned in the first list of mitzvot in Peah 1:1, although it is mentioned in the second list of the same mishnah) and tells us that cherry-picking among the mitzvot based on expected payoff is not in consonance with accepting ol malchut shamayim, accepting all the mitzvot as an obligation toward God. Does this mean that we should not weigh one mitzvah against another, investing more time and energy in one than in another?

It appears that R. Berekhiah was prescient or had a crystal ball that permitted him to peer into the 21st century. Given the craziness going on in sectors of the Jewish community — not limited to spitting at young girls whose skirts are not deemed long enough, and banning municipal water because of micro-organisms — which absorbs seemingly limitless energy and attention that might be put into more worthy endeavors, R. Berekhiah’s comment provides sage advice and a sadly needed moral distinction: Where doing more benefits others, it is encouraged. This includes peah because there are always more hungry people to feed, bikkurim because it is a rite that teaches gratitude, and appearing in the Temple because it is religiously inspiring and promotes community. Gemilut chasadim and talmud torah speak for themselves. But the amount of dirt in the concoction the sotah is compelled to drink, or the volume of ashes in the purifying red heifer mixture, or the amount of spittle in the ritual of chalitzah, or the quantity of blood of the metzorah’s bird offering? How could more possibly benefit anyone? Rather, those who are are card-carrying members of the Chumrah-of-the-Month Club are involved in a dangerous and wasteful exercise in holier-than-thou piety.

R. Berekhiah offers us sage advice.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Tzedakah ta-tzil mi-mavet — Righteousness saves from death

Tzedakah (righteousness) is a hallmark of Jewish tradition. It figures prominently into our value system and culture. While the term tzedakah covers a range of righteous behaviors, most often we use it to connote charity. I spent a year in college studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where every single dorm room, classroom, meeting room, all bore a plaque of the sort, “Donated by Sadie and Max Silverstein.” Hundreds of them. Birth, bar mitzvah, and marriage are celebrated by giving tzedakah. Friends and relatives are mourned by giving tzedakah in loving memory. It’s Tuesday afternoon and you have nothing to do? Give tzedakah. Mishei 10:2 (Proverbs) boldly claims: Tzedakah mi-mavet / Tzedakah (righteousness) saves from death. This has always been interpreted as meaning that the giver is protected by his/her act of righteousness, but more immediately, the receiver who lacks even basic food, is saved by someone’s generosity.  Given the importance of tzedakah, it’s natural to ask: How much do I have to give? Torah doesn’t specify. Mishnah points out this lacuna.

Tractate Peah is named for the mitzvah of peah that requires a farmer to leave the corners (peah means “corner”) of his field unharvested so that the poor may come and glean. The Book of Ruth jumps immediately to mind: Ruth gleaned in Boaz’s fields. In the ancient world, this was an effective way to insure that the poor could obtain food. Mishnah Peah begins (1:1):

[A] These are the things [i.e. mitzvot] that have no measure: peah (corners of the field), bikkurim (first fruits), rei-ayon (appearing at the Temple on the pilgrimage festivals, gemilut chasadim (deed of loving kindness) and talmud torah (Torah study).

[B] These are the things [i.e. mitzvot] whose fruits a person eats in this world, but the principle remains for him in the world-to-come: kibud av v’eim (honoring father and mother, gemilut chasadim (deeds of loving kindness), ha’va’at shalom bein adam l’chaveiro (bringing peace between a two people), and talmud torah k’neged kulam (Torah study is equal to them all).

The second list [B] is oft quoted, but it may be a later inclusion, placed here because it is similar to the first list, which is the Mishnah’s primary interest. The first list [A], put another way, says: Torah does not prescribe either a minimum or maximum measure for the mitzvot of the corners of the field, first fruits, appearance at the Temple, deeds of loving kindness, and Torah study. Not to worry, the Rabbis will fill that gap.

While the Bavli has no gemara for Peah, the Yerushalmi does. On the first daf we find a discussion of the obligation of peah from a ground-level viewpoint. The Gemara opens with a discussion of why terumah is not on the list. The Gemara compares peah with terumah and decides that they differ because one can declare his entire field to be peah, but not so with terumah: there must be a remainder (as with challah). The obligation of peah is triggered when the first stalk is cut. Mention of the first stalk initiates this comment:

If the farmer cuts the first stalk and the stalk was burned up [and hence is no longer in his possession], what is the law concerning [whether he must] cut a second stalk?

Let us find the answer in the following [baraita]: If the farmer harvested half [of his field, and then sold] this harvested produce, [or if he] harvested half [of his field], and then sanctified [to the Temple], he must declare peah from everything [including what was sold or sanctified to the Temple].

            Now isn’t the produce sanctified to the Temple like [the stalk that] was burned?   This tells us that if he cut the first stalk and it was burned, he does not have to cut    another stalk [the field is subject to peah from the moment he cut the first stalk,    even though it was burned up].

If he finished reaping his entire field [without having designated a portion as peah] and you say the obligation to designate peah devolves on the sheaves, does the obligation of peah devolve also on the first stalk [that he cut[?

R. Yosi said: Let us derive the rule for peah designated from sheaves from the rule for peah designated from standing grain. Just as with peah set aside from standing grain the obligation to designate peah does not apply to the first stalk that has been cut, so in the case of peah set side from sheaves, the obligation to designate peah does not apply to the first stalk that is cut.

The Rabbis make it clear that if some of the harvest leaves the control of the farmer —  because it was burned, sold, or sanctified to the Temple — the farmer’s obligation of peah is unchanged and applies to the entire field, including the produce that was burned, sold, or sanctified. The Rabbis obviate a farmer’s ability to an end run around the obligation of peah by moving produce out of his possession. In fact, if the farmer harvested the entire field and tied it in sheaves — which presumably means he cannot fulfill the obligation of peah since Torah specifically says (Leviticus 19:9 and 23:22) that peah must remain standing in the field for those in need to harvest it on their own — this, too, is an ineffective end run around the obligation. The obligation of the standing grain devolves on the sheaves.

Two things we might consider here: (a) The Rabbis want to insure that the obligation of peah kicks in as soon as possible: cutting down one stalk triggers the obligation, and even if that stalk is destroyed, the obligation remains. (b) The Rabbis want to insure that the institution of peah remains strong and functioning, even in the face of inadvertent mistakes and attempts to cheat.

We are rightly proud that Judaism places a premium on tzedakah. The Bavli weighs in numerous times in numerous ways. While we could cite any number of dozens of texts, I want to share B.Baba Batra 10a because it provides a clever and entertaining exchange between R. Akiba and Turnus Rufus, the Roman Governor of Judea that culminates in a verse from the Isaiah haftarah of Yom Kippur we love to quote:

It has been taught: R. Meir used to say: The critic [of Judaism] may bring against you the argument: If your God loves the poor, why does God not support them? If so, answer him: So that through them we may be saved from the punishment of Gehinnom (purgatory).

This question was actually put by Turnus Rufus to R. Akiba: If your God loves the poor, why does God not support them?

[R. Akiba] replied: So that we may be saved through them from the punishment of Gehinnom. [R. Akiba does not mention Proverbs 10:2 here, but clearly that verse is in the background of this understanding.]

On the contrary, said the other, it is this which condemns you to Gehinnom. I will illustrate with a parable. Suppose an earthly king was angry with his servant and put him in prison and ordered that he should be given no food or drink, and a man went and gave him food and drink. If the king heard, would he not be angry with him? And you are called “servants,” as it is written, For to me the children or Israel are servants [Leviticus 25:55].

R. Akiba answered him: I will illustrate by another parable. Suppose an earthly king was angry with his son and put him in prison and ordered that no food or drink should be given to him, and someone went and gave him food and drink. If the king heard of it, would he not send him a present? And we are called children, as it is written, Children you are to the Lord your God [Deuteronomy 14:1].

[Turnus Rufus] said to [R. Akiba]: You are called both children and servants. When you carry out the desires of the Omnipresent you are called children and when you do not carry out the desires of the Omnipresent, you are called servants. At the present time you are not carrying out the desires of the Omnipresent.

R. Akiba replied: The Scripture says, Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the poor that are cast out into your house (Isaiah 58:7)? When do you bring the poor who are cast out to your house? Now. And it [also] says, Is it not to share your bread with the hungry?

This is a constructed story. I don’t claim the conversation took place, but rather it was imagined and created to juxtapose two starkly different worldviews and theologies. For Turnus Rufus people suffer at God’s will since God has the ability to make it otherwise. Hence tzedakah (here, charity) violates the divine will. R. Akiba counters that God sometimes withhold good because of divine anger, but never truly wants people to suffer. It is our job to insure that everyone is fed, because everyone is a child of God. This theology gave rise, in our time, to MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger (http://mazon.org). (Note that MAZON suggests a “measure,” a minimum contribution.)

Building on R. Akiba’s assertion that we are charged with feeding hungry people, and when we do, we are doing what God truly wants, B.Ketubot 67 has a lengthy discussion on our obligation to be God’s hands to feed the hungry. I will quote only two small sections, which illustrate how seriously the Sages took the obligation of tzedakah:

Our Rabbis taught: Sufficient for whatever he needs (Deuteronomy 15:8) [implies] you are commanded to maintain him, but you are not commanded to make him rich; for whatever he needs [includes] even a horse to ride upon and a slave to run before him. It was related about Hillel the Elder that he bought for a certain poor man who was of a good family a horse to ride upon and a slave to run before him. On one occasion he could not find a slave to run before him, so he himself ran before him for three miles…

It is generally understood that the reason one leaves the corners of the field for the poor to come and do the work of gleaning themselves is to protect their dignity. Here, too, we see that Hillel’s primary concern is the dignity of a man, once of economic standing, who has fallen on hard times. The story is hyperbolic — the image of Hillel playing the part of a slave — but the point is well made that giving is not sufficient; the dignity of the recipient is important, too. Here is another story from the same daf (Ketubot 67):

Mar 'Ukba had a poor man in his neighborhood to whom he regularly sent four hundred zuz on the Eve of every Day of Atonement. On one occasion he sent them through his son who came back and said to him, “He does not need [your help].” “What have you seen?” [his father] asked. “I saw that they were spraying old wine before him.” “Is he so delicate?” [the father] said, and, doubling the amount, he sent it back to him.

As with the Hillel story above, we see the effort being made to restore a person to their previous “lifestyle” but there is an additional factor here that is very important. Mar ‘Ukba’s son seems offended that a man who lives off their largess is living so well. Mar ‘Ukba, however, does not choose to interpret what he has heard that way. He gives the man the benefit of the doubt and presumes, instead, that his health is so severly compromised that he requires special treatment. It is easy to become judgmental and accuse poor people of being lazy, irresponsible, and worse. Mar ‘Ukba’s story is an excellent and often needed reminder to avoid that.

And finally, a humorous story told of the Hasidic Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov:

One day Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sassov told his students, “There is no quality and there is no power of man that was created to no purpose. Even base and corrupt qualities can be uplifted to serve God.”
One student raised his hand and asked, "Rabbi, to what end can the denial of God have been created? Surely there is no purpose to atheism."
Rabbi Moshe paused and then replied, "This too can be uplifted through deeds of tzedakah. For if someone comes to you and asks your help, you shall not turn him off with pious words, saying: ‘Have faith and take your troubles to God!’ You shall act as if there were no God, as if there were only one person in all the world who could help this person - only yourself.”

Moshe Leib reminds us that we are the hands of God and even if we don’t believe there is a God, all the more reason to feed the hungry. Beautiful, isn’t it?

Rosh Hashanah is around the corner. Time to give tzedakah. May the coming year be one of blessing and joy, and of course the mitzvah of tzedakah.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The morning of mourning: the roots of Tisha B'Av

Jewish historian Salo W. Baron once observed that fellow historian Heinrich Graetz (1817-1891) had a “lachrymose conception of Jewish history.” Graetz’s monumental 11-volume History of the Jews recounts the flow of Jewish history as a series of tragedies, calamities, exiles, and pogroms, with trauma the core of Jewish political and social experience in history. I wonder how Graetz experienced Tisha B’Av, the yearly day of mourning on the Jewish calendar that commemorates the destructions of the First and Second Temples. Living 18 centuries later, what did the events of 70 C.E. mean to him?

The Mishnah and the Gemara of the Yerushalmi provide a window into the period after 70 C.E. when the trauma is still fresh (perhaps surprisingly so for the Mishnah, which was compiled nearly a century and a half later, and even more surprising for the Gemara, which was written more than two centuries later). Practices for Tisha B’Av have not solidified into a standard set of observances, giving us a glimpse of the shaping of a national observance of an historical event. This is interesting in its own right, but particularly so now as our country is working out how to commemorate 9/11 each year.

Let’s listen in on the conversation. Mishnah tells us:

When Av comes, rejoicing diminishes. In the week during which the Ninth of Av occurs, it is prohibited to get a haircut or wash one’s clothing except on Thursday of that week due to the honor of shabbat. On the eve of the Ninth of Av, a person should not eat two cooked dishes, nor eat meat nor drink wine. Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel says: one should make a change. R. Yehudah [says] it is obligatory to overturn one’s bed, but the Sages did not agree with him. (Ta’anit 4:6; in the Bavli Ta’anit 4:7)

The Bavli (Babylonian Talmud) includes the same mishnah but without the prelude: “When Av comes, rejoicing diminishes.” This simple statement is ironic. It evokes a similar one pertaining to Purim: “When Adar comes, joy increases.” It sets the tone but beyond the accepted full fast, it apparently does not establish the practices around Tisha B’Av.

The Mishnah addresses what restrictions should be in place in the days leading up to Tisha B’Av. Several elements of mourning practice are stipulated, though we are also told that Shabbat trumps Tisha B’Av with regard to clean clothing. What about food, in particular the pre-fast meal? How elaborate should it be? People are inclined to eat a little more, or perhaps a little better, before a 25-hour fast; the Mishnah seeks to limit that, perhaps because doing so could be construed as actual feasting in the run-up to Tisha B’Av. Just how drastic are these observances? They seem reasonably mild. Yet Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel suggests that we stipulate only that a person should make some change. Is he speaking only to the issue of the pre-fast meal? Or is he speaking more broadly and saying that rather than carving practices in stone, we should leave people to make some meaningful change in their lives during the days before Tisha B’Av? We rarely see in the Mishnah the express suggestion that people be encouraged to observe as they see fit. I’m inclined to see R. Shimon’s statement as a general approach, purposefully contrasting with R. Yehudah’s opinion, which is recounted after that of R. Shimon b. Gamliel. Overturning the bed is was a custom in the case of the death. R. Yehudah’s suggestion goes too far. It is one thing to mourn, quite another to follow customs as if one had himself died.

How does a nation commemorate the yahrzeit of a tragedy? Do we set out rites and rituals, or do we encourage people to observe the anniversary in a way that befits them? If we choose the latter, is it likely that in time all commemoration will fade and disappear? Standardizing practice has an upside and a downside. In the plus column, a consistent set of observances helps assure that the communal memory remains alive and vivid, and the community can cohere around the commemoration. In the minus column, it mandates observances that presume emotions people may not feel; this puts them in the position of pretending to sadness and mourning they may not feel.

The Gemara makes it clear that the amorphous nature of practice related to Tisha B’Av continued well into the third century. Two examples will suffice.

The first example concerns the question of how to handle the situation if Tisha B’Av coincides with shabbat. R. Ba bar Kohen reports in the name of R. Abbahu that all restrictions (discussed in the Mishnah) are lifted for the week before and the week after. R. Yochanan and his student R. Shimon b. Lakish offer differing opinions: one says the week afterward is subject to mourning practices; the other says it is not. We then find this curious comment:

R. Chiyya bar Ba instructed the people of Tzippori [that the week after Tisha B’Av is not subject to restrictions, per the opinion of Resh Lakish], but they refused to accept his ruling.

The people made their own decision in Tziporri, against the instructions of R. Chiyya! Not only that but other communities also made their own choices:

The Southerners (Jerusalemites) applied the prohibitions from the new moon of Av onward. The people of Tzippori applied them for the entire month of Av. The Tiberians applied them for the week [in which Tisha B’Av occurs]. The rabbis of Tiberias reverted and applied them as the rabbis of Tzippori did.

We see considerable variation in practice here. It hasn’t yet gelled. But at least we know that we fast on Tisha B’Av, right? After all, Tisha B’Av means “the ninth of Av.” Yes, but not entirely. This brings us to my second example.

R. Yermiah in the name of R. Chiyya bar Ba: According to strict law they should fast on the tenth of the month [of Av], the day on which the Temple was burned. Why then is the fast on the ninth? Because on that day the punishment began. And so it has been taught: On the seventh of Av [the Romans] entered [the Temple]. On the eighth they battered it down. On the ninth they set fire to it. On the tenth it burned down.

And indeed, different sages advocated fasting on different days:

R. Yehoshua b. Levi fasted on the ninth and on the tenth.
R. Avun fasted on the ninth and on the tenth.
R. Levi fasted on the ninth and on the right prior to the tenth.
R. Ba bar Zabeda said in the name of R. Chanina: Rabbi [Yehudah ha-Nas] sought to uproot the ninth of Av but others did not permit him. R. Eleazar said to him: I was with you and that is not what was said. Rather, Rabbi sought to uproot the ninth of Av when it coincided with the Sabbath [i.e. not observe it at all] but they did not permit it. He said: Since it has been postponed [due to shabbat] let it be postponed [until next year]. They said to him: Let it be postponed until the next day [i.e. Sunday].

The conversation between R. Ba bar Zabeda and R. Eleazar is particularly fascinating. The date for fasting, it appears, will ultimately hinge on the opinion of R. Yehudah ha-Nasi but we have disparate reports of what he said. How much of our tradition has been determined by the oral reports of rabbis concerning the opinions of other rabbis, which they may not have remembered entirely or correctly? Here we have an early game of Rabbinic Telephone.

What we see here is the progressive evolution of observances assigned to Tisha B’Av. The rabbis have divergent opinions and practices, even two centuries after the event it commemorates. It’s one thing for an individual or family to establish customs for birthdays, Thanksgiving, observing a yahrzeit, and other dates of personal or familial importance, but quite another for a nation to do so, especially a nation without a strong central authority structure and with no political power.

In the end, R. Shimon b. Gamliel’s opinion that we should change something in our routine is interpreted narrowly as applying only to the pre-fast meal (and yes, even when that meal should be taken is under debate). Not surprising.

I began by asking whether Heinrich Graetz (of the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history”) would have loved Tisha B’Av. For Graetz, every turn of the road leads to tragedy. Of course I cannot answer that. Today, how many people are truly mourning the loss of the Temple? As a friend noted to me last year: “I observe Tisha B’Av but I don’t fast. I remember, but I don’t mourn.” I can appreciate that perspective. It may be the case that I am not directly affected by the events of 70 C.E. — or at least that I don’t recognize any effect — but the events have dramatically affected the Jewish community then and now. That makes them worthy of recognition. That is why Yom haShoah — commemorated this coming Sunday, April 7, 2013 — is now a fixed date on our calendars, and services of remembrance will take place in communities around the globe.

There is one thing that lingers in my mind. Graetz could have defended his “lachrymose” view of Jewish history by citing the proliferation of fast days on our calendar. In addition to the two full fasts of Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, there are the daytime fasts of Esther, Gedalia, the firstborn (preceding Pesach), the 17th of Tammuz, the 7th of Adar, the 10th of Tevet, and for the Kabbalists of Tzfat, Yom Kippur Katan — the day preceding every Rosh Chodesh throughout the year. If I haven’t missed any, that’s 20 fast days in a single year. Perhaps a good diet plan, but is this proliferation of mourning good for us? Here again, I turn to Salo Baron, who observed in 1975, "Suffering is part of the destiny [of the Jew people], but so is repeated joy as well as ultimate redemption." Perhaps it’s time to shift the balance and conflate these fasts into three days: Yom Kippur (our personal spiritual fast), Tisha B’Av (a sea change in our national history), and Yom haShoah (an unprecedented genocide in the history of humankind, and one that still touches us two generations later). I am fully aware that will not happen. Rather, what happens is that many Jews simply do not observe the minor fast days because there are too many of them and the events they commemorate no longer hold meaning for them. That, too, is part of the evolution of national practice. We’re still working it out.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


All Talmudic references come from the Vilna edition of the Yerushalmi, Ta'anit 25b-26a

I recall when, as a young rabbi, I first encountered a college student who did not remember the assassination of President Kennedy. For that student November 22, 1963 was just another day. For me it was a pivotal event in American history. How could anyone be oblivious to it? I remember expressing my incredulity to a friend, a slightly older woman who worked as an administrator on campus. She said she often feels the same shock when she realizes the person she is speaking with cannot recall the end of the Korean War, a day which shaped her in her youth. I had received my comeuppance and my answer. Time moves on. One generation remembers and reacts differently that the one before.

It is true even of cataclysmic events. Consider Pearl Harbor or even 9/11. As events move from our experience into memory, perhaps into ritual and finally into history, their significance changes.

Our passage in Yerushalmi Ta'anit reflects this inevitable movement. How does one continue to observe the 9th of Av, 70 CE, the date on which the Romans destroyed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem? Then, as now, the 9th of Av was an important fast day and none of the Sages question that status. Their questions seem to be on more inconsequential matters, but we shall see that their responses in the text reflect different ways in which the memory finds expression in ritual.

The first instance concerns a young man asking a woman to marry him.
Rabbi Ba bar Kohen said before Rabbi Yose, Rabbi Aha in the name of Rabbi Jacob bar Idi: It is forbidden to betroth a woman of Friday.
The concern is that the celebration of the engagement will spill over into Shabbat, though if you knew it could be contained there was no prohibition of asking such a question on Friday.
Samuel said: Even on the 9th of Av one should betroth a woman, so that someone else will not marry her first.
Yes, there is a solemn fast going on to mark the darkest day on the Jewish calendar. But for Samuel, who lived in 4th century Babylonia, it takes second place in the unlikely event that you have a sudden and urgent need to ask a woman for her hand in marriage. You would not want someone else to swoop in and ask her first. He assumes that the couple's happiness would not soil the communal sorrow.

The gemara moves on to discuss the Mishnah's prohibition on washing clothes or getting a haircut during the week that includes the 9th of Av. The exception is Thursday when you may wash clothes and get a haircut in preparation for Shabbat. (M. Ta'anit 4:6) These signs of personal mourning migrated into the communal mourning for the Temple. The implicit question concerns how many days are impacted by the observance of the fast for the 9th of Av.

Rabbi Yohanan and Rabbi Shimon ben Laquish, who both lived in the Land of Israel during the 2nd and 3rd century CE, debate whether the week following the 9th of Av is subject to these same restrictions. Yohanan says yes; ben Laquish, no. They do not question the position taken by the Mishnah that the terrible events of the 9th of Av are such that one prepares in advance for the fast, but they want to know if the restrictions extend into a second week after the event. Just how large does this loom in our lives?

Unsure how to resolve this stand-off the gemara asks what Rabbi Shimon ben Laquish did.
R. Isaac b. Eleazar, “When the ninth of Ab had ended, he made an announcement. and they opened the barber shops, and whoever wanted went and got a haircut.”
Apparently it all happened smoothly. People just got on with their life.

Or not.

The gemara records a division of the house, as it were.
The Southerners (I presume those in Jerusalem) applied the prohibitions from the new moon of Ab onward.
The Sepphoreans applied them for the entire month of Ab.
The Tiberians applied them for the week [in which the ninth of Ab occurred].
The rabbis of Tiberias reverted and applied them as did the rabbis of Sepphoris.
Different communities behaved differently. We are offered no insight into the process that resulted in these differences. Was one community more intimately impacted by the events than the other? But surely the Southerners, even if I am wrong about identifying them with Jerusalem, were closest to the destruction. Were their social or political implications? Were they just trying to be more pious than one another? There is no way to know. What is clear is that more than a century after the destruction, communities were still trying to figure out how deep an impact the destruction of the Temple should have on their observance.

The divisions went even deeper. Individual sages differed on how long the fast should last. The division grew from the traditions about the destruction of the Temple.
On the seventh of Ab they entered it. On the eighth they battered it down, on the ninth they set fire to it, and on the tenth it burned down.
Rabbi Jeremiah taught that the fast should actually be on the 10th, the day the destruction was complete. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi and Rabbi Abun observed both the 9th and the 10th. Rabbi Levi observed the 9th and the evening of the 10th. Here we gain a slight insight into the reasons behind the divisions – do we mark the beginning of the conflagration that destroyed the Temple, the day when the destruction was final or some combination of both. But we might wish for more.

The Talmud preserves the differences, but it does not dictate which point of view wins. We learn that between communities and between sages there was a difference of opinion about how to move forward and preserve this memory for the generations to come.

Why should we care? After all, we know the outcome. The rituals of Tisha B'Av are well established on our day. I believe the lesson is more subtle. It is not about the outcome, nor even about the process. If we knew all of the reasoning behind each opinion it might not illuminate the final result.

I believe it is about mourning. Grand public losses stir us in different ways. The death of President Kennedy (and, yes, the end of the Korean War) made deep impressions on the people who experienced those moments. We still feel those effects decades later. Similarly we feel the destruction of the Holy Temple still, despite the centuries that have passed. The remaining wall of the Temple retains its holiness. But mourning takes its place alongside other events in our lives. The intensity of the moment finds its expression not as a singular event, but as one of many in the life of a person, or the life of a people.

The full effect of a trauma – personal or national – takes time to settle in, to find its level. In the meantime there will be differences in the ways people register their sadness, their grief. One can only hope for patience as the process works its way out.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Magical migrations: the power of fantasy

I mentioned in my previous posting that the Rabbis of the Yerushalmi spare no feelings when it comes to describing graphically the events of 70 C.E. A fuller picture is that while they soundly condemn Bar Kochba as cruel, irresponsible, and abhorrent, and don’t hesitate to tick off sins committed by Israel that account for the brutality she endured at the hands of the Romans, the Rabbis also speak of God’s loving mercy. It appears that the Rabbis’ ideas and emotions are all over the board: God is punishing, but also loving. God ordains Israel’s suffering, but God also seeks to alleviate their suffering. Raw and painful emotions come through loud and clear. But so, too, we find glimpses of hope.

Amidst these passages, wedged in between one horror and another, is a fantasy that made me smile and even laugh.

R. Chanina said: Forty years before the Israelites went into exile to Babylonia, they planted date palms in Babylonia since they wanted to have something sweet to prepare the tongue to study Torah.

R. Chanina b. R. Abbahu said: 700 kinds of clean [i.e. kosher] fish, 800 kinds of ritually clean locusts, and fowl too numerous to count, all went into exile with the Israelites to Babylonia. And when [the Israelites] returned, all [the animals] returned with them, except for the fish called shibuta.

God has providentially seen to the people’s basic nutritional needs. Date palms planted more than five decades earlier would be mature and produce abundant fruit by the time the Israelites arrive in exile. Why date palms? So they can do what will sustain their spirits and traditions: study Torah. Date palms nourish their souls.

Dates were not the only sustenance God provided in exile. A myriads species of fish, locusts, and fowl (all kosher for eating) migrated with the Israelites. This fantastical idea speaks to God’s loving guardianship of Israel.

While we can go along with the fantasy and imagine locusts springing and vaulting their way from the Land of Israel 1000 miles to Babylonia, and birds winging their way to join the Israelites in exile, how could fish possible make the trip? There is no water route from the Land of Israel to Babylonia. Just to make this clear, here’s a map.

Israel is on the west coast of the Mediterranean Sea. The Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, which carve out ancient Babylonia, can be seen flowing southeast into the Persian Gulf. How did the fish get to Babylonia?!

R. Huna b. Yosef said: They went into exile through the t’hom (the primordial deep), and they returned through the t’hom.

Two uses of this unusual term — t’hom — jump out at me, each associated with a very different image and message, but taken together, speak to the present situation and the longed-for future.

We first encounter the term t’hom in the second verse of the Torah:

When God began to create haven and earth — the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the face of the deep and a wind from God sweeping over the water — (Genesis 1:1-2)

The t’hom is the great watery primordial deep. It precedes everything. It is the raw stuff of which God shapes the world. It is beneath the land, beneath the sea, and metaphysically beyond our world. It harkens back to the original creation.

The Flood arose from the primordial deep:

In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the deep burst apart, and the floodgates of the sky broke open. (Genesis 7:11)

Mentioning t’hom not only solves the fantasy’s logical problem of how the fish could reach Babylonia, it evokes the primordial chaos before creation. The events of 70 C.E. are so great a cataclysm it is as if everything has returned to primordial chaos. How can there ever be order again?

We find the term t’hom in the book of Isaiah, as well. The prophet Isaiah lived in the 8th century B.C.E., long before the Destruction of either the First or Second Temple. Scholars consider chapters 40-55, however, to be the work of another author who lived through the Destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. This section (chapters 40-55) is attributed to an anonymous prophet scholars have dubbed Deutero-Isaiah, who prophesied the redemption of Israel from Exile in Babylonia, restoration to the Land of Israel eternally promised to them by God, and the unbreakable and permanent quality of their covenant with God. In this context, the Deutero-Isaiah uses the term t’hom with a strikingly different valence:

Awake, awake, clothe yourself with splendor,
O arm of the Lord!
Awake as in days of old,
As in former ages!
It was you who hacked Rahab to pieces,
That pierced the Dragon.
It was you that dried up the sea,
The waters of the great deep;
That made the abysses of the Sea
A road the redeemed might walk.
So let the ransomed of the Lord return,
And come with shouting to Zion,
Crowned with joy everlasting.
Let them attain joy and gladness,
While sorrow and sighing flee.
(Isaiah 51:9-11)  

Deutero-Isaiah evokes the primordial chaotic deep. Rahab and the Dragon are primeval monsters whom God tames, bring order to chaos — an integral part of the Creation of the world. In the passage from Isaiah chapter 51, the prophet speaks optimistically: the chaos of the destruction and exile in the 6th century B.C.E. is not forever. God will return the world to its former state of order, just as long ago God overpowered Rahab and the Dragon. God does not open the “fountains of the deep” as in Genesis 7:11 to unleash death and destruction, but quite the opposite: God dries up the deep to create a safe passage for the Israelites to return to Zion.

This is a powerful image of redemption that evokes the paradigmatic redemption from Egypt. It’s impossible to read about God drying up waters to make “a road the redeemed might walk” and not think of the Exodus from Egypt through the Reed Sea. The Rabbis descend from the Jews who experienced the trauma of destruction and chaos.  It is clear from the Yerushalmi’s account that their descendants also feel traumatized, even generations later. (We should not be surprised, given all we know about the children of Holocaust survivors.) In their fantasy of God’s providential care of Israel in Exile, the Rabbis’ use the evocative term t’hom, which both acknowledges the present reality but also points to a redemptive future. Order will be restored. Even more, Israel will be created anew.

Pesach is around the corner. The message of hope and the possibility of redemption never gets old. In our lives and in the lives of those we love, in the life of the State of Israel we cherish and in the life of the world and all its inhabitants, we need to keep hope and the possibility of redemption front and center, a guidepost to direct our lives.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman