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The Rabbis’ Mental World

The last chapter of the first tractate brings modern readers back to sex, bowel movements, and thunder

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine, original photo Shutterstock)
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On account of the recent holidays, it’s been three weeks since the last installment of this column. During that time Daf Yomi readers completed Berachot, the first tractate of the Talmud, and moved on to the second, titled Shabbat. Next week I plan to rejoin the Daf Yomi calendar and begin looking at the complex regulations that govern work on Shabbat. But I couldn’t say goodbye to Berachot without spending some time on its last and most fascinating chapter, which does more than any other to bring the modern reader into the rabbis’ mental and social world.

The first eight chapters of Berachot are composed primarily of halakhah, or Jewish law—close legal and textual reasoning about the correct timing, manner, and language of the major Jewish prayers. Aggadah, the folklore and anecdotes and proverbs that constitute the more imaginative and accessible part of the Talmud, comes in the interstices of the halakhic argument. But chapter nine of Berachot is just about all aggadah—a cornucopia of rabbinic views on subjects ranging from meteorology to embryology to bathroom etiquette to dream interpretation. “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it,” Pirkei Avot famously says of the Torah, and this section of the Berachot seems like the kind of thing Ben Bag-Bag had in mind.

The chapter begins with a Mishnaic catalog of prayers to say on special occasions, setting the miscellaneous tone for what follows. Some of these formulas are familiar: We learn in Berachot 54a that we should say “Baruch dayan ha’emet,” “Blessed is the true judge,” when we hear about bad news (such as a death), and that we should say the Shehecheyanu when we celebrate a major life event (the Talmud’s examples are building a new house and buying new clothes). Other prayers relate to rarer and more specific occasions: seeing the Mediterranean Sea, earthquakes, great natural features like mountains and rivers.

At the same time, the Talmud offers some principles to guide the spirit of prayer, in a way that previous sections of Berachot have mostly refrained from doing. In an earlier column I discussed the case of Rabbi Chanina, whose prayers were uniquely effective, and who knew that his requests would be granted by God when his words were “fluent in his mouth.” This raised questions about the efficacy of prayer, to which the Gemara now gives a clear answer, in Berachot 55a: “Three things cause a person’s sins to be recalled. These are: going near a leaning wall, expecting one’s prayer to be fulfilled, and submitting judgment of one’s fellow to Heaven.” Even while praying, you are not supposed to expect an answer to your prayer; such a demand tempts the anger of Heaven. “But what then can one do?” the Gemara asks itself and replies simply, “One should increase his reliance on God’s mercy.”

This trusting, almost fatalistic attitude is reinforced by several Mishnaic precepts. In Berachot 54a, the Mishna instructs that “to cry out over that which is past is to utter a prayer in vain.” For instance, if your wife is pregnant (the assumption throughout the Talmud is of course that only men will be reading it), you should not pray for a male child, because the gender of the fetus is already determined and can’t be changed.

Actually, the Gemara goes on to explain in Berachot 60a, things are not quite so straightforward. In Genesis, the rabbis believe, Leah was able to “render a judgment” about her pregnancy and determine that she would give birth to a girl, Dinah. Still, that case doesn’t create a legal precedent, for as the rabbis say with wonderful pragmatism, “We cannot take heed of a miraculous incident.” God may intervene to help a perfect person like the matriarch, but we can’t expect that he still does so in our time, for people like us.

In non-miraculous pregnancies, the rabbis hold, the gender of the fetus is determined after the first 40 days. Thus it is acceptable to pray for a boy until the 40th day; after that, you should pray only for a safe and healthy pregnancy. (There is, of course, no suggestion that it might be wrong to prefer a male child; that a daughter is a disappointment is taken for granted by the rabbis, as it is in many parts of the Third World even now.)

If, however, you subscribe to the embryological theory of Rav Yitzchak, even praying during the first 40 days of pregnancy doesn’t make sense, since the gender of the child is determined at conception. In his view, both men and women ejaculate during intercourse: If the man “emits seed” first, the child is a female; if the woman emits seed first, the child is a male. To which the Gemara offers a typically ingenious reply: It is when both partners ejaculate simultaneously that the gender of the child is uncertain, and then prayer is allowed.

All of this raised the question for me of how contemporary Orthodox readers make sense of parts of the Talmud, like this one, that are based on clearly erroneous scientific ideas. When Aristotle makes empirical mistakes—as, for instance, when he says that women have fewer teeth than men—it’s easy to say that he was simply wrong, that he lacked modern ideas of scientific observation and method. With the Talmud, which grounds religious obligations on its empirical assertions, things must be more complicated. I’m sure much thought has been given to this problem and—as always—I would be grateful to hear from knowledgeable readers in the comments.

This was just one of dozens of striking and surprising themes in chapter 9 of Berachot. I can only sketch a few of the others:

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Althelion says:

“Indeed, a good bowel movement, we learn in Berachot 57b, is “a semblance of the world to come”—more so, the rabbis specify, than sexual intercourse.”

I guess they have some real nice bathrooms in Gan Eden, eh?

gwhepner says:

SINCE HERMENEUTICS CAN CONTROL MY
DREAMS

Since
hermeneutics can, according to the Rabbis, influence all dreams

I
will interpret yours as well as mine, and make a wish

that
my interpretations will enable us to swim up streams

where
wishes spawn and are fulfilled like all successful fish.

gwhepner@yahoo.co.

gwhepner says:

Good point, Althelion. Deut. 23:10–15 makes it clear that it is forbidding to have a bowel movement within the camp, th paradigm of a holy precinct. There therefore cannot be another public facilities in Gan Eyden. Presumably there will be no need, all food there bing absorbed fully like the manna, whose total absorption solved the problem posed by the Deuteronomic law.

gwhepner@yahoo.com

Hey Adam,

If you’re interested in how contemporary Orthodox readers make sense of parts of the Talmud which grounds religious obligations on incorrect empirical assertions, check out R’ Natan Slifkin’s blog, Rationalist Judaism (http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/)

Earl Ganz says:

The Talmud is a mass of misinformation. Yet it is full of
real wisdom. I had thought a thinker like you, Adam, would
separate the wheat from the chaff so that it would be
meaningful for the modern Jew. Instead you are quietly
editing it to show us the stupidities of the ancients. I wish
you had said what you were going to do. I read everything
you write the The Tablet and now it seems I have been
wasting my time.

Earl Ganz

Shir Hadash says:

There are times when the Rabbis’ statements are based on a received tradition and times when they are based on the ‘most up to date information’ they possessed at the time (thanks to either their own understanding or the accepted wisdom of the day as promoted by the powers of the day). Scientific statements often (though not always) fall into this latter category, with Greek scientific understanding often serving as a baseline from which to project one’s own understanding. Such scientific statements thus cause no problems for modern Orthodox thinkers today, for if the Rabbis of old were alive today and privy to more accurate ‘secular’ scientific information, they would have no problem either adopting it. As for the specific case you mentioned, though, I’m not sure the way you presented it is 100% how the Rabbis understood it in any case.

AngelaJo says:

Mr Ganz I judge that Adam is playing both parts of the wheat, that is a sign of an honest man. Thank you Adam for your weekly installments, if I do not read them I have not done my homework.

AngelaJo:: I would think an “honest” reading of a (sacred) text would, at first, “suspend disbelief” or approach the text openly — on its terms. Afterwards, there will be plenty of time for distance and criticism.

To this particular: As Aggadah is, explicitly, not intended to be understood literally, isn’t it foolish to treat with any seriousness “clearly erroneous scientific ideas”?

Perhaps, the simplest (or first), manner of reading Aggadah is to consider its teachings in their most practical implications. For example, to pray for the gender of your child is to pray for something over which you have no control. How much should one “cry out” over that which is out of your hands? The Rabbis [sensibly] instruct: a little (40 days), but not too much. Or, [somewhat contrary to what Adam takes as "of-course"], what is Rav Yitzchak’s teaching? He instructs those third-world-ish men who prefer a male child to put their wive’s sexual fulfillment before their own.

Or: How can an honest reader suggest that the Talmud demonstrates that “Hermeneutics may be more powerful than revelation? Isn’t the most basic Talmudic teaching that the relationship between Hermeneutics and Revelation is not (in the least) competition?

Try to suspend your judging that you might be open to greater understanding.

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The Rabbis’ Mental World

The last chapter of the first tractate brings modern readers back to sex, bowel movements, and thunder