The Rabbis’ Mental World
The last chapter of the first tractate brings modern readers back to sex, bowel movements, and thunder
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:
Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi paint a complex portrait of their hometown’s cuisine in a new cookbook