Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

The Rabbis’ Mental World

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

Print Email
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine, original photo Shutterstock)
Related Content

Talmudic Pride and Prejudice

This week’s Daf Yomi considers—with Chaucerian verve—whether a rabbinic elite spoke for the Jewish people

¶ Meteorology and seismology. I was intrigued by the way the Talmud is quite prepared to acknowledge that thunderstorms have mundane, material causes, but sees earthquakes as supernatural events. We hear from a certain sorcerer that earthquakes happen when God “remembers his children who endure in misery amidst the nations of the world”—the exile from Israel was always at the forefront of the Sages’ minds—and “sheds two tears that fall into the Great [i.e., Mediterranean] Sea, and its sound is heard from one end of the world until its other end, and that is what we perceive as an earthquake.” (Rav Ketina indignantly rejected this theory, but not on the grounds we might expect: He argued that if the sorcerer were right, there would have to be two earthquakes, one per tear.)

When it comes to thunder, however, the rabbis do not point to divine wrath, but blame “clouds in collision” or, alternatively, “a powerful lightning bolt that strikes a cloud and shatters a piece of hail.” These are not the true causes, of course, but they lie in the realm of the empirical. Perhaps the frequency of thunderstorms, compared to the rarity of earthquakes, made the rabbis see the former as natural and the latter as portentous.

¶ Bowel movements. As I’ve noted before, the Talmud is quite unembarrassed about discussing and offering advice on bathroom habits. In Berachot 54b, we learn that three things give long life: Spending a long time at prayer, at meals, and on the privy. To the last point, the rabbis raise the objection that spending a long time on the toilet can give you hemorrhoids. In the process, they list 10 causes of hemorrhoids, which range from eating undercooked fish to wiping yourself “with a shard of pottery” or “with a pebble that [someone else] has previously wiped with”—vivid and rather unsettling glimpses into the world before toilet paper.

Finally, we hear about Rabbi Yehudah son of Rabbi Ilai, whose radiantly happy expression was a cause of comment. He explained it this way: “There are 24 privies between my lodging and the house of study, and when I go from one location to the other I check myself in all of them.” This seems excessive, if not actually obsessive-compulsive, but the Talmud seems to endorse it as an example of regularity. 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 wonder what Freud would have said about this hierarchy of pleasures.

¶ Likewise, it’s impossible not to think of Freud when reading the Talmud’s extensive discussion of the interpretation of dreams (Berachot 55a-57b). Fifteen-hundred years before psychoanalysis, the rabbis were well aware that dreams could turn on puns. We hear of one man who dreamed that his father had left him property in Cappadocia (a region of Asia Minor), though in fact his father had never been there. Rabbi Yishmael interpreted the name as a pun on the words “kappa” and “deka,” which meant in “beam” (in Persian) and “10” (in Greek), and advised the man to look inside the 10th beam in the wall of house—where he found a hidden treasure.

In general, the rabbis had an acute sense that the meaning of a dream depended on the interpretation it was given: “All dreams follow the mouth,” the Talmudic maxim goes. “A dream that has not been interpreted is like a letter that has not been read,” Rav Chisda said, in terms that Freud could have endorsed. This sense of the contingency of meaning has something almost postmodern about it. In Jerusalem, Rabbi Bana’ah related, there were 24 interpreters of dreams; he consulted all of them about his dream, each gave a different interpretation, and every one of them “were realized for me.” If dreams are so malleable, it follows that the dreamer has some power over them, and the Talmud offers prayers you can recite after a nightmare, to convert an evil omen into a good one.

It is very tempting to read all this as a metaphor for Talmudic interpretation itself. Again and again, the Talmud demonstrates that it is possible to give the same biblical verse or Tannaitic opinion many different interpretations, none of which is really invalid. The subversive implication of this is that a source may be no more solid than a dream, and that the process of interpretation can overwhelm the text to be interpreted. Hermeneutics may be more powerful than revelation—and not just when it comes to dreams.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

1 2View as single page
Print Email
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:


hermeneutics can, according to the Rabbis, influence all dreams

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

my interpretations will enable us to swim up streams

wishes spawn and are fulfilled like all successful fish.

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.

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 (

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.


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

The Rabbis’ Mental World

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

More on Tablet:

The Truth About Israel and Dissent

By Liel Leibovitz — The New York Times substitutes a bogus headline for actual reporting