The Rabbis’ Mental World
The last chapter of the first tractate brings modern readers back to sex, bowel movements, and thunder
¶ 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.
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