(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; center image Dorot Jewish Division, NYPL)

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

Rav Huna, I noted in last week’s column, did not have the best manners: The Talmud described him as violating several rules of etiquette. But in this week’s Daf Yomi reading, we learned that there was at least one faux pas of which Rav Huna was innocent: He did not have “fine hands.” Fine hands, yadaiv yafot, might not sound like a bad thing to have, but as we read in Pesachim 89b, it is actually a Talmudic euphemism for gluttony. A person with fine hands uses them a bit too readily to grab food at a meal, which makes dining with him unpleasant. Rav Huna discovered this when he agreed to “mix his bread together” with another sage, Rav Pappa, only to find that “by the time Rav Huna ate one slice, Rav Pappa ate four.” On another occasion, Rav Huna had even worse luck when he agreed to share a meal with Ravina. Ravina, it turned out, had even finer hands than Pappa: “By the time Rav Huna ate one slice, Ravina ate eight.” It would be better to eat with one hundred Pappas than one Ravina, Huna joked.

These examples of rabbinic appetite are cited in Chapter 8 of Tractate Pesachim, which continues the ongoing discussion of the Passover sacrifice, focusing on the question of sharing the Pesach meal. As we have seen before, in Temple times, groups of Jews would register together to share a Passover sacrifice; a goat or lamb would be slaughtered and roasted on their behalf, and they would eat it together. Every Jew had to register for a particular animal, or else he would fail to fulfill his Passover obligation. In this week’s reading, the rabbis addressed several possible complications in this process, including the very matter-of-fact one of “fine hands.” What should you do, the rabbis ask, if you register to share your Passover meal with someone who turns out to be a glutton, eating more than his fair share of the meat? Can you tell him “take your portion and leave,” or could he rightly refuse to share equally, by replying “You accepted me” in the group without preconditions?

This point is not addressed directly in the Mishnah, but the Amoraim find a solution by analogy with another case. Say that one member of a group that is registered to share a sacrifice decides to add a new member to the group without consulting the other members. Does the new addition get his own share of the meat, or is he considered a guest of the person who added him, so that the two of them must divide a single portion between them? In this case, the Mishnah rules, “he eats from his portion and they eat from theirs”: That is, the new guest must share the portion of the person who invited him.

This situation, the Amoraim reason, is analogous to that of a person with fine hands. He, too, wants to claim more than his share of the meat—not because he added another person to the group, but because his appetite is so great that he is eating for two. Thus it is fair to tell such a person, “Take your portion and leave,” to prevent him from eating more than his fair share. This is true not just of the Passover sacrifice, the Talmud says, but of ordinary meals as well. However, on Passover, this is the only reason why a group registered to eat the sacrifice together is allowed to split up. They may not dismiss one of the members, or decide to divide into two smaller groups, on a whim.

Gluttony, then, is recognized by the rabbis as obnoxious; but it seems to be considered a social transgression rather than an actual sin. That is clear from the indulgent way the Gemara goes on to talk about Rav Pappa and Ravina. Appetite, like pride of rank or shortness of temper, is a human failing to which even a sage might be subject. But Torah scholars are rarely shown committing deliberate breaches of the law. On the contrary, anything a scholar does is presumptively legal, and the practice of a great rabbi can be a legal proof in and of itself.

Chapter 8 addresses a number of other questions that might arise in the process of sharing the Passover sacrifice. Some of these are highly technical, having to do with ritual purity—for instance, whether to offer a sacrifice on behalf of a woman who is tamei because of menstruation, or a man who is tamei because of genital discharge related to a venereal disease. (In both cases, a sacrifice may be offered as long as the person in question can become tahor again by the time it’s supposed to be eaten.) But even in these sections, the rabbis’ reasoning sometimes reveals something important about the way they viewed the world.

On Pesachim 91a-b, for instance, we learn that a mixed group of women and slaves, or of children and slaves, cannot eat a Passover sacrifice together. This is because the rabbis feared such groups would give way to “frivolity” or “promiscuity.” Evidently, slaves’ sexuality was considered frighteningly uncontrolled, while it was taken for granted that a male head of household would be able to restrain his impulses. Later on, Rabbi Yochanan rules that “we do not make a group [for the Passover sacrifice] that is entirely of converts.” The reason is not, as we might first guess, that the converts would be ignorant of Jewish law and thus fail to conduct the sacrifice properly. On the contrary, the Talmud explains, “perhaps they will be overly meticulous and cause [the animal] to be unnecessarily disqualified.” Converts, in the rabbis’ experience, were if anything too eager to get the details of Jewish law right, and so they might find a blemish in a sacrifice where a rabbi would be more lenient.

The most interesting such case, however, comes on Pesachim 87a, at the beginning of Chapter 8. Here the Mishnah discusses what a woman should do on Passover if both her husband and her father offered a sacrifice on her behalf. Does she eat with her husband’s family or with the family she grew up in? Ordinarily, the law is that she should eat with her husband. However, if on the first Passover after her marriage the woman returned to her childhood home to observe the festival—which was evidently a common practice—then she has the right to choose which group to join, her husband’s or her father’s.

Here, as often before, the Talmud allows a fair degree of independence to women within an essentially patriarchal system. There is no question, for instance, that it is the male heads of households who are responsible for organizing groups to register for the Passover sacrifice. However, a wife is not automatically subservient to her husband; she at least has the option of returning to her father’s house, which would also be the house where her mother and siblings live. Later on, the Talmud clarifies that “one may not slaughter [the Passover sacrifice] on behalf of his adult son or daughter, or on behalf of his Hebrew slave and maidservant, or on behalf of his wife unless he has their consent.” All these categories of people are dependent on the head of household, but he is not allowed to tyrannize over them or ignore their wishes.

It is in the course of discussing this rule that the Gemara veers into the most fascinating part of this week’s reading—a long stretch of aggadah that begins on Pesachim 87a and addresses the most fundamental question of Talmudic Judaism, the Exile. After quoting a passage from the book of Hosea, the rabbis go on to expound that prophet at length, retelling the story of how Hosea, infuriated at Jewish sin, begged God to divorce the Jews and “exchange them for another nation.” In response, God told Hosea to marry a prostitute, which he did, going on to have three children with her. Then, when God instructed Hosea to divorce his wife, he refused, saying, “Master of the Universe, I have sons from her and I am unable to dismiss her or to divorce her.” God replied that he felt just the same way about the Jewish people: Just as Hosea could not “dismiss” his wife, God could not dismiss the Jews, even though they were steeped in sin.

Yet the rabbis were living at a time when God evidently had divorced the Jews. The Amoraim were in exile in Babylonia, meticulously interpreting the laws of a Temple that had been burned down centuries earlier. How could this evidence of divine wrath be reconciled with God’s promise to remain faithful to his people? For Rabbi Elazar insists that “even at the time of the anger of the Holy One, Blessed be he, he remembers the attribute of compassion.”

Then the Amoraim perform a remarkable and moving feat of interpretation. If God loves Israel, they reason, then even when he punishes Israel he must manifest that love. The Exile cannot be all bad; it must have redeeming features, which prove that God had the welfare of his people in mind, even as he condemned them to dispersion. Indeed, Rabbi Oshaya says, the dispersion itself is a blessing in disguise. By scattering the Jews around the world, God made sure that their enemies could not exterminate them at one blow. Oshaya once argued this very point with a Roman: If the Romans had not managed to annihilate the Jews after so many years, it was not because they were well-disposed to the Jews, but “because you do not know how to do it.”

To which the Roman responded: “I swear by Gappa, god of the Romans, with this we lie down and with this we rise up.” That is, the Roman admitted that his people think of nothing else, morning and night, than how to exterminate the Jews. This, the Talmud takes for granted, is the condition of the Jewish people in exile: defenseless before hate-filled enemies, constantly vulnerable to persecution and violence. The one protection God granted them was to scatter them around the known world, in Rome and Babylonia and elsewhere, so that no single enemy could destroy them all at once. And for this, Oshaya implies, we must be genuinely grateful to God. Oshaya’s speech is one of the most astonishing things I’ve read in the Talmud so far: Nothing could be more eloquent of the despair the rabbis felt in Exile, or of their deep need to find a reason, however slight, to keep praising God.


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