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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Library of Congress)

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

Is death a punishment? It’s hard to avoid thinking of it that way; yet the universality of death suggests that it is not tailored to the individual, as a just punishment would have to be. Death seems to be something that just happens, often suddenly and randomly, whether we deserve it or not. If death is simply a universal fact, however, how can we go on believing in a just God? Why would he have imposed this terrible ending on all of his creatures, even if they didn’t do anything to deserve it? The Talmud often returns to this complex of questions, and its usual answer is that even those who seem most innocent of sin have done something to deserve punishment. As we read in last week’s Daf Yomi, a person who is accused of a crime is never totally innocent.

As Daf Yomi readers began a new tractate this week—Tractate Chagiga, which deals with the procedures for Temple worship on the three annual festivals—the rabbis once again took up the question of death and punishment. In Chagiga 4b, Rav Yosef quotes a verse from Proverbs, “But there are those who are swept away without justice,” and questions it: “Is there one who goes before his time?” Doesn’t God decide on each death individually, so that we all die exactly when we are supposed to? Apparently not, the Gemara answers—just look at the case of Miriam the “raiser of babies,” or nurse. One day, the Angel of Death told his “agent”—for apparently the business of death involves many angels and spirits—to bring him a woman named Miriam who was a braider of women’s hair. But the agent made a mistake and brought him Miriam the nurse instead, for which the Angel of Death scolded him. “If so,” the agent pleaded, “return her to life.” But the Angel of Death was casual about the mistake: “Since you have already brought her, let her be counted” toward the quota of the dead, he replied.

Here is a straightforward case of injustice: God Himself may not be at fault, but surely the Angel of Death is God’s servant, and the Angel seems quite willing to kill just anyone who happens to come along. Rav Beivai bar Abaye, who we are told frequently kept company with the Angel of Death, challenged the agent: If it was not Miriam the nurse’s turn to die, how did the agent manage to kill her? As it turns out, she had recently had an accident—she burned her foot while cleaning out an oven—and “she was scalded and her luck suffered.” Here dying appears as a collaboration between chance and the Angel’s plan: If you have the bad luck to be hurt or sick, then the Angel can seize the opportunity and kill you.

This does not sound like divine justice, however, and Rav Beivai challenges the Angel of Death: “Do you have the right to act in this manner?” Doesn’t the book of Ecclesiastes say, “One generation passes away, and another generation comes,” suggesting that the span of a human life is predetermined and cannot be changed by luck? To this objection, the Angel gives a cryptic answer: “I shepherd them until the years of the generation are completed, and then I pass them on to Duma”—Duma being the angel who rules the underworld and the souls of the dead. Here death appears as a kind of custodian, making sure that souls move from life into death at the right time.

And if there is a mistake, as with Miriam, Beivai asks, “What do you do with his extra years?” If Miriam was supposed to live until 70 and she died at 40, what becomes of those 30 missing years? The answer is that they are donated as a reward to Torah scholars for meritorious behavior: “I add those years to him and he becomes the deceased’s replacement.” This seems like an especially egregious example of the way the Talmud imagines the whole world as organized for the benefit of Torah sages. Why should Miriam die so that Beivai can live? But to the rabbis, this seems only just: Torah scholars are the people closest to God, so it makes sense that God would reward them, even at the expense of other Jews.

Eavesdropping on someone from under their bed seems much more objectionable than talking before sex.

This fascinating discussion shows us an aspect of Judaism that is ordinarily hidden behind the name of monotheism. The Talmud ordinarily speaks only of God, and it is clear that God is the ultimate judge and the only source of law. But moments like these, when we hear about Duma and the underworld, show that the rabbis believed God ran the universe through a kind of angelic bureaucracy, delegating his powers to sub-deities with their own names and responsibilities. I remember being surprised to read, early in Tractate Berakhot, that the Talmud took for granted the existence of demons, which are said to surround us at all times. By now I am less surprised, but still fascinated by the way the Jewish insistence on God’s unity—“the Lord our God, the Lord is one”—made room for a polytheistic imagination.

The story of Miriam the nurse and Rav Beivai arises in the course of a discussion about who is required to make the pilgrimage to the Temple on Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot. In Temple times, these three festivals were the highlights of the Jewish year, when Jews were obligated to come to Jerusalem and offer sacrifices. But the first mishna, in Chagiga 2a, explains that certain categories of Jews are exempt from this obligation. Naturally, women, minors, and slaves do not have to make the pilgrimage, since like most mitzvot this one applies only to adult Jewish males. Neither do “the lame, the blind, and the sick, and the old”—anyone for whom the trip would be a serious hardship. Finally, people whom the law considers physically unsound or impure are exempt, including deaf-mutes, “imbeciles,” and hermaphrodites and tumtums, people with irregular sexual organs.

The Gemara goes on to offer a scriptural basis for each of these exemptions. In the process, the rabbis have occasion to quote a verse from Exodus that provides the basis for the mitzvah of pilgrimage: “Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord God.” This sentence, with the implication that Jews are coming into God’s presence to be judged, causes the rabbis such emotion that many famous sages—Rav Huna, Rabbi Elazar, and more—are said to “cry out” when they read the verse. Each of them offers a complementary verse that points to the harshness of God’s judgment: “When Rabbi Ami reached this verse, he cried [quoting Lamentations]: ‘Let him put his mouth in the dust, perhaps there may be hope.’ He said: A sinner suffers through all this punishment and only perhaps there may be hope?” Likewise, when Rabbi Yochanan reached the verse, he cried out and quoted Ecclesiastes: “For God shall bring every work into the judgment concerning every hidden thing.” If God judges us even for our hidden and unconscious sins, Yochanan asks, how can anyone survive judgment?

Indeed, the rabbis list a number of sins that can bring judgment, even though they may seem trivial. One of these, in Chagiga 5b, is talking “frivolously” to your spouse before sex: Even at such a moment, the rabbis rule, speech should be grave and mindful. This is surely a harsh and puritanical rule, so it is comforting, in a way, to read that even Rav himself did not always obey it. On one occasion, Rav Kahana was lying underneath Rav’s bed—why, and how he got there, the Talmud doesn’t say—and “he heard Rav chatting and laughing with his wife, and performing his needs,” that is, having sex. When Kahana upbraided him for idle talk, Rav replied, “Kahana, leave, as this is not proper conduct.” Indeed, eavesdropping on someone from under their bed seems much more objectionable than talking before sex. And in any case, Rav had an excuse for chatting: It is permitted when a man has to “appease” his wife. One hopes that Rav and his wife were not the only couple to take advantage of this loophole to enjoy a little light-hearted intimacy.

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