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The Talmud as Epic

This week’s ‘Daf Yomi’ brings to life rabbinic heroes on their intellectual battlefield: larger-than-life figures worthy of Greek drama

Adam Kirsch
January 10, 2017
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Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

The rabbis of the Talmud appear in the text in two very different ways. When it comes to halakhah, the legal analysis and debate that is the core of the Talmud, the rabbis are pure mind, whose only individuality consists in their legal philosophy. It is tremendously important in the Talmud to be correct and consistent about which authority is responsible for which opinion, and the Gemara often spends long stretches reasoning about this subject. But in these contexts, the rabbis’ names often function simply as logical markers standing for a particular interpretive strategy. Thus we know that Hillel tended to be lenient while Shammai tended to be strict; but this identification does not in and of itself tell us anything about Hillel and Shammai as real people. Indeed, the Talmud speaks rather of the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai, suggesting that what we are dealing with here are schools of thought, rather than individual human beings.

But when it comes to aggadah, the Talmud’s passages of lore and legend, these one-dimensional names suddenly spring to life. The rabbis, it turns out, were not just law-producing machines; they were also saints and miracle-workers, friends and enemies, politicians and businessmen. Read one way, the Talmud is an epic, in which the rabbis play the role of heroes. But they are heroes of a particular kind: they fight not with swords but words, and the rewards they seek are not kingdoms but holiness and intellectual authority. This elevation of the intellectual and spiritual over the physical constitutes a particularly Jewish vision of heroism, which continues to play a central role in both religious and secular Jewish culture today.

In Chapter Seven of Tractate Bava Metzia, however, we had an unusual glimpse of the rabbis as bodies, not just minds. What, in fact, should a Jewish hero look like? Perhaps like Rabbi Yochanan, who was wont to boast about his beauty, saying: “I alone remain of the beautiful people of Jerusalem.” The Gemara goes on to evoke Yochanan’s appearance, not by describing him, but by offering a poetic metaphor: “One who wishes to see the beauty of Rabbi Yochanan should bring a silver goblet from the smithy and fill it with red pomegranate seeds and place a diadem of red roses upon the lip, and position it between the sunlight and the shade. That luster is a semblance of Rabbi Yochanan’s beauty.” Beauty usually appears in the Talmud as a feminine concern; the rabbis regularly comment on women’s right to beautify themselves with jewelry and cosmetics. But here it turns out that Jewish men can also be surpassingly beautiful, with a delicate, effulgent beauty.

A different kind of Jewish body is represented by Rabbi Yishmael and Rabbi Elazar, who are said in Bava Metzia 84a to have been extremely fat. When would they would meet, the Gemara relates, “it was possible for a pair of oxen to enter and fit between them, under their bellies, without touching them.” This does not sound like a compliment, exactly, and a certain Roman noblewoman once insulted the pair, saying, “Your children are not your own”: That is, she implied it was impossible for Yishmael and Elazar to have sexual intercourse with their wives because their enormous bellies would get in the way. But the rabbis responded in terms that suggest that physical bulk was also a form of manliness: For any obstacle posed by the rabbis’ bellies was overcome by the even greater size of their penises. “The organ of Rabbi Yishmael was the size of a jug of nine kav” and that of Rabbi Yochanan was the size of five kav. It’s not certain exactly how large this is, because the measure of a kav is disputed; but the implication is clear enough. Being bulky and well-endowed was evidently a source of pride for these men of intellect.

In addition to physical size, the rabbis were also socially and politically prominent in Jewish society, which meant that they were exposed to particular dangers. At the time the Mishna was being compiled, in the second century CE, the former kingdom of Judea was under harsh Roman occupation; one famous story is told about how Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai and his son, the obese Elazar, hid in a cave for many years to escape the hand of the Roman authorities. In Bava Metzia 83b, however, we learn that Elazar himself was co-opted by the Romans in a particularly ambiguous way. Elazar once gave advice to a Roman officer on the best way to catch thieves: Look for a man sleeping in a tavern during the daytime. If he is a Torah scholar, he is probably sleeping because he stayed up all night studying; if he is a laborer, he probably got up early to work. But if he has no good excuse, you can assume that he was up all night committing crimes; this is proved by a verse from Psalm 104, which says, “You made darkness and it is night, in which all the beasts of the forest creep forth.”

This was good advice—too good, as it turned out, because word of it reached the “king’s palace,” and the authorities decided to appoint Elazar himself as the officer in charge of arresting thieves. This placed him in a very awkward position with the Jewish community, because under Jewish law it is forbidden for Jews to inform on other Jews to a gentile court. Elazar pleaded that his work was actually beneficial to the Jewish community because it meant removing evildoers: “I am eradicating thorns from the vineyard,” he explained. But Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha was not buying this excuse: “Let the Owner of the vineyard come and eradicate His thorns,” he replied, suggesting that it was up to God to keep order among His chosen people. Yehoshua popularized an insulting nickname for Elazar, calling him “vinegar son of wine”—a way of drawing a pointed contrast between Shimon ben Yochai’s holiness and Elazar’s collaboration.

One day, a laundryman was incautious enough to use this expression to Elazar’s face, whereupon Elazar ordered him to be arrested and executed. He was convinced he was doing the right thing: “From the fact that this man acted so insolently by vilifying a Torah scholar, one can conclude that he was a wicked person,” he reasoned. But it also seems clear that Elazar was taking advantage of his power to get revenge for a trivial insult; indeed, he subsequently felt guilty and tried to save the man from execution, but it was too late, and he ended up weeping at the gallows beneath the man’s swinging corpse. But in the end, Elazar was vindicated, because it turned out that the laundryman had been guilty of an especially vile sin: “He and his son both engaged in intercourse with a betrothed young woman on Yom Kippur.” The Talmud thus allows Elazar to save face; but the whole story has an ugly flavor, and it seems like an excellent demonstration of why rabbis should not have the power of policemen.

Another example of rabbinic touchiness comes a page later, when the Gemara tells a story about Reish Lakish and the beautiful Rabbi Yochanan. Reish Lakish, whose story is told in bits and pieces throughout the Talmud, had the most unusual biography of any sage. He was originally a gladiator and a bandit, and in Bava Metzia 84a we learn how he was brought to Torah study. Reish Lakish set upon Rabbi Yochanan while the latter was bathing in a river, aiming to rob him. Yochanan reproached him, saying, “Your strength is for Torah study”: clearly, for the rabbis, study was a physical as well as a mental feat. Reish Lakish replied, “Your beauty is for women”: a fascinatingly ambiguous saying, which can be considered either an insult or a kind of flirtation. Taking advantage of his attraction, Yochanan offered a bargain: If the bandit would devote himself to Torah, Yochanan would give him his own sister, equally beautiful, in marriage.

Thus the men became brothers-in-law, and lifelong study partners, until one unfortunate day when they clashed over a point of law. They were arguing about how a metal implement such as a sword or knife could contract ritual impurity, tumah, and Yochanan impatiently burst out with an insult: “A bandit knows about his banditry,” that is, Reish Lakish would be expert in the law of weapons because he was used to handling them. This way of throwing Reish Lakish’s past in his face is exactly the kind of thing the Talmud forbids—as we read earlier, one must never reproach a repentant sinner, or a convert to Judaism, with his past—and Yochanan’s insult had disastrous results. Reish Lakish fell ill and died, apparently from grief at having quarreled with the man he loved; and this, in turn left Yochanan “sorely pained.”

To comfort him, another rabbi would visit Yochanan and eagerly agree with every legal statement he made. But this kind of flattery only made Yochanan miss Reish Lakish the more: “Are you comparable to the son of Lakish? In my discussions with the son of Lakish, when I would state a matter, he would raise 24 difficulties against me, and I would answer with 24 answers, and the halakhah itself would be broadened.” Such productive debate was infinitely preferable to just being told he was right. In this way, the rabbis replicated, in intellectual and spiritual terms, the competitive ethos of Greek heroic culture; and Yochanan and Reish Lakish can be seen as Jewish versions of Achilles and Patroclus, the loving friends of the Iliad. If no one has ever written a play or novel about this pair, someone should; the tale of love, pride, anger, and regret seems perfect for a tragedy.


Adam Kirsch embarked on the Daf Yomi cycle of daily Talmud study in August, 2012. To catch up on Tablet’s complete archive of more than four years of columns, click here.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.