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The Rabbis’ Mental World

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

Adam Kirsch
October 16, 2012
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine, original photo Shutterstock)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine, original photo Shutterstock)

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

On account of the recent holidays, it’s been three weeks since the last installment of this column. During that time Daf Yomi readers completed Berachot, the first tractate of the Talmud, and moved on to the second, titled Shabbat. Next week I plan to rejoin the Daf Yomi calendar and begin looking at the complex regulations that govern work on Shabbat. But I couldn’t say goodbye to Berachot without spending some time on its last and most fascinating chapter, which does more than any other to bring the modern reader into the rabbis’ mental and social world.

The first eight chapters of Berachot are composed primarily of halakhah, or Jewish law—close legal and textual reasoning about the correct timing, manner, and language of the major Jewish prayers. Aggadah, the folklore and anecdotes and proverbs that constitute the more imaginative and accessible part of the Talmud, comes in the interstices of the halakhic argument. But chapter nine of Berachot is just about all aggadah—a cornucopia of rabbinic views on subjects ranging from meteorology to embryology to bathroom etiquette to dream interpretation. “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it,” Pirkei Avot famously says of the Torah, and this section of the Berachot seems like the kind of thing Ben Bag-Bag had in mind.

The chapter begins with a Mishnaic catalog of prayers to say on special occasions, setting the miscellaneous tone for what follows. Some of these formulas are familiar: We learn in Berachot 54a that we should say “Baruch dayan ha’emet,” “Blessed is the true judge,” when we hear about bad news (such as a death), and that we should say the Shehecheyanu when we celebrate a major life event (the Talmud’s examples are building a new house and buying new clothes). Other prayers relate to rarer and more specific occasions: seeing the Mediterranean Sea, earthquakes, great natural features like mountains and rivers.

At the same time, the Talmud offers some principles to guide the spirit of prayer, in a way that previous sections of Berachot have mostly refrained from doing. In an earlier column I discussed the case of Rabbi Chanina, whose prayers were uniquely effective, and who knew that his requests would be granted by God when his words were “fluent in his mouth.” This raised questions about the efficacy of prayer, to which the Gemara now gives a clear answer, in Berachot 55a: “Three things cause a person’s sins to be recalled. These are: going near a leaning wall, expecting one’s prayer to be fulfilled, and submitting judgment of one’s fellow to Heaven.” Even while praying, you are not supposed to expect an answer to your prayer; such a demand tempts the anger of Heaven. “But what then can one do?” the Gemara asks itself and replies simply, “One should increase his reliance on God’s mercy.”

This trusting, almost fatalistic attitude is reinforced by several Mishnaic precepts. In Berachot 54a, the Mishna instructs that “to cry out over that which is past is to utter a prayer in vain.” For instance, if your wife is pregnant (the assumption throughout the Talmud is of course that only men will be reading it), you should not pray for a male child, because the gender of the fetus is already determined and can’t be changed.

Actually, the Gemara goes on to explain in Berachot 60a, things are not quite so straightforward. In Genesis, the rabbis believe, Leah was able to “render a judgment” about her pregnancy and determine that she would give birth to a girl, Dinah. Still, that case doesn’t create a legal precedent, for as the rabbis say with wonderful pragmatism, “We cannot take heed of a miraculous incident.” God may intervene to help a perfect person like the matriarch, but we can’t expect that he still does so in our time, for people like us.

In non-miraculous pregnancies, the rabbis hold, the gender of the fetus is determined after the first 40 days. Thus it is acceptable to pray for a boy until the 40th day; after that, you should pray only for a safe and healthy pregnancy. (There is, of course, no suggestion that it might be wrong to prefer a male child; that a daughter is a disappointment is taken for granted by the rabbis, as it is in many parts of the Third World even now.)

If, however, you subscribe to the embryological theory of Rav Yitzchak, even praying during the first 40 days of pregnancy doesn’t make sense, since the gender of the child is determined at conception. In his view, both men and women ejaculate during intercourse: If the man “emits seed” first, the child is a female; if the woman emits seed first, the child is a male. To which the Gemara offers a typically ingenious reply: It is when both partners ejaculate simultaneously that the gender of the child is uncertain, and then prayer is allowed.

All of this raised the question for me of how contemporary Orthodox readers make sense of parts of the Talmud, like this one, that are based on clearly erroneous scientific ideas. When Aristotle makes empirical mistakes—as, for instance, when he says that women have fewer teeth than men—it’s easy to say that he was simply wrong, that he lacked modern ideas of scientific observation and method. With the Talmud, which grounds religious obligations on its empirical assertions, things must be more complicated. I’m sure much thought has been given to this problem and—as always—I would be grateful to hear from knowledgeable readers in the comments.

This was just one of dozens of striking and surprising themes in chapter 9 of Berachot. I can only sketch a few of the others:

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

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