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Tying a Talmudic Knot

What my father and I learned by studying Talmud—and each other

Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman
September 20, 2019
Photocollage: Tablet Magazine
Photocollage: Tablet Magazine

It was during the second Nixon administration that I began my first Talmud sessions with my father. I was 8 years old.

He would come up the stairs on Sabbath afternoons and knock at my door. “You want to loin,” he would ask, Brooklyn-izing the word “learn.” He must have known something of his own hunger was cloaked in his request—after all, a father must teach his son—but this task, he wore heavily. I could hear the creaks in the staircase as his weight shifted from step to step, as though he bore the tablets of Moses up the stairs to my room. For my father there was intensity, urgency, a single-minded determination, like a cow with a pained, swollen udder full of milk. Such was his state when he came to my door.

It mattered not whether it was a gloved knock or ham-fisted, the knock had to be answered and I did so—never completely out of guilt, never completely out of love, but out of a combination of the two, a torturous guilty love.

It was summertime and I wanted to run away or be left alone to my daydreams, my army men. At the age of 8, I used to read the newspapers, the now-defunct Long Island Press and The New York Times. I read about our “progress” in the war in Southeast Asia, the casualty counts, the heavy fighting in Hue along the Perfume River. There was a weekly series in the Long Island Press called “I was a prisoner of the Viet Cong” about a former POW who ate mosquitoes to survive and whose captors inexplicably set him free.

However much I wanted to be left alone, resistance to Dad was out of the question. I sensed his fragility, his need for me and I wanted to be close to him.

Downstairs, two tomes of Talmud waited for me on the dining room table. There was an open bag of hard pretzels and for my father, the ubiquitous glass of bubbling seltzer that misted his eyeglasses when he brought it to his lips.

And so, under the bright lights of the dining room chandelier we began:

What happens if a man exchanges a cow for a donkey but somewhere at the exact moment of the sale, which is done by proxy, the cow gives birth? Who gets to keep the calf?

I was with my father; there was no other place in the world I could be. I basked in the gigantism of his personality, of his religion and rabbinical rectitude, but it was dangerous. My father would get angry when my attention would inevitably wander. Sometimes he’d scream at me: You will amount to nothing! His dissatisfaction was sharp like chrain. The disappointment. It was fearsome. And to the extent that a father is God to a young man, I believed that God, too, was disappointed in me.

And so this routine played out nearly every Sabbath of my early youth. First the trap, the seduction—the ostensibly meek knocking at the door like a supplicant—then the invasion. And it was long, many hours: 4:30 in the afternoon until 8:30 at night. I would watch the minute hand on the big clock in the kitchen make tortured advance. From where would come my salvation? One always had to stop learning for prayers, such was the custom, yet in the hot summer months they prayed late, so from the synagogue there was no solace or respite. But even when the Sabbath was short in winter, God Himself could not save me because sometimes my father would get so wrapped up in teaching me, he would not go to prayers. He just kept at it.

“There’s nothing more important than learning Torah,” he said. “Nothing!”

And slowly, surprisingly, improbably, under the blistering heat of his teaching, in this disorganized painful way, I agreed and the religion dripped into me. This particular tract of Talmud dealt with the burden of proof. Hamotzi mechavero alav ha’raya—something like: Possession is nine-tenths of the law.

Dad would put on his glasses and read from the text:

One man says, “The cow gave birth before the sale,” and the other man says, “It happened after the sale,” the rabbis say, “You split the difference in value.”

Then he would take off his glasses to talk to me. “Inevenik,” he would say—now you read it.

Ha’makhlif parah b’khamor v’yalda. “A person who exchanges a cow for a donkey and the cow gives birth …”

I felt important reading those words. They were thousands of years old and yet also way ahead of their time, my father explained to me: It was a sophisticated form of sale, like a stock transfer. I read well and I knew this pleased him, but he was on a tear, part tenacity, part ecstasy. He was not going to let go.

“Does anything bother you about this?”

What could bother me? A man exchanges a cow for a donkey and they squabble over the offspring. I imagined the cow to be somewhere far away like Chicago or even India. She’s having a calf and perhaps there is a big clock in the barn like I used to see in Manhattan that tells you what the time is in New York, Tokyo, Moscow, and Paris. The Talmud says to split it. That sounds reasonable.

“Something should bother you,” my father said, with utmost seriousness. This time he took off his glasses and put them back on in haphazard rhythm. When we studied on non-Sabbath days, he had a Tiparillo cigar in his mouth and every few minutes, he would tap the ash into a metal ashtray shaped like a bird.

Read the first line of the Gemara, he commanded. I read: “Why do the rabbis say ‘split’? Whoever possesses the cow should keep the calf!”

“Exactly,” he said with satisfaction. Possession is nine-tenths of the law!

Even as I took in his Torah, I heard the whispers of another question, simultaneous and silent: What does one do with one’s father? What was I going to do with a father like this? And what was I going to do with his religion? This compound question would become the central theme through all the days and years of my life.

Indeed, what do you do with a father like this? A fully modern man, a member of the honor school of Greek and Latin at DeWitt Clinton High School a denizen of the city’s Polo Grounds, a devotee of the New York Giants and the pitcher Carl Hubble, yet zealously devoted to the word of Moses, uttered first 4,000 years ago.

And when he said that Torah was the most important thing, I decided to agree, to believe. Partly out of fear, partly out of love, partly out of a belief offered in both fear and love, father to son, I decided to believe him.

In those early days it was easy to believe because my dad and I were one. Even beyond my bar mitzvah when I went away from home to live and study at yeshiva in Brooklyn, my father would drive every night from Queens to learn with me. Of course, as always, I wanted him to (he was a tremendous help) and didn’t want him to (it was too much). In the automatic thinking that goes on between parent and child, you could say that we both willed it to be so.

But why did I have this arrangement with my father when other boys and young men did not?

Over time I began to realize that what I had going with Dad, even as it was as loving as any father-son relationship could be, was also a knot.

How did I know this? Because even as I grew much older, wherever I was, no matter the age, the time of day, the season, I would hear in my mind the familiar (if also dreaded) knock at the door. You want to loin? I would bludgeon myself sometimes to open a blatt gemara, a page of Talmud, as if my father were standing over me. And I felt powerless to resist as though I were still 8 years old and my father was still over my head.

This call to study was far too brittle, too shrill a call, to draw its strength purely from the waters of religion and belief. Rather, its inscrutable, insistent power stemmed from the perverse lure of the knot—a knot wound so thick and tight, I despaired of ever getting loose.

After all, I understood that not all knots can be untied, certainly not in the usual sense. The Bible records famously that the brothers tell Joseph that Benjamin cannot come down to Egypt because he is “knotted” with this father. A separation would have meant death. That verse was in my bar mitzvah parsha: “and his [Benjamin’s] soul was bound with his [Jacob’s] soul.”


Freud well knew of emotional knots. He understood that it was folly, even dangerous, to untie them in the usual straightforward manner, though one often tries. Rather, he invented and then prescribed psychoanalysis as a means to loosen oneself from the hard grip of psychic forces.

Rather than untie the knot, he suggested that one might investigate its purpose. Why have two people or a group knotted themselves together instead of relating to one another? Why do we cling to each other instead of finding out more about each other and about ourselves?

Psychoanalysis proposes we study our problems for a good long time and the knots will loosen by themselves. A psychoanalyst operates as a good hairdresser. Rinse, lovingly lather, and repeat.

I repeated my life hundreds, thousands of times in order to understand my father and myself. Why would I coerce myself to study Talmud only to have my mind wander again and again because I wanted to do something else?

There is an understanding in psychoanalysis—which in a sense is the study of repetitive behavior—that if you can remember something you don’t have to repeat it anymore. And so one day after many years, I decided to remember it all in detail and a new thought came to me.

It seemed to me that I had made a decision at the age of 8 not just to submit to study the Talmud, but to study my father—and myself. Somehow, this idea that there was something in me and in my father independent of the text that was worthy of study made all the difference. I would now sit in the bais medrash and study my chevrusa, and all the people in the bais medrash. Who were we and why had we come? With this new understanding I found myself able to concentrate for long periods of time—and even enjoy myself.

Once again, I heard my father’s words: Does this bother you?

Indeed. When my father labored up the stairs, he might as well have been asking not do you want to learn, but do you want to learn about me? Do you love me enough to want to learn about me?

Freud said that human beings always hunger in great excess of what the other can provide. Now I understood why Dad Brooklyn-ized the word “learn” by saying loin. He was up to something. My father in his humanness may have wanted a bond with me that no son could ever give—certainly not at the age of 8.


Now, with this insight, and already past 50 years old, I went back to the text of my very first Talmud session from so long ago.

“If a cow that is exchanged for a donkey, calves at the moment of sale, who then possesses it?” The words rang with an eerie prescience.

Instead of the manifest content of the text about a cow and a calf, I heard latent, unconscious content on the subject of possession. Does a man possess his son or does the son possess the father? Is possession not nine-tenths of the law, the rabbis ask? The Talmud answers that we are talking about a case where the cow is in the meadow—it is in no one’s possession. In such a case, the calf (or, in practice, its value) is split into two.

In those moments with my father in the grip of religious and parental fervor, he had a hunger to possess if not me, then the love I had for him and keep it for himself. I dreaded his knock back then because in the twilight of the Talmud, he demanded my soul. But I would not comply because my love for him was the most precious thing I had—the work of my soul—and it could not be handed over, not even to him.

I had to reject him, but not entirely. That is why I believed him—but I also didn’t, because like the Talmud itself, the soul is not for sale and no one possesses it. It comes in its own time, if it comes at all.


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Alter Yisrael Shimon Feuerman, a psychotherapist in New Jersey, is director of The New Center for Advanced Psychotherapy Studies. He is also author of the Yiddish novel Yankel and Leah.

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