Monday, July 24, 2006

Heleni HaMalka (Yoma 37b)

Rehov Heleni HaMalka is one of those narrow cobblestone streets winding up from Rehov Yaffo into the Russian Compound. Until last week, I had five associations with Heleni HaMalka: a Café Hillel, two popular nightclubs, a French-style restaurant called Bistro, and the imposing castle that houses the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, enclosing a Renaissance-style courtyard. Now, thanks to the tenth mishnah in the third perek of Yoma, I have a deeper understanding of Heleni herself:

Heleni HaMalka made a menorah of gold at the entrance to the heychal, and she also made a tablet of gold on which parshat Sotah was written.

The Gemara (Yoma 37b) mentions Heleni amidst a list of all those righteous people who brought significant gifts to the Temple. Heleni, a queen in a kingdom north of Syria in the time of David, converted to Judaism after learning Torah from Jews who passed through her kingdom. Heleni herself visited Jerusalem on several occasions and brought gifts to the Temple, includng the menorah and the Sotah tablet.

The Gemara explains the purpose of these objects, both of which Heleni made herself. The menorah at the entrance to the heychal would deflect the rays of the rising sun each morning, sending out sparks of light all over Jerusalem. These sparks served to notify the inhabitants of the city that it was time for the morning recitation of the Shma.

Heleni's other contribution, the tablet containing Parshat Sotah, was used by the Kohen Gadol whenever a woman suspected of adultery (a Sotah) was brought to the Temple by her jealous husband. The Kohen Gadol would write the part of the Torah containing the laws of the Sotah (Numbers 5) onto a piece of paper, which he would then dissolve in the waters of bitterness. And the woman, whose hair was disheveled by the Kohen Gadol, was then forced to drink this water in a test of her loyalty to her husband. If she had not betrayed him, then she would become pregnant after drinking the water; but if she was indeed guilty, then her belly would distend and her thigh would sag and she would become "a curse and an imprecation" among the people of Israel. The Sotah's fate, then, was determined by the way her body responded to the drinking of the bitter waters containing the words from Heleni's tablet.

So Heleni, one of the few women mentioned in the Talmud as an agent in her own right, was responsible for telling the people when to say Shma and for ensuring that the Sotah ritual was carried out properly. I find both of these roles intriguing. Even though the recitation of Shma is considered a positive time-bound commandment--one of those mitzvoth from which women are traditionally exempt--it was actually a woman's contribution that ensured that the mitzvah was performed at the right time of day. And the instructions for the Sotah ritual, in which the men (both the priest and the husband) always take the active role while the hapless wife is forced to passively comply, were written out on a tablet donated by a woman--as if to say that not everything is part of a patriarchal master plan.

The Talmud seems to share my sense of surprise and intrigue at Heleni's contributions, as revealed by the use of the word "af": "Heleni imo asta nivreshet shel zahav al petach heychal…v'AF hi asta tavla shel zahav…." The rhetorical effect is something like, "Heleni made a menorah… and lo, she even made a tablet of gold!" The same word, "af," appears in Masechet Megillah (and elsewhere), where we are told that women are obligated in the mitzvah of hearing the megillah "Ki'AF hen hayu b'oto ha-nes" – "for lo, even they were involved in that same miracle [of the Purim story]" (REF TK AND CHECK IS THAT RIGHT?). This language suggests that we might have thought otherwise. You think women don't have to hear megillah? Well actually, it is a queen named Esther who is the heroine of the story! And you think a woman wouldn't have made a menorah to announce the time of Shma? Well actually, Queen Heleni made something even more surprising as well!

As far as I know, there is no gold on Rehov Heleni HaMalka. But the next time I sit at Café Hillel sipping coffee in the early morning, I will look out for the rays of the sun sending out sparks of light into the Jerusalem sky.

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Rime of the Ancient Talmudist (Ketubot 62b)

Rabbi Chanina ben Chakinay set out for the home of his rabbi at the end of the wedding of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Rabbi Shimon said to Rabbi Chanina, "Wait for me, and I'll come with you." He [R. Chanina] did not wait. He went, and he sat learning at the home of his rabbi for twelve years. By the time he left, all the roads of the city had changed, and he did not know how to get home. He went and sat by the river. He heard young girls calling out, "Bat Chakinay, Bat Chakinay, fill up your jug and let's go." He said, "This must be our child!" He followed her. His wife was sitting and sifting flour. She lifted up her eyes, saw him, her heart leaped up, and her soul fled from her. Bar Chakinay said, "Master of the Universe! Is this a proper reward for the humble?" He asked for mercy upon his wife, and she lived. (Ketubot 62b)

This aggadah is part of a longer series of aggadot about Torah scholars who choose the value of study over the value of spending time at home. Following on the heels of a mishnah about the frequency with which a Torah scholar is obligated to have sex with his wife, this next aggadic section of the Gemara describes several rabbis who abandon their wives for long periods of time in order to study in the Beit Midrash. One rabbi stays away from home for so long that his young bride becomes infertile; and another stays in the study house for so many years that his community assumes he is dead. Essentially, then, this sugya is about the tension between family and career – in amoraic terms.

Of all these aggadot, it is the one I quote above that intrigues me most, perhaps because of its rich matrix of symbols and associations. The story begins at the end of a wedding, which marks the start of married life. Instead of internalizing the values and obligations outlined in the ketubah, the ever-pious wedding guest (with long grey beard and glittering eye) rushes off after the festivities to go study Torah. Yet the Talmud suggests that perhaps Bar Chakinay knows, on some level, that his conduct is not entirely above-board. After all, he refuses to wait for his newly-married friend who wishes to come with him to the Beit Midrash. Bar Chakinay may simply be too compulsive to delay his journey; but I suspect that he realizes that it would not be wise for his friend to desert his new bride. And so he sets off alone.

O sweeter than the marriage feast, 'Tis sweeter far to me…

Twelve years go by, and then it is time to go home. The Gemara does not explain why Bar Chakinay leaves the Beit Midrash when he does. Does he suddenly feel pangs of longing for his wife and children? Does his rabbi insist that he return home? Did an albatross suddenly fly through the fog? In any case, by the time he finally leaves, all the roads of the city have changed – a magical realist trope worthy of Borges or Allende. Bar Chakinay has, quite literally, lost his way – he has no sense of orcha d'milta, the path that a person should follow in this world. And so he sits by the river, the place of weeping, and stares off into space.

I looked upon the rotting sea / And drew my eyes away.

But God seems to want Bar Chakinay to find his way home. Suddenly he hears the name of his own daughter shouted out by the children playing at the water's edge. Or rather, it is his own name that he hears, since she is just Bat to his Bar. The children cry, "Fill up your jug and let's go" – a reference, perhaps, to filling up the empty vessel that is his wife's womb, a task Bar Chakinay has long neglected. "This must be our child," he says, and his use of the plural is striking. Perhaps he feels so estranged from his daughter that he cannot call her "my daughter" anymore. Presumably he would not even have recognized her had the children not identified her, since she was no more than a baby when he left home.

Bar Chakinay, who has chosen the value of Torah above all others, follows his daughter along the new and unfamiliar roads of his hometown. At the threshold of his house, he finds his wife sifting flour, a task that stands in contradistinction to Torah study. "Im ein kemach ein Torah; im ein Torah, ein kemach," as the Mishnah teaches in Pirkei Avot. Man cannot live either by Torah or by bread alone.

Bar Chakinay's woman of valor has managed to survive for over a decade without her husband. She has raised her children to Bar Mitzvah age; she has made a living by means of the work of her own hands. A few times each year, in moments of weakness or prayer, she would look out through the window longingly -- though she dared not whisper "He comes, he comes." And then, when she had all but given up hope, he came. Bar Chakinay's wife looked up, saw her husband standing before her, and died of shock -- "parach rucha." She was so accustomed to a world in which her husband did not exist that the sight of him upset her whole sense of reality.

The souls did from their bodies fly.

Fortunately, Bar Chakinay, after twelve years in the Beit Midrash, was on intimate terms with God. He was able to revive his wife through his prayers alone, on the merit of all his years of study. Herein lies the paradox. Had Bar Chakinay not studied for so long, God might not have interceded on his behalf. But had he not been away at the Beit Midrash for so many years, his wife would not have been so surprised to see him, and she would not have suddenly died. In any case, God answers his prayer, and she is revived.

He prayeth best, who loveth best / All things both great and small.

Did Bar Chakinay ever go back to the Beit Midrash? Or did the red-lipped, white-as-leprosy Life-in-Death of his wife jolt him into an awareness of the value of being a good husband and father? I'd like to think that the couple lived happily ever after, sifting flour together while teaching Torah to their daughter….

A sadder and a wiser man / He rose the morrow morn.

A Triptych of Tears

When Rav Rechumi used to frequent the home of [his teacher] Rava in the city of Machoza, he would always return to his home on Erev Yom Kippur. One year, Rava's lecture lasted longer than usual. His wife waited for him at home. "He is coming, he is coming," she reassured herself. But he did not come. She grew weak and faint, and tears began to fall from her eyes. Her husband, at that moment, was sitting atop a roof. The roof crumbled beneath him, and he died.
(Ketubot 62b)

* * *

Her tears fell with the dews at even
Her tears fell ere the dews were dried;
She could not look on the sweet heaven,
Either at morn or even-tide.
After the flitting of the bats,
When thickest dark did trance the sky,
She drew her casement-curtain by,
And glanced athwart the glooming flats.
She only said, "The night is dreary,
He cometh not," she said;
She said, "I am aweary, aweary,
I would that I were dead!"
(from Tennyson's "Mariana")

* * *

When a tear falls, that Thou falls which it bore,
So thou and I are nothing then, when on a diverse shore…..
Weep me not dead, in thine arms, but forbear
To teach the sea what it may do too soon.
Let not the wind
Example find
To do me more harm than it purposeth;
Since thou and I sigh one another's breath,
Whoe'er sighs most is cruelest, and hastes the other's death.
(from Donne's "A Valediction: Of Weeping")

Niddah K'Negged Niddah (a translation)

Translated (by me) from Ba El Ha-Kodesh by Ari Elon (Yediot, 2005)

I. When a woman inseminates herself

There is no phrase more fitting than "when a woman will bring forth seed" (Leviticus 12:2) to characterize the tremendous revolution that is taking place before our very eyes. In today's rapidly-unfolding future, the man is no longer the sole inseminator, and the woman is no longer a receptacle of male seed. Rather, the woman decides how to inseminate herself, when, if at all, to inseminate herself, and with which men or women she will do so.

The future-tense construction "when a woman will bring forth seed" alludes to more than just artificial insemination. This future-tense construction reflects a reality in which nature herself, and God Herself, designates the woman to legislate over all matters of insemination, both of herself and of all Creation. For only this power of legislation will put an end to the violent reign of "and unto your husband will be your desire, and he will rule over you" (Genesis 3:16).

The internalization of the divine power that is inherent in the phrase "when a woman will bring forth seed" will put an end to the reign of the imperious husband, the man who marks his conquered territory with the help of the seed that he sprays and plants on every hilltop and under every blossoming bush.

II. A woman is useless; then her husband makes her into a receptacle

A student of Torah discovers new knowledge. But everything that she discovers has already been given to Moses on Mount Sinai. The insights of Torah scholars is part and parcel of the original divine utterance. When the Divine said to Moses, "when a woman will bring forth seed," She was referring, among other meanings, to a liberated Hebrew language that will be spoken someday in the future.

The Torah has seventy faces. Seventy thousand faces. The linguistic field of the Torah is seeded with the possibility of a more liberated language, one that breaks the bounds of the translations and explanations that we have hitherto known. In contrast to this liberated language of the future stands the linguistic field of the past and the present, much closer to the patriarchal literalism that assumes that the man is forever the inseminator and the woman is forever the inseminated.

The woman of the past was essentially a receptable for male seed. As the Talmud (Sanhedrin 22b) says, "A woman is useless, and God does not make a covenant except with one who makes her into a receptacle, as it says in Isaiah (54:5): 'For He who made you will espouse you -- His name is Lord of Hosts.'"

So long as the woman of the past failed to realize her destiny as a receptacle, she was useless. Then, when her husband espoused her, she underwent a felicitous metamorphosis – not into a butterfly, but into a receptacle. And the man who espoused her was converted, through his act of mastering, into a member of the ancient militaristic order whose motto is, "'For He who made you will espouse you -- His name is Lord of Hosts.'"

III. Niddah K'Negged Niddah: Since she spilled the blood of Adam, she was given the mitzvah of niddah

The first husband, Adam, came into existence only by ruling over the legend that was [untranslatable pun: mashal haya/mishel haya]. He ruled over the legend of his wife's desire; he ruled over the legend of his own desire; he ruled over the legend of the Holy Writ; he ruled over the legend of the Torah portion Tazria; he ruled over the legend of Seder Nashim and the legend of Masechet Nidah; and he ruled over the legend of "to what is this similar" [v'mashal l'mah ha-davar domeh].

All his days, Adam would spray his seed and mark his conquered territory in order to continue to rule over his wife's desires; and in order to rule over his own desires; and in order to continue to mark the territory of his dominance with a sign that would soon be obsolete.

He used to say [all quotes in this section come from Breishit Rabah]: "Why is a man prone to seduction whereas a woman is not? Man was created from earth, and drops of water can soak the earth; but Woman was created from bone, and even if bone is watered for several days, it will never become soaked….

And why does a woman have to put on perfume whereas a man does not? Man was created from earth, and earth never stinks; but Woman was created from flesh. If you leave meat sitting out for three days, it will begin to stink….

And why does a man woo a woman, whereas a woman does not woo a man? A parable: A person loses an item – who woos whom? The one who has lost something woos the lost item.

And why does a man deposit seed in a woman, whereas a woman does not deposit seed in a man? A parable: A person holds a pledge in his hand, and he entrusts it to another….

And why does a man go out with his head uncovered, whereas a woman covers her head? A parable: A person committed a sin and was embarrassed, so he would only go out with his head covered and hidden from view.

And why are women the first ones to walk out with the dead body at a funeral? Because women brought death into the world at the beginning of time…..

And why were women given the commandment to light Shabbat candles? Because Eve extinguished the soul of Adam, and thus she was given the commandment to kindle light.

And why was she given the commandment to take challah? Because she corrupted the first man who was the bread-and-butter of the world; thus she was given the mitzvah of taking bread.

And why was she given the mitzvah of nidah? Because she spilled the blood of the first man; therefore she was commanded to count the days of her bleeding."

And were it not that these things were written, it would be impossible to give them voice…..

IV. Nidah K'neged Nidah: Women die in childbirth because they are not careful about the laws of nidah

"Women die in childbirth on account of three sins: They are not careful when it comes to nidah, challah, and lighting the Shabbat candles" (Mishnah Shabbat 2:6). This mishnah has developed into a prayer. Every Friday night, between Kabbalat Shabbat and Maariv, men recite the chapter "Bameh Madlikin," and at the end, they remind themselves of the three sins for which women who are not careful will die in childbirth.

By age six, I knew this prayer by heart, and ever Shabbat I would pray it with intensely devout concentration. I worried about my mother. I remembered the stories of Aunt Nechama and Aunt Miriam, the two sisters of Grandma Rivka, who died in childbirth. I knew that my mother had already lit the Shabbat candles; and I knew she had laid the challot on the white tablecloth. But no one knew how to tell me what it meant to be "careful about the laws of nidah" – and so I continued to worry.

Now I understand even less, and still I worry. I understand that being careful about the mitzvah of challah is not about laying the challot on the white tablecloth, but rather about buying products that say "Challah has been taken." And I understand that "Every woman and daughter lights Sabbath candles" is a Chabad slogan. And I understand that being careful about Nidah is a thousand times more problematic and more complex than being careful about lighting candles or taking challah. Above all, I know that "a woman who brings forth seed and gives birth" is, if nothing else, a woman who has not died in childbirth.

Monday, July 10, 2006


Like Poetry in Motion on the New York City subways, Shir-Rehov has come to Jerusalem. As part of a new public art project launched in mid-May, Hebrew poems now hang from the lampposts of all the major roads and pedestrian malls, bringing Bialik and T. Carmi and Leah Goldberg into the Jerusalem streets.

Here is the poem that hangs around the corner from my apartment [my translation]:


Her beauty is not known. The wind
Has not told of it to the woods. The woods
Have not told of it to the picket in the fence.
The picket in the fence has said it hence: Her beauty,
I have said, it is not known and where and whence
The picket made of wood says, now a fence.

[Note on translation: The Hebrew word "etz" appears three times in the poem. The first two times it means tree; the third time it means wood. The gestalt shift from "etz/tree" to "etz/wood" is fundamental to the unfolding of the poem; I used the term woods/wood in an attempt to approximate this effect.]

[Note on translation: I preserved the rhyme scheme of the original, with the only rhymes in the poem existing within line four and between lines five and six. However, in the Hebrew it is "gader" and "omer" that rhyme in both places; whereas I had to use both "hence" and "whence" to make sense (so to speak).]

[PS – If this poem sounds familiar, it may be because there are echoes of Byron: "She walks in beauty like the night."]

Book Recommendation

THE SEA - by John Banville - (Knopf, 2005) - Excerpt:

"Strange, is it not, the way they lodge in the mind, the seemingly inconsidered things? Behind the Cedars, where a corner of the house met the tussocked lawn, under a crooked black drainpipe, there stood a water butt, long gone by now, of course. It was a wooden barrel, a real one, full-size, the staves blackened with age and the iron hoops eaten to frills by rust. The rim was nicely beveled, and so smooth that one could hardly feel the joins between the staves; smoothly sawn, that is, and planed, but in texture the sodden grain-end of the wood there was slightly furry, or napped, rather, like the pod of a bulrush, only tougher to the touch, and chillier, and more moist. Although it must have held I do not know how many scores of gallons, it was always full almost to the brim, thanks to the frequency of rain in these parts, even, or especially, in summer. When I looked down into it the water seemed black and thick as oil. Because the barrel listed a little the surface of the water formed a fat ellipse, that trembled at the slightest breath and broke into terror-stricken ripples when a train went past."

Friday, July 07, 2006

Bilaam in Baka: Beware!

Ha-mehalech baderech v'eyn imo l'vaya, ya-asok ba-Torah.
(Gemara Eruvin, REF TK)

I am increasingly convinced that Torah maps on to my life like a horoscope – that is, I can find connections wherever I search for them, even though these connections, like the lines between stars that form constellations, may exist only in my imagination.

Take today, for instance. I woke up late and was frustrated that I had lost two hours of work time – only to discover, an hour later, that Daf Yomi today was about "zrizin makdimim lamitzvot" and the importance of getting an early start to the day. (The proof text, Vayashkem Avraham baboker va-yachavosh et chamoro, appears again in parshat Balak, where it is Bilaam who gets up early and saddles his ass. Zrizin makdimim for other things as well, it seems.)

I noticed the parallel between these two psukim because I was learning the leyning for parshat Balak today when I almost got run over by a car. I was walking in one of those narrow Baka streets where cars rarely drive, holding the folded-over xeroxed copy of Shlishi in my hands and chanting aloud as I walked. All of a sudden, I heard a car inching up behind me. I moved over to the right to let the car pass, but it kept crawling along, maddeningly slow. So without looking behind me, I moved over to the left side of the lane, thinking that the car might pass on the other side instead. But no. At this point, I was getting very frustrated. I just wanted some peace and quiet to learn my Torah reading – would this car move on already?

Suddenly, I heard someone call my name from out of the car. Darn! Was this someone who knew me, and who would now rebuke me for reading while walking? Sure enough, it was E, my colleague at work, who already thinks I'm too much of an intellectual for my own good. "Ilana, you need to be careful, I could have run you over." I wanted to tell her that if only she had passed me, she would not have been in the way; I wanted to tell her to leave me alone; I wanted to say a lot of things, but instead of cursing, I said Shabbat shalom and continued on my merry way to the bakery, learning Shlishi as I walked.

It was a full five minutes later when it dawned on me: Here I was, learning the aliyah about Bilaam riding his donkey with the angel that intercepts his path, when my own path was intercepted. And here I wanted to call out in anger, but instead I had to be polite and smile graciously. Granted, I was on my way to buy challah, and not to curse Israel – but the parallels are still striking.

The moral of this story is that it's OK to read while you're walking – just be careful about what you read. You never know when a sword-bearing angel may suddenly stand in your way, causing your trusty donkey to shove your foot up against the wall. Fortunately, for me, it didn’t get that far – yet.

Chariots of Fire

The Gemara in the second chapter of Yoma returns again and again to the story in the opening mishnah of the perek, a story about relay races in the Beit Hamikdash. As someone who likes to run, I think the story is worth retelling.

The first mitzvah that had to be performed in the Temple in the mornings was trumat ha-deshen, the removal of the ash from the altar. This job fell upon one of the kohanim serving in the Temple on that particular day. Barishona, in the beginning, says our mishnah, kol mi she-rotzeh litrom et ha-mizbeach, torem. In the beginning, anyone who wanted to clear off the ashes could do so. However, then this task became popular, and many kohanim began to compete against one another for the job. They used to run up the ramp that led to the altar, and whoever got to the altar first was the winner. And what if two kohanim tied for first-place, asks the Mishnah? Well, then the referee [memuneh], would say to them, "Stick out a finger" [hitzbiyu]. Each of the two tying kohanim then had the option of sticking out one finger or two [achat o shtayim], and the referee would count off to see who was the winner. I imagine that this count-off was something like eeny-meeny-miney-mo or rock-paper-scissors. (Were there scissors in the beit hamikdash? Was there paper? Maybe it was more like rock-vessel-ladles, but you get the idea.) The mishnah then adds, as a sort of parenthetical, ein motz'i'in agudal bamikdash: It is forbidden to stick out a thumb in the Beit Hamikdash. What was so offensive about sticking out the thumb? Perhaps it was forbidden to hitchhike? (Doubtful.) Or maybe the thumb was sort of like the middle finger today, as hinted at in the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet ("Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?")? Hard to know. In any case, this eeny-meeny-miney-mo game involved fingers but no thumbs.

Maaseh she-hayu, says the mishnah next, introducing a particular anecdotal instantiation of the general practice described above. Once upon a time, two kohanim ran neck-and-neck up the ramp in a race to win the right to do trumat ha-deshen. (It's still not clear to me why removing the ashes was so desirable a task; maybe in the days before movies and video games, sweeping up soot was a popular pastime.) One kohen pushed his fellow kohen, and the fellow kohen then fell and broke his foot. Did kohen #1 deliberately try to trip kohen #2? Did kohen #2 fall off the ramp? The mishnah, ever sparing in its language, does not elaborate (although the Gemara does go on to relate another story in which one kohen actually knifes his competitor). The story ends here, and we move on to the moral.

V'cheyvan she-rau beit din she-vau lidei sakana, and whereupon the court saw that the kohanim were becoming endangered, they instituted a change in practice: From now on, the person who cleared off the ash would be chosen not by race but by lottery, and this was the first lottery that took place in the Beit Hamikdash.

The Gemara has a lot to say about this mishnah – far too much for me to summarize here. The topics covered include:
- Are people more inclined to stay up late or to wake up early?
- When is it permissible to count Jews?
- How many times did Saul and David sin in the Bible?
- Should Jews take revenge on one another?
- What if a person has a disability that enables him to stick out only one finger at a time?
- Which mitzvah was taken more seriously: the prohibition against murder, or the commandment to purify vessels?
- Who is allowed to wear the kohen gadol's hand-me-downs?

The next mishnah in this perek is about the second lottery, which determined who got to slaughter the animal for sacrifice and sprinkle the blood on the altar. Stay tuned!