Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Amelia Bedelia marries a Babylonian (Nedarim 66b)

As a child, I was a big fan of the Amelia Bedelia books. This popular series featured a dark stocking and apron-clad housekeeper who was famous for her silly but well-intentioned errors. In Amelia Bedelia Plays Baseball, the eponymous heroine is instructed to run home, so she runs all the way to her house. In Amelia Bedelia Goes to School, she is told to take her seat, so she walks out of the room with her chair. On in on, in story after story, Amelia Bedelia delighted me and countless other children with her literal-mindedness.

Although it is years since I read these books, I was reminded of Amelia Bedelia today when I learned daf yomi, a program in which Jews all over the world participate in a seven-year cycle to learn the entire Talmud at a page-a-day rate. We learned today about a man from Babylonia who married a woman in Eretz Yisrael who was strikingly similar to my favorite housekeeper. Here is the story as rendered on Nedarim 66b:

A man from Babylon came to Israel and married a woman there. He said to her: "Cook me two lentils." She cooked him exactly two lentils. He got angry (literally "he boiled") at her. The next day he said to her, "Cook me a seah's worth of lentils (a very large quantity). She cooked him exactly a seah. He said to her, "Go bring me two pumpkins." She went and brought him two candles (because in Eretz Yisrael, the Babylonian word for pumpkin means candle). He grew furious and said to her, "Go smash these candles against the bava (the Aramaic word for gate). Beside the gate sat the sage Bava ben Buta rendering judgments. She came to him and smashed the candles over his skull. He said to her, "Why did you do that?" She said, "I did as my husband told me." He said: "Since you did your husband's will, God will grant you two sons like Bava ben Buta."

Like Amelia Bedelia, this hapless housewife from Eretz Yisrael can't seem to stay out of trouble. She takes everything literally, and is consequently always in a fix. As with the Amelia Bedelia books, which were written by children's educator Peggy Parish as a way of teaching children about language, the Talmudic story serves as a lesson about the nuances of language (particularly as it varied between Bavel and Eretz Yisrael) and the danger of too much precision. The Talmud is comprised of halacha, legal discourse which deals with the right way to live life in all its minutiae, and aggadah, stories that fly in the face of legalistic details and show life in all its complicated messiness. This passage is of course a part of the aggadah, and it serves remind us that no matter how much we seek to dictate and regulate, there will always be the Amelia Bedelias among us who ensure that life is full of delightful surprises – so long as your name is not Bava ben Buta!

Monday, February 25, 2008

Sonnet: Nedarim 25b

One man lent cash. His friend did not return
The cash but claimed he had. So both men came
To Rava who ruled in a voice most stern:
"Don't tell me. Go to court and say the same."

The borrower arrived at court and leaned
Upon a cane, which secretly alone
He'd stuffed with all the borrowed cash. The fiend!
He handed it to he who'd made the loan

And took the Torah scroll in hand and swore:
"I gave it back." The lender's cheeks did burn
Incensed, he broke the cane. And to the floor
Fell all the coins he'd lent. And thus we learn:

A borrower or lender you may be
But swear so others hear you truthfully.

Sonnet: Nedarim 22a

When Ulah came to Israel, there were two
Men from Bey Chozey flanking him. One stood
Up suddenly and knifed his fellow through --
“Do you think,” he mused, “I did as I should?”

“Er…yes,” poor Ulah stammered, and he bent
To help the dying man to die in peace.
But Ulah had no peace. His heart was rent.
He sought from Rabbi Yochanan release.

“Perhaps I aided sinners!” (His concern) --
“You had no choice,” thus Yochanan assured:
”But was the killer so enraged?! We learn:
To anger we in Israel are inured.”

“In Bavel folks get mad and lives are lost
And this was ere the Jordan had been crossed.”

Friday, February 08, 2008

Extempore Effusions on the Completion of Masechet Nedarim: Prakim 1 and 2

Perek 1: כל כינויי

"I'll be a nazir ere I die!"
Vows a man, but does not specify
On which date. Since we say:
He could die any day
He must start nezirut. Time will fly.

A Nazir vower cannot be late
He must start on the very same date
If he vows near a grave
He can't start to behave
Like one. Try to avoid such a fate.

"Behold you are now sanctified
And you, too" – to the one at his side
Is he bound now to two
What's the poor groom to do
Can both women cry out, "I'm a bride!"

A toilet must be designated
You must know which spot has been slated.
If you say: It is this!
But you don't take a piss
Is there anything that you've created?

Rabbi Abba said: “One time I stood
In front of Rav Huna. We could
Hear a woman in pain
Screaming God's name in vain.”
Huna banned and allowed, as one should.

(8a) For SHF
One who says to his Beit Midrash buddy
"Let us wake up tomorrow and study.”
He must then awake
For he cannot forsake
Torah (or ditch his friend, who'll feel cruddy).

Acha said, "Ashi, am I ill-fated?
I dreamed I was excommunicated
And then reallowed
Was it something I vowed?”
"All our dreams have chaff," Ashi evaded.

Kohelet says, "Better not oath"
Meir: Not to vow's better than both
Vowing unwilling
To fill; and fulfilling
Yehuda, it seems, was less loath.

Hillel the Elder, it's said,
Had no Temple theft crimes on his head.
He would sacrifice fast
So that no beast would last
Long enough to be his ere 'twas dead.

The earliest pious ones lusted
To bring sin offerings, as if busted.
How could they win
God would not let them sin!
So they'd vow Nezirut, which God trusted.

Wording vows right can be quite a pain
You must first name the sacrifice slain
Only then say "to God"
Point, or give it a nod,
Lest you say (God forbid) "God" in vain.

Some words used for vows are like vows
We must know which words which sage allows
Maphichna, Mikachna
Minzachna, Mikasna
Say those and you might lose your cows.

Rabbi Meir held "From vows negated
We can never conclude what was stated."
Yehuda said, "Errr….
Can we not just infer
What one meant?" "Forswear no," Meir baited.

"Let this be like the sacrifice meat
Ere we've sprinkled the blood" – can he eat?
What if something ill-fitted
Is, for now, permitted –
It sounds like he's trying to cheat!

Firstborn is forbidden from birth
Thus it's not a good thing on this earth
On which to hang vows
Choose instead Temple cows
(With no Temple, what is it all worth?)

Nedarim 2: ואלו מותרין

Says a man to his wife: “You shall be
Like my (bless her soul) mother to me.”
Our sages, they state:
This vow carries no weight
Still, we don't let him off easily.

Says a man, "Konam now my shut eyes
If a sleep past tomorrow's sunrise."
Despite what you think
He can't now sleep a wink
Lest sleep take him next day by surprise.

If you swear, "I won't sleep for three days."
Then we beat you in terrible ways.
For no human can keep
Three whole days without sleep
Once banged up, you can sleep right away.

Says a woman, "I vow I won't take
Any pleasure in sex that we make"
Her husband, it's said,
Cannot force her to bed
Why? To her, he's like unkosher steak.

One who says, "I vow I'll take no joy
In this Sukkah with all of its "noy"
Such a vow does not take,
It is not his to make.
For are mitzvoth for us to enjoy?!

If you vow, "I will be a Nazir"
Then you add on tomorrow. Come hear:
First the thirty days pass
Then another, alas,
Only then are you done, so we fear.

If you swear "I won't eat! I won't eat!"
Then you sample a most tasty treat.
Is it one vow you've broken
Or two, since twice spoken—
Was there a sage whom you did meet?

If he says: "I will be a Nazir
If the number of grains that are here
In this pile are more
Than a hundred." Before
He can count, some are stolen. Not clear.

If he vows "My wife's pleasure in sex
Is a Konam to me," then regrets
What he said, he can say,
"Not that wife, if you may,
I vowed just with respect to my Ex!"

If you look at a woman's bare heel.
Then your sons will go bad. That's the deal.
Resh Lakish disagrees
"Not the heel, if you please
It's That-Place-Which-I-Cannot-Reveal."

Angels said: If you kiss in That Place
Then your sons will be lame, a disgrace.
If you talk during sex
They'll be deaf, which will vex
If you peep they'll be blind – so save face!

Oh, the angels may do as they please
But to set human minds now at ease:
Halacha says you do
All you want, it is true,
With your wife (that is, if she agrees).

Wailed a woman to Rabi "I set
Him a table – and look what I get!"
Rabi had to admit
That the Torah permits
Sex this way. She had no grounds to fret.

A man should not drink from one glass
With his eyes on another. (That ass
May be nicer than this
But so what if it is?
Look at this one, for she is your lass.)