Wednesday, May 27, 2009

People of the Book (Bava Metzia 29b)

The physical objects that populate rabbinic literature include oxen, cows, spindles, coins, pigeons, dates, figs, flax, wool, jugs, lentils, fish, and even official documents and bills – but rarely ever books. And so I was surprised by this Mishnah, encountered on a recent daf:

If one found books, he should read from them once in thirty days. If he does not know how to read, he should roll them from beginning to end. However, he should not study in them for the first time, nor should another person read together with him.

At first I was puzzled. Why should a book be read once in thirty days? And what does it mean to roll a book? Rashi explains that all books in Talmudic times were written on parchment scrolls (no e-books or mass market paperbacks back then!), and these scrolls would get moldy if they weren't aired out regularly. Thus the person who came upon a lost scroll and held on to it until its rightful owner was found would be responsible for its proper care. The finder should either read the scroll once a month, or else roll it out. However, he should not study from it, because this would result in undue wear and tear of a particular section. Nor should he read from it with someone else, lest them two of them yank at different parts of the scroll and cause damage.

I am fascinated by this Mishnah because it is born out of the deeply literary culture of the rabbis, and yet it relates to texts exclusively as physical objects. A scroll needs to be aired out once a month, just like a pet dog needs to be walked every morning. This sugya is concerned with preserving the quality of the scroll, and not with any sense of reverence for what is written on it. Perhaps the text written in that particular scroll is best learned by two people in chevruta. But no matter! For the sake of protecting the scroll, it should not be subjected to over-use.

The Gemara goes on to consider the responsibilities of the person who borrows a very particular kind of scroll, one on which the words of the Torah are written:

If one borrows a Torah scroll from his fellow, he may not lend it to another person. He may open and read from it, provided he does not study in it something for the first time. Nor should another person read together with him.

With all due respect to this sugya, my own attitude towards my books could not be more different. A friend recently visited my apartment, looked at my full set of Steinsaltz gemarot, and remarked, "Oh, I see you bought some of them used." I laughed. "No," I corrected her. "It is I who used them!" I carry around the masechet I am currently learning in my backpack all day every day, and thus by the time I am finished with that volume, it is usually quite beaten up – my Yevamot is missing half its spine, my Bava Kama has a damaged front cover, and my Sukkah is water-logged. Still, I could not imagine it otherwise. I buy my books for the sake of using them – the physical object is secondary to its literary content. The more the Masechet looks like it is ready for the Genizah, the more emphatically I recite the Hadran.

That said, however, I am a generous book-lender, and I ask that my friends take care of my books and return them within a reasonable period of time. Certainly I would not want them to lend my books to a third party without my permission! The Talmud agrees with me on this one:

Why do we have the rule that one may not lend what he has borrowed in the case of a Torah scroll specifically? This is true of all other borrowed scrolls! It was necessary to teach this ruling specifically with respect to a Torah scroll for you might have said that a person is agreeable to having a mitzvah performed with his possessions [and the owner would therefore not object to having his Torah scroll lent out for study by a third party]. The Talmud therefore teaches us that this is not the case.

Even in the case of a Torah scroll, which is used for the mitzvah of Torah study, we must assume that a person would not want his copy lent out widely without his explicit permission.

This sugya about borrowed texts reminds me of my own attempt, back when I was in the fourth grade, to convert my bedroom into a lending library. I organized my books alphabetically by author, inserted an index card (with the words DATE DUE painstakingly printed in my best block letters) into the back of every book, and created a card catalogue (i.e. a single box of index cards) listing all the titles in my possession, with an asterisk next to Cheaper by the Dozen, Little Women, The Phantom Tollbooth, and the other books I particularly recommended. I encouraged my family members to visit their "local local" public library and check out books, provided, of course, that they returned them on time. Proceeds from late fines went into our family tzedakah box, and anyone who returned a damaged book would have their borrowing privileges summarily revoked.

Years later, I found myself a real library job. Two days a week after high school I worked as a "page" (as we were aptly termed) in the Main Street Public Library, where I was responsible for returning books to their rightful places on the shelves. If all the shelving was completed before the end of my shift, I would be assigned the tedious task of "shelf-reading," i.e. running my eye along an assigned set of shelves to make sure that all the books were arranged alphabetically and positioned neatly with spines facing outward, flush against the edge of the shelf. My supervisor was a proper library lady whose grey hair was secured tightly atop her head with so many bobby pins that I got a headache just from looking at her. She wore slipper-like satin shoes and used to sneak softly down the carpeted aisles to make sure she never caught any of us reading on the job. "When you are a patron, you may read; when you are a page, you are paid to shelve," she would insist, shaping her lips around every word and peering sternly over horn-rimmed glasses. I struggled to obey.

About a year later I graduated from page to periodicals clerk, which meant I sat at a great wooden desk supervising the use of the microfilm and microfiche machines (reminiscent of the Talmud's rolling scrolls), and reading stacks of old book review sections when business was slow. To my consternation, I was never deemed personable enough to be awarded the prized role of circulation desk clerk; this did not happen until college, when I found myself checking out books for my professors and fellow students (apparently by then, my social skills had improved sufficiently). Most of my time in college was spent "working at Widener"; when I wasn't sitting at the circulation desk, I was doing my own reading down in the stacks (level B-2, underground) in a history of science grad student's neglected carrel. (Lamont is for little guys, my friends and I would quip, deriding the lack of seriousness of those who patronized the undergraduate library at the other end of the quad. The underground Widener stacks remain one of my favorite places on earth, and I'm determined to get back there before I die.)

I suppose it was during those years spent working at libraries that I developed my appreciation for books as physical objects, an appreciation that I share with the rabbis of the Talmud. If you are being paid not to read, you inevitably come to value books for something other than their content. This attention to the material culture of the book was honed during my years as an editorial assistant at Knopf, where we had weekly meetings to decide upon each title's trim size (the length and width of the book), running heads (what would be written at the top of each page), format (hardcover or paperback), colophon (which of several graphic borzoi dogs would decorate the spine), and every other imaginable aspect of the book's physical appearance. Rough trim or smooth trim? French flaps? Wraparound jacket? The goal was to make our books look better than anyone else's, in the hope that they would fly off the Barnes and Noble shelves into the hands of as many customers as possible.

In my current job as a literary agent, I am also responsible for the circulation of books, albeit in a different context altogether. I spend my time reading book catalogues sent to our Jerusalem-based agency from publishers all over the world, ordering books for which I think we can sell Hebrew translation rights, and pitching these titles to Israeli editors. Often we have more requests for a book than physical copies, which means that publishers have to wait in line as the book is read and returned by a series of other editors, or else make do with a PDF. We keep track of which editors have which books in our sophisticated custom-made database, and relentlessly chase down overdue sample copies.

There are a few editors who are particularly delinquent when it comes to returning books, and I often imagine storming their offices to raid our missing copies. If so, I'd find myself no longer in Bava Metzia, but in Bava Kama (114b), where I encountered one of the only other book-related sugyot I can recall:

If a man identifies his articles or books in the possession of another person, and a rumor of theft in his place had already been spread in town, the purchaser would have to swear how much he paid for them, and would be paid accordingly [for returning the books].

This Mishnah refers to the case of a person who comes to his friend's house and finds his own books (which had been recently stolen from him) sitting there innocently on his friend's shelves. Assuming the theft was a known fact in the community, the owner is permitted to re-appropriate his books in exchange for the sum that the purchaser (who first must swear that he is not himself the thief!) had paid for them. While I am not accusing anyone at Yediot Achronot for stealing our books, I do have half a mind to pay them a visit one of these days....

As active, industrious literary agents, we like to keep our books in constant circulation. That said, inevitably there comes a point where we have to accept the sad reality that a particular title is just not going to sell. "She has gone out with every editor in Israel," I often joke to my colleague, waving a copy of Secrets of the Zodiac or (l'havdil!) the latest Marilynne Robinson (alas, alas). "What can we do? Nobody wants her." With heaviness of heart, we place the undesirable volume on the discard pile in the hallway, hoping that some kind stranger will pick her up, take her home, and leaf through her pages every month or so – even if he never reads a single word.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

For the Birds

I left the house at 7am today and returned home at 9pm, as I do most weekdays; except that this morning I apparently forgot to close my bedroom window. And so when I walked in the door tonight, exhausted and eager to collapse on my couch with Steinsaltz (the book), you can imagine my dismay when I discovered that two pigeons had made a home for themselves in my humble abode. One was perched atop my Shabbat hot water heater, its beak tucked underneath its neck contentedly; the other sat on my book case between my bentchers and my Jastrow Dictionary, as if it were prepared not just to teach itself Zmirot, but also to learn what they mean.

I do not react well to unexpected guests, and so for the first few minutes I simply shrieked at the top of my lungs, hoping that I would frighten away the intruders. But no such luck. These birds were the pictures of perfect equanimity, and even when I began flailing my hands wildly in their direction, they merely cocked their heads at me curiously as if wondering whether the entertainment I was providing was free of charge, or whether I'd be collecting contributions later on in the evening. I was still shrieking, apparently loud enough to attract the attention of my neighbor, who rapped on my door to find out what was going on. "TZIPORIM!!!" I screamed, pointing towards my doorway and grabbing on to his arm for dear life.

My neighbor tried to calm me down, but when he realized his attempts would prove futile, he told me that he was running out to find some equipment. "Sit down," he encouraged me, and somehow I managed to take his advice. I gazed up at the birds, neither of whom had moved even an inch. Seeing as they didn't seem to be going anywhere, I picked up a volume of forgotten lore and decided to make my best attempt at resuming my regularly scheduled evening activity.

One might have thought, "Shale'ach Teshalach" teaches that one must go to mountains to seek to fulfill the Mitzvah - "Ki Yikarei" teaches, this is not so, only if it presents itself. (Chulin 139b)

Well well well, wasn't I lucky! The mitzvah of sending away the birds had presented itself to me; I didn't even have to seek it out. The Torah teaches that if a person comes upon a nest with a mother bird and its eggs, the person is obligated to send away the mother bird before taking the eggs. I had been planning on preparing an omelet for dinner, so clearly I was justified in my attempts to banish my feathered friends. Unfortunately, though, it looked like dinner was going to have to wait….

I realized that I ought to learn more about my never-flitting fowl. I have always thought that the only aspect of owning a pet that I would actually enjoy would be naming the creature. Well, here was my opportunity! Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore… I had just returned that evening from a seminar about Moshe and competing prophecies, and in the Torah reading cycle we are about to enter the wilderness of Sefer Bemidbar, so I decided to name my birds Eldad and Meidad. This way I could cry out in outrage, with the appropriate Biblical cadences, "Eldad and Meidad are roosting in my apartment!"

Eldad and Meidad, I decided, had been inside for a while. They were perfectly comfortable in their present perches (certainly more comfortable than I was in my own home at present, and I was the one paying the rent!), and they weren't making much noise—no rapping, tapping at my chamber door. Moreover, though I am no expert in such matters, it seemed that they had left several hours' worth of icky green goop all over my windowsill, my kitchen table, and my shtender. My Sifrei Kodesh, rest assured, remained blessedly untouched, which led me to wonder – was this a sign from Shamayim? Let me see what threat is, and this mystery explore-- Was Someone trying to tell me something?

I heard a voice wailing like a dove and saying, "Woe unto my sons because of whose sins I destroyed my home." (Brachot 3b)

In the Talmud, the dove is often a symbol for the Shechina, since doves are loyally monogamous their whole lives. Perhaps my pet prophets were there to rebuke me for blogging at length about the delight I take in my solitary state? Were the birds attempting to destroy my home lest I become too comfortable in my present accommodations? Leave my loneliness unbroken!... "Prophet!" said I. "thing of evil! – prophet still, if bird or devil." I thought for a moment. Maybe I should not be so quick to paint my visitors raven-black. Maybe they were intended as some sort of atonement, echad l'chatat v'echad l'olah. Still, was that really fair? It may not be good for man to be alone, I wanted to cry out in my own defense, but it's certainly worse for man to live with pigeons!

One may trap domesticated Herodian pigeons [on festivals]….. One may not trap pigeons that live in dove-coats and pigeons that live in attics. (Beitzah 24a)

I wondered if Eldad and Meidad were Herodian pigeons, that is, formerly wild birds who have learned how to live with human beings. These birds (and here I translate from Steinsaltz' zoographic marginalia) make their home in human habitations and are protected by their masters. They are named for Herod, the first to bring birds into his home. But I am no Herod, and my home is no Herodian mansion. If Eldad and Meidad were planning to stay in my one-bedroom apartment, then I would have to find a new place to spend the night…. Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!

Just as I was plotting where I might find moorings on Night's Plutonian shore, my neighbor burst in with a broomstick , a wig, a towel, a laundry basin, and a can of anti-roach spray. A curious approach to the problem, aimed both at making me laugh and at banishing the offending creatures. He sent me out into the hallway (with Steinsaltz, of course), and when he summoned me back a few minutes later, it was to reassure me that alas, I would not need to sleep over in his apartment that evening after all…..

Now it is a full three hours later, but last I checked, Eldad and Meidad were still perched patiently on my windowsill, as if hoping to appeal to my Herodian sympathies. And the Raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting. I am not a cruel person, but it was with some degree of triumph that I drew the casement tight and collapsed into bed with Steinsaltz, a pencil, and a cry of Nevermore.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

It Takes Two to Tan Du

For the past few weeks I have been composing in my head an extended poem on the pleasures of sleeping alone. Chief among them is the delight I take in reading in bed – at the beginning of the night, when I can fall asleep with my bedside lamp still on, my book eventually collapsing to form a tent over my face; at 3am, when the house is quiet and the world is calm, and I wake up delighted to have those stolen mid-night moments to my conscious self; and in the early morning hours, when I arise before my alarm clock and read by the light streaming through my open window. I have books that I will read only in bed; they live under the blankets and wait patiently while I read far more respectable volumes during daylight hours. Writing in bed, too, is another newly-rediscovered pleasure. There are entries in my journal that I am able to write only when alone under the covers, as if I cannot expose these negatives to the harsh light of day. A friend recently told me that she loves being single because her nightlife is so much more wild, and I could relate; it was only when I began sleeping alone that my wild literary nightlife took off.

I suspect that the women of the Talmud would not have been able to relate to the pleasure I take in sleeping solo. I don't know much about how the rabbis' wives spent their nights, but I'm quite certain that they weren't reading in bed. We hear in Masechet Sotah (6b, 31a) and again in Gittin (89a) about women who would spin flax and gossip by the moonlight, which seems to have been a popular evening activity. The Talmud states that the topic of conversation among these women served as an indicator of what had become public knowledge in a community. More specifically, each of these sugyot teaches that a woman's adulterous affair would be regarded as a known matter only when it became the subject of gossip among these tale-spinning women. Presumably those women who were gossiping about adultery rather than committing it then returned home to their husbands' beds, and it was only the most forlorn among them who were left to sleep alone.

The Talmud clearly looks pitifully upon any woman who does not have a man with whom to share her bed. We know this from a popular folk saying attributed to Reish Lakish that appears five times throughout the Babylonian Talmud (and never in the Yerushalmi):
טב למיתב טן דו מלמיתב ארמלו
The phrase literally means, "It is better for a woman to sit as two [tan du] than to sit alone by herself," though it takes on far more color in its various Talmudic contexts. In Bava Kama 110b, where I most recently encountered it, the phrase appears in a discussion of the case of a woman whose husband dies, and whose brother-in-law suffers from an unpleasant skin ailment. Is the woman obligated to formally release herself from levirate marriage to her brother-in-law? Perhaps she need not bother, because surely she would not have married her husband if she had known that there was any chance she'd end up with his ailing brother. But the Talmud rejects this supposition on the grounds of טב למיתב . A woman would marry a man even if his brother is repulsive because she would so much rather get married than remain alone.

In Masechet Kidushin, this expression is invoked on two occasions to explain the lengths to which a woman would go so as not to be alone. In the first instance (7a), the Talmud deals with the question of whether a woman can become betrothed to a man not by receiving money from him, but rather by giving him a present. That is, can she be betrothed by means of the benefit that she derives from the knowledge that he is receiving her gift? The sugya comes to the conclusion that ניחא לה בכל דהו, "it is better for her in any case" to be married than unmarried, and thus she is willing to betroth herself by giving rather than receiving a gift. Although Kidushin is generally defined as a transaction in which the man gives the woman something and she in return becomes betrothed unto him, the Talmud suggests in this sugya that a woman so desperately wants to be married that she'll actually give the man a gift rather than receive one, just so that she can become his wife.

The phrase טב למיתב occurs again on Kidushin 41a amidst a discussion of whether Kidushin can be performed by means of a messenger. Can a man send a third party to betroth his wife for him? The Talmud responds that a man must first see his wife before bethrothing her, "lest he see something unattractive in her after they get married and she become repulsive to him." A husband should not send a messenger to choose a wife for him; it is important that he see the woman so that he can know whether she finds favor in his eyes. The Talmud then asks whether the same logic applies to a woman. Should a woman, too, avoid accepting a proposal by means of a third party messenger? No! A woman, unlike a man, may rely on a messenger, because of טב למיתב . A woman has such a vested interest in getting married that even if she has not yet seen her suitor, we can assume she will accept him. Here the Talmud suggests that women are far less picky than men when it comes to choosing a spouse because a woman above all wants a husband, regardless of who that husband might be.

After reviewing each of these three sugyot, I cannot help but wonder: Why all the fuss about getting married? Was the Talmudic woman's life really so much better if she had a husband? The remaining two טב למיתב sugyot suggest an answer to this question that is not quite as simple as it first appears. These two sugyot, Ketubot 75a and Yevamot 118b, closely parallel one another, and thus I cite only the former here. The rabbis are discussing a man who betroths a wife on the condition that she does not have a particular blemish, and then discovers that she has that blemish; does the betrothal still take? The answer is no, even if she goes to a doctor and has the offensive mark removed. However, in the opposite case, a woman who makes such a conditional statement is indeed still betrothed on the grounds of טב למיתב . A woman desires to be married to such an extent that we can assume she will overlook those very blemishes that she had initially stipulated that she would not tolerate. This assertion triggers (both in Ketubot and Yevamot) a flurry of colorful comments attributed to various Talmudic sages about just how strongly a woman desires a husband:

Abayey: Even if her husband is the size of a sesame seed (!), she is proud to place her chair among the free women.
Rav Papa: Even if her husband spins wool [a lowly profession] she will call out to him to come sit with her at the entrance to the home (where they will be publicly visible).
Rav Ashi: Even if her husband is repulsive, at least she will not lack for lentils in her pot.

Each of these sages asserts that a woman wishes to have a husband, even a repulsive one, because of the status that is conferred upon her by being married. Were the sugya to end there, the Talmud's stance would be unequivocal: Better for a woman to be married than to be alone. Were Abayey, Rav Papa, and Rav Ashi to have the last word, then I might offer different advice the next time a friend comes to me and asks whether she should marry the man she is currently dating. I might even consider pulling those novels out from under my covers and replacing them with a husband of my own. Fortunately, however, the Talmud has more to say on this matter. The final line of this sugya is introduced by the word Tanna, suggesting that this last source predates (and is therefore assumed to carry more authority than) those Amoraic statements that precede it. This source asserts, "And all these women commit adultery and attribute their offspring to their husbands." That is, all these women who so desperately want to be married are really just interested in having a convenient excuse when they find themselves pregnant as a result of their adulterous affairs. Why do they need husbands? So that they can point to a legitimate father for their bastard children!

This final line, astonishing in its flippancy and subversiveness, casts the preceding Amoraic statements in a new light: A woman needs a husband so that she can "place her chair among the free women," that is, so that she can count herself among those women who are free to have adulterous affairs! And even if her husband is repulsive, she doesn't care, because she's just using him as a cover so that she can gallivant off and engage in extramarital sex! For this reason it is better for a woman to be married than to be alone. This reason, though, gives me pause. Personally, I must confess that I prefer the pleasure of reading alone in bed to the prospect of extramarital affairs. And while it might be fun to set off in search of a husband, the literature I read tends to be far more exciting than the life I might otherwise lead…..

I was reminded of these sugyot this past Purim, when a good friend brought me Mishloach Manot in the form of a beautiful glass vase stuffed with hamentaschen and other goodies. "When you finish all the sweets," she told me, "you can save the vase for the next time a man brings you flowers." I smiled, knowing that I would do no such thing. Instead, I washed out the giant vase, filled it with two kilos of lentils, and placed it in my cupboard alongside my beans, split peas, and other dried goods. I put a sign on the vase that contains four words from the Ketubot/Yevamot sugya: לא בעי טלפחי לקדרא – "she does not lack for lentils in her pot." From time to time I cook lentil soup, which I have served to numerous male friends over the course of this past winter. I am married to none of them, nor would I want to be.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Extempore Effusions on the Completion of Masechet Bava Kama פרק ג': המניח את הכד

Reuven leaves his jug out in the street
Shimon bumps into it with his feet
Barrel-owner must pay.
--Barrel? What did you say?
I thought jug! Jug is barrel. Repeat!

Reuven's barrel is out in the street.
Shimon bumps into it with his feet.
The jug owner must pay
Jug? What did you just say?
I thought barrel. That's jug, I repeat.

"You bumped into my barrel! Now pay!"
No, said Ulah, For it's not the way
Of most people to look
When they walk in the shuk
Keep your barrels inside and away!

If a public path goes through your farm
Can you block it off? Widespread alarm
Would ensue. You cannot
That is, first you have got
To provide a new route free of harm.

If you turn over mounds of dog shit
(It's good fertilizer, you'll admit.)
And some guy walks right in
Oh, what deep shit he's in
So are you! Because you pay for it.

Rabbi Yehuda says: Take out your trash
Leave it there thirty days in a stash
For the sake of this plan
Joshua conquered the land
Should one step in it, you don't owe cash.

Reuven strolls with his bucket along
Shimon comes with a beam, straight and long.
Just then BOOM! Hear the smash
Beam and barrel go crash
But we hold neither man in the wrong.

Well a beam is quite phallic you know
And a bucket's a place it might go
If a man starts to vex
His poor wife during sex
Does he need to be careful? Or no?

Is a man during sex like a beam-
Holder? Is that the case, does it seem?
Maybe he's like a wood
Chopper who (though he should
Have looked out), killed a man, not by scheme?

Can you run fast in a public place
Should you slow down, for life's not a race?
If you cause a big spill
You're to blame, so we will
Blame. But pre-shabbat, you've got a case.

Chanina would say when the light
Would begin to fade each Friday night:
"Let us go greet the queen
Who has come on the scene
Like a bride. Such a beautiful sight."

Can an ox show behavior that's smart?
Can it do more than pull a big cart?
Papa's ox, when with ache,
in its tooth, it would take
Beer and drink 'til the pain would depart.

Trapdoor Day

Trapdoor day
Awoke before dawn
Wanted to fall through the floor.
Forget the wrong side of the bed--
If only I could get up at all!
Would that it were night, not blasted morning--
Would that I could die here in the desert--
Would that I could fall into sleep, and out of this feeling I'm feeling!

Tears, all day tears, but from the depths of what divine despair?
Rivulets streak my face as I work.
The phone does not ring; I am grateful.
Nobody knocks; I am grateful.
Passing a hallway mirror, I grimace at red eyes, red nose, wet cheeks.
I prepare a face to meet any faces that I meet:
"Fine, fine, fine, and how are YOU?"
I'm full of it today.

At night I eat garlic and nobody kisses me, no one complains.
The chickpeas dance in the pot on the stove, trying to loosen me up.
Chicks, please!
Somehow the radio turns itself on; why am I suddenly singing?
Who's making faces at me in the mirror?
Who's making faces back?
Look who's come out from the trapdoor, hey--
Look who's come out from the trapdoor day!