Thursday, September 27, 2012

Extempore Effusions on the Completion of Masechet Niddah, Prakim Bet and Gimel


The hand reaches in to explore –
A woman should do this much more
For she will not squeal
Unlike him, she can’t feel
And it’s worth it for her to be sure.

Do not urinate holding your hand
Yes, it’s messy, we do understand.
It could bring on a flood
Which would make you say “Crud,
Will we ever go back to dry land?”

Yehuda said, “Geez, I must pee.”
It was night on a rooftop, you see.
From on top of the shul
Shmuel told him: Stay cool
You can hold on and pee fearfully.”

Your evil side steers you astray.
It says”Do this, and do that today.”
Then tomorrow: “Go bow
To the gods you’v avowed
You would never go near.”  You fall prey.

Do you ride on a donkey? Oh well.
We ought to say, “Don’t ass, don’t tell.”
It depends how you straddle
Or ride with a saddle
The point is that nothing should swell.

A husband comes home from a trip
He says to his wife, “Dear, let’s strip.”
But can he assume
He can go in her room?
It depends if her time’s come to drip.

A Kohen leans over a well
Where a miscarried fetus once fell
Is the Kohen impure?
But a rat came, for sure,

Thus the Kohen has not heard his knell.

The Pregnancy Angel, named Night
Takes a drop of their seed to the height
Of the one on Most High
And says, “God, will this guy
Be weak, strong, wise or dumb, tall or slight?”

Having sex? Don’t let anyone pounce
Thus your sex act should first be announced
Ring the bells on the bed
Wave the flies off instead
(Why not make sure the bed makes a bounce?)

In a graveyard a man should not lie
Nor eat garlic or onion peeled dry.
Nor cast fingernails
Over public handrails
Or have sex after bloodletting. Why?

Daytime sex can be good if your spouse
Spends a lot of time outside the house,
Is too tired at night
When you turn off the light—
(Just be quiet. But soft! Like a mouse.)

A baby has dough on its hands
Must all of the batter be banned?
All babies, I fear,
Like to touch what is near
Tell them “No,” but they don’t understand.

In Pumbedita, Ulla chanced to meet
An Arab dressed in black from head to feet.
“Eureka!” said he
“That’s the color we see
In her blood. For a swatch I entreat.”

Yannai said to his sons, “When I head
To the land of those already dead
Do not dress me in white,
Nor in black like the night,
Lest I stand out wherever I’m led.”

Elazar deemed a woman’s blood due
To her love for her spouse – it proved true!
When Rav Ami inquired

She said she desired
Her husband. So Elazar knew!

Ifra Hurmiz sent Rava a sample
Of blood. He ruled right. She sent ample
Selections. He tested.
The last was infested
From lice. “Comb your nits ‘til they’re trampled.”

Yalta gave of her blood to a sage.
When he ruled, Yalta said, “I’m outraged.”
I resist your dominion!
Need second opinion!
She got it, and then was assuaged.


If a woman miscarries and births
A clump made of flesh and of earth
If it’s bloody and red
Like a baby now dead
She’s impure. (And she’ll soon lose her girth.)

A woman miscarried red hair
A big ball of it. No baby there.
The sages said: Go
Ask the doctors. They’ll know.
They said: Drown it and see how it fares.

A miscarried babe with two backs
And two spines (there are parts that it lacks).
If it’s born to a beast
You can slice it and feast
So says Shmuel. Says Rav: You’re too lax!

A demon came out of my womb
Shaped like Lilith! A sure sign of doom!
It’s a baby, except
It has wings, which are kept
At its sides. It can fly through the room.

A woman miscarried a snake
Hanina said: “Impure.” “Mistake!”
Gamliel cried, enraged:
Summon to me that sage
‘Til they realized just what was at stake.

My job was to bury the dead
There was one time I stood at the head
Of a wide open cave
Which had nobody save
Avshalom. In his eye I had tread.

If a woman sheds seed ere her mate
She’ll give birth to a boy. If she’s late
Such that he sheds his first
It’s a girl (is that worse?).
Men can hold off, and thus affect fate.

A placenta was found in a house
‘Twas unearthed by a dog or a mouse.
The house is impure
We can say this for sure
Though no baby was found (and no spouse).

Rabbi Chiya had twins. Not together
They weren’t two birds of a feather
One decided to wait
He was born three months late.
Such a labor his wife had to weather!

An androgyne has an emission
We assume ‘twas not of his volition.
If he sets foot inside
The great Temple, don’t chide
Him. This isn’t a sin of commission.

A woman left home with a bump
Then came back, clearly over the hump.
She’s says, “Oops, I forgot
Did I give birth, or not?”
Said the sages: “I fear we are stumped.”

It’s a full forty days ‘til the seed
That’s implanted will get what it needs
To grow fingers and eyes
And attain enough size
That it’s human, the sages decreed.

Alexandria’s queen’s female slave
Was sentenced to death. Who would save
Her? Nobody! Instead
She was cut up once dead
‘Twas a baby that made her concave.

God is much greater than man.
There are things we can’t do but God can.
Like preserve something dropped
In a jar with no top
Like a fetus in mom. What a plan!

Two planned to set out in the morn,
To do business. One sat on a thorn.
He was forced to stay home
While his friend, free to roam,
Drowned at sea. Then he felt less forlorn.

A woman must bring sacrifice
When she gives birth because of this vice:
In the heat of her pain
She swears, “Never again!”
But does one child ever suffice?

Why must a woman endure
Seven days when her body’s impure?
So that on mikvah night
She can bring him delight
Like a bride – innocent and demure.

Why is it lads who  must court
Lasses. Couldn’t instead she cavort?

It’s the person who lost
Who must find what was tossed
From his rib. Thus men do this for sport.

Rav Ketina said, “I’m great in bed,
For I say to my wife: Go ahead.
And since first she enjoys
All our children are boys
We’d have girls if I went first instead.

Monday, September 10, 2012

My Heart Exults in God: Hannah’s Exemplary Prayer (Berakhot 30b-33a)


            “I am a very unhappy woman. I am not drunk, but I have been pouring my heart out to God. Do not mistake me for someone worthless. I am praying out of my great anguish and distress.” These words, spoken by Hannah to Eli the priest, are part of the haftarah that we will read tomorrow, on the first day of Rosh Hashanah. Hannah, who is one of the two wives of a Jewish man named Elkana, longs desperately for a child. Every year, when Elkana brings the family to Shiloh to offer sacrifices to God, Hannah is cruelly taunted by her husband’s more fecund wife Penina. Distraught, Hannah weeps and prays and refuses to eat. One year her prayer is overheard by Eli the priest, who mistakenly thinks she is drunk. But it is not just Eli who hears Hannah’s prayer; the rabbis of the Talmud, too, listen closely to Hannah’s words and to the Bible’s description of her prayer. In the fifth chapter of the tractate Berakhot, the rabbis look to Hannah as an ideal model of how to pray. I’d like to study this passage with you this evening in the hope of coming to a better understanding of what is so remarkable about Hannah’s prayer. After all, we’re all going to be spending a lot of hours praying over the course of this holiday season; and if Hannah is indeed the rabbis’ model for how to pray, then perhaps she can teach us something as well.



I want to start by asking a question: What is the relationship between the Mishna that appears at the top of your page, and the Talmudic sugya that follows? Does the extended discussion in the Talmud illustrate the principle articulated in the Mishna, as we might expect?

[brief discussion]

The Mishna seems to articulate two major principles: First, the person who is engaged in prayer should be in a reverent frame of mind. And second, this person should countenance no interruption of his or her prayer. And yet surprisingly, Hannah, who is cited as a model of ideal prayer by the rabbis, satisfies neither of these criteria. She does not seem particularly reverent. On the contrary, she speaks to God with the utmost chutzpah: She tells God that He is like a stingy king who refuses to share one morsel from His lavish banquet with his poor servant. Then she threatens God to make herself into a Sotah so that God will have no choice but to grant her wish for a child. And finally, she rebukes God for giving her breasts but no child to suckle. This hardly seems like reverent, pious behavior! Likewise, Hannah fails to live up to the rabbinic dictum to pray without interruption. In the middle of her prayer, Eli interrupts to ask if she is drunk. Hannah, still standing before God, defends herself to Eli before continuing her prayer. She allows herself to be interrupted, and she remains nonetheless the rabbis’ model of ideal prayer. Why?

I want to suggest that there is something remarkable about Hannah’s prayer nonetheless. Hannah describes herself as אשה קשת רוח, an unhappy woman; literally a woman of tough spirit. She has been hardened by her pain; her spirit itself has been hardened by the agony of her years of childlessness. Year after year she has endured the taunts of her rival Penina, and the carrion comfort of her husband, whose insistence that he is more devoted to her than ten sons strikes Hannah as unfeeling if not downright patronizing. Hannah’s grief has made her  מרת נפש, “bitter of heart,” as Rabbi Elazar quotes in the Talmud’s opening words. Yet the very same Biblical verse that describes her bitterness also tells us about how she cried to God: “Hannah was bitter of heart, and she prayed to God, weeping all the while” (10). In spite of her bitterness, Hannah has not become hardened past the point of tears. She does not break off all communication with God. She does not insist that she wants no relationship with a God who can cause her so much pain. Nor does she (anachronistically) deny the existence of any God who could create a world with so much suffering. Rather, she continues to live her life in dialogue with God. Even if all she can do is rebuke, threaten, and yell at God, she continues to engage Him. The alternative for Hannah would be to allow the gates of prayer to swing shut, and to close herself off completely from all contact with the divine. Perhaps Hannah knows, as the rabbis go on to say later in this same sugya in Berakhot, that even when the gates of prayer are locked, the gates of tears remain open. We might say that tears oil the hinges of the gates of prayer, causing them to open for the broken-hearted. And while they may open just a very tiny bit, miraculously that proves to be enough: God opens Hannah’s womb and she conceives and bears a son.

Hannah’s prayer is also remarkable because it consists of not just the verses we have discussed thus far. When the Talmud discusses Hannah’s prayer, it refers exclusively to her words in chapter one of I Samuel, where she prays to God to give her a child. While this prayer may be impassioned, it is nonetheless prosaic; it is only in chapter two, once Hannah is granted her beloved son, that her spirit bursts forth in poetry. Hannah’s petitionary prayers are far outmatched by her prayers of thanksgiving. In fact, when we think of  תפילת חנה, it is generally not her bitter wailing in chapter one that comes to mind, but rather her lyrical exultation in chapter two:

עלץ לבי בה' \ רמה קרני בה' \ רחב פי על אוביי \ כי שמחתי בישועתך.

Hannah does not just pray out of sadness and need, but out of joy and gratitude – and it is this latter prayer that is quoted in full, in ten verses of poetic text. Once her heart is no longer hardened, she can compose herself and compose her thoughts in more measured form. Once she is no longer overflowing with tears, she can hold back from line to line, which is what poetry demands of us; poetry is written with line breaks, unlike prose, where one line simply spills into the next. אין צור כאלוהינו, Hannah declares in her poetic prayer – there is no rock like God. For all that she was hardened, she knows that God is the true rock and the true redeemer. In Midrash Shmuel, a collection of midrashim on the book of Samuel, the rabbis read this line as אין צייר כאלוהינו, there is no artist like God. There is no one who can create and craft and shape a human being like God. Only God can create life and give it form. וכל מאמינים שהוא יוצרם בבטן, as we say in the piyut of Musaf. God shapes us while still in the womb, and we are like clay in the hands of the divine potter.

Not all of us can merit to pray like Hannah. Our bitterness may turn us off from prayer, or our pain may prevent us from being able to express ourselves as poetically as we might like. Perhaps the closing words of the sugya we studied above, which are also the closing words of the psalm recited throughout Elul and Tishrei, can serve as a guide and an inspiration as we navigate this season of intense and intensive prayer: Hope in the Lord, be strong and let thy heart take courage; yea, hope in the Lord. May our hearts be strengthened rather than hardened by our pain; and may we follow Hannah’s example and learn, in spite of our sorrow, to continue to engage and to hope in God. Shana tovah.


1a. What is a “reverent frame of mind”?

2a. Does the proof text from I Samuel support the Mishnah’s claim? Why do you think this verse is chosen?

3a. Eli, as priest, represents those who worship God through ritual. Hannah, as a petitioner, represents those who worship God through prayer. How might this distinction account for the tension between them?

4a. What are the connotations of the name for God that Hannah is crediting with inventing, “Lord of hosts” (literally: Lord of armies)? Who are the armies who serve God? How is this concept of God different from that of Eli and the other priests?

4b. Hannah’s prayer is not without hutzpah. Is she entitled to speak this way to God, and if so, why?

4c. Why do you think Hannah invokes a parable in her prayer? Does the parable enable her to say anything that she otherwise might not? Are there any problems with this parable?

5a. Why does Hannah threaten to incriminate herself as a Sotah? How would you describe Hannah’s strategy here?

6a. The verse quoted here is spoken by Eli to Hannah, and so it is from Eli that we learn this particular law of prayer. According to Rashi, even though Eli was a very distinguished, elderly priest, he stood rather than sat by Hannah because it is forbidden to sit so close to one who is praying. What might be the problem with sitting next to someone who is engaged in fervent prayer? Have you ever stood next to someone who was praying with tremendous kavana and devotion? How did it affect you?

7a. How does the Talmud interpret the words “spoke in her heart”? Is this a literal reading?

7b. How would you describe Hannah’s argument here?

8a. Are we supposed to expect that our prayers will be answered? If not, why do we bother praying?

8b. Do you ever find yourself praying on Rosh Hashana for the very same things you prayed for the previous year? What would R. Hana son of R. Hanina say about this?

8c. What is the significance of the final verse quoted? Where does it appear in our liturgy, and how does it take on new meaning in the context above?

Monday, September 03, 2012

Ki Tavo: Speaking God's Language

In this week’s parsha we find the following two verses, which contain a pair of words that appear nowhere else in the Torah, and whose meaning is not entirely clear:

את ה' האמרת היום להיות לך לאלהים וללכת בדרכיו ולשמור חקיו ומצותיו ומשפטיו ולשמוע בקולו.

וה' האמירך היום להיות לו לעם סגולה כאשר דבר לך ולשמור כל מצותיו.

You have affirmed this day that the Lord is your God, that you will walk in His ways, that you will observe His laws and commandments and rules, and that you will obey Him. And the Lord has affirmed this day that you are, as He promised you, His treasured people…. (Deuteronomy 26:17-18)

The repetition of the words האמרת  and  האמירךseems to suggest a reciprocity between God and Israel in which we affirm God and God affirms us, though it’s unclear how exactly this mutual affirmation takes place. The classical commentators offer a range of interpretations: Rashi argues that these terms refer to setting aside and consecrating; Ramban claims it refers to magnifying and elevating in status; Rashbam states that this term reflects the fact that each party caused the other to enter into a covenant. But it is also worthy of note that the root of this term is אמר, to say, which seems to suggest that we and God are somehow speaking the same language.
I came to a deeper understanding of what this might mean while reviewing Musaf for Rosh Hashana this past week. The bulk of Rosh Hashana musaf consists of collections of verses relating to three central themes: God’s kingship, God’s perfect memory, and God’s revelation at Sinai amidst the sound of the Shofar. We recite verses that span most of the Bible, from Noah to Abraham to Sinai to Isaiah. And so in our davening on Rosh Hashana, we speak to God using the language of the Bible, which is the language with which God spoke to Israel. In other words (so to speak), we speak to God using the very same words with which God spoke to us. Perhaps this is another way to understand what it means for us to affirm God.

את ה' האמרת היום –

On Rosh Hashana, we affirm God by invoking God’s words to us. After all, how else could we coronate God, or speak to a being of infallible memory, or recall the transcendence of revelation? Surely our own language is insufficient, which is why we plead in our piyutim for God to open our lips in prayer and give voice to our supplications. When our own language fails us, we speak God’s language, כאשר דבר לך – as God spoke to us.

As we prepare to open our Mahzorim on Rosh Hashana, we hope that the echoes of divine speech will permeate our prayers to God and our exchanges with one another throughout the coming year.