The rabbis now engage in a “which mitzvah takes priority” discussion. Here we have a dispute over which takes priority—redeeming one’s son, or spending the money to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem during one of the festivals.
R. Judah explains why the mitzvah of the pilgrimage takes precedence. But the rabbis do not explain their opinion. Therefore, the Talmud explains that it simply follows the order of the verse—first the verse says redeem your son, and then it instructs people to go on the pilgrimage.
When it comes to redeeming the first born, the first born is determined by the mother. So if a man has five sons from five different wives, he must redeem them all. But when it comes to inheritance, it follows the father. Only his own first born son inherits a double portion.
Today’s sugya discusses learning Torah. I should reiterate that I am not discussing how these halakhot play out in our modern world. But I should just note that today many Jews from all streams consider it not just a good thing but an actual obligation to teach daughters Torah.
The Talmud provides a source obligating a father to teach his son Torah. And as with the other mitzvot, if the father does not teach the son, the son must learn himself.
Since the rabbis read the word “your children” as if it is written “your sons” they derive that fathers are not obligated to teach their daughters. And since they are not obligated to teach their daughters, the daughters (eventually mothers) are not obligated to teach their sons.
Again, we have a dispute over which takes precedence—father or son. I think that is question is really interesting for parents who constantly have to make choices as to where to allocate their resources. Does one save every penny for the enrichment of one’s children, or does one also spend money on their own activities? It’s a question I would guess most parents face quite frequently.
This wonderful story is here because R. Ya’akov decides that it is better for him to learn than his dull son. But the story itself has a life of its own. I’ll make a few remarks. First of all, the story exhibits an ambiguous attitude towards the father, who prefers to leave his son at home. On the one hand, he kills the demon. But on the other, people seem willing to let him risk his life in order to try to kill the demon. R. Ya’akov is saved in the end, but it takes a miracle, and tomorrow that miracle might not happen. Were the townsmen justified in what they did? Did R. Ya’akov do the right thing? As is often true with Talmudic aggadot, there are no easy answers to these questions.
Today’s sugya discusses the issue of marrying and studying Torah. Studying Torah for rabbis was a very intense, committed occupation. Very hard to do and yet maintain a family life. On the other hand, rabbis were young men with sexual desires. If marriage is the only sexual outlet, well how can rabbis stay unmarried for so many years. There is no easy solution to this dilemma, but this is the topic our sugya addresses. For those interested, the topic has been addressed by several scholars, including Jeffrey Rubenstein and Daniel Boyarin. It is a fascinating topic, but my commentary will pretty much adhere to the text itself.
In Eretz Yisrael they seem to have preferred learning Torah for some time and then getting married later (hard to know when). This allows the student/rabbi to learn full time without a “millstone” around his neck. [Let’s face it, marriage is a responsibility for both partners, and it is hard to be completely dedicated to a project while one is also responsible for a family]. In Babylonia, they marry and then head off to the Yeshiva to learn.
R. Huna does not even want to look at a man who is unmarried and is older than 20. This is in line with the Babylonian point of view, that men should marry at a relatively young age.
A word of warning about sources like this and the ones that come before and after. The rabbis clearly want men to marry by the age of twenty. This does not mean that men did so. Indeed, I could argue that this source implies that men were not marrying before twenty—otherwise why exhort them to do so.
Here we can get a sense of why the rabbis urge men (boys) to marry so early—to ward off “Satan.” This is probably a way of expressing the sexual urge. Unmarried boys over the age of puberty will almost certainly either masturbate or engage in illicit sex, both activities the rabbis did not condone. To prevent this, it would be best to marry as young as 14. But again, this does not mean that people actually did so.