The last daf of this chapter continues to deal with particular manifestations of heretical leanings. The Mishnah then moves on to the issue of translating the Bible using euphemisms and other non-literal translations
Section one: The heresy here seems to be one of dualism. Saying “May the good bless you” sounds as if there are two gods, one that governs the good and one that governs the bad. This was a common theology at the time of the Mishnah, especially among groups dubbed “Gnostics” by modern scholars. The rabbis were insistent that one God was responsible for both evil and good.
Section two: There are three “heretical” saying in this mishnah. I’ll try to explain them one at a time. The mishnah says that for each “they silence him.” This implies that the mishnah is describing one who “passes before the ark,” meaning one who leads the Amidah prayer. If he tries to enter in one of these prayers they remove him as prayer leader.
““May Your mercy reach the nest of a bird:” This line is explained in the Talmud in several different ways. One is that he is complaining to God saying, “Your mercy is on the nest of this bird” but not on me. God commanded shooing away the mother bird before taking the young, an act of mercy for the mother (Deuteronomy 22:6). The person praying complains that God has not shown similar mercy to him. A different explanation is that this saying understands God’s commandments as being only about mercy, when really they are decrees which we are to obey without questioning their reasoning. Another explanation is that he says “Your mercy reaches only to this nest” but cannot extend any further. In such a way he limits God’s power.
“May Your name be mentioned for the good:” This implies that God’s name should not be connected with the bad or the evil. As in the first section, this might imply some sort of dualism—we thank God for the good and don’t mention the evil because its source is a different god.
“We give thanks, we give thanks:” Again the problem seems to be one of dualism—giving thanks twice sounds like it is being given to two different gods. However, in this section the dualism may not be of a good god and a bad god, but simply two gods. There were ancient sects of Jews (including Christians) who while professing monotheism, gave divine roles to other characters, such as God’s word (the Logos), God’s spirit or Jesus.
Section three: Leviticus 18:7 says, “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father.” If a person translates this as “you shall not uncover the nakedness of his father,” in an attempt to use a more innocuous third person, he is silenced. The translation of the Torah is to be literal, and even in the section concerning forbidden relations.
Section four: The Torah prohibits “passing one’s child to Moloch.” Some ancient translators understood this as a prohibition against impregnating or having sexual relations with a Gentile (Aramean) woman or perhaps against giving one’s child to a Gentile to raise. Since passing one’s child to Moloch is a capital crime, this might imply that having sexual relations with is a capital crime. Therefore the rabbis insisted upon a literal translation of the verse.
Two of the three heretical sayings prohibited by the Mishnah are easily explained. The explanations here accord with my explanations above.
These two explanations were quoted above when I explained the Mishnah.
In this story a person serving as shaliah tzibbur actually says what the Mishnah explicitly says not to say. He also adds in another line, in reference to the halakhah that one is not allowed to slaughter a mother and its young on the same day [this line is missing in some textual traditions]. In both cases, God has mercy on an animal. I find it very interesting that despite the fact that the Mishnah says not to say something, we hear of a shaliah tzibbur actually saying it. Perhaps this shows that the Mishnah was directed at actual practice.
In any case, Rabbah seems to actually praise the person for what he said. This is especially perplexing to Abaye, who correctly notes that he Mishnah said that we silence such a prayer leader.
The Talmud answers that Rabbah was just checking Abaye to see if he would respond correctly. Always a good excuse—I was just testing you!
In this story the shaliah tzibbur adds on some adjectives to the traditional three used to describe God—”God, the great, the mighty, the terrible.” These three adjectives used in the Amidah were based on Moses’s words in Deuteronomy 10:17. R. Hanina rebukes the prayer leader for adding on to God’s praise. There is simply no way for a human being to adequately express God’s praise. Therefore we are to stick with the traditional formula, initiated by Moses and instituted as part of the Amidah by the Men of the Great Assembly. To add on to these three adjectives is presumptuous.
Today’s section opens with another statement by R. Hanina, and then continues to deal with issues related to the mishnah
This famous statement is really about free will. The classic theological question—how can God control the world and yet leave human beings with the free will to choose their own paths, and thereby lead moral or immoral lives? R. Hanina basically limits God’s power to everything but human being’s free choice to obey or disobey. “Fear” here means obedience to God’s will.
To us normal human beings, fear of God is no small thing, for fear of God is something we lack. For Moses, to whom God is speaking, fear of God was easy. This is clearly one of the truest observations of life. That which we possess in abundance we do not appreciate, and that which we lack and strive for seems almost impossible to attain.
Zera says that one who repeats the Shema is like one who says, “We give thanks, we give thanks” and he should be silenced. He too seems to imply that there are two powers in heaven.
A baraita says that repeating the Shema is only disgraceful, but we do not silence him. This seems to contradict R. Zera. The Talmud resolves that if he repeats every word, word by word, it is only disgraceful. It is just a foolish way of reciting the Shema. But repeating the whole verse twice is potentially heretical, so we silence him.
I have explained this section according to Rashi. Other commentators explain opposite—repeating every word seems like heresy, whereas repeating the whole sentence is only disgraceful.
I should also note that at the end of the Yom Kippur service we do repeat Shema Yisrael. Commentators say that since this is a set custom, it clearly is not performed with heretical intent.
Papa brings up another reason why someone might repeat a verse of the Shema. He might not have had proper intention the first time he said it, and the recitation of the Shema must be done with proper intention. So why would we accuse him of heresy if he only was correcting his prior recitation?
Rava responds that a person reciting the Shema should not act like he is simply speaking to a friend. He should not casually recite the Shema, then realize he wasn’t paying attention and go back and say it over again.
Rather, Rava says that if he doesn’t have intention, he will slam him over the head with a hammer until he learns to say it right the first time. Ouch! That would seem to put the fear of the Lord into him!
Leviticus 18:7 says, “The nakedness of your father and the nakedness of your mother you shall not uncover.” One who uses a euphemism, “the shame” rather than say, “the nakedness” should be silenced. One should not use euphemisms when translating the Torah.
Yishmael interprets the Aramaic in the Mishnah. The Mishnah ruled that one should not interpret Leviticus 18:21 “do not pass your child over to Molech” as if it prohibits one from bearing a child with a Gentile woman. Here R. Yishmael just interprets that Mishnah. Evidently the rabbis were adamant that Jews should not read the verse this way, perhaps because they didn’t believe that it was actually prohibited to have a child with a non-Jew. Rabbis believed in conversion, and while we think of a convert as a Jew, some ancient Jews did not consider conversion possible.
Today’s section consists of a mishnah, the last in the chapter. It teaches that some portions of the Torah are not translated at all because of the nature of their content.
Section one: Reuven sleeps with Bilhah, his father’s concubine (Genesis 35:22). This story is not translated in order not to shame Reuven.
Section two: Tamar tricks Judah into sleeping with her (see Genesis 38). This story is read and translated because it is actually to Judah’s credit. When he discovers that he has committed a wrong (vs. 26), he doesn’t try to hide his crime, as embarrassing as it might be. Note that Judah serves as a foil for Reuven. Reuven intentionally commits a crime, so we must hide it from the public. Judah accidentally commits a crime and then confesses, so we make public the entire story.
Section three: The first part of the golden calf story is from Exodus 32:1-20. This part is translated either because Israel does receive atonement, or in order so that the congregation will learn from their mistakes. In verse 21 Moses questions and accuses Aaron. In order not to embarrass Aaron, this section is not translated.
Section four: The version of this mishnah in good manuscripts says that these sections are neither read nor translated. The priestly blessing is not read, perhaps because it is a regular part of the prayer service. According to the version of the mishan in the Talmud, these verses are read but not translated. The Talmud explains that they are not translated because one of the verses says, “May God show favor to you” and people might think that God shows favor in judgment and doesn’t judge justly.
The story of David and Bathsheva (II Samuel 11) is not read as a haftarah because it is embarrassing to David.
In the story of Amnon (II Samuel 13), Amnon rapes Tamar and then wants to abandon her. He eventually is killed by Absolom, David’s other son. This is also quite embarrassing to David and to his house.
Section five: We don’t read the description of the chariot contained in Ezekiel, chapter one, as a haftarah because ordinary people are not supposed to study this mystical chapter. However, Rabbi Judah allows this.
Section six: Rabbi Eliezer prohibits reading Ezekiel 16 as a haftarah because its content is simply too graphic. Read the chapter for yourself to get an idea of its disturbing content.
This baraita is an introduction to the rest of the passage which lists which passages are read and translated, and which are not. The mnemonic is there to help remember all of the passages referenced below.
One might have thought that translating the story of the creation of the world would lead one to speculative questions that one should not ask, such as what is above the heavens and what is below. Today we might say that reading Genesis leads to potentially difficult scientific questions. Nevertheless, the rabbis still rule that is read and translated.