This week’s daf continues the series of questions asked to rabbis—how did you live such a long life?
Peridah did three things that went beyond the letter of the law, and thereby he merited living a long life. First of all, he was always the first person at the Bet Midrash, the study hall, in the morning. Second, when it came time to Birkat Hamazon, he always lets a Kohen do the “zimmun” the invitation to recite Birkat Hamazon. The Talmud will discuss this below.
Third, he never ate meat (cows, sheep or goats) from which the portions given to the priest had not been removed. This law is stated in Deuteronomy 18:3. One who slaughters one of these animals must give the right foreleg, the cheeks and the stomach to a priest.
According to R. Yitzchak, eating from an animal from which the priestly dues have not been removed is like eating from untithed produce, which is strictly prohibited. However, the halakhah does not follow R. Yitzchak. One can eat from an animal whose priestly dues have not been removed. R. Peridah however, acted stringently, and did not eat any meat unless the priestly dues had already been removed.
Peridah said that he lived a long life partly because whenever he ate he allowed the Kohen to recite birkat hamazon (the zimmun). But R. Yohanan said that a “talmid hakham,” a Torah scholar that allows anyone else who is an “ignoramus” to bless birkat hamazon in front of him is deserving of death. This is true even if the ignoramus is the high priest himself. This idea is derived from a midrash on Proverbs 8:36. Instead of reading simply that anyone who hates Torah loves death, the midrash vocalizes the verse to read “anyone who causes Torah to be hated.” Someone who sees an ignoramus reciting birkat hamazon in front of a talmid hakham will cause the Torah to be hated, because he will think that being an ignoramus is more honorable than being a talmid hakham.
The resolution is that R. Peridah referred to a Kohen who was also well versed in Torah learning. Such a Kohen would bless birkat hamazon in front of R. Peridah. But if the Kohen was an ignoramus, R. Peridah would not let him recite birkat hamazon.
This section is an excellent example of the tension between two values in the rabbinic world—Torah learning and genealogy. The Kohen gadol has the quintessential pedigree, but if he is an ignoramus, it is not worth anything, at least not to the rabbis.
Nehuniah b. Hakaneh did three things to earn long life. The Talmud explains each one at a time. First of all, he didn’t protect his own honor at the cost of his fellow’s honor. This is illustrated by the story of R. Huna carrying a spade. R. Hana b. Hanilai wanted to carry it so that he could honor R. Huna, even if R. Hana would thus be degraded. R. Huna refused to let R. Hana to so, for he did not want to achieve his own honor through the degradation of his fellow human being.
Mar Zutra would forgive all who had troubled him when he went to bed at night. This sounds like a very healthy psychological strategy.
Nehuniah ben Hakaneh would always leave extra change with the shopkeeper. He was generous in the sense that he would make sure that he never accidentally cheated anyone out of money he owed them.
Today’s section continues with the same question asked of rabbis: How did you live for so long?
Before R. Nehuniah the Great has time to answer R. Akiva, R. Nehunia’s students beat R. Akiva for asking such a hutzpahtic question. Asking someone how they have lived so long somewhat implies to them that their time should be up. Not the way to treat a respected rabbi.
Akiva runs away and climbs up a tree. From there, seemingly out of the blue, he asks R. Nehuniah a talmudic sounding question. The Torah says, “The one lamb they shall prepare in the morning.” This is repetitive—the Torah could have stated either just “one” or just “lamb.” Why did it need to say both?
By his question, R. Nehuniah recognizes the legitimacy of R. Akiva, and tells the other students to leave him alone. Just goes to show you—if you want to sound smart, ask a good question.
After calming his overeager students down, R. Nehuniah answers the question itself. The word “one” doesn’t mean one, it means “singular” or unique. For the daily sacrifice, the best animal of the flock should be offered.
The first thing that R. Nehuniah did to live a long life was to refuse presents, which here seem to be like bribes. R. Elazar would not accept presents from the Patriarch’s house, for he was afraid they were in essence bribes. He would not even go over there when invited lest by benefiting from them he become indebted to them. These are ethics from which our politicians could certainly learn.
Zera didn’t accept presents either, but he would go to the Exilarch’s (the head of the community in Babylonia) house. He reasoned that they were not honoring him, he was honoring them. Hmm. I’m not sure whether I read this as a justification or not.
One who “waives his right to retribution” is one who has been wronged, but refuses to act in revenge. It is the person who forgives another for insulting him or for hurting him in some way. Rava says that God forgives the sins of a person who forgives the sins of others. In my opinion this is simply one of the most admirable of all character traits. A person who has the strength to not respond when he has been wronged, to end the cycle of hurt, that is the type of person I most admire. It is a person who teaches others to do the same, and to bring greater peace into the world. It is truly a rare trait, and I also believe that there must be a link between this trait and living a good long life.
This is the final section in which rabbis ask their masters how they lived such a long life.
R. Joshua b. Korha says that he lived a long life because he never looked at a wicked person. I don't think this means that he never saw a wicked person. This would be out of a person's control. What it means is that he stayed away from wicked people, and tried not to learn from their wicked ways. He didn't look at them with any regard. We know that people are deeply impacted by the company they choose to keep. When we choose to be around good people we raise ourselves to their standards, and we probably increase the longevity of our life (this is harder to prove, but I'm sure that we live better lives). The opposite is true as well. When we surround ourselves with shallower people, people who do less for others, people whose morality is lesser, our standards deteriorate as well.
R. Yohanan proves this point from a verse in II Kings in which Elisha the prophet speaks to Yehoram, the evil king of Israel. Elisha says that were it not for the righteous Yehoshaphat, king of Judah, he would have nothing to do with Yehoram the wicked.
R. Elazar proves the point by citing Yitzchak. As Yitzchak grew old, his eyes grew dim. As is typical, the rabbis explain physical ailments as being the result of transgression. Yitzchak should not have even looked at Esau his evil son. His favoring of Esau is what caused his eyes to grow dim. Paradoxically, it was his dim eyes that led him not to recognize Jacob's disguise and give the blessing to Jacob instead of Esau.
There is another midrash as to why Yitzchak's eyes went dim. In chapter 20 when Avimelech returns Sarah to Abraham, he says to her that the money he is giving her will be "a covering of the eyes." While the simple reading seems to mean he is bribing her to keep her mouth closed about the incident, the rabbis expound upon the strange phrase, "covering of the eyes." They read this as a curse, as if Avimelech cursed Sarah that her son (from Avimelech?!) would be blind. Although Avimelech was just an ordinary man, not a prophet or sage, his curse ended up coming true. Yitzchak's eyes did end up weakened. The Talmud offers a typical weak resolution as to the difficulty—both incidents cause Yitzchak to go blind—the curse from Avimelech and the fact that he looked at his wicked son, Esau.
This is yet another source for the idea that one should not look at a wicked person. The simple meaning of the verse is that one should not favor a wicked person. But Rava expounds it to mean that one should not even look at such a person.
When Rabbi Joshua b. Korha died he offered a strange blessing to Rabbi [Judah Hanasi]: May you live half as long as I do! Rabbi is stunned by this blessing. Why shouldn't he live out a full, long life, as did R. Joshua b. Korha. The cryptic answer refers to Rabbi Judah Hanasi's children. If Rabbi lives a very long life, his children will not be able to fill his role as Patriarch. They will be left grazing cattle in the field, with little time left in their own lives to make their mark on Judaism and the community as Patriarch. This seems to me a deep message about the mixed blessing of longevity. Of course, by living long we don't really prevent the success of our children, but it is worth remembering that at a certain time we need to step aside and make room for the new generation. I hope I'll remember this sugya when my time approaches. But I also hope that's still quite a while away.
These two amoraim profess strong anti-non-Jew sentiments, asking for a reward in the world to come because they have either never looked at a non-Jew or never had a partnership with a non-Jew. When reading statements such as these I contextualize them in a world in which there was strong ethnic and religious hostility between Jews and non-Jews, and I do not internalize them into my world. I wish for a world in which Jews and non-Jews look deeply at each other, respect each other's differences, recognize the fundamental similarities and engage in partnerships to better us all. That's the world I live in.
Most of these are quite self-explanatory. There are two versions of the last statement. According to the first, R. Zera never called a friend by an embarrassing nickname that he had. According to the second, he never called a friend even by an acceptable nickname for his family. This seems to be like a family name. Even today calling someone by their last name is not particularly polite.
In the mishnah which opens today’s section, Rabbi Judah teaches that the holiness of a synagogue remains even if it has fallen into ruins. Rabbi Judah applies the holiness of the Temple in Jerusalem to the synagogue of the post-destruction period. Just as the holiness of the Temple and the Temple Mount remained even when Jerusalem was destroyed, so too the holiness of a synagogue remains when it physically lies in ruins. There is a deep message in this mishnah. The holiness of the synagogue is not dependent upon the existence of its physical structure. Once people have treated the place as holy, it will retain that sanctity forever.
Section one: One may not use a synagogue that lays in ruins for a profane, every day purpose. One cannot deliver eulogies in it because eulogies are not delivered in synagogues, even when they have been destroyed. [As an aside, the custom to deliver eulogies and conduct funerals inside synagogues is a modern custom, probably borrowed from the Christians. Jews used to deliver eulogies either at the cemetery on the path on the way there.] One can’t use it as a place of work. The mishnah uses the example of “twisting rope” because twisting rope requires space, but it means that no work should be done there. It should not be used to trap animals nor should its roof be used to dry out fruit. One shouldn’t use it as a short cut. In summary, it should only be entered for its intended purpose—as a place of worship and Torah study.
The mishnah uses a midrash, exegesis of a biblical verse, to prove this point. In a section in which God rebukes Israel, He threatens that He will “desolate your holy places.” The fact that the verse calls these places holy implies that they retain their holiness even when they have been destroyed.
Section two: The mishnah now changes direction and seems to acknowledge that there is some significance to the synagogue’s having been destroyed. According to the theology reflected in this mishnah, a destroyed synagogue is sign of God’s wrath, which comes as a result of Israel’s sin. When one sees grasses growing in a synagogue, a person will surely experience deep sadness. It will remind him that the synagogue was destroyed and that he should repent. It will also remind him that he should dedicate himself to rebuilding the synagogue as quickly as possible.