This week’s daf continues with the description of the Simchat Bet Hashoevah.
The light of the Bet Hashoevah was so great that a woman sitting in Jerusalem could sift her wheat with the light. Now that’s a lot of light!
This baraita describes two groups. The men of piety and good deeds, who were righteous even when they were younger. And the penitents (Baalei Teshuvah) who had repented from their youthful sins. The baraita seems to place both on equal footing.
This section contains three sayings of Hillel the Elder, the famous Hillel. Two of them seem to be connected to the Simchat Bet Hashoevah, and the third is from Mishnah Avot. The first two statements espouse a startling view of human beings as the literal image of God, a view which grants to human beings tremendous cosmic significance. If I am here, I, Hillel, created in the image of God, it is as if everyone, all of humanity and God, is here.
My feet, he says, are literally drawn to the Temple, which is “my house”—not just God’s house, for I too am a God. This view of human significance in the world is drawn from the ambiguous parallel of the two halves of the verse in Exodus 20: In any place, I (the human being or God) mention my name (human or God), I (human or God) will come to you and bless you (human or God).
The third statement is from Avot 2:6. These were my comments on that mishnah:
This mishnah expresses Hillel’s deep faith in the ultimate justice of the world. In the end everyone receives not only a punishment for their crimes, but the exact punishment that fits their crimes. The person who drowned others is not only punished by being killed as a murderer, but he receives the same type of death that he meted out to others.
Although this may seem to be a statement purely of faith, one not empirically observable, Maimonides points out that it is borne out by experience all of the time and in all places. People who do evil and introduce violence and corruption into society, fall eventually as victims to the very violence that they perpetuated.
This fatalistic story is brought to illustrate R. Yohanan/Solomon’s saying, that a person ends up wherever they are supposed to be. I think the story is quite understandable—there is no running away from death. Whether or not this quite proves that a person always ends up where they are supposed to be, I will leave up to you.
Today’s section continues to discuss the spectacle of the Simchat Bet Hashoevah.
R. Shimon ben Gamaliel, besides being a great rabbi, also had amazing circus like abilities. He could juggle eight torches (and I doubt that they were the balanced types we have today) and he could hold himself up by his thumbs. My friends, do not try either of these tricks at home.
Levi, an amoraic rabbi, did a Kidah type of bow in front of Rabbi [Judah Hanasi] and as a result grew lame. However, the Talmud questions whether this was the cause of his lameness. R. Elazar had stated that the cause was Levi’s theological complaint against God. In Taanit Levi accuses God of withdrawing to the heavens and no longer taking a role in the lives of human beings.
The (somewhat simplistic) resolution is that both were a cause of Levi’s loss of physical abilities. Levi physically overdid it by trying to perform a Kidah. And he theologically overdid it, by accusing God of abandoning humanity.
This section contains a few more stories of rabbis and their amazing juggling abilities. It is interesting that Shmuel juggles in front of Shapur, the king of Babylonia. While I wouldn’t take this as historical fact, it is nevertheless interesting that the Talmud portrays a rabbinic sage juggling in front of a non-Jewish king.
This baraita shows how busy those attending the Temple would have been during the Simchat Bet Hashoevah. Indeed, it sounds like they didn’t sleep for seven days.
It is impossible for a person to go six days without sleeping. R. Yohanan stated this indirectly when he taught that if one takes a vow not to sleep for even three days, the vow is invalid because he vowed to do something impossible. In such a case, the person is lashed for taking God’s name in vain but then he may go to sleep immediately. In any case, how could R. Joshua claim that they didn’t sleep for the entire Simchat Bet Hashoevah.
The resolution is that they didn’t sleep well for all seven days, because they only dozed on each other’s shoulders. But they did sleep.
The mishnah had taught that there were fifteen steps leading up to the Temple, to correspond to the fifteen Songs of Ascent (Shir Hamaalot) in the Book of Psalms. This section explains what these songs cause to ascend.
In this section, R. Yohanan explains what prompted King David, who according to tradition authored the Book of Psalms, to write these fifteen psalms. The answer is related to some of the material taught in this chapter and in the previous one. When David dug the Pits under the altar, he accidentally hit the point at which the “Deep” called the “tehom” in Hebrew, was connected to the earth. These deep, primordial, waters threated to surface and flood the world, as they did in the days of Noah. David composed these fifteen songs, and they somehow caused the waters to subside. The world was preserved.
Note that this myth is part of the constellation of stories related to the notion that the altar in the Temple is the navel of the world. It is at this point that the waters of the world threaten to come out and destroy the world.
R. Hisda critiques R. Yohanan’s aggadah. If these songs caused the waters of the Deep to subside, then they should be dubbed “Songs of Descent” not “Ascent.”
Therefore, he offers a different aggadic story. David dug the Pits, but then saw that he had opened up a conduit whereby the waters of the Deep might destroy the world. Somehow he knew that writing God’s name on a sherd and throwing it into the Pits would cause the water to subside. What he didn’t know was whether this is permitted. Ahitophel, Saul’s son’s adviser after Saul’s death, a figure portrayed as a wise man in both the Bible and in rabbinic tradition, notes that in the Sotah ritual God’s name is written on a scroll and then the writing is rubbed off into water. This ritual is meant to bring peace between a man and woman by eliminating his suspicion that she was an adulteress. If for such a purpose, God’s name may be erased, all the more so it may be erased to save the world.
David then wrote God’s name on the sherd, and the waters subsided. The problem was that they subsided too much. While people don’t want waters coming up from the ground and submerging them, they also don’t want the waters to go too deep. So to get the waters to come back up, he composed fifteen Songs of Ascent. Now the primordial water was about 1000 cubits from the surface. Still, pretty deep, about 500 meters. This will be noted below.
Ulla learns some science from this aggadic legend. The crust of the earth is one thousand cubits thick. The problem with this theory is that one can easily see that one need not dig one thousand cubits to reach water. Water lies far closer to the surface. R. Mesharshya answers that the water we find close to the surface is not the primordial waters of the deep. It is the water that is due to the local river, the Euphrates. The waters of the Deep lie far down below the Earth’s surface.