We have all become familiar with the term social distancing of late, and we may think of it as a modern concept. But social distancing measures date back at least to biblical times, when, as we are told in the book of Vayikra (Leviticus), the leper has to dwell outside the camp. As with our present situation in this age of Coronavirus, the purpose of distancing the leper was at least in part to avoid contagion. But as we will see, there are various other reasons why people remove themselves from society. In our first class we’ll be looking at one specific reason, namely ostracism – נידוי (nidui)– a term the Talmud uses to refer to the social isolation imposed on someone who committed a grave offense.
Ostracism comes up at various points throughout the Talmud, but the most systematic and sustained discussion appears in the third chapter of Moed Katan. The tractate is about chol hamoed, the intermediate days of a festival. What activities, and specifically what forms of M’lacha (labor),are prohibited and forbidden on these days? In the beginning of the tractate we learn that what underlies the prohibitions various types labor on Chol Hamoed is a balancing of two principles – הפסד מרובה (hefsed meruba), which is a tendency to allow activities that, if not performed, would cause tremendous financial loss, and טרחה יתירה (tircha yeteirah), the notion that one shouldn’t have to do anything that involves excessive physical labor. There is also the idea that anything that can be done before the festival should be completed before, so as to minimize the amount of labor performed on the festival itself.
The opening Mishnah, as we will see, is about the prohibitions on shaving and doing laundry on these days.
- This is the first Mishnah of the third chapter of Moed Katan. How does it relate to the topic of the tractate as a whole?
- Why wouldn’t one be allowed to shave or launder on Chol Hamoed?
- Who is granted an exemption from these prohibitions according to this Mishnah, and why? What do all of these individuals have in common?
- What do ostracism and quarantine have in common? In what ways are the situations comparable, and in what ways are they not?
We may divide the Mishnah into two parts. The רישא (reisha), or first half, is about shaving. Ordinarily you can’t shave on the intermediate days of a festival – you need to shave in advance, to be ready for the holiday. But what if you just came back from a long trip and had no time to shave, or you just got out of jail, or you were cut off from society and could not go in for a shave? This is familiar to many of us – my son, who was supposed to get a haircut on the day before Purim, ended up going two months without a haircut until finally, after Lag BaOmer, when the barber shops opened up, he finally regained the ability to see again – his bangs had been covering his eyes for so long! We all know people who taught themselves on YouTube how to cut hair during this pandemic...
The Mishnah mentions various other individuals who are permitted to shave on Chol Hamoed:
Someone who requested from a sage to dissolve his vow - In the ancient world people would sometimes take vows denying themselves particular activities or pleasures so as to become closer to God, and the way to get released from a vow was to go before the sages and ask them to rescind the vow. The ceremony is called התרת נדרים (hatarat nedarim), and may be familiar from the service known as Kol Nidrei. So what if a person took a vow not to cut his hair, and got his vow rescinded on Chol Hamoed? The Mishnah says that he may shave on Chol Hamoed.
A Nazir – As described in book of Numbers, a Nazir is someone who vows not to come into contact with the dead or drink wine or cut his hair for a specific period of time, usually thirty days. What if that period were to end on Chol Hamoed, meaning he has not shaved for a month? He may shave, says the Mishnah.
A Leper – To transition from a state of impurity to purity, the leper had to shave his entire body. If his period of contamination ended on Chol Hamoed, he is permitted to shave.
Note that all of the individuals mentioned in the Mishnah are in a state of אונס, or constraint. They were unable to shave before the holiday, and so they may shave now.
The סיפא (seifa), or second half of the Mishnah, is a veritable laundry list of who may wash their clothes on Chol Hamoed. And here we must remember that laundry in Talmudic times involved a lot more work then laundry today: One had to carry all the soiled garments to a river, wash them, hang them out to dry, carry them back. In our age of washing machine and dryers, laundry is a very different story.
Here too, it’s better to do laundry before, but again, what if you can’t?
What if you just came back from a big trip with a suitcase full of dirty laundry?
What if you were held captive and had only the filthy shirt on your back?
What if you just got out of jail – a jail with no laundromat?
What if you were ostracized, cut off from society, and had no ability to get to the river?
What if you had taken a vow not to do laundry, like the person who vowed not to shave?
The first and second halves of the Mishnah have a lot in common. All the cases refer to people who couldn’t engage in these labors before the festival. Shaving and laundering are both activities that bring you to a place of greater comfort and pleasure.
And in both lists, we find – among others – the מנודה (menudeh) the person who was ostracized. This chapter has several passages about ostracism, some of which we will look at in this class.
- Why do individuals who disrespect Torah scholars not receive a warning prior to their excommunication?
- In section 2, why is the offender a butcher? Think about other stories involving butchers in rabbinic literature. How is the butcher an archetype, and what does he represent?
- What is the difference between ostracism and admonition? Why is it the proof text for admonition taken from the story of Miriam? What was Miriam’s offense, and how does it relate to what we have seen previously in the Talmud? How does this incident relate to the conjoining of the leper and the ostracized individual in the Mishnah?
- The Nasi, a political figure, was the leader of the Jewish community in the land of Israel. There are various stories throughout the Talmud about how much Torah the Nasi knew, or was expected to know. How does the story in section 5 fit in with this theme? Does this source take sides?
- How does section 6 construct a dichotomy between the marketplace and the study hall? Where above have we seen this dichotomy? What characterizes each locale?
- Why is it significant that the proof text is brought from the Song of Songs? Is this a claim about the erotic nature of Torah? Of Torah learning?
- In section 7, who is disrespectful toward whom? How is this case of ostracism/admonition different from the ones we have seen previously?
- How does the debate between Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and Rabbi Hiyya about teaching Torah in public relate to the larger theme of social isolation?
- What does it mean for the Torah studied in private to proclaim itself in public? Can you think of an example of this phenomenon? Can you think of examples of the converse?
- What does the woman with the extended leg represent? How are women and femininity depicted here and throughout this section?
- In what way is ostracism similar to and different from other forms of social isolation that you have experienced?
- How does the experience (and re-experience) of Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah) combine elements of the private/personal and public/communal study of Torah?
As we see from the beginning of this source (section 1), it is worse to mistreat a sage than to violate a financial penalty. If a person behaves disrespectfully toward a sage, he is given no warning regarding the punishment.
In section 2, the Talmud tells a story about a butcher who disrespected a sage. It is important to understand that butchers in the Talmud are an archetype – they are fleshy, earthy, bloody – the antithesis of the sage. When the butcher and the rabbi come into conflict, the butcher is ostracized. After he apologizes, there are sages who wish to rescind the decree, not because they wish to exonerate the butcher, but because they need his meat. He is, in effect, an essential worker. This raises the question: What do you do when someone is supposed to social distance, but you need their services? When do we make exceptions, and is this fair?
In the next section (section 3) we see that there is a whole lexicon of ostracism, with different terms for different degrees of ostracism. These gradations are familiar to all of us who witnessed as no gatherings of 100 became no gatherings of 50 which became no minyanim which became stay-at-home orders. Just as we have different decrees of social isolation mandated, so too do the Talmudic sages have different degrees of ostracism.
To prove that there are set amounts of time for social distancing, the Talmud in section 4 draws on the case of Miriam, who spoke lashon harah (evil speech) against Moshe, and developed tsara'at, often translated as leprosy. Moshe prays for his sister, and in response, God says that she can’t be admitted for seven days because that would be the minimum time period of her shame if her father spat in her face (it is interesting to consider the significance of spitting in an age of Coronavirus!).
Miriam's offense was disrespecting Moshe, who is often referred to as Moshe Rabbeinu - Moshe, our teacher. She disrespected a Torah scholar, which is precisely our topic in this section of the Talmud.
Section 5 contains another case in which someone acted disrespectfully toward a Torah scholar. Insulting your study partner’s father when your study partner's father is the Nasi – the head of the Jewish community in the land of Israel - is a big deal. There are several sugyot about how much Torah the Nasi knows, or needs to know. This was a contentious issue, and Bar Kappara understands himself to be ostracized for his statement.
We are then told that Rabbi Yehuda - again, the Nasi - declared that students were to be taught only in the study hall, not in the marketplace. The tension between the marketplace and the study hall is similar to the dichotomy of the butcher vs. the sage in Talmud texts; these two sites are considered polar opposites.
The proof text Rabbi Yehuda offers is from Song of Songs, the most intimate, hidden part of Bible. It is not the Torah that you want to teach in public. Rabbi Akiva referred to it as the Holy of Holies, which is the part of Temple that only high priest could enter and only at holiest day of year – you need privileged access. Not everyone is admitted to hallowed halls of Torah. It is an elitist form of Torah, not something that is open to all.
At this point, it becomes clear that there is an important gender component in these texts. The earlier proof text draws on the story of Miriam, who speaks ill of Moshe's sex life, according to the rabbinic understanding of the story. Then we have the text from Song of Songs, which refers to Torah as something that is erotic, represented by the inner thigh. In the final section, it is a woman, with her leg extended, who is admonished for disrespecting a Torah scholar.
As we know from our experience of social distancing, when all of us are staying home, working from our bedrooms while our spouse or roommate works in the bathroom, there is a real collapse of boundaries. What happens when marketplace and Beit Midrash coincide? The tension in these texts is the clash of private and public that emerges in situations of ostracism and social distancing.
As we study these texts on Shavuot, it is important to note that the revelation at Sinai, too,
was both a public, communal experience and a private, individual one. The entire nation
stood at Sinai, but everyone heard Torah in different ways – the midrash says that each
commandment was heard in seventy different languages, and each and every person at Sinai
died and then was brought back to life (Shabbat 88b – daf yomi next week!). As many of us
learn by Zoom or by Sefaria sourcesheet in preparation for Shavuot, we are both together and
alone – learning the same texts as others in the privacy of our own homes. May the words of
Torah continue to resonate for us both publicly and privately – in our communities and in our