Category Archives: Midrash

The Land Flowing with Wine and Honey?

“The land flowing with milk and honey” is a favorite poetic description of Eretz Yisrael in the Torah.  It is less known that Chazal in several places understand this phrase as not referring to all of the land, but rather to specific parts of it.  Israel is called the land flowing with milk and honey because it is the land that contains areas with this property.  Hence the following discussion of the Amoarim who had seen the areas with this property, culminating with the claim that only an area of 22 by 16 parsa can be referred to by this property.  Continue reading The Land Flowing with Wine and Honey?

A Methodological Point in Reading Aggadeta

BY: Alex Tsykin

I was recently reading an article by Geoffrey Herman (someone who has greatly advanced the study of Persian influences on the writing of the Gemara) called “Ahasuerus, the Stable-Master of Belshazzar” where he advances the following interpretation of a famous gemara in Megillah. The Gemara says as follows:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת מגילה דף יב עמוד ב

ויקצף המלך מאד, אמאי דלקה ביה כולי האי? אמר רבא: שלחה ליה: בר אהורייריה דאבא! אבא לקבל אלפא חמרא שתי ולא רוי, וההוא גברא אשתטי בחמריה.

“And the king (Ahasverosh) was very angry.” Why was he so very angry? Rava said: she sent a message to him: “the son of the stablemaster of my father! father would drink wine in front of one thousand people and would not be satisfies and you are drunk from wine!”

The second insult, that Ahashverosh could not hold his liquor, seems to be a relatively clear insult to his manliness that we can still understand today, but the first is very strange. Herman points out that the stablemaster was the least important member of the Persian court at the time of the Gemara and therefore to be addressed as his son emphasizes that not only was Ahashverosh a usurper but he was of low birth as well. Additionally, there was a very well known myth in Persia about a king who started off as a stablemaster’s assistant and rose to rule by killing the previous occupant of the throne. This myth seems to have informed the Bavli’s statement. If so, the passage from the Gemara should read:

“And the king (Ahasverosh) was very angry.” Why was he so very angry? Rava said: she sent a message to him: “(insult about llineage)! (insult about virility)!”

It would seem that Rava did not really mean that Ahashverosh occupied a specific position, for how could he know that? Instead, Rava intended that Vashti insulted Ahashverosh, for she was descended from the old Persian line. This poses two points as food for thought. Firstly, we see here the importance of knowing the cultural background of Chazal. By knowing some Persian legends you understand better a story that they relate. Instead of looking for symbolic value to the office of stable master and his son, you can understand the true intent behind the statement. Secondly, given this understanding of the story (which seems to me quite persuasive), is there any Talmud Torah value left in the literal statement that Ahashverosh was the son of a stablemaster, given that the term has lost the particular cultural valence it once possessed. Perhaps instead we should say “Son of my father’s garbage collecter!”

The Nature of Sin in Philosophy and Law: Doctors/Soldiers Switching Shabbos Shifts and Yichud

I was always intrigued by the quasi-legal discussions in the Gemara that reflect highly sophisticated philosophical issues.  Even more fascinating is when those same discussions are translated into law.  Perhaps the most striking example emerges from a passage about the nature of sin that appears in several places in Shas (Kiddushin  81b and Nazir 23a).  By coincidence, I was reminded of R. Shlomo Zalman Aurbach’s approach to this Gemara from a legal perspective when giving a shiur on soldiers/doctors switching shifts on Shabbos (here) and another shiur on Yichud (here). Continue reading The Nature of Sin in Philosophy and Law: Doctors/Soldiers Switching Shabbos Shifts and Yichud

Homiletics or Halacha: Another Radical Example from Niddah

Before I begin, what I am about to write has absolutely no relevance to Halacha.  None.

I recently gave one example (here)of a Rishon who took R. Meir’s explanation for Hilchot Niddah as normative rather than homiletic.  I was reminded by a friend (h/t Shaya) of a radical position in the Achronim that takes this farther.  Again, R. Meir argues that the laws of Niddah and the distance created are supposed to increase the desire a husband has for his wife.  On the basis of this, the Toras HaShelamim toys with the possibility that the laws of Niddah would not apply Continue reading Homiletics or Halacha: Another Radical Example from Niddah

Homiletics or Halacha: An Example from Niddah

Another example relates to a famous statement by R. Meir about the issur of Niddah. 

תלמוד בבלי מסכת נדה דף לא עמוד ב

תניא, היה ר”מ אומר: מפני מה אמרה תורה נדה לשבעה – מפני שרגיל בה, וקץ בה, אמרה תורה: תהא טמאה שבעה ימים, כדי שתהא חביבה על בעלה כשעת כניסתה לחופה.


R. Meir asks why a Niddah is assurah to her husband for seven days.  He answers that the Torah wanted to separate them for seven days so that when they are together again “she will be as beloved to her husband as he was she got married.”  R. Meir can either be understand as explaining why there is a notion of separating for Niddah at all, or why the issur formulated as it was – as seven days with all the laws that go along with, regardless of when she stops bleeding.  [Separating during menstruation was relatively common in many ancient cultures.  The specific laws of Niddah are more of a chiddush than the basic notion of separation.]  Either way, he offers an explanation for the laws of Niddah.

The simplest understanding is that this is homiletic/philosophical, but has no normative value.  For example, there is no obligation to be a Niddah for a week every month, and if someone uses hormones to minimize how often she is a Niddah, that is fine.   There is no obligation to create this distance that makes the heart grow fonder.

However, there was one Rishon (that I know of) who thought it did have (quasi-)normative value.  Continue reading Homiletics or Halacha: An Example from Niddah

Homiletics or Halacha: An Example from Eglah Arufah

I always find it fascinating when seemingly aggadic statements become the basis of Halachic argumentation.  An interesting example that I just came across appears concerning the topic of eglah arguah. The Gemara in Sotah asks why the eglah arufah ritual is done with a childless calf in a barren valley.  It answers that something that has borne no fruit brought in a place that bears no fruit will come to atone for the person who was killed and can no longer produce fruit.  The Gemara then questions what fruit are being referred to.  It rejects the possibility that it refers to children, as logically that would dictate that an elderly or impotent person who was killed would not obligate the bringing of an eglah arufah.  Thus, the Gemara concludes that the killed person is no longer able  to perform mitzvoth. Continue reading Homiletics or Halacha: An Example from Eglah Arufah

How Much Did Matan Torah Really Change?

I recently gave a shiur to visitng 10th graders.  I had given this before for a Torah Tours training session.  The shiur and sources are available: here. The summary/guide I wrote then is below:

This shiur deals with the question of what happened at Matan Torah.  How did the Jewish people change?  How did the nature of the mitzvoth change? Continue reading How Much Did Matan Torah Really Change?

The Rich, the Poor, and the Evil? Chazal on Yosef

It’s been many years since I gave shiur in Hebrew, but tonight I gave an agadata shiur for the Kollel Gavoah.  As it happens to also relate to this week’s Parsha, and what Chazal wanted us to learn from Yosef, I’m posting a quick summary and a link to the shiur: here.  An English summary shiur is: here.

The Gemara on 35b tells the of 3 figures who will prevent people from having excuses for not learning Torah.  Hillel prevents the poor, R. Elazar ben Charsom the rich and Yosef the reshaim.  What seems to drive the Gemara, from my perspective, is the lack of parallelism with the third line.  The Gemara should have said baalei taava, etc.  It seems that it is polemicizing – people who have desires already think of themselves as having lost the battle.  However, what they don’t realize is that overcoming desire is possible, and it is that struggle that makes them tzaddikim.  Continue reading The Rich, the Poor, and the Evil? Chazal on Yosef

Rabbinic Power and the Non-existent Possuk

Rashi famously cites a version of the Sifrei that insists that Rabbinic power extends even to cases in which Chazal tell us to do the “wrong thing”:

רש”י דברים פרק יז פסוק יא

(יא) ימין ושמאל – אפילו אומר לך על ימין שהוא שמאל ועל שמאל שהוא ימין, וכל שכן שאומר לך על ימין ימין ועל שמאל שמאל:

However, it is also well known that this contradicts both the Bavli and Yerushalmi.  In the Bavli, there is a case of a scholar who knows the Beit Din has made a mistake, but follows them anyways because he thinks he is obligated to followed Beit Din even it is wrong.  Continue reading Rabbinic Power and the Non-existent Possuk