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Notes from Limmud 2006

On Language and Identity—Sugiyot from Massechet Sotah

Leah Rosenthal

[All Biblical quotations come from the KJV not because it's the best translation but because it saves me a lot of effort typing alternate translations up.]

[This talk was aimed at people familiar with the way the Talmud operates, and contained a number of technical terms. In my notes here I'm leaving them in but adding explanations, as taking them out altogether would IMO change the character of the post.]

This talk concerns sugiot [pieces of Talmud consisting of a section of Mishna and the Gemara commentary on it] from the end of Tractate Sotah. This is a tractate in the order Nashim (women), which deals with a problematic passage in the Torah: trial by ordeal of a woman suspected of adultery with no witnesses present. In this tractate the rabbis of the Talmud spend six chapters of Mishna grappling with this issue. At the end of the tractate, chapters 7–9 form an independent literary unit which for some reason has been appended to this tractate; they have their own independent structure and agenda. Maybe it just got lumped in because it was too small to form a tractate of its own.

Sotah 7:1–2 סוטה ז׳ א׳–ב׳

These may be said in any language: the Sotah portion, confession of tithing, the reading of the Shema and the Amida, Grace after Meals, the oath of witness and the oath concerning a deposit.

These should be said in the Holy Language: The bringing of the first fruit, the ḥalitza ceremony, the blessings and the curses (on Mt Gerizim), the Priestly Blessing, the benediction of the High Priest, the section of the king, the beheading of the heifer, and the priest anointed to speak to the people as they go off into battle (another Biblical passage).

אלו נאמרין בכל לשון פרשת סוטה ודוי מעשר קריאת שמע ותפלה וברכת המזון ושבועת העדות ושבועת הפקדון׃

ואלו נאמרין בלשון הקודש מקרא בכורים וחליצה ברכות וקללות ברכת כהנים וברכת כהן גדול ופרשת המלך ופרשת עגלה ערופה ומשוח מלחמה בשעה שהוא מדבר אל העם׃

(Possibly the inclusion of the Sotah ritual is why this is appended to the end of מסכת סוטה.)

What is common to both lists is that they are all rituals that involve some act of speaking. (Though plenty of other spoken rituals are left out, e.g. Kiddush, Hallel, etc; the Tosafot [a group of mediaeval commentators] address this.)

Why does the Mishna say some of these can be said in any language, i.e. the local vernacular (though the Tosafot says there is a version of the Mishna which says "in your language"), and other can only be said in Hebrew?

Responses to this: Some מצות [mitzvot, commandments] are so important they must be understandable by the speaker; others have to be said in the source language. Though, why are the blessings and curses included on this list? This was a one-off ritual! (This question will be addressed later on.)

The possibility of translation is a huge question. Is it possible to translate something without losing its essence? It draws into focus the connection between form and content. If you can translate, that connection is weaker; if you say you may not or cannot translate, you are saying the form and the content are intrinsically connected.

The Mishna is giving us a complex position: are the form and content inextricably linked or not? The answer is sometimes yes and sometimes no (a classic rabbinic position!).

The second interesting thing is that this reflects the social reality that not all Jews speak לשון הקודש (the Holy Language)׃ The spoken daily language is likely to be Judaeo-Aramaic (or Greek); many Jews do not understand לשון הקודש. This mishna introduces us to the reality of bi- or multi-lingualism. This is also a representation of multiculturalism; many Jews live in more than one cultural context—also very familiar to us today.

What the Mishna is exploring is at what moment can we allow those other languages to enter our daily lives, and at what point do we keep them out?

The third major issue is the functions of speech. Sometimes speech is to communicate, but sometimes it's about other things. Consider for instance the Kaddish—it stirs people's souls, without their necessarily understanding their content. It would be completely different with the rhythm of English... and yet this is something which was originally written in the vernacular, viz. Aramaic.

These are all issues that have relevance today.

Once the Mishna opens up the possibility of translating to all other languages, where does that end? If you say your language is the language of movement or dance, can you pray in that language? Similarly, what about sign language?

What was the Mishna's criterion for separating the two lists? In ideal circumstances, one would at this point go off and look at the Biblical sources for all these commandments, to gain a good feel for what characterises them. However, since time was short here, this talk skipped them.

Analysing the list, it's almost as if for each מצוה in the one list, there's a counter-מצוה almost identical in the other! Let's start with the following pair of מצות:

Deuteronomy 26 דברים כו
And it shall be, when thou art come in unto the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance, and possessest it, and dwellest therein; That thou shalt take of the first of all the fruit of the earth, which thou shalt bring of thy land that the LORD thy God giveth thee, and shalt put it in a basket, and shalt go unto the place which the LORD thy God shall choose to place his name there. And thou shalt go unto the priest that shall be in those days, and say unto him, I profess this day unto the LORD thy God, that I am come unto the country which the LORD sware unto our fathers for to give us. And the priest shall take the basket out of thine hand, and set it down before the altar of the LORD thy God. And thou shalt speak and say before the LORD thy God, A Syrian ready to perish was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there with a few, and became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous: And the Egyptians evil entreated us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage: And when we cried unto the LORD God of our fathers, the LORD heard our voice, and looked on our affliction, and our labour, and our oppression: And the LORD brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders: And he hath brought us into this place, and hath given us this land, even a land that floweth with milk and honey. And now, behold, I have brought the firstfruits of the land, which thou, O LORD, hast given me. And thou shalt set it before the LORD thy God, and worship before the LORD thy God: And thou shalt rejoice in every good thing which the LORD thy God hath given unto thee, and unto thine house, thou, and the Levite, and the stranger that is among you. והיה כי תבוא אל הארץ אשר ה׳ אלהיך נתן לך נחלה; וירשתה וישבת בה׃ ולקחת מראשית כל פרי האדמה אשר תביא מארצך אשר ה׳ אלהיך נתן לך ושמת בטנא; והלכת אל המקום אשר יבחר ה׳ אלהיך לשכן שמו שם׃ ובאת אל הכהן אשר יהיה בימים ההם; ואמרת אליו הגדתי היום לה׳ אלהיך כי באתי אל הארץ אשר נשבע ה׳ לאבתינו לתת לנו׃ ולקח הכהן הטנא מידך; והניחו לפני מזבח ה׳ אלהיך׃ וענית ואמרת לפני ה׳ אלהיך ארמי אבד אבי וירד מצרימה ויגר שם במתי מעט; ויהי שם לגוי גדול עצום ורב׃ וירעו אתנו המצרים ויענונו; ויתנו עלינו עבדה קשה׃ ונצעק אל ה׳ אלהי אבתינו; וישמע ה׳ את קלנו וירא את ענינו ואת עמלנו ואת לחצנו׃ ויוצאנו יהוה ממצרים ביד חזקה ובזרע נטויה ובמרא גדל ובאתות ובמפתים׃ ויבאנו אל המקום הזה; ויתן לנו את הארץ הזאת ארץ זבת חלב ודבש׃ ;ועתה הנה הבאתי את ראשית פרי האדמה אשר נתתה לי ה׳ והנחתו לפני ה׳ אלהיך והשתחוית לפני ה׳ אלהיך׃ אתה והלוי והגר אשר בקרבך׃ :ושמחת בכל הטוב אשר נתן לך ה׳ אלהיך ולביתך

All of this must be said in Hebrew. Then immediately afterwards, we get a ritual that may be said in any language:

When thou hast made an end of tithing all the tithes of thine increase the third year, which is the year of tithing, and hast given it unto the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, that they may eat within thy gates, and be filled; Then thou shalt say before the LORD thy God, I have brought away the hallowed things out of mine house, and also have given them unto the Levite, and unto the stranger, to the fatherless, and to the widow, according to all thy commandments which thou hast commanded me: I have not transgressed thy commandments, neither have I forgotten them. I have not eaten thereof in my mourning, neither have I taken away ought thereof for any unclean use, nor given ought thereof for the dead: but I have hearkened to the voice of the LORD my God, and have done according to all that thou hast commanded me. Look down from thy holy habitation, from heaven, and bless thy people Israel, and the land which thou hast given us, as thou swarest unto our fathers, a land that floweth with milk and honey. כי תכלה לעשר את כל מעשר תבואתך בשנה השלישת שנת המעשר ונתתה ללוי לגר ליתום ולאלמנה ואכלו בשעריך ושבעו׃ ואמרת לפני ה׳ אלהיך בערתי הקדש מן הבית וגם נתתיו ללוי לא עברתי ממצותיך ולא שכחתי׃ :ולגר ליתום ולאלמנה ככל מצותך אשר צויתני ;לא אכלתי באני ממנו ולא בערתי ממנו בטמא ולא נתתי ממנו למת שמעתי בקול ה׳ אלהי עשיתי ככל אשר צויתני׃ השקיפה ממעון קדשך מן השמים וברך את עמך את ישראל ואת האדמה אשר נתתה לנו כאשר נשבעת לאבתינו ארץ זבת חלב ודבש׃

What's the difference between these? In the one you're acting as a member of the people; in the other you're acting as yourself.

The difference between which language we should use to speak corresponds to how the Mishna is encouraging us to think of ourselves. At different moments in religious life the focus shifts. At times we are primarily focusing on ourselves as a private individual; here you speak in your own language, which is personal to yourself. The rabbis say the Mishna is telling us there are moments in the Jewish ritual where what stands at the centre of attention is you. But there are other moments in which we say right now the focus is identification with the Jewish community, or Jewish people. Then we speak לשון הקודש, the Holy Tongue.

Note the מקרא בכורים [the bringing of the first fruits] does not use the longer ritual in Exodus, but the summary in the first person in Deuteronomy. (That is why it was this version that was chosen for the Haggadah: "my forefather was a wandering Aramaean who went down into Egypt," &c.)

The other frustrating pair is the trial by ordeal and chalitza ritual. [The trial by ordeal (Numbers 5) is a Biblical ritual whereby a woman accused of adultery is made to drink bitter waters to see if it brings a curse upon her; ḥalitza (Deut. 25) is where a man whose brother dies childless publicly announces he will not perform levirate marriage and marry the dead man's widow.] Both are crises in marriage. In one there is the suspicion of adultery; and in the other the husband dies before they have had children.

If you read the original, you'll see in the ḥalitza ritual, the Torah is concerned with continuity; it's not concerned with the poor widow herself. They are playing a role besides their own stories, in a much greater story: the story of the Jewish people.

What about the recitation of the Shema? Isn't this a communal ritual? "Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is one." Here the Tannaim [sages of the Mishna] are making a very interesting statement. If the Shema is not a moment of identifying with the Jewish people, what is it? This question is addressed below.

Consider also the priest anointed to go into war. This is the prime moment in which someone is putting their individual identity aside and being called up to play a role in a much bigger story. This is something Israelis today can very much identify with—being called up for reserve duty. They are not now being asked to speak in their own language; they being asked to speak the language of the people.

But isn't there something artificial about splitting people's identity like this? The Torah reflects this. The מקרא בכורים ritual ends, after telling the whole story about how the Jewish people was enslaved in Egypt, very personally: "And now, behold, I have brought the first fruits of the land, which you, LORD, have given me." Likewise, the [second example] does the opposite.

Back to the Mishna:

Sotah 7:3-9:15 סוטה ז ג וגו׳
How is the bringing of the first fruits done [in the Holy Language]? [...] How is the chalitza ritual done? [...] Etc ?מקרא בכורים כיצד [...] ?חליצה כיצד [...] וגו׳

The Mishna goes through the list of the מצות which must be done in Hebrew. It completely ignores the ones that can be done in any language. It goes through the ones in Hebrew item by item, and devotes a discussion to them one by one, which list progressively gets longer and longer, going up from two lines to entire chapters.

Why does the Mishna concentrate on these? It was the norm to speak your own language. If the Mishna insists on preventing you from speaking your own language and making you speak a language you don't understand, there lies the burden of proof!

This is not a position one could take for granted that the Mishna would have taken! One might have thought that the לשון הקודש would be taken for granted, and it had to be proven that texts can be changed! (One would expect this from Orthodoxy today!) But in the Mishna it's the other way around, reflecting a different mindset.

The silence of the Mishna regarding the other list is something the Gemara does not put up with. It is not willing to leave these items untouched; there is a change in mindset by the time of the Gemara.

One final piece of support for the theory of identity: Many of the לשון קודש have the recurring phrase וענתה ואמרת "you shall answer and say"; many of the ones in the vernacular just have the phrase ואמרת "you shall say". The Mishna is creating a series of גצרות שוה [inferences from a similarity of phrases, one of the standard kit of hermeneutical tools by which Jewish practice is derived from the Torah]. It sends us back to וענו הלויים ואמרו "the Levites and said"; from the blessings on Mt Gerizim. The Mishna is beginning to present a picture in which the מצות in לשון הקודש are derived from the paradigmatic moment at which the people entered the land.

What is that moment? It was the pivotal moment of creating nationhood. The Mishna in its seemingly technical language is actually telling us to try and recreate that moment of creating national identity. משה רבינו [Moses] said when describing what to do, שמע ישראל הוים יהיה לעם—hear O Israel, today you are becoming a people.

Now on to the Gemara, Sotah 33a:

ולוים גופייהו מנלן אתיא קול קול ממשה כתיב הכא קול רם וכתיב התם משה ידבר והאלהים יעננו: בקול מה להלן בלשון הקודש אף כאן בלשון הקודש חליצה כיצד וכו׳: ורבנן האי ככה מאי עבדי ליה מיבעי להו לדבר שהוא מעשה מעכב׃ ורבי יהודה מכה ככה׃ ורבנן כה ככה לא משמע להו׃


If you knew this was in לשון הקודש, how did you know the blessings and the curses was in לשון הקודש, the inspiration for all the others?

One could say of course they were speaking לשון הקודש; that was what they were speaking at the time!

Because it says "the Levites answered in a loud voice."

This phrase evokes the passage "Moses spoke and G-d spoke in a voice".

Now, what language does G-d speak?

Hence לשון הקודש evokes two moments in Jewish history: The entering into the land, which in turn evokes the giving of the Torah at Mt Sinai. Hence speaking Hebrew evokes the communal Jewish national expression.

קריאת שמע

What about קריאת שמע [the recitation of the Shema]? This seems to be such an expression of Jewish identity! What's it doing on the vernacular list?

The Talmud says (Sotah 32b):

קרית שמע: מנלן דכתיב (דברים ו) שמע ישראל בכל לשון שאתה שומע׃ תנו רבנן קרית שמע ככתבה דברי רבי וחכמים אומרים בכל לשון׃ מאי טעמא דרבי אמר קרא (דברים ו) והיו בהווייתן יהו׃ ורבנן אמר קרא שמע בכל לשון שאתה שומע׃ ורבנן נמי הא כתיב והיו ההוא שלא יקראנה למפרע׃ ורבי שלא יקראנה למפרע מנליה נפקא ליה מדברים הדברים׃ ורבנן דברים הדברים לא משמע להו׃ ורבי נמי הכתיב שמע ההוא מיבעי ליה להשמיע לאזניך מה שאתה מוציא מפיך׃ ורבנן סברי לה כמאן דאמר הקורא את שמע ולא השמיע לאזנו יצא׃

Again, paraphrastically:

From where did the Mishna know that קריאת שמע belongs on the vernacular list?

Because it is written Shma Yisrael. Shma means "hear" in Hebrew, but in rabbinic language means "understand"—comprehend the meaning. Listen to the words themselves, in whatever language is most comprehensible to you.

The Talmud now shared additional information which never made it into the Mishna:

The Rabbis taught: קריאת שמע must be taught as it is written, i.e. in הקודש לשון. This is the opinion of Rebbi (Rabbi Yehuda haNasi). But the majority [of the rabbis] say in any language.

There is a מחלקת [dispute] here! Because Raabi Yehuda haNasi is the editor of the Mishna, he is doing something very interesting here by not mentioning his own opinion! Now, there are other places in which he does this, and others in which he only mentions his own opinion, and others in which he mentions both.

The rabbis say that saying the שמע is a very private moment, in accepting the yoke of heaven (interpreting שמע as an acronum for עול מלכות שמים). [sentence lost]

How did Rebbi comes to his conclusion? He also listened to the verses of the Shma, but he heard a different verse: והיו הדברים האלא What does והיו mean? "And they—these words—shall be." He understands it to mean "They shall forever be as they are." He reads this as a commandment.

So there is actually a tripartite מחלקת [dispute]: one about the halacha of reading the שמע, one about how to understand the text, and a third about what is the essence of the act—connecting to the people or the focusing on oneself?

Halacha would seem to follow the majority, the opinion which appears in the Mishna—that the Shma is a personal מצוה, not a communal one. [Though in practice, the people seem to have decided otherwise!]

Psak halacha:

Rambam [Maimonides, 1138–1204], Mishne Torah משנה תורה להרמב״ם, הלכות קרית שמע, פרק ב הלכה י
A person recites the שמע in whatever language he can understand. And if you're reading in any language, it is necessary to be careful not to speak a corrupt kind of language, and you have to be as careful about the language as you would be about לשון הקודש (for example in separating the words "בכל לבבך"). קורא אדם את שמע, בכל לשון שהוא מבינה, והקורא בכל לשון צריך להיזהר מדברי שיבוש שבאותה הלשון ומדקדק באותה הלשון כמו שמדקדק בלשון הקודש׃

This opens up a whole new discussion. The Ravad (R. Abraham b. David, 1120–1198) pounces on the Rambam (as he often does):

This doesn't make any sense. Any other language is going to be a commentary, and how could you be as careful with a commentary as with the original? קורא אדם את שמע בכל לשון כו׳ עד ומדקדק באתאותו הלשון כמו שהוא מדקדק אם קראה בלשון הקדש׃ כתב הראב״ד ז״ל: א״א אין זה מקובל על הדעת לפי שכל הלשונות פירוש הן ומי ידקדק אחר פירושו׃

R. Yosef Karo [1488–1575] says in the Bet Yosef [cutting a several paragraphs of Hebrew down to a single sentence]:

I don't understand what the Ravad's problem is; surely you just have to be as careful as with the original.

There is a sense of discomfort with translations, but all through the mediaevals the psak is consistently that you can say the שמע in any language.

Things change in modern times. The Chafetz Chayim [R. Israel Meir haCohen, 1839–1933] says in the Mishna Berura (סימן סב) [again, abbreviating]:

In any language: It has to be in a language you understand. The same is true of the Amida and מ״ה [whatever that is] and Kiddush and the blessings for מצות and fruit and Hallel [various other prayers not in the Mishna.] That's in terms of the law. But it's best to do it in לשון הקודש׃

Where did he get this from? It doesn't come from anywhere in the sources!

In our days, it's better to avoid doing it any other language at all. Because we don't know how to translate [all the words in the שמע]. E.g לתותפות [normally rendered "frontlets", but what does it mean?].

Which may be fair enough, but that means you won't understand it, which is a completely opposite mindset to in the Talmud.


Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 33a:

תפלה: רחמי היא כל היכי דבעי מצלי׃ ותפלה בכל לשון והאמר רב יהודה לעולם אל ישאל אדם צרכיו בלשון ארמית דאמר רבי יוחנן כל השואל צרכיו בלשון ארמי אין מלאכי השרת נזקקין לו לפי שאין מלאכי השרת מכירין בלשון ארמי לא קשיא הא ביחיד הא בצבור׃ ואין מלאכי השרת מכירין בלשון ארמי

Regarding תפלה [the prayer, par excellence, by which the Talmud always means the Amida], the Talmud does not ask "how do we know this", which it says everywhere else. This normally requires quoting a Toraitic verse, and here there is none! But Rashi says it is not necessary to require a פסוק [verse] to prove that תפילה is in your own language.

What is תפילה? It is רחמי.

רחמי in Aramaic means compassion/mercy, as in Hebrew, but also means love. It's a loaded word in Aramaic! Hence this is saying:

What is תפילה? It is רחמים—love, relationship, intimacy, the outpouring of the heart and request for compassion. Any way you need to, that's the way you pray.

This is a wonderful definition of תפילה, but it does not seem to coincide with the rabbinic definition of תפילה! Is this really a rabbi saying this!? (There was a structure to the Amidah at this point, but it was not as fixed as it is today.)

Can תפילה really be in any language? Surely Rav Yehudah said a person shall never petition his requests in Aramaic? And R. Yochanan said anyone who petitions his requests in Aramaic, the angels of Heaven will not countenance him, because the angels do not recognise the Aramaic language.

Aramaic is of course standing here for all vernaculars. And one could of course say if Aramaic is not acceptable, קל וחומר [a fortiori—another of the traditional hermeneutical techniques] no other language is!

Also one moment ago we were pouring our heart out to G-d, and now suddenly we need the intermediacy of angels! Once we require this, we have to take into account their limitations. Some commentators are uncomfortable with this, and rather than saying they don't understand Aramaic, translate that they refuse to recognise it! Suddenly prayer's become bureaucratic—you have to fill out the form right! This is a world away from רחמים! What happened to רחמים? By the end of the סוגיא it's gone, or at least regulated. (And what, then, about the prayers we do say in Aramaic, such as Kaddish (and many more)?)

What, then, is prayer? The spontaneous outpouring of your heart, or going according to the book? The Gemara thrives on this kind of thing. It says:

There is no contradiction. This is about the individual, the other is about a congregation.

Unfortunately, it doesn't tell us which is which! It would be nice to say when you're praying by yourself you can say it in your own language, but when you're praying in a congregation, you need to pray in Hebrew.

The problem is that no one interprets it that way. Rashi says:

An individual needs the intermediacy of the angels; a congregation does not need this.

So the congregation can pray in any language; the individual cannot. The individual is in a difficult position. The individual comes to petition G-d. How can a finite flesh and blood being communicate to G-d? It is extremely difficult. The individual does not have direct access to G-d. Therefore he needs to do it through angels, and needs to take into account the angels' likes and dislikes. The congregation, however, do have direct access to G-d.

When the individual speaks לשון הקודש this makes them part of the community, and this gains them a standing before G-d that as a private individual they never could have.

R. Yochanan and R. Yehuda both use the term כל השואל צרכיו "anyone who asks his needs". This may imply a private prayer.

What happens to this in post-Talmudic literature? Don't miss tomorrow's exciting episode.

In mediaeval times people took advantage of various ambiguities in the text to limit the restrictions; e.g. saying "this only applies to Aramaic", therefore permitting French—or vice versa, saying Aramaic represents all other languages.

In modern times, the halachic discourse becomes one over change, which is a very loaded topic. In the nineteenth century the תיפרת ישראל talks about Reform Judaism talking about praying in German. He says we don't care that the Mishna is on their side; we will fight them to the end because we perceive them as a threat.

[Further discussion cut due to time constraints.]

The ritual on Mt Eval and Mt Gerizim

We talked earlier about communal prayer evoking the moment that the Israelites entered the land of Israel. The Mishna implies that if you want to understand what לשון הקודש [the Holy Tongue] is all about, you have to understand the pivotal ritual on Mt Eval and Mt Gerizim.

In the following, bear in mind the Talmud is an edited record; even though it may sometimes feel it is wandering all over the place, there is a guiding hand; the discussion is taking us from A to B for a reason.

Deuteronomy 27:11-27:26 דברים כז יא-כו
And Moses charged the people the same day, saying, These shall stand upon mount Gerizim to bless the people, when ye are come over Jordan; Simeon, and Levi, and Judah, and Issachar, and Joseph, and Benjamin: And these shall stand upon mount Ebal to curse; Reuben, Gad, and Asher, and Zebulun, Dan, and Naphtali. And the Levites shall speak, and say unto all the men of Israel with a loud voice, Cursed be the man that maketh any graven or molten image, an abomination unto the LORD, the work of the hands of the craftsman, and putteth it in a secret place. And all the people shall answer and say, Amen. Cursed be he that setteth light by his father or his mother. And all the people shall say, Amen. Cursed be he that removeth his neighbour's landmark. And all the people shall say, Amen. Cursed be he that maketh the blind to wander out of the way. And all the people shall say, Amen. Cursed be he that perverteth the judgment of the stranger, fatherless, and widow. And all the people shall say, Amen. Cursed be he that lieth with his father's wife; because he uncovereth his father's skirt. And all the people shall say, Amen. Cursed be he that lieth with any manner of beast. And all the people shall say, Amen. Cursed be he that lieth with his sister, the daughter of his father, or the daughter of his mother. And all the people shall say, Amen. Cursed be he that lieth with his mother in law. And all the people shall say, Amen. Cursed be he that smiteth his neighbour secretly. And all the people shall say, Amen. Cursed be he that taketh reward to slay an innocent person. And all the people shall say, Amen. Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them. And all the people shall say, Amen. ויצו משה את העם ביום ההוא לאמר׃ אלה יעמדו לברך את העם על הר גרזים בעברכם את הירדן: שמעון ולוי ויהודה ויששכר ויוסף ובנימן׃ ואלה יעמדו על הקללה בהר עיבל: ראובן גד ואשר וזבולן דן ונפתלי׃          וענו הלוים ואמרו אל כל איש ישראל קול רם׃ ארור האיש אשר יעשה פסל ומסכה תועבת ה׳ מעשה ידי חרש ושם בסתר          וענו כל העם ואמרו אמן׃          ארור מקלה אביו ואמו ואמר כל העם אמן׃          ארור מסיג גבול רעהו ואמר כל העם אמן׃          ארור משגה עור בדרך ואמר כל העם אמן׃ ארור מטה משפט גר יתום ואלמנה ואמר כל העם אמן׃ ארור שכב עם אשת אביו כי גלה כנף אביו ואמר כל העם אמן׃                   ארור שכב עם כל בהמה ואמר כל העם אמן׃ ארור שכב עם אחתו בת אביו או בת אמו ואמר כל העם אמן׃                   ארור שכב עם חתנתו ואמר כל העם אמן׃          ארור מכה רעהו בסתר ואמר כל העם אמן׃          ארור לקח שחד להכות נפש דם נקי ואמר כל העם אמן׃ ארור אשר לא יקים את דברי התורה הזאת לעשות אותם ואמר כל העם אמן׃

Note the phrase וענו ואמרו "they shall answer and they shall say" turns up here again.

What is absent from this list are the blessings. The rabbis of the Talmud understood each curse has a corresponding blessing.

This is here just being commanded. Its actual performance is described in the Book of Joshua. There a strange phrase is used:

Joshua 8:33 יהושוע ח לג
And all Israel, and their elders, and officers, and their judges, stood on this side the ark and on that side before the priests the Levites, which bare the ark of the covenant of the LORD, as well the stranger, as he that was born among them; half of them over against mount Gerizim, and half of them over against mount Ebal; as Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded before, that they should bless the people of Israel. וכל ישראל וזקניו ושטרים ושפטיו עמדים מזה ומזה לארון נגד הכהנים הלוים נשאי ארון ברית ה׳ כגר כאזרח חציו אל מול הר כאשר צוה משה עבד ה׳ לברך :גרזים והחציו אל מול הר עיבל את העם ישראל בראשנה׃

החציו: Half of them on Mt Gerizim, and the half on Mt Ebal.

What does the Gemara have to say about this? Sotah 36a-b:

What is this "the half"?                                 מאי והחציו

Rashi points out the definite article has two functions: either it's familiar to you from elsewhere: "the boy" is a boy you already know. Or it's implying there's something special, something unique about this. He's using this to prepare the reader for what the Talmud says.

R. Kahane says: The division here is a familiar description. You recognise the division between Mt Ebal and Mt Gerizim. Where have you seen this before? The אבני האפוד. אמר רב כהנא כדרך שחלוקין כאן כך חלוקין באבני אפוד׃

This does not refer to the stones on the High Priest's breastplate but the stone epaulettes on his shoulders connecting the front and back of his garment. The Torah says that six tribes are engraved on each:

Exodus 28:9-28:12 שמות כח ט–יב
And thou shalt take two onyx stones, and grave on them the names of the children of Israel: Six of their names on one stone, and the other six names of the rest on the other stone, according to their birth. With the work of an engraver in stone, like the engravings of a signet, shalt thou engrave the two stones with the names of the children of Israel: thou shalt make them to be set in ouches of gold. And thou shalt put the two stones upon the shoulders of the ephod for stones of memorial unto the children of Israel: and Aaron shall bear their names before the LORD upon his two shoulders for a memorial. ולקחת את שתי אבני שהם ופתחת עליהם שמות בני ישראל׃ ששה משמתם על האבן האחת ואת שמות הששה הנותרים על האבן השנית כתולדתם׃ מעשה חרש אבן פתוחי חתם תפתח את שתי האבנים על שמת בני ישראל מסבת משבצות זהב תעשה אתם׃ ושמת את שתי האבנים על כתפת האפד אבני זכרן לבני ישראל ונשא אהרן את שמותם לפני ה׳ על שתי כתפיו לזכרן׃

Once again, we see here the definite article. (Also note that this explicitly says this is for a memorial.)

The six names on each stone mirrors the six tribes on each mountain. Thus the High Priest when he appears before the people in his robe of office is a walking reminder of the very powerful moment of confirmation and affirmation of the covenant on Mt Eval and Mt Gerizim.

(But why is the definite article only on one half, in the Gemara? Midrashically, putting it only on one is to make you notice it! Another answer: because the Torah is as efficient as possible. It's been suggested that the reason it's on the tribes with the curses is a compensation for having to respond to the curses!)

Returning to the Gemara:

מיתיבי שתי אבנים טובות היו לו לכהן גדול על כתיפיו אחת מכאן ואחת מכאן ושמות שנים עשר שבטים כתוב עליהם ששה על אבן זו וששה על אבן זו שנאמר ששה משמותם על האבן האחת וגו׳ שניה כתולדותם ולא ראשונה כתולדותם מפני שיהודה מוקדם וחמשים אותיות היו עשרים וחמש על אבן זו ועשרים וחמש על אבן זו רבי חנינא בן גמליאל אומר לא כדרך שחלוקין בחומש הפקודים חלוקין באבני אפוד אלא כדרך שחלוקין בחומש שני כיצד בני לאה כסידרן בני רחל אחד מכאן ואחד מכאן ובני שפחות באמצע

מיתיבי is used to introduce a contradicting source of higher authority: Rav Kahane is an Amora and this is from a Tannaitic text—which means R. Kahane is in trouble for doing this.

Two precious stones the High Priest had on his shoulders, one per shoulder, and the twelve tribes are engraved in them, six on one stone and six on the other. It sounds like the second six are in order of their birth, implying that the first six are not!

If the first six are not in order, Reuven will not be the first son, and Yehudah will take his place [because Shimon and Levi fell out of favour for overzealously avenging the rape of Dina]. The rabbi in the Talmud concludes that this single rearrangement is the change.

R. Chanina b. Gamliel say it's got nothing to do with the birth order, but their mothers, and is the order they descended into Egypt, as listed in Exodus: Benjamin (a son of Rachel), the sons of Leah, the sons of the handmaids, Joseph (a son of Rachel) [I think; I'm not entirely sure where this is referring to].

But neither of these fit the division at Mts Eval and Gerizim!

If they hadn't discussed this in the Mishna, R. Kahane could have said what he liked. Since they did discuss this but didn't mention his interpretation:

Rav Kahana is wrong.        תיובתא דרב כהנא        

So why did the Talmud waste our time recording all this? The speaker says this was for a reason; we'll discover why later. The editor has explored all kinds of places where the tribes are divided six and six; where this happens, why, and how they are divided.

תיובתא׃ ואלא מאי והחציו תנא חציו של מול הר גריזים מרובה מחציו של הר עיבל מפני שלוי למטה׃ אדרבה מפני שלוי למטה בצרי להו הכי קאמר

Going back to the original question:

Tanna [a ברייתא taught]: It's not the definite article that reminds us of something else; it's the definite article because it's special.

The two halves are not equal. they're equal numbers of tribes, but in terms of people, there are more people on one of the two mountains than the other, and the definite article comes to point this out.

The ברייתא says Mt Gerizim, the mountain of blessing, is the larger half. But Mt Eval got the definite article!

Amongst this larger half is Levi; and part of them are at the bottom of the mountain directing the proceedings. So how then can their half be the larger half?

The Talmud is aware of this, and explains:

This is what the ברייתא means: Even though Levi was down below, the children of Joseph are with them; they're a tribe of huge numbers; two tribes, even, Ephraim and Menashe.

When they come into the land and the land is divided up between the tribes, the children of Joseph came to Joshua and said [Joshua 17] why did they give you one portion of land because our numbers are so large? Joshua replied: if you are such great numbers, go into the forests [and cut them down to make more room].

When he says move into the forest, the rabbis explain he's telling them to go and hide in the forest, because Joseph has drawn attention to their numbers, which is a big no-no; they've drawn down the evil eye upon themselves! [Drawing attention to how successful you are is asking for trouble—as happened when the tribal ancestor Joseph himself bragged!]

The sons of Joseph responded that they are not controlled by the evil eye. For it is said (Gen 49.), "Joseph is like a fertile plant planted on the spring of water," but the Midrash reads it, rather than עלי עין, as עולי עין "you are above the [evil] eye."

R. Jose ben Hanina quotes (ibid. 48) "you shall become a multitude like fish." They are hidden from sight like fish under the surface of the water. (Fish are also a symbol of fertility.)

[chunk of text untranslated]

אף על פי שלוי למטה בני יוסף עמהם שנאמר וידברו בני יוסף את יהושע לאמר מדוע נתתה לי נחלה גורל אחד וחבל אחד ואני עם רב ויאמר אליהם יהושע אם עם רב אתה עלה לך היערה אמר להן לכו והחבאו עצמכם ביערים שלא תשלוט בכם עין הרע אמרו ליה זרעיה דיוסף לא שלטא ביה עינא בישא דכתיב בן פורת יוסף בן פורת עלי עין ואמר רבי אבהו אל תהי קורא עלי עין אלא עולי עין׃ רבי יוסי ברבי חנינא אמר מהכא וידגו לרוב בקרב הארץ מה דגים שבים מים מכסין עליהן ואין העין שולטת בהן אף זרעו של יוסף אין העין שולטת בהן׃ הני חמשים אותיות חמשים נכי חדא הויין אמר רבי יצחק יוסף הוסיפו לו אות אחת שנאמר עדות ביהוסף שמו בצאתו על ארץ מצרים׃ מתקיף לה רב נחמן בר יצחק כתולדותם בעינן אלא כל התורה כולה בנימן כתיב והכא בנימין שלם כדכתיב ואביו קרא לו בנימין׃

There is a relevant piece of Gemara elsewhere worth looking at in this context:

Berachot 20a ברכות נה ב

R. Giddal was accustomed to go and sit at the gates of the bathing place. He used to say to the women [who came to bathe], bathe thus, or bathe thus. The rabbis said to him: Is not the Master afraid lest his passion get the better of him? He replied, "They look to me like so many white geese."

R. Yochanan (who lived in Israel) was accustomed to go and sit at the gates of the bathing place. He said: When the daughters of Israel come up from bathing they look at me and they have children as handsome as I am. [R. Yochanan was famous for his beauty—"Take a goblet of silver, fill it with red wine and place it in the sunlight, and as the sunlight hits the silver and the red wine sparkles, you'll get an idea of how beautiful R. Yochanan was."]

Said the rabbis said to him: Is not the Master afraid of the evil eye? He replied: I come from the seed of Joseph [who was also known for his beauty], over whom the evil eye has no power, as it is written, "Joseph is like a fertile plant planted on the spring of water" &c.

Or, if you prefer I can say: The evil eye has no power over the eye which refused to feed itself on what did not belong to it.

רב גידל הוה רגיל דהוה קא אזיל ויתיב אשערי דטבילה אמר להו הכי טבילו והכי טבילו אמרי ליה רבנן לא קא מסתפי מר מיצר הרע אמר להו דמיין באפאי כי קאקי חיורי ר' יוחנן הוה רגיל דהוה קא אזיל ויתיב אשערי דטבילה אמר כי סלקן בנות ישראל ואתיין מטבילה מסתכלן בי ונהוי להו זרעא דשפירי כוותי אמרי ליה רבנן לא קא מסתפי מר מעינא בישא אמר להו אנא מזרעא דיוסף קא אתינא דלא שלטא ביה עינא בישא דכתיב (בראשית מט) בן פורת יוסף בן פורת עלי עין ואמר רבי אבהו אל תקרי עלי עין אלא עולי עין רבי יוסי ברבי חנינא אמר מהכא (בראשית מח) וידגו לרוב בקרב הארץ מה דגים שבים מים מכסין עליהם ואין עין הרע שולטת בהם אף זרעו של יוסף אין עין הרע שולטת בהם ואב״א עין שלא רצתה לזון ממה שאינו שלו אין עין הרע שולטת בו׃

The last verse is not in the main daf. This appears to be a reference to Joseph resisting his attempted seduction by the wife of Potiphar. It's not just a mystical blessing that Joseph has, that the evil eye is not on him, but because of something Joseph did.

The temptation of Joseph

In the main daf (Sotah 36b), there is a little postscript: At one part in Psalms Joseph is not called יוסף but יהוסף; there is an extra letter and you have to count it.

The redactor has arranged the material to create the impression we keep coming back to Joseph again and again. Now the Talmud is going to spend an entire page discussing Joseph, and the critical moment in his life of resisting the temptation of Potiphar's wife.

Note also the geographical connection: the whole area of Shechem, Mts. Eval and Gerizim, is in the tribe of Joseph. Indeed, Joseph is traditionally buried in Shechem.

R. Channa b. Bizna said: Yoseph sanctifed the name of G-d in private [resisting the wife of Potiphar]; and this is why he had an extra letter—symbolising G-d—inserted into his name.

Yehuda sanctified G-d's name in public; and that's why his name contains the entire name of G-d (all letters of the Tetragrammaton).

What's the story with Joseph? Anyone remembers the Potiphar story begins when Joseph comes home one day to do his work. R. Yochanan said: Joseph is not as innocent as you all think. He came to home to do his work (מלאכה). That day Joseph had full intention to transgress, the same intention she had.

אמר רב חנא בר ביזנא אמר רבי שמעון חסידא יוסף שקידש שם שמים בסתר הוסיפו עליו אות אחת משמו של הקדוש ברוך הוא יהודה שקידש שם שמים בפרהסיא נקרא כולו על שמו של הקדוש ברוך הוא׃ יוסף מאי היא דכתיב ויהי כהיום הזה ויבא הביתה לעשות מלאכתו אמר רבי יוחנן מלמד ששניהם לדבר עבירה נתכוונו׃

What in the פסוק gave him that impression? Rashi suggests it's because it's his work, not his master's—he's a slave; he's not going to have any work of his own! The Tosafot suggests ויבא—"he came"—can in the Bible sometimes suggest the sexual act.

(Note: This is the R. Yochanan who was sitting at the מקוה [ritual bath]!)

Sometimes the rabbis try and whitewash problematic Biblical stories, e.g. David and Bathsheba. Here we have the complete reverse!

Rav and Shmuel disagreed; one had the same idea as R. Yochanan, the other disagreed. "There was no one home." What does this mean? Potiphar had a huge estate; how could there be no one home? Answer: This was a festival day for the Egyptians, and they had all gone to worship. Potiphar's wife had pleaded illness, saying to herself this is the day it's going to happen. "And she grabbed his garment" &c.

That moment—at the last minute—the image of Joseph's father appeared in the window. [The Tosafot suggests this has to do with "there was no one of the people of the house at home." But there was one other person—the image of his father.] Jacob said, "In future your brothers will be inscribed on the shoulder plates of the High Priest! Do you want to be among them? Do you want your name erased from those shoulder plates? Choose! Do you want to be known as a shepherd of whores [Proverbs 29:3]?"

Immediately something happened to his "arrow", and he pulled back at that moment. [...] He dug his fingers into the ground—a moment of self-control—and his seed escaped through his fingertips.

ויבא הביתה לעשות מלאכתו רב ושמואל חד אמר לעשות מלאכתו ממש וחד אמר לעשות צרכיו נכנס׃ ואין איש מאנשי הבית וגו׳ אפשר בית גדול כביתו של אותו רשע לא היה בו איש תנא דבי רבי ישמעאל אותו היום יום חגם היה והלכו כולן לבית עבודת כוכבים שלהם והיא אמרה להן חולה היא אמרה אין לי יום שניזקק לי יוסף כיום הזה׃ ותתפשהו בבגדו לאמר וגו׳ באותה שעה באתה דיוקנו של אביו ונראתה לו בחלון אמר לו יוסף עתידין אחיך שיכתבו על אבני אפוד ואתה ביניהם רצונך שימחה שמך מביניהם ותקרא רועה זונות דכתיב ורועה זונות יאבד הון׃ מיד ותשב באיתן קשתו אמר רבי יוחנן משום רבי מאיר ששבה קשתו לאיתנו ויפוזו זרועי ידיו נעץ ידיו בקרקע ויצאה שכבת זרעו מבין ציפורני ידיו

He's gone as far as he can go and then pulls back. Why would the rabbis want to do this to the story of Joseph, who is described as יוסף הצדיק Joseph the righteous? What are they doing to Joseph? They're turning him from a saint into a human.

מידי אביר יעקב מי גרם לו שיחקק על אבני אפוד אלא אביר יעקב משם רועה אבן ישראל משם זכה ונעשה רועה שנאמר רועה ישראל האזינה נוהג כצאן יוסף׃ תניא היה ראוי יוסף לצאת ממנו י״ב שבטים כדרך שיצאו מיעקב אביו שנאמר אלה תולדות יעקב יוסף אלא שיצא שכבת זרעו מבין ציפורני ידיו ואעפ״כ יצאו מבנימין אחיו וכולן נקראו על שמו שנאמר ובני בנימין בלע ובכר ואשבל וגו׳ בלע שנבלע בין האומות ובכר בכור לאמו היה ואשבל ששבאו אל גרא שגר באכסניות ונעמן שנעים ביותר אחי וראש אחי הוא וראשי הוא מופים וחופים הוא לא ראה בחופתי ואני לא ראיתי בחופתו וארד שירד לבין אומות העולם איכא דאמרי וארד שפניו דומין לוורד׃

But even though he pulled back and his name was not erased, the Talmud goes on to say he paid a price for going as far as he did. He should have had twelve sons like his father did, and the other ten sons were in the seed which escaped. And each of the ten sons of Benjamin is really named in a midrashic way after Joseph.

[One final story on the theme of language and speaking skipped due to time constraints; anybody want to translate it (starting seventeen lines up from the bottom here) for me?]

It's almost as if the narrator of the sugiya is feeling a burning need to talk about Joseph. Coming back to the theme of vernacular and the Holy Language, if there's any Biblical character who exemplifies this theme, it's Joseph. He gets an Egyptian name, becomes acculturated so much his brothers don't know him—but also retains his Israelite identity.

If our chapters are dealing with this subject, we have to get Joseph into the discussion. We also see him going as far as he can possibly go without losing his identity. He is depicted as a Biblical character who can push his identity as far as he can possibly go without crossing the border and losing that identity.

LJ is complaining that the post is too large to put the rest up in one piece, you can read In the final episode, featuring the ritual of the breaking of the calf's neck: failure of law and order vs a breakdown in the social structure; why Elisha had such a big chip on his shoulder, and the one instance in the Talmud where Jesus of Nazareth is portrayed at all sympathetically; separately here.

Jewish learning notes index

Date: 2007-01-06 11:08 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
I heard that version that Joseph saw his father in the mirror which made him change his mind to resist but I didn't know how the story goes further. I also know the version that Joseph simply found her too old which would make him righteous again but it is also a possibility and less mystical.

Date: 2007-01-06 11:13 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
It's funny how one always hears how Joseph stopped when he sees his father's face, but one never hears what the Gemara said next, isn't it? ;^)

Date: 2007-01-07 11:20 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
I rather prefer the version that she was too old than with the father in the mirror. It sounds more as if he were drunken and has hallucination or something like that.


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Lethargic Man (anag.)

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