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Notes from the Marom Beit Midrash

Talmudic Humour: Reasoning by Extreme Example

Roni Tabick

The Bible and Talmud don't seem to have much in the way of humour (though the former does have some examples that aren't obviously humorous to our eyes). However, if you know where to look, you can find some quite funny things in the Talmud:

1) Babylonian Talmud, Ḥagigah 14b-15a

'May a high priest marry a virgin who has become pregnant?'

Evidently, not the greatest grasp of biology here. (They thought it was possible to become pregnant through baths.)

2) Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kama 55a

In the discussion on Deuteronomy 22:10 ("You shall not plough with an ox and an ass together"):

'Rechaba asked, "What is the law if someone drives his wagon using a goat and a fish?"'

At this point in the discussion it has already been established it is not permissible to drive one's wagon using two different kinds of fish. Evidently, this is the reverse of the scenario of using a landbound horse to tow a canal barge: here there's a shark (or possibly a dolphin, which they would have probably considered a fish) towing a landbound wagon!

Or maybe not: the type of fish being considered above is a mullet...

3) Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 59b

Rabbi Shimon b. Chalafta was walking on the path when he encountered lions. They roared at him. He quoted the verse (Psalms 104:21), 'The young lions roar for their prey,' and two pieces of meat miraculously fell from heaven. The lions ate one of the pieces and left over the other piece. Rabbi Shimon took the piece of meat to the academy and asked whether it was clean or unclean [i.e., is it kosher and allowed to be eaten]. He was told: Nothing unkosher descends from heaven. Rabbi Zera asked Rabbi Abuhu: If a piece of meat resembling a donkey [an unkosher animal] falls from heaven, may it be eaten? Rabbi Abuhu replied: Foolish yarod [a desert bird possibly related to an ostrich], they already told you that nothing unkosher descends from heaven.

Evidently it never occurred to R. Shimon to look up and see what bird of prey might have dropped its meal (or what cliff-edge there was above).

4) Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 16b-17a

Once, I was walking in the upper market of Sepphoris when I encountered someone by the name of Yaakov of Kefar Sekania. He said to me: It says in your Torah (Deuteronomy 23:19), 'Do not bring a prostitute's fee or the price of a dog into the house of your Lord.' May one use such a donation for the purpose of building a toilet for the high priest? I did not answer him. He then said to me: This is what I was taught. It says (Micah 1:7): 'From the prostitute's fee it gathered and to the prostitute's fee shall they return,' the money came from a filthy place so let it return to a filthy place.

(As an aside, this is a passage expurgated in the mediaeval period. From the commentary of the likes of Rashi, the original may be reconstructed, which identifies Yaakov as a disciple of "So-and-so", sc. Jesus of Nazareth (he has been putatively identified as James the son of Alphaeus (Mark 3:18) or James the little (ibid. 15:40)); and the passage continues with the speaker (R. Eliezer) replying, "You have said an excellent thing," forgetting the law not to listen to the words of a heretic. When, after attributing the suggestion to "So-and-so", Yaakov quotes the above verse from Micah, R. Eliezer continues, "the thought pleased me. On that account I was arrested for heresy.")

5) Babylonian Talmud, Chullin 70a

What is the law if a weasel inserts its head into a pregnant animal's womb, takes the foetus into its mouth and pulls it out of the womb and then the weasel reinserts its head into the womb of another animal and spits out the foetus, who then emerges naturally [and is now the first-born]? What is the law if the wombs of two animals become attached and the foetus leaves one womb and enters the other womb, and then emerges from the latter womb [is it a first-born or not]'

Yup, definitely not the best grasp of biology. Still, that's not the point, which is to define the limits of halacha by pushing for extreme examples. It also sets a useful halachic precedent for things like IVF and surrogate motherhood.

It's also reminiscent of a passage in Pesaḥim in which they discuss what happens if you're cleaned your house for Pesach and a mouse runs into a room you've cleaned with a piece of bread. I first encountered this in an Orthodox context, in which it was studied in deadly earnest, pondering each line and translating it from Aramaic; and it bored me so rigid I stopped attending the after-service shiur it was taught in. But now Roni summarised the passage, continuing beyond where I had reached, in a few sentences—What if the mouse runs out of the room again with the bread in its mouth; can it be considered to the same bread? What if the mouse runs into the room and a different coloured mouse runs out with the bread in its mouth; can it be considered to be the same bread? What if the mouse runs into the room and a cat runs out with the bread in its mouth; can it be considered to be the same bread?—and had me in stitches. If only Rabbi Orshansky had taught me gemara that way as a teenager, it might not have put me off Jewish learning for so long. But I digress.

6) Babylonian Talmud, Niddah 23a

Rabbi Yirmiyah asked Rabbi Zera: According to Rabbi Meir, who says that if a woman aborts a foetus that looks like an animal it is considered a valid abortion [and the woman becomes ritually unclean just as if she had aborted a human], what is the law if the father receives for the 'animal' born from a woman a token of betrothal. Is the person considered married to the 'animal'? ...To such an extent did Rabbi Yirmiyah try to make Rabbi Zera laugh, but he would not laugh.

Apparently there was some law about not being allowed to marry two sisters sequentially, but it evidently doesn't apply nowadays, because my great-great-grandfather did it—and those two sisters had a further two sisters who also both married the one man.

Rabbi Yirmiyah appears quite a bit through the Talmud, always in the context of asking Rabbi Zera questions, trying to push the halacha to its limits.

7) Babylonian Talmud, Bava Bathra 23b

A baby pigeon that is found within fifty cubits of a coop belongs to the coop's owner [the assumption is that it came from the coop]. If it is found outside the fifty cubits, then it belongs to the finder [the assumption being that it came from the wild]. Rabbi Yirmiyah asked: If one foot of the pigeon is within the fifty cubits and one foot is outside, to whom does it belong? ... It was for this that they expelled Rabbi Yirmiyah from the academy.

ROTFL! If only Christian culture had known of this man, I'm sure the name Jeremiah wouldn't have become the byword for doom and gloom it has.

8) Babylonian Talmud, Nazir 34a

If a person saw a Koy [a cross between a goat and a gazelle, apparently] and said [i.e., vows]: I am a Nazirite if that is a wild beast; a second person said: I am a Nazirite if that is not a wild beast; a third person said: I am a Nazirite if that is cattle; a fourth person said: I am a Nazirite if that is not cattle; a fifth person said: I am a Nazirite if that is both a wild beast and cattle; a sixth person said: I am a Nazirite if that is neither wild beast or cattle; a seventh person said: I am a Nazirite if one of you is a Nazirite; an eighth person said: I am a Nazirite if none of you is a Nazirite; a ninth person said: I am a Nazirite if all of you are Nazirites... then they all become Nazirites.


Jewish learning notes index

first line

Date: 2006-07-30 03:15 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
I was there, too, as you know. It is good to see it written down with all the comments and explanation Roni gave. I wonder if the Rabbis meant when the virgin is bathing in the tub with the same water where a man was bathing beforehand. It sounds like what my grandma was told when she was a young teenager. They thought women and girls could get pregnant if they sat down on the same stone as the men sat before. She talked about a kind of bath house in Iran. In Muslem countries they don't have sexual education either. I doubt that it is better nowadays.

Re: first line

Date: 2006-07-30 03:20 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
I would imagine it was Roman baths, i.e. lots of people, men and women all together, in a pool the size of a swimming pool, not a little bathtub.

Re: first line

Date: 2006-07-30 04:03 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] curious-reader.livejournal.com
That is what I thought somewhere where men also had a bath weather a small bath tub or a big swimming pool (some sort of).

Date: 2006-07-30 04:57 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] snjstar.livejournal.com
Interesting session to have missed, but I also enjoyed what I did instead.

Date: 2009-11-10 03:50 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] zevabe.livejournal.com
6) One may still marry two sisters sequentially, but not within the lifetime of the first. So the first must die, rather than be divorced, before the second sister may marry the same man.


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