Humanity is killing itself. Currently my main motivation in Talmud study is to get ideas about grappling with our present planet-wide problem.
In the 1920’s began a custom to read one page of Talmud each day. To read the entire Babylonian Talmud at that rate takes about seven years. In January 2020 the cycle began again. The Babylonian Talmud is a multi-volume text, in Hebrew and Aramaic, from the first 600 years or so of the Common Era. It is the body of knowledge on which Judaism is based.
Illustrating a bit of Talmud from each day’s daf, or page, I consider how this piece of ancient text can guide us in saving humanity from the planetary crisis we have engineered. There are no technical answers here; we have science for that. What we do find are conversations about keeping hope alive and motivating people in difficult circumstances to work together for change.
My translations reframe God-centered text to be accessible to modern secularists. May Jews become better acquainted with our heritage and use it to encourage ourselves to repair the world. Everyone else is welcome to study as well.
My materials are junk mail, catalogs (still coming after all the ones I’ve canceled), insides of envelopes and bags, plus food packaging: The REUSE part of REDUCE REUSE RECYCLE.
We may understand Shema as “Pay Attention.” Talmud begins by wondering when exactly each evening we should remember to do so. Does it have to do with the time of day, or when you go to sleep, or when you eat your evening meal? The striations on the Hebrew letters of Shema שמע are representative of heart muscle. The implication being that paying attention should be built into every moment of life.
The original story is that Rabbi Elazar was ill. Rabbi Yochanan went to visit and asked, “Why are you crying?” “Over this beauty that will decompose,” and they both cried. Rabbi Yochanan asked if his suffering was dear to him. Rabbi Elazar responded, “No.” Rabbi Elazar gave him his hand; Rabbi Yochanan pulled him up and restored his health.
Pay attention at night – also in the morning. My working translation of the Shema: Pay attention, Jew, connections are our guidance, connections remind us we are one.
One is following the custom of drawing out the Hebrew word for “one” and the other is annoyed by him.
Studying has its own reward, but doesn’t fulfill its purpose until it leads to teaching and, finally, to action.
We have been creating a hell on earth for ourselves. Can we find ways to cool it?
What was originally a suggestion for how to blend work and religion, became a different sort of commentary during the pandemic.
A parent’s love imagined from beyond the grave.
A little gender play. The original story in Talmud is about Rabbi Yochanan who is so brilliant and beautiful he stations himself outside the bathhouse. His plan is that the women on their way home to make love with their husbands will see him and conceive children as beautiful and brilliant as he. Leaving the science and psychology of that aside, can we imagine contemporary men’s thoughts on seeing a beautiful women being about their soon-to-be-conceived child?
The Torah quote at the top continues: “…bless God.” One of the answers to the question of how does one do that is to be a blessing: to increase goodness and kindness in the world by your actions. What do your food choices say about your relationship with Earth and those who live upon it?
The specific rule that Rabbi Yehudah felt obliged to uphold seems less important than his teaching.
Though the Rabbis knew of the gastrocolic reflex in a practical sense, we now know more about the biology behind it.
The mores of nudity aside, what should the last words and thoughts of you and your family be before going to sleep? How might that matter?
The Talmud page is discussing human excrement. Is it too much of a stretch to consider plastics in that regard?
The Hebrew word for praying can be construed as examining oneself – a good thing to do on a regular basis.
First of all, for a rabbi in that patriarchal society to consult his wife is notable.
Another bit I like is the miracle. Is it a miracle wrought by his wife’s technological abilities? I don’t know the possibilities for hair bleaching in those days, but we could do that now: Instead of dyeing for the appearance of youth, bleaching for the appearance of age.
“Know before whom you (singular) stand,” is written above the ark in many synagogues. This version uses the plural: “Know before whom y’all stand.” It’s not just the Eternal, but everything in between.
Remembering that the Hebrew word for “pray” also means self-examination, we might learn from Jewish tradition to regularly examine ourselves, individually and collectively, to determine what changes we might need to make.
Everything we learn emphasizes the fact that we are inextricably linked with all the human and non-human beings of our neighborhood/city/country/planet.
Lynn Margulis taught us that the mitochondria of animal cells and the chloroplasts of plant cells used to be free-living entities in their own right. Thus her idea of the driving forces of evolution were more about cooperation than competition. This was a notion that was rejected by the scientific minds at the time, and later corroborated.
The rabbis imagined there were a lot of stars…
Current estimates put the number of stars far in excess of what the rabbis had imagined. However, our challenges remain remarkably similar: Overcoming fear and apathy to form a just, kind, and sustainable society.
As we mistreat our planet, water becomes an ever increasingly difficult resource to manage. I see hope in sustainable agriculture techniques and all those who are working to draw down carbon from our atmosphere.
The letter yud, the smallest in the Hebrew alphabet, is a symbol for the very first inkling of a creative act.
Jewish tradition prescribes a recitation of words of blessing for each pleasing thing – eating fresh figs, for example. What is the point of the words? One purpose is to remind ourselves to be a blessing in every thing we do – including eating – by learning how to live sustainably.
The caper bush might provide some answers for how to survive and thrive in increasingly arid climes.
Those paying attention when saying the blessing: “Blessed are you God… who brings forth bread from the earth” might stop and say, “Wait a minute, bread doesn’t grow out of the Earth.” Many blessings come to teach us a lesson. This one might be about the cooperation necessary – amongst plants, animals, and fungi – to produce the bread we eat.
The Rabbis were greatly concerned with discerning healthy foods. With scientific exploration we now have a more reliable way to decide what diet is best for us.
Passover is about liberation from oppression. Matzah represents both. Not just the old-timey biblical varieties, but the contemporary ones as well.
My Grandfather Eglinton, who was not Jewish, taught me this dictum. What a special joy to find it in Talmud!
THE FOLLOWING PIECE MAY BE UPSETTING TO THOSE WITH FOOD ISSUES.
The Talmud page talks about the Seven Species of Israel. To bring it into contemporary context in the U.S. I went into a cynical discussion of the Standard American Diet. I was reprimanded on Facebook for shaming people who may have to eat this way – either because of food deserts or because of their eating issues. I never intended to hurt anyone. It was the best conversation provoked by one of my Daf Yomi pieces.
Does pausing to recite a blessing provide a chance to moderate one’s intake of alcohol? For some of us, maybe yes, for others, maybe no. Try auditscreen.org or drugabuse.gov to investigate alcohol intake.
I LOVE fruit. And, for the record Poppa? An apple on top of dinner was not a good idea!
With this blessing for water, Rabbi Tarfon was probably thinking of the many forms of life that need water, but we know something of the many forms of life (not to mention chemicals) IN water.
How about offering a blessing to the next person who hosts you? What might it be? What particular words would be meaningful? What actions might you consider doing in their honor?
How do we decide who’s in and who’s out of any particular group? Are there good reasons for those decisions?
Is inclusivity an important value to cultivate? To what degree?
Is this a case of finding a silver lining in a horrible massacre? Or an example of the ambivalence the Rabbis felt about God?
How do we define satisfaction in relation to food or anything else? Might we adjust that to the benefit of others?
I often forget to say a blessing until food is already in my mouth. I LOVE that the rabbis acknowledged this!
A misogynistic insult to the woman of the house, resulted in a grand fit of pique. Or, you might say, Yalta’s response to the insult was a lesson to the men about the power of women, as wine poured over them with a similarity to menstrual blood – which was so abhorrent to them. We could also extrapolate and see ourselves as the insulters and the Earth as the insulted one.
Define what waste means to each of us and modify our waste stream!
Who among us hasn’t had a bad dream that clung to us during the day? The Rabbis had the idea that a dream didn’t come true until it was interpreted. So, when you have a dream that bothers you, you should gather three friends and get them to help you put a positive spin on it. Thus it may buoy you up and not bring you down.
The things I dream about are rarely the sorts of things the Rabbis described in their dream accounts. However, they still refer to similar things: worry about self, home, and family, for example.
Dreams are 1/60 of prophecy. In other words, they are less about foretelling the future than about bringing some concern to your attention. I doubt I’ll ever be driving an uncontrollable speeding bus full of passengers (no, I haven’t seen the movie). Nevertheless, the feeling of terrified responsibility is real and requires thoughtful care.
Ben Zoma lived fifteen hundred years ago. It’s not only bread that “I get up and find it all prepared for me.”
The word from Deuteronomy 27:9 usually translated as, “Take heed,” is here divided into two words and reinterpreted by Rava to mean, “Be still…. and only afterwards analyze.” Good advice for our hurried minds.
As we finish Tractate Berachot, the first tractate of Talmud, we say to it, “Go to peace,” as opposed to, “Go in peace.” The lesson being we can always keep striving to find the balance that is wholeness, that is carried within the root of the Hebrew word for peace: Shalom.
In addition, you may notice, that we’re considering our text as a partner with us in our learning.
The tractate of Shabbat begins with a technical discussion. What do you do if someone comes to your door on Shabbat needing tzedakah – something to keep them alive? How can you refrain from breaking the mitzvah of not carrying something from Private to Public Domain on Shabbat? This may seem unnecessarily technical to many. However, details matter as we figure out how to include everyone in our thinking.
What if we took the idea of Shabbat – a day of rest once a week – seriously? What might it mean to us and to our wild places if we didn’t carry on Shabbat? You may note that each of my pieces for Tractate Shabbat carries an image of Carl Sagan’s “pale blue dot” that is the Earth.
“The private domain rises up to the sky.” What do I need to do to take responsibility for the airspace above my house?
The idea in the Talmud text is that people from a despised profession came from a despised area and resolved a matter that the leaders couldn’t agree upon. It made me think of the Memphis Sanitation Strike.
There was once a custom to blow the shofar some time before sunset to let the field workers know when to come in, and a bit later to let the shopkeepers know when to close up – all in order to get home and ready to welcome Shabbat, Day of Rest. Then before the sun set, they lit the Shabbat lights and blew three distinct shofar calls. Ever since I learned this page, we have taken up the last part of this custom when we light our Shabbat lights in our home. I wish we had known about it when our kids were small.
Counting the Omer means counting the days between Passover and Shavuot. This piece records bits about each page I read during a week of counting. Each letter in Hebrew stands for a number. Each letter here (right to left) stands for the number of the day of the Omer in which I read each page and is shaped in relation to something on the page for that day.
The vertical version on the left is the story as usually understood. The version on the right is also a fairly close translation, bringing an alternate understanding of the genders involved.
A picture of God braiding Eve’s hair, which is a creative translation in the Talmud of Genesis 2:22.
One of my favorite stories from Tractate Eiruvin is this one about a young woman criticizing the great Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananyah. Just because we are on a path that many before us have trampled, does not mean we are in the right and can continue to do so. It reminded me of Greta Thunberg and led me to find out about many more of the young women who are teaching us.
What do your drinking, your money, your anger, and your laughter say about you?