Talmud Bookends

Time passes; attitudes change. But humanity as a whole doesn’t seem to. We still struggle to build a just and kind global society. In one era a culture moves toward exclusivity and fear; in another it shifts toward inclusivity and care. The end of each tractate of Talmud frequently comments on the beginning, often easing away from concern for technical correctness in the direction of loving-kindness, of chesed. I think of this mark of talmudic culture’s thought process evolution as Talmud Bookends.

 

Each piece is a commentary on a particular tractate of Talmud, including how that tractate begins and ends. I include some link to the contemporary world, and often lean heavily into my interpretation. My point, generally, is to balance despair with hope, apathy with concern. Remember, we are a young species, evolutionarily speaking.  May we be a blessing to each other and to Earth.

Shabbat, שבת, Sabbath – Day of rest, joy, and kindness

What to do if your idea of rest is not to carry things inside or outside during Shabbat, and a person knocks on your door needing some help? Tractate Shabbat opens with a detailed analysis of how you can accomplish giving this person money or food without either of you transgressing the rule of carrying on Shabbat. It ends with a story of a person whose life is saved by her eagerness to take care of a stranger. Beginning with a technicality and ending with an ethos of chesed, of kindness, the editors make a subtle comment: Though the rules we live by are important, what is paramount is the emphasis on helping each other in times of need. We might also add the importance of piquach nefesh, saving a life. It overrides even the very important rules of Shabbat.

A strict interpretation of the rules governing Shabbat would not allow playing musical instruments on Shabbat. Nevertheless, it is the practice of liberal Jews like me. Lean toward kindness – and joy!

Eiruvin, ערובין, Boundaries – Our boundaries are important and can be mistaken

Boundaries come in all sorts: personal, professional, social, political…. Eiruvin begins by addressing carrying food from house to house on Shabbat. If you share an alleyway with your neighbors and have formed the entrance to it in the shape of a gate, you have effectively extended the boundary of your household. All the neighbors can carry things within the alley on Shabbat. The tractate ends with a discussion about the Shabbat boundaries outside a city, and with the intriguing notion that the people who measure them mark them incorrectly on purpose. Perhaps it’s an invitation to travelers to come into the city anyway, or an understanding that the boundaries we assign may be mistaken. My favorite teaching is from the middle of the tractate: A young girl rebukes a rabbi for walking on a path across a field, thus stealing arable land from the farmer. The rabbi responds that he didn’t make the path. However, he contributes to the wrong by using a well-trodden path.

Please note: This piece was made in 2021 before the controversy around G. Thunberg’s remarks after October 7, 2023.

“No one will ever be truly safe until everyone is safe.”

Amina Muhammed, UN Deputy Secretary General

 

Pesachim, פסחים, Shared Offerings – Sustainable food supply

Pesachim begins with checking for leaven on the eve of Passover. One reason for this is to separate last year’s grain and its bugs and fungus from the new crop – protecting the food supply. There is a comment mid-tractate about how hard it is to provide a person’s sustenance and the ending is about a new baby. Though it doesn’t mention the worry over the baby’s food supply, meeting a new baby’s needs is an implicit concern with every birth. Things that threaten sustainability of our food supply include the fact that our topsoil is eroding faster than it can be replenished and our agricultural emphasis on monoculture. 

“Polyculture perennial crops store scarce water, hold soil, sequester carbon, resist pests and extreme weather, and employ many in rural areas.” Naomi Klein

Sheqalim, שקלים, Holy Money – Use a morally neutral force for good

If there was a Babylonian version of this tractate it no longer exists. Instead, we use the Jerusalem version, which was edited less carefully. I am being creative with my Bookend here.

Sheqalim were the funds collected from everyone to fund communal projects: the Temple and the infrastructure – roads, bridges, cisterns. There is a story in the middle about a blind stranger whose needs were met by a city, and who blessed them for it. The ending suggests singing a song to the new moon, which is the first crescent. Moons, people’s heads and coins share a similar shape. When we add a prayer to be replenished as the moon, we find a notion of taking care of each other with our funds.

“Redemption will only come when he says to them, ‘You see there? That arch from the Roman period? It’s not important. But next to it, a little to the left and down a bit. There is a man who has bought fruit and vegetables for his family.'”

from Tourists by Yehudah Amichai

Yoma, יומא, The Day – Sexual energy

Yoma begins with separating the High Priest from his wife – from sexual relations – a week before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, and then washing him repeatedly in an effort to make him in some way “pure” when he represents the people before God. Mid-tractate there is a story about the sages trapping the Yetzer, bad inclination, or desire for instant gratification, in a box. It has the form of a young lion. They consider killing it but are warned that the world depends upon it. The tractate ends back at Yom Kippur with semen, but after the destruction of the Temple. What does it mean if you see your semen on Yom Kippur? That you’ll have plenty of grandchildren!

Similar to money, perhaps, sexual energy can be used to destructive purpose. However, it is necessary to the continuation of life. 

Sukah, סוכה, Temporary Shelter – Recognizing ephemerality and advocating for each other

Sukkah begins with directions for how to build a sukkah, the hut we build in our backyard or on our balcony during the fall festival of Sukkot. It can be lovely to eat and live in the sukkah taking special outside time – as long as we have a warm house to retreat into in case of bad weather. The tractate ends with the story of a Jewish woman who marries a Greek soldier for the purpose, it seems, of gaining entry to the men’s section of the Temple and accusing the Institution – and God – of bleeding the people dry with the sacrificial system and then not protecting them from invaders. We might accuse our own institutions that impoverish people so they lose their homes and have to resort to living in tents under overpasses.

“I live abroad. I look under a lot of stones. Rain makes me sad. When I get wet I can’t dry out for days.”

a person living temporarily in Tampa

Beitzah, ביצה, An Egg – Our Relationship with Animals, domestic and wild

Beitzah discusses the treatment of animals and animal products during festival days. In ancient times when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, animals were sacrificed on the altar as part of religious practice. Meat, a relative rarity, was an important part of celebratory feasting. Wild animals, it was agreed, should be left alone on feast days. Pulling these ideas into my contemporary worldview, I want to treat meat as a rarity again, to rely on plant protein for the most part, and to cultivate time in the wilderness and with domestic animals as a resource of resilience. I love Rav Huna’s statement: Today I’m: “Let me lean against the trunks and lie in the apple trees.” He uses this quote from Song of Songs to express his need to go to the woods to recover. Similarly, he experiences the raven as a welcome distraction. 

Animals and wilderness provide beauty and resilience. We would do well to consider them, as Robin Wall Kimmerer writes, “as persons, worthy of our respect in a peopled world.”

Rosh Hashanah, ראש השנה, New Year – Annual accounting of our soul, our world, and our actions

Rosh Hashanah begins with different heads of the year – much as we currently differentiate among secular, academic, and fiscal years.  Its concerns include that humanity can be so degenerate that we actually cause flooding. In those days it was a theological speculation. Now it is more a matter of fact. The tractate ends by allowing that some people cannot observe the holy day properly because they are forced to work in the field. We might wish to see a movement to allow those people more autonomy. 

Realizing our complicity in the system, we might allow calls of the shofar to wake us up and shatter our desire for instant gratification and our acquisitiveness.

Ta’anit, תענית, Affliction

We are afflicted and we afflict

Ta’anit in the Talmud means fast, as in not eating. Biblically it meant affliction; the Rabbis interpreted that to mean fasting from food, water and other things. In Talmudic times when there was a drought the leaders would declare a communal fast in hope that it would bring rain. As if anything we could do would affect the weather. Wait – it does! Humanity’s actions have caused climate weirding, and it is up to us to reverse the situation. The tractate ends with a vision of the people in the Garden of Eden with God. How we get there may have something to do with this story: The young women dress in white dresses – which they exchange among themselves so their social class won’t be evident. They go out and dance on the 15th of the month of Av and on Yom Kippur.

The intersectionality between social, racial, and climate justice is undeniable.

Megilah, מגילה, The Story of Esther – (with flaps closed) when it’s necessary to hide…

Megilah is the biblical book of Esther, which we read on the holiday of Purim when we dress up and break rules. The title character hides the fact that she is a Jew when she joins the king’s harem and is eventually chosen as his queen. This puts her in position to plead for her people when the king’s vizier plans to slaughter them. It is a story which has been used in theater to covertly challenge kings. The tractate opens with a discussion of which days to read the Megilah and ends with an odd idea that plays with gender: How do we know when to rely on a divine voice? When you hear something speaking behind you – and only when it’s a masculine voice in town and a feminine voice in the country. Talmud understands a verse in the biblical book to mean that Esther dressed herself in royalty/divinity. There were so many ideas from the tractate I wanted to include that I used words to dress my Esther.

Megilah, מגילה, The Story of Esther –  (with flaps open) …when it’s time to come out

There have been many times when it has been necessary to hide. Sometimes you get caught – and killed. Sometimes you get caught – and survive. And sometimes it’s time to come out of hiding. Along the edges I have represented an individual who came through one of several affronts to goodness: American slavery escaped via the Underground Railroad, the kidnapping of children in North America and Australia, the Holocaust, active shooters, and the oppression of LGBTQIA2S+. In each of these stories, the individual named survived and often thrived. The black fringes on the corners of the piece are in memorial to all those murdered.

Sometimes you are able to evade all the grasping forces arrayed against you. Mlle Rachel was a 19th century French Jewish actress who managed to make her own rules. She had affairs and children with men of high social strata and never married, in spite of malice abounding around her. She played Esther in a revival of Racine’s play.

Mo’ed Qatan, מועד קטן, Half Holy Times – Loss and mourning

Mo’ed Qatan begins with a discussion about how to bring water and life to dry fields during the intermediary days of a multi-day holiday. The last chapter is about mourning practices – how to keep life going for the bereaved in the face of death. In the story of Rabbi Yishmael’s loss, we learn wisdom. Don’t say anything until the bereaved do. Don’t challenge their theology or understanding of events – it’s not the time. Do tell them what you know of their dead beloved ones. In the middle of the tractate is a mention of lost cemeteries, which brought to mind a situation in Tampa. We have been rediscovering black cemeteries that were built over, sometimes without removing the bodies.

When taking leave of a dead person, the proper greeting is “Go in peace.” 

When taking leave of a living person the proper greeting is: “Go to peace.” Perhaps a reminder to keep working toward wholeness, which is the root of the Hebrew word for peace: Shalom.

Chagigah, חגיגה, Celebration Offering – Celebration that is all-inclusive

Chagigah begins with a sweet idea that caught my eye: If a child is too young to walk up to the Temple for the Festivals, his father will carry him on his shoulders. Nice! If you don’t worry about all the people whose presence is not required: the deaf, women, hermaphrodites, the old, the ill… In contrast, the tractate ends with a statement that even the empty among us – or the emptiness within us – is as full of mitzvot – good deeds, connections – as a pomegranate is full of seeds. In the middle is a long passage about the seven heavens and how large they are (not quite as large as our universe has turned out to be), and that the earth is supported by water and wind and God’s arms.

“Neurodiversity – brains are wired in a range of ways; difference need not be equated with pathology.”

from Doppelganger by Naomi Klein