Introduction to the Study of Talmud
by Rav Michael Siev
Sukka 20 - Daf 29a
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Key words and phrases in Hebrew and Aramaic are marked in blue, and their translation/explanation can be seen by placing the cursor over them.
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Within the quoted texts, my explanations and additions are also noted in red.
Our mishna (29b) taught that if it rains on Sukkot, it is comparable to a situation in which a servant comes to pour water for his master (to dilute his wine, which was necessary in Talmudic times) and "he pours the pitcher of water on his face." Our gemara now briefly clarifies the precise meaning of this parable (mashal).
We are up to the colon toward the end of the short lines on 29a.
A parable to what is the matter compared:
A question to them (=they asked a question): Who poured on whom?
Come and listen, for it says in a baraita: The master poured the pitcher on his (the servant's) face, and said to him: I do not want your service.
משל למה הדבר דומה:
איבעיא להו: מי שפך למי?
תא שמע, דתניא: שפך לו רבו קיתון על פניו, ואמר לו: אי אפשי בשמושך.
The gemara begins, as is common (especially at a colon), with a quote from the mishna, which it then proceeds to analyze. In this case, the line quoted from the mishna is the one in which the mishna introduces its parable. The analysis refers to the parable in its entirety.
The mishna stated that when it rains on Sukkot it is like when a servant comes to pour for his master, "and he pours the pitcher on his face." The gemara now questions the meaning of this phrase. Who is it that does the pouring in this mashal? In order to clarify the issue, the gemara quotes a baraita that clearly states that the master is the one who pours the pitcher of water back in the servant's face.
The gemara's question seems difficult. Is it not obvious that the master is the one who pours the water on the servant? Only in this way can the mashal adequately parallel what it is supposed to portray (the "nimshal"), in which it is Hashem who "pours water" (=brings rain) on us, His servants who come to serve Him by fulfilling the mitzva of sukka! What is our gemara's "hava amina" (lit. "I would have said") to say that it is the servant who pours water on the master?
Look in Rashi (s.v. mi shafach lemi). How does does he explain the gemara? Can you think of any other explanations? (If you can and it is not one discussed here, I would be happy to hear about it via email!)
Rashi (s.v. mi) explains that the hava amina was that our improper service of Hashem is comparable to a servant who pours water on his master instead of serving him properly. Our poor mitzva-observance is as insulting to God as a servant who spills water on his master.
Maharsha (whose commentary is known especially for his explanations of Rashi, Tosafot, and aggada) asks that according to this approach, the rain itself seems unrelated to the mashal, as it does not symbolize the spilled water! Therefore, he explains slightly differently; even according to the hava amina, it is the rain (and not our performance of the mitzva of sukka) that is compared to spilling the water. The difference is that according to the hava amina, the rain is the water that we are symbolically spilling on God via our inadequate performance of mitzvot. According to the conclusion (maskana), it is God who spills His water (the rain) on us.
Ritva has a much different take on the issue. Rain on Sukkot indicates that Hashem is not so interested in our performance of the mitzva of sukka. But the gemara's hava amina was that the mashal portrays the servant's next move. The servant's reaction to his master's disinterest can be a contrite accounting of his relationship with his master in order to understand how to win back his master's favor, or it can be one of defiance - he can pour the pitcher of water he brought in his master's face, essentially saying that, "if you aren't interested in my service, I am certainly not interested in serving you!"
According to this explanation, the way in which we understand the mashal may have practical ramifications. If it is the servant who pours the water on the master's face, the point of the mashal is that we must be very careful about the way in which we leave the sukka when it rains. We should not leave right away, as though to indicate our lack of interest in performing this mitzva. Perhaps we would have to wait a bit even if there is already enough rain falling to ruin a porridge (see last week's shiur). According to the maskana (conclusion) of the gemara, that the mashal means to say that the rainfall itself is comparable to God pouring water on us as an expression of His disinterest in our performing the mitzva of sukka, we may leave right away. In fact, if a master pours water on his servant, it is clear that he is quite impatient with the servant, and does not want him to remain in his (the master's) presence at all.
Either way, the point that the mishna attempts to express by means of its parable is that in the event of rain on Sukkot, our attitude should not be that of a child who has been released from school due to a snow day. We have lost the opportunity to do a mitzva, and we should realize that rain is not a good sign from above.
Further iyun: Why is it necessarily such a bad sign if rain falls on Sukkot? God Himself set up the world in such a way that rain does fall from time to time! And, in some places, it is very common to have rain on Sukkot; does that mean that God is always unhappy with the people there?
Some commentators assert that rainfall is only a bad sign when it falls in an unusual or dramatic fashion. Thus, for example, some claim that the mishna is only applicable in Eretz Yisrael, where Sukkot falls at the end of the dry season. Since it is unusual for it to rain at that time, it is a bad sign if it does rain. Others claim that the mashal applies only when the weather was nice before Sukkot and then it suddenly became cloudy and started to rain as the holiday begins. That indicates that the rain is coming as an indication of Hashem's displeasure with us and His disinterest in our service and not as a normal, natural phenomenon.
The Vilna Gaon is quoted as explaining symbolically (based on kabbala) why it is that rain is such a bad sign. Just as water was used to dilute, and thus soften the impact of the strong wine in Talmudic times, Hashem gives us Sukkot, a joyous time that brings with it the ability to fulfill numerous mitzvot, to soften the impact of the days of judgement (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur). Perhaps the greatest opportunity during this time is the mitzva of sukka, which turns everyday activities like eating and sleeping into mitzvot. When Hashem brings rain, it is as though he pouring the water (the diluting agent) in our face. He does not want to soften the judgment, or give us opportunities to earn Divine mercy.
Back to the gemara
Having discussed the bad sign of rain on Sukkot, the gemara now expounds on other natural phenomena which indicate Divine displeasure. This section is an example of aggada, a term that refers to the non-halakhic portions of the Talmud. Aggada sections commonly tell stories that have a lesson, give advice or comment on the world at large.
We are up to the gemara on the first long line of 29a.
The rabbis taught: At a time when the sun is stricken - it is a bad sign for the whole world.
A parable to what the matter is compared - to a king of flesh and blood who made a feast for his servants, and placed a lantern before them.
He became angry with them and said to his servant: take this lantern from before them and let them sit in darkness!
It was taught in a baraita: R. Meir says: any time the luminaries are stricken - it
is a bad sign for the haters of
for they are used to being struck.
A parable to a scribe who comes to school with a strap in his hand.
Who worries? He who is usually struck every day worries.
תנו רבנן: בזמן שהחמה לוקה - סימן רע לכל העולם כולו.
משל למה הדבר דומה - למלך בשר ודם שעשה סעודה לעבדיו, והניח פנס לפניהם.
כעס עליהם ואמר לעבדו: טול פנס מפניהם והושיבם בחושך.
תניא, רבי מאיר אומר: כל זמן שמאורות לוקין - סימן רע לשונאיהם של ישראל,
מפני שמלומדין במכותיהן.
משל לסופר שבא לבית הספר ורצועה בידו,
מי דואג - מי שרגיל ללקות בכל יום ויום הוא דואג.
In the selection quoted here, the gemara brings two baraita'ot that relate to the significance of the heavenly bodies being "stricken." The first baraita explains that this is a bad sign for the entire world. Many commentators understand that this refers to a solar eclipse. If so, the baraita should not be understood as asserting that eclipses come when God is angry; indeed, they are set, predetermined natural phenomena. Rather, at a time of an eclipse, the Divine attribute of justice is ascendant, and it is a time when justice is more likely to be carried out. Alternatively, the baraita may refer to sun-spots, dark spots on the sun that diminish its light. In any event, since the sun provides the world and its inhabitants with the basic necessity of light, it is a bad omen when the sun is stricken.
This baraita discusses a different
manifestation of Divine displeasure. When the luminaries (which refer here
to the moon and stars) are stricken, the indication is that God is angry
with the world. Nevertheless, the Jewish people must be more concerned than
others with the ramifications of Divine displeasure. (It is important to note
that "haters of
The parable clearly expresses the baraita's point regarding the facts at hand, but it is not immediately obvious how the analogy parallels reality with regard to question of "why." If a student is often targeted by a teacher, it may be because he is the one whose behavior most often warrants punishment or because the teacher simply does not like the student and therefore tends to notice his faults. In our case, I don't think that the gemara means to assert that the Jewish people is more sinful than other nations or that God "has it in for us," so to speak. Rather, because of our status as the chosen nation, we have a greater responsibility than other nations have. We have greater potential to impact positively on the world at large, and greater culpability when we fail to live up to this heightened potential. It is for this reason that we are more likely than other nations to suffer the consequences of Divine displeasure. God expects more from us.
Maharsha explains that this is how the parable must be understood as well. A good teacher knows the potential of his students and demands that they live up to their potential. The student he punishes the most is one who has the ability to excel and does not actualize his potential.