Lecture 19: Daf 5b-6a - Taking Stock of Inventory

  • Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan

 

Ein Yaakov - The World of Talmudic Aggada

By Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan

 

 

Lecture 19:  Daf 5b-6a

Taking Stock of Inventory

 

 

In the previous shiur, we saw how the Gemara presents the radical position of R. Yochanan regarding suffering.  In my interpretation, R. Yochanan rejects, or at least seeks to limit, the idea that suffering in this world may have positive meaning either as a form of atonement for sins or as an expression of Divine love.  Now, the Gemara swings the pendulum in the opposite direction.  It presents a story about R. Huna, which advocates for the conventional understanding of suffering as a punishment for sin:

 

Once four hundred jars of wine belonging to R. Huna

turned sour. 

Rav Yehuda, the brother of R. Sala the Pious,

and the other scholars

(some say: R. Adda b. Ahaba and the other scholars)

went in to visit him and said to him:

The master ought to examine his actions. 

He said to them:

Am I suspect in your eyes?

They replied:

Is the Holy One, blessed be He, suspect of punishing without justice?

He said to them:

If somebody has heard of anything against me, let him speak out.

They replied:

We have heard that the master does not give his tenant

his [lawful share in the] vine twigs. 

He replied:

Does he leave me any?

He steals them all!

They said to him:

That is exactly what the proverb says:

If you steal from a thief you also have a taste of it!

He said to them:

I pledge myself to give it to him [in the future]. 

Some report that

thereupon the vinegar became wine again;

others that the vinegar went up so high

that it was sold for the same price as wine.

 

Previously, suffering generally referred to illness or death.  Now the Gemara explores a different type of suffering: economic loss.  R. Huna loses some four hundred jugs of wine to spoilage.  We are not told of R. Huna’s response to this calamity.  The first to comment on the events is a delegation of visiting rabbis.  The rabbis inform R. Huna that in light of this event, R. Huna should examine his ways.  This recalls the Gemara’s statement on the previous page that one who endures suffering should consider his deeds.  Underlying this advice is what we have called the classical or biblical approach to suffering: Suffering is a Divine punishment for sin.  One who undergoes suffering should attempt to identify the sin for which he is being punished and repent. 

 

It does not occur to R. Huna that his own actions may have precipitated his loss.  He is indeed offended by this suggestion.  He does not believe that he has committed any unworthy deeds.  The rabbis respond by saying that to deny any wrongdoing is in fact to cast aspersions upon God Himself.  This response brings us back to the theological problem at the heart of human suffering.  If God is both good and all-powerful, there can be no unjustified suffering in this world.  To claim that one has suffered without having sinned is to suggest that God is either not entirely good, not entirely all-powerful, or both.

 

R. Huna accepts this claim but still cannot find any misdeeds in his own past.  He asks if anyone else has heard of anything he did wrong.  At this point, the story begins to become complex.  At first it appeared that the rabbis were simply basing themselves on a theological postulate.  Since R. Huna has suffered, he must have sinned.  Now it becomes clear that they have a particular sin in mind for which they have come to rebuke him.  They understand that he has not been giving his sharecropper a fair share of the branches that were pruned from his vineyard.  This is in violation of the Mishna in Bava Metzia which states that “Just as [the sharecropper and the owner] divide the wine [from a leased vineyard] so do they divide the prunings…” This alleged sin is significant for two reasons.  First, it makes the loss of the wine a measure for measure punishment for R. Huna’s sin.  Just as he has sinned with regard to the produce of his vineyard, so is he punished with regard to the fruits of his vineyard.  On the other hand, the punishment also appears to be way out of proportion.  The value of the branches cut from a vineyard is miniscule compared to the value of the wine.  It seems as if, at least in the case of a great rabbi like R. Huna, relatively minor infractions can accrue significant penalties.

 

R. Huna, however, denies wrongdoing.  His argument is: “Does he leave me any? He steals them all!” Neither R. Huna’s argument nor the rabbis’ response to it is terribly clear.  Literally, it would seem that R. Huna is denying the charges altogether.  It is not he who has denied his sharecropper his rightful share of the prunings.  It is the sharecropper who seized all of the branches for himself! If this were the case, however, the claim of the rabbis, that even so, he was still stealing, does not make any sense.  Rashi thus interprets R.Huna’s statement as meaning that the sharecropper generally defrauds his master, and hence he has a right to recoup some of his losses by taking all of the prunings.    

 

The rabbis’ citation of the proverb that, “If you steal from a thief you also have a taste of it!” is also unclear.  This saying would appear to refer to a case in which a person steals something from a person who has in turn stolen the object from a third party.  In this case, it makes sense that this deed is still considered theft, even though the person stolen from did not have rightful possession of the goods.  Here, R. Huna is merely taking back what is rightfully his! R. Huna is indeed being held to high standards.  He is attempting to counter his sharecropper’s shady practices with a questionable practice of his own.  For this, he is treated as an outright thief, and a penalty far greater that the value of what he took is exacted from him. 

 

R. Huna then commits to rectify his actions.  In response, he regains his loss from the spoiled wine.  The story comes full circle.  R. Huna returns to the position from whence he started.  Just as God punishes the sinner, He restores the penitent to his place before the sin. 

 

The way in which R. Huna’s loss is restored is subject to debate.  Each suggested ending to the story has its strengths and weaknesses.  According to the first version, the vinegar turned back into wine.  This is clearly the most just outcome as R. Huna regains exactly what he has lost.  However, it also assumes a miraculous intervention.  By the laws of nature, the fermentation process is not reversible: Wine turns into vinegar, but not vice versa.  According to the second version, R. Huna only recovered the financial value of his loss.  This comes about through a sudden rise in the price of vinegar and fall in the price of wine.  R. Huna ends up profiting from his “shorting” of the wine market.  Though unlikely, this outcome does not violate any laws of nature.

 

In presenting both outcomes, the Gemara gets the best of both worlds.  Unlike a conventional storyteller, the Gemara does not have to choose a single ending.  Rather, it leaves two possible endings hanging in the air, allowing the reader to absorb both simultaneously. 

 

This story teaches us about our moral accountability in this world using a classic rabbinic narrative technique.  In most cultures, when a story about a wise or holy man is used to teach a lesson, the hero of the story appears as perfect and all-knowing.  He knew the lesson all along, and it is only others who need the story to become aware of it.  For example, in the story in the first Mishna of our chapter, R Gamliel is the wise hero.  He knows the laws regarding the Shema from the get go.  But in the course of the story, his ignorant children are educated and brought to their father’s level of knowledge.

 

Often, however, in rabbinic stories, the rabbi-hero is not all-knowing.  Rather, he is ignorant in some way, either morally or spiritually.  Only in the course of the story, through his experiences and interaction with the other characters, does he learn the important lesson of the story.  In such stories, we learn with the rabbi, not from him.  In our case, R. Huna begins the story ignorant of his own misdeeds and of the fact that his misfortunes must be a result of those deeds.  As the story progresses, R. Huna, along with the reader, learns how God maintains a tight moral economy of human actions and Divine response.

 

This form of didactic story presents a radically different notion of spiritual and moral leadership.  Our rabbis are not great because, like some sort of semi-Divine being, they possess all necessary qualities and knowledge.  Rather, they are great in their human imperfections; they learn from their experiences, increasing their knowledge and improving themselves.  The readers of rabbinic stories can imitate their rabbinic heroes by also seeking to struggle and learn from their own study and experiences.

 

Bedroom postures

 

The Gemara, having completed its discussion of suffering, now returns to the theme of beds and bedtime.  The next sugya consists of four sayings of Abba Binyamin, the first of which discusses issues regarding one’s bed:

 

It has been taught: Abba Binyamin says,

All my life I took great pains about two things:

that my prayer should be before my bed

and that my bed should be placed north and south. 

'That my prayer should be before my bed.’ 

What is the meaning of 'before my bed'?

Is it perhaps literally in front of my bed?

Has not Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav

(some say, in the name of R. Yehoshua b. Levi):

How do you know that when one prays

there should be nothing interposing between him and the wall?

Because it says:

Then Chizkiyahu turned his face to the wall and prayed (Yishayahu 38:2)?

Do not read 'before my bed', but 'near my bed'. 

 

Abba Binyamin was careful about two things.  First, his prayer should be before his bed.  What does this mean? Previously, we have seen discussions of saying the evening Shema “on one’s bed." The term prayer, however, refers to the Shemoneh Esrei.  We have no other record of saying the Maariv prayer at one’s bedside or before bedtime.  Indeed, previously we saw an opinion that urged the individual to say Maariv earlier in the evening, in the synagogue before returning home from work.  This problem may underlie the Gemara’s discussion of this phrase.

 

The Gemara, at first, takes this notion as referring to the physical position of the pray-er rather than the time of the prayer.  A person should pray in front of his bed.  This notion is contradicted by another Amoraic saying that requires a person to pray directly facing the wall, with nothing intervening.  Like instructions to pray next to one’s bed, this advice seems to refer to private prayer in one’s home.  The proof-text for this principle is most curious in this context.  It cites a verse from Yishayahu (and II Melakhim) which mentions that Chizkiyahu turned his face to the wall before praying.  What is notable about this proof-text is that in the previous verse we are told that Chizkiyahu was ill, on the verge of death.  It seems that in this case, the pray-er was actually in his bed at the time of the prayer.  I don’t know what to make of this, but it seems to me to be too big a coincidence to overlook.

 

This apparent contradiction is resolved by asserting that Abba Binyamin did not mean literally “next to one’s bed” but merely “close to one’s bed.”  Rashi and other commentators take this to mean that the Gemara is switching from a spatial to a temporal understanding of Abba Binyamin’s statement.  He meant, not physically next to one’s bed, but rather close to one’s bedtime.  The problem with this interpretation is that, as we have noted, there seems to be no reason that one would want to postpone Maariv till bedtime.  Rashi therefore takes the term “bed” to refer, not to the time one goes to sleep, but to the time one gets up.  Thus Abba Binyamin was careful to pray as soon as he awoke.  R. Chananel (cited by Benovitz) argues that the word “bed” refers in fact to meal-time, as people in those days used to eat while reclining.  Thus one should say Maariv before eating dinner.  Neither of these interpretations seems to capture the simple meaning of the words of the Gemara.

 

I would like to suggest that in fact Abba Binyamin and the Gemara refer to both the time and the place of one’s prayer throughout the discussion.  When the Gemara states that Abba Binyamin merely meant “close to one’s bed," it means that one should pray facing the wall, but close to one’s bed.  Nevertheless, the Gemara implies that one should pray before one goes to bed.  It is true that we have no other source for this idea of saying Maariv so late in the day.  Perhaps this problem can be resolved by examining the individual who makes this statement, Abba Binyamin.  This figure appears only on this page of the Talmud.  However, from his appellation “Abba," we can deduce that he most likely lived in the land of Israel during the Tanaitic period.  (M.B. Lerner, “Enquiries into the meaning of various titles and designations” (Te’udah 4).)  If this is the case, he lived in a time and place where ideas about the evening prayers were still in flux.  On the one hand, as we have seen, many, if not all, of the sages of the land of Israel held that one must recite the Shema immediately before going to bed.  On the other hand, Abba Binyamin may have believed that the Shemoneh Esrei is best said immediately following the Shema.  Furthermore, given the various sources cited above about the appropriateness of praying for one’s wellbeing before going to bed, Abba Binyamin may have held that bedtime is the optimal time for saying Maariv, rather than in the synagogue earlier in the evening. 

 

The Gemara now takes on Abba Binyamin’s second major concern, which is the orientation of one’s bed:

 

'And that my bed should be placed north and south.' 

For R. Chama b. R. Chanina said in the name of R. Yitzchak:

Whosoever places his bed north and south will have male children, as it says:

With Thy treasure is filled their bellies,  

those who have sons in plenty (Tehillim 17:4).

R. Nachman b. Yitzchak says:

His wife also will not miscarry. 

Here it is written:

With Thy treasure is filled their bellies,

and elsewhere it is written:

And when her days to be delivered were fulfilled,

behold there were twins in her womb (Bereishit 25:24).

 

Not surprisingly, the Gemara here sees a connection between the appropriateness of one’s bed and the success of one’s offspring.  The claim that having one’s bed face north will have such a positive effect is based on the fact that the word for “north” (tzafon) is almost identical to the word for “treasure” (tzafun) in the verse from Tehillim.  The verse then reads something like this, “Because of your facing north, their bellies will be filled, (i.e.  your wives will get pregnant) and be satisfied with sons.”

 

We have already discussed the significance of north when we discussed the north wind that played David’s harp.  I am still unclear why the north is associated with good things.  In this case, it seems not unlikely that it has to do with the rabbis’ understanding of demons.  However, we should note that in the Persian belief system that represented the mainstream culture in Talmudic Babylonia, north is associated with hell and other bad things (see Shai Secunda, “Reading the Bavli in Iran” in JQR 100). 

 

Abba Binyamin’s next statement continues on the theme of appropriate behavior surrounding prayer:

 

It has been taught:

Abba Binyamin says,

When two people enter [a Synagogue] to pray,

and one of them finishes his prayer first

and does not wait for the other but leaves, 

his prayer is torn up before his face. 

For it is written:

‘Thou that tearest thyself in thine anger,

shall the earth be forsaken for thee?’ (Iyov 18:4) 

And more than that,

he causes the Divine Presence to remove itself from Israel. 

For it says

 ‘Or shall the rock be removed out of its place?’ (ibid.)

And 'rock' is nothing else than the Holy One, blessed be He,

as it says:

‘Of the Rock that begot thee thou wast unmindful.’(Devarim 32:18) 

And if he does wait, what is his reward?

R. Yosi b. R. Chanina says:

He is rewarded with the blessings enumerated in the following verse:

‘Oh that thou wouldest hearken to My commandments!

Then would thy peace be as a river,

and thy righteousness as the waves of the sea;

Thy seed also would be as the sand,

and the offspring of thy body like the grains thereof etc.’ (Yishayahu 48:18-19).

 

Abba Binyamin speaks of a situation in which two individuals enter a synagogue to pray.  This situation is in line with another teaching of Abba Binyamin, further along in our sugya, in which he states: “A man's prayer is heard [by God] only in the Synagogue.” This statement suggests that one should pray in a synagogue even when there is no minyan or communal service.  Hence these two individuals enter to pray even when there is no one else there.  Abba Binyamin harshly criticizes the person who exits the synagogue upon finishing his prayers, leaving his friend who is still praying behind.  Why is this such a terrible thing? I think that Abba Binyamin felt that there is a communal aspect to prayer, even in the absence of a minyan.  The simple act of standing in solidarity with one’s friend while he or she prays strengthens his or her prayer.  By abandoning his friend, this man showed a lack of concern for his prayers and his needs.  He egotistically left as soon as his own needs were taken care of.  As such, God rejects his prayer.  Furthermore, such fellowship among Jews is greatly desired by God.  Failure to show consideration for one neighbor results in God Himself, as it where, retreating from the Earth.