Skip to main content

Daf 4a - Between Blood and Blood

Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan


Ein Yaakov - The World of Talmudic Aggada

By Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan


Lecture 10:  Daf 4a

Between Blood and Blood



The Gemara now returns to the question of whether Moshe and David knew how to calculate the exact time of midnight. Previously, the Gemara had determined that the answer in both cases was “no,” and that only God knows how to calculate the exact point of midnight. As we noted at the time, the Gemara provides a less than satisfactory explanation of the verses regarding Moshe’s knowledge of midnight. Perhaps because of this, the Gemara now offers a different answer to the question:


R. Zeira says:

Moshe certainly knew and David, too, knew [the exact time of midnight].

Since David knew, why did he need the harp?

That he might wake from his sleep.

Since Moshe knew, why did he say 'about midnight'?

Moshe thought that the astrologers of Pharaoh might make a mistake,

and then they would say that Moshe was a liar.

For so a Master said: Let thy tongue acquire the habit of saying, 'I know not',

lest thou be caught lying.

R. Ashi says:

It was at midnight of the night of the thirteenth passing into the fourteenth [of Nisan], and thus said Moshe to Israel:

The Holy One, blessed be He, said:

Tomorrow [at the hour] like the midnight of tonight,

I will go out into the midst of Egypt.


R. Zeira holds that both David and Moshe knew how to calculate the exact time of midnight. If this is the case, R. Zeira must now re-interpret the previously cited verses and traditions that appeared to suggest otherwise. With regard to David, we have the tradition of his miraculous harp which would wake him up exactly at midnight. If David could calculate the time of midnight, why did he need the harp? R. Zeira sensibly answers that David’s knowledge of the time of midnight only helped if he was already awake! Since David was asleep (according to at least some opinions mentioned previously), he needed the harp to act as an alarm clock to wake him up on time.


We now must return to the difficult verse in Shemot in which Moshe announces in God’s name that He will smite the Egyptians at “about midnight.” Even if Moshe cannot calculate midnight, surely God can!  Furthermore, later on, the Torah states that God struck at exactly midnight. Why then would God use such vague language?  R. Zeira suggests a new explanation of this problem. The reason for giving only an approximate time has nothing to do with God’s or Moshe’s lack of precise time-keeping. Rather, Moshe was concerned that the royal Egyptian astrologers would think that they too have the ability to calculate midnight, just like God and Moshe. The astrologers’ measurements, however, were not as accurate as they thought. As a result, the astrologers might find a discrepancy between their own calculations and the actual time of the tenth plague, and they would assume that God had erred. In order to preclude such a misperception, Moshe did not announce an exact time, but stated only that God would strike approximately at midnight.


The Gemara takes this teaching beyond the interpretation of a single difficult verse and expands it to a universal ethical teaching. It cites what appears to have been a known proverb, which is also cited in the “minor tractate,” Derekh Eretz Zuta: “Let thy tongue acquire the habit of saying, 'I know not', lest thou be caught lying.”  Whether understood independently or in its context in Derekh Eretz Zuta (in the beginning of chapter 3), this proverb, like other familiar rabbinic statements, praises keeping speech to a minimum and taking great care with the words that one does say. It emphasizes maintaining humility and never being sure of one’s knowledge. In our context, the proverb takes on a different meaning. Even if one has direct access to God, and has no reason to doubt the truth of one’s knowledge, one should still hesitate before declaring the truth to the world, because others may misunderstand and think that you are lying. I believe that this is a profound message. Knowing and proclaiming the truth are not sufficient. One must be concerned with the impact that truth will have on the world. If your truth will be incorrectly perceived as falsehood, it is better to keep silent.


Finally, R. Ashi offers another interpretation of Moshe’s words. He understands the problematic ka in ka-hazot ha-laila as meaning not “approximately midnight” but rather as a comparative “like (this) midnight” He understand this verse as having been spoken at midnight the night before the slaying of the first born. One could paraphrase the verse as saying, “at exactly this time, tomorrow night,” God shall smite the Egyptians. R. Ashi’s reading, like Rashi’s interpretation cited in last week’s class, has the advantage of eliminating any vagueness or ambiguity from Moshe’s words. He does not approximate the time of the plague, but, rather, gives an exact moment of its execution, as we would expect from a Divine messenger.  


David vs. the Gentile Kings


Picking up on the previous theme of portraying King David as an embodiment of rabbinic values, the Gemara now presents a set of comparisons between David and the other kings of his day:


“A prayer of David … Keep my soul, for I am pious.” (Tehillim 86:1-2)

Levi and R. Yitzchak:

The one says,

Thus spoke David before the Holy One, blessed be He;

Master of the world, am I not pious?

All the kings of the East and the West sleep to the third hour [of the day],

but I, “at midnight do I rise to give thanks unto Thee.”


First, a note on the language of the verse in Tehillim cited. We tend to translate the word chasid as “pious,” as reflected in the translation above. This translation makes David’s statement seem rather dissonant. Would a truly pious person declare, “I am pious?!” In fact, the biblical Hebrew term, chasid, is best translated as something like “loyal follower” or “ally.” David is saying that God should protect him, because David has been loyal to Him.


The Midrash, however, proposes a somewhat different model for the chasid. This passage is actually a reworking of a discussion that we found on the previous page of the Gemara. As the reader will recall, the Gemara there sought to resolve the debate regarding whether there are three or four watches in the night. The Gemara juxtaposes the verses, “At midnight do I rise to give thanks unto Thee,” and “Mine eyes forestall the watches,” which the rabbis understand as meaning that David awoke two watches early. Now if we assume that there are four watches in the night, this works out perfectly, because there are two watches between midnight, when David wakes up, and sunrise. The Gemara counters that this verse can also be interpreted in the context of the three-watch scheme. Since we have learned that the sons of kings rise only at the beginning of the third hour of the day, David rises a full two watches (that is eight hours, if there are only three watches per night) before the other kings.


In its previous form, this discussion focused on technical issues of halakhic nocturnal time keeping. The figure of David and certainly that of “the sons of kings” exist only to help us expedite our calculations. Now, however, the Gemara focuses on these individuals and transforms a technical discussion into a moral and interpretive conversation about the relative merits of David and his non-Jewish colleagues. David is far superior to the Gentile kings because he does not lazily sleep in, but, rather awakes in the middle of the night to pray to God. The ability to sleep late suggests a certain confidence that one’s needs are taken care of. The Gentile king can sleep, because he assumes his loyal servants woke up before dawn to take care of his household’s needs. David, on the other hand, lacks such confidence in own resources. He knows that he lives at God’s mercy. Rather than sleeping soundly, David arises in the middle of the night, acutely aware of his own fragile mortality, and spends the night in prayer to God, the true King.


This passage may also have a contemporary polemical edge. The term “sons of the king” mentioned in the earlier version of this passage probably refers, not only literally to the children of the reigning monarch, but to the Roman aristocracy in general. If so, this passage may be seen as arguing for the superiority of the Jewish elite – the Rabbis – over the Roman elite.  While the Roman aristocrats slept the day away, the Rabbis were up serving God at all hours of the night. I should note that from that I have seen thus far in historical literature, Roman aristocrats were not late-risers, but, rather, got up with the sun, not long after their servants.


Now the Gemara offers another comparison between David and the Gentile kings:


The other one says:

Thus spoke David before the Holy One, blessed be He:

Master of the world, am I not pious?

All the kings of the East and the West sit with all their pomp among their company, whereas my hands are soiled

with the blood [of menstruation], with the fetus and the placenta,

in order to declare a woman clean for her husband.


First we must note that the phrase rendered here as “sit with all their pomp among their company” is difficult to translate. The original Hebrew is yoshvim agudot agudot bi-kvodam.  This translation seems to interpret “agudot agudot" literally as “bundles and bundles” to refer to many groups of people who assemble in the kings’ courts to honor them. It is difficult, however, to ignore the fact that the phrase “agudot agudot” in rabbinic literature most frequently occurs in the context of lo titgodidu, the prohibition against breaking into factions. In this context, the term seems to refer to distinct, and even opposing, groups. This understanding may suggest that the Gemara here means that the kings are constantly breaking into factions and fighting with one another. If this is the case, then the Gemara is emphasizing, not the pomp of royal courts, but, rather, Gentile kings’ predilection for warfare and bloodshed.


Even more puzzling, however, is this text’s portrayal of King David as spending his day ruling on questions of hilkhot nida. We have already seen how the Sages like to portray King David as a paradigmatic rabbinic sage who is devoted to Torah study. It should hardly be surprising that they portray David as a posek (rabbinic decisor) as well. But what is the significance of David specializing in ruling regarding menstrual blood?


First and foremost, we must look to the context of this passage. The key to understanding the significance of David’s focus on the laws of nida is the contrast between David’s activities and those of his royal colleagues. In our first interpretation, the story emphasizes that kings live exalted lives in which they are adored by the masses. David, in contrast, is intimately involved with his subjects and their private lives. He literally gets his hands dirty in order to ensure the continued relationship between husband and wife.


Alternatively, the Gentile kings are involved in constant warfare. In this reading the Gemara is contrasting two types of blood, two types of bloodshed, and two types of impurity, that of the battle field and that of menstruation and childbirth. This contrast is most clear in another Talmudic passage in which David is cast as a nida posek. The Gemara describes the scene in which Avigayil intercepts David, who is on his way to kill her husband, Naval:


‘Avigayil,’ as it is written,

“and it was so as she rode on her ass

and came down by the covert (seter) of the mountain”  (I Shmuel 25:20).

Rabba b. Shmuel said,

It means that she came with reference to blood

that came from the hidden parts (setarim).

She brought him some blood and showed it to him.

He said to her:

Is blood to be shown at night?

She replied:

Are capital cases tried at night?

He said to her:

He (Naval) is a rebel against the king.

No trial is necessary for him.

She replied:

Shaul is still alive and your fame is not spread abroad in the world.

Then he said to her,

“Blessed by thy discretion and blessed be thou,

that hast kept me this day from bloodguiltiness” (ibid. v.33).

The word dammim (bloodguiltiness) is plural to refer to two types of blood.

(Megilla 14a)


This passage clearly relates menstrual blood with blood spilled by the sword. The rabbis often compare their activities in the study hall to those of soldiers on the battlefield or gladiators in the stadium. In this case, we see that both “warriors” are covered with blood from their activities. However, these two types of “warriors” deal with two very different kinds of blood. One is associated with strife and death, while the other is associated with marital relations and reproduction. I would go further and suggest that one type of bloodshed is masculine in nature and the other feminine.  People often see the rabbis’ involvement in the laws of nida as being a form of masculine control over the female sphere. I am not sure that the Sages saw it that way. Rather, they may have seen themselves as willing to leave the masculine realm and enter the world of the feminine in order to bring God’s law to all who need it.


Finally, the Gemara presents us with one more image of David as rabbinic sage,


And what is more, in all that I do I consult my teacher, Mefiboshet,

and I say to him:

My teacher Mefiboshet, is my decision right?

Did I correctly convict, correctly acquit,

correctly declare clean, correctly declare unclean?

And I am not ashamed [to ask].

R. Yehoshua, the son of R. Iddi, says

 Which verse [may be cited in support]?

And I recite Thy testimonies before kings and am not ashamed” (Tehillim 119:46).


A Tanna taught:


His name was not Mefiboshet. And why then was he called Mefiboshet? Because he humiliated David in the Halakha.

Therefore was David worthy of the privilege that Khilav should issue from him.

R. Yokhanan said:

His name was not Khilav but Daniel.

Why then was he called Khilav?

Because he humiliated [makhlim] Mefiboshet [ab] in the Halakha.

And concerning him Shlomo said in his wisdom:

My son, if thy heart be wise, my heart will be glad, even mine. 

And he said further:

My son, be wise, and make my heart glad, that I may answer him that taunteth me.


This time David’s positive trait is his deference to his teacher, Mefiboshet. Most kings defer to no one and will not brook any reminder of their own ignorance. David, on the other hand, is happy to consult with his teacher about matters of halakha. This passage also seeks to teach a lesson to contemporary rabbis about the importance of consulting with one’s teachers and recognizing those who are superior in knowledge.


In the Bible, Mefiboshet is the crippled grandson of Shaul, son of Yonatan, whom David spares and makes a member of his household. What moves the Rabbis to declare that Mefiboshet is a superior scholar and David’s teacher? I don’t really know. Certainly, the notion that Mefiboshet (boshet= shame) is an embarrassment or potential embarrassment to David is rooted in the biblical text. Mefiboshet is, after all, the rightful heir to Shaul’s throne. His existence is a challenge to David’s right to the throne. Yet David is apparently unashamed to keep him as a member of the court. Perhaps, the Sages are translating this story into rabbinic terms. Mefiboshet was a challenge to David’s rule as “chief rabbi” because he was David’s teacher and a superior scholar. David, however, does not seek to sideline Mefiboshet, lest he undermine his credibility. Rather, he happily consults with him and defers to him.


This may be a covert polemic against the Patriarch in the Land of Israel or the Exilarch in Babylon. Both figures were the political leaders of the Jews in their locales and claimed descent from the line of David. In many cases, these leaders were not outstanding scholars and found themselves in conflict with the leading rabbis of the day. This story suggests that these contemporary leaders should consult with and defer to scholars who are their teachers and superiors in knowledge and that they should do so without shame.


Finally, the Gemara tells us that David was rewarded by for his forbearance with the birth of his son Khilav, who was an even greater scholar than Mefiboshet.  How did the Sages come to this conclusion about Khilav? Furthermore, other midrashic sources relate that Khilav had all of the signs of being one of the most righteous and holy people in history: He was born already circumcised, died without sin or, according to another source, never died, but entered the Garden of Eden alive. This is quite a reputation for a person about whom all the Bible says is: “Sons were born to David in Chevron…his second was Khilav, by Avigayil wife of Naval” (II Shmuel 3:3). How can we understand this? One possibility is that what was so striking about Khilav to the rabbis was precisely the fact that this is all we are told about him in the Bible. The same verse lists David’s first, third and fourth sons: Amnon, Avshalom and Adoniyah. These sons are well known to readers of the Bible. All three were sinners who were killed in the struggle over the succession to David’s throne, which dominates much of the end of the Book of Shmuel and the beginning of the book of Melakhim. Where was David’s second son in all of this? Why do Avshalom and Adoniyah not have to contend with Khilav’s superior claim to the throne? Perhaps the rabbis deduced from this that Khilav, unlike his brothers, was a truly righteous individual.  Hence, he had no lust for power and stayed out of the struggle for the throne.  He happily deferred to Shlomo, the true heir. Given that he was so righteous, the rabbis would find it reasonable to conclude that he was also a great Torah scholar.


Alternatively, as the Gemara notes, in the book of Divrei Ha-yamim, Khilav is called Daniel. Perhaps this association with the holy and wise prophet of the Babylonian exile is what made the rabbis assume that Khilav was also a scholar and a saint.

This website is constantly being improved. We would appreciate hearing from you. Questions and comments on the classes are welcome, as is help in tagging, categorizing, and creating brief summaries of the classes. Thank you for being part of the Torat Har Etzion community!