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Daf 5a - Burying the Future

Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan


Ein Yaakov - The World of Talmudic Aggada

By Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan



Lecture 18: Daf 5a -

Burying the Future



The Gemara now continues with its discussion of the meaning of suffering, focusing on those whose children die:


A Tanna recited before R. Yochanan the following:

If a man busies himself in the study of the Torah

and in acts of charity

and [nonetheless] buries his children, 

all his sins are forgiven him.


This statement picks up on several ideas about suffering that we have already seen.  The first idea is that suffering can atone for sins.  This idea is slightly different than the notion that suffering comes as a punishment for sins.  Here, the idea is that suffering gives a person an opportunity to atone for his sins in this world, and thereby avoid what is presumably a much more severe punishment in the next.  This anonymous scholar presents a particularly extreme case. The translation here presents the simple reading of the case: A person spends his days involved in the study of Torah and the pursuit of good deeds, but nevertheless confronts the loss of his children.  How are we to understand such an extreme case of the righteous suffering? The Tanna responds that in this case, the righteous person will be forgiven even the relatively few sins he has committed, and he will receive only the greatest reward in the world to come.


The note in the Soncino translation suggests that this statement may not have been said in front of R. Yochanan in a purely academic context.  Rather, R. Yochanan was a prime example of a person who was involved in Torah and good works and yet, as we shall see later in this passage, buried his own children.  This statement may well have been said to him in an effort to comfort him for his loss.  Whatever the speaker’s intent, R. Yochanan’s response as reported here is analytical:


R. Yochanan said to him:

I grant you Torah and acts of charity,

for it is written:

‘By mercy and truth iniquity is expiated’ (Mishlei 16:6). 

 'Mercy' is acts of charity, for it is said:

‘He that followeth after righteousness and mercy findeth

life, prosperity and honor’ (ibid.  21: 21). 

'Truth' is Torah, for it is said:

‘Buy the truth and sell it not’ (ibid.  23:23).   

But how do you know [what you say about]

the one who buries his children?

A certain Elder [thereupon] recited to him

in the name of R. Shimon b. Yochai:

It is concluded from the analogy in the use of the word 'iniquity.’ 

Here it is written:

‘By mercy and truth iniquity is expiated.’ 

And elsewhere it is written:

‘And who recompenseth the iniquity of the fathers

into the bosom of their children’ (Yirmiyahu 32:18). 


R. Yochanan clearly understood the statement to mean that all three traits - Torah study, good deeds and the loss of children – either individually or as a group – have the power to atone for all of one’s sins.  R. Yochanan points to the verse in Mishlei, ‘By mercy and truth iniquity is expiated,’ as the source that Torah and good deeds atone for one’s sins.  He understands ‘mercy’ in this verse to mean good deeds, and ‘truth’ to mean Torah.  But he does not find a source for the idea that loss of children has the same effect.  Yet another anonymous scholar suggests a verse from Yirmiyahu, which would allow us to understand the word ‘iniquity’ in the Mishlei verse as referring to loss of children.  The Tanna’s statement is thus transformed into an interpretation of this verse.


On the surface, it seems that R. Yochanan is not objecting to the notion that loss of children can atone for one’s sins.  Rather, he is just asking for the biblical source for this idea.  However, as we proceed, we shall see that R. Yochanan consistently questions efforts to attribute meaning to suffering, especially in the case of loss of children.  In light of this, it is possible to see R. Yochanan’s question here as an effort to undermine the idea that loss of children leads to forgiveness of sins.


The Gemara now cites a statement of R. Yochanan on the issue of burying children:


R. Yochanan says:

Leprosy and [the lack of] children

are not chastisements of love.


Once again we encounter the term yisurin shel ahava, translated as “chastisements of love.” As we noted in the previous class, this term has at least two possible meanings.  One possible meaning is suffering which is not connected to sin.  This suffering shows God’s special regard for the sufferer, either by raising him to a higher spiritual level or by guaranteeing him an even greater share in the world to come.  Alternatively, yisurin shel ahava means suffering that is moderate in some way.  In this case, we say the suffering was moderate enough to allow the individual to continue to engage in Torah study and/or prayer.  The question now is which meaning does R. Yochanan intend here? It is tempting to say that he means the latter definition.  In this case, he would be saying that loss of children and leprosy do not constitute “moderate” suffering.  But if this is the case, what is the hava amina (the initial understanding that this statement comes to reject)? Who would have thought that burying one’s children would constitute “moderate” suffering? The other possibility is that R. Yochanan means that these two afflictions can never be seen as expressions of Divine love.  This understanding, in turn, is open to two interpretations: 1) These afflictions are always a result of sin, or 2) We cannot assign any meaning to them whatsoever.


The problem of how to understand R. Yochanan’s statement becomes even more complex in light of the Gemara’s response to it:


But is leprosy not a chastisement of love?

Is it not taught:

If a man has one of these four symptoms of leprosy, 

it is nothing else but an altar of atonement?

They are an altar of atonement,

but they are not chastisements of love. 

If you like, I can say:

This [teaching of the baraita] is ours [in Babylonia],

and that [saying of R. Yochanan] is theirs [in Palestine].

If you like, I can say:

This [teaching of the baraita] refers to hidden [leprosy],

that [saying of R. Yochanan] refers to a case of visible [leprosy].


The Gemara first challenges the proposition that leprosy cannot be a form of yisurin shel ahava.  It cites a baraita that states that one who suffers from leprosy can be compared to “an altar of atonement."  It is unclear how the Gemara understood R. Yochanan’s use of the term yisurin shel ahava.  If the Gemara understood the term as referring to “moderate” suffering, how is this baraita relevant? How does the fact that leprosy atones for sin like the altar suggest that it qualifies as “moderate suffering?"  To the contrary, the worse the suffering, the more the atonement! On the other hand, if yisurin shel ahava refers to “suffering without sin”, then the fact that leprosy is like “an altar of atonement” once again would disqualify it from the category of yisurin shel ahava, because the need for atonement suggests that the sufferer did in fact sin.


It therefore makes most sense, as Benovitz suggests, to favor the reading found in several manuscripts in which the term “altar of atonement” is followed by “for Israel."  The person afflicted with leprosy atones not for his own sins, but for those of the entire people of Israel.  This works well with the understanding of yisurin shel ahava as suffering without sin.  The reason that the righteous suffer, despite their own blamelessness, is in order to atone for the sins of others.  While the idea of one person suffering for the sins of others is often thought of as Christian, it is well rooted in Judaism as well.  The idea is discussed at several points in the Gemara, and this is the simple meaning of the verses in Yishayahu 53, as we discussed previously.  Jews disagree with Christians about whom the prophet refers to in that passage.  However, they do not necessarily disagree with the basic theological premise of the suffering servant. 


This understanding of the reason for yisurin shel ahava turns out to be only provisional.  The first answer which the Gemara brings to resolve the contradiction between R. Yochanan and the baraita is that yisurin shel ahava and “an altar of atonement” are not necessarily the same thing.  Perhaps according to this answer, yisurin shel ahava refers only to suffering that is for the benefit of the sufferer, not for the benefit of all Israel.


The Gemara then offers two alternate resolutions: Either the status of leprosy depends on whether you are in the Land of Israel or Babylonia, or it depends on whether the leprosy is visible or not.


The Gemara now takes on R. Yochanan’s contention that the loss of children does not constitute yisurin shel ahava:


But is [the lack of] children not a chastisement of love?

How is this to be understood?

Shall I say that he had children and they died?

Did not R. Yochanan himself say:

‘This is the bone of my tenth son’?

Rather [say then] that

the former saying refers to one who never had children,

the latter to one who had children and lost them.


The Gemara argues that R. Yochanan must be referring to individuals who never had children.  However, R. Yochanan agrees that the loss of children who have already been born can be considered yisurin shel ahava.  The Gemara’s proof for this understanding is that R. Yochanan himself lost ten sons and carried around a piece of bone, about which he used to tell people, “this is the bone of my tenth son."  According to Rashi, since R. Yochanan was himself a great tzaddik, if he lost ten sons, it can only have been as a result of yisurin shel ahava.  Tosafot reject this reading, pointing out that one could make the same argument about those who never have children, because there have certainly been many tzaddikim who were never blessed with children.  Rather, they suggest that since R. Yochanan used to mention his lost children in an effort to comfort others, he must not have regarded the loss as the result of his own sins.


The answers of Rashi and Tosafot call attention to the Gemara’s assumption that there are two options for explaining suffering – either it is a punishment for sin, or it is an expression of Divine love, not connected to sin.  On the basis of this assumption, the Gemara comes to the conclusion that R. Yochanan did not deny that burying one’s own children is a form of yisurin shel ahava.  I would like to suggest that, despite the Gemara’s conclusion, R. Yochanan did deny that burying one’s children can be a form of yisurin shel ahava.  This interpretation of R. Yochanan is only possible if we reject the Gemara’s dichotomy between suffering with sin and suffering without sin.  Perhaps R. Yochanan believes that some suffering is so terrible that one should not assign any meaning to it.  This belief would be consistent with R. Yochanan questioning the source for the idea that losing one’s children can lead to forgiveness of sins, which we saw previously.  R. Yochanan insists that some tragedies are neither forms of atonement nor signs of Divine love.  They just are.


The Gemara proceeds by presenting a series of three very similar stories.   Each features R. Yochanan, a miraculous cure, and a discussion of human suffering.  The first two are virtually identical:


R. Chiya b. Aba fell ill

and R. Yochanan went in to visit him.

He said to him:

Are your sufferings welcome to you?

He replied:

Neither they nor their reward.

He said to him:

Give me your hand.

He gave him his hand and he raised him.

R. Yochanan once fell ill

and R. Chanina went in to visit him.

He said to him:

Are your sufferings welcome to you?

He replied:

Neither they nor their reward.

He said to him: Give me your hand.

He gave him his hand and he raised him.


(Note that we are following the order of the stories as they are found in the printed text of Talmud and not as they are found in the Ein Yaakov.) In the first story, R. Yochanan visits his student R. Chiya, who is lying ill.  He asks him if his suffering (yisurin) is dear to him.  When R. Chiya responds, “no," R. Yochanan takes his hand and miraculously cures him.

The principle underlying this story appears to be the principle cited on the previous side of the page, that yisurin shel ahava (in the sense of suffering without sin) must be accepted by the sufferer with love, just as God gives them with love, in order to be effective.  However, R. Yochanan has a most peculiar take on this idea.  The most obvious application of this principle to a sick person would be to urge him to accept his sufferings as an expression of Divine love.  R. Yochanan instead merely confirms that the sufferer rejects his suffering and the Divine love they apparently represent.  R. Yochanan then miraculously removes the suffering.  In curing R. Chiya, R. Yochanan is, in effect, challenging God and His policy of afflicting the righteous.  This stance is generally consistent with, although not identical to, R. Yochanan’s refusal to attribute significance to various types of suffering that we saw just above.

The next story differs from the first only in that it features R. Yochanan and his teacher R. Chanina, rather than R. Yochanan and his student R. Chiya, and the roles are reversed.  Now R. Yochanan lies ill and the other character heals him.  Given these similarities, it is tempting to view these accounts as two versions of the same story.  One version evolved from the other.  The person who retold the story accidently made these simple changes when he confused Chanina the teacher with Chiya the student.  Be that as it may, the Gemara, by presenting both versions, focuses our attention on the common character between them, R. Yochanan, and further clarifies his position on suffering.  If we only had the first story, we might have thought that R. Yochanan merely sought to alleviate the suffering of those who in any case do not accept their lot with love, and therefore will not benefit from it.  Ideally though, one should accept such suffering with love and merit its reward.  Now we see that R. Yochanan did not embrace his own suffering, further strengthening his image as one who does not seek meaning in suffering, but merely seeks to avoid it. 

The Gemara itself comments on the fact that we have mirror image stories before us:

Why could not R. Yochanan raise himself?

They replied:

The prisoner cannot free himself from jail.


The Gemara is bothered that in the first story, we see that R. Yochanan has the power to cure illness, but in the second story he cannot cure himself and needs the services of R. Chanina. The Gemara responds, “The prisoner cannot free himself from jail.” This proverb holds true not only for the dynamics of miraculous cures, but for many aspects of the human condition.  In many situations, a person is helpless to solve his own problems, even though he could have easily helped another person suffering in the same situation.  We lack insight and objectivity about ourselves and sometimes need the help of an outsider, who can bring a different perspective.


The third and final story in this series is much longer and more complex:


R. Elazar fell ill and R. Yochanan went in to visit him. 

He noticed that he was lying in a dark room,

and he bared his arm and light radiated from it.

Thereupon he noticed that R. Elazar was weeping,

and he said to him:

Why do you weep?

Is it because you did not study enough Torah?

Surely we learnt:

The one who sacrifices much

and the one who sacrifices little

have the same merit,

provided that the heart is directed to heaven.

Is it perhaps lack of sustenance?

Not everybody has the privilege to enjoy two tables.

Is it perhaps because of [the lack of] children?

This is the bone of my tenth son!

He replied to him:

I am weeping on account of this beauty

that is going to rot in the earth.

He said to him:

On that account you surely have a reason to weep;

and they both wept.

In the meanwhile he said to him:

Are your sufferings welcome to you?

He replied:

Neither they nor their reward.

He said to him:

Give me your hand,

and he gave him his hand and he raised him.


(For a visual rendition of this story see )


The story opens with the now familiar scene of R. Yochanan visiting an ailing student.  This time the student is his prize disciple R. Elazar.  However, the story does not continue as expected.  First R. Yochanan finds himself in the dark.  This darkness might be seen as symbolically reflecting R. Elazar’s dire situation.  The image of the sick person sitting in a windowless room also recalls the metaphor of the prisoner which the Gemara uses just above. 


R. Yochanan’s response to the darkness is quite unexpected; he reveals his arm, which apparently glows like a lantern.  Why does R. Yochanan’s arm emit light? Rashi suggests that this a result of R. Yochanan’s great beauty, which is mentioned later in the story as well as in his famous first encounter with Reish Lakish, related in Bava Metzia 84a.  Furthermore, the Gemara in Bava Batra 58a cites R. Bana’a, who states that Adam was so beautiful that his two heels each shined as bright as the sun.  R. Yochanan here may thus represent the primal Adam or humanity as a whole. 


This image of R. Yochanan chasing away the darkness with the light of his body may be seen as a symbol of his endeavors as a miraculous healer.  R. Yochanan rejects the notion that this world is merely a veil of tears in which we accumulate merit for the world to come.  R. Yochanan seeks to alleviate suffering in this world and focus on the good that we can have in our lifetimes, just as he seeks to banish the darkness, emphasizing his own physical beauty.


Now that R. Yochanan has brought light to the room, the reader expects him to get on with his business of questioning the patient about his attitude toward suffering and then healing him, as we saw in the previous stories.  Instead, R. Yochanan finds R. Elazar crying.  Before he can heal R. Elazar’s physical pain, R. Yochanan must deal with his emotional pain.  R. Yochanan feels confident that he can do away with this sorrow just as well as he can do away with illness.  He assumes that R. Elazar must be crying because of the suffering and disappointments in his life.  R. Yochanan responds, effectively, that suffering is inevitable in this world, and it needs to be kept in perspective.


R. Elazar’s response effects a complete reversal in the story, undermining R. Yochanan’s worldview.  R. Elazar is not saddened by the darkness and pain that we experience in this world.  Rather, the beauty and goodness in this world are precisely what makes him sad.  Even at its best, this world reflects but a fleeting existence.  Even R. Yochanan’s light must eventually succumb to darkness.  Instead of overwhelming the darkness and disease that grips R. Elazar, R. Yochanan is overwhelmed by it, breaking down in tears. 


In the end, R. Yochanan does heal R. Elazar, as he heals the others in the previous stories.  This time, however, as R. Elazar rises up from his death bed, our joy is tempered knowing that R. Yochanan has scored only a temporary victory over the angel of death.


This passage in the Talmud presents a rather grim picture of the nature of suffering.  On the one hand, we have R. Yochanan repeatedly challenging, or at least seeking to limit, the idea of yisurin shel ahava.  He cannot accept the notion of suffering as a sign of love.  At the same time, even the good in this world is doomed to destruction.  There is nary a quantum of solace here. 

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