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Daf 5a - El Maleh Rakhamim?

Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan


Ein Yaakov - The World of Talmudic Aggada

By Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan




Lecture 16:  Daf 5a - El Maleh Rakhamim?



The Gemara now turns to one of the most profound and disturbing issues in all of religious thought: Why is there suffering in this world, and, in particular, why do the righteous suffer? While this problem has bothered thinkers of many cultures, it is particularly pressing for Jews and others who subscribe to the belief in ethical monotheism.  Ethical monotheism declares that not only is the world controlled by a single, all-powerful Divine entity, but that this God of the heaven and earth is also supremely moral and good.  For polytheists, the existence of suffering in this world can be explained by the fact that the universe is ruled by a number of gods who are often in conflict with one another.  None of the gods are all-powerful or necessarily paragons of morality, and some are downright evil.  So it is hardly shocking that sometimes the gods unleash all sorts of pain and destruction on both individuals and entire communities.  However, a God who is both all-powerful and all good should be able to prevent the suffering of his loyal servants.  His failure to do so would seem to imply, heaven forefend, that either He is not all-powerful or He is not all good, or He is neither of the two.


The Rabbis are thus challenged to reconcile their beliefs with the reality of apparently senseless suffering in this world.  As Professor Yaakov Elman has argued in a series of articles, the Rabbis of Babylonia invoke a much wider and richer array of possible explanations of suffering in the world than do their compatriots in the Land of Israel.  In this passage, we see a sampling of the methods that the Babylonian Talmud proposed to deal with the question of suffering.


The sugya opens with a statement of Reish Lakish (R. Shimon b. Lakish):


R. Shimon b. Lakish says:

If one studies the Torah,

painful sufferings are kept away from him. 

For it is said:

And the sons of reshef fly upward. 

The word uf refers only to the Torah,

as it is written:

'Wilt thou cause thine eyes to close upon it?

It is gone'. 

And 'reshef' refers only to painful sufferings,

as it is said:

'The wasting of hunger, and the devouring of the reshef [fiery bolt].’


The reader may recall that this passage is nearly identical to the saying of R. Yitzchak that immediately preceded it in the Talmud.  (As we mentioned, the Ein Yaakov has a slightly different order, which we have followed).  The only difference is that R. Yitzchak uses this exact same sequence of verses to prove that those who recite the bedtime Shema will be safe from mazikin (demons).  Reish Lakish thus substitutes Torah study for Shema and suffering for demons.  We have already noted that R. Yitzchak’s derasha itself conflates the saying of Shema with Torah study, because his proof speaks only of learning Torah and not of saying the Shema.  We have also discussed how the Shema is, in part, a form of Torah study, and may even be viewed as the quintessential type of Torah study.  Thus it is hardly surprising that Reish Lakish’s version deals exclusively with Torah study. 


Reish Lakish’s use of “suffering” to replace “demons” is perhaps of greater significance.  This substitution suggests an inherent relationship between demons and suffering, just as there is an inherent relationship between Torah study and the Shema.  Though Reish Lakish does not say so explicitly, his statement suggests that he believes that suffering in this world is either caused by demons or by some similar set of forces.


Reish Lakish does not explain why there is suffering in this world.  He seems to take its existence for granted.  Whether we attribute it to demons or the collective causality of the laws of nature, suffering is an integral part of the way the world works.  God created a world in which suffering is inevitable and apparently unrelated to one’s deeds.  However, God gave His people a way of avoiding this suffering – the study of Torah.  The question for Reish Lakish is not, why did God bring suffering to this world? But rather, how can God’s servants avoid this suffering?


Reish Lakish’s teacher and frequent disputant, R. Yochanan, challenges his view:


R. Yochanan said to him:

Thisis known even to school children. 

For it is said:

‘And He said:

If thou wilt diligently hearken to the voice of the Lord thy God,

and wilt do that which is right in His eyes,

and wilt give ear to His commandments,

and keep all His statutes,

I will put none of the diseases upon thee which I have put upon the Egyptians;

for I am the Lord that healeth thee’ (Shemot 15:26).


R. Yochanan does not dispute that Torah study can save one from suffering.  Rather, he sees it as obvious, because the Torah itself states explicitly that the observance of all the mitzvot will lead God to protect the Jewish people from suffering.  Torah study is a fundamental part of mitzva observance and hence obviously leads to Divine protection.  There is no need for an elaborate explication of an obscure verse in Iyov to prove this point, when it is stated explicitly in a well known verse from Shemot.


Thus far, R. Yochanan also agrees with Reish Lakish’s model of the place of suffering in the world.  Suffering is a given; it is part of the way the world is set up.  God, however, has given the Jews a way of avoiding this suffering by doing the mitzvot.


With R. Yochanan’s next statement, he veers into a rather different understanding of suffering:


Rather [you should say]:

If one has the opportunity to study the Torah and does not study it,

the Holy One, blessed be He,

visits him with ugly and painful sufferings which stir him up. 

For it is said:

I was dumb with silence,

I kept silence from the good thing,

and my pain was stirred up (Tehillim 39:3). 

 'The good thing' refers only to the Torah,

as it is said:

For I give you good doctrine; forsake ye not My teaching (torati) (Mishlei 4:2).


R. Yochanan begins his statement with the word “rather,” suggesting that he is offering an alternative to Reish Lakish’s statement.  However, the relationship between these two statements is far from clear.  R. Yochanan has already presented an alternative verse whose meaning subsumes Reish Lakish’s teaching and, as such, has already made his theological point.  At first, it might seem that R. Yochanan seeks to present an alternate interpretation of the verses used by Reish Lakish.  However, it soon becomes apparent that R. Yochanan’s statement is based on his explication of a different set of verses.


Possibly, Reish Lakish’s statement was based on an earlier tradition.  Having shown this statement to be superfluous, R. Yochanan now wants to present a better version of this statement, which preserves much of the wording, but makes a point that is not made elsewhere.  Alternatively, R. Yochanan simply uses Reish Lakish’s discussion of the relationship between suffering and Torah study to present his own ideas on the matter.


R.  Yochanan posits a rather different view of suffering.  While doing the commandments may protect one from suffering, suffering does not just come randomly or as part of the course of nature.  At least sometimes, suffering comes as a punishment for improper deeds.  This is the classic biblical perspective on suffering.  However, R. Yochanan goes one step further.  One can be punished for sins of omission, as well as those of commission.  Merely the failure to take advantage of the opportunity to learn Torah can lead to unspeakable pain and suffering.


With regard to R. Yochanan’s reading of the verse, a few comments are in order.  First, R. Yochanan’s explanation of the word tov as meaning Torah is probably partially rooted in the fact that it is not at all clear what this word means in its context.  The translation cited in the English text above assumes that the word means “good” as it usually does, rendering the line, “I kept silence from the good thing.” But it is not at all clear what this “good thing” is, or why one would keep silent about it in this context.  As such, the JPS translation renders these words as “I was very still” with a note providing other instances in the Bible where the word tov means “very.”  Similarly, Amos Chakham, in his Daat Mikra commentary on Tehillim, lists a series of possible meanings other than “good” for the word tov in this context.  As is often the case, practitioners of midrash find biblical texts whose meaning is ambiguous or problematic to be especially productive locales for practicing their art.


R. Yochanan also suggests a new reading of the syntax of this verse.  JPS renders the key phrase as “I was very still/ while my pain was intense.”  The use of the word while suggests that the stillness (or silence) was simultaneous with the pain.  This would appear to be the simple meaning of the words.  In order to better capture the relationship between the stillness and the pain, one could render the phrase as: “I was very still/ despite the fact that my pain was intense.” R. Yochanan, in contrast, translates the text literally as, “I was very still/ and my pain was intense.” This “and” is understood not only as signifying sequence, but also causality.  Not only does the pain strike after the silence, but it comes as a result of the silence.  The pain or suffering is a punishment for the silence, here understood as the neglect of Torah study. 


The Gemara continues with a further explication of the Mishlei verse quoted by R. Yochanan at the end of his statement:


R. Zera (some say, R. Chanina b. Papa) says:

Come and see how the way of human beings

differs from the way of the Holy One, blessed be He. 

It is the way of human beings

that when a man sells a valuable object to his fellow,

the seller grieves and the buyer rejoices. 

The Holy One, blessed be He, however, is different. 

He gave the Torah to Israel and rejoiced. 

For it is said:

‘For I give you good doctrine; forsake ye not My teaching.’


This little homily could easily be seen as a digression from the main focus of the passage.  It may have been cited almost mechanically by the transmitters of the Talmud in response to the citation of the verse from Mishlei.  However, given that Torah study is a central concern of the Gemara here, it seems that the placement of these lines is not a coincidence.  Rather, this discussion invites a comparison between the giving of the Torah and the infliction of suffering, for which the Torah is an antidote.  Both the Torah and suffering come from God.  However, whereas the Torah brings joy both to God and those humans who receive it, suffering brings joy neither to God nor to His creatures upon whom He inflicts it. 


The Gemara now returns to the question of suffering:


Rava (some say, R. Chisda) says:


If a man sees that painful sufferings visit him,

let him examine his conduct. 

For it is said:

‘Let us search and try our ways, and return unto the Lord’ (Eikha 3:40). 

If he examines and finds nothing [objectionable],

let him attribute it to the neglect of the study of the Torah. 

For it is said:

‘Happy is the man whom Thou chastenest, O Lord,

and teachest out of Thy law’ (Tehillim 94:12)

If he did attribute it [thus], and still did not find [this to be the cause],

let him be sure that these are chastenings of love. 

For it is said:

“For whom the Lord loveth He correcteth” (Mishlei 3:12).


This passage starts out with what we identified as the traditional understanding of the cause of suffering: Suffering is a punishment for sin.  Hence the first response of an individual who is experiencing suffering should be to examine his or her deeds, searching for sins, and repent for them. 


However, the Gemara here is aware that the simple equation of sin and suffering does not always work.  Not everyone who suffers is, in fact, a sinner. 

A person who can find no sins on which to pin his suffering should assume that the cause is bitul Torah, neglect of Torah study. This recalls R. Yochanan’s statement that one who fails to study when given the opportunity will be subjected to terrible afflictions.  I think that there is actually a significant difference between the two statements.  R. Yochanan seems to be talking about a person who has the opportunity to devote a significant amount of time and energy to Torah study and fails to do so.  This is suggested by his use of the term la'asok ba-Torah, perhaps best translated as to be involved with Torah. In contrast, Rava here refers to bitul Torah, which can mean neglecting to learn Torah for even a few seconds.  Thus the Tosefta Shabbat 7:5 discusses the permissibility of saying “merapeh” after sneezing, the ancient equivalent of our Gezuntheit!  R. Elazar b. R. Tzadok rules that while such a practice may not be considered a prohibited superstition, as first suggested, it should not be done because of bitul Torah.  Bitul Torah is thus a sin that is almost impossible to avoid.  Even the most diligent scholar is guilty, at times, of a momentary lapse of attention.  Avoiding bitul Torah is thus not a halakhic requirement like that of Torah study.  It is all-encompassing, impinging on every moment of our existence.  As such, the Rabbis often use bitul Torah, as they do here, to explain suffering when there is no apparent sin. 


            But even this explanation is not fully satisfying.  Suffering appears to be so universal that it afflicts even the rare individual who cannot be suspected of bitul Torah.  In order to account for such situations, Rava introduces the concept of yisurin shel ahava, translated here as “chastenings of love.”  By introducing this concept, Rava rejects the supposition that all suffering is a punishment for sin.  Indeed, sometimes people suffer precisely because they are beloved by God.  Thus far, the reason that God would want to do such things to the righteous is not explained.  We are merely told that the phenomenon exists.  In the next section Rava presents a partial explanation for yisurin shel ahava:


Rava, in the name of R. Sahora, in the name of R. Huna, says:

If the Holy One, blessed be He, is pleased with a man,

he crushes him with painful sufferings. 

For it is said:

‘And the Lord was pleased with [him, hence]

he crushed him by disease’ (Yishayahu 53:10).

Now, you might think that this is so even if he did not accept them with love.  Therefore it is said:

‘To see if his soul would offer itself as a trespass-offering’ (ibid.).

Even as the trespass-offering must be brought by consent,

so also the sufferings must be endured with consent. 

And if he did accept them,

what is his reward?

‘He will see his seed, prolong his days’ (ibid). 

And more than that,

his knowledge [of the Torah] will endure with him. 

For it is said:

‘The purpose of the Lord will prosper in his hand’ (ibid).


This passage is focused on a verse from Yishayahu 53, the famous “suffering servant” chapter from which Christians draw much of their own theology of suffering.  The Gemara is also drawn to this passage, with its dramatic account of human suffering.  However, the Gemara does not cite the verses from this chapter that explain why this servant ofGod must suffer.  The prophet states repeatedly that the servant suffers for the sins of others.  As it states at the outset of the chapter:


Yet it was our sickness that he was bearing,

Our suffering that he endured,

We accounted him plagued,

Smitten and afflicted by God,

But he was wounded because of our sins,

Crushed because of our iniquities.

He bore the chastisement that made us whole,

And by his bruises we are healed.

We all went away like sheep,

Each going his own way;

And the Lord visited upon him

The guilt of all of us (vv.4-6).


The Rabbis here do not ignore this option because they found it theologically problematic in light of the Christian appropriation of it.  Indeed, the idea that the righteous suffer for the sins of others is found in the Talmud.  Rather, they do not focus on this idea because it is not part of their current agenda.  In this passage, the Gemara derives a very different understanding of the suffering of the righteous based on their reading of verse 10 of the chapter.  What strikes the Rabbis most about this verse is the comparison of suffering to a sacrifice.  By inflicting suffering on the righteous, God gives them an extra opportunity to serve Him.  Suffering itself may be meaningless, but a person can accept this suffering as a gift and, in turn, offer it up to God as a sacrifice.  Suffering can thus be the basis of what is perhaps the most sublime form of Divine service.


The Gemara then lists the rewards for this service as listed in the verse.  The Rabbis understand these rewards as long life for the servant and his immediate progeny, and success in Torah study.  It is interesting that a discussion of yisurin shel ahava, which effectively denies the notion of fair recompense for one’s deeds in this world, actually promises that those who undergo this suffering and accept it accordingly will receive earthly recompense for it. 


The Gemara thus far has presented a series of possible understandings of suffering.  Suffering may be an inevitable function of the natural world which can only be prevented by Torah study and doing mitzvot.  Alternatively, suffering may be a punishment for our sins, even sins as apparently minor as neglecting Torah study for a few minutes.  Finally, suffering may be an opportunity given by God to a select few, to enable them to worship Him at the highest possible level. 

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