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Daf 5a - Yisurin Shel Ahava

Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan


Ein Yaakov - The World of Talmudic Aggada

By Dr. Moshe Simon-Shoshan



Lecture 17:  Daf 5a -



We learn from the Talmud that, “It was only through suffering that the children of Israel obtained three priceless and coveted gifts: the Torah, the land of Israel, and the world to come." Yes, out of this sickness—as crushing and cruel as it was—there was hope for the world, as well as for the world to come.  Out of the ashes—hope, and from all the pain—promise. 

Ronald Reagan, at the Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp (May 5, 1985)


Knock out


In the previous shiur, we were introduced to the concept of yisurin shel ahava.  As we saw, this term was used to describe suffering which is not a result of any sin, but, rather, is a sign of God’s love for special individuals.  This concept is like a wild card, which allows the Rabbis to maintain that while suffering is generally a Divine punishment for a person’s sins, in some cases people endure suffering that is not justified by any sinful actions.


Now the Gemara presents a different understanding of the concept of yisurin shel ahava: 


R. Yaakov b. Idi and R. Acha b. Chanina

differ with regard to the following:

The one says:

Chastenings of love are such

as do not involve the intermission of 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). 

And the other one says:

Chastenings of love are such

as do not involve the intermission of prayer. 

For it is said:

Blessed be God, Who hath not turned away my prayer,

nor His mercy from me (Tehillim 66:20).


This passage presents two definitions of yisurin shel ahava.  These definitions focus not on the reason for the suffering, but on its nature.  Yisurin shel ahava is suffering that does not totally disable a person, but allows him to continue either Torah study, according to one opinion, or regular prayer, according to the other.  According to these interpretations, the word ahava, love, refers not to God’s motivations for sending the afflictions in the first place – i.e. that God sends the suffering as an expression of love rather than as a punishment for sins – but, rather, the term means that God has decided in His love to lessen the severity of the suffering.  Yisurin shel ahava, in this usage, refers not to suffering without sin, but to suffering that may be a result of some sin, but which is made more bearable as a result of God’s love for the individual.


Just as the meaning of the term ahava is transformed in this passage, so too is the meaning of the term bitul Torah.  Previously, bitul Torah referred to an individual’s choice not to study Torah, which can result in Divine punishment through suffering.  Now the suffering causes the bitul Torah, which takes on the meaning of involuntary loss of the ability to study Torah. 


In the past, we have also seen this juxtaposition and opposition between Torah study and prayer.  Here the two compete for the status of the quintessential human behavior.  The question is – what defines man as a creature in the image of God, his capacity for prayer or his capacity for Torah study? Alternatively, at stake may be, not the relative ontological significance of these activities, but their therapeutic value.  The question is – which has the greater capacity to comfort the individual in his pain, prayer or study?


This passage presents an alternative view of suffering and its place in human life.  It does not seem concerned with the causes of suffering; some degree of suffering may well be inevitable.  The severity of the suffering, however, varies according to God’s love for the individual.  As long as the person maintains his fundamental spiritual capacities, either to pray or to study, he has not been truly abandoned by God.  Such a person should count himself lucky, regardless of the pain he experiences.


The passage goes on:


R. Aba the son of R. Chiya b. Aba said to them:

Thus said R. Chiya b. Aba in the name of R. Yochanan:

Both of them are chastenings of love. 

For it is said:

‘For whom the Lord loveth He correcteth’ (Mishlei 3:12).


There are two possible readings of R. Aba’s statement here.  One possibility is that his statement fundamentally affirms the understanding of yisurin shel ahava which underlies the two positions cited above.  R. Aba means to say, simply, that there is no real conflict between the two views.  The continued ability to pray or study despite suffering are both signs of Divine favor.  There is no reason to choose between the two views.


The other possibility is that he means to reject this understanding of yisurin shel ahava as Divine mercy, in favor of the previous definition, that God sends suffering to some individuals, not despite, but because of His love for them.  In this reading, the statement “both of them,” means that suffering, whether or not it involves the negation of Torah study or prayer, can be yisurin shel ahava.  This is because the term refers, not to the nature of the suffering, but to the fact that it is prompted by Divine love, not by sin.  The verse from Mishlei, that is cited here as a proof-text, appears to support this reading.  This verse is the same one cited above as proof that God afflicts those without sin because He loves them.  We should note that while the literal meaning of the verse does suggest that suffering can be a sign of Divine favor, it does not necessarily refer to suffering without sin.


In light of this proof-text, the Gemara now seeks new meaning in one of the verses cited just beforehand:


Why then does it say: 'And teachest him out of Thy law'?

Do not read telammedennu, [Thou teachest him]

but telammedenu, [Thou teachest us]. 

Thou teachest us this thing out of Thy law

as a conclusion a fortiori from the law concerning tooth and eye. 

Tooth and eye are only one limb of the man,

and still [if they are hurt],

the slave obtains thereby his freedom. 

How much more so with painful sufferings

which torment the whole body of a man!


Previously the verse from Mishlei, “Happy is the man whom Thou chastenest, O Lord, and teachest out of Thy law,” was understood to refer to a person who is able to learn Torah even though he suffers.  Since that reading has been rejected, the Gemara seeks a new meaning for this verse.  By taking liberties with the vocalization of the word telammedennu, the Rabbis are able to get the verse to mean, the Torah teaches us that God afflicts those whom He loves.  In this new reading, the verse describes unqualified suffering and suggests that there is a source in the Torah for this understanding of yisurin shel ahava. 


This source is the law in Shemot 21:26-27 that states that if a master hits his slave and knocks out his tooth or eye, the slave goes free.  The Gemara states that we can derive the idea of yisurin shel ahava from a kal va-chomer, an a fortiori argument, based on this principle.  The exact logic of this argument is a little unclear, because the two cases do not seem comparable.  First, the verse allows the master to strike the slave as much as he pleases, provided no eye or tooth is lost.  How then is the loss of the eye or tooth parallel to suffering in general? Is it not parallel to a regular beating from a slave-master? Similarly, what is parallel to being set free in the case of the righteous sufferer? Is a human ever free of his Divine master? Perhaps being set free refers to forgiveness for sins.


The Gemara now goes on to give another parable for the role of suffering:


And this agrees with a saying of R. Shimon b. Lakish.

For R. Shimon b. Lakish said:

The word 'covenant' is mentioned in connection with salt,

and the word 'covenant' is mentioned in connection with sufferings:

the word 'covenant' is mentioned in connection with salt,

as it is written:

Neither shalt thou suffer the salt of the covenant of thy God to be lacking

(Vayikra 2:13) 

And the word 'covenant' is mentioned in connection with sufferings,

as it is written:

These are the words of the covenant (Devarim 28:69). 

Even as in the covenant mentioned in connection with salt,

the salt lends a sweet taste to the meat,

so also in the covenant mentioned in connection with sufferings,

the sufferings wash away all the sins of a man.


This passage suggests a series of different approaches to suffering.  First, this passage connects suffering to covenant.  It cites the verse from the end of the tokhekha, the extended rebuke of Israel, which lists the unspeakable suffering they will face as a consequence of their sins.  Suffering, at least in part, is a response to sins described in the various covenant passages in the Torah.  More centrally, suffering, when part of the covenant, teaches that even when bad things happen, a Jew and the Jewish people as a whole are not estranged from God.  The suffering is part of a larger relationship between the Jews and God.  In the process, the Gemara here also compares suffering to the animal sacrifices, which are associated with another covenant, the covenant of the salt.  The idea that suffering is like offering a sacrifice further suggests that suffering is a way of atoning for sin.


Finally, the Gemara compares the way in which salt “sweetens” meat to the way suffering purges a person of sin.  Simply understood, this analogy furthers the notion of suffering as atonement for sin.  But there is something funny about this analogy.  How is salt’s capacity for tenderizing meat similar to suffering’s capacity to purge sins? Indeed, it would make more sense to compare this aspect of suffering to the way in which salt purges blood from the meat.  Then perhaps this analogy points to something deeper.  Suffering does not simply remove the stain of sin; it improves the person, raising them to a higher spiritual level, possibly higher than before the sin.  If this is the case, we would translate the work mimarek here not as “purge” or “wash away,” but as “polish” (see Jastrow, s.v. mrk).  Suffering, then, has the capacity to bring out the “shine” in a person.


Triple Crown


It has been taught:

R. Shimon b. Yochai says:

The Holy One, blessed be He, gave Israel three precious gifts,

and all of them were given only through sufferings. 

These are:

The Torah, the land of Israel and the world to come. 

Whence do we know this of the Torah?

Because it is said:

“Happy is the man whom Thou chastenest, o Lord,

and teachest him out of Thy law.”(Tehillim 94:12) 

Whence of the land of Israel?

Because it is written:

“As a man chasteneth his son,

so the Lord thy God chasteneth thee,” (Devarim 8:5) 

and after that it is written:

“For the Lord thy God bringeth thee into a good land” (ibid v.7) 

Whence of the world to come?

Because it is written:

“For the commandment is a lamp,

and the teaching is light,

and reproofs of sufferings are the way of life” (Mishlei 6:23)


Two of the verses cited in this passage are worthy of note.  The first verse from Tehillim, “Happy is the man whom Thou chastenest, o Lord, and teachest him out of Thy law,” has been cited repeatedly in the course of the Gemara’s discussions about suffering.  This verse is one of the key sources for seeing the positive aspects of suffering.  This verse also establishes a link between Torah study and suffering, which, as we have seen, has been an important motif in the Gemara’s discussions.  However, each time this verse is cited a different relationship between Torah study and suffering is suggested: Suffering is a punishment for failing to study Torah; “happy” suffering is only that which does not prevent the study of Torah; or, the Torah teaches us about the positive aspects of suffering.  Now this verse is used to teach us that studying Torah is a reward for those who endure suffering.  Thus reading through these passages is like hearing a series of variations on a theme.  Each time we hear the same basic notes, but they are developed in a different way each time.  Like a sad tune caught in their heads, the Rabbis keep coming back to the idea that suffering and the life of Torah study are in some way intertwined. 


The last verse cited, from Mishlei, “reproofs of sufferings are the way of life,” is used to prove that we can attain the world to come only through suffering.  Any time the Rabbis seek a biblical source to prove a point about the hereafter or the Messianic age, they have a problem.  As is well known, the Bible never explicitly talks about such matters.  Here they use a standard midrashic strategy to elicit an eschatological meaning from the verse.  According to the peshat (straightforward reading), this verse discusses suffering as a way of life, referring to how we should live in this world.  The Rabbis, however, consistently understand the word “life” to refer to “true” life – namely, the next world.  By applying this concept here, the verse now discusses not a way of life, but a way to (eternal) life.


This passage introduces a different approach to suffering.  Suffering is not necessarily a result of sin, or a (counterintuitive) expression of unconditional Divine love.  Rather, it is a necessary part of life, without which even a completely righteous individual cannot merit the greatest gifts of God to Israel: the Torah, the land of Israel, and the world to come.  On the one hand, this passage expresses a pessimistic world view in which suffering is all but inevitable.  On the other hand, this passage offers hope that through our suffering, we do not simply pay back debts incurred by our sins, but accumulate capital towards ultimate rewards, both in this world and the next.


We can read this passage in light of its attributed historical context.  R.  Shimon b. Yochai lived through the Bar Kokhva revolt and the Roman persecutions associated with it.  He is said to have gone into hiding to avoid Roman restrictions on studying Torah.  R.  Shimon was thus no stranger to suffering.  He witnessed the horrors that his people endured in their effort to gain control of their land, and endured great suffering in order to learn Torah.  In his time, many Torah scholars were martyred through gruesome deaths, and it is widely believed that their souls ascended straight to heaven.  We can imagine why R. Shimon may have chosen Torah, the Land of Israel, and the world to come as the rewards for suffering in this world. 


This passage can also be seen as referring, not only to individual suffering, but to the collective suffering of the people of Israel.  The children of Israel suffered in Egypt before receiving the Torah, suffered in the desert before entering the land of Israel, and are suffering throughout history before the coming of the Messiah.  In this reading, all of Jewish history becomes a process of suffering in preparation for the ultimate redemption.

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