Learning Torah While Flying (Chagigah 11b-17a)

My flight back from the London Book Fair to my home in Jerusalem was full of Hasidim. I don’t know Heathrow well, but when I arrived at the airport on Wednesday evening, I immediately located the El Al counter thanks to the flocks of men in black and white who were squacking through their beards and flapping their dress bags in a frenzy of nervous pre-flight excitement. I had begun learning the second chapter of Chagigah on the 45-minute Tube ride from the fairgrounds at Earl’s Court out to the Heathrow terminus, and I was still clutching my Gemara with both arms when I walked over to join them in the queue.

I was dragging a huge suitcase full of the catalogues and rights guides I had amassed at the book fair, but my luggage was nothing compared with what I saw all around me. Families with four or five young children were accompanied by caravans of suitcases, duffel bags, hat boxes, baby strollers, and diaper bags; pacifiers were being dropped by drooling babies hanging over their mothers’ arms; and their oblivious fathers hid behind large leather-bound tomes and moved their lips in a feverish undertone. The line inched forward slowly, but none of the penguins around me seemed bothered by the glacial pace. And so it seemed only natural to me that while I was waiting, I ‘d open my Gemara and plough onwards through the piles of unlearned Daf Yomi pages that had accumulated during my trip abroad.

It is forbidden to expound upon the laws of forbidden sexual relations among three people;
And the story of creation among two people;
And the incident of the chariot among one person –
Unless he is a wise person and he understands beyond his knowledge.

All who look into four matters are deserving of never having been born:
What is above;
What is below;
What is in front;
And what is behind.

I was focused on my learning, but I ought to have noticed the flurry of attention among the men in front and behind me. I ought to have noticed their eyes peering over the tops of their books and looking over in my direction. I ought have listened to the whispering in Yiddish, and the nervous glances exchanged beneath raised eyebrows. But what can I say? I was absorbed—perhaps too absorbed—in those matters which are wondrous and concealed and hidden, as Ben Sira would have it: And in that which is wondrous to you, do not expound; and in that which is concealed from you, do not investigate; examine that which is permitted to you; you have no business with hidden matters. Ben Sira’s statement is quoted on the second page of this chapter, which deals with those matters of Torah which are not fit for study by all people at all times. Torah study itself – its rewards as well as its perils – is the subject of several aphoristic soundbites that pepper the legends and stories of the opening pages:

Anyone who breaks from the study of Torah and engages in conversation – he will be fed the burning coals of the Rotem plant….

“Excuse me, you are next. Did you pack your bags yourself?”
I look up from my Gemara to find a tall uniformed Israeli man with a dark ponytail standing in front of me. It is my turn with security. He asks all the usual questions, and gets all the unusual answers: “Why are you going to Israel? You have family in Israel? No family? You live in Israel? What? You work in Israel? So why did you visit London? What? Business? Business here or there? What? You are American? Why do you know Hebrew? A Jewish school? But you wear pants? You learn Gemara? In pants?” After about fifteen minutes, I manage to convince the clerk that I am above-board: “I am sort of an undercover religious person,” I explain, and he seems to accept that. I hide my Gemara under my sweatshirt and advance to the counter.

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai said: What answer was given to he-who-must-not-be-mentioned [Nevuchadnezzer] when he said, “I will ascend on the back of a cloud; I will liken myself to the Most High” (Isaiah 14:14). A voice came forth and said to him, “Evil one, son of evil ones! Son of Nimrod the evil one, who rebelled against the world in its kingship! What is man’s lifespan? Seventy years. And is not the distance from earth to firmament five hundred years? And is not the thickness of the firmament a thickness of five hundred years? And so too between each firmament. And above the firmaments are the holy creatures… And above them is the throne of glory, which is as long as all those distances combined, and atop that throne sits the Most High. And you think you will “Liken myself to the Most High???!!” Rather: “Instead, you are brought down to hell!” (Isaiah 14:15)

“Excuse me, do you think you have a seat on this flight?”
The clerk at the counter looks at me with quizzical eyes, as if testing me. “What?” I ask her. “Of course I’m on this flight. I have a ticket”
“But your seat was never confirmed by your travel agent. You’re not listed in our system, and so we gave your seat away.”
After a few more minutes of discussion, and several appeals to supervisors of higher and higher and higher authority, I learn that my ticket is no longer valid for travel owing to a mistake on the part of my company’s travel agent, who had booked the flight. Who am I to think that I could go up on that El Al plane to the heavens, I find myself asking. Evil one, son of evil ones! What is your ticket’s lifespan if not confirmed?

I am told that I can fly standby, and that for the time being, I should just take a seat on the hard metal bench in the main terminal and wait with my luggage. Too frazzled to learn Gemara, I reread my favorite parts of Alexander McCall Smith’s The Right Attitude to Rain, a book (I muse) that furnishes an apt subtitle for Masechet Ta’anit. I had designated this airport time for Gemara learning, but under the circumstances, what can I do?

The verse says, “His throne was tongues of flame” (Daniel 7:9) and then, “Thrones were set in place and the Ancient of Days took His seat” (Daniel 7:9). A difficulty: Could God have more than one throne?! There is no difficulty. One throne was for God and one throne was for King David, as Rabbi Akiva taught. Rabbi Yossi HaGlili said to him, “Akiva! How can you profane the holy?” Akiva said, “One throne is for justice and one is for charity.” Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said to him, “Akiva! Why are you preoccupying yourself with stories? You should confine yourself to the laws of skin blemishes and enclosed huts!”

After 45 minutes of preoccupying myself with stories, I noticed that no one is waiting in line at the check-in counter anymore. The flight is due to take off in 25 minutes, and on the TV screens overhead, the words “now boarding” flash next to my flight number. I approach the counter and find the supervisor who had told me to come back at this time. “Excuse me,” I hazard, trying to get his attention. But the supervisor, a stiff British man with a name like Nick Adams, ignores me and proceeds to instruct all the clerks to close down their computers. The gates will soon be closing, and I am losing hope. But then — “Tag her bags,” he says to one of his co-workers. I watch as my bags are labeled and loaded onto a cart. Captain Nick hands me a boarding pass and instructs me to run to the gate. “You have 15 minutes to make it there, lady,” he tells me gruffly. Then, with a vague sort of fondness, he adds: “I had better see you on that plane.”

Anyone who looks upon three things will find his eyes becoming dim: The rainbow, the ruler, and the high priests… Perhaps a person would say, “Who would be able to testify against me [if I looked at one of these things]?”….The rabbis say, “The limbs of a person testify against him.”

I run at breakneck speed down the carpeted corridors of the airport and along the moving sidewalks. When I get to the x-ray machine and place my carry-on onto the conveyer belt, the blonde British woman watching the screen tells me that she had been about to go home; I am the last passenger of the night. She x-rays my bags and informs me that I have a scissors somewhere in there. “Oh no!” I cry out frantically. “My nail scissors! It could be anywhere in there! I’ve been looking for it for days; I had no idea it was there. I haven’t been able to trim my nails — look, look how long my they are!” I hold out my hand, half expecting the clerk to examine the stubs I had frantically bitten during the past hour of worrying. “Hurry along now,” she tells me, and I know she is on my side. “You’d better run, dear, or you’ll miss your flight.”

Resh Lakish said: There are seven layers to the heavens, and these are them:
Vilon – Where morning enters and evening exits, and creation is renewed.
Rakia – Where the sun and moon and stars are fixed.
Shchakim – Where the millstones stand and grind out manna for the righteous.
Z’vul – Where Jerusalem and the Temple rest.
Ma’on – where the ministering angels sing songs by night and are silent by day.
Machon – Where the stores of snow and hail are kept.
Aravot – Where sit righteousness, justice, and charity, and the souls of the righteous, and the spirits and souls that are yet to be created, and the dew that in the future God will use to revive the dead.

The flight takes off into the seven-layered heaven very soon after I find my seat, which is thankfully in an aisle and hence immediately next to only one of my fellow travelers. During take-off, the cabin lights must be shut off; so as the plane rises higher and higher in the sky, I learn Torah by flashlight. When I walk back a few rows to the bathroom, I see many men slumped over their Gemarot in exhaustion. All who learn Torah at night – the Holy One Blessed be He affixes to him a thread of lovingkindness by day. I am determined to catch up on the pages I have missed. Lacking a dictionary or any study aids, my margins rain down with question-marked passages which I will have to inquire into upon my return. I only hope I can read my handwriting, because the flight is quite turbulent and hence my pencil marks are jagged and messy.

“And the earth was unformed and void” (Genesis 1:2): Given that the heavens were created first, why is the earth described first in this verse? Rabbi Yishmael taught: This may be likened to the king who said to his servants, “Wake up early and come to me tomorrow.” Both the men (who were used to waking up early) and the women (who were not) woke up early and came. Whom did the king praise? Those who were not used to waking up early (i.e. the women).

I feel a tap on my shoulder and I look up from my Gemara to find a woman about ten years younger than I am standing over me. She is wearing a wig, and a cloth diaper is slung over one shoulder. “Excuse me,” she says politely but confidently, “Can I ask you a question?” I smile and nod. “I couldn’t help notice what you are studying. My husband and father learn the Daf Yomi. I wanted to know, if you wouldn’t mind please telling me: Do you ever understand anything you read?”

Ten minutes later, I have a new friend named Chana Gittl, as well as an open invitation to Shabbat dinner in a part of Jerusalem I never even knew existed. (In all fairness, Chana Gittl had never heard of Emek Refaim, so we are even.) By the time the flight attendants serve us breakfast, I have learned all about her correspondence course in biology and her struggles balancing motherhood and academic study; and I have met Yechiel and Tuvia Dovid, who are eighteen and three months old. I feel the thread of lovingkindness creating yet another connection in the world.

As I gazed on the creatures, I saw one wheel on the ground next to each of the four-faced creatures. . . Wherever the spirit impelled them, the wheels were borne alongside them, for the spirit of the creatures was in the wheels. When these moved, these moved; and when those were born above the earth, the wheels were borne alongside them.

The plane is still at cruising altitudes when the Talmud, after enumerating those matters that are not to be studied, proceeds (quite ironically) to examine in great depth the most mystical matter of all: the chariot of Ezekiel, which filled the heavens with wings and wheels. These are the things that one may not expound upon, I tell myself, and I feel my hairs standing on end. Why do I feel suddenly light-headed? Was there a dip in cabin pressure? I look out through the window to the outstretched wings of the plane with wheels tucked in beneath them. I am comfortable with who I am and with what I am learning, and I don’t need anyone else’s approval. These are the things that one may not expound upon – unless, I decide, one happens to be suspended in seventh heaven inside a soaring aircraft.

2 thoughts on “Learning Torah While Flying (Chagigah 11b-17a)

  1. ALG says:

    Lovely. I think that this is my favorite post of yours. As someone who has gotten questioned similarly upon boarding a plane, and who has learned Gemara on a plane, and who has had to defend learning Gemara on a plane (albeit nine years ago), I get it. And I loved the way you describe it.I’ll stop gushing now. Shabbat shalom!


  2. lia says:

    you know that you are reading a gifted writer when you are sad to think that the passage you’re now scrolling down is the last one, and so relieved when it’s not.glad you post these writings, duddette.


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