The Fish Pond (Taanit 24a)

My translation from Ruth Calderon’s
Hashuk, Habayit, VeHalev: Aggadot Talmudiot (Keter, 2002)

We were twenty-five students sitting before the teacher during that parched summer. He was young, still wet behind the ears, and he taught us using melodies. Sometimes he would sing a tune slightly differently than we were used to, adding pleasant trills. He was thin and tall as a stalk, and his beard was still not full. I loved his school room, where we sat in groups of four, crowding around the scroll. The teacher’s house was a home for me.

One after another, my friends began reading letters, and soon some could combine words to form sentences with sense and meaning. But I, no matter how hard I tried, saw only lines – stripes and shapes like the moon in its waxing or waning, in black ink atop a scroll that smelled heavenly. Whenever the teacher wasn’t looking, I would lean towards the scroll to sniff it. I sang the melodies we learned along with everyone else, but the names of the letters escaped me. I tried not to let others notice my weakness – that I couldn’t read.

One day one of the children made fun of me by imitating my stuttering. Tears trembled in my eyes, and a cold paralysis gripped me. I forgot the teacher’s rules of decorum, and before the tears fell I lunged across to the offending boy and hit him. The bench collapsed forwards on him and together both boy and bench fell to the ground, accompanied by the tittering of the class. I felt relieved: the threat of tears had been averted, and my friends had delighted in my mischief.

Suddenly I heard the teacher coming towards me and my shoulders shrank, fearing the pinch that would follow. I was surprised to feel a gentle palm resting on my shoulder. Long fingers spread out over the length of my back. The teacher called me by name and asked that I get up and follow him out of the room. The other students looked at me, excited about my banishment. I was terrified, convinced that my schoolboy days were over, and that now my father would turn me over to the cobbler. All my friends would wake up to go study at the time when kings arise, but I would be up from the crack of dawn working with cold hands on disgusting leather.

We went out. The teacher told the other students to review their letters. The sun fell behind the hills. The sky hung over the city as if giving it a once-over. The chirping voices of the children could be heard, singing the “Aleph-Bet” as instructed. We walked over to the yard behind the teacher’s house, where a garden was hidden with a path running its length. I walked slowly beside him, a flutter of pleasantness at my side. At the end of the path I made out a pond of fish, round as an eye, like a piece of sky. The teacher stood still and encouraged me to move closer to the pond. I approached with caution and caught a glimpse of the sky reflected in the water. A small cloud that looked like nothingness in the sky appeared as a portentous rain cloud on the surface of the water. My own thin face, when reflected in the water, looked like the face of an older boy with full, rounded cheeks. A light wind came and scattered the surface of the water to thousands of little circles, and my face broke into thousands of tiny parts that were all me. Life was pleasant there in the upside-down double world. The sun sent golds and oranges and pinks that blended in the blue water, and I saw a beauty that I had not known before. From time to time the fish would come up to draw in air. The teacher cast out a net that was tied to a great stick, skillfully drew out a fish and placed it in my hand. “Take it,” said the teacher. The fluttering of the smooth back between my fingers sent shudders through my whole being. A moment later the teacher held out a jar filled with water, and the fish leapt into it. In looking at the water that had calmed I saw my own face in its surface, as if it were brand new.

When we returned to the class, the teacher did not say a word. I left my gift in the hallway, sat in my place, squeezed my eyes shut for a moment, and opened them again. I read the letters as if effortlessly.

From that day on, I never withdrew my hand from his. I made myself into his shadow. Wherever he went, I went too. I immersed with him in the bathhouse on the eve of Shabbat, I stood by the windows to eavesdrop on the lessons he taught between the afternoon and evening prayers. I woke up before everyone else to honor the school room with my promptness. And he, in turn, was kind to me – he would praise my studies and would sometimes send me to run an errand for him in the market.

The month of Adar came upon us, and still no rain had fallen. The village lowered its head as if it had been chastised by God. Business slowed to a trickle and people avoided each others’ eyes in the streets. A swirling dust whistled in the alleys. Passersby hovered close to the walls of the buildings, either seeking shade or hiding from an unknown terror. I woke up thirsty, and I went to bed thirsty.

That morning, at the height of the draught, I followed my teacher to the synagogue for the Torah reading, as was my wont. I overheard the older boys saying that Rav, the great rabbi, was on his way to our town. It was considered a sign. From house to house, the rumor spread that Rav, one of the leaders of the generation, the head of a great Yeshiva, would decree a fast and his merit would protect us, Amen.

Exhausted from thirst, the community came en masse to the synagogue – women with their skin hanging over their bodies like a loose and dusty garment, children hoping for a miracle, and men beset by worry. Rav, in a nobleman’s cloak and a foreign accent, appeared to the local population like a great father. He found our rustic look charming – women in old-style dresses, innocent children. He decreed a one-day fast, and the entire community answered Amen in fervor and devotion. Every man headed home hungry but high in spirit.

The next day passed like a mini Yom Kippur. Fasting improves the way people feel about themselves, and when the townspeople gathered for the afternoon prayer in the synagogue, they came as a chorus of angels and not as ordinary merchants, workers, and idlers. The stood at attention while Rav chastened them – they held their breaths and focused their thoughts. Rav stopped his plea to the heavens. A silence fell. Nothing happened.

Embarrassed, hoping for a delayed miracle, the people continued in prayer, and the young teacher was asked to lead the congregation.

I looked at him, I focused my thoughts, and I closed my eyes with all my might, following with him letter by letter: “He Who causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall.”

The teacher read, “He Who causes the wind to blow,” and from the windows the branches of the trees began to rustle. A wind washed over the open synagogue and fluttered gowns and kerchiefs. He cried “He Who causes the rain to fall” and the strong smell of the first rains of the season took hold in the synagogue, a smell so sweet it was almost painful.

This story is based on a sugya from Taanit 24a, translated here:

Rav visited a certain town
He decreed a fast, but the rain did not come.
The prayer leader came before him
He said, “He Who makes the wind blow” – and the wind blew.
He said, “He Who makes the rain fall” – and the rain fell.
He said to him, “What do you do?”
He said to him, “I teach children.
I teach the poor as I teach the rich,
And if anyone cannot afford to pay,
I teach him free of charge.
And for any child who is struggling
I have a pond with a school of fish.
I win the student over with my fish:
I call to him, and appeal to him, until he learns to read.”

Reflections on the story (also translated from Ruth Calderon):

What causes the rain to fall? What brings the abundance of the sky down to the thirsty ground? What succeeds in piercing the hardened heart of a God who withholds rain?

In the stories of the Talmudic tractate Ta’anit, which deals with requests for rain, God appears in the form of a punitive father whose face is hidden from his thirsty children by sealed-up skies. The storytellers of the Talmud look for a man who will be able to break through the magical cycle of drought and teach the God of dryness to be gentle. They seek a man who can bring down rain and redeem God. A competition sets in between the simple kindergarten teacher and Rav, a spiritual leader held in highest esteem. The local scholars know Rav’s limitations all too well: the splendor of his name and reputation stand in the way of any possibility for real efficacy. A preoccupation with such thoughts as “who could be greater than I am” and “how do I compare to others” cloud his understanding. Only failure will release him once and for all from these honor wars. In contrast, the kindergarten teacher is utterly anonymous. His work is simple. The battlefield where he proves his strength is entirely internal. His manliness does not limit him in any way. He keeps fish in a small pond behind his house even in times of drought, against all the odds. He is a hero because he sees the pain of a troubled little boy and doesn’t fear him, and doesn’t label him as a deviant beyond help. Rather, he leads him to the water, instructing him all the way, like a true teacher.

This story sets the stage for a tete-a-tete between the established rabbinic authority of Babylon and the home-grown holiness of Israel. In the cycle of stories in the Babylonian tractate Taanit, it is possible to sense a sharp criticism leveled at the great rabbinic authorities of Babylon. They are presented as individuals who make grand proclamations about fast days, but don’t actually succeed in bringing rain. The skies are locked in their faces; their God is dissatisfied with their piety.

In Babylon, where people make their living on the rivers and an excess of rain means the risk of fatal flooding, rain underwent a symbolic transformation, shifting from a basic need to a sign of plenitude and divine good will. Once again the sages of Babylon are depicted as impotent in the Talmud. The rain comes down only in their downfall, in their renunciation of honor, and in their despair. In contrast, the storytellers of Israel create a gallery of alternative heroes who succeed in bringing down the rain: simple anonymous men ranging from the kind-hearted owner of a whorehouse or a kindergarten teacher to religious anarchists whose deeds speak louder than their words. These are people who live outside of the study house, outside of the academy – and it is they who merit an answer from heaven.

Masechet Taanit, whose subject is ostensibly the rain, deals primarily with discussions about drought. The withholding of rain is seen as punishment. What did we do to deserve the closing of the gates of heaven? Sometimes drought symbolizes the existential state of the religious man whose face, and by extension the face of all Jews, is turned always towards heaven. Maybe a cloud will come, a sign. Maybe the heavens will open. Rain falls out of love. One who holds back rain is holding back his love out of fear, or anger, or despair. The story depicts a multiple mirroring effect: a boy who has trouble reading and a teacher; a congregation and a rabbi; Israel and God; a parched land and the heavens above. The whole system is dammed, stopped up, closed off.

A kind hand on a child’s shoulder and the gift of a fish realign the universe. It’s the Jewish “butterly effect.” A teacher opens his heart to an unruly child in a classroom somewhere, and a community leader assured of his own greatness finds himself gradually disillusioned, his limitations made known publicly. The censured leader is brought down, as so is the rain. The heavens look at their reflection in the waters of a small fish pond. God sees Himself, lines of justice furrowing his wizened face. He collects Himself, like a man who smiles at his reflection in a mirror. The regular order of things is subverted when hand touches fin. Suddenly it happens: kindness overspills the bounds of justice. The rain bursts forth. God’s plenitude showers us. How pleasant it is in the emptying lofts of heaven. Wet. Perhaps even God is crying.

The story of the fish pond is a story about masculinity. A boy struggling with his letters and a parched land teach about the limits of male power. A rabbi who proclaims a fast is up against a God who withholds rain, and the two are locked in a cycle of draught. With this story, the Talmud presents an alternative form of masculinity that also knows how to caress, to cross bounds and go beyond the letter of the law to win over a child by means of a fish. The Talmud suggests a model of gentle masculinity that ministers to young children without violence, reacting with a gentle touch to a blow struck in the classroom, offering closeness (between teacher and child) instead of distancing (of the child from his studies and his community). This is an open form of masculinity, one that opens the heavens. This is the kind of man who is able to cause the winds to blow and the rains to fall.

One thought on “The Fish Pond (Taanit 24a)

  1. Tamar says:

    “…when hand touches fin.” Spectacular image. Learning Taanit now in our group דף גמרא יומי נינוח במרכז תל אביב, and again I turn to your blog for keen readings and original insights and translations. Thank you.

    Like

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