Learning Torah While Flying: Further Adventures (Ketubot 49a-b)

“Brovender’s or Drisha?”

I look up from my Gemara to find a tall man with a mane of black curls standing next to my aisle seat, peering down at me with an amused look on his face. He is about my age, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, and he points to my book. “Where do you learn?”

Oh dear, I think. Over the past two weeks, in flying from Israel to Frankfurt, from Frankfurt to the US, and then back again now through Frankfurt, I have met many interesting characters who have interrupted my learning to find out what business a woman in pants has with a Steinsaltz Gemara. There was the lovely Swiss man from Basel who sat next to me learning the same daf, and taught me the difference between killing derech aliya and derech yerida. There was the Rosh Yeshiva from Bnei Brak who sat across the aisle staring at me on the Frankfurt-New York leg, until he finally overcame his reservations about talking to a woman and spent over an hour (!!!) telling me why it was more important to have babies than study Talmud. (I though it was bitul Torah to break from learning to speak with him; he thought just the opposite.) But this was a first. Through all these dapim of Ketubot, I have never before been picked up. And what a pick-up line indeed!

I sense immediately that my observer is way too cool and slick for my taste –his T-shirt says WANTED in big letters, which he decidedly is not. So I feel more like the anusa than the m’futah when I reluctantly close my Gemara and tell him my story. He, I learn, is a chozer b’she’elah, a person who grew up frum but decided to throw out the kippah with the mikvah water. He left Jerusalem and moved to New York, where he spends most of his time, as he puts it, “bumming around.”

“I’m in this inheritance battle with my siblings – my father died two years ago, and left us ten thousand dollars. We’ve spent over a million arguing about it.” He tells me this proudly, and checks to see if I am impressed by the sums of money he quotes. I am trying to pay attention, but my mind wanders when he says inheritance. Was it karka or m’taltelin? If his father had left a widow, would she have gotten first dibs? Are his sisters and brothers both equally entitled to their father’s possessions? What if his sisters are married? I could swear Rabbi Elazar said something about this once, out in the vineyard at Yavneh (49a)….

“You’re lucky your father left you anything,” I tell him. “He could have been a white crow.” My seducer, whose name is Elad, leans over my seat to look at the sugya I point to in explaining my words. The rabbis are discussing a law fixed in Usha, which stated that a father is obligated to feed his sons and daughters when they were young. Is this the halacha, or not? Rabbi Yehuda seems certain that it is: “Will a crocodile have babies and cast them on to the whole village?” In other words, a person cannot churn out babies and expect the community to take care of them. Rav Chisda agrees: “If a father were to refuse to feed his children, the townspeople should turn over a mortar (the equivalent of Hawthorne’s scaffold), stand on it, and call out, “The crow loves his children, but this man does not.” And how do we know that the crow loves his children, asks the Talmud? After all, doesn’t the Bible say: “He [God] gives bread to beasts, and to crows who cry out” (Tehillim 147). If God has to feed crows, then surely their parents are not taking care of them! Lo kashya, says the Talmud – it’s not a difficulty. Rav Chisda was referring to black crows, who feed their young; whereas the Biblical verse was referring to white crows, who do not (49b – as per Tosafot rather than Rashi). Elad follows along, but he does not look happy. He still wants to impress me, but he can see that it is going to be a challenge.

“I wrote a book, you know,” he tells me. “Maybe I can show it to you, since you work with books?” This line, of course, is every editor’s worst nightmare. Elad scurries off to fetch his book from his seat some rows back, and my companion to the left, an American man in his sixties who runs an international shipping company based in Italy, raises his eyebrows. “That guy likes you,” he says, followed by: “Jewish men are like Italian men — very horny, as I’m sure you know.” I attempt a half-smile. “Save me,” I plead. An airplane is more like a town than a field – let it be known that I cried for help.

Elad returns with an elegant black leather-bound volume that was clearly self-published. As with all Israeli books, the pages are too white, and I squint under the cabin lights. The book, a commentary on the Chumash, is entitled the Klil Tiferet, “because my last name is Klil. This is what I call myself as a commentator. I was feeling bored, and so I wrote this book.” He points out a few passages that he wants me to read – all the sections on women. (A common error: If I am female, then surely it will be the parts in a book that are about women that will most speak to me. But of course!) While I struggle through some complicated Hebrew about Heleni HaMalka and the Sotah, he tries to do business with my seatmate. Grrr, I requested an aisle seat for this very reason – there’s nothing worse than sitting between two big talkers! I can generally average four dapim on a transatlantic flight, but not with all these distractions….

After ten minutes of feigning interest in the Klil Tiferet (the commentary, I mean; not the commentator), I am saved by the Lufthansa flight attendant and her Duty Free cart. “Excuse me,” she tells him. “We’re about to begin serving dinner. I must ask you to return to your seat.” Elad borrows my pencil to scrawl his phone number in the top margin of my Gemara, right above the title of the perek: “Na’ara She-nitpat’ta.” He’s on a different connecting flight, but he urges me to call him when I get to Jerusalem. “We’ll hang out,” he tells me. “Don’t worry, I have nothing to do anyway.” I open my Gemara and plow on.

2 thoughts on “Learning Torah While Flying: Further Adventures (Ketubot 49a-b)

  1. Anonymous says:

    Such a fabulous story — and a great attitude to apply humor towards those annoying men who hit on one while traveling. Thanks for sharing it in full — it was even funnier in blog form than it had been when you told me in person. Hope you had a great trip back to Israel, and I miss you already!


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