The Poet and the Gatekeeper (Arachin 11b)

Today’s daf continues the Talmud’s discussion of the music of the Levites, a combination of vocal and instrumental music that was considered an essential component of sacrificial worship in the Temple. Not all the priests were responsible for Temple music; there seem to have been two categories of Levites. One group, known as the משוררים (poets), was responsible for Temple music. The other group, known as משוערים(gatekeepers), was responsible for locking the doors of the Temple. These categories date back at least to the time of Ezra (2:7), who enumerates the families of poets and gatekeepers in a list that is repeated (with some variations) in Divrei Hayamim (I chapter 9). These two categories had to be kept distinct; a poet could not perform the duties of the gatekeeper, nor vice versa, as cautioned by the following tale from today’s daf:

A story is told of Rabbi Yehoshua bar Hanania who went to help Rabbi Yohanan ben Gudgada with the closing of the gates. Rabbi Yohanan ben Gudgada said to him: My son, turn back! For you are one of the poets and not one of the gatekeepers!

Both of the sages who figure in this story were Levites. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hanania was a poet, though he is more familiar to us as the student of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai who helped smuggle his teacher out of Jerusalem on the eve of the Temple’s destruction. He then became the leader of the Yavneh beit midrash, known for its intellectual creativity. It was he who famously asserted, “There can be no beit midrash without novel teaching!” Rabbi Yohanan ben Gudgada was a gatekeeper, though we also know him as the poor student who was appointed along with Rabbi Elazar Hasma to supervise the students in Rabban Gamliel’s beit midrash. Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Yohanan ben Gudgada were friends; according to one story, Rabbi Yehoshua pleaded with the wealthy patriarch Rabban Gamliel to find a job for Rabbi Yohanan, who was so brilliant that he “could count all the drops in the sea,” yet he was utterly destitute (Horayot 10a). In our story from daf yomi, too, Rabbi Yehoshua rushes to the aid of Rabbi Yohanan, this time offering to help his friend lock the doors of the Temple. But Rabbi Yohanan rebukes him, insisting that he must keep to his own job of poet and not rush to the aid of the gatekeepers.

This story inspires a rather stern Talmudic injunction about the division of labor in the Temple, warning about משורר ששיער ומשוער ששורר
This brilliant conjoining of sound and sense—itself a poetic injunction about gatekeeping (or policing) who may do what– refers to a poet who guards, and a gatekeeper who composes, both of whom are liable for quite a severe punishment:

A poet who engages in his friend’s gatekeeping duties is put to death, as it is written, “Those who were to camp before the Tabernacle in front…were Moses and Aaron and his sons, attending to the duties of the sanctuary. Any stranger who encroached was to be put to death” (Numbers 3:38). What is a stranger? If you mean a non-Levite, well, we have already been told that once already! Rather, it must mean someone who is estranged from that labor [that he is meant to perform].

Anyone who engages in someone else’s designated task is described as being “estranged” from his true labor to the extent that he is considered a זר, a stranger. This is an appropriate message for Masechet Arachin, which deals with the value of every human being. It is also a sentiment I identify with quite strongly on a personal level. For over seven years I have been working as a gatekeeper. As a foreign rights agent, my job is to secure permission for Israeli publishers to translate into Hebrew books originally written in foreign languages. Each day I receive dozens of manuscripts, which I submit to the appropriate Israeli editors. When multiple editors compete for the rights to translate a single work, I decide who gets the right to publish that book. I am, in short, a gatekeeper for literature.

At night, when I lock the gates of my office and return home, I often dream of becoming one of the poets. I make up rhyming songs that I sing to my baby and compose silly limericks about the Talmud, but rarely do I write anything more serious or sustained. I am so estranged from myself that I am convinced I am a gatekeeper, and well I might be. But that does not explain why my spine tingles at the poetic resonance of the Talmud’s tongue-twisting plays of language, nor why I search every day for that novel insight that keeps the beit midrash alive, nor why I am haunted by Rabbi Yohanan’s rebuke. חזור לאחוריך! Turn back! For you are one of the poets and not one of the gatekeepers!

One thought on “The Poet and the Gatekeeper (Arachin 11b)

  1. Michalsuz says:

    Bless you, this is lovely and thought-provoking –

    Might it include a message about interference?

    'I only wanted to help' says the interferer.

    But have they been invited to help? Are they the right person to do so?

    I find this useful to think about – and have returned to your page after an interval of several weeks.

    Thank you.


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