When the Language of Love is an Ancient Text

It seems like everyone is forever extolling the value of a weekly “date night” for married couples, but my husband and I never quite manage to make it work. Our three preschoolers can’t fall asleep without us, and the baby still wakes up in the middle of the night crying for her mother’s milk. Neither of us has jobs that we can set aside in the evenings: Daniel teaches literature at a university and I am a translator and editor, so there are always more pages to read and papers to grade. Most nights we sit at the long desk we share, occasionally reading excerpts aloud to one another or chuckling over a particularly awkward turn of phrase. We usually send emails rather than interrupting each other’s thoughts, which may seem strange since we are just a few feet apart. But it’s not all that surprising given how bound up in the written word our relationship has always been.

At the outset ours was an epistolary romance, though we lived in the same Jerusalem neighborhood. We were both expatriates, born and raised on opposite sides of the Hudson, but we’d met each other only after each of us had traveled halfway around the world. In spite of our proximity, we communicated almost exclusively by e-mail because I was painfully protective of my privacy and didn’t want anyone we knew to see us together until our relationship was on more solid ground. Daniel would e-mail me selections from the poems he was analyzing in his PhD dissertation, and I’d write back analyzing his analyses until we had taken each poem thoroughly apart. Only when he grew so bold as to send me Byron’s “She Walks in Beauty,” did I refrain from comment, afraid of being too explicit about what was in fact unfolding between us – “the smiles that win, the tents that glow.”

Throughout our relationship I was generally the reserved one – the one who read over her emails again and again before pressing Send. This was the case even though few of the words I’d write him were my own. We communicated mainly by quoting poetry to one another. “What are you doing this evening?” Daniel would ask me. I did not write back that I was getting a haircut. Instead I sent him back a line from Yeats: “To be born a woman is to know, although they do not talk of it at school, that we must labor to be beautiful.” My allusion to “Adam’s Curse” didn’t elude him, and minutes later I got an email back from him paraphrasing that same poem: “I’ll be reworking my conference paper while you’re primping. Ugh. All this stitching and unstitching is probably for naught.” And I smiled to myself, and wrote back, “You’re probably right. Better to just go down upon your marrow-bones and scrub your kitchen floor instead.” I knew his floor was impeccably clean—he took much better care of his apartment than I did of mine—but I couldn’t resist another reference to the poem. And so we would go on and on, quoting from beautiful old books, until we grew quiet in the name of love.

Soon the range of our references expanded from poetry to Talmud. By the time I met Daniel, I’d already been studying Talmud for several years, and I was in the third year of my daf yomi cycle. Daf yomi is an international program to study the entire Babylonian Talmud—the main text of rabbinic Judaism—in seven and a half years, at the rate of a page a day. Essentially daf yomi is the world’s largest book club, with tens of thousands of Jews—still mostly men—learning the same new page each day. Only recently have women begun to engage with these texts, which for fifteen hundred years were the province of the male half of the population. Through my study of daf yomi, I became intimately familiar with the world of the ancient rabbis living in the Galilee and Babylonia (now Iraq) during the first few centuries of the Common Era. The Talmud is an inherently dialogical text, unfolding as a series of conversations among the rabbis about everything from Sabbath observance to sacrifices to courtship, astrology, and demonology. As I made my way through it, I found myself caught up in the rabbinic conversation, and as Daniel and I grew closer, he became part of that conversation too.

One night Daniel asked me if I wanted to go out with him to the light show, a summer festival in which the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem are lit up as if by magic lantern. I shook my head.

“Why can’t we ever go out? I mean, really go out?” Daniel asked. “You can’t always be such a recluse.”

“I’m not a recluse,” I responded. “I just believe in hezek re’iya.” This term, which comes up in Bava Batra—the volume of Talmud we were learning at the time—literally means “the damage of seeing.” According to this notion, gazing into another person’s private space is tantamount to physical damage. I believed it. I thought of our relationship as a fragile butterfly that I wished to keep cupped in my hands. I worried that the harsh light of other people’s gazes might damage or still its dazzling wings, and I was terrified of suddenly being deprived of all the beauty that had blessedly flown into my life.

The Jerusalem we inhabit is less a city than a small village of overlapping social circles. I was not ready for all our friends to find out that we were dating. I’d been married and divorced a few years earlier, and after the devastation of that failed relationship, I could not bear to fail publicly again. I suspect the Talmudic rabbis would have understood. In a discussion about the importance of storing one’s money in a safe and secure place, Rabbi Yitzhak comments in Bava Batra, “Blessing is only to be found in that which is hidden from the eye.”

Our courtship lasted eight months, a period I remember most by the Talmud we were studying. Like T.S. Eliot’s Prufock, who measured out his life in coffee spoons, I have measured out the last decade of my life in tractates, as volumes of Talmud are known. I remember episodes in my life by what I was studying at the time. Daniel proposed to me—not incidentally—on the day we read the rabbis’ discussion in the eighth chapter of Bava Batra about the fifteenth of Av, a day on the Jewish calendar when women would dress in white and go out into the fields to seek their prospective husbands. Our wedding did not take place in a field, but I carried that image with me.

It would have been impossible, given the norms of our Jewish community, not to have had a wedding ceremony for all our friends and family. But such a public avowal of our love seemed antithetical to my Dickensonian sensibilities, and I would have been much happier to elope and spend a few years making sure it was really going to work out.

Daniel was exceedingly tolerant of my pre-wedding jitters, even when I pulled him aside just moments before the ceremony began. By that point the band was already playing, and I could hear the violins humming the strains of a lyrical song about two lovers who head out at dusk to an orchard redolent of myrrh and incense. It was a song I had chosen myself, but now I was too panicked to enjoy it.  “How can you know our marriage will last?” I asked Daniel. “How can you know what the future holds?”

“Granted I’m no prophet,” Daniel conceded, and already I could see the gleam in his eye – he had thought of an allusive rejoinder. “But you’re a scholar of Talmud, and a scholar is preferable to a prophet,” he quoted from Bava Batra. He knew that if anything would reassure me, it was a passage from the Talmud.

“Perhaps you’ll tire of me,” I pressed on, invoking a William Matthews poem we both loved. Daniel smiled at the reference and played along, assuring me that I was like a great city to him, or like a park that finds new ways to wear each flounce of light. “Soil doesn’t tire of rain,” he quoted back at me just moments before he walked down the aisle. He had the last word, and I could only follow him with my eyes until it came time for me, too, to make my way to the wedding canopy.

That was exactly seven and a half years ago. Daniel and I just celebrated our daf yomi anniversary: Now, on our second read through the Talmud, we just came to the daily page from the date of our wedding. We’ve been through a lot together – four children, 2700 pages of Talmud, and perhaps just as many poems. With a house full of preschoolers, we’re both exceedingly tired, though we haven’t tired of each other.  We don’t quote poetry and Talmud to each other nearly as often these days, but it remains the language in which we express our love. Ironically, I have no problem being seen with Daniel in public nowadays, but who has time to go out? Fortunately neither of us seems to mind. Our desk is covered in books, and there are many more pages to turn together.

(published in Tablet Magazine, 29 November 2017)

Messianic Ice Cream (Sanhedrin 98a)

Every day on our way home from Gan my kids and I pass a kiosk that sells ice cream. Outside there is a wrought-iron gate where an old man whose arm is always covered in bandages sits in front on a low stool, smiling at passersby and waiting for customers. “Can we get ice cream today?” my kids ask me every day. “On Friday,” I always promise. “If you behave nicely all week, we can have ice cream on Friday.” I want them to learn to delay gratification, and I want them to emulate Shammai, who, we are told, would save anything special he found during the week to enjoy on Shabbat. It’s not easy for the kids because they want ice cream now, but we do stop every Friday — or at least we did until very recently.

Last Friday, for the first time, I refused to get them the treat they’d been anticipating all week. I was at my wits’ end. My son and daughter were fighting over a scooter the entire way home, and my toddler refused to sit in her stroller or hold my hand when we crossed the busy street, and my other daughter screamed, “I want ice cream now” from the moment I picked her up at Gan, even though I asked her repeatedly to lower her voice and say “please.” I was annoyed at their behavior and in no mood to indulge them. And so when we passed by the kiosk, I held my ground and insisted that we walk on.

Later that afternoon, long after the inevitable tantrums had subsided and I was setting up the candles for Shabbat, my daughter Liav came over to me, prepared to have a rational conversation. “But Ima, you promised us ice cream. That’s not fair. You can’t promise and then change your mind.”

She was right, but not exactly. I told her the story I’d learned in daf yomi this week about Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, who once stumbled upon Elijah at the entrance to a cave. “When is the Messiah coming,” Ben Levi asked, seizing the opportunity to ask the question that was always on everyone’s mind. Elijah shrugged. “Why don’t you go ask him that yourself?” he suggested. “Where can I find him?” Ben Levi asked. “At the gates of Rome.”

Ben Levi was surprised; Rome was just a few days’ journey away. “How will I recognize him when I get there?” he asked, already packing up for the trip. Elijah explained that the Messiah would be sitting among the afflicted, all of whom would be wrapping and unwrapping their bandages; only the Messiah would take off one bandage at a time, conscious that at any moment it might be time for him to come.

Ben Levi set off for the gates of Rome, where sure enough he found the Messiah dressing his wounds one at a time. “Greetings Ben Levi,” the Messiah said to him. “When are you coming?” asked Ben Levi, getting right to the point. ‘Now,” said the Messiah. Ben Levi could hardly contain his excitement. He rushed back to share the good news with Elijah, heralding the herald. By the time he arrived back at the cave, several days had elapsed, and alas, the Messiah had not come. “He lied to me,” Ben Levi complained to Elijah. “He promised he would come today, but he didn’t come.” Elijah smiled down at Ben Levi like patient father prepared to explain it all again, more slowly this time. “Ah,” Elijah sighed. “You didn’t listen. He said ‘Today if you heed Him.’”

This statement, “today if you heed Him” is a quote from Psalms (95:7):

“Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for He is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care. Today, if you heed Him.”

I explained to Liav that just as the Messiah would come today only if the people listened to God, so too would the kids have gotten ice cream today only if they’d listened to me.  Instead, though, my kids had tried my patience, not unlike the Israelites in the wilderness, as we read in the very next verse of that psalm:

“Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness, where your ancestors tested Me. They tried Me, though they had seen what I did. For forty years I was angry with that generation; I said, ‘They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they have not known My ways.’ So I declared an oath in My anger, ‘They shall never enter My rest.’”

Yes, I would buy the kids ice cream today. But only if they listened and behaved. If they spent our long walk home from Gan fighting with each other and trying my patience, then I would make an oath in my anger to deny them the treat they so fervently desired. “They shall never eat my ice cream.”

We would be reciting those verses later that evening – they are part of the liturgy of Kabbalat Shabbat. Each week we remind ourselves, as Ben Levi reminded Elijah, that the Messianic era of chocolate and vanilla bliss will dawn “today,” but only if we heed God’s voice. Until then, the man at the kiosk will continue to smile and beckon, but we will merely walk on.

Lovely Eyes (Kidushin 7a)

My twin daughters are extraordinarily generous. Whenever I pick them up from preschool, I always have snacks lodged under our double stroller. The girls ask me for snacks because they are hungry, but they are never content to leave it at that. Outside their preschool is a playground where many of the parents and kids hang out after the school day is over. My girls make the rounds giving out snacks to each and every one of their friends in the schoolyard, as well as to any kids interested in a rice cake or pretzels. They insist not just on handing out a pretzel to each kid, but on offering the entire Tupperware container, so that each kid may choose how many he or she wants. Generally this means there are very few pretzels left for my girls, but they don’t seem to mind. The satisfaction they get out of sharing with others is presumably more valuable to them than another bite of salty crunch.

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Holy Eating (Zevahim / Menahot / Hullin)

If there was any quality that Daniel and I were certain that we did not want to pass on to our children, it was my vegetarianism. I did not realize that I was a vegetarian until I met Daniel and joined his family at a Shabbat table laden with roast beef, rack of lamb, and sautéed duck, none of which I could identify. His mother noticed that I filled my plate with rice and broccoli and asked if I was vegetarian. “I guess so,” I told her, wondering about it myself. I did not avoid meat as a matter of identity or principle, but as a general aesthetic preference: Why pick the flesh off the wing of a dead bird when there was fresh quinoa salad on the table? I became a full-fledged vegetarian only a year later, after learning Seder Kodashim, the order of the Talmud that deals primarily with sacrificial worship and ritual slaughter.
The first tractate, Zevahim, is essentially a giant barbecue. We learn about which animals may be burnt on the altar, and who may eat the leftovers, and what happens if they are left to burn for too long or sacrificed with improper intentions or accidentally mixed with other sacrificial offerings. The Talmud enumerates four primary sacrificial rites: slaughtering the animal, receiving its blood in a basin, carrying the animal to the altar, and sprinkling the blood on the cover of the ark. Sacrifice was such a bloody business that there were holes in the floor of the Temple intended for draining the excess blood, which would flow into the Kidron river (35a). And the pile of ashes from a day’s worth of sacrifices grew so high that it had to be cleared off first thing every morning, a task I often think of when I start my day by taking out the garbage.
As I read about the priest slicing the neck of a bird with his nail, taking care not to sever it completely (a process known as melika, which the Talmud describes in graphic detail, 64b), I decided that I could no longer eat my mother’s chicken soup, my last carnivorous vestige, which I’d previously permitted myself because it didn’t look anything like flesh and because, well, because it made my mother happy. I realized that chicken soup, too, was once a thing with feathers. In consciously renouncing flesh-eating I was perhaps bringing myself back to that antediluvian stage before God permitted Noah to eat meat, that idyllic Edenic era in which the trees of the garden provided for all of humanity’s needs. At the very least I was returning to the period of the Israelites’ desert wanderings, when, according to Rabbi Yishmael, they were forbidden to slaughter “lustful meat,” that is, meat that they desired to eat for their own nourishment and pleasure, without any sacrificial component. Rabbi Akiva disagrees, arguing that although the Israelites had not yet been given the laws of how to ritually slaughter animals, they were permitted to stab animals in the nose—a process known as nehira—and consume the flesh (Hullin 17a). I was prepared to engage neither in ritual slaughter nor in nostril stabbing, and decided that I would simply abstain from meat altogether.
Since then people have often asked me if my vegetarianism is related to an affinity for animals; I tell them they are barking up the wrong tree. I am no animal lover. I am terrified by the dogs that run alongside me when I jog and repulsed by the cats that leap out from the municipal garbage bins (known as “frogs” in Hebrew because they are big and green) when I try to throw out the trash. But as I made my way through Seder Kodashim, I was struck that alongside countless passages about bloody dead animals and their entrails, the Talmud also contains several stories and legends about living animals, many of them quite entertaining. There is the discussion at the end of tractate Zevahim about how the mythical re’em – a kind of unicorn — survived the flood; surely it could not fit in Noah’s ark, since, as Rabba bar Hana testified, “I once saw a young unicorn and it was as big as Mount Tabor!” The rabbis suggest that perhaps Noah inserted the tip of its nose into the ark. But then wouldn’t the waters of the flood plunge the unicorn up and down, another rabbi asks? No, reassures Reish Lakish, they tied its horns to the ark and thus it was spared from drowning. But weren’t the waters of the flood boiling as punishment for the hot passion with which people sinned? Yes, but the waters adjacent to the ark were cooled so that the unicorn could survive. And thus the rabbis manage to spare the unicorn not just from the flood but also from their own barrage of Talmudic questioning.
The other richly imagined animal tale I loved is of the Emperor and the lion (Hullin 59b). The Talmud contains several tales in which the Roman Emperor challenges one of the sages with a theological question. In this case, he asks Rabbi Joshua ben Hanania about a Biblical verse (Amos 3:8) that compares God to a lion. The Emperor asks how God can be so great if He is likened to a lion; after all, any good horseman can kill a lion. The rabbi responds that God is not likened to an ordinary lion, but to a special kind of lion from Bei Ilai. “Show him to me,” demands the Emperor, and the rabbi warns him that he will not be able to behold this creature. But the Emperor insists, and so Rabbi Joshua prays and the lion sets forth. When it is still quite a distance away, it roars. Immediately all the pregnant women miscarry and the walls of Rome collapse. When it comes a little closer, it roars again and the teeth fall out of the mouth of every man, including the Emperor himself. Like Pharaoh begging Moses to stop the plagues, or like the Israelites beseeching Moses to shield them from God’s voice at Sinai, the Emperor pleads with Rabbi Joshua to pray that the lion return to its place. And so it does.
The lions and unicorns of Kodashim were far more appealing to me than the detailed anatomical diagrams of gullets and gizzards that filled the back pages of my volume of Hullin, the tractate dealing with the laws of kashrut. But my vegetarianism was less about any affinity for wildlife—real or mythological—than about a general minimalist tendency. I like to get by on less, and for me this has become not just a principle of economy but of aesthetics as well. During my anorexic phase I took this notion to a dangerous extreme when I tried to get by on eating almost nothing, a temptation that I still sometimes struggle to keep in check. The laws of Kashrut appeal to me because they limit what we can and cannot eat, reducing the overwhelming number of choices out there. Vegetarianism takes this one step further. The world is enough with beans and grains and chocolate; I do not need hamburgers too. Besides, at least according to Rav Nahman’s wife Yalta, everything that is forbidden has a kosher counterpart that tastes just as good (Hulllin 109b) – for every bacon there are bacon bits. Yalta gives several examples: we are forbidden to eat pig, but we can eat the shibbuta fish which tastes similar (though one has to wonder how she knew what pig tastes like); it is forbidden to eat blood of animals, but we can eat liver. She also cites a few examples that conflate eating and sex: It is forbidden to sleep with a married woman, but one can sleep with a divorced woman during her husband’s lifetime and therefore “taste” the forbidden. The story ends when the ever truculent Yalta insists that she wants to taste meat and milk together, but can find no kosher equivalent. Thereupon her husband instructs the butchers, “Give her roasted udders.”
Of course, vegetarianism is not kashrut, though you’d be surprised by how many people confuse the two. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I should have cooked the potatoes separate from the meat,” our Shabbat host will apologize. But I have no problem eating potatoes just because they were cooked next to meat; there is no issue of noten ta’am – of a forbidden substance lending its taste to a permitted substance –when it comes to vegetarianism. And I am far more flexible with my vegetarianism than with my Kashrut. I would never eat food that is not kosher, but when it comes to vegetarianism, I have my own mental hierarchy of the increasingly permissible – from fish to chicken to beef. I try to eat the “most vegetarian” option available without inconveniencing myself or my hosts. After all, given that my guiding principle is one of minimalism and simplicity, it would be ironic if my vegetarianism made life more complicated.
My notion of hierarchy is not entirely foreign to the Talmudic sages, who discuss how many “signs” various kinds of living things must have in order to be considerd kosher (Hullin 27b). Their claims reflect a primitive evolutionary theory: Animals, which the sages say were created from land, need two signs – both the trachea and the esophagus must be incised. Birds, which were created from swamps (and which the rabbis claim have scales on their feet like fish) need only one sign – either the esophagus or the tracha must be cut. But fish, which were created from water, need no signs; fish can be eaten even without ritual slaughter. My preference is always to eat the food with the fewest signs.  If there is no plant-based protein source available, I would each fish. Lacking that, I suppose I would consider chicken. But I would have to be pretty desperate to bite into a steak.
For me, there are so many gustatory pleasures that are not meat – or wine for that matter, which I eschew for similar reasons. A dark chocolate bar is infinitely more appealing than the most expensive cut of lamb. And I would always take a hot cup of coffee with steamed milk over a glass of alcohol. One of my favorite treats is to sit in a coffee shop engrossed in a book; the little caffeine I allow myself gives me a boost of energy and confidence, particularly in those late afternoon hours when my concentration starts to flag. These are simple pleasures, I know. But the Talmud advises that a person should always spend less on eating and drink than his means allow and honor his wife and children more than his means allow (Hullin 84b). Food should be a way of honoring our bodies, and of honoring Shabbat and other sacred occasions, and of honoring the guests we invite into our homes; it is these values, above all, that I would like to transmit.
I do not want to pass on my own hang-ups about food to my children; if they wish to become vegetarian of their own accord, they are welcome to make that choice later in life. But when they are young, it is important to me that they see me modelling healthy and respectful eating. In tractate Menahot, which deals with grain offerings, The Talmud references the figure of Ben Drosai (Menahot 57a) a highway robber contemporaneous with the early Talmudic sages who was so impulsive that he would grab his meat off the fire before it was fully cooked. When I come home starving and I’m tempted to devour anything in sight, I remind myself not to eat like Ben Drosai, but to stop to sit down like a civilized human being and take pleasure in my food. “Food is Kadosh [holy],” I will later tell my son when he tries to throw his supper or leave too much on his plate; and I’ll repeat this so many times that when I then take him to synagogue and point to the Torah and tell him it’s Kadosh, he’ll look at me earnestly and ask, “Can we eat it?” Still, I find it appropriate that the order of the Talmud that includes the laws of kashrut is known as Kodashim, holy things. The rabbis teach that following the destruction of the Temple, a man’s table resembles the altar (Menahot 97a) – a reminder that in a world without sacrifices, the food that we eat has the potential to bring us close to the sacred.

On First Looking into Masekhet Yevamot in Summer 2007: A Retrospective

I was unmarried throughout the entire year and a half in which I first learned Seder Nashim, the order of the Talmud that deals with the relationships between husbands and wives. As I pored over Talmudic pages about who is permitted to marry whom, and how betrothal takes place, and what happens if a woman is suspected of being unfaithful, I was reminded of a story about Rabbi Akiva, who tried to come up with a midrash about the plague of frogs in Egypt. “There was just one frog,” said Akiva, interpreting the Biblical verse which literally reads, “The frog came up and covered the land of Egypt” (Exodus 8:2). His colleagues, upon hearing Akiva explain that this one frog in turn gave rise to enough frogs to cover Egypt, go on to chide him for expounding on matters of Aggada. Akiva’s expertise was halakha; he had no business coming up with creative midrashic explanations. As Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya rebuked, “Akiva, what are you doing studying Aggada? Desist from these words, and go study the laws of skin blemishes and impure tents” (Sanhedrin 67b). As a single woman living alone, I felt like I had as much business studying Seder Nashim as Rabbi Akiva had studying Aggada. But I too could not help but be drawn to fairy tales and make-believe, and often in my study of Nashim I found myself daydreaming about that one-and-only Frog who would overlook my blemishes and come to my tent in the guise of a handsome prince.>
The name of the first tractate in Nashim, Yevamot, literally means sisters-in-law, and deals with the Biblical law of levirate marriage whereby a man is obligated to marry his deceased brother’s widow so long as she is childless. This is the case even if the man already has a wife, since men in Talmudic times were permitted to marry more than one woman. The rival co-wives of polygamous men are known as tzarot, a word that also means troubles. And so when I began learning this tractate during the summer of 2007, I jokingly referred to this period as my summer of tzarot. If nothing else, there was the trouble of how to understand the complicated family relationships discussed in this tracate, such as the case of a man whose brother is married to his mother-in-law, or the case of two men who accidentally switch wives under the wedding canopy, and other confusing liaisons.
And then, of course, there was the trouble of being single. Officially I was still dating Omri, but our relationship was faltering, and by that point I was pretty sure it wasn’t meant to be. I probably ought to have broken up with him sooner than I did, but I was more scared of being alone than of being with the wrong person – and this says a lot, given that I’d been married to the wrong person just two years earlier. That summer in addition to learning Yevamot, I reread D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover when a used copy appeared in the rack outside my local bookstore. I recall being struck by several passages about the difficulty of finding a suitable mate: “The world is supposed to be full of possibilities, but they narrow down to pretty few, in most personal experiences. There’s lots of good fish in the sea – maybe! But the vast masses seem to be mackerel or herring, and if you’re not mackerel or herring yourself, you are inclined to find very few good fish in the sea.” This lack of eligible single men in Jerusalem was a frequently-voiced lament among my female friends, who always seemed to far outstrip their male counterparts. Lawrence says this explicitly:“‘Go ye into the streets and by-ways of Jerusalem, and see if you can find a man.’ It had been impossible to find a man in the Jerusalem of the prophet — though there were thousands of male humans. But a man! C’est une autre chose!”
If I found no one in Jerusalem, I resolved, I would head to Harpania, a meeting place for singles who had no luck in their home towns (Yevamot 17a). Rabbi Zeira says that the town Harpania comes from the two Hebrew words har (mountain) and poneh (turn). Harpania is the city that people turn to if they come from such bad genealogical lines that no one wants to marry them: “Whoever cannot identify his family and his tribe turns there to find a mate.” It is clear from the Talmud that the Jews of Talmudic Babylonia were very preoccupied with their family trees. They prided themselves in tracing their ancestry all the way back to the Babylonian exile in the days of King Yechonia (600 BCE). And they were interested in marrying only those of “pure lineage,” those who could construct family trees back for generations. Certain parts of Babylonia were regarded as genealogically “purer” than others, and apparently Harpania was the worst; as Rava goes on to say, “Harpania is deeper than hell.” And so anyone who could not find someone to marry was encouraged to try Harpania, home of the least eligible bachelors and bachelorettes.
Jerusalem was probably not quite as bad as Harpania, but even so, the dating scene did not look good for women. Once I accompanied a friend to a singles event–the only such event I ever attended–and was distressed to see that the women outnumbered the men by nearly two to one. And the gap was not just in quantity, but in quality as well. Most of the women were dressed in stockings and modest but flattering fitted skirts, with any gray hairs dyed, and any wrinkles or skin blemishes covered by painstakingly applied make-up. The men—their pants baggy, their hair disheveled—looked like they had just rolled out of bed. I imagined the men and women as items on sale in a supermarket: The women were the perishables, stamped with expiration dates that were rapidly approaching. The men were the canned goods; they didn’t look all that appealing, but they could remain on the shelves indefinitely until someone finally decided to pick them off the shelf. Everyone sat in a circle nibbling on stale cookies and drinking apple juice from a carton in plastic cups, playing silly icebreaker games led by a pretty woman in a bright purple dress, her hair wrapped in a colorful turban. Whenever it was my turn, she flashed me a smile that seemed kind but patronizing, as if I were a little child with a long way to go, even though I imagined that we were about the same age. I thought of her as the preschool teacher and the rest of us as her toddling charges. Since when did being single become so infantilizing?
Living in Jerusalem, I was surrounded by the assumption that everyone wanted to be married, and that those who weren’t were incomplete and longing that things were otherwise. Unlike New York City or Cambridge, there was no respect for the high-powered career woman or the superstar professor; so long as she was single, she must be unhappy. I could handle being incomplete, but the thought of other people’s pity made me recoil and cringe.
The Talmud, too, looks pitifully upon any woman who does not have a man with whom to share her life and, more specifically, her bed. Five times throughout the Babylonian Talmud, the sage Reish Lakish quotes a popular folk saying to this effect: Tav L’Meytav Tan Du M’l’meytav Armelo. The phrase literally means, “It is better for a woman to sit as two than to sit alone by herself.” The rabbis’ discussion of this folk saying unleashes a flurry of colorful comments attributed to various Talmudic sages about how much a woman is willing to put up with just so that she can have a husband (118b):
Abayey: Even if her husband is the size of a sesame seed, she is proud to place her chair among the free women.
Rav Papa: Even if her husband is just a spinner of wool, she will call out to him to come sit with her at the entrance to their home.
Rav Ashi: Even if her husband is a cabbage-head, at least she will not lack for lentils in her pot.
It seems the Talmud cannot imagine a woman who could be both happy and single. Even so, Abayey, Rav Papa and Rav Ashi are not granted the last word. The passage concludes with the following assertion: “And all these women commit adultery and attribute their offspring to their husbands.” That is, all these women who so desperately want to be married are really just interested in having a convenient excuse when they find themselves pregnant as a result of their adulterous affairs. Why do they need husbands? So that they can point to a legitimate father for their bastard children!
This closing line, astonishing in its flippancy and subversiveness, casts the preceding statements in a new light: According to the Talmudic sages, a woman needs a husband so that she can “place her chair among the free women,” that is, so that she can count herself among those women who are free to have adulterous affairs! And even if her husband is a cabbage-head, she doesn’t care, because she’s just using him as a cover so that she can gallivant off and engage in extramarital sex. For this reason it is better for a woman to be married than to be alone.
To some extent Omri functioned as a similar cover for me. He was not my husband, but as my long-term boyfriend, he enabled me to place my chair among those who were free from the torture of attending singles events and being “set up” by concerned, well-meaning strangers. “Are you looking to meet someone,” people would often ask me, and immediately I would rush to assure them that no, I had quite enough lentils in my pot, thank you very much.
Shortly after I studied this passage in Yevamot, my friend Aviva came for Shabbat dinner bearing the gift of a glass jar full of hard candy. “When you finish all the sweets,” she told me, “you can save the jar and use it as a vase for the next time Omri brings you flowers.” I smiled, knowing that I would do not such thing. Instead, I washed out the jar, filled it with two kilos of lentils, and placed it in my cupboard alongside my beans, split peas and other dried goods. I put a label on the vase with a quote from the passage in Yevamot: “she does not lack for lentils in her pot.” Most nights that summer I had lentil soup for dinner – alone.
*
In the Talmud it is clear that men have the advantage when it comes to marriage, which is described as a one-way transaction in which a man acquires a woman and may simultaneously be legally wed to several women at once. The Talmud speaks of the sanctity of marriage, but we hear other less conventional voices as well, such as the following account in Yevamot:
When Rav would visit the city of Dardishir, he would announce:
“Who will be mine for a day?”
And when Rav Nachman would visit the city of Shachnetziv, he would announce: “Who will be mine for a day?”(Yevamot 37b)
Rav and Rav Nachman, two great third-century Babylonian sages, apparently had a practice of marrying (or perhaps simply sleeping with) women for a single day. I understand what was in it for the sages, who presumably had to travel often and could not always take their wives with them. But I can’t help but wonder what sort of woman would be interested in such a one-night stand. Perhaps in Talmudic times, too, there were far more suitable women than men? Perhaps they were so desperate for companionship that they would rather have a man for one night than be alone forever? Or perhaps these women were excited by the notion of being associated with such a great rabbinic luminary?
            Personally I am drawn to those Talmudic stories—few and far between though they may be—of women who have free reign to choose among various men, rather than the opposite gender dynamic. This is the case with Rava’s wife, who actively chooses her husband rather than waiting around like a wallflower to be hand-picked. She is introduced in the context of a discussion about marriage and fertility, in which the rabbis put forth principles such as the following (Yevamot 34b):
A woman does not become pregnant upon her first intercourse.
For the twenty-four months after a woman gives birth, her husband will sow inside and seed outside.
A woman who commits an illicit sexual act will invert herself after intercourse lest she become pregnant.
I remember learning these passages in the morning Talmud shiur I attended at a synagogue in Jerusalem, where mine was the only womb in the room. While I knew the Talmud wasn’t talking about me personally, the discussion on the page before us was certainly more about me than about any of the men in the room. And so when we came to these passages, I suddenly felt as conspicuous as Virginia Woolf traipsing across the green quads of Oxbridge.
            Unfortunately it gets worse before it gets better. The Talmud goes on to assert, in the name of Ravin, that “any woman who waits ten years after the death of her husband before remarrying will never give birth again.” It had only been two years since Paul and I had separated, but already I was starting to worry about my dormant womb. It seemed that there was hope for me, and least according to Rav Nahman, who goes on to qualify that “This was taught only with regard to one who did not intend to remarry; but if a woman intended to remarry, then she will indeed become pregnant.” Rav Nahman suggests that a woman’s psychology may affect her womb (as we know from the nineteenth-century hysterics). If she intends to have intercourse again, her reproductive organs will not wither. I was reassured, but the subject matter at hand still seemed a little too close to home. I hunched over my volume of Talmud, hoping that none of the men in the room were familiar with my personal circumstances.
It is at this point in the passage that Rava’s wife makes her appearance, though it seems like she was there all along, sitting in on an all-male study group just like me. Unlike me, however, she was not able to remain anonymous. After hearing the discussion between Ravin and Rav Nahman, Rava leans over to his wife and tells her that the rabbis are talking about her. She, too, had been previously married and it seems she had waited a long time before remarrying and becoming Rava’s wife. “The rabbis are murmuring about you,” Rava tells her. Rava’s wife seizes upon Rav Nahman’s corollary and rushes to her own defense. She assures Rava that although she did not remarry for over a decade, her womb did not close up because she always intended to remarry, as per Rav Nahman’s corollary. Or, as she tells Rava somewhat romantically, “My eye was on you all along.”
I am impressed by the bravado of this woman who sits next to her husband while he is learning Torah with his colleagues and dares to confess that she had been interested in him for a while. She clearly has a will of her own, even though she remains nameless. We learn more about her elsewhere in the Talmud, where she is known as the daughter of Rav Hisda. The Talmud relates the following anecdote from her youth:
The daughter of Rav Hisda was sitting on her father’s lap. They were seated before Rava and Rami bar Chama. Rav Hisda said to his daughter: “Which of these men do you want [to marry]?” She responded, “Both of them!” Rava said, “Then let me be the second one.”
Rav Hisda’s daughter, a girl young enough to still sit on her father’s lap, is depicted here like a greedy child in an ice cream shop who wants both chocolate and vanilla, or like Shel Silverstein’s Terrible Theresa who chooses the middle pancake from the towering stack. If given the choice between two men, she’ll take them both! But Rava does not miss a beat. To the extent that he can still control his fate, he intercedes. He does not want to be the first of two men to marry Rav Hisda’s daughter, which would mean that either he would die, or that they would divorce. He’d rather be the second, and so he wisely stakes his claim. Now it becomes clear how Rav Hisda’s daughter could have known in advance that she would become Rava’s wife. She had her eye on him all along because she had chosen him when she was just a young girl. She always knew that she would remarry, and so she is confident that her dormant womb will rally when she wishes to become pregnant again.
*
            In Yevamot, the emphasis is not just on marriage but also on having children, which is of course the first commandment in the Bible – to increase and multiply. The Talmud in Yevamot (61a) discusses a debate between Beit Hillel, who holds that a man must have at least one son and one daughter to count as having fulfilled this commandment; and Beit Shammai, who holds that a man must have two sons. All the sages agree, however, that fulfilling this mitzvah is so paramount that a man may even sell a Torah scroll so as to have enough money to have children. The Talmud then goes on to cite the case of Rav Sheshet (62b), who was childless because the classes taught by his teacher Rav Huna went on for too long. Presumably Rav Sheshet found himself staying so late in the beit midrash that by the time he got home at night, his wife was already asleep! I, on the other hand, used to go to evening classes with the deliberate goal of staying out late, so that I would not have to come home to an empty house.
            The tension between studying Torah and raising a family is dramatized in the figure of Ben Azzai, who captured my imagination when I encountered him in a conversation about procreation in Yevamot (63b). Rabbi Eliezer asserts that anyone who does not engage in this mitzvah is considered as if he has committed murder, since the commandment to procreate is juxtaposed in Genesis with the verse prohibiting bloodshed. Rabbi Yaakov then demurs that anyone who does not engage in this mitzvah is regarded as diminishing the image of God, since the commandment to procreate is also juxtaposed with the verse about man being created in the image of God. At this point, Ben Azzi chimes in and declares that anyone who neglects the commandment to procreate is regarded as if he both commits murder and diminishes the image of God. The other sages leap up and lambast Ben Azzai for his hypocrisy: “Ben Azzai, there are those who preach well and those who practice well, and those who practice well but do not preach well. But you – you preach well but do not practice what you preach!” Presumably Ben Azzai  himself was unmarried, or at least he did not have children. And so he can offer only a faltering defense: “What can I do? My soul desires Torah. The world can be sustained by others.” Ben Azzai is so enamored of Torah study that he cannot bear the thought of sacrificing his study time for the sake of raising a family.

 

On those nights when I found myself walking back from class alone while all my friends with kids were ensconced at home, I sometimes pretended that I, like Ben Azzai, had made a conscious choice. Certainly I had far more time to study Torah than I would if I were saddled with responsibilities of raising a family. I enjoyed waking up early every morning and rushing out the door to my daf yomi shiur, and then coming home late after attending classes on the weekly Torah portion. At the same time, I couldn’t help wishing that I’d known, back then, that it was just a temporary stage of life. If only I, like Rav Hisda’s daughter, had sat on my father’s lap as a young girl and hand-picked my two husbands. Then perhaps I wouldn’t feel a flutter in my womb each time I went out among the streets and by-ways of Jerusalem, looking despairingly at the thousands of male humans in search of my Frog. All herring and mackerel, it seemed.

Matan’s Third Birthday (Rosh Hashana 2a)

I live my life against the backdrop of daf yomi, and so when my oldest son turned three on the first day of tractate Rosh Hashana, the coincidence was not lost on me. The opening mishnah of tractate Rosh Hashana lists four “new years” that occur throughout the annual cycle: There is the new year for kings, which determines what counts as the first year of a king’s reign; the new year for tithing one’s livestock; the new year in the sabbatical cycle; and the new year for trees. Much of the first chapter deals with how we measure time and date significant events, including the question of which month the world was created – or, to invoke the Rosh Hashana liturgy, when we can say  ,היום הרת עולם“today is the birthday of the world.” For Matan, too, there were several dates on which we celebrated his birthday, each a reflection of the various ways we mark time, and each a reminder that the passage of time is joyous but bittersweet.
We first celebrated Matan’s birthday on the day after Yom Haatzmaut, which is the day he was born on the Hebrew calendar. And so Matan’s Hebrew birthday dovetails with Israel’s national birthday and serves, for us, as a connection to our adopted homeland. I will never forget sitting in the Jerusalem Theater for Hidon Hanakh, the three-hour long Bible quiz show that takes place each year on Yom Haatzmaut morning, watching as Jewish students from around the globe competed to answer questions about the finer points of Biblical narrative and history. During the lightning round the questions consisted of a series of dates listed in the Bible, and the students had to specify what happened, say, “on the first day of the first month of the second year.” As the tension mounted, my contractions became increasingly frequent, and I remember thinking that my son was surely excitedly reviewing all the Torah he had learned in the womb before making his exit into the world. And so I will forever associate his birthday with Hidon HaTankah and Yom Haatzmaut. This year, when Yom Haatzmaut rolled around, I began telling Matan stories about when he was born. Matan is fascinated by waterworks, so he was excited to learn that he once swam around in my belly – particularly when I told him that he got to swim there first, before his sisters took a turn. “And then I came out through the drain,” he told me, entirely unprompted. In a sense it is true, and so I just nodded.
The day after Yom Haatzmaut is the day I associate with Matan’s birth; I think of it as the birthday of my becoming a mother. But as a day to make Matan feel special and loved, we chose May eleventh, his birthday on the secular calendar. And so when I picked him up at Gan yesterday, I took him to the florist shop and bought him a colorful “happy birthday” helium balloon. Matan, whose current favorite picture book is about hot air balloons, was thrilled, and as we walked home, he looked up at the soaring balloon as if it were magical. “Don’t let go,” I warned him, “or the balloon will go up, up to the sky.” Ever obedient, Matan clutched the string with one hand and the balloon with the other, terrified of losing his precious new gift. I told him he could simply hold the string and let the balloon fly up, but apparently I had traumatized him with my stern cautionary words. Like me, Matan follows rules to a fault. He is so committed to doing the “right thing” that sometimes he misses out on life. I suppose we can both stand to learn to let go a bit. With every passing year I feel the string connecting us to one another growing longer, as Matan makes his own way in the world. When he was born I could provide for all his needs simply by holding him close to my body and letting him sleep and eat; now he has an intellectual curiosity that I cannot always satisfy (as I am reminded when he interrogates me, say, about how the fire is lit under a hot air balloon, and I have no idea myself), and emotional needs that I can sometimes only begin to fathom. I am aware of his limitations, but I remain hopeful that he will aspire to great heights so that I might follow him with the same wide, wondrous eyes with which he looked up at his beloved balloon as we walked through the streets of Jerusalem on that gorgeous spring afternoon.
In addition to Matan’s familial and personal birthdays, as well as the national birthday of the state, there is also the social aspect of celebrating a birthday, especially for a child. We will make him a little party next month on the date his Gan assigned to us when I asked, a week before his birthday, how we might mark the occasion. The teacher told me that they are all “booked” for May, but that I can have a date in early June. And so the celebration of Matan will continue. I feel bad that I did not think to ask the Gan sooner about choosing a date; it never occurred to me that the social calendar would fill up so quickly. This is ironic, given that Matan does not really associate with the other kids in Gan and tends to spend much of the day off in his own world, playing by himself or observing everyone else from a safe distance. When I dropped him off this morning, he asked if I could stay and play with him, and when I told him that he could play with Dariel or Yiftach or any of the other 25 kids in the room, he turned his head away shyly and looked at his feet, reluctantly waving goodbye as I walked out the door with a breaking heart. This is the first birthday on which I am aware of Matan’s social challenges. And so the occasion is somewhat bittersweet; I am excited that Matan is growing older, but I’m concerned for the struggles that lie ahead.
Not all of the new years discussed in tracate Rosh Hashana are celebratory occasions; the first of Elul, for instance, is merely a cutoff point for tithing. And birthdays, too, are not purely celebratory, at least not at my stage of life. I associate my own birthdays with growing older, with the sense that there is less time in which to reinvent myself or figure out, at last, what I want to “do with my life.” With each passing year I am aware that my parents will not be young and vibrant and deeply involved in my life forever; that my husband and I may not always enjoy good health; that my children may not always provide the gratification of making me feel that I am indispensable from the moment they wake up before dawn until the moment they fall asleep after dusk. With my twin daughters, who are “fifteen months,” we are still marking months rather than years, but each month, too, brings with it the heaviness of parental concern: The girls are developing slowly, at their own pace, and not a month passes when I do not find myself praying that they are healthy.
It is prayer, perhaps, that links Rosh Hashana with birthday celebrations. On Rosh Hashana we stand for hours in synagogue praying fervently that the coming year should bring blessing. On birthdays our prayers take the form of a wish made over a cake filled with candles as the whole room pauses for a moment of silence before erupting in cries of “happy birthday.” I pray that my son will always retain his sense of wonder at the workings of the world, but that he will also learn how to engage with his peers and make friends. I pray that my daughters, too, will develop healthily and continue to charm everyone they meet with their bright blue eyes and beaming smiles. It is hard to believe that it was just three years ago that D and I were blessed to become parents. So far at least, it seems that no amount of worry or concern could ever be as deep and profound as the joys that we have known.

Hezek Re’iya and Facebook: Overcoming the Fear of Being Seen

After nearly a decade of holding out, I have finally joined Facebook, overcoming—or at least casting aside—my fears of hezek re’iya for the sake of my children. Or so I told myself.
Hezek re’iya, which literally means “the damage of seeing,” refers to the notion that the invasion of privacy caused by looking at someone else’s property is tantamount to physical damage. The term comes up in the opening sugya of Bava Batra, in a discussion about two neighbors who disagree about the construction of a fence. One would like to build a fence so that the other cannot look into his yard, but the other neighbor does not want his yard divided. Is the first neighbor legally authorized to force the second to agree to the fence? Those rabbis who support the notion that hezek re’iya constitutes a real form of damage believe that a person can legally prevent a neighbor from gazing into his property by forcing his neighbor to assist in the expenses of building a fence. On the opposite side of the fence are those rabbis who argue that הזק ראייה לאו שמיה היזק – that is, the damage of being seen is not real damage, and therefore the neighbor who desires privacy cannot force his neighbor to join in the expenses of building a wall. Ultimately, the Talmud concludes that yes, there is indeed a notion of Hezek Re’iya – the damage of a being seen constitutes a very real form of a damage, and people have the right to protect their own privacy.
I live my life with the constant fear of being seen. Ever since I read Harry Potter, I have fantasized about owning an invisibility cloak – not because I want to be a fly on the wall and observe other people, but because I don’t want any flies on the wall noticing me. And so for me, the notion of joining a social network was tantamount to חבורתא מתותא. Why would I want all my “friends” to know what I am reading, how my children look, where my husband is traveling, and everything else that is going on in my life? Jerusalem is enough of a fishbowl already; I often feel that I live not in a sprawling city, but in a small village of overlapping social circles in which everyone knows (and talks about) one another. The street where I work is lined by a dozen small cafes with glass storefronts, and anyone who walks by can see everyone inside. When I meet a friend or client for coffee, I always insist that we sit at the very back table, furthest from the street, in an effort to avoid being seen. What if, say, that friend whom I had just told I was too busy to meet were to pass by and see me with someone else? What if someone were to see me through the window and come in, interrupting the intense conversation I am having with the person sitting across from me? In Jerusalem, perhaps the most popular tourist destination for Jews the world over, I am constantly running into people from earlier stages of my life: a classmate from my Jewish day school, an acquaintance from Harvard Hillel, an old friend from the Upper West Side. Everyone passes through Jerusalem, as my friend Sara once wrote as the refrain of a sestina. For better and for worse.
I suppose I can trace my paranoia about being seen to my early childhood as a rabbi’s daughter, growing up in a house on the synagogue property. Although we had a fence separating our part of the yard from the synagogue’s, anyone who drove into the shul parking lot could always look into our windows. My parents were vigilant about drawing the shades at night and keeping the front yard neat. In shul, too, my siblings and I always had to be on our best behavior, because we were conscious that our actions set an example for others. We grew up feeling the eyes of the community upon us at all times, an experience epitomized by one unforgettable weekend in which my parents declared that we were having a “Shabbat in.” My father had the Shabbat off, but my parents did not feel like traveling. Nor did they want anyone to know that we were home. So we drew the shades, pulled the cars into the garage, and spent Shabbat in Secret Annex mode, davening and eating together without leaving the house.
From an early age, my siblings and I learned never to reveal more than we needed to about our family. If someone called to speak to the rabbi, we were supposed to say that he “could not come to the phone right now,” and not that he “wasn’t home,” and certainly not that he was “at Mrs. Knecht’s funeral” or “at the supermarket buying more paper towels.”  My parents are warm and welcoming hosts, as everyone who knows them will attest, but they instilled in each of us the value of privacy. For me it has become second nature.
Now that I am a parent, though, I suppose I have newfound appreciation for the value of transparency. Our son Matan has been having trouble at Gan, and the Ganenet encouraged us to find him an occupational therapist. I started asking around for recommendations, but everyone gave me the same answer: “Just ask on Facebook.” I didn’t quite know what this meant, and found myself imagining Facebook as some modern-day Urim v’Tumim that would miraculously deliver up all the answers I needed. Determined above all to help my son, I created a profile and started amassing friends – even though at present, I don’t think I have any friends who know anything about occupational therapy in Jerusalem. But I remain hopeful that Facebook, at the price of relinquishing some of my precious privacy, will connect me to the resources I need for my children. Being a parent has been humbling in many ways; it has made me realize how reliant I am on the experience, guidance, and advice of others. I try, whenever possible, to offer advice openly and freely to others, though I feel like I am still figuring out what this thing called parenthood is all about. If Facebook serves as a way of enabling me to give and receive help, then perhaps I’ll abandon up my dreams of donning an invisibility cloak. For the time being.