I have the idea that sometimes we just misread the Talmud, we take it too seriously. We don’t see that sometimes they’re just having fun, they’re talking tongue in cheek, they’re making a joke.
And this isn’t new to our generation, often I’ve seen something codified as Law in Maimondes or the Shulkhan Arukh and I’ve thought ‘come on, they were just messing around, you can’t make that into a law!’.
Today the Redactors – I’m growing more conscious of their role, partially from reading Jeffrey Rubenstein, partially because it just begs to be noticed – bring varied explanations for a verse:
‘For this let every pious man pray to you in the time of finding, that the overflowing waters may not reach him.’ (Psalms 32:6)
Seemingly unconcerned with the ‘overflowing waters’ and how they might affect him, they question the meaning of ‘the time of finding’.
At first it seems we are headed into romantic territory – the first explanation is that it means the time of finding a wife. This is supported by the verse:
‘He who finds a wife finds goodness and obtains favour from the Lord’ (Proverbs 18:22).
It’s a lovely thought, and this would perhaps be the point for the Talmud to launch into the virtues of the ideal wife – the rock of the family, the strength and inspiration behind everything, the model of love and compassion.
But no, it doesn’t go that way.
It goes instead with this gem:
In the land of Israel they used to ask a man who married a wife thus: ‘Matzah’ or ‘Motzeh’?
What did they mean?
‘Matzah’ refers to the verse above – finding a wife is finding goodness.
‘Motzeh’ is less flattering – the reference is to the verse ‘And I find – motzeh – the woman more bitter than death’.
Charming. ‘What say you of your wife, does the thought fill you with warmth or with bitterness?’. Ouch.
The suggestion is that they would ask this at the time of the wedding, though one might also understand it as ‘when meeting a married man’. The latter, though still pretty harsh, isn’t quite as cynical and hopeless as the first.
Rubenstein suggests there is a tension between the life of the academy and marital life in the Redactors worldview. Perhaps that’s motivating this little bit of acerbic wit.
Moving on, we stumble into more earnest territory. The ‘time of finding’ is variously understood as referring to Torah, Death and Burial. The ‘overflowing waters’ of seriousness are strong here, perhaps they are what we should be watching out for?
Mar Zutra is having none of this seriousness, he is quite firm on ‘the time of finding’.
Mar Zutra said: The time of finding refers to finding a toilet.
This may be to do with the lack of sewage facilities in place in his vicinity. Or maybe he was just acknowledging the sheer joy and relief of being able to go when you really really need to. I prefer the latter understanding.
In case we thought that he was a lone joker, a solo voice in a choir of gravity, the Redactors let us know:
In the West – the land of Israel – they say ‘This explanation is the best of them all.’
Nevermind your romantic sentiments, spare us your morbid thoughts of death and burial, and, from time to time, let’s have a break from the Torah. Keep it real, when you gotta go, you just gotta to go – do not underestimate the simple pleasures of the body.
Maybe you don’t believe my claim that people miss the humorous note here, not just in Mar Zutra’s quip but in the way the whole passage builds up to it, the natural sense of joketelling on exhibit. If so, check out the explanation of Rabbi Abraham Moshe Horovitz quoted in the Steinsaltz.
For him, this explanation is best because the term ‘motza’ – finding – is associated in Kings II 10:27 with the toilet. And for his superior knowledge of the Bible, Mar Zutra wins the prize.
It can’t possibly be about the body, about toilet humour. It has to be about study, knowledge, the move towards omniscience.
Or maybe Rabbi Horovitz is joking too, maybe – with tongue firmly in cheek – he’s the one having the last laugh.