Learning the Talmud over Yom Kippur this year was an unexpected pleasure. At first it felt like maybe I was doing something wrong – should I really be learning Berakhot, giving into my daf yomi obsession, playing catch up in this Sisyphean task? Isn’t there something mundane about it, something worklike, something not quite fitting for the holiest of the days, the window when the Holy of Holies suddenly opens itself to man?
So I tried to resist. But I couldn’t, it was what I wanted to do, it has become for me (once more?) a nourishing and invigorating activity, it is part of the way in which I connect with the deep. It is a discussion of values, and the mind responds well to this, it is stimulated by their mention.
But there is another reading of this, of the enjoyment I found in these dapim, of the way their poetic imagery spoke directly to me. It was the Day.
The Day is special because we go into it in an unusual state of mind, uncommonly open to the world of the spirit, willing to suspend disbelief about the possibility of The Sacred.
There is something real about it, we may set up the day with our intentions and efforts, but there is no accounting for the grace and peace which we attain through it, there is no logical or causal chain which demands that they be bestowed upon us so bountifully .
There is something miraculous about them, something deeply unnecessary and strange. And this mysterious phenomenon helps us understand that religion is not solely something that happens in our imaginations, it is something which has a dynamic and a reality all unto itself.
So it was a good day, a day with a strong and powerful energy, a day where the daf made sense. And in that spirit, I’m just going to let these three dapim speak for themselves, to let their own light shine:
The Sages taught in a baraita: People were seated in the study hall and they brought fi re before them at the conclusion of Shabbat. Beit Shammai say: Each and every individual recites a blessing for himself; and Beit Hillel say: One recites a blessing on behalf of everyone and the others answer amen. Beit Hillel’s reasoning is as it is stated: “The splendour of the King is in the multitude of the people” (Proverbs 14:28).
Granted, Beit Hillel, they explain their reasoning, but what is the reason for the opinion of Beit Shammai? They hold that it is prohibited due to the fact that it will lead to suspension of study in the study hall.
In a similar spirit:
The members of the house of Rabban Gamliel would not say ‘good health’ when someone sneezed in the study hall, due to the fact that it would lead to suspension of study in the study hall.
Poor Shammai and Rabban Gamliel, you want to feel sorry for them, sometimes it seems like they can do no right in the Talmud’s eyes. They just can’t seem to grasp the significance of community, of life, that Torah without these just fails and fades.
One who saw a flame and did not make use of its light, or if he made use of the light but did not witness the flame, may not recite a blessing.
It is not enough to passively admire the radiance of the light, we must also make good use of it, we must become enlightened.
One may recite a blessing over smouldering coals just as he does over a candle; however, over dimming coals, one may not recite a blessing.
What are smouldering coals? Rav Ĥisda said: Smouldering coals are any coals such that if one places a wood chip among them, it ignites on its own without fanning the flame.
If a light can re-kindle our fire, then it is worthy of a blessing, no matter how much its strength may be fading.
They who go down to the sea in ships, who do business in great waters; they see the works of the Lord. For He commands and raises the stormy wind which lifts up the waves thereof. They mount up to the heaven, they go down again to the depths: their soul is melted because of trouble.
They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wits’ end. Then they cry unto the Lord in their trouble, and He brings them out of their distress. He makes the storm calm, so the waves thereof are still. Then are they glad because they be quiet; so He brings them unto their desired haven. They are grateful to God for His loving-kindness and His wonders for mankind. (Psalms 127:23-31).
It is sometimes when we are wrestling in the stormy depths that we best grasp the import and meaning of the Divine, when we might sense anew its Power of salvation.
Why does it begin with the altar and conclude with the table? [asked of a verse in Eziekel]
Rabbi Yoĥanan and Rabbi Elazar both say: As long as the Temple stood, the altar atoned for Israel’s transgressions. Now that it is destroyed, a person’s table atones for his transgressions.
Our table is our personal altar, we may use it for the highest offerings, or we may disgrace ourselves by defiling it.
Perhaps you were in God’s shadow – betzel’el – and this is how you knew?
Thus Moshe addresses Betzalel. The artist lives in the Shadow of the Divine, that is his essence.
Betzalel knew how to bring together the symbols with which heaven and earth were created.
To create is to mimic the Divine, to fulfil our most exalted task on earth.
Rabbi Yoĥanan said: The Holy One, Blessed be He, only grants wisdom to one who already possesses wisdom.
We must put in the groundwork; enlightenment is only granted once there exists something worthy of the light.
Rav Ĥisda said: A dream not interpreted is like a letter not read.
I take this at face value – it is a missed opportunity. How you could receive an intriguing letter and not want to read it?
And yet, interpretation is not everything:
A bad dream, his sadness is enough for him; a good dream, his joy is enough for him.
Sometimes it’s about how the dream makes us feel, about the reality it creates, not just about what it might stand for or hint at.
And so a practice developed for dealing with disturbing dreams, one would seek out three friends and ask them to ‘improve’ it. How would this be done?
They would recite three verses of transformation, three verses of redemption and three verses of peace.
May we be transformed, may we be redeemed, may we be granted peace.
Rabbi Bena’a said: There were twenty-four interpreters of dreams in Jerusalem. One time, I dreamed a dream and went to each of them to interpret it. What one interpreted for me the other did not interpret for me, and, nevertheless, all of the interpretations were fulfilled in me.
Interpretation isn’t about decoding, it can be a creative act much like the dream itself, a vehicle for the emergence of meaning.
Rabbi Yochanan said: If one awoke, and a specific verse [thought formulation] emerged in his thought, this is a minor prophecy.
In sleep we give up the battles of the daytime, we surrender to the mysterious undercurrents of the mind, to the unstructured mythical imagination which lies in its depths.
This is to enter into another realm entirely, the realm of metaphor, wherein we might just hear the still, small voice of the Divine whispering to us.