On forgetting

30 09 2010

R. Simlai delivered the following discourse: What does an embryo resemble when it is in the bowels of its mother? Folded writing tablets. Its hands rest on its two temples respectively, its two elbows on its two legs and its two heels against its buttocks. Its head lies between its knees, its mouth is closed and its navel is open, and it eats what its mother eats and drinks what its mother drinks, but produces no excrements because otherwise it might kill its mother. As soon, however, as it sees the light the closed organ opens and the open one closes, for if that had not happened the embryo could not live even one single hour. A light burns above its head and it looks and sees from one end of the world to the other, as it is said, then his lamp shined above my head, and by His light I walked through darkness. And do not be astonished at this, for a person sleeping here might see a dream in Spain. And there is no time in which a man enjoys greater happiness than in those days, for it is said, O that I were as the months of old, as in the days when God watched over me; now which are the days’ that make up ‘months’ and do not make up years? The months of pregnancy of course. It is also taught all the Torah from beginning to end, for it is said, And he taught me, and said unto me: ‘Let thy heart hold fast my words, keep my commandments and live’, and it is also said, When the converse of God was upon my tent. Why the addition of ‘and it is also said’? — In case you might say that it was only the prophet who said that, come and hear ‘when the converse of God was upon my tent. As soon as it sees the light an angel approaches, slaps it on its mouth and causes it to forget all the Torah completely, as it is said, Sin coucheth at the door.

-from the Babylonian Talmud

The text as performance

16 09 2010

Jorge Luis Borges, in his short essay, Del culto de los libros , writes that a watershed moment in the history of human thought occured when St. Augustine found that St. Ambrose could read a text without moving his lips or reading aloud. Being a man of the world, one could only assume that St. Augustine found this to be an unusual skill. But to be mentioned in St. Augustine’s Confessions, it has to be more significant than just a cheap parlor trick. Borges explains:

Aquel hombre pasaba directamente del signo de escritura a la intuición, omitiendo el signo sonoro; el extraño arte que iniciaba, el arte de leer en voz baja, conduciría a consecuencias maravillosas. Conduciría, cumplidos muchos años, al concepto del libro como fin, no como instrumento de un fin.

(That man passed directly from the written sign to the intuition, omitting the audible sign; the strange art that it initiated, the art of reading to oneself, would lead to marvelous consequences. It would lead, after many years, to the concept of the book as an end, and not a means to an end.)
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On study of the Torah

1 06 2010

R’ Yehuda said in the name of Rav:
When Moshe ascended to the heavens, he saw God sitting and tying crowns to the letters [of the Torah].
Moshe asked, “What’s the hold up [i.e., why can’t you give the Torah as is]?
God replied, “there’s a man who will be in the future, after many generations, named Akiva b. Yosef, who will find in every jot and tittle mounds of halachot.
Moshe said, “Master of the Universe, show him to me!”
God said, “Turn around”
Moses went and sat in the eighth row of students in R’ Akiva’s class, and had no idea what they were saying. His strength deflated.
The class asked R’ Akiba about a certain matter, “From whence to you know this?” He replied, “It is a Law transmitted to Moshe at Sinai. Moshe’s mind was put at ease.
Moshe turned to God, “if you have someone like this, why are you giving the Torah through me?”
God said, “Silence! This is what arose in my thoughts!”
Moshe continued, “Master of the Universe! You’ve showed me his Teaching, now show me his reward.”
God said, “Turn around”
He turned around and saw that R’ Akiva’s flesh was being weighed out in the marketplace.
Moshe confronted God: “This is Torah and this is its reward?!”
God said, “Silence! This is what arose in my thoughts!”


In another Talmudic imagining, Moses actually spends forty days studying Talmud with God, but when the time is over he forgets the whole thing. In this, he is like all of us, who, the Talmud tells us, study the Torah in the womb, only to forget it when an angel touches our lips before birth- because the business of life is to learn, not to know.

-from The Talmud and the Internet by Jonathan Rosen

On forgiveness

30 03 2010

I recently saw a documentary on Hasidism in America. In that documentary, a Hasidic anecdote was told that went something like this:

A rabbi once asked a lowly blacksmith how he asked for God’s forgiveness on Yom Kippur. The blacksmith told the rabbi the prayer that he prayed to God:

“I am a simple man, and I have a few sins, but You are very powerful, and You do all sorts of horrible things, like taking children away from their mothers. So I’ll forgive You if You forgive me, and with that we will call it even.”

The rabbi responded:

“Why did you let God off so easily? With that prayer, you could have redeemed all of Israel.”

The Golem

18 03 2010

From this site:

Rabbi Bezalel’s son grew up and increased in strength and knowledge; he became a great scholar, well versed in the Holy Law, but also a master of all branches of knowledge and familiar with many foreign languages. In time he was elected Rabbi of Posen [in Poland], but later received a call to the city of Prague, where he was appointed chief judge of the Jewish community.

All his thoughts and actions were devoted to the welfare of his suffering people and his great aim in life was to clear Israel of the monstrous accusation of ritual murder which like a sword of Damocles was perpetually suspended over the head of the unhappy race. Fervently did the rabbi pray to Heaven to teach him in a vision by what means he could best bring to naught the false accusations of the miscreant priests who were spreading the cruel rumors.

And one night he heard a mysterious voice calling to him, “Make a human image of clay and thus you will succeed in frustrating the evil intentions of the enemies of Israel.”
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On being paid to think religious thoughts

1 12 2009

…But it went against Maimonides’ grain to use the Torah as a spade. The notion that the communities were obligated to subsidize scholars in their studies was something he regarded as an “error, for neither the Torah nor the books of the later sages have any guiding principle, any indication to support this.”

No one could demonstrate that the great teachers of the past “demanded money from the people; they did not collect money for respected and distiguished academies… Had Hillel asked for help, they would have filled his house with gold and precious stones, but he did not wish to take anything, he nourished himself from the proceeds of his work; he scorned donations for the sake of the Torah.

-Abraham Joshua Heschel, Maimonides