Wine jugs, worms, priests, and hospitality

In August 2012, inspired by Yosh Schulman and David Rendsburg, I started to learn a page a day of Talmud as part of the new daf yomi cycle – the page-a-day learning that takes you through, as it were, the whole megillah of the Talmud. There are 2,711 pages in the Talmud, so the whole cycle takes seven-and-a-half years.

It’s been a fascinating experience thus far, and one of the reasons I’m writing today is that we’re thrilled to announce that Arthur Kurzweil will be teaching his amazing Talmud retreat as part of our 2014 Elat Chayyim program. I first met Arthur many years ago, and he has a remarkable gift for bringing the Talmud to life, especially for those who may (legitimately) be intimidated by it. If you have never spent time delving into the Talmud, or you have but want to dive deeper, then you’re warmly invited to join Arthur at Isabella Freedman for the Talmud Circle Institute. Join us as spring begins to emerge during Session 1 (March 17 – 21) and/or when the sun should be shining during Session 2 (July 21 – 25).

For me, daf yomi has been really fascinating. (I’m not in fact doing it every day, by the way; I find that I get behind, catch up somewhat, get behind, catch up again, and so on. Right now I’m 20 pages behind, again…)

But it’s amazing to immerse oneself in the world of the rabbis. Just recently, for instance, I’ve been learning Yoma – the tractate which is focused on the observance of Yom Kippur in temple times. Here are some random things I’ve learned, together with a contemporary observation:

  • It was customary for an overnight guest to leave his host his empty wine jug (12a). I like that.  Most of our overnight guests do indeed leave us with their empty wine jugs, to this day;
  • Two high priests couldn’t share the role because it might lead to hatred (13a). I learned this page a year after David Weisberg and I had agreed that we would run the new Hazon together – but with different titles, to try to reduce the risk of tripping over each other;
  • It was necessary to examine wood that was to be burned on the altar, to make sure that there were no worms in them – since worms are not kosher, and one might not offer a non-kosher animal as a sacrifice (16a). I love this extraordinary attention to detail, evident throughout the Talmud in remarkable ways. It is fascinating that the almost meditative focus that we associate today with, for instance, Tibetan monks creating a mandala, was so present in aspects of ritual life in the rabbinic era;
  • The High Priest was required to be greater than his fellows in these four things: strength, beauty, wisdom, and wealth (18a). Last week we had a board retreat, and we were discussing, amongst other things, the process of finding and recruiting new board members. What do we make of the Talmud’s criteria in this regard? (And should we be holding a Hazon Beauty Contest to recruit new leadership?)
  • One who engages in idle chatter violates a positive halacha (19b). The Talmud simply doesn’t distinguish between what we would today describe as “ethical” injunctions and “ritual” ones. I find this fascinating. Can the two be separated? Should they be?
  • One of the miracles of the Temple – apparently – was that there was always a room for a person to stay, in (the old city of) Jerusalem, when they came up to give a sacrifice (21a). I love this, because of my clear sense of what it really meant – not that space was infinite, but rather that people were routinely hospitable. This has been a strong part of Jewish tradition from then until now, and it prompts interesting questions about the nature of hospitality in contemporary society.

I won’t go on, but I hope you get the sense of it. The arrogance of modernity was the presumption that what was new was always better than the old. The post-modern move is to claim the best of modernity – but to seek to have genuine respect, also, from older rhythms and traditions. Daf yomi is a fascinating daily antidote to the immediate bombardments of media of all kind; a portal through which one steps back into this world that is at once so strange and so familiar.

In any case: these are my Tu B’Shvat thoughts. May new buds start to come to life; and may the perennial sources of our wisdom be renewed in our time.

Chag sameach, happy new year,