Talmud Tips

For the week ending 27 January 2018 / 11 Shevat 5778

Avoda Zara 2 - 8

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
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Rabbi Dimi bar Chama said, “The Holy One, Blessed is He, held a mountain (Sinai) as if it were an enormous vat over the heads of the Jewish People who gathered at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, and said, ‘If you choose to accept the Torah, good! And if not, here will be your burial place!’”

The Talmudic Sage quoted here seems to derive this teaching from the manner in which the verse describes how the Jewish People stood at Mount Sinai immediately prior to receiving the Torah. “Moshe brought the people out towards G-d from the camp, and they stood at the foot of the mountain.” (Shemot 19:17) Rabbi Dimi bar Chama saw that the word “b’tachtit” that appears in this Torah verse is a somewhat unusual word choice since the word “b’raglei” (lit., at the foot of) or “al yad” (next to) would have been more natural ways to express that they stood at the foot of the mountain. The word “b’tachtit” is from the root meaning “tachat”, which implies being underneath something else. Saying “b’tachtit” therefore implies that the Jewish People were standing literally underneath the mountain, due to the fact that G-d held the mountain over them with the threat that they would either receive the Torah or would be buried under the mountain.

A question that is asked by many commentaries is why G-d acted in this manner to essentially force the Jewish People to accept the Torah, seeing as how the Jewish People had already stated that were quite willing to accept the Torah when they said, “We will fulfill what it says, and we will listen to what it teaches.” (See Shemot 19:8 and 24:7.)

One answer is that although the Jewish People indeed wanted to accept the Torah with great passion and love, G-d nevertheless wanted to compel and force the Jewish People to receive the Torah. Giving the Torah in this manner teaches an important lesson. The Torah is a “must” for the world and everything in it to exist. A world without Torah cannot truly exist as the Creator intended it to be.

  • Avoda Zara 2b

Like a Fish Out of Water

Rav Yehuda said in the name of the Sage Shmuel, “Why are the Jewish People compared to the fish of the sea? To teach you that just as fish of the sea die immediately when they leave the water for dry land, likewise, Jewish people die immediately if they separate themselves from learning Torah and fulfilling mitzvot.”

This warning is one of a number of teachings that the gemara states is possible to derive from a verse in the writings of the Prophet Chavakuk (1:14): “You have made man like the fish of the sea.”

The Maharsha explains that this teaching in our gemara — that Torah and mitzvot are essential for life — is the very same message that is taught in the well-known parable of Rabbi Akiva, as recorded in Masechet Berachot (61b), as follows. The wicked kingdom of ancient Rome decreed that the Jewish People were forbidden to study Torah. A man named Pappus ben Yehuda saw Rabbi Akiva gathering large groups of people and teaching them Torah in public. Pappus asked Rabbi Akiva why he was not afraid of the government’s decree. Rabbi Akiva answered with a parable:

A fox was walking along a river and saw fish jumping from place to place. The fox asked them why they were fleeing. The fish answered that they were fleeing from the nets of people who were trying to catch them. The fox then invited them to join him on the dry land where he told them they would be safe. The fish replied: “Are you really the one who has the reputation of being the cleverest of animals? You are not wise, but stupid! If in the place where we naturally survive (the water) we fear for our lives, all the more so would we have cause for fear in the place where we would naturally die (dry land)!”

Rabbi Akiva explained to Pappus that the same message applies to the Jewish People. “When we study Torah, of which it’s written (in Dev. 30:20) that ‘It is your life and the length of your days’ we are presently in danger due to the evil decree, how much more so would we be in peril if we would abandon Torah study!”

  • Avoda Zara 3b

Just as with fish in the sea, bigger fish swallow smaller fish, likewise with people, if not for fear of governmental authority, whoever is bigger than his fellow man would swallow his fellow man.

This statement is an additional way of understanding the aforementioned verse in Chavakuk (1:14). The gemara states that this teaching expresses the same idea as we find in Pirkei Avot (3:2): Rabbi Chanina, deputy to the kohanim, would say, “Pray for the peace and integrity of the government, because without fear of its authority a person would swallow his fellow man alive.”

I once heard an interesting idea that explains why Rabbi Chanina emphasized the fact that person would be “swallowed alive” as opposed to merely being disposed of in some more “conventional” manner. The innate “inhuman” nature of a human being is such that it would not satisfy a hater’s desire to get rid of an opponent by merely disposing of him, but rather his nature would also drive him to seek the additional pleasure and satisfaction of hearing his adversary making guttural pleas for “let me out of your belly!” I heard this from a great rabbi in Jerusalem who said it in the name of another great rabbi — without breaking a smile. I think he was serious.

  • Avoda Zara 4a

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