of the Rabbinical Assembly in Israel


Bet Midrash Virtuali


When murderers increased the [ceremony of the] 'decapitated calf' came to an end. ([This was] when El'azar ben-Dinai came; he was [originally] called Teĥinah ben-Perishah, [but] they renamed him 'the homicide'.) When fornicators increased the [ceremony of the] 'cursing waters' ended; it was Rabban Yoĥanan ben-Zakkai who ended them, because it says: "I will not punish your women when they play the prostitute, nor your brides when they commit adultery; because the men etc." Once Yosé ben-Yo'ezer of Tzeredah and Yosé ben-Yoĥanan of Jerusalem died perfect scholarship came to an end, for it says: "There is no cluster of grapes to eat; my soul desires to eat the early fig."

EXPLANATIONS (continued):

The Emtzai'ta (middle section) of our mishnah restores us to the main topic of this tractate: the Sotah. The woman whose husband suspects her of marital infidelity was required to take the test of the 'cursing waters'. However much we may try to see the (possibly) positive purposes of this institution and its attempts to salvage tottering marriages, we can never escape the fact that it constitutes an extremely humiliating experience for the woman.

It comes almost as a relief to learn that at a certain stage in Israel's spiritual development a religious leader had the sensitivity and the courage to put an end to this Torah-mandated ceremony. That person - also an innovator in other aspects of our ritual life - was Rabban Yoĥanan ben-Zakkai. Rabban Yoĥanan ben-Zakkai, reputedly one of the last surviving students of the great Hillel himself, was President of the Sanhedrin in the difficult decade after the collapse of Jerusalem and the ignominious defeat of the Jewish resistance by the Roman military machine. During that decade, approximately 70-80 CE, Rabban Yoĥanan ben-Zakkai made many momentous changes in halakhic procedure, but perhaps none was so welcome to our modern susceptibilities as the abolition of the ceremony of the Sotah.

His action is justified by a quotation from the words of a prophet, but we may be reasonably certain that these words were nothing more than a later peg upon which to hang his religiously courageous deed. What, perhaps, is most pleasing to the cultural mind of the 21st century is that in the 1st century there was a religious sage who recognized the inherent inequality of the sexes that the Sotah ceremony entailed. This inequality is emphasized by the prophetic quotation, but, as is often the case, our mishnah has inadvertently blunted the appositeness of the quotation by curtailing it (assuming that everyone would immediately recall the rest of the quotation!) Here is the completion of the relevant part of the quotation [Hosea 4:14]:

I will not punish your women when they play the prostitute, nor your brides when they commit adultery; because the men consort with prostitutes and they celebrate with shrine prostitutes; and a people that does not think will suffer.

Here is the commentary of Rabbi Avraham Ibn-Ezra on that verse:

The meaning is that it is not surprising that the womenfolk commit adultery because [they see] all their menfolk going up to the hilltops to eat and drink with prostitutes and they all commit adultery.

So, because the menfolk of Israel are now steeped in fornication there is no justification for them demanding with false piety that their wives be subjected to the experience of the 'cursing waters'. Thus Rabban Yoĥanan ben-Zakkai 2000 years ago; today, of course, he would be branded by the orthodox as a "Conservative heretic" - or, even worse, as a Reform Jew - for daring to make changes in the application of Torah legislation.

The effort to combat the cultural ravages of the meeting in Eretz-Israel of European Hellenism with Asian Judaism during the 3rd century BCE brought about a closing of ranks among the sages, and two differing schools united in one Pharisaic party. This prompted a dual leadership and the period is referred to as the age of the "Couples". According to tractate Avot, from the Maccabean uprising until the death of Hillel, for about 150 years, the Pharisaic faction was headed by two leaders acting in tandem. According to Avot 1:4 Yosé ben-Yo'ezer of Tzeredah and Yosé ben-Yoĥanan of Jerusalem, the first "couple" were also the end of a golden age. They were the successors of Antigonos of Sokho. It was in his time that, according to rabbinic understanding, the Jewish people split into various sects and pristine religious unity was lost. The term 'perfect scholarship' used in our mishnah is an attempt to render into English the Hebrew 'Eshkolot' ['clusters of fruit']. It is understood as indicating the unity of various scholastic disciplines in one person - general brilliance as opposed to 'specialization'. The verse [Micah 7:1] with which our mishnah ends is superfluous to our understanding of the text.


Recently we had occasion to mention the "Eighteen Decrees" of the school of Shammai which sought to set limits to the socializing of Jews with non-Jews. David Lobron writes:

I hadn't heard of these restrictions before, and they bothered me a bit. I suspect I'm in one of those "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing" situations, i.e., that this is not operative halachah today, or that there have been counter-rulings that are more pro-social. Can you comment on that a bit?

I respond:

These measures were passed when an unexpected "window of opportunity" presented itself to the minority faction in the pharisaic camp. From the discussion on one of these measures in the Gemara [Avodah Zarah 36a] we learn that these measures were ultimately ineffective because "the majority of the people did not adopt them" and "we do not impose on the people rabbinic decrees unless the majority of the people can support them". (Were the sages Conservative Jews!?) David may rest assured that the people long ago abrogated these social restrictions.


There are other messages waiting but this shiur is already overlong. I shall bring them before you when we resume after the Passover break; for the Virtual Bet Midrash is now taking its traditional break for Pesaĥ. The next shiur will be on April 28th. I wish all participants a very happy and serene Passover.

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