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Cursed is he who grows pigs
Highlights from The Essential Talmud by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
Those who are insulted but do not insult, hear their shame but do not reply, act out of love and rejoice in suffering, of them it was written: 'And those who love Him will be as the sun in its splendor.'
Happy New Year Kvetchers! I’ve had an inexplicable surge of sign-ups in the last week. If you haven’t read it, check out by 2022 wrap up here.
In this Kvetch I share highlights from Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s excellent The Essential Talmud and as a bonus have included some observations on last week’s parashah. It is not only for the religiously inclined.
(If you like the post below you may also enjoy Polygamy in Judaism (or, Love in the Time of Gomorrah) and Why practice Judaism?)
In this Kvetch:
Highlights from The Essential Talmud by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
The golem and artificial insemination
Duties of Greater men
Cursed is the legalist: Sodomite rule
The right to self-defense
Theft is worse than robbery
Fornicating for Apples
“He who is greater than his fellow man is also greater in desire”
Last Week’s Parashah
Joseph as Blackstone c.1600 BC
Are we the descendants of Cain?
1. Highlights from The Essential Talmud by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
a. Resh Lakish
I want to start this off with a story that almost brings a tear to my eye each time I read it, and I have now read it many times:
Closest of all to R. Yohanan was his brother-in-law, Resh Lakish, R. Simeon Ben Lakish, his colleague and partner in debates. Resh Lakish had studied in his youth but was forced by poverty to sell himself as a gladiator, an ordeal he survived because of his tremendous physical prowess. A dramatic encounter with R. Yohanan changed his life. It is related that R. Yohanan was bathing in the Jordan when he spied Resh Lakish diving into the water and said to him admiringly: "Your strength should be dedicated to Torah." Resh Lakish, in turn, was impressed by R. Yohanan's great physical beauty and answered in the same spirit: "Your beauty should be dedicated to women." Then R. Yohanan promised Resh Lakish that if he changed his ways and returned to his studies, he would give him his sister, who was Resh Lakish's match in beauty, in marriage. In fact, Resh Lakish resumed his studies and became one of the greatest scholars of his day, revered even by his brother-in-law. At this later stage in his life, Resh Lakish became an ascetic who never laughed and never spoke in public to those whose character was in any way questionable; (it was said that those to whom Resh Lakish spoke in the marketplace could obtain loans without guarantors). Hundreds of intellectual discourses between R. Yohanan and Resh Lakish are cited in the sources. R. Yohanan regarded such debates as the perfect way to further knowledge, and compared himself, in the absence of Resh Lakish, to a man trying to applaud with one hand. Resh Lakish died before R. Yohanan, and the latter, who blamed himself for his brother-in-law's death, was inconsolable and died shortly afterward.
Brotherly love, physical prowess, intellectual obsession, spiritual ferocity: what more could a man want?
Two of my favourite of Resh Lakish’s teachings:
"Greater is he that lends than he that gives alms; but he that aids by taking part in a business undertaking is greater than either." - A right modern capitalist is Resh Lakish!
"Do not live in the neighborhood of an ignorant man who is pious"
I take the second teaching to refer to diligent and stupid individuals in the vein of this quote by German General Kurt von Hammerstein-Equord:
There are clever, hardworking, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and hardworking; their place is the General Staff. The next ones are stupid and lazy; they make up 90 percent of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the mental clarity and strength of nerve necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is both stupid and hardworking; he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always only cause damage.
Whilst there are 613 mitzvot (commandments) in Judaism, only about 369 are applicable today. Of those, only 270 are really relevant (e.g. Only if he owns a house with a walk-out roof, is he obliged to put a fence around it — not that relevant).
The reason many of these cannot be followed is there is no Temple to follow them in (the last Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD).
Many of these relate to the laws of sacrifice (hard to pin down exactly, seems to be 100 — 200).
The laws of ritual slaughter, like the kosher laws, are a mystery to the Sages. There is no answer to the why.
In line with the general policy of the Talmud we find no systematic attempt therein to explain the ideological basis of the injunction on sacrifice, and the issue can be understood only through the hints dispersed throughout the text and from the various commentaries written over the ages.
But they are complicated and extensive:
The laws of sacrifice as they appear in the Torah itself, particularly in Leviticus, are comprehensive and complicated, though not exhaustive.
Even in the talmudic era, the laws of sacrifice were regarded as the most involved in the Talmud. The complexity results not only from the abundance and intricacy of the details but also from the basic intellectual theories underlying this type of law. Unlike civil law, for example, which is essentially rational, laws of sacrifice are based on very ancient traditions and customs for which no apparent explanation exists. In the talmudic period it was emphasized that, unlike other halakhot, laws of sacrifice should be studied and analyzed with great caution, and methods of study appropriate in other spheres were not always effective in this area. The scholars cited extensive proof that halakhic methods relevant and applicable elsewhere cannot be employed in deliberations on laws of sacrifice, which constitute a world apart. At the same time, the scholar who becomes reasonably erudite in this field begins to discern a special kind of logic that can serve as the basis for more profound examination.1
The impracticality of the actual laws of sacrifice did not stop the development of commentaries and study around them:
Despite the historical and geographical distance, the Babylonian sages devoted considerable attention to the laws of sacrifice, their justification being that “he who engages in study of the laws of sacrifice should be regarded as if he had offered up a sacrifice himself.” Accordingly, an entire order of the Babylonian Talmud, Kodashim, is devoted to this subject.
Some principles of sacrifice:
On the basis of this idea, “one may give much and another little as long as his heart is directed at Heaven.” Since it is not the quality of the sacrifice that counts but the effort made by the sacrificer, the meager offering of the poor man may be worth more than the rich man’s large sacrifice. Another basic concept is substitution – the sacrifice substitutes for self-sacrifice or death. The sinner deserves to die for his sins, but the Torah grants him the opportunity of offering up a sacrifice, on condition that he realizes that this symbolizes sacrifice of his own self. Everything that is done to the sacrifice should have been done to him. This approach is implicit in the midrashim and is expressed in the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, where a ram is placed on the altar and sacrificed in his stead.
It is always emphasized in this sphere that the sacrifice alone cannot atone for sins and can only be offered up after the sinner has repented, whether through expressing regret and swearing never to sin again, in cases of sins against Heaven, or through restitution of the theft, in cases of sin committed against his fellow men. An atonement sacrifice offered after the act of penitence was considered the most profound and basic ritual sacrament. Offering the sacrifice, pouring its blood on the altar, and burning the flesh are ceremonies of communion with God, and this aspect is strongly emphasized when the sacrificer eats part of the flesh. At this moment, the sacrificer communes with and is as one with God.
c. The golem and artificial insemination
Ritual slaughter was not the only abstract area of laws the sages debated. Talmudic scholars engaged in rigorous debate about entirely abstract hypotheticals which set certain laws and practices through their arguments (kind of like obiter dictum in common law), such as over the moral nature of the golem and artificial insemination (many centuries before this was remotely plausible).
Can the mythical golem be part of a minyan (quorum of ten men required for certain Jewish prayers)?
The question is surprisingly analogous to today’s anxiety around AI. Can a human creation have consciousness or attract moral considerations? The scholars essentially answered to the negative: the golem had been killed, and it had not been murder and so it could not have possessed a soul. Only God can create man. One interesting subordinate explanation is that the golem is incapable of speech and speech is essential to what it means to be human. When God created the universe He did it through speech: God said, “Let there be light” and there was light.
the talmudic scholars and codifiers devoted considerable attention to the question of the artificial insemination of women and the ensuing complications over the legal and moral status of mother and child. It took almost 2,000 years for this problem to take on practical significance
d. Duties of Greater Men
A painful moral predicament arose in situations where a man could escape some threat or danger only by abandoning some other individual to his fate. One of the examples cited was that of a group of people threatened with mass execution if they did not hand over one of their number. In such an event, the halakhah rules that the whole group should give itself up rather than abandon one member. They are permitted to hand over one of their number only when a specific person has been demanded and this individual is indeed a wanted criminal. But even here the issue is not clear-cut, and the moral decision is not always the same. The sages cited a case in which a man accused of killing a Roman princess fled and concealed himself in a community. When the authorities learned of his presence there, they threatened to kill the entire population unless they handed over the wanted man. When it became evident that the community was really in danger, the local sage went to the fugitive and explained the situation, and the latter agreed to give himself up. But, it is related, Elijah the Prophet, who had previously appeared to the sage every day, ceased to come to him. When the sage prayed and fasted in the hope that Elijah would return, the prophet spoke to him, saying that he would never again visit him because the sage had caused the death of the fugitive. The sage protested: "But this is our teaching" (i.e., the mishnaic ruling permits it), to which Elijah retorted: "But is it mishnat hassidim?" In other words, a great man has higher obligations than other people.
The same problem is raised in another famous example cited by the sages. Two men are travelling in the desert and one has enough water to enable him to survive until he reaches civilization. If the water is divided between the two, both will die en route. What should they do? The mishnaic sages argued the point extensively, but the conclusion that was accepted as halakhah was that the man in possession of the water should drink it alone and save himself, on the assumption that "one's own life has priority." It was noted, however, that this halakhic conclusion applied only to common people. Scholars should divide the water between them, even though aware that this act spelled death.
• Some people know better, or can learn better, than others what it is right to do in certain circumstances.
• There are at least two different sets of instruction, or moral codes, suitable for the different categories of people. This raises the question whether there are also different standards by which we should judge what people do.
I love it when secular philosophers find themselves re-inventing the findings of ancient sages.
e. Cursed is the legalist: Sodomite rule
There is an irony in Jewish law that being excessively legalistic is itself frowned upon.
The overall solution to the question of the law versus private moral considerations is as follows: a man may go as far as shurat ha-din (the limit of the law) in making demands of others; in his conduct toward others he must act "inside the law." In addition to these halakhic restrictions, there was a well-known concept in civil law and interpersonal relations of the man who acts with forbearance. It was said of such a man that God would forgive all his sins as a reward for his behavior. The ideal man was described as follows:
“Those who are insulted but do not insult, hear their shame but do not reply, act out of love and rejoice in suffering, of them it was written: ‘And those who love Him will be as the sun in its splendor.’”
This connects with the duties of greater men also:
Conduct considered legal and fair in the case of an ordinary man is unacceptable in a man of higher standards. A talmudic saying that reflects this approach evaluates people in accordance with their attitude to property: "He who says 'Yours is mine and mine is mine' is a wicked man; 'yours is yours and mine is yours' is a pious man; 'mine is mine and yours is yours,' this is the average, but there are those who say that it is a Sodomite rule [i.e., cruel]." Tension therefore exists between the view according to the law, "mine is mine and yours is yours," and blind adherence to the letter of the law in every event, which is "a Sodomite rule." There is an aggadic tradition that regards Sodom not necessarily as the center of wild and indiscriminate corruption but as a place in which the legislation was evil because of a combination of malice and excessive respect for the letter of the law. If a man repents of an oral guarantee and goes back on his word, no court can force him to carry out his promise, but he is cursed: "He who punished the men of Sodom will punish those who do not keep their word." And, generally speaking, a man who insists on his legal right to deprive another of enjoyment when he himself has nothing to lose is accused of midat Sodom.
f. The Pig
No one actually knows why pig eating seems to be in a special category of un-kosher, but it is ancient:
The particularly emotional attitude toward the eating of pig is noted in talmudic sources. The ban is no stricter than that against the consumption of horse or camel flesh, yet the Talmud says: "Cursed is he who grows pigs." There was apparently some historical source for this particular interdict, which is not clear to us. It is possible that the peculiarly intense reaction was the result of the Seleucid attempt to force the Jews to eat and sacrifice pigs, and it may be the consequence of the fact that one of the accepted symbols of the Roman legions (especially those that fought in Palestine) was the pig.
g. The right to self-defense
It is a basic assumption in the Torah that "if anyone comes to kill you, you should kill him first"; what is more, every individual has the right to kill those about to commit a grave crime (murder or rape). There is no room for cautioning the legal deliberations where self-defense is concerned, nor is there a prescribed method of implementation. At the same time, it is stated emphatically that violence should not be employed in self-defense beyond the necessary and feasible minimum dictated by circumstances. A man who kills his pursuer when he could have saved himself in some other way may himself be charged with murder.
Cursed is the snitch; informers can be killed under a pretext of self-defense:
The special law relating to informers was an expansion of the concept of self-defense. Anyone bearing tales against others to the alien authorities… places himself outside the law by his action, and members of the community are permitted and even encouraged to kill him. Even when the death penalty was abolished in certain communities, informers were still sentenced to death. It is interesting to note that in medieval Spain the Jewish courts sentenced Jewish informers, but the sentence was carried out by the Spanish authorities, despite the fact that the informer had been acting on the latter's behalf.
The right against self-incrimination found across the West today (the Fifth Amendment in the US) is also found in Judaism, and to an even stronger extent. In a criminal case before the Sanhedrin, a confession would not be admitted at all — and the logic is surprisingly coherent and charming. A man is free to give away his money as he pleases but he is not free to give away his life:
If the defendant in a civil case admits the charge, there is no need of further clarification, and sentence is passed accordingly. The basis for this procedure is not the assumption that the defendant is telling the truth, but the belief that every man is entitled to give away his money as a gift. Therefore, if he decides to state that the charge against him is a just one, it is not the concern of the court to seek further facts. This is not so where criminal law is concerned. The basic assumption in halakhah is that a man does not belong only to himself; just as he has no right to cause physical harm to others, so he has no right to inflict injury on himself. This is why it was determined that the confession of the defendant had no legal validity and should not be taken into consideration. This rule, which has its own formal substantiation, served courts for centuries as a powerful weapon against attempts to extract confessions by force or persuasion.
You can see how this leads to culture evolving against torture.
i. Theft is worse than robbery
It is interesting to note that the halakhah differentiates in a most unusual way between theft and robbery. The thief sometimes pays a fine, but the robber who takes openly and by force is merely obliged to restore the object or its equivalent in cash. The talmudic explanation is intriguing: the robber is preferable to the thief since he acts openly, and his attitude toward God, in transgressing against his commandments and committing a robbery, is equal to his attitude toward his fellow men, from whom he steals openly, without fear and shame. The thief, on the other hand, demonstrates that he fears men more than he fears God, since he hides himself from his fellow men but not from the Almighty; he therefore deserves to be fined.
j. Fornicating for apples
Excessive piety, like excessive legalism, doesn’t work.
They feared that pious behavior might sometimes be aimed at outward show. It was the idea of the woman who "fornicated for apples, in order to distribute them to the sick" that troubled them. As a general rule, however, the God-fearing woman who busied herself with good works was a familiar figure, and it was accepted that certain women were extremely righteous and even paragons of virtue. The activities and status of the ancient prophetesses were taken for granted and were not deemed to require explanation. In fact, there was a well known saying that "the patriarchs were inferior to the matriarchs in prophesy."
k. On daughters
The Talmud reluctantly acknowledges the special place that daughters have in a man’s heart.
R. Hisda: As far as I am concerned, daughters are better than sons
I’ll just leave this here — I am writing an entire post on daughters, where this will feature.
l. He who is greater than his fellow man is also greater in desire
In general, the sages were aware of the power of the sexual drive, and their view is epitomized in the saying: Ein epitropus le'arayot (there is no guardian over sexual affairs). Accordingly, even the most chaste and pious of men, who was above suspicion, could never be wholly trusted and should not be entrusted with the task of guarding a woman alone. It is a measure of their profound awareness that the sages claimed that "he who is greater than his fellow man is also greater in desire," and several stories are told of men renowned for their piety who were almost tempted into sexual misdemeanors. The purpose of these anecdotes was not to denigrate these saintly men but to emphasize the need for chastity and self-control. Judaism regards the taking of a wife as an important precept, binding on every man. Even a man who is no longer capable of fathering children is urged to avoid the celibate life. Thus the sexual instinct is seen not merely as a means of perpetuating the species but as part of the human personality, and it was said that "he who has no wife cannot be called a man." An unmarried man, in the eyes of the sages, is only half a body and becomes a complete human being only when he marries (the story of the creation as related in the Torah was interpreted by most scholars as meaning that Adam was created with a dual image and was later separated into two bodies-man and woman).
2. Last Week’s Parashah — Genesis 48
a. Joseph as Blackstone c.1600 BC
You might notice in this week’s parshah the earliest example of distressed investing (mainly real estate) that I know of: Joseph canny actions as Egypt’s Viceroy during its prophesised famine. And as a former distressed investor,2 this portion is close to my hear.
Jospeh uses a healthy state balance sheet from years of agricultural surplus to step into the market and buy up all the farmers’ livestock and land:
13 Now there was no food in the entire land, for the famine had grown exceedingly severe, and the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan were exhausted because of the famine.
14 And Joseph collected all the money that was found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan with the grain that they were buying, and Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh's house.
15 Now the money was depleted from the land of Egypt and from the land of Canaan, and all the Egyptians came to Joseph, saying, "Give us food; why should we die in your presence, since the money has been used up?"
16 And Joseph said, "Give [me] your livestock, and I will give you [food in return] for your livestock, if the money has been used up."
17 So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them food [in return] for the horses and for the livestock in flocks and in cattle and in donkeys, and he provided them with food [in return] for all their livestock in that year.
18 That year ended, and they came to him in the second year, and they said to him, "We will not hide from my lord, for insofar as the money and the property in animals have been forfeited to my lord, nothing remains before my lord, except our bodies and our farmland.
19 Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our farmland? Buy us and our farmland for food, so that we and our farmland will be slaves to Pharaoh, and give [us] seed, so that we live and not die, and the soil will not lie fallow."
20 So Joseph bought all the farmland of the Egyptians for Pharaoh, for the Egyptians sold, each one his field, for the famine had become too strong for them, and the land became Pharaoh's.
What’s more, Joseph levies a 20% fee (~the 20% carry fee funds levy to Limited Partners):
24 And it shall be concerning the crops, that you shall give a fifth to Pharaoh, and the [remaining] four parts shall be yours: for seed for [your] field[s], for your food, for those in your houses, and for your young children to eat."
Would be nice if all LPs reacted like this:
25 They replied, "You have saved our lives! Let us find favor in my lord's eyes, and we will be slaves to Pharaoh."
b. Are we the descendants of Cain?
There’s an interesting line where Joseph embarks on a massive urbanisation program:
21 And he transferred the populace to the cities, from [one] end of the boundary of Egypt to its [other] end.
The commentaries suggest it was done piecemeal, city by city, so that neighborhoods and communities remained intact, and it was peaceful and successful. There is a whole Kvetch to be written on the strange role cities play in Genesis. My spiciest work-in -progress theory is that we are the descendants of Cain. After he killed his brother Abel, he was sent away to found the cities of the East. In the story the pastoralist is the morally upright and the agriculturalist turned city-founder is the fallen villain. And yet who are we, if not agriculturalists turned city-founders and dwellers?
16 And Cain went forth from before the Lord, and he dwelt in the land of the wanderers, to the east of Eden.
17 And Cain knew his wife, and she conceived and bore Enoch, and he was building a city, and he called the city after the name of his son, Enoch.
If you like this Kvetch you may also enjoy Polygamy in Judaism (or, Love in the Time of Gomorrah) and Why practice Judaism?
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This reminds me of the laws of Evidence, which I studied at law school. Maybe for another Kvetch, but I found Evidence to be the most complicated and idiosyncratic area of law and a bit of a blackpill on the idea of an objective legal framework of principles rather than just each judge going with the vibe of what seems fair and making it up case by case.
Investor who invests in distressed assets, not an investor who is distressed ;)