The Coming Week’s Daf Yomi by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim (original ideas) of Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud.
This month’s Steinsaltz Daf Yomi is sponsored by Dr. and Mrs. Alan Harris, the Lewy Family Foundation, and Marilyn and Edward Kaplan
Two examples of minor Second Temple holidays that appear in Megilat Ta’anit as days on which it is forbidden to fast or to eulogize are the 13th day of Adar, which was known as Yom Nikanor, and the 12th day of Adar, which was known as Yom Trayanus. The Gemara explains the events that occurred on each of these celebratory days.
Yom Nikanor celebrated the death of Nikanor, a Greek general, who would wave his hand at Jerusalem and its environs and say, “when will this fall into my hands so that I can crush it?” When the Hasmoneans succeeded in driving the Greeks from Israel he was captured and killed.
Yom Trayanus celebrated the death of Trayanus, a Roman officer who put two Jews – Papus and Lulianus – to death. Before doing so, he mocked them publicly, challenging the Jewish God to intervene on their behalf, as He was reputed to have done on behalf of Hanania, Mishael and Azariah (see Daniel Chapter 3). Papus and Lulianus responded that they were not deserving of divine intervention, and neither was Trayanus on the level of Nebuchadnezzar to have a miracle take place because of him. They concluded that God probably had made him (Trayanus) the instrument of their death in order to punish him for it. Immediately after their death, messengers from Rome arrived who removed him from his position and killed him.
It is interesting to note that the 13th of Adar, referred to here as Yom Nikanor, is a day that is on the Jewish calendar today as a public fast day that we know as Ta’anit Esther. Although Megillat Ta’anit has been nullified, Hanukkah and Purim are still celebrated, and according to the rules of Megillat Ta’anit, the day before each of these holidays should also be celebrated; thus a public fast should be forbidden as well. The Ra’avad explains that although Purim remains a holiday, the rule forbidding fasts on the day before Purim was abolished. The Ramban points out that once Yom Nikanor was eliminated, fasting was permitted on that day, and the strength of being the day before Purim cannot be more significant than the holiday itself. Another approach suggests that Ta’anit Esther is a unique fast day, one that does not commemorate a period of mourning, but rather should be seen as part of the remembrance of the victory on Purim.
Today’s Daf Yomi is dedicated in memory of Samuel Bravmann, z”l, whose yahrzeit is observed on 8 Shevat.
The Mishnah that opens the third perek (=chapter) of Masechet Ta’anit teaches that there are certain circumstances in which we do not call for fasting that becomes progressively more severe, but rather we call for immediate hatra’ah. Included would be a situation where there is rain in all communities but one (based on the passage in Amos 4:7), and when a city is hit by plague or is surrounded by a non-Jewish enemy. In general, the appropriate response to any out-of-the-ordinary situation of danger would be a hatra’ah, which may include prayer, shofar blowing, fasting, or a combination of the three.
One exception to the rule is an overabundance of rain, when no public hatra’ah takes place. This ruling brings the Mishnah to relate one of the famous stories of Honi ha-Me’agel. In the course of a year of drought, the Sages turned to Choni ha-Me’agel and asked him to pray for rain. When his first entreaties did not produce rain, he drew a circle around himself and swore to God that he would not leave that spot until God showed mercy on His children by ending the drought.
At first a light rain began to fall, andChoni demanded rain that fill the cisterns. When angry rains began to fall, Choni demanded rains of mercy and blessing. Finally, the rains fell until flooding began, and the people turned to Choni and asked him to pray that the rain should stop, which he was reluctant to do.
The story concludes with the words of Shimon ben Shetach, who said that Choni’s words to God were so impudent that he deserved to be excommunicated. But how could he be punished for having such a close, personal relationship with God?
Aside from the stories about him related here in Masechet Ta’anit, we know of Choni ha-Me’agel’s death from Josephus‘ record of it in his Kadmoniyot ha-Yehudim, where he tells of how Choni was killed during the civil war between supporters of Hyrcanus and Aristoblus. From the Talmud Yerushalmi it appears that the well-known “Rip Van Winkle story” of Choni sleeping for seventy years actually relates to one of Choni’s ancestors; however, from the stories that appear on daf (=page) 23, it is clear that the mysterious powers and abilities were handed down in the family through the generations.
His name – ha-Me’agel – is usually attributed to the circle (igul in Hebrew) that he drew in this story. Rav Tzemah Ga’on says that he was named for this hometown – Miglu; others suggest that he was known by his profession – tarring and flattening roofs with a roller (a ma’agilah).
The Gemara relates the well-known story of Nakdimon ben Gurion, who is known from a number of stories that appear about him in the Talmud as one of the wealthy Jews who lived in Jerusalem at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. (There appear to be references to him in Josephus‘ works, as well.) While his Hebrew name was Boni – as is mentioned in the Gemara – it was common for members of the upper class to have Roman names, as well. His Roman name – Nakdimon – is the subject of a Rabbinic midrash, as is related in the story told by the Gemara.
One year, during a drought, there was no water available for the Jewish pilgrims who were coming to Jerusalem for the holiday. Nakdimon ben Gurion approached one of the Roman officers with an offer. He wanted access granted to twelve Roman cisterns on behalf of the Jewish pilgrims. He personally guaranteed that the cisterns would be refilled by a certain date, or else he would pay him twelve talents of silver. When the day arrived, the Roman officer demanded to receive either the water or the silver. Nakdimon ben Gurion responded that the day was not yet over. The officer ridiculed the notion of Nakdimon ben Gurion expecting the cisterns to be refilled in a year of drought. Laughing, he went to the bathhouse, looking forward to his windfall. Nakdimon went to the Temple and prayed to God that his concern for the Jewish people should not lead to financial ruin. The skies filled with clouds and rain began to fall, filling the cisterns. Upon completing their missions, Nakdimon and the Roman officer met outside in the rain. Nakdimon pointed out that the cisterns were not only filled, but were overflowing, and he claimed that the Roman owed him the overflow. The Roman admitted that God had brought the rain on behalf of Nakdimon, but he argued that the debt had not been paid on time, for the day was over! At this point, Nakdimon prayed and the clouds dispersed, allowing the sun to peek through – nikdera hamah ba’avuro – proving that the day was not over.
On a literary note, the Maharsha points out the contrast in the story, of the Roman officer entering the bathhouse – the bet ha-merchatz – to bathe while people are desperate for water, whereas Nakdimon exits the bet ha-Mikdash and demands that the excess water be made available to the people.
What type of plague will cause community leaders to declare a public fast?
The Gemara relates that Rav Yehudah was informed that a plague had broken out among the pigs in the community. He responded to the report by calling for a public fast. The Gemara rejects the suggestion that Rav Yehudah believed that a plague among one type of animals could transfer to others and thus posed a danger to humans, arguing that he saw the case of pigs to be unique, since the intestines of pigs are similar to human intestines.
There is no doubt that some types of diseases can be transferred from animals to people. Trichinosis, for example, is a disease carried by pigs that can be transferred to humans, although that ordinarily takes place only if the flesh of the infected animal is eaten, which was not a concern in our case. Nevertheless, there are similarities between the internal anatomy of pigs and humans that are known to scientists today. These similarities lead to use of the intestines of pigs in human transplants, due to a relatively small incidence of rejection of such tissue. Rav Yehuda’s concern was that in this specific case, these similarities may lead to the transfer of the swine plague to people.
Based on this discussion, Tosafot take for granted that if a plague breaks out among non-Jews, the Jewish community would declare a fast, since the possibility of the plague spreading from non-Jews to the Jewish community seems to be obvious. Surprisingly, the Ritva disagrees with Tosafot. The Me’iri argues that our Gemara really means to teach that a plague among idol worshippers should be seen as potentially dangerous to the Jewish community, and the Gemara discusses pigs as a code word for idol worshipers, based on the passage in Tehillim 80:14.
There is a series of stories, which appears in this perek (=chapter), whose focus is the piety of average Jewish people. Our daf (=page) features a number of such stories.
Two of them occurred in the marketplace of Be-lefet, a place frequented by Rabbi Beroka Choza’ah, who often met Eliyahu ha-Navi there. On one occasion, Rabbi Beroka Choza’ah asked Eliyahu whether anyone who was in the market at that time was a ben olam ha-ba – someone who was assured a place in the world-to-come. Eliyahu pointed out a person who was not dressed in a Jewish manner (he was not wearing tzitzit and was wearing black shoes – which was not the Jewish custom). Upon questioning him, Rabbi Beroka Hoza’ah discovered that he worked for the non-Jewish government as a jail keeper, where he carefully kept men and women separated and protected Jewish women who were put into prison. Furthermore, he kept his Jewish identity secret so that he could influence the government on issues having to do with the Jewish community and warn the Jews of any impending decrees that would affect them.
Eliyahu then pointed out another couple who were assured a place in the world-to-come. Rabbi Beroka Choza’ah approached them and asked what their profession was. They told him that they were professional jesters, who entertained people who appeared to be sad or depressed, or who worked to make peace between people who had been angry at one another.
Although the well-known Mishnah in Sanhedrin (see 10:1) teaches that every Jewish person has a share in the world-to-come, the intention there is that after a person is purged of his sins, having received the punishment that is due to him, he will merit olam ha-ba. Our Gemara is discussing people whose behaviors assure them of being a ben olam ha-ba – someone whose actions in this world guarantee him immediate entrance into the world-to-come. The commentaries here discuss how the activities of these people, which benefited the public at large, ensured that they would not succumb to sin in the future.
The Mishnah (19a) related the story of Choni ha-Me’agel and the close relationship that he had with God that allowed him to plead before Him on behalf of the Jewish people. Our daf (=page) relates that his descendants shared some of his abilities and tells stories about their intervention on behalf of am yisra’el (=the people of Israel), even as they tried to avoid receiving credit for their success.
One example is the story of Abba Hilkiya, who was Choni ha-Me’agel’s grandson. He was working in the fields when he saw the delegation of rabbis coming to ask him to intercede on their behalf and pray for rain. The Gemara relates that he refused to return their greeting and performed a series of strange activities while he walked home, culminating in his entering his home with his wife, feeding his children and encouraging his wife to join him in prayer on the roof. Only when the clouds had already gathered and the rain began did he turn to the delegation and ask what they wanted. When they responded that they were sent to ask him to pray, he told them that they did not need his prayers, as it had already begun to rain. When asked, he explained his odd behaviors – all of which related to his sensitivity to the needs of others (e.g. he could not respond to their original greeting because he was paid by the hour and speaking to them would have been stealing from his employer). He also explained that his wife’s prayers were answered before his own because her place in the house allowed her to be more directly involved in responding to the needs of the poor. As Rashi explains, this was true because she was more readily available and because her charity responded to an immediate need (i.e. she fed them, rather than giving them money).
Another one of Choni ha-Me’agel’s grandchildren was Chanan ha-nehba (i.e. “the one who hides”) who, according to the Gemara, received that nickname because he hid himself to avoid receiving honor for his actions. According to some manuscripts of the Gemara, he would hide himself in the lavatory – which may refer to his modesty, that even in the bathroom he was careful to remain clothed, or, according to a tradition of the Geonim, when people came looking for him to pray for rain, he hid himself in the bathroom so that he would not be found.
Among the stories told by the Gemara about miraculous occurrences that happened to righteous individuals is one related about Elazar ish Birta, from whom charity collectors always kept their distance. The reason that they would hide from him whenever they saw him was because he would give away every last penny that he had.
The Gemara relates that he was heading for the marketplace to purchase things in preparation for his daughter’s wedding. On his way, he noticed a number of people who were collecting charity. Although they tried to avoid him, he chased them down and demanded to know what cause they were collecting for at this time. They reluctantly told him that they were collecting money for a wedding. Two orphans were getting married, and they had to rely on charity to put together the wedding. Elazar ish Birta immediately declared that the orphans’ need came before his own daughter’s needs and gave them everything he had.
Before returning home, he realized that there was a single zuz remaining, and he purchased a small amount of wheat. He went home and stored the wheat in his granary. When asked what he had purchased for the wedding, he replied that he had put it in the granary. His wife went to check and discovered that, miraculously, the granary was so full that she could not even open the door. When she ran to tell her husband what happened, he told her that they could only benefit from it like any poor person, since he did not intend to derive benefit from a miracle.
One of the major issues dealt with in the context of this story is that the Sages had ruled (as one of takanot Usha) that a person cannot donate more than one-fifth (20%) of his possessions to charity. The Rambam, in his commentary on the Mishnah, argues that one-fifth is appropriate for someone who wants to fulfill the mitzvah, but it is not forbidden to donate more; rather, it is a midat chasidut – a pious attribute – to do so. It is also possible that this story took place prior to the establishment of takanat Usha.
In addition to his monumental translation and commentary on the Talmud, Rabbi Steinsaltz has authored dozens of books and hundreds of articles on a variety of topics, both Jewish and secular. For more information about Rabbi Steinsaltz’s groundbreaking work in Jewish education, visit www.steinsaltz.org or contact the Aleph Society at 212-840-1166.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.