Masechet Ta’anit 4a-10b

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12 Jan 2007

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


Ta’anit 4a-b

Anger is usually perceived as a negative trait. Nevertheless, the Gemara on our daf appears to suggest that anger has a positive side to it, as well.

In response to these statements, Ravina quotes a pasuk from Kohelet (11:10) that extols removing anger from one’s heart, and he derives from it that everyone should work to behave in a pleasant way.

The question of how we can understand the Sages’ perspective of anger as an ideal is discussed by many of the commentators on our page. The Me’iri explains that a person who has dedicated his life to Torah study has raised himself to a spiritual plane where he has a heightened sensitivity to evil or inappropriate behavior. The anger that he expresses in response to such behavior should not be interpreted as a negative personal trait, but as the reaction of a particularly sensitive soul to the wrongdoings of the world.

Even under those circumstances, argues Ravina, the scholar should learn to express his position in a positive way. Rabbi Yehonatan Eybeshuts explains that when one allows himself to become angry, it affects his very soul of the person, even when he is presenting a legitimate argument, Thus it is for his own benefit to be careful not to do so.

Ta’anit 5a-b

The Gemara describes a meal shared by Rav Nachman and Rabbi Yitzhak (there were two Amoraim named Rabbi Yitzhak who were students of Rabbi Yochanan, one of whom was proficient in halakha, and the other in aggadah. As we will see, the Rabbi Yitzhak in our story is the aggadist, who was known as Rabbi Yitzhak bar Pinchas. It appears that he traveled to Bavel where he spread the Torah of the Land of Israel, and, in particular, the teachings of his teacher, Rabbi Yochanan.). Rav Nachman asked Rabbi Yitzhak to share some words of Torah, and Rabbi Yitzhak responded with a teaching of Rabbi Yochanan – that it is not appropriate to talk during the meal.

Upon completion of the meal Rabbi Yitzhak shared another one of Rabbi Yochanan’s teachings. He quoted his teacher as saying that Ya’akov Avinu – our forefather Jacob – never died. Rav Nachman reacted with shock: How could it be that the Torah records the eulogies said over Yaakov and describes his eventual burial in the Land of Israel, along with the related preparations, if he never died?! Rabbi Yitzhak simply brings a passage from Yirmiyahu (30:10) in which God tells Yaakov that he need not fear, for both he and his descendants would be saved, interpreting it to mean that both the Jewish people, and their forefather Yaakov, are alive.

Even with the pasuk in Yirmiyahu, the statement that Yaakov Avinu did not die deserves an explanation. Some commentaries (the Ri”af, for example) suggest that Yaakov fainted away and was in a comatose state, and only upon his return for burial in Israel did he die. Nevertheless, this does not appear to be the intention of Rabbi Yitzhak’s teaching. Most likely, the statement “Yaakov Avinu never died” has mystical significance, something that Rav Nachman at first did not understand. One explanation is put forward by the Rashba, who suggests that the statement points to the fact that unlike Avraham and Yitzhak, both of whom had one son who was chosen and another who was rejected, all of Yaakov’s children continued with his covenant with God. In this way, his legacy – and, indeed, he himself – never died.

Ta’anit 6a-b

One of the promises that we repeat daily in our recitation of the Kriyat Shema is that the reward for appropriate behavior is rain in its proper time – yoreh u’malkosh. Our Gemara discusses these terms and their meaning. The yoreh, according to the baraita, is the first rain of the year, which occurs in the month of Marcheshvan, and the malkosh is the rain that ends the season in Nissan. In truth, establishing the time that rain normally falls based on the Jewish calendar is inaccurate, at best, given the fluctuation that exists between these months and the solar-based, Gregorian calendar. Historically, rain has fallen in Israel as early as October (which sometime coincides with the end of Tishrei) and as late as the end of April (which sometimes falls out in the middle of Iyyar).

With regard to the meaning of each of these words, several suggestions are made by the Gemara.

Yoreh can be understood to be made up of any one of a number of different root words.

Malkosh appears to come from the root lekesh, an unusual root that means “late.” Rashi says that it is the name of a type of locust – the Schistocerca gregaria – whose appearance coincides with the end-of-season rains. These locusts ordinarily live in small groups and pose no danger whatsoever. Occasionally, when the late rains coincide with warm weather, development of eggs is hastened, large numbers of locusts are hatched at the same time, and the changes take place in the creatures’ behavior. They now change from solitary creatures to swarming communities that attack vegetation, causing widespread damage. Under certain circumstances they can reach Israel on South-easterly winds.

Ta’anit 7a-b

Today’s Daf Yomi is dedicated in honor of the yahrzeit of Leonard Laufer, Yehuda Aryeh Leib ben Moshe (25 Tevet).

Should we expect that a person who is a Torah scholar should also be a physically attractive person? Rabbi Oshaya says that we should not. He points out that the Torah is compared to three liquids – water, wine and milk (see Yeshayahu 55:1) – all of which are stored best in simple, clay vessels. In fact, the Rambam teaches (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:9) that we should not expect to find Torah in haughty, self-centered people, but rather among those who are modest and unassuming.

The Gemara tells of the Caesar’s daughter who approached Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananiya and asked how his wisdom could be contained in such an ugly vessel (Rabbi Yehoshua was well-known for his unappealing looks). Rabbi Yehoshua pointed out to her that the most expensive wine in the Caesar’s house was kept in pottery – why not in gold and silver vessels? Taking his suggestion seriously, she ordered all of the wine to be transferred to gold and silver, but found that after a short time it had all spoiled.

The Caesar’s daughter was not being mean or frivolous in her question; she was asking why God would choose to “store” the beautiful words of Torah in a container that was ugly. Wouldn’t it be more fitting for the Torah to be kept in a more appropriate storage vessel? In his response to her, Rabbi Yehoshua suggested that she do something that she certainly knew was inappropriate. Nevertheless, since people keep wine in silver cups for a short time at the table, why not keep it there longer? Her experiment showed that wine could be kept for a short time in a gold or silver cup, but not for a long time. Rabbi Yehoshua hinted that perhaps hearing a short Torah idea from a handsome person is an attractive idea, but that for long-term Torah study, a more simple container is more appropriate.

Wine is not ordinarily stored in gold or silver bottles because of chemicals in wine (and vinegar) that partially dissolve most metals with which they come into contact. Moreover, the makeup of many of these metals includes poisonous materials, so they are not only bad tasting, but potentially dangerous, as well.

Ta’anit 8a-b

Rabbi Ami teaches that it is due to the merit of people who truly believe in God that rain falls. The source for this teaching is Tehillim 85:12, according to which truth grows from the earth and righteousness comes down from the skies.

Continuing with the theme of those who truly believe, Rabbi Ami points to the story of those who believe in the huldah u-bor – the rodent and the pit – arguing that if you believe in the huldah u-bor, certainly you can believe in God.

It is interesting that the Gemara feels no need to explain what the story of the huldah u-bor entails, taking for granted that it was a story so well known that there was no need to put it in writing. Rashi and Tosafot both tell a short version of the story, but a lengthier version, whose source is in the traditions of the Ge’onim, appears in the Arukh.

As R. Natan ben Yechiel tells it in his Arukh, the story begins with a girl from a noble family who loses her way and, having fallen into a well while drinking, cannot manage to extract herself. A passerby hears her cries and shouts. After a lengthy conversation during which time he ascertains that she is, in fact, a woman and not a demon of some sort, he agrees to save her, on the condition that she will marry him. Upon lifting her from the well he wants to consummate the marriage immediately, but she objects, arguing that a Jewish man surely wants to marry according to the halakha and would not be interested in simply fulfilling animalistic urges. They agree to marry and appoint the well and a passing weasel as witnesses to their pact.

Upon returning home, she scrupulously kept her agreement, refusing the entreaties of all suitors. He, on the other hand, soon forgot the agreement and married another woman, who bore children – the first of whom was bitten by a weasel, the second of whom drowned in a well. Seeing that her children died under unnatural circumstances, she demanded an explanation from her husband, who admitted that he had promised another that he would marry her. They divorced and he searched for the woman who he had saved and promised to marry. When she refused him – as she did all others – he told her of the honest witnesses, the huldah u-bor,that brought him back to her. In the end they married and had many children, proving the passage in Tehillim (101:6) that God’s eyes are upon the faithful who merit a close relationship with Him.

Ta’anit 9a-b

Today’s Daf Yomi is dedicated in honor of the yahrzeit of Sydney Harris (27 Tevet).

Rabbi Yochanan teaches that fulfilling the mitzvah of ma’aser – tithes – guarantees wealth. He derives this from the passage (Devarim 14:22) asser ta-asser – surely you shall tithe – which he understands to mean asser bishvil she-titasher – separate tithes so that you should become wealthy. At first glance this appears to be a simple play-on-words, switching the Hebrew letter sin for a shin, thus changing the pronunciation of the word from asser (tithe) to osher (wealth). Others explain that this is a more straightforward interpretation of the pasuk – separate tithes, and by doing so you will be given the opportunity to separate yet more tithes (i.e. you will see success in your endeavors).

The Gemara now records a fascinating exchange between Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish‘s son. Rabbi Yochanan asks the child to share a passage that he had learned in school (a common practice in Talmudic times). The child quotes this pasukasser ta-asser – and asks Rabbi Yochanan to explain it. Following Rabbi Yochanan’s explanation the child asks how he knows that someone who separates tithes becomes wealthy. Rabbi Yochanan responds that it could be tested – be careful in separating tithes, and see the results! The child responds that testing God is forbidden, quoting the passage in Devarim (6:16) that clearly forbids testing God. To this Rabbi Yochanan responds by quoting Rabbi Hoshaya as teaching that tithes are unique because of the pasuk in Malachi (3:10) in which God clearly allows the Jewish people to test him with regard to the mitzvah of ma’aser, promising to open the storehouses of the skies to those who keep the mitzvah properly.

The exchange between Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish’s son is interesting because Resh Lakish was married to Rabbi Yochanan’s sister, making the young man Rabbi Yochanan’s nephew. We know that Resh Lakish had a number of children – sons and a daughter. The child in this story appears to be seven or eight years old, but it is clear from the conversation that he was a sharp young man. None of Resh Lakish’s children are quoted as adults in the Talmud, which leads to speculation that none of them survived to adulthood.

Ta’anit 10a-b

We learned earlier (see daf 2) that we begin adding gevurot geshamim at the beginning of the amidah at the end of Sukkot. When do we begin adding a request for rain? The Mishnah on our daf teaches that, according to the Tanna Kamma, we wait until the third day of Marcheshvan; Rabban Gamliel rules that we wait until the seventh day of Marcheshvan, which will give the pilgrims returning from Jerusalem a full two weeks after the holiday to reach their homes near the river Perat, which is the border with Suria. Both agree that we cannot reasonably expect people traveling to pray for rain during their journey.

The Mishnah was written in Israel. The Gemara deals with the question of when the proper time would be to begin requesting rain in the golah – the Diaspora. Hanania teaches that in the golah the prayer for rain begins 60 days after the fall equinox.

The Gemara clearly rules like Rabban Gamliel in the Mishnah and like Chananiah in the Gemara; thus our practice should be clear. In Israel we begin to recite the prayer for rain two weeks after Sukkot (on the seventh day of Marcheshvan) and in the Diaspora sixty days after the fall equinox. In fact, neither of these rulings is simple. While Rabban Gamliel’s ruling was necessary when pilgrims traveled back and forth to the Temple, is it appropriate today? Should all of Diaspora Jewry follow a ruling that was established when the center of the Diaspora Jewish community was living in Bavel?

We find disagreements among the rishonim as to how to approach these questions. The Rosh felt strongly that every community should request rain in the amidah according to its particular needs. The Ritva ruled that we cannot reject the clear conclusion of the Gemara and every community must choose one of the two dates mentioned by the Gemara. Current practice is that communities in the Land of Israel follow the ruling of Rabban Gamliel, while Diaspora communities follow Chanania’s ruling.

It should be noted that the date in the Diaspora – December 4th – does not coincide with the date at which we arrive when we add 60 days to the equinox of September 22 or 23. For a full discussion of these matters, click here.

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 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.