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The Talmud tells the amazing story of Mar Ukva who would go everyday to the home of a poor man and slip cash into his door post. The poor man really wished to know who was doing this and decided one day to find out. On that day Mar Ukva and his wife made the trip to the poor man’s house together but just as they were opening the door post the poor man came running towards them. The two of them fled because they did not want to embarrass the poor man by him finding out that one of the greatest rabbis of the generation was coming personally to his home everyday to secretly help him. The Talmud says that the only way they could escape him was to jump into a hot oven where the coals had already been raked. Mar Ukva’s feet began to burn and his wife told him to put his feet on top of hers because her’s were not burning. The Talmud explains that her merit of charity was greater than his because, being in the home, she could offer the poor instant care with ready made food while her husband’s care was only in the form of money. What makes the story even more incredible is that the Talmud says that when Mar Ukva was about to die he had a ledger where every coin he ever gave to charity had been recorded. And even though the amount was amazing he said, “the road is long and my supplies are few” referring to his upcoming trip to the Next World. He then gave away fifty percent of all his holdings which was considered ten times what the Talmud normally considered to be exceptionally wealthy. From this story you see an outstanding Torah scholar, a leading rabbi and perhaps one of the wealthiest men of his generation who not only took time and money to personally care for the poor but dreaded the thought of being discovered and honored for his donations. Something for us to all think about next time we pledge donations for honor or we feel particularly holy because we slipped a small coin into a desperate person’s hand. Talmud Kesubos 67b
In fact there are a few of them! The first was on the holiday of Shavuot depending on what the sky looked like. If the sky was partially cloudy with a north wind blowing it meant the people should go and plant wheat. The next was on the night after the last day of the holiday of Succot. People would look at the column of smoke rising from the Jerusalem Temple’s Altar. If it tilted to the north because of a southerly wind it meant there would be a lot of rain but if it tilted towards the south because of a northerly wind there would not be so much rain. If it was towards the east it meant the rain would be just what was required but to the west meant a shortage of rain for that year. And the third day was on the Jewish New Year of Rosh Hashanah. If the day was hot it meant the year would be hot and if it was cold it meant the year would be cold. Talmud Bava Basra 147a.
The Torah begins with a very cryptic report of the Creation because clearly the events are not in their proper sequence while the narrative creates more questions than answers. And even though it was known that the Earth travels around the Sun still the Babylonian Talmud talks in a language of the average person and states (Pessachim 94a) that the sun travels from sunrise to sunset over the Earth at a distance of 6,000 parsing, approximately 14,000 to 18,000 miles. While today we know the distance from the Earth to the Sun is approximately 93,500,000 miles, here the Talmud seems to be speaking of the span in the sky when the sun covers 1,000 parsing every two hours during the twelve hour day.
The Talmud also measures size in a metaphysical sense. For example it goes on to say that the size of Egypt is 400 x 400 parsing and yet Egypt is 1/60th in area of Kush, which itself is 1/60th of all of Earth. Yet Earth is 1/60th of the Garden of Eden, which is only 1/60th of Eden, which is only 1/60th of Hell. To understand what is going here requires a deep understanding of the mystical meanings behind numbers like 6 and 60 associated with physical strength and 400, the numerical value of the last letter in the Hebrew Alphabet, associated with the strongest power of spiritual impurity. Still, if the Garden of Eden was created on Earth, as it would seem from the Biblical narrative, how could it be so much larger than Earth, or even larger than Earth at all? Or are there another Garden of Eden and Eden not of this Earth?
But before you can digest any of this the Talmud begins with another measurement going beyond the creation of the physical universe into the spiritual universe moving towards the seven Heavenly firmaments, stating that the thickness of a firmament is 1,000 parsing which is between 2,300 – 3,000 miles deep. It is also on the next page, that the Talmud explains the movement of the planets, the stars and the wheel of the Zodiac explaining the distances between the constellations. The Talmud points out that Taurus is always in the north while Scorpio is always in the south yet all of Earth is under the influence of only one star. Of course our sun, also a star, has a major influence upon Earth highlighted by the Talmud’s discussion of what are called the Sun’s four (4) paths. During the spring the sun travels over the mountains to melt the snow while in the summer it travels over civilization for crops to ripen and in the fall it goes over the oceans to dry out the rivers and in the winter it travels over the desert to avoid drying out the seedlings. Perhaps what is most interesting about these pages in the Talmud is that the Talmud itself is the first to recognize that wisdom is not the sole property of the Jewish people and even points out fundamental differences between the opinions of the Jewish astronomers and astronomers from the other nations. To which one of the greatest of all Rabbis, Rebbe, acknowledges the seemingly greater wisdom of the nation’s astronomers over the Jewish astronomers! Be humble and live long!
In truth the Talmudic Sages (Pessachim 49b) had zero tolerance for people who are ignorant by choice. People who opt to be foolish are seen in the eyes of the Sages as the greatest slap in God’s Face, so to speak. God created man and woman in wisdom and to be partners in creation and this person made himself into a clown instead. The Maharasha takes this to such a degree that he says you can embarrass a person who elects to be ignorant even on a Yom Kippur which falls out on Shabbat. It is important to note that the normal Jewish attitude is that it is better to die before embarrassing another person in public and especially on a day as holy as a Yom Kippur which falls out on the Shabbat, yet this is how despicable such a person is regarded. Perhaps knowing the fear of public embarrassment is a potential reality could serve as a deterrent for such behavior. Or maybe it is to send a message to the rest of the community just how mentally diseased such a lifestyle is and to prevent further infection.
The Talmud takes this further providing a list of what kind of women your son should marry beginning with the best choice to the worst. However, to marry the daughter of an ignorant man isn’t even an option unless, of course, the daughter has used her own free will to leave her father’s ways. Because, as the Talmud says, children of ignorant people can always come to find their way back to Torah. And when it comes marrying off your daughter the Talmud says giving one’s daughter to an ignorant man is like giving her to a lion. Tosafot explain this to mean that when such a husband is having sex with his wife he won’t wait until she is ready for intimacy before taking care of his own needs, something which goes against the basic Jewish principle that pleasure in bed is the wife’s, not the husband’s, right.
Conversely, the Talmud goes on to point out that the ignorant man hates the Torah Scholar more than anyone. And his wife hates Torah Scholars even more than he does! Perhaps because she wishes to be proud of her man and she perceives the scorn the Sages feel for him. Ironically, to emphasize this point, the Talmud brings the story of one of the greatest Jewish sages of all time, Rebbe Akiva, who was considered just such an ignorant person in his younger years. It was during this time that he said he would have wanted to bite the Rabbis like a donkey. The word in Hebrew for donkey has the same letters as the word for “physical”. Maybe what Rebbe Akiva meant was that he was like one without spirituality, immersed only in the physical world and therefore could not relate to those Sages who channel holiness into the world. Yet, with all of this, the Talmud says there is still one even lower than the ignorant person by choice and that is the person who has learned Torah and left it, he or she harbors the greatest hatred of anyone against Torah Scholars.
The lesson we learn is that each of us bears the ramifications of our own actions. And the good news is that no matter how negligent we may have been until now in depriving our soul the richness of timeless wisdom, we, like Rebbe Akiva, can turn around today and reach great heights in only a short period of time with a serious and consistent effort to grow and become wiser.
The Talmud (Berachot 18b) recalls the story of the man who, after a fight with his wife, went to sleep in the cemetery on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. Suddenly, he overheard the ghosts of two young ladies that were buried next to each other talking. One said, “Come, let’s fly to the other side of the curtain that separates between the world of the dead and the Divine Presence and hear what will be decreed for the coming year”. The other girl responded that she had not been properly buried and therefore was trapped in her grave unable to move but suggested her friend go and report back.
When the ghost returned she told her that she had heard what the weather conditions would be like for the new year including when it would be hot and cold, when the rains would come and so on. When the man overheard this he planted his fields accordingly, even though everyone else thought he was crazy and no one else did the same. The man made a fortune while everyone else went bust. Inspired by what had happened the previous year he again sneaked into the cemetery on Rosh Hashana and again heard the ghost’s weather report and again he made another fortune while no one else did.
When his wife asked him how he knew all of the secrets of the weather and what to plant he told her about the ghosts and about how one ghost was trapped in her grave. At some point his wife made a comment to the dead girl’s parents about what her husband had said. The parents went to the child’s grave and fixed the situation. The following new year when the man came to the cemetery he heard one ghost say to the other, “Be careful! There is someone among the living who listens to what we say”.
The Talmud (Eruvin 65b) says there are three things which reveal the real nature of a person. This is based on three Hebrew words that all share the same root: כוסו – כיסו – כעסו, which are connected to the Hebrew word ‘to enter’. It suggests that through these various activities a person can gain a deeper insight as to the true personality of someone posing as their friend to find out if it is for real or only surface deep.
One reference is to the person’s drinking habits. When he boozes up or gets stoned does he become a person at peace, warm and filled with laughter or loud, ugly and violent? What does he talk about when drunk or high? Does he speak words of wisdom and deep insights into life or subjects that he might not share if his mother was at the table? Also, is he aware of the hunger of others? Does he make sure the poor are fed?
Another reference is to how he manages his money. Does he deal honestly in business, does he spend his money on his family and friends, is he careful to give charity, does he pay back loans? Or is he someone who hoards his wealth, someone that has to be brought to a court to settle a claim and even worse, refuses to pay even after the court has ruled against him? Does he spend his money on things that bring no blessing into the world or does he see his fortune as a gift to make the world a better place for all? Included in this is his awareness of his friend’s situations. Does he know if his friends are okay, or in need? Does he make the effort to find out their wellbeing by asking them and then take action to help? Or does he suffer from the syndrome of out of sight equals out of mind?
And then there is the reference to his anger meaning does he get angry often, or is he quick to anger or get angry over things that he should not get angry over? And how long does the anger last, plus does he apologize to people he may have offended with his anger? Or does he control his anger? Is he humble in the face of a test and remain quiet?
There are some Sages who add a fourth test to this group and that is his laughter. What are the things that he finds funny? Does he laugh at other people’s misfortune or does his laughter come from true rejoicing?
The Sages saw these character traits as doorways that allow you to enter inside another person, behind their facade, and see what he or she is really all about. It is a good test to find out who, when push comes to shove, your friend is really and who isn’t.