Pesachim 87-88 Hashem’s love for Am yisroel, and sexual imagery in Tanach and Chazal

A Special post in loving memory of my father zt’l, containing some of his teachings based on Navi and Chazal.

One of the parts of Tanach my father zt’l loved teaching was the early chapters of  Sefer Hoshea, and the teachings of Chazal on it, which are found on these daf.

While reading these, one is struck by the unusual nature of Hoshea’s first prophetic mission.

In short, Hashem tells Hoshea to marry a prostitute and have “children of prostitution” with her.

They have 2 sons and a daughter together, and Hashem tells Hoshea to call them names which denote his anger with the people of Israel.

Suddenly, the second chapter opens with a short positive message of how numerous the people of Israel will be and how Hashem will accept them back, before going back to predictions of destruction.

Whereas this is not the first example of a valid prophecy telling a Navi to do something that is usually forbidden (the עקידה  being the most famous example,) this is certainly bizarre enough to beg some explanation.

Chazal pick up on this and fill in the background- Hashem told Hoshea how the people had sinned.

Rather than begging for mercy for them, Hoshea suggests that Hashem replace them with a different nation.

Hashem then tells Hoshea to marry and prostitute and have children with her.

He then tells him to leave her and her children.  Hoshea protests that he cannot just leave his wife and children, and Hashem reveals the Mussar in the allegory.

Hoshea wouldn’t abandon his wife and kids despite their  sinful  and doubtful status, yet he expected Hashem to abandon his chosen people who had a long and proven unique relationship with him?!

Although Hoshea’s initial response might seem harsh and out of place for a leading Navi, it is not the only  case we find of such an attitude.

Chazal (Shabbos 89b ) tells us how in the future, Hashem will approach Avraham Avinu and tell him that his children have sinned, and he will reply that Hashem should destroy them. He then approaches Yaakov who has the same reaction. Only Yitzchak asks Hashem to spare them.

One cannot but notice the irony by which Avraham, known as the man of kindness who begs for mercy for the worst of sinners, seemingly gives up on his descendants, whereas Yitzchak, known as the man of absolute justice who is hardly recorded in the text as begging for mercy for anyone, is the one who comes to the rescue.

Be that as it may, it seems that there is a certain threshold beyond which even the most dedicated of our leaders lose their patience with us and stop even attempting to save us from ourselves.

As my father zt’l would often point out, this happened eventually to Eliyahu haNavi as well, who in his encounter with Hashem on Chorev spoke extremely negatively and dismissively of the Jewish people  (Melachim 19), and Hashem’s reaction was to inform him that his time as leader was over and he needed to anoint his student Elisha in his place-  A leader who gives up on his people and can no longer see the good in him gives up his right to lead his flock.

Yeshayahu  also calls the people a “nation of impure lips” and is punished by being burnt on his lips. (Yeshayahu 6)

At a certain point, after  a lifetime of fighting for his people, even Moshe Rabbeinu lost his temper and hit the rock, after which he lost the chance to lead the people into Eretz-Yisrael (Bamidbar 20/10.)

However, unlike Avraham, Eliyahu, and Moshe who reached this stage at the end of a long career of serving the people, Hoshea  and Yeshayahu display this attitude at the beginning of their prophetic careers, and rather than depriving them of their planned prophetic future, Hashem chooses to correct their attitude and give them another chance, by way of a very traumatic experience which puts their thinking right.

מעשה אבות סימן לבנים  (the actions/events of the fathers are a sign for the children-[see Tanchuma Lech Lecha 9]) and this error and subsequent correction was not limited to the founding fathers and the prophets, but can be found in Chazal themselves as well, and up to this very day.

The Gemara (Pesachim 88a) tells how when the Amora עולא came to the Babylonian center of פומבדיתא  , he was given a basket of the dates that Bavel was famous for.

When told how cheap they were, he expressed his amazement at how despite the easy availability of such incredible sustenance, the Jews of Babylon did not study Torah at night.

Later, after eating them, he got a stomach-ache.

After that, he expressed his astonishment at how despite the availability of such unhealthy food (סמא דמותא,)  the Babylonians still studied Torah at night!

We discussed in the beginning of the Masechta (see my post on Pesachim  3 ) how the Torah goes out of its way to use לשון נקיה  (clean language.)

In fact, the Rambam  (Moreh 3/8)  takes this even further and in a controversial statement highly disputed by the Ramban (Shmos 30/13), he explains that the reason why the Hebrew language is called לשון הקודש  is because among other degrading words, it has no explicit nouns for the sexual organs, nor verbs for the sexual act, using only euphemisms.

Yet any Yeshiva kid should be able to tell you that both the Tanach and Chazal are full of sensual imagery, and on our daf, multiples examples of this can be found from Shir haShirim, Hoshea, and in Chazal’s comments on them.

It is interesting to note that whereas Chazal seem to interpret the explicit imagery in Shir haShirim completely allegorically, they  significantly enhance the sexual meaning of the episode in Hoshea, painting a rather graphic picture of the career of the prostitute Hoshea marries.

It seems rather clear from this, consistent with the thesis we developed in our earlier quoted post, that despite the mandate to attempt to use euphemistic language where it is possible to do so without blurring the message, when the clearest way of teaching a message is by use of explicit imagery, the Torah and Chazal do not hold back.

The above attempts to follow the approach of Rambam- of course, it is possible, more along the lines of Ramban,  that the Torah and Chazal simply see nothing “unholy” about the use of sexual imagery in the first place, and use it rather freely, in some cases allegorically, and in some rather literally.  (see though Mishna Sanhedrin 8/1 where the term “clean language” seems to be used in this context as well as the words of the above-quoted Ramban himself who seems to admit this. It is also possible that the entire incident with Hoshea is also to be understood allegorically despite how graphically Chazal describe the details. )

Much to talk about this subject, but it will take a tour of shas to test either thesis, so l have attempted to at least start laying the foundations from our daf and continue building as we go.

These posts are intended to raise issues and stimulate further research and discussion on contemporary topics related to the daf. They are not intended as psak halacha.

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