Eruvin 18-19 The Stalker ,making women feel safe , and wasted semen

Until recently, the atmosphere in the Western world has made it extremely difficult to teach certain areas of Torah which appear to be unnecessarily stringent in an open society where members of the opposite sex mingle and interact completely freely.

Although modern society is certainly not alone in terms of its hedonistic excesses, for much of history, in most moral societies, it was understood and accepted that human nature is such that certain strict lines need to be drawn to avoid total moral breakdown.

For decades, since the cultural revolutions of the 60’s, Western society has lived in a state of ethical dissonance- On the one hand, the feminist movement has fought for equality for woman and the lines between the genders have been slowly blurred, yet in practise, girls and woman have been treated as badly or worse than any time in history, with “liberal” Hollywood turning woman into nothing other than sex symbols, and the most “respectable” of institutions turning a blind eye to rape, child abuse, and just about every outrage imaginable.

Many a young actress or businesswoman has literally had to sleep her way up the ladders of fame, and the rich, powerful and famous have carried out the worst abuses with virtual impunity.

A pornography industry has flourished that treats people like absolute garbage, taking advantage of the desperation of so many young people to sell them as commodities to serve people’s over-indulged libidos.

It is now, in recent years, with the advent of the much to talk about “me too” movement, that Western society is starting to come to terms with at least some of its excesses, and realize something that the Torah has always taught: true liberty is not the ability to give in to whatever selfish urges come your way, but rather the ability to control those urges and use them in a way that doesn’t harm the weak and the vulnerable but rather brings good to the world.

Reading these two daf, it is absolutely impossible not to think of the horrific events of the past week here in our beloved Israel, where in a scene reminiscent of the biblical פלגש בגבעה (concubine of Giv’ah who was gang-raped and murdered) a gang of teenagers and young adults reportedly stood in line outside a hotel room in Eilat waiting their turn to rape a drunk 16 year old girl.

In contrast to the biblical story which ended in a tragic civil war between the tribe of Binyamin who refused to stand up to those responsible, and the other tribes who demanded justice, the condemnation across our society and demand for change has been unanimous- whether anything will actually be done in practise is something only time will tell.

Yet despite people’s shock, how many of us have internalized the fact that such occurrences are a likely direct result of decades of subtle and not so subtle sexualization of woman and children in the media and on the streets?

The fact that it took an event like this for the city of Tel Aviv to finally remove an outrageous mural painted on a beach change-room of some “macho guys” peaking into the girls change-room, speaks volumes of where society has been.

The bastion of so-called liberalism has been absolutely ok with such a disgraceful “piece of art” which is only one of many such pieces of junk being produced by our subculture.

On our daf, the view is expressed that the first man and woman were created as one entity, with a male face on one side, and a female face on the other.

The Gemara asks which side was on front, and answers that the male side was probably in front.

This is because we have learnt in a Beraisa that a man should never walk behind a woman, even his own wife, and if he meets a woman on a single-file bridge, he should ask her to move to the side so that he can pass her.

The same Beraisa concludes that anyone who follows a woman in a river has no share in the world to come.

The question one immediately needs to ask is what exactly is so terrible about walking behind a woman.

The modern person’s first reaction might be to get defensive and say that this is an example of old-fashioned chauvinism that has no place in modern society- after all, were we not always taught as kids that “ladies go first?”

Indeed, a first glimpse at Rashi on the first statement of the Beraisa, who says that it is גנאי לו, loosely translated as “degrading for him,” might strengthen this claim, if we take it to mean that it is beneath the honor of a man to be behind a woman

Another important think to note is the difference between the first parts and last parts of the Beraisa- the former instruction not to walk behind a woman applies even to one’s own wife, but does not get the forceful condemnation of the later.

The later statement discusses following a woman in a river, does not mention one’s own wife, but issues a far more severe condemnation.

A look at Rashi’s comments on this later statement shows that he understands this to be referring only to another man’s wife, a view that seems to be accepted by the consensus of the Rishonim. He explains that the concern here is that she removes her clothes while washing or bathing in the river.

However, even an adulterer has a share in the world to come, so why would someone who follows someone else’s naked wife into a river forfeit this share?

As one continues down the daf, one sees that the suggestion that our Gemara makes light of woman is completely incorrect.

The Gemara labels Manoach, father of Shimshon, as an עם הארץ ignorant person(, for following his wife, when he should have gone first, but then counters this claim by pointing out that the prophets Elkana (father of Shmuel) and Elisha also “went after their wives.”

The Gemara notably seems to take for granted that a prophet cannot possible be an עם הארץ (c.f. 12a B.B. וחכם עדיף מנביא ” אבל אכמ”ל”) and concludes that they did not literally walk behind their wives which would be wrong, but rather went after their wives’ words and advice.

Given that Chazal were at the least ok, and possibly full of praise, for one who follows the advice of his righteous wife, something we have already seen both in the Torah , where Hashem tells Avraham to do whatever his wife says )(Beraishis 21/14) , and in Midrash (think, for example און בן פלת who was saved by his wife’s advice not to follow Korach -Sanhedrin 109b,) it is impossible to make the superficial claim that they denigrated woman. (There are admittedly some other statements of Chazal that might seem at face-value to do so, but this is not one of them.)

It is far more likely that this has more to do with the well-known concept of כל כבודה דבת מלך פנימה – the honor of a princess is all inside )Tehillim 45/14.)

When it comes to giving advice, woman might be considered more intuitive than men, in many ways the “brains” behind everything.

One does not send one’s most precious resources at the front of the battle as a pawn, one looks after them carefully.

For a man to walk behind his wife, making her walk ahead into the unknown dangers ahead on the road, might be degrading, not because she should be treating him with more respect, but on the contrary, because he should treat her with more consideration, paving the way for her.

It is thus precise that when it comes to walking behind one’s wife, the Beraisa specifically mentions -“בדרך” “on the road.”

It is possible that such considerations would not apply to opening the car-door for one’s wife before entering oneself, where in general no such concern for her safety should apply.

When it comes to another woman, and even more so another man’s wife, the consideration is completely different.

Here the concern could be both that one might make her feel uncomfortable and arouse himself unnecessarily, and at worst, come to rape her, chas veshalom.

This form of premeditated stalking might be even worse than a consensual affair, and in the case of someone’s else’s wife, combined with the additional severe of adultery, results in one’s losing one’s portion in the world to come, assuming this statement is to be taken literally.

For decades, the price of feminism has been that women have to ignore their natural female sense of vulnerability and just accept the fact that the nature of men has not and will not change, and that the guy behind them might just be that stalker she has always had nightmares above.

Hopefully, the balance will be restored to the point where women are revered, cherished and respected , but allowed to feel safe, without men harassing them constantly, the way the Torah has taught us.

The Gemara brings the words of Rabbi Yirmiya ben Elazar who tells us that after the sin of אדם הראשון (the first man) , he was “excommunicated” by Hashem for 130 years, and during this time, he gave birth to “רוחין, שידין, וליליו ” , understood by Rashi as various types of מזיקין (harmful entities, whatever that means…)

The Gemara questions how this was possible, given that Rabbi Meir has already taught us that he was a חסיד גדול (a pious person) who when seeing that he had been sentenced to death, fasted and separated from his wife from 130 years.

If he had separated from his wife, how could he have given birth to these “harmful entities.”

It answers that the entities were created from the wasted semen that he spilled unintentionally during this time.

This seemingly bizarre statement raises many questions that I have no time to analyze today, but which we will hopefully address in future posts:

  1. What exactly were these מזיקין that he gave birth to?
  2. Was this a natural process of some kind or was it supernatural?

If it was natural, how can it be explained naturally? If it was supernatural, then why was the Gemara bothered by the fact that he had separated from his wife, given that the process was supernatural anyway?

  1. Is the assumption that given his pious nature, he could not have intentionally spilled seed during this time, so the only possible option is that the מזיקין came from unintentional spill (מקרה לילה)? If so, how do we understand that someone who was now even more flawed than before the sin was able to withstand this strong temptation in the absence of his wife for so long? Furthermore, assuming he had reached such a supreme level of control that he was able to avoid intentionally spilling his seed at all during this time, what more could be expected of him? Why should harmful entities be the result of what would have arguably been essentially the greatest long-lasting act of self- control in history?

It is known that Chazal (see Niddah 13b) had very strong things to say about “המוציא שפחת זרע לבטלה” – (spilling seed in vain ;obviously the definition of לבטלה needs careful study), comparing it (probably metaphorically) to idol-worship, murder, and adultery.

It does not say such things about unintentional spill, and though a man who experiences such an emission becomes impure ,and one is also not supposed to intentionally have impure thoughts that might cause this to happen, it seems obvious that something beyond someone’s control should not be condemned in any way.

It seems more likely that the “מזיקין” were not a punishment in any way for unintentional spillage, but rather a result of his original sin itself, and the unintentional spillage was merely the means that they came about through.

However harsh Chazal seem to be in their condemnation of intentional wasting of seed, the Shulchan Aruch (E.H. 23/1) claims that this is the most severe sin in the Torah

Though this claim is very difficult for multiple reasons, and many other authorities (see B.S and C.M there for example, quoting Sefer Chasidim) have either disputed this ruling or clarified that it is not to be understood literally, the Zohar (p arshasVayechi 219b) seems to have gone further and claim that this is the only sin for which one cannot repent and whose perpetrator cannot “see” the face of Hashem’s shechina( whatever that means.)

This shocking statement was used by non-other than one of the leading Torah scholars of his time, Rav Yaakov Emden (mitpachas Seforim 1/on Vayechi) as one of multiple “proofs” for his controversial claim that parts of the Zohar contradict the Talmud and cannot possibly be authored by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai!

His points out that Chazal taught us that nothing stands in the way of teshuva and always went out of their way to encourage teshuva. It is also not even listed in the more serious categories of sins which are subject to Kareit or death in court and require more than just repentance and Yom-Kippur to atone for.

Though I am certainly not qualified to get into this debate, which seems to hinge partly on how literally such statements in a very non-literal work are meant to be taken, and which is only the domain of experts in both the Talmud and the Zohar, there certainly seems to be one such proof from Daf 19 here in Eruvin that one can certainly do Teshuva for this sin.

The Gemara (I am admittedly merging a number of statements that the Gemara see as inter-dependant for the sake of brevity) relates how the sinners amongst the Jewish people all do Teshuva at some stage, and are “pulled out” of Gehinom by Avraham Avinu himself.

One exception given is a yisroel who has relations with an idol worshiper – Rashi’s clarifies that (probably to to impress her), he covers up his circumcision and Avraham can thus not recognize him.

Whatever the symbolism behind this exception is (which in no way means that a person cannot repent in his lifetime for such a deed,) it is clear that one who spills his seed is certainly not excluded even from this last-minute repentance and “rescue” operation, how much more so one who has made the effort to fully repent in his lifetime.

As mentioned above, only people well-versed in both the Talmud and Zohar might be qualified to comment on the claims of Rav Yaakov Emden, but assuming the Zohar was never intended to be taken literally in the first place, this would not an issue either way.

Shabbos 81   Toilet paper shortages 

One of the most challenging aspects of Gemora study today is being able to step into the environment in which Chazal lived – the agricultural and pre medieval jargon often feels irrelevant to us and makes it harder to internalize the timeless laws and values that they teach us.

As hard as it is to identify with an ox goring a cow, or share cropping, it is even harder to identify with areas of halacha that seem to assume an extremely primitive lifestyle .

For example, so much Talmudic discussion assumes that nighttime was a time without good lighting, and unsuitable for many activities, and candlelight was often an unreliable  luxury. 

When the Gemara (Brachos 2) assumes that poor people eat dinner early, due to not being able to afford candles to eat by, or discusses what to do when the candles go out during the Shabbos meal ( Pesachim 101a ) , it is kind of hard to identify in an era where electric light is taken for granted in all but the most undeveloped regions .

Yet sometimes, Hashem puts us in situations, where we suddenly able to identify with the sugya- the regular power outages in today’s South Africa, for example, which seem to love shabbos evening in particular, or those experienced even in modern New York in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy , suddenly showed us how we cannot and shouldn’t take it for granted – I am not saying this was Hashem’s reason, chalila, but there is no doubt that we are expected to learn whatever logical lessons we can from situations he puts us in .

One of the ” lighter”  though still depressing  moments during the horror of the Corona outbreak was the pictures of shoppers from Australia to Israel hoarding toilet paper, often leaving the shelves bare .

The prospect of running short of such an essential commodity in modern times in a modern country was incomprehensible prior to this pandemic, but we soon realised that nothing is to be taken for granted .

The truth is that for most of our history, toilet paper of the modern kind did not exist, and we seem to have managed just fine.

In fact , until recently, having one’s own built in toilet in the house was not the norm, and people used to set aside a demarcated area as an ablution spot, sometimes in ones courtyard and sometimes out in the fields .

This was often fraught with embarrassment and sometimes danger, and we were faced with all kinds of questions  regarding davening near a “toilet”, where to leave one’s Tefillin ( which people wore all day), how to ensure modesty, protect against the many demons that were believed to hang out in such places, and of course, on our daf, how to use one on Shabbos.

Finding a suitable toilet was often such a challenge , that in searching for the meaning of the biblical phrase “לעת מצא” – a Eureka moment , one of the Amoraim applies it to the moment one finds a suitable toilet  (Brachos 8a) – something hard to appreciate today, but that those of us who have spent hours on safari or driving through India, can certainly identify with more easily .

On our daf, there is a halachik discussion as to how to carry stones on shabbos required for use as “toilet paper.”

In the absence of that most essential of household commodities, the norm was indeed to use a stone, or perhaps a reed, for cleaning oneself .

Although such a discussion might have seemed mundane or even comical to us “moderns”, it is incredible how this suddenly seems more understandable after the events of this year.

Issues discussed include how to carry  below the minimum amount required to become liable for punishment , how to avoid the concern of tearing out grass, how to bypass the problem of Muktza, and of course the very important factor of כבוד הבריות ( human dignity ) and how it can push aside rabbinical prohibitions 

We daven that we shall merit to appreciate the daily things we take for granted, as well as  the wisdom of every word of the Torah, without having to be put in difficult and unimaginable circumstances chalila in order to do so!

Shabbos 62 Important women versus the “cows of Bashan”

In a recent post, we discussed the ancient Talmudic  concept , extremely “progressive” in its time,  of an  “important woman” or אשה חשובה, one who due to her profession, wealth, or religious stature is not subservient to her husband and has obtained a status of equality, if not similarity , to the men of society .

We also noted how poskim in the past millennia, long before the modern drive for feminism, have noted that the woman of our society ALL have this status .

This is no way contradicts the biblical prohibition of cross-dressing between males and females (I am not addressing the issue here of transgender people, who are very likely a completely different category,) also sometimes extended to symbolizing the importance of unique roles assigned to each gender, and many halakhoth based on the “equal but different” mantra are still in force – women are allowed and expected to be women, and men are allowed and expected to be men.

Little girls should not be pushed to play with fire engine toys and little boys should not be pushed to play with dolls- gender is part of nature and biology and the Torah expects us to recognize and honor that, while still leaving the door open for certain exceptions based on the individual , so long as certain boundaries are not crossed.

Yet at the same time, there is a toxic side to femininity, just like there is a toxic side to masculinity.

Whereas the latter is often expressed in unnecessary violence and acts of war (which our sages considered to be “degrading” to the point that a sword is not considered to be a valid form of garment or adornment to be worn on shabbos ), as well as in rape and other physical abuse, the former  is often expressed in overly ostentatious and provocative dress, designed to make women into sexual  objects , as is so common in Hollywood.

The above excesses are not elegant and classy, like the “Jerusalem of Gold” worn by the ” Isha Chashuva”, of the likes of Rabbi Akiva’s wife Rachel, and Yalta, wife of Rav Nachman, but pure hedonistic and overtly sensual  displays of wealth and/or immorality.

These are the “cows of Bashan”  that the prophet Amos ( chapter 6 ) cries about, who anoint themselves with the best oils, sleep on beds of ivory AND oppress the poor, rather than show the acts of kindness these “important women” are known for ( recall How Rabbi Akiva’s wife initially slept in a barn for so many years and waited for her husband to come back from the studying she had pushed him to do )

These are the girls and women of Jerusalem that Amos mentions and Chazal elaborate on, who would intentionally try to seduce young lads to sin, and their equally perverse male counterparts, who would swop wives with each other and walk around the house naked , urinating on the floors as they were too lazy to get dressed to go out to the toilet.

Judaism does not reject beauty- Jewish women  are allowed to look attractive, and supposed to ( see Kiddushin  30b re how a father must make sure his daughter is attractive.), without compromising their modesty, as are men in their own way .

but it certainly rejects “over the top” ostentatious and hedonistic behaviour, which can destroy an otherwise observant Jewish society .

It’s a delicate but essential balance for us to strive for, the difference between building a Torah world, like the wife of Rabbi Akiva merited to do, and destroying the first commonwealth, as Amos’s  “cows of bashan”  played a major part in doing

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

Shabbos 59 Woman’s status in Torah life

It is well known that women are excluded from many aspects of Jewish public life, and many presume that this is due to their subservience to men in biblical and Talmudic culture.
While there might be some truth to this, perhaps even rooted in the biblical verse והוא ימשול בך , it is far from a foregone conclusion, as can be seen by the case of the “important woman”- who wears an “עיר של זהב ” – a Jerusalem of Gold ornament
Although this is one of the ornaments that the Mishna prohibits wearing in a public domain, in case she takes it off to show to her friend , the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer is recorded which permits it, given that the kind of woman who wears such an implement is an “important woman” who does not show an ornament to her friend ( probably because she does not see the need to boast of her jewelry in such a way)
The example given on the daf was the wife of Rabbi Akiva , and earlier on ( Shabbos 54b) , we also saw a reference to Yalta, the wife of Rav Nachman, regarding special treatment during child-birth .
One also cannot help recalling the almost comical exchange between Rav Nachman, Ullah, and his wife, Yalta, at the end of שלושה שאכלו ( brachos chapter 7) , where Ullah refused to give her the cup to drink from, and she smashes 400 barrels of wine in her anger . When he attempts to pacify her, she shoots him down halachically.
An “Isha Chashuva” is also required to lean during the seder, unlike a regular woman who is not.
There is much to discuss re the definition of an “important woman”, and opinions range from one who is wealthy, to one of is not subservient to her husband ( for whatever reason) , but it is fascinating to note that over the past few hundred years, poskim have noted that “our women are ALL important “, possibly an incredible acknowledgement that cultural norms have changed and that in our time and society, woman are no longer consider subservient to their husbands .
It is up to qualified poskim to rule on the extent to which this change impacts on halacha, but it is certainly a very significant concept with strong grounding even in far less “modern” periods than ours.

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.