Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Death and sex in Tractate Hagigah

THIS WEEK'S DAF YOMI COLUMN BY ADAM KIRSCH IN TABLET: If Even the Angel of Death Makes Mistakes, Where Is There True Justice? The Talmud imagines the world as organized for the benefit of Torah sages, even in matters of sex and death. Excerpt:
As Daf Yomi readers began a new tractate this week—Tractate Chagiga, which deals with the procedures for Temple worship on the three annual festivals—the rabbis once again took up the question of death and punishment. In Chagiga 4b, Rav Yosef quotes a verse from Proverbs, “But there are those who are swept away without justice,” and questions it: “Is there one who goes before his time?” Doesn’t God decide on each death individually, so that we all die exactly when we are supposed to? Apparently not, the Gemara answers—just look at the case of Miriam the “raiser of babies,” or nurse. One day, the Angel of Death told his “agent”—for apparently the business of death involves many angels and spirits—to bring him a woman named Miriam who was a braider of women’s hair. But the agent made a mistake and brought him Miriam the nurse instead, for which the Angel of Death scolded him. “If so,” the agent pleaded, “return her to life.” But the Angel of Death was casual about the mistake: “Since you have already brought her, let her be counted” toward the quota of the dead, he replied.
That's harsh. There's lots of interesting stuff about angels, the Merkavah, and Ma'aseh Bereshit (the Matter of Creation) in Tractate Chagiga (Hagigah). Cant wait.

As for the sex:
Indeed, the rabbis list a number of sins that can bring judgment, even though they may seem trivial. One of these, in Chagiga 5b, is talking “frivolously” to your spouse before sex: Even at such a moment, the rabbis rule, speech should be grave and mindful. This is surely a harsh and puritanical rule, so it is comforting, in a way, to read that even Rav himself did not always obey it. On one occasion, Rav Kahana was lying underneath Rav’s bed—why, and how he got there, the Talmud doesn’t say—and “he heard Rav chatting and laughing with his wife, and performing his needs,” that is, having sex. When Kahana upbraided him for idle talk, Rav replied, “Kahana, leave, as this is not proper conduct.” Indeed, eavesdropping on someone from under their bed seems much more objectionable than talking before sex. And in any case, Rav had an excuse for chatting: It is permitted when a man has to “appease” his wife. One hopes that Rav and his wife were not the only couple to take advantage of this loophole to enjoy a little light-hearted intimacy.
In b. Berakhot 62a, there is a version of this story in which R. Kahana replied, "It is a matter of Torah and I must learn."

Earlier Daf Yomi columns are noted here and links.