A Perfect Ten: Bava Kamma 82

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

“Rav Yossi said: It would have been proper for the Torah to be given by Ezra had Moshe not preceded him.” (Sanhedrin 21b) It was Moshe who prepared the Jewish people for their first entry to the Land and it was Ezra some 1.000 years later who led them to the land when they returned from the Babylonian exile. And just as Moshe made numerous rabbinic enactments[1] to prepare the people for their new environment so did Ezra as the Jewish nation entered a new epoch.

It was Ezra who as the primary founder of the Anshei Knesset Hagedolah set the contours of religious life as we know it today. “The Anshei Knesset Hagedolah established for Israel brachot, tefillot, kedushot, and havdalot.” (Brachot 33a) Is there anything more basic to religious life than davening, making blessings, kiddush and havdalah? Their efforts “restored the Crown of the Torah to its glory.” As Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains in his introduction to the [Koren] siddur it was at this time that the Synagogue began to take shape even replacing the Temple as the central religious Institution.

“Ten ordinances did Ezra ordain. That the Torah be read on Shabbat at Mincha and that [the Torah be] read on Mondays and Thursdays…” (Bava Kamma 82a)

These two ordinances related to the synagogue service were aimed at two very different types of people. The first was for the benefit of the yoshvei kranot, those who hang out on street corners, and are very unlikely to come to shul during the week. Being that almost everyone came to shul on Shabbat, even for mincha in the afternoon[2], Ezra ordained that we read Torah at Shabbat mincha for the benefit of those who will not be at shul on Monday and Thursday.

The Gemara relates how the early prophets had already established the reading of the Torah on Mondays and Thursdays. This was based on the Biblical verse that the Jewish people “walked for three days and did not find water.” (Shemot 15:22) The understandable result was bickering and dissension. It is not good to go three days without water. The “seekers of [deeper meaning of the] text” explained that just as we physically cannot go three days without physical water so too we cannot go three days without spiritual water. “The prophets amongst them arose and ordained” that we should read the Torah in public at least once every three days and thus developed our practice of reading the Torah on Mondays and Thursdays.

What Ezra added to this earlier takanah was that we should read at least ten verses, ten corresponding to the asara batlanim, the ten people who work in the public sector taking care of community needs. One of their roles was to ensure there be a minyan in the morning and hence these asara batlanim would come early to shul every morning. It is their honour we read a minimum of ten verses.

With the Torah being read on Mondays and Thursdays these days became market days when people from farms or communities that did not have a minyan would come to the “big city” to hear the Torah reading. With many people in the city Ezra also ordained that the courts sit on Mondays and Thursdays.

“That sellers of perfumes be allowed to travel freely in the cities.” As the Gemara explains the ready availability of perfumes, makeup and the like was done so that woman be more attractive to their husbands[3].  A special edict was necessary to override local zoning and laws of competition (see Bava Batra 22a). This was especially true for outside peddlers who were not subject to local taxes. Under normal circumstances they would be enjoined from selling their wares in other jurisdictions. Yet in order to make perfumes readily available Ezra allowed free entry to all perfume merchants. 

In a related takanah, Ezra decreed that people eat garlic on Fridays. Friday night was designated as a time for marital intimacy and it was believed that garlic increases fertility[4].

Yet at the same time Ezra ordained that a baal keri, one who releases semen must immerse in a mikva before being allowed to daven or learn Torah. Ezra did not want “husbands to be with their wives like chickens.” (Brachot 22a) Yet this takanah proved too difficult for the people and was repealed.

Ezra also ordained that one arise early to bake bread for the poor. Such demonstrated much greater empathy than writing a cheque or even giving the poor bread baked by others.

Other takkanot by Ezra included ensuring that laundry be done weekly before Shabbat – something that was not easy in the days before washing machines; that a woman wear a sinnar, a type of belt for reasons of modesty, and that before going to mikvah women comb their hair to ensure the removal of all objects that might cause a barrier between the hair and the water.   

The family, Shabbat, the poor, the synagogue all were shaped by Ezra, the one who was worthy to give the Torah to the Jewish people. 

[1] These include the reading of the Torah on Shabbat mornings, the first blessings of birchat hamazon, and that there be a week of celebration (sheva brachot) for the seven days following a wedding. See Rabbi Israel Schepansky, Hatakannot bYisrael, (Mosad Harav Kuk, Jerusalem, 1991)

[2] So important was attendance at shul in the afternoon that later Sages forbade the reading of Tanach on Shabbat afternoon lest one become so engrossed in the fascinating stories and not attend shul. This was done less for Mincha itself than for the Rabbi’s derasha which took place on Shabbat afternoon. Listening to a contemporary Rabbi expound on the message of the Torah is more important than reading the Tanach itself.

[3] While many today might scoff at such an idea – and perhaps for many such is not necessary – it is clear that throughout history cosmetics for woman is something both men and woman desire.

[4] I asked Dr. Paul Claman MD, FRCSC, Professor, Obstetrics & Gynecology,Reproductive Medicine, University of Ottawa about the relationship between garlic and fertility. His responded as follows: “I am unaware of garlic having an effect on fertility but wonder if “increased fertility” refers to its history of being thought to have aphrodisiac properties (e.g. here). Don’t know if this is biological but there is a long History of garlic being thought of as an aphrodisiac (and insuring intimacy will of course improve fertility).”

We had the pleasure of hearing Dr. Claman at our recent conference on Jewish medical ethics. You can listen to his talk “Difficult Infertility Cases: Questions for the Rabbi” here