Bava Batra 60: Please Don't Marry Me

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

The third chapter of Bava Batra is some 30 pages long, making it one of the longest in the Talmud. It is focused on the rules of acquisition of property: land, fields, courtyard, parapets, roofs, balconies, pits, cisterns, rights-of-way and the like. Claims and counterclaims are analyzed and debated as the Talmud seeks to clarify who owns disputed property. As important as real estate is to today’s economy and to one’s personal status, it was much more so in Talmudic times. Wealth was determined primarily by real estate holdings, and relinquishing a piece of property was generally an act of desperation.

Yet important as having a home and land may be, our Sages tried to teach us that ultimately, the most important home is the one we build for G-d. “And you shall make for Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell amongst you” (Shemot 25:8). Focusing exclusively on the details of our own home while G-d’s home lay in ruins reflected a failing of religious sensitivity.  And in line with the often subtle but powerful style of rabbinic teaching, the concluding lines of this long chapter focus on mourning for the loss of the Temple. 

“Our Rabbis taught: When the Temple was destroyed for the second time, large numbers in Israel became ascetics, binding themselves neither to eat meat nor to drink wine” (Bava Batra 60b). One Temple destroyed is terrible, but a second one - such was unbearable for many, and they sought tangible ways to express their grief.  

Yet understandable and perhaps laudable as it is this attitude might be, it was not accepted.  

“Rav Yehoshua argued with them: My sons, why do you not eat meat nor drink wine? They replied: Shall we eat flesh, which used to be brought as an offering on the altar, and is no longer? Shall we drink wine, which used to be poured as a libation on the altar, but is now no longer? He said to them: If that is so, we should not eat bread either, because the meal offerings have ceased. They said: we can [eat] fruit. We should not eat fruit either, because there is no longer an offering of first fruits. We can eat other fruits. We should not drink water, because there is no longer any ceremony of the pouring of water. They were quiet. He said to them: My sons, come and listen to me. Not to mourn at all is impossible, because the decree [of destruction] was realized. To mourn overmuch is also impossible, because we do not impose on the community a hardship which the majority cannot endure.[1]” 

Perhaps Rabbi Yehoshua learned this moderate approach from his student, Rabbi Akiva. While seeing foxes scurrying around what was once the Temple, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Eliezer and Rabban Gamliel burst out crying, while the much younger Rabbi Akiva laughed (Makkot 24b). While others despaired, Rabbi Akiva saw the beginning of the redemption. While his teachers mourned for the past, he saw hope for the future. It appears Rabbi Yehoshua realized the wisdom of Rabbi Akiva’s approach. 

So how should we mourn?  “Rather such, said the Sages: A man may plaster his house (hence the technical connection to the rest of this Talmudic chapter), but he should leave a little bare…one may prepare the needs for a meal, but he should leave out a small item…a woman may put on all her ornaments, but leave off a small item” (Bava Batra 60b)[2].

However, as one tragedy followed another, not all agreed this was enough. Rabbi Yehoshua’s colleague Rabbi Yishmael posits an almost unbelievable view. Most likely referring to the terrible Hadrianic persecutions some 60 years after the destruction of the Temple, Rabbi Yishmael argues that, “from the day this wicked kingdom decreed harsh and evil decrees and nullified from us Torah and mitzvoth…by law we should decree upon ourselves not to marry and beget children, and the seed of Abraham our father would come to an end of itself.” Life had become so unbearable and the Jewish future so bleak that there was no point in continuing, Rabbi Yishmael argued. And if the Jewish people would be no more, we, and not our enemies, should be the ones to decide how this would come about. Unbelievable![3]

And why did we not do this? Well, had you asked me, I would have said as follows: When Pharaoh decreed that the Jewish babies were to be thrown in the Nile, Amram separated from his wife and many others followed suit. As is well known, Miriam, all of five years old, told her father that his decree was harsher than that of Pharoah. While Pharaoh decreed to kill boys only, you, my father, by refusing to have children are “killing” both the boys and the girls (see Sotah 12a).

Yet Rabbi Yishmael had no such qualms. He was apparently willing to let the Jewish people die and maintained that such was, in fact, the proper course of action. However, he argued, “Leave the Jews alone, it is better that they be unwitting [sinners] and not intentional [sinners]”. If his initial suggestion was astounding, there are few words to describe his conclusion. Jews who marry and have children are in fact living in sin, and should not do so. However, Jewish law has a general principle, one having nothing to do with marriage, that when someone is unknowingly violating the law and telling them to stop is likely to be ignored, it is best to let them continue to sin unknowingly and not cause them to sin knowingly. It is for this reason, and seemingly this reason alone, that Rabbi Yishmael “allowed” Jewish men and women to marry. Any attempt to outlaw marriage would have been ignored by the people and hence, he did not suggest such in practice. 

Sometimes the people do know better. While rabbis may debate the best course for the Jewish people, the simple folk marry and have children, ensuring the survival of the Jewish people. It is the precious children who give us hope for the future.

 

[1] While it might very well be that the reference to the second destruction is pragmatic, helping to explain the reaction of the ascetics, it could also be a veiled yet harsh critique of these ascetics. Our Rabbis (Yoma 9b) note that the first Temple was destroyed because people violated basic religious norms, including idolatry. Yet during the second Temple period, our Sages highlight the “religiosity” of the people – at least as it related to mitzvoth between man and G-d. It was their inability to accept Jews who were different than they were that led to the destruction. (See the Introduction of the Netziv to Breisheet, where he so beautifully demonstrates this to be the true meaning of sinaat chinam). Rabbi Yehoshua, who was likely a child during the destruction and rose to prominence in the generation after, is possibly chiding, even mocking those whose method of mourning the destruction was to refrain from meat and wine instead of focusing on the mitzva of veahavta lereacha kamocha. Hence, his rather ridiculous suggestion that they refrain from water, demonstrating the futility and even stupidity of such an approach. Perhaps these, too, are included in the category of “pious fools” of whom Rabbi Yehoshua declares that “they destroy the world” (Mishna, Sotah 3:4). Yet even as he chastised them, he did so in a most respectful manner.

 

[2] Interestingly, the Talmud does not suggest we refrain from meat and wine for the nine days leading up to Tisha B’av. That was considered rather excessive. It was only with the seemingly never-ending exile and continued and increased persecution of the Jewish people that greater expressions of mourning became the norm.

 

[3] This is so unbelievable that the Tosafists do not beleive it. Rather, they claim that Rabbi Yishmael had only suggested ceasing to have children once a couple had fulfilled the mitzva of pru urevu, i.e., had a son and daughter. While this approach seems much more reasonable, it does not appear to be the simple meaning of Rabbi Yishmael’s words. Amazingly, the Beit Shmuel in his commentary to the Shulchan Aruch (Even HaEzer 1:6) explains that based on Rabbi Yishmael’s view, we no longer “force” people to marry – a practice that may be foreign to us, but was quite common in the world of antiquity.