Pesachim 88: Watch Those Dates

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

It is amazing how a slight change in perspective can make a huge difference.

"R. Hiyya taught: What is meant by the verse, 'G-d understands the way and He knows the place'? (Iyov 28:23). The Holy One, blessed be He, knows that Israel is unable to endure the cruel decrees of Edom[1]; therefore, He exiled them to Babylonia" (Pesachim 87b).

The Talmud presents a series of possible explanations as to why we were exiled to Bavel, each offering a silver lining to the pain of exile. The last and most enigmatic of these explanations is that of Ulla, who claimed that we were exiled to Bavel so that "we could eat dates and be involved in [the study of] Torah" (ibid). The Gemara relates how Ulla went to Pumpedita, a major Babylonian city that was home of one of the most important yeshivot, and was offered a basket of dates. When told he could purchase three baskets full for (only) one zuz, he cried out: "A basketful of honey for a zuz, yet the Babylonians do not engage in [the study of] the Torah (Ibid 88a)?"

This theme is developed by the Rambam (see Hilchot Teshuva, chapter 9), who explains that the blessings of the Torah that promise peace and prosperity are a means to an end. With our basic needs met, we have time to dedicate to study and communal involvement.  And it was with this in mind that G-d exiled us to Bavel. How sad when we do not take advantage of the opportunity for religious growth!

However, the Gemara continues, that same evening, Ulla was in pain--presumably as a result of eating dates. Suddenly, his perspective underwent a great change. He exclaimed: "A basketful of deadly poison (dates) cost a zuz in Babylonia, yet the Babylonians study the Torah!" (Pesachim 88a). How amazing that, despite the difficulties of life, people are still faithful to Torah!

It seems quite clear that the Gemara is conveying an important message with this story. Great wealth may make it easier to study Torah—but it may also make it harder. With increased wealth comes increased worry, and the desire for even greater wealth; "whoever has one hundred wants two hundred". Wealth allows one to experience many of the pleasures of this world, which are time consuming and often not conducive to Torah growth. Ulla was amazed and thrilled that despite the wealth he witnessed in Bavel people found time to study Torah.

Ulla may have been talking about the Jews of Bavel, but it is we who must pay attention. Wealth can be a great blessing, a great curse—and sometimes, both at once. Newton taught that, in the physical world, every reaction has an equal and opposite reaction. So, too, in the spiritual world, every potential for good (or bad) has an equal and opposite potential for bad (or good).

Today, we live in the wealthiest community in Jewish history-one that would be the envy of Pumpedita. And no society in history has had the leisure time that we all enjoy. Yet many devote little time for learning, being satisfied with a weekly shiur (or less). They have so much, and yet they learn so little.

But the sacrifices made by so many in order to give their children a Jewish education is unparalleled; with the allure of society, with so many distractions and stress, we are still witness to a great explosion of—and almost unquenchable thirst for—Torah learning. Even those who can't understand Hebrew devote time, money, and effort to get closer to Torah. Despite everything modernity has thrown our way (and not to mention the great suffering we have endured), our dedication to Torah is amazing. Thankfully, those who still live in exile do so in the West, and not in Bavel. Let us use our great wealth to enable all to gain access to Torah.



[1] Sadly, the exile of the Second Commonwealth saw the Jewish people sent to Edom (Rome), another indication that the sin of internal strife amongst Jews is more severe than the cardinal sins of idolatry, adultery, and murder.