Thoughts from the Daf
When discussing the transition of torah sheba’al peh from knowledge that was transmitted orally to knowledge that is primarily studied via texts, we tend to think of the mishnah as the first text to record the oral law. Yet, a comment recorded on our daf adds important nuance. “Rav said, ‘I found a hidden scroll, and in it was written that ishi ben Yehuda says that the forbidden melachot are forty less one, and one is liable only on one’”. While the mishnah was the first official oral text, apparently there were “secret documents” floating around that had records of the oral law.
I had the privilege of learning in Rav Herschel Schachter’s shiur at Yeshiva University for four years, in the days before he was universally recognized as one of the outstanding Torah sages. His impact on my learning is immeasurable. One of the most striking things I learned in his shiur is how to say, “I don’t know”. We learned that there is no embarrassment in not knowing – even for great scholars. This humility is a most important, yet often lacking, trait in many a Torah (or any other) scholar.
Much of Masechet Brachot deals with non-legal matters - extolling the importance of prayers and blessings and recording many stories involving our great sages, to cite two main themes. While many of the laws impacting on our daily rituals are expounded upon, there is little of the intense and detailed argumentation over points of law we find in other places in the Talmud. As we move to Masechet Shabbat, we immediately notice a shift to more technical aspects of halacha and legal argumentation, beginning with the intricate laws of carrying on Shabbat.
The story of the martyrdom of Rabbi Akiva is well known. Defying the orders of the Roman government not to engage in Torah study, Rabbi Akiva literally had his flesh ripped off with steel combs – yet was relieved to fulfill the command to love G-d with “all one’s soul”, dying with the shema on his lips.
One of the most well known blessings is that of dayan emet, the blessing said upon the death of an immediate relative accepting G-d as the true judge. It is a statement of great faith in G-d, Who “gives life and takes it away – let His name be blessed”. Less well known is the ruling that if the deceased parent was wealthy, the inheriting child makes a second blessing. This blessing is none other than a shehechiyanu, the bracha in which we thank G-d for having reached a most joyous milestone.
The Talmud spends quite a number of pages discussing dreams. Taking their cue from the Bible itself, they put great stock in the significance of our dreams. They understood that our thoughts during the day have great impact upon our dreams, and knew that every dream has some elements of untruth to it. The Gemarah goes to great lengths to demonstrate the power, not so much of the dream itself, but how it is interpreted: "All goes according to the interpretation".
“From the blessings of man, we see if he is a scholar or not”. How, and more importantly, whom one blesses tells us much about a person. How we word our blessings was of great interest to our Sages; after all, before speaking to a king, we think over each word we want to say, and mistakes reflect a lack of seriousness. How much more so when speaking to the King of Kings!
The term am ha'aretz has come to mean an ignorant Jew, and is generally used in a pejorative manner. However, in Talmudic literature, an ignorant Jew was referred to as the hebrew word bore, an empty pit; it seems like it might be related to the English "boor". The great sage Hillel teaches that "a boor cannot be a fearful of sin" (Pirkei Avot 2:7). Without a solid foundation of knowledge, true fear of sin is impossible.
A common feature of Talmudic editing is to group together a series of statements made by the same person. Generally, it is that person making a statement in the name of someone else - itself a common feature of the Talmud, with its emphasis on sourcing our traditions-- and is generally done in the cases of those figures who are not often quoted in the Talmud.
We human beings are naturally biased. Products of our environment, we are influenced by our cultural milieu, by our background, our life experiences, people we come in contact with—all contributing to help shape our perspective on life’s important issues.