A Woman Learning Talmud – Dobra Levitt
I love my Talmud Torah class. It meets one morning a week in a shul in the heart of Jerusalem. And just as no other place in the world has a heart like the heart of Jerusalem, no other Talmud teacher is quite like ours. He hails from England, that island of literary giants which seems to endow many of its inhabitants from birth with the gifts of language and wit. So add his own talent for the spoken word and humor to what he’s imbibed from his native air, and you get a “one in a million” Talmud Torah class.
The class has been learning the laws of lost objects. When I started attending late in the year, they had nearly completed the laws involving distinguishing signs on a lost object that would require the finder to announce he had found it. It seems though that a brand new article, say a vase or a hat, may not have to be announced since the owner would not have had sufficient time for his eyes to get used to it, which meant he wouldn’t be able to identify it as his. This law was extremely problematic for me.
If I were buying a hat, for example, you can be sure I would examine it inside-out before I walked out of the store with it. I would definitely have been able to identify that hat as mine since it was for its particularities that I had chosen it. Even if the choice had been between exactly similar hats, one of them would have been better for its fit or some other tangible quality. I raised this issue in the class, and a gentleman called out from his seat, “That’s because you’re a woman buying it”. There was, of course, nothing to answer to that.
Then came those laws where the place the lost object was found had to be considered – whether it was a public thoroughfare or not; how well-traveled it was; whether mainly Jewish people lived there or non-Jews. An interesting example of the place was what to do if one found a carcass of a kosher animal that looked as if it had been ritually schechted on the road between Tiberias and a town further north.
Since this highway was traveled mostly by religious Jews in Talmudic times, the law is it could be assumed the slaughtering was kosher and therefore the finder had to announce it. I wondered how a person could lose an entire animal, say a goat or a cow, without knowing it. True, there’s an enormous difference between presumably a Talmudic cart or wagon and a modern hauling van – I guess if the Talmud brings such a case, one has to imagine how this could have been possible: maybe the owner had two or three animals piled up in his cart so that one just slid off onto the side of the road; maybe he had only one and as he was turning into the lane from the main road, his cart lurched or he was jolted by another wagoner.
Take into account also the hustle, racket and din of heavy Talmudic traffic as we can imagine it, and such an incident may not have been uncommon. In any case, nobody in class seems to have been bothered by this question, and the discussion carried on touching on some of the details of the schecting evidence – how much of the windpipe was severed and so on, at which point one woman had to get up and leave – “the gory details” were too much for her.
The laws involving objects found in rubbish heaps were also puzzling. It seems that in Talmudic times, a person having no storage room in his house for a pot he owned or wanting to hide it for some reason would stash it away in a rubbish heap for safekeeping. Could it be that rubbish heaps then were different from rubbish as we know it? And who in his right mind today would even think of storing a pot in such a place? True, rummishers still exist (not to cast aspersion on anyone, heaven forbid), and usable objects can be retrieved from rubbish, but that’s only by accident. Could this also be a situation where there is a difference between what a man or a woman would think of doing? (again, not to cast aspersion). No one seems to have been disconcerted by these questions and the class continued delving into rubbish heaps, so to speak – whether they were cleaned regularly or not; whether the object was large like a pot or small like knives and forks, etc. – so unless I did some research on rubbish heaps and their use in the Talmudic period, this subject will remain a mystery.
I loved learning laws regarding what to do if one found doves or pigeons tied together near a wall where their owner had placed them while he went off on a nearby errand, for example. I love doves so I didn’t much like the idea of their being tied together, but concede that a dove-owner would not do harm to his own property. Still it can’t be much fun to be tied up huddled by a wall, especially for birds, one would think, but that could be a pure and simple case of projection. How do we know what doves feel? Maybe since they’re so supremely loyal to each other, they’re loyal to their owner and wait for him very patiently by the wall.
Another law involving domesticated doves shows how knowledgeable and exact our sages were. They determined that a dove would not fly more than fifty cubits from its dovecote so that if one found doves within this area, they would have to be returned to the owner. The Gemarah relates many stories of Rav Yirmiyah (you might call him a Talmudic troublemaker) who would ask seemingly far-fetched and trivial questions on a halacha.
On the dove’s flight habits, Rav Yirmiyah asked: What if one foot was within the fifty cubits and the other foot outside? This was one too many for the sages and they threw him out of the study hall. Eventually, of course, they let him back in, but maybe they wouldn’t have evicted him in the first place if they had known that centuries down the line, he would be vindicated. How so? Later the very same day we learned about Rav Yirmiyah and the doves, I began reading an article called “Moses’ Mother” by Rabbi Yanki Tauber, based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Imagine my astonished delight as I read him starting off by recounting the very same story in the Gemarah about the “troublesome” Rav Yirmiyah! It could be that the Rav has a point, the article explains. For example, sometimes you have to be both outside and inside a problem in order to resolve it. And if we look in Parshah Shemos at the number of those who went down to Egypt, the Torah tells us Yacov’s descendants were seventy souls. But if we examine Parshah Va’yigash, the number adds up to only sixty-nine. Who was the seventieth? It was Yocheved, Moses’ mother, who was born at the boundary wall between Eretz Israel and Egypt.
That meant that Moshe had a knowledge of two realities, a vision that Moshe would need to lead his people out of exile. (or – to express it another way, he had one foot in the darkness of exile, and the other foot in the light of redemption. Rav Yirmiyah, now you have a leg to stand on!)
With these thoughts, a woman learning Talmud will end her discussion for now, noting that since the Lubavitcher Rebbe often said we are on the threshold of redemption, she anticipates that time whenever her feet are planted in her Talmud Torah class.