Utilizing Literary Techniques in the Study of Aggadah: A Review of Jeffrey Rubenstein’s The Land of Truth, Talmud Tales, Timeless Teachings

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Yitzchak Blau

Many academics are unable to teach the broader public due to their esoteric subject matter, lack of pedagogic ability, or desire to avoid oversimplifying the material. Fortunately, Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, professor of Talmud and Rabbinic Literature at NYU, does not share this inability. His The Land of Truth: Talmud tales, Timeless Teachings (Nov. 2018), provides a window into the profound wisdom of Hazal for scholar and layman alike. Even Rubenstein’s earlier, more scholarly work, Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition and Culture (2013), which relies upon classic academic methodology in utilizing variant manuscripts and historical context, has a focus on meaning which the non-scholar can appreciate; all the more so the current volume, which does not feature a scholarly apparatus. 

The Land of Truth analyzes fourteen stories found in rabbinic literature. Some of the themes discussed emerge fairly clearly from the stories, while others reflect Rubenstein’s individual insight.  For example, it is readily apparent that the story of R. Hiyya’s breaking off marital relations with his wife (Kiddushin 81a) critiques celibacy, and that a tale about Alexander the Great’s interaction with the king of a distant land (Yerushlami Bava Metzia 2:5) criticizes the greed of the Macedonian monarch. To be sure, the reader benefits from Rubenstein’s analysis even regarding stories with more obvious meaning as we shall see in our discussion of techniques employed in those two stories later in this review. On the other hand, Rubenstein’s reading of other sugyot, such as Ta’anit 22a, adds a profound and unexpected layer. In that story, Eliyahu ha-Navi identifies two comedians and a jailer/spy as people who will enter the world to come. The jailor heroically prevents the rape of female prisoners and also conveys information to the Jewish community about impending governmental antisemitism, while the comedians cheer up the depressed and prevent arguments from deteriorating into real strife. I have always taught this as a contrast between the dramatic acts of the jailor/spy and the prosaic acts of the jesters.  Scenes with hardened criminals generate action movie material much more than a tale about people who tell jokes. In place of a contrast, Rubenstein sees a commonality. He writes that humor has always been a powerful human tool for resisting oppression; in that sense, the spy and the comedians engage in similar work (200-201).

Rubenstein reveals penetrating insight in his comments on a Gemara (Kiddushin 31b) in which Rav Assi moves to the Land of Israel to escape a demanding mother. A few preceding stories portray an extremely high standard of honoring parents, including one in which R. Tarfon bends down each day to enable his mother to climb on his back into and out of bed. Rubenstein explains that the Rav Assi episode offers an important balancing note to the earlier accounts. Parent-child relationships can be fraught with tension, and those struggling to emulate R. Tarfon’s degree of dedication need not despair (31). 

Another innovative idea appears in Rubenstein’s approach to the prospective convert who wants to hear all of Judaism encapsulated while standing on one foot. Shammai chases him out with a builder’s cubic meter, as the fellow is clearly not serious about commitment to the cause. In contrast, Hillel famously says: “That which is hateful to you do not do to your fellow. That is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn it” (Shabbat 31a). Rubenstein correctly notes that some readers miss the point by leaving out Hillel’s last phrase. Like Shammai, Hillel understands very well that all things of worth require more than a moment’s attention. He uses the Golden Rule as a starting point, but still expects the convert to continue a lifetime of learning (258-263).          

Sometimes, the fresh idea comes in the application to our contemporary situation. In one story, Honi the Circle Drawer wonders why a fellow he encounters would plant a carob tree that will not bear fruit for seventy years.  He then falls asleep for seventy years and awakens to see the grandson of the tree planter enjoying the fruit.  After a seventy-year slumber, Honi is unable to rejoin society, and prefers death to loneliness (Ta’anit 23a). Again, at first glance, the themes of the tale appear fairly straightforward, including Honi’s failure to understand the value of planting a tree for one’s grandchildren and the crucial importance of companionship. Rubenstein points out the epidemic of loneliness in modernity, the contemporary challenge of living longer with the accompanying loss of dignity, and the environmental responsibility to replenish the world’s trees. Thus, an ancient tale takes on particular meaning for our era.

Literature does not always lend itself to definitive conclusions, and Rubenstein is open to ambiguity and multiple possibilities. In this context, we shall take the opportunity to present two Gemarot in greater depth. One story depicts an evil apprentice who steals his master’s wife and enslaves the master: 

Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: To what does this verse refer: “They defraud men of their households and people of their heritage” (Mikha 2:2)? One there was a certain man who set his eyes upon the wife of his master – he was a carpenter’s apprentice. At one point his master needed a loan. The apprentice said to him: “Send your wife to me and I will give her the loan.” The master sent his wife to him.  She stayed with him three days. The master went ahead and came to the apprentice.  He said to him: “Where is my wife whom I sent to you?” He said to him: “I dismissed her immediately, but I heard that some youths abused her on the way home.” The master said to him:  “What should I do?” The apprentice said to him:  “If you wish to listen to my advice – divorce her. He said to him: ”Her marriage settlement is great.” The apprentice said to him: “I will loan you [the money] so that you can pay her marriage settlement.” This one [the master] rose up and divorced her. He [the apprentice] went and married her. When the time came and the master had no money to pay back the loan; the apprentice said to him: “Come and work for me to pay off your debt.” So they [the apprentice and his wife] were sitting and eating and drinking, and the master was standing and serving them drinks. His tears were falling from his eyes into their cups. At that moment, the heavenly judgment of destruction was sealed. (Gittin 58a)

According to the Gemara’s conclusion, this wicked act sealed the heavenly decree of destruction (probably of the Second Temple) for Am Yisrael. In one reading, the master is an innocent victim of a cunning and manipulative apprentice. The phony generosity of the initial loan enables the stealing of a spouse, and the subsequent loan brings about the master’s servitude. However, one can also offer a reading highly critical of a master who sends his wife to do his errands, waits three days to check on her welfare, and then quickly divorces her because he thinks she has been defiled. Finally, one can also see the wife as less than innocent, possibly a partner and planner of the plot from the outset. Rubenstein considers all three possibilities (250-253). 

Another story tells of a woman who consistently misunderstands her husband’s instruction and, as a result, ultimately breaks two lamps over Bava ben Buta’s head: 

A certain man from Babylonia went up to the Land of Israel, and he married a woman there. He said to her: “Cook me two lentils.” She cooked him two lentils. He seethed with anger at her. The next day he said to her: “Cook me a geriva [very large measure] of lentils.” She cooked him a geriva. He said to her: “Go and bring me two botsinei [pumpkins].” She brought him two lamps [another meaning of botsinei]. [He said to her:] “Go and break them on the head of the gate [bava].” [Rabbi] Bava ben [son of] Buta was sitting at the gate [bava] and judging cases. She went and broke them on his head. He said to her: “What is this thing that you have done?”  She said to him: “Thus my husband commanded me.” He said to her: “You did your husband’s will. “May God bring forth from your belly two sons like Bava ben Buta. (Nedarim 66b)

Rubenstein first portrays the wife as a simple woman who fails to comprehend her spouse. She interprets the two food requests literally and then she mistranslates the words botsinei and bava. The fact that he came from a distant geographical area with a different dialect may have contributed to the miscommunication. Thankfully, Bava ben Buta has the patience and wisdom to not react in anger. Rubenstein then offers an alternative interpretation which depicts her as a clever woman who knows exactly what she is doing. On this reading, the Babylonian husband likes to give orders and becomes irritated quickly. This wise and spirited woman adopts subtle ways to express her autonomy, including purposeful misunderstanding. Bava ben Buta appreciates what is going on and maintains equanimity, supporting the woman’s efforts (60-65). Both readings appear valid. In the realm of literary interpretation, Rubinstein implicitly suggests, we should not always strive for the single correct reading. 

Beyond ambiguity, what other techniques does Rubenstein employ in interpreting aggadic interpretation?  Academic tools such as cultural context and knowledge of foreign languages prove helpful. The aforementioned heroic jailer uses dregs of wine to make other prisoners think that a female prisoner is menstruating so that they not try to have their way with her. I had always wondered why the laws of niddah would dissuade non-Jewish criminals. Rubenstein explains that the Zoroastrian religion also has a sense of ritual impurity associated with menstruation, so we can understand the impact of the red liquid dripping (184). In a different Gemara (Kiddushin 81a), Pelimo speaks aggressively towards the Satan, saying “An arrow in Satan’s eye” on a daily basis. This is apparently too overconfident and antagonistic, and Satan teaches Pelimo a lesson in humility.  He appears at Pelimo’s house on the day before Yom Kippur disguised as a disgusting and demanding pauper.  When the family rebukes the pauper, he falls down dead and Pelimo is ashamed and full of guilt.  Rubenstein suggests that the name Pelimo may be related to the Greek word polemos, meaning war or strife (as in “polemic”). The name befits an individual involved in daily battle with Satan (120).

Various literary techniques, some familiar to students of contemporary biblical interpretation, also provide insight. We have just seen an example of names with symbolic import. In another story (Sanhedrin 97a), a location called Kushta (truth) is the arena for a meditation on honesty and its limitations. The main protagonist in that story is a Rav Tavut, or Rabbi Goodness (147).  Rubenstein also takes note of wordplay. The story involving Rav Assi and his mother (Kiddushin 31b) first says irtah purta, he waited a bit, and then dilma mirtah ratah, perhaps he became angry, using the same root RTH in a different sense. In context, R. Assi’s strategy of waiting ultimately increases the angst (29).

Our sages employ intertextuality, especially details reminiscent of biblical episodes, adding potency to Talmudic stories. The tale in which R. Hiyya stops engaging in marital relations with his wife includes two such allusions. She dresses as a prostitute, approaches her husband in the garden, and asks for a pomegranate. A woman tempting a man in a garden with fruit certainly reminds us of Adam and Eve (42). Furthermore, a woman dressing as a harlot in order to enable her to be with someone who should be taking care of her needs, calls to mind the story of Yehuda and Tamar.  Rubenstein sees a contrast in that Yehuda ultimately takes responsibility for Tamar, whereas R. Hiyya remains insensitive to his wife’s legitimate needs (43-44). 

Both biblical and Talmudic authors utilize leitwort, recurrence of a keyword, to convey meaning. The word hazi , sight, appears repeatedly in the story about the jailor and the jesters. R. Baroka sees the first fellow and later sees the two men. The jailor acts when he sees that gentile prisoners have placed their eyes upon a Jewish woman. The comedians enter the fray when they see two people about to scream at each other. R. Beroka’s very name, Rabbi Beroka Hoza’ah,  has the word in it. Rubenstein explains that one theme in the story is the distinction between appearance and reality. The jailor/spy does not dress as a Jew, yet he is a Jewish hero. Red liquid looks like menstruation blood but it is truly just wine. Repetition of a keyword highlights a central theme (188-189). 

Irony also finds a place in the Talmudic toolbox. In the Pelimo story, Pelimo does not show enough mercy to a pauper (the Satan in disguise), who arrives on erev Yom Kippur and acts in a way that promotes aesthetic disgust. After Pelimo’s family rebukes the pauper, he falls down dead, and Pelimo hides in a bathroom in shame. This tale exhibits two ironic elements. After reacting to the poor man with disgust, Pelimo ends up in a location that promotes disgust. Further, though Pelimo does not show sufficient compassion, Satan does exhibit compassion and reveals the truth to the unfortunate Pelimo (129-130).

The significance of literary placement has been the subject of scholarly debate. Yonah Fraenkel, the academic pioneer of literary aggadic readings, argues that we should reach each Talmudic tale as an isolated unit independent of broader context.[1]  Rubenstein disagrees, contending that context often matters.[2] The current volume adds one good example of his approach. Alexander the Great’s dialogue with the faraway king is found in the second chapter of Bava Metzia, a chapter about returning lost items. In that story, Alexander says that he would deal with a particular monetary court case by killing both litigants and taking the money himself. Talmudic context produces a powerful contrast. While our tradition demands that a finder go to great lengths to return items to their original owners, Alexander cavalierly seizes the property of others (230).

One thing frequently absent in academic studies of aggadah is any of the insights found in traditional rabbinic commentary. In this volume, R. Shmuel Edels (Maharsha) makes only one appearance, while R. Judah Loew (Maharal), R. Avraham Yitzchak Kook, R. Yosef Hayyim (Ben Yehoyada), and the various commentaries in the Ein Yaakov do not appear at all. This is a shame, since such works often add important insights. For example, Rubenstein analyzes a story in which R. Shimon ben Elazar calls out to a fellow ugly on his way back from yeshiva (Ta’anit 20a).  Rubenstein correctly notes that this reflects the arrogance of the yeshiva student who is overly proud of how much he has learned. He could have enhanced his analysis by citing Maharal who notes that Migdal Gedor, the city where R. Shimon studies, is a fictional place with symbolic meaning. It is a fenced-in tower, or an ivory tower, where students at the study hall see themselves as removed from and above the common folk.[3]     

Citations of Maharsha and Maharal could have enhanced the closing chapter. Rubenstein comments on Shammai’s usage of the builder’s cubic meter: “this short-tempered Sage habitually carried this implement to be ready to deploy it against others” (255). He does not address the possibility that the rod is symbolic. For Maharal, the measuring rod symbolizes the precision and exactitude of an architect. Shammai insists on getting things just right, and allows no flexibility for human frailty.[4] For Maharsha, on the other hand, the cubic meter symbolizes the builder’s need to provide several foundations for his building, and not to rely on one pillar. One cannot reduce Judaism to a single principle.[5]  Appreciating the symbolic potential of the rod enhances larger themes of the narrative.

Rubenstein also could have cited Maharal’s explanation as to why Beit Hillel thinks one can say the bride is beautiful (beauty is in the eye of the beholder, not an objective fact about the universe),[6] and Ben Yehoyada’s various explanations for why the rich and poor think they are exempt from Torah study (Yoma 35b).[7] Finally, I would add one of Fraenkel’s interpretations. Rubenstein discusses the story of Hillel on the skylight, in which Hillel cannot afford the entrance fee to the study hall, and ends up frozen on the building’s roof (Yoma, ibid.). In the morning, Shemaya and Avtalyon exclaim,“Each day the building is light, and today it is dark!” Fraenkel explains that this is not only a description of the physical reality, but also a metaphor conveying that a study hall meant to illuminate the world with wisdom and guidance is experiencing a dark day when a pauper is locked out on the one day he cannot pay.[8]

That criticism aside, I highly recommend Rubenstein’s work. As noted, he utilizes many scholarly and literary techniques to enhance our appreciation for the literary quality and moral power of Talmudic stories. We are grateful that some academics dedicate time and effort to sharing their wisdom with the larger community.           

[1] Yonah Fraenkel, Sippur ha-Aggadah – Ahdut shel Tohen ve-Zura (Tel Aviv: 2001), 32-34.

[2] Jeffrey Rubenstein, Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture (Baltimore, 1999), 10-15. 

[3] Netivot Olam Netiv ha-Anavah, chapter 7.

[4] Hiddushei Aggadot Shabbat 31a s.v. de-hafokh.

[5] Hiddushei Aggadot Maharsha Shabbat 31a s.v. al regel ahat.

[6] Hiddushei Aggadot Ketuvot 17a s. v. keitzad.

[7] Ben Yehoyada Yoma 35b s.v. mipnei mah.

[8] Yonah Fraenkel, Iyyunim be-Olamo shel Sippur ha-Aggadah (1981),  68.

Yitzchak Blau is a Rosh Yeshiva at Yeshivat Orayta and also teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He is an associate editor of Tradition and the author of Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada.