Did the Prophet Amos Predict the Women’s Siyum Daf Yomi?

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Yaakov Jaffe

On a recent Friday morning in a simpler time, Maimonides School celebrated the Daf Yomi cycle’s conclusion of Berakhot, the first volume of the Talmud. As part of this celebration, we called forward all of our students who had completed the Tractate. The announcement of each student’s name was met with applause from friends and classmates, although I discerned a somewhat louder roar when a female mesayemet was announced. Though some of us might think this anecdote reflects only our modern times, I wonder if perhaps it was predicted by the prophet Amos, as well.

The book of Amos is remarkably tight and focused in its scope, dealing almost exclusively with the decadent or oppressive behavior of the upper class in the Northern Kingdom of Israel under the reign of Jeroboam II. Written by Amos, a poor,[1] ineloquent, illiterate farmhand,[2] the book describes the excesses of the wealthy, the trampling of the poor, and a series of punishments that would follow these iniquities. The entire book is fixed on this one theme and deals prominently with sin, punishment, and destruction. Yet, following the principle in Berakhot (31a) that prophets conclude with a comforting message, the final seventeen verses mix in aspects of consolation, including the parable of the thirst contained in Amos 8:11-14.

Taken out of its direct context, the central verse of the parable (8:13) would be interpreted as yet another example of punishment for the pampered, wealthy Northerners: “On that day, they shall faint from thirst―the beautiful maidens and the young men.” The focus on beauty (“yafot”) and youth highlights that the punishment would affect the entire society, even the upper classes. Malbim takes the verse literally―the young and vibrant members of society will be physically weakened and desperate for water. Indeed, this is the way the verse is used by the Kinot of the 9th of Av, as a literal depiction of dehydration.[3] Yet most commentators understand the fainting maidens and young men as being part of the wider parable, the deeper meaning of which holds direct relevance to Talmud study.

“The Words of Hashem”

The entire parable of Amos reads as follows (8:11-14):

Behold, days are coming―says the Lord, Hashem―and I will send a famine in the land: not a famine for bread and not thirst for water, but to hear the “Words of Hashem.” They will move from sea to sea,[4] and from North to East; they will walk around to seek out the word of Hashem, but they will not find it. On that day, the beautiful maidens and the young men shall faint from thirst―those who [formerly] swore in the sin of Samaria and would say, “By the life of your god in Dan!” and “By the life of the [idol] in Be’er Sheva!”―and they will fall and not rise again.

The central idea of the passage is pursuit of the “Words of Hashem,” with the pursuit of water being a parable for the pursuit of those “Words of Hashem.” The interpretation of the fainting young men and young maidens is still unclear from the context. Clearly, the young men and women who formerly pursued idolatry now pursue religious teaching―although sadly they are unable to find the teaching that they seek. But what are these “Words of Hashem?”

Most commentaries to Amos argue that it refers to the cessation of prophecy in a future era (see Rashi, Radak, Malbim), since most of the instances in which the phrase “Words of Hashem” appears in Tanakh refer to prophecy. Yet, on occasion it also refers to the words of legal teachings (See Exodus 24:3-4, Numbers 15:31, Deuteronomy 5:5). Indeed, the Talmud cites a series of opinions about the phrase, with some associating this phrase primarily with the prophetic aspects of Judaism, and others associating it with Judaism’s legal aspects (Sanhedrin 99a).[5]

The Rabbinic interpretation of the phrase “Words of Hashem” (as they appear in Amos) is found in the first Tosefta of Eduyot, cited partially in Shabbat 138b:

When the Rabbis entered the vineyard (=yeshivah)[6] at Yavneh, they said: The time will come that someone will seek words of the Torah and not find it, words of the Rabbis and not find them,[7] as it says… “the Words of Hashem”―this is prophecy, this is the end of days, this is the fact that the words of Torah will not be similar to each other. … They said, let us begin with the words of Hillel and Shamai: Shamai says one kav for hallah

In the version of the Tosefta found in the Talmud, “words of Torah will not be similar” is simplified as “Halakhah”―both of which are included in the Oral Law. For the Rabbis, the great famine for the “Words of Hashem” refers to a time when large aspects of the Oral Law will have been forgotten from Israel; indeed, the verse and its prediction provide the impetus for recording many Oral Laws in an organized form in the Mishnah. After the relocation of the Sanhedrin to Yavneh,[8] the rabbis intuited that something still needed to be done to prevent, address, or forestall a thirst, famine, or inaccessibility of the words of Torah and of Oral Law. In this view, Amos predicted a Jewish future without sufficient access to the study of the Oral Law, a need which the Mishnah itself seeks to resolve. The thirst is a parable, in that case, for humanity seeking for a connection with God’s Torah.

The Maidens Fainting

When examining the passage more closely, however, a puzzle emerges. The verse states, “On that day, they shall faint from thirst―the beautiful maidens and the young men.” But while the verse seems to be referring to both the maidens and the young men equally, the verb used, “tit’alaphna,” is written in the feminine. This seems to violate a widely held principle of Hebrew grammar that when the subject of a verb consists of a group of males and females, the verb is conjugated in the masculine form, essentially ignoring the female members of the subject class in the face of the male members. Yet here, the feminine verb form is used to refer to a subject of different genders.

In reality, though, the Hebrew verb grammar of multi-gendered subjects is conventionally mistaught and misrepresented. In Biblical Hebrew, the masculine verb is not always used to represent a group of males and females. It is a well-known and well-attested fact that a compound subject can take either the male or female verb form in Biblical Hebrew, depending on whichever subject is the primary actor of the verb. Often, the primary actor is male, and the verb takes the male form. But sometimes, the primary actor is female, and the verb takes the female form. Thus, the female form of the verb is used in all of the following cases: “And Miriam and Aharon spoke” (sg-f, Numbers 12:1); “And Deborah and Barak sang” (sg-f, Judges 5:1); “And the Maid-servants approached, they and their children” (pl-f, Genesis 33:6); “And Leah and her children approached” (sg-f, ibid. 33:7); and three times in Esther (4:4, 5:14 and 9:29): “And Esther’s maidens and Eunuchs came” (pl-f); “And Zeresh and all his friends said” (sg-f); “And Esther and Mordechai wrote” (sg-f).[9] The grammatical forms in these examples confirm what we would already have intuited about the aforementioned biblical passages: that Miriam instigated the gossip about Moses (see Rashi 12:1), that the song is primarily Deborah’s (see especially Judges 5:7), and that Esther is the primary author of the Book of Esther.[10] The phenomenon of a primary female actor resulting in a female verb form has been well known to grammarians, both religious[11] and secular,[12] for more than a century. 

In Amos, the female verb form would indicate that while both the maidens and the young men are fainting from thirst, it is the maidens who are experiencing this thirst more strongly. If we use the interpretation of the Malbim that the verse merely focuses on the young and vibrant members of society being physically weakened and desperate for water, we would explain the use of the female verb as Amos’s observation that young women are more prone to fainting from dehydration than young men.[13] However, if we look at the parable as a whole, then the verb must signify that the thirst for the “Words of Hashem” is experienced more by the young women than by the young men.

The Significance of Details in Biblical Parable

In an effort to address this riddle, let us take a step back and consider the genre of biblical parables more generally. Virtually every Book of Nakh contains an extended biblical parable; the use of intricate, detailed parables is so ubiquitous in the Tanakh that it exists as its own genre with its own unique rules.[14] Commentators are generally of the view that each and every detail of the parable (or the signifier) corresponds to a different detail in the real world (or, the signified). Thus, Ibn Ezra’s third interpretation of Song of Songs goes through each detail of the full eight chapters and explains what each detail signifies in the real history of the Jewish people. Commentators resist saying the parable “generally” captures the love between G-d and the Jewish people through the story of a couple in love and instead try to show how each detail specifically matches with a real-life event. Similarly, Radak’s interpretation of Isaiah’s parable of the vineyard explains how a dozen details of this short parable all correspond to a different aspect of the relationship between G-d and the sinful Jews. Again, he resists saying the parable is general in nature and instead explains each specific detail as corresponding to something in the real world. When one inspects each and every biblical parable, one sees how each detail of the parable corresponds to a different aspect of the real-life story.[15]

Rambam is the one notable commentator who resists this standard view, as he expands the roster of biblical parables to include a number of parables where the ranges of details are so large that they outstrip the ranges of real-life things they can signify.[16] These passages that Rambam uniquely considers to be parables include the vision of the end of days (Isaiah Ch. 11), the chariot of Ezekiel (Parts of Ezekiel Ch. 1-11), and the entire book of Job.[17] Were these descriptions of real-life events, we could easily explain the copious detail as being a thorough depiction of real life. Yet, for Rambam these are all mere parables, even without each detail corresponding to or signifying something else in real life. The detail is just for the “necessities of setting the parable,” thereby making it more realistic or readable without signifying anything specific (see last line to Guide for the Perplexed 3:23). However, this view is in the minority and is uniquely associated with Rambam.[18]

Women’s Study of Talmud

We now can return to the question of why Amos’s parable specifically focuses on the women’s greater thirst for water than the men’s. If we followed a Maimonidean approach to the genre of biblical parables, the answer would be clear: since in the setting of the parable women and men are both thirsty, the fictional world of the parable reads more cleanly and smoothly if the women were to faint before the men (similar to Malbim’s literal interpretation). But to the predominant approach to Biblical parable, this detail―like any―begs an explanation: why would the text single out the women’s greater thirst for the “Words of Hashem” than the men’s?

We noted above that there are different interpretations for what the “Words of Hashem” are in the first place, and thus depending on one’s understanding of that key phrase, the women’s greater thirst can have many interpretations. Perhaps they have more thirst and desire for the words of inspired prophecy, perhaps they pine more truly for the end of days, or perhaps it is a greater feeling and thirst for the details of the Oral Law as expressed in Halakhah. Traditionally, the last interpretation has been most adopted given its expression in the authoritative Tosefta. From my perspective, it follows that Amos actually predicts the thirst of women for the study of Oral Law in general and Talmud in particular.

The last few months have featured significant new interest among women across our community in the study of Oral Law, from the women’s siyum Daf Yomi in January, to the many women worldwide who joined the Daf Yomi cycle anew for the study of Berakhot and who made the first Talmud Siyum in their lives this past March. Our kehillah’s Daf Yomi group includes men who have studied Talmud their entire lives as well as women who are new to Talmud study. For many men, the study of Talmud is something that has been a familiar heritage for their entire lives; for many women, there is a greater excitement and thirst for a world newly opened to them.

The concept of thirst captures two distinct feelings: (a) an intense desire for something, coupled with (b) an extreme, unusual lack or deprivation of that thing. An avid coffee-drinker might desire coffee but doesn’t “thirst” for it; but the dehydrated, near-fainting desert traveler feels thirst, experiencing both the desire and also the deprivation. Thus, men and women alike might share a desire for the study of the Oral Law, but it is “the beautiful maidens” who more strongly feel and struggle with the paucity of study opportunities and lack of access for further study of Oral Law, sparking a greater thirst.

As a teacher, I witness each day firsthand that young women and young men both show tremendous thirst for the study of the Oral Torah. As Amos predicted, the young women often show this thirst more than the men. They thirst for the “Devar Hashem” and study in order to stem the tide of the Torah being forgotten from Israel, G-d forbid. Per the Tosefta, each time a Jew studies the Torah, we ensure that it continues to be remembered in future generations, avoiding a future when our nation faints from thirst. And perhaps Amos envisioned that women’s thirst―cultivated and waiting for centuries―is the one that is somewhat greater, the one whose presence manifests the true coming of the redemptive, future days when the water of the Torah quenches every thirst with an invigorating dose of “The Words of Hashem.”

[1] See Richard Steiner, Stockmen from Tekoa, Sycamores from Sheba: A Study of Amos’ Occupations (Washington, DC: The Catholic Biblical Association of America, 2003).

[2] See Radak to 1:1.

[3] See Daniel Goldschmit, The Order of the Kinot for the Ninth of Av (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1972), 76 (#18).

[4] Probably from the Red Sea in the South, to the Mediterranean Sea in the West (Ibn Ezra).

[5] We can support this view further by noting that water is often taken to refer to Torah; see Ta’anit 7a, Bava Kama 82a, Isaiah 55:1-2.

[6] A vineyard will also only flourish if it is sustained by ample water.

[7] More dramatically in the Bavli, “The Torah will in the future be forgotten from Israel.”

[8] Either immediately thereafter, when they first came to Yavneh, or shortly thereafter, when Rabban Gamliel was deposed as the Nasi, the day when Eduyot was written.

[9] In a standard Megillah scroll the Hebrew letter taf―which indicates the feminine verb form―is written large, perhaps to stress that indeed, the femine verb form should be used here.

[10] See Megillah 19a. There are three choices for the main character of the Book of Esther, each introduced with a hero’s introduction, and whose narrative arc ends in a fitting summary and closure: Ahashverosh, Mordecai, and Haman. Esther is not the main character, as she has neither an introduction (only known as Mordecai’s cousin) nor any resolution to her narrative arc (see chapter 10). However, she is clearly the primary author (see Megillah 7a).

[11] Malbim Ayelet Ha-Shahar 176, citing two of our examples. The Ayelet Ha-Shahar is typically printed as the grammatical introduction to Malbim’s commentary to Leviticus. He also applies this concept to non-human nouns―see his commentary to Leviticus 23:20 (174).

[12] See Wilhen Gesenius Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, trans. A.E.Cowley (Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, 2006), 468. Note that Gesenius gives a slightly different interpretation and presentation of the phenomenon.

[13] It is unclear scientifically whether this risk of dehydration is true today and whether it is tied to fluid intake, to the rate of perspiration, or to the higher body mass and higher water percentage in males. For some discussion, see Arnulfo Ramos-Jiménez et al., “Gender- and Hydration-Associated Differences in the Physiological Response to Spinning,” Nutricion Hospitalaria 29, no. 3 (February 2014): 644-651.

[14] Among the long list of biblical parables are: the Parable of Jotham (Judges Ch. 9), the poor man’s lamb (II Samuel Ch. 12), the cedar and the thorn (II Kings 14:9), the song of the vineyard (Isaiah Chapter 5), the eggs in the nest (ibid. 10:14), the birth of the nation (Ezekiel Ch. 16), the two eagles and the grape vine (Ibid Ch. 17), “Your mother is a lioness” (Ibid Ch. 19), Oholah and Oholivah (Ibid Ch. 23), the shepherds of Israel (Ibid Ch. 34), the two women of Proverbs (Ch. 7-8), the lonely woman of Lamentations (Ch. 1), and the entirety of Song of Songs. To some extent, the demonstrative acts of the prophets often also constitute parables, such as the barefoot prophet of Isaiah (Ch. 20), the prophet in mourning of Ezekiel (Ch. 24), or the broken marriage of Hosea (Ch. 1-3).

[15] In modern times, Yaakov Medan also builds upon this assumption in unpacking the parable of the poor man’s lamb. See Yaakov Medan, David U-Bat-Sheva (Yeshivat Har Etzion, 2002).

[16] Rambam uses the word Mashal to refer both to metaphor (see Laws of Foundations of the Torah, Ch. 1—2) and also parable. Our discussion is focused on parable, not metaphor, however.

[17] See Laws of Kings 12:1, Laws of Foundations of the Torah 7:3, and Moreh Ha-Nevukhim 2:43 and 3:22.

[18]On this topic in general, see Mordechai Z. Cohen, “A Philosopher’s Peshaṭ Exegesis: Maimonides’ Literary Approach to the Book of Job and Its Place in the History of Biblical Interpretation,” [Hebrew] Shnaton: An Annual for Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Studies 15 (2005): 213-264. Cohen points out that the Talmud itself (Bava Batra 15a) is explicit that the existence of details in the signifier without corresponding signified is deemed proof that a biblical passage is historical or literal, not a parable.

Yaakov Jaffe serves as the rabbi of the Maimonides Kehillah, founded by Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik in 1963, and as the Dean of Judaic Studies at the Maimonides School. He received his ordination and doctorate from Yeshiva University, where he holds graduate degrees in Bible, Jewish History, and Jewish Education. He is the author of Isaiah and his Contemporaries, a commentary on Yeshayahu and the other Biblical books of that time, now available from Kodesh Press.