Sotah, Chapter Nine, Mishnah Fifteen

 

Introduction

The previous several mishnayoth discussed various historical events and what ceased at those times.  The first section of the mishnah teaches what ceased when the great teachers of Torah of the mishnaic period died.

The second and third sections contain laments at the great deterioration that Israel experienced when the Temple was destroyed.  The last part of the third section and the final section contain messages of hope for better times.

 

Mishnah Fifteen

1)      When Rabbi Meir died, the composers of fables ceased.

2)      When Ben Azzai died, the diligent students [of Torah] ceased.

3)      When Ben Zoma died, the expounders ceased.

4)      When Rabbi Joshua died, goodness ceased from the world.

5)      When Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel died, locusts come and troubles multiplied.

6)      When Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah died, the sages ceased to be wealthy.

7)      When Rabbi Akiba died, the glory of the Torah ceased.

8)      When Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa died, men of wondrous deeds ceased.

9)      When Rabbi Yose Katnuta died, the pious men (hasidim) ceased—and why was his name called Katnuta? Because he was the youngest of the pious men.

10)  When Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai died, the splendor of wisdom ceased.

11)  When Rabban Gamaliel the elder died, the glory of the torah ceased, and purity and separateness perished.

12)  When Rabbi Ishmael ben Fabi died, the splendor of the priesthood ceased.

13)  When Rabbi died, humility and fear of sin ceased.

14)  Rabbi Phineas ben Yair says: when Temple was destroyed, scholars and freemen were ashamed and covered their head, men of wondrous deeds were disregarded, and violent men and big talkers grew powerful.  And nobody expounds, nobody seeks, and nobody asks.   Upon whom shall we depend? Upon our father who is in heaven.

15)  Rabbi Eliezer the Great says: from the day the Temple was destroyed, the sages began to be like scribes, scribes like synagogue-attendants, synagogue-attendants like common people, and the common people became more and more debased.  And nobody seeks. Upon whom shall we depend? Upon our father who is in heaven.  In the footsteps of the messiah insolence (hutzpah) will increase and the cost of living will go up greatly; the vine will yield its fruit, but wine will be expensive; the government will turn to heresy, and there will be no one to rebuke; the meeting-place [of scholars] will be used for licentiousness; the Galilee will be destroyed, the Gablan will be desolated, and the dwellers on the frontier will go about [begging] from place to place without anyone to take pity on them; the wisdom of the learned will rot, fearers of sin will be despised, and the truth will be lacking; youths will put old men to shame, the old will stand up in the presence of the young, “For son spurns father, daughter rises up against mother, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law—a man’s own household are his enemies” (Micah 7:6). The face of the generation will be like the face of a dog, a son will not feel ashamed before his father. Upon whom shall we depend? Upon our father who is in heaven.

16)  Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair says, “Heedfulness leads to cleanliness, cleanliness leads to purity, purity leads to separation, separation leads to holiness, holiness leads to modesty, modesty leads to fear of sin, fear of sin leads to piety, piety leads to the Holy Spirit, The Holy Spirit leads to the resurrection of the dead, and the resurrection of the dead comes from Elijah, blessed be his memory, Amen.”

 

Explanation

Some of these sections are self-explanatory.  Therefore, I will only comment when there is something to add.

Sections 1-3:  In the first three sections, when rabbis die who exemplify certain characteristics of Torah learners, the world is bereft of men like them. Rabbi Meir was known for his fables, Ben Azzai for his extreme dedication to study and Ben Zoma was a great expounder of biblical verses (you may remember him from the haggadah).

Section four:  Rabbi Joshua died right around the time of the beginning of the Bar-Kochba revolt, a bitter loss for the Jews.  This may be the meaning of “goodness ceased from the world.”

Section six:  Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah was very wealthy and helped support many other Torah scholars.

Section seven:  Rabbi Akiva expounded upon every letter in the Torah and even every mark made on top of each letter.  This is the “glory of the Torah”, that everything in it has a meaning.

Section nine:  The “pious men” may refer to individually pious men, but it also may refer to a radical group of Pharisees known as “hasidim.”

Section eleven:  Rabban Gamaliel the Elder lived while the Temple still stood.  Separateness may refer to asceticism.

Section fourteen:  Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair laments the deterioration that occurred after the destruction of the Temple.  The good people were disregarded and led to shame while the violent and those who talked more than they did thrived.  At the end of his statement he notes that we have no choice but to continue relying on God.  This is this mishnah’s note of hope. Despite the deep traumas experienced by the Jews in this period, traumas that dislocated them from their center of worship in Jerusalem and caused a great loss of life, the rabbis continued to believe in God and to study the Torah. Without them, we would not be here today.

Section fifteen:  This section is really the last section of the mishnah, causing the tractate to end on a negative note.  In order to prevent this, later copyists added a more upbeat ending to the Mishnah.  Rabbi Eliezer the Great again speaks of the deterioration after the destruction.  However, there may be some optimism in his words themselves.  The phrase “in the footsteps of the messiah” refers to his belief that the great suffering currently being experienced is a sign of the eminent messianic period.  These are the “birthpangs of the Messiah”.  Rabbi Eliezer closes both sections of his remarks by noting that we have nothing to do but rely on God’s grace.

Section sixteen: This section is a later addition to the Mishnah, one meant to add hope after such a bitter chapter. The saying provides a prescription for bringing about the return of Elijah, the harbinger of the Messiah.  It all begins with simple “heedfulness”, which could be understood as passion for observance of the commandments.

 

Congratulations!  We have finished Sotah. 

It is a tradition at this point to thank God for helping us to finish learning the tractate and to commit ourselves to going back and relearning it, so that we may not forget it and so that its lessons will stay with us for all of our lives.

Sotah was, at least in my opinion, an extremely interesting tractate.  The tractate was full of midrash, explaining the sotah ritual and several other important biblical passages.  It ended with some fascinating historical material. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

May you have the strength and time to keep on learning more Mishnah!  Tomorrow we begin Gittin.

 

 

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