Theologically Provocative Sugyot from the Talmud -– Lesson 5

Rosh Hashanah 16b Bottom

Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein
The Conservative Yeshiva


View the English text for Rosh Hashanah 16b

View the Hebrew text for Rosh Hashanah 16b

Guide Questions and Issues

Part 1

Last week, we dealt with a Meimra which spoke of three types of people who would be inscribed in three different bookson Rosh HaShana in which there fate for the coming year (according to most interpreters) would be determined. This week’s lesson opens with a Baraita,which discusses three types of people whose fates will be determined on the Dayof Judgment (at the time of the resurrection from the dead).

In this Baraita, we have a Makhloket (dispute) between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel.

Beit Shammai’s focus is on the three groups and their fates. Each group will receive with its just deserts. He bases his views on a number of Biblical verses. It would be interesting to know whether his eschatological picture was built from these verses or whether the verses were added to add voracity to the picture he paints. We will assume here that he derives his views from the verses he quotes.

Their teaching seems to be based on a verse from the book of Daniel (12:2 )

ורבים מישני אדמת עפר יקיצו אלה לחיי עולם ואלה לחרפות לדראון עולם: ס

And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to reproaches and everlasting abhorrence.

1. What does Beit Shammai tease out of this verse?

The second verse he quotes is from Zechariah (13:9):

והבאתי את השלשית באש וצרפתים כצרף את הכסף ו בחנתים כבחן את הזהב הוא יקרא בשמי ואני אענה אתו אמרתי עמי הוא והוא יאמר יקוק א – להי: ס

And I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and will try them as gold is tried; they shall call on My name, and I will answer them; I will say: ‘It is My people’, and they shall say: ‘The LORD is my God.’

1. What is the plain meaning of this verse in its biblical context?

2. How is it being used here?

3. For those in the “intermediate” category, what is the purpose of the described fate?

4. What seems to be the purpose of punishment according to Beit Shammai?

5. Beit Shammai also brings a verse from 1 Samuel (2:6). Look up this verse and describe how it is used here?

Beit Hillel’s approach has a different focus.

1. How is it different from that of Beit Shammai?

2. Who is its teaching aimed at?

3. Beit Hillel’s teaching here is based largely on Psalm 116. Look it up! What is the focus of this psalm? What is it used to illustrate in this teaching?

Part 2

The baraita now focuses on the punishment of sinners (and a colorful punishment it is). Let us immediately say the the term “b’gufan” is not easily understood. The Talmud will return to explicate this term. There seems to be particular anger expressed here in this description. One wonders from this description and the verse quoted if the author had a specific group in mind.(Just an observation.)

Check out the verse in Malachi (3:21).

1. What does it mean in its context?

2. How is it used here?

Incidentally, here you see an example of the idea that the wicked are punished for 12 months after death. This idea prompted the custom of reciting Kaddish for parents for only 11 months so as not to consider parents as being wicked.

Next, this baraita moves on to the subject of the punishment of others who considered wicked: “minim – heretic”, “mosrot – those who abetted the enemy”, “apikorsim – those who insult sages”, those who deny Torah, those who deny bodily resurrection, those who prompted fear and those who both sin and cause others to sin. (These definitions are according to Rashi but they are not necessarily historically definitive.)

1. What do these sinners have in common?

2. Why do you think the authors of this baraita assign them such a harsh punishment?

3. Take note of the verses used to design their punishment.

4. What tragedy are these sinners associated with?

Part 3

The meimra of Rabbi Isaac bar Abin is problematic. Who is he talking about? If he is talking about those whom we have just mentioned, fine, but there are those who say he is talking about “beinonim – intermediates. If so,it is not such a cheerful statement.

1. If it is indeed talking about beinonim, what might its message be?

2. Rava’s remark is even harsher. He seems to be talking about good upper middle class or upper class people. What is he trying to say?

Part 4

1. In this section, we return to Beit Hillel’s opinion in the baraita found above. According to their opinion, the “beinonim” do not descend to Gehinnom as punishment because Divine mercy protects them. This mercy is attributed to the divine quality of “rav hesed – great mercy” in the 13 attributes of God.

2. This kushiyah is playing off a proof verse from Beit Shammai’s proof with that of Beit Hillel. Beit Hillel says “beinonim” do not go down to Gehinnom and according to this verse they do. We have here a “stira –contradiction”.

3. We resolve this contradiction with a “ חילוק – a distinction ”. The verse that says that “beinonim” go down to Gehinnom refers to those who sin with their bodies. According to this resolution even Beit Hillel would agree inthis instance.

4. This solution, however, leads to another contradiction since we said previously that those who sin with their bodies have no recourse even through a process of severe purification. Here you say they do have recourse through this purifying process.

5. Here, too, we resolve the contradiction with a “ חילוק ”. Who are those who do not recourse but will beeternally punished – those for whom the majority of their actions are sins thatinclude “sins with their bodies” (which we still have not defined).

On the other hand, those who actions are 50/50, according to Beit Hillel, will be saved through Divine grace.

Part 5

The baraita above quoted a verse from Psalms (116:1):

(א) אהבתי כי ישמע יקוק את קולי תחנוני:

I love that the LORD should hear my voice and my supplications.

The Talmud brings here a drasha in the name of the Babylonian Amora Rava which interprets this verse. His interpretation is not according to the plain sense of the verse. He turns the verse into an if-then statement. He also understands “ אהבתי ” not to mean “I love” but rather “I am loved”. The verse then becomes – When do I know that I am loved by You (God)? –When you hear my prayers.

He then moves onto the end of verse 6:

דלותיולי יהושיע:

I was brought low, and He saved me.

Here,too, Ravah is playful in his reinterpretation of this verse. The word “ דלותי ” means “I was brought low”, but the word “ דל ” can also mean “poor”. Ravah, therefore, Interprets the verse to mean “I was poor [in my performance of mitzvot] but still it is nice that you save me.

Things to Consider

1. Note here that there is a trend to try to find
a way for all those fall short to find themselves under the redemptive umbrella (It is raining in Jerusalem so I could not resist the metaphor.) The Talmud works its way from the strict justice of Beit Shammai through to the mercy of Beit Hillel. Then challenges and modifies the mercy of Beit Hillel only to end with the opening of Ravah.

2. Follow through the process. What do you think the ultimate message of the sages is as this process unfolds?

Part 6

We finally get around to answering the question – Who are the “sinners with their bodies”?

Rav, a Babylonian Amora from the first generation after the Mishnah, provides his answer. Among the Jews, it is a person who scorns the mitzvah of tefillin. Among the non-Jews, it is someone who behavior is licentious.

1. What do you think is Rav’s purpose in defining the sin in this way?

Go to Next Class – Rosh Hashanah 17a-17b