Brachot 5a-5b – Lesson 2 -– The Meaning of Suffering

Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein
The Conservative Yeshiva

I want to introduce this study sheet with two introductions: one about the Talmud and the other, about the subject.

First, let me say a few words about the Talmud. You will notice that the beginning of our studies this week is not quite about the announced topic. Instead, we will study a bit about the subject of the recitation of the Shma prayer before going to sleep. Only as a digression from this topic to we get to the topic at hand. This tells us something about Talmudic organization. James Joyce did not introduce the idea of “stream of consciousness, the Talmud did. (This is intended to be humorous.) The Talmud moves in an organic way from topic to topic, inspired by associations. I have purposely not extracted the relevant material so that you will get the sense of this characteristic.

This brings us to our topic. Our treatment of this topic will not be systematic. Rather as I noted, it will be associative through Scriptural interpretations, Talmudic arguments (albeit easier ones than last weeks) and anecdotal materials. The answers will not be definitive. We will not come to conclusions. We will ponder and struggle. We will be introduced to interesting concepts, ask questions and debate, be interested and be bothered. Ah, but isn’t that what being Jewish is all about!


View the English text for Brachot 5a-5b

View the Hebrew text for Brachot 5a-5b

Guide Questions and Issues

Section 1 – Bedtime Kriyat Shma

  1. This Amora states his justification for saying Shma before going to sleep. What is it? How is it justified from the verses of the Psalm? See steps 1-3.

4. This step brings a different sage’s justification for saying the Shma before

bedtime. What is the reason and how is it justified from Scripture?

In earlier generations, saying Shma before going to bed was to meet one’s obligation to recite Shma in the evening. After the recitation of the Shma became an established part of the evening service, a different rationale was offered for saying Shma before sleep.

What special role is offered for Torah study in this first discussion?

Section 2

  1. This last idea is carried over into the second discussion with a similar pattern of derivation from Scripture.
  2. R. Yochanan disputes the necessity to learn this reason out as R. Shimon ben Lakish has since as he asserts there is a better place to learn it from. (Just as an aside, these two sages are common sparring partners.)
  3. From this debate is derives a causal relationship between neglect of Torah study and afflictions. How is this learned from the quoted verse?

Things to Consider

  1. We see Torah study and/or recitation of the Shema in a number of different roles in the above passage. Catalogue these roles and comment on them.

Section 3

1. In this passage, God is portrayed as a gift giver. What makes God so happy about giving this gift?

Section 4

Now we enter into our specified subject matter. Before we enter into the material, what is the association with the material found above?

1. What is the purpose of Rava’s behavior program? Does it seem to you to be a worthwhile program?

We are introduced in Rava’s meimra to the concept of “yissurim shel ahava – afflictions of love”? What does this concept come to explain? What is their purpose? What do you make of this concept?

2. This meimra further fleshes out this concept. What attitude is it trying to develop in the believer? What might be the reality behind this attitude? What generalization can you make about theology from Rava’s conceptual framework here?

3. Again a further elaboration of this concept. Notice how all of these statements want to see suffering as a gift. What does suffering do for the sufferer? How do you feel about this? Why does this teaching make an association between suffering and the offering of sacrifices? Why might it have been important to the sages who shaped this concept?

Section 5

This section is a small paean to suffering. It makes an interesting link between suffering and God’s most precious gifts to the Jewish people, citing textual proofs for each. Why do you think Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai linked Torah, Eretz Yisrael and the world to come to suffering?

Section 6

We move back to “yissurim shel ahava –afflictions of love”.

  1. A Tanna teaches a baraita which has at least one outlandish aspect, namely, the idea that burying ones children is an act of atonement. (Some might also be bothered by the idea of drawing a direct correlation between certain good deeds and reward and on that note we can continue the discussions from last week’s sugya.) Again, what might give rise to such an idea?
  2. Rabbi Yochanan challenges this idea. On what is his challenge based?
  3. What is the basis for the answer to this challenge? (Hint: It is textually based on what we call a “gezerah shavah” – an analogy built on same word in two different verses so that you can learn from on e verse to another.

Notice in this section, we have dealt with some controversial statements. The sages here do not challenge them conceptually. They are challenged over whether a textual basis can be found to justify them.

Section 7

1. In this section, Rabbi Yochanan tries to limit the application of the concept of “yissurim shel ahava” so that it does not include “leprosy” or harm to ones children.

2. He is challenged regarding “leprosy”, since a baraita exists which says that “leprosy” is like an altar of atonement.
(Notice here how a baraita is brought to “trump” a meimra.)

3. The Talmud rejects this kushiya. How? – by drawing a distinction – “leprosy” is considered an altar of atonement but it is not an “affliction of love”.

4.-5 The Talmud offers to other resolutions to the kushiya in step 2.

In other words, these twe answers do not accept the answer given in step 3 but prefer to offer their own answers (teirutzim).

In step 4, they also present a “distinction”. In the land of Israel, “leprosy” is an “altar” but not an “affliction of love” since in Israel, the leper had to leave his town. (The suffering was too great to be an affliction of love.) In Babylonia, however, the leper was not forced to leave his town so it could be considered an “affliction of love”. Rabbi Yochanan was the most prominent sage in Israel at the time, so this answer explains why this would not be considered an “affliction of love” by him.

In step 5, a different teirutz is attempted. When the blemishes are in a place hidden by clothing, then they are an “affliction of love” but in they are in plain sight, then the embarrassment makes it so they would not be considered an “affliction of love”.

6. The Talmud challenges Rabbi Yochanan’s statement that “children” are not to be considered an “affliction of love” from his own experience since he had lost all ten of his children. Since his affliction could not be attributed to other things, they must have been an “affliction of love”.

7. This challenge is again met by means of a distinction: where ones children die is considered an “affliction of love” but where one has no children at all is not to be considered an “affliction of love.”

The teirutzim in this section technically answer the challenges. Are you satisfied with the answers? Detail your answer.

Sections 8-9

This section contains a series of anecdotes. Read them carefully and explain what how they are related to the discussion above.

How do you assess the Talmud’s conclusions regarding the whole discussion on afflictions and “afflictions of love”?

Go to Next Class – The Significance of Receiving the Torah