Learn Along With the Yeshiva -– Berachot

Lesson #2 -Content and Questions
Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein
The Conservative Yeshiva

Our studies take a new turn this week. The sources we have are almost all aggadic, midrashic, and anecdotal. Our first episode is related to our studies from last week. At the end of last week’s studies, we busied ourselves in interpreting a verse from the end of Psalm 104. This is where we pick up this week.

I want to say a word about rabbinic stories before we get started. It is generally accepted today that rabbinic stories are didactic, namely, they are meant to teach messages. One must be very careful about making historical presumptions from these stories. One of the reasons for these conclusions is the contradictory nature of so many of these stories. It seems that stories about rabbis were intended to convey important messages in the way that similar stories about heroic figures do the same.


View the English text for Berachot 10a-10b

View the Hebrew text for Berachot 10a-10b

Guide Questions and Issues

1. Our first story, about R.Meir and his wife, Bruria (two famous Tannaitic characters), is brought to interpret the verse (Psalm 104:35): “Yitamu hata’im – may the sinners be destroyed” which we used in the previous sugya. In this episode, R. Meir prays that those who torment him will be destroyed. Bruria offers an alternative“midrashic” interpretation with a more positive message.

M. Benowitz asserts that the word “biryon”in this story is synonymous with “min – heretic” and that it refers to someonewho is apparently tormenting R. Meir.

What is the point of this story? Rabbi Meir’s behavior, according to Bruria, is based on one interpretation of the verse (the pshat or plain sense of the verse). Bruria interprets the verse differently. Discuss the issue of pshat, drash and truth here.

2. This next story interprets another verse. It is another story about Bruria and is probably brought herefor that reason. If in the first story her behavior was measured, here it is the opposite.

A. Distinguish between the pshat meaning of the verse and the drash meaning.

B. What is the purpose of Bruria’s drasha and explain her hostility?

3. The previous two stories dealt with heretics. This story does as well. The main character in this story is Rabbi Abahu. Here, the heretic presents Rabbi Abahu with a conflict over the order of the psalms in the book of Psalms. The heretic is bothered by the current order of the book. Rabbi Abahu dismisses the heretic, pointing out that the sages had an “interpretive” explanation for the current order of the book.

a. What is that explanation?

b. What is its message?

c. What does this conflict say about the difference between the Jew – R. Abahu and the heretic?

4. In this drasha, R. Yochanan offers an interpretation of the verse: “Her mouth brings forth wisdom and on her tongue is a teaching of love”. (Proverbs 31:26) – associating this verse with King David and songs that he sang regarding five worlds (stages of life or existence). From this point, the passage turns into a drasha on a number of verses from Psalms 103-4.

Each stage in life has a different proof verse. For each verse, determine on what in the verse the association is based.

Is there special significance to these stages. What do you think is the point of this drasha?

5. This section is a drasha on the first verse of psalm 103. Here, the focus of the drasha is on the second part of the verse,in particular, the word: “kravei –- all that is in me”.

a. The initial drasha measures the difference between the creative powers of human beings and God. This drasha focuses on a verse from Hannah’s prayer to God. It, too, relates those things which make God different from human beings since both human beings and God have creative capacities. What are the differences according to this drasha?

b. What is the textual basis in the verse from Hannah’s prayer for establishing this difference?

In the continuation of this section, the five times the expression “barchi nafshi” is used are interpreted to draw a fascinating analogy between the human soul and God.

What is the significance in your eyes of these analogies?

6. In order to do this section, a Bible lesson is in order. We will need to open the Tanach to 2 Kings 20. This story can also be found in Isaiah 38.

In the first part of this section, the Talmud builds from this biblical story a dispute between the prophet Isaiah and King Hezekiah which is resolved by God. This story line forms the basis of a drasha on a verse from Ecclesiastes. Describe how the story serves as an interpretation of the verse.

Two interesting aspects of this story are worth consideration:

a. Isaiah decrees death for King Hezekiah because he has not practiced procreation (pru urvu).

b. Hezekiah defies the prophet and turns to prayer to avert the stern decree.

What reason does Hezekiah give for not performing the commandment? Does the debate on this question between Isaiah and Hezekiah resonate with any modern debates?

What point is made in this story in Hezekiah’s defiant behavior?

Notice that Hezekiah tries to rectify his behavior but the prophet denies him the possibility. Why? What are your feelings about prayer in seemingly impossible situations?

What are your thoughts on the theological problems with this passage?

7. The Talmud brings a meimra to reinforce Hezekiah’s behavior in the above story using a verse from Job as a proof verse. How does this verse justify Hezekiah’s behavior?

8. Another meimra on the same subject. How does this memra justify Hezekiah’s behavior?

9. Here we return to the story of Hezekiah and his prayers, interpreting the verse from Isaiah where he actually prays. This drasha will end in the real reason for including this story here, namely that Hezekiah’s little episode ends as an example of the reward for juxtaposing ge’ula to tefillah in one’s prayers. (Please note, since I know this question will come up. I do not know how the midrash made this association nor the following one. It just did.)

Notice how the case is justified through a kal v’homer – a less weighty example (the story of Bat Sheva) and them a weightier example (Solomon building the Temple). Through this argument before God, Hezekiah makes his case.

At the end of the story, a different example of one of Hezekiah’s good deeds is presented, namely, that he hid the Book of Healing – a book of formulas for healing in order that people would pray for healing. (Rashi) Maimonides, on the other hand, thought it must have been a magic book. The act of hiding it was considered meritorious on Hezekiah’s part.

10. The inclusion of this baraita was inspired by the previous story (or visa versa). In this baraita, we find a list of 3 things that Hezekiah did that God approved of and 3 that he disapproved of.

a. The first one we just discussed.

b. The snake – this refers to the bronze serpent that Moses made. See 2 Kings 18:4. The people probably forgot its original purpose and started worshiping it – now that is a sin in my book!

c. This one is not mentioned in the Tanach but the sages understood that he dragged his father’s corpse around as atonement for his father’s sins. This story considered this a virtue.

d. Stopped up the Gihon. See 2 Chronicles 32:30. But there is no mention that anyone disapproved of this action except in this baraita.

e. Cut the doors of the Temple– See 2 Kings 17:16.

f. Intercalated a month during Nisan. See 2 Chronicles 30:2-4; 18-19. This does not seem to indicate that he intercalated an addition month but rather celebrated the Second Pesah (if one was ritually impure or far from the Temple on Pesach, there was a second opportunity to sacrifice the Passover lamb a moth after Pesach) publicly. The sages understood it as adding an additional month at a time when it was improper to do so, namely, during Nisan.

11. The Talmud how Hezekiah could do such a thing considering the Torah explicitly says that there cannot be 2 months of Nisan.

12. This teirtutz explains that he did not make two months of Nisan rather he added a second month of Nisan on the 30th of the month which could potentially have been the month of Nisan if Adar had been a 29 day month.

13. This meimra speaks against haughtiness and arrogance using Hezekiah as an example.

Go to Next Class – End of 10b