When Bad Things Happen To Good People – Kiddushin 39b

Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein
The Conservative Yeshiva

Sources

View the English text for Kiddushin 39b

View the Hebrew text for Kiddushin 39b

Guide Questions and Issues

Section #1

  1. Make note of the language of the mishnah. What is the mishnah promising? What do you think the mishnah means by ונוחל את הארץ – inherit the earth?
  2. Note that the mishnah mentions both “lengthening of days” and inheriting the earth”. It is likely that for the mishnah these two things referred to this worldly reward. Some commentators including the Talmud see in “inheriting the earth” a reference to the world to come. What might be the impetus for this interpretation?
  3. What is the purpose of the mishnah?
  4. Is the theological statement made by the mishnah reminiscent of a theology found in the Torah? See Deuteronomy 11:13.
  5. What conflict does the mishnah from Peah pose for our mishnah (1)? Hint: The Mishnah talks about all mitzvoth. What does the Peah mishnah talk about?
  6. How does Rav Yehudah reinterpret the mishnah in order to resolve the conflict between the mishnah and the mishnah from Tractate Peah brought in the kushya? What statement is he making about reward and punishment in his reinterpretation?
  7. What problem does that leave for the mishnah in Peah (3)? Hint: It makes the five particular mitzvoth in this mishnah into superpower mitzvoth.
  8. How does R’ Shmaya resolve this problem?

Issues to discuss

  1. How does this discussion view the role of commandments in a person’s life?
  2. Are all mitzvot equal?
  3. How do these sources measure the value of commandments?
  4. Describe the method of determining answers to questions as is found in this discussion.

Section #2

  1. At this juncture we have accepted Rav Yehudah’s interpretation of the mishnah, namely, that if one performs one more mitzvah than he has sinned, he is rewarded. The Talmud brings another baraita to challenge this assumption. What is the nature of this challenge? What theological problem does it try to account for?
  2. What do you think is meant in Abaye’s teirutz by “yom tov” and “yom ra” – ‘a good day and a bad day’? How does it solve the kushiya? I will note right now that there are a number of different interpretations for this, but it is worth thinking about and discussing. The important thing to note is that he renders the interpretation of our mishnah and this baraita which seem so different to mean the same thing.
  • One way of thinking about this is that the “good guy” suffers in this world to prepare him for his reward in the world to come. The “bad guy” lives the good life in this word so that his suffering will be more complete in the world to come. (Rashi)
  • Another interpretation: The righteous and wicked will have good days and bad days which will balance out according to their deeds. (Tosafot)
  1. Rava disagrees with Abaye’s interpretation, returning to the original interpretation of both sources. In doing so he must find another solution to the conflict between these sources. How then does he remove the conflict between these two sources?
  2. What do you make of Rabbi Yaakov’s opinion? What do you think prompts it? What does this tell you about the shaping of theology?
  3. From 3a, the Talmud contends with the significance of the baraita containing the opinion of Rabbi Yaakov, The baraita presents a famous Talmudic episode as a means for proving Rabbi Yaakov’s theological position. Steps 4-9 form a debate over the veracity of this story as a proof for his position. Step 9 forms the culmination of the first part of this debate.
  4. How would you describe Rabbi Yaakov’s interpretations of the Biblical verses used to prove his theological position? What led him to interpret the verses this way?
  5. Step 10 returns to this debate. What are the implications of the debate in 10-13?
  6. In 14-17, we are introduced to the famous rabbinic heretical character ‘Aher’, often identified with Elisha ben Abuyah. What is Aher’s problem? Why does the Talmud contend that Rabbi Yaakov’s drash could have saved Aher from heresy?

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you describe the theology of this mishnah in this sugya? What is your reaction to this theology? Are your problems the same as those of the Talmud?
  2. In abstract, Rabbi Yaakov offers an interesting strategy for contending with the difficult problem of building a theology in the face of the realities of the real world. What is his strategy and what are your thoughts concerning it?
  3. Do you agree with his answer? DO you agree with his stategy?
  4. How would you compare Rabbi Yaakov’s strategy to that of Aher?

Advanced Questions

1. How does the following opinion of the Rambam (Mishnah Torah Hilchot Teshuva 3:2) compare with the conclusions found in the first part of our sugya? What is your opinion on their approaches to reward and punishment?

אדם שעונותיו מרובין על זכיותיו מיד הוא מת ברשעו שנאמר על רוב עונך (ירמיה ל:יד), וכן מדינה שעונותיה מרובין מיד היא אובדת שנאמר זעקת סדום ועמורה כי רבה וגו’ (בראשית יח:כ), וכן כל העולם כולו אם היו עונותיהם מרובין מזכיותיהן מיד הן נשחתין שנאמר וירא ה’ כי רבה רעת האדם (בראשית ו:ה), ושקול זה אינו לפי מנין הזכיות והעונות אלא לפי גודלם, יש זכות שהיא כנגד כמה עונות שנאמר יען נמצא בו דבר טוב ((מלכים א יד:יג), ויש עון שהוא כנגד כמה זכיות שנאמר וחוטא אחד יאבד טובה הרבה (קהלת ט:יח), ואין שוקלין אלא בדעתו של אל דעות והוא היודע היאך עורכין הזכיות כנגד העונות.

2. Rashi and the Tosafot have different approaches to interpreting Abaye’s teirutz – יום טוב ויום ביש , below you will find the text of Rashi and the Tosafot? Explain the difference between the two opinions.

Rashi

מתני’ – דקתני מטיבין ומריעין דעבדין ליה יום טב ויום ביש מי שעושה מצוה יתירה דהוי רובא זכיות מתקנין לו בעולם הזה י”ט שנפרעים ממנו עונותיו וזהו תקון י”ט לו לעולם הבא וכל שעונותיו מרובין דקתני מריעין לו היינו דעבדין ליה הזמנת יום ביש שמשלמין לו שכר מצותיו כאן להיות מתוקן לו יום רע.

Tosafot

פי’ ר”ת מתני’ דעבדין ליה יום טוב ויום ביש ותרוייהו בעולם הזה ומטיבין לו דברייתא הוי פירוש אמתני’ כלומר פעמים שעושין לו יום טוב כדי לקבל שכר מצותיו בעולם הזה ובאותו יום יהא דומה לו כמו שקיים כל התורה כולה אבל רוב ימיו של רשע שרוי ברעה והיינו שעונותיו מרובין על זכיותיו ומריעין לו היינו פעמים שעושין לו יום רע כדי למרק עונותיו בעולם הזה ובאותו יום יהא דומה לו כמי ששרף כל התורה אבל רוב ימיו של צדיק שרוי בטובה כשזכיותיו מרובין על עונותיו והיינו דלא כר’ יעקב דאמר שכר מצוה בהאי עלמא ליכא כלל.

Preliminary Summary

A few words about the Mishnah

It is my impression that the Mishnah not unlike the Torah is talking exclusively about this worldly reward. It is not unlike the theology found in the second paragraph of the Shema. It is later understood by commentators to speak of reward in the world to come after the Talmud contends with the problem of believing exclusively in this worldly reward. This is an illustration of the evolution of meaning of texts when they are confronted with questions raised by reality. It is an indication that theology is an evolving entity.

Talmud

How does the Talmud do theology? The first piece of Talmud we confronted pits two sources against each other which the Talmud sees as in conflict. In order to contend with the conflict, the Talmud, the Talmud must seek understandings of these texts that allow them to exist in harmony with each other. The Mishnah ostensibly talks about any mitzvah bringing the offered rewards while the Peah mishnah speaks of certain specific mitzvoth which bring about said reward. Well, which is it? In its first attempt to resolve this conflict, the Talmud (R. Yehudah) says that our mishnah speaks of a case where the person does a single mitzvah above the merits which he already has.

The Peah mishnah would seemingly indicate that if one does any one of the super mitzvahs, then that is a game winner. This would seem to refute R. Yehudah. Te Talmud says, no, the real meaning of the Peah mishnah is that the super mitzvahs break a tie where the scale of sins and merits is even.

What interests me here theologically is not only the theology of these two given texts by how the attempt to harmonize these texts becomes a vehicle for creating a theological vision.

The Talmud brings another baraita which conflicts with R. Yehudah’s vision. This baraita seems to say that anyone who does more mitzvoth than sins things are made bad for them and if one has a majority of sins then things are made good for them. Rashi comments that this is so they will merit either their proper reward or punishment in the world to come. However this baraita flies in the face of R. Yehudah’s understanding that the performance of a single mitzvah can alter one’s fate in this world.

For this two solutions are offered. Abaye says that our mishnah, namely doing one additional mitzvah will bring a good day and more sins than merits a bad day. Accoding to Rashi this means – a good day in this world is something bad that will be cleansing so the world to come will be good while a bad day is something fun here so the bad person will be punished. Tosaphot see the good guy having mostly good days with a bad day here and there to cleanse and visa versa the bad guy.

The other opinion is that of Rava who says that there is no correlation between what happens in this world and one’s behavior – all is postponed until afterlife based on the teaching of Rabbi Yaakov. Rabbi Yaakov’s baraita introduces the resurrection idea. For the sages at least in the versions of texts that we have resurrection is conflated with “world to come”. This is something noted in your discussion. There does not seem to be a consistent end game picture as was noted in your discussion Hat is important to us though is the idea that reality caused the postponement of the question of reward and punishment to an other worldly phenomenon. This is another example of the interaction of life and thought.

This theme continues in the remainder of the sugya with the famous ladder– Elish ben Abuya story.

 

Go to Next Class – The Meaning of Suffering

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