“Without knowledge the soul is not good.”
There is nothing more enigmatic than the roots of a very old and sturdy tree. They create navigational paths beneath the surface and provide nourishment to the roots and branches above. When we find our place in life, we often use the language of finding our “roots.” And yet the roots dig deep beneath the earth and there is so much that is unknowable. There is also nothing more awe inspiring than to find oneself in nature among very old trees and to see the veins of the roots pushing up against the dark soil.
And every once in a while, there is a root that is so thick and elevated, that one is tempted to sit on it for just a moment and to feel the edge of its moistness through our clothes. The moment provides a sense of where we have come from and where we will return. In today’s Daf Yomi we are told that one may not sit on such a root on Shabbat if it is three handbreadths above the ground. There is disagreement among the Rabbis if this is permissible or not, especially in relation to roots that “rise up and then bend and come down from above, from a height of three handbreadths to within three handbreadths of the ground.”
Trees are a powerful symbol of fertility and after the Rabbis discuss whether one can climb one, they discuss perhaps not by coincidence or random inclusion in today’s Daf, a woman’s control over her own body. Rami bar Ḥama said that Rav Asi said that it is prohibited for a man to force his wife into intercourse, and he points to a proverb to support his opinion: “And he who hastens with his feet sins.” He says that the reference to feet signifies human intercourse.
This discussion of a wife’s right to determine the fate of her own body takes us to a dark place. We are told that if a wife is forced into intercourse any offspring “will not be good.” This is attributed to Rav Ika bar Hinnana’s determination that “the soul without knowledge is not good.” Imagine the generational angst that the mother would pass onto her children if she was forced into intercourse and they were not conceived out of love and joy. We are also told that the pain and distress is multiplied when the wife is repeatedly forced into an act of intercourse.
We are presented with the opposite side of a wife’s consent: what if she is the one who wants to have intercourse and openly asks for it. We are told that Rabbi Yohanan said that this will result in a spectacular generation of sons (of course, not daughters) who will be wise and possess understanding which is “a more lofty quality than wisdom.” We are provided with the example of Leah who was rewarded for proactively engaging in intercourse with Jacob with the “children of Issachar” who were men of understanding.
We are provided with an explanation for why women live with so much pain. Rav Yitzḥak bar Avdimi attributes it to Eve, who was “cursed with ten curses, due to the sin of the Tree of Knowledge.” We are told as a result, that women have been doomed to bring forth children in sorrow, and to yield their desire to their husbands. The Rav takes away from women the ability to express their desire freely and openly, when he says that although a woman may desire a husband in her heart, she is “too shy to voice her desire” while her husband can demand “his wife verbally.” He characterizes a wife’s reticence as“a good trait in women.”
The text takes an even worse turn when it compares women’s habits with those of animals. But enough is enough. I hope that there were strong women at home berating the Rabbis as they transcribed today’s text. Perhaps it would have been Yalta who demanded her rightful place at the table with the men.
If a woman is denied her voice and the ability to say yes or no, she has no agency over her own body. In order to escape the unwanted advances of Apollo, Daphne turned herself into a laurel tree. There is sadness in living life bound up that way and entrapped in so much bark and sap. But that was yesterday, and today, women have a louder voice than ever and no longer have to transform themselves into silent, still trees. We have taken possession of our bodies and the Talmud. Our roots run deep.