Bleeding hearts (Daf Yomi Shabbos 137)

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“The day of his healing is like the day of his birth.”

I have been told that I am a bit of a “bleeding heart.” I cry during movies. I even cried throughout the “Babe: Pig in the City” film when Babe was lost and could not find his way home. Yes, I cry over the thought of a lost pig in a foreign city and tears still well up in my eyes when I hear the words That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.”  I am certain if there ever was a kosher little Pig, it is Babe who saved the lives of many animals regardless of their species and helped win back his owner’s farm.

I am still crying over all the stillborn babies we read about in yesterday’s Daf Yomi, and the little ones who are born with their breath but did not survive through their first thirty days. In addition to being someone who can cry at the thought of a lost pig, I am extremely queasy and am struggling through all the readings on circumcision. Today the topic turns to the actual description of the flesh and what is acceptable for the sake of appearances.

Today’s reading reminds me of the difficult math word problems I struggled with in elementary school. They were often about two trains heading toward each other at different speeds; I had difficulty solving the problem because all I could think of was two trains colliding and the injured aboard. To this day I always think “what if” when I board a train. The word problem today’s Daf Yomi tackles is one of colliding babies.

What is a Rabbi to do if he has to circumcise two babies born close to each other in time? How does he keep it straight who goes when, at a time when there was no clocks and he was left with two babies who look alike? One baby is scheduled to be circumcised on Shabbat Eve and one on Shabbat. Like someone who mixes up his left and right shoes, the Rabbi forgot who went when and circumcised the baby who should have been circumcised on Shabbat eve on Shabbat. Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua disagree on whether he is liable to pay a sin-offering for desecrating Shabbat. The overriding principle appears to reside with Rabbi Yehoshua who says if the circumcising Rabbi’s intention was pure and he intended to perform a mitzva, he is not liable. There is a lot more discussion back and forth, but the word problem is solved, and everyone survives intact.

From stillborn babies, today we consider sick babies, who recover. If a baby is sick on the day of his scheduled circumcision, the ceremony is postponed. Shmuel, the medical expert, prescribes full bedrest for the baby: “A baby that was sick and had a high fever, and subsequently the fever left him, one gives him a full seven days to heal before circumcising him.” A dilemma arises as it always does. We were told earlier in the text that the counting of a baby’s eight days ahead of circumcision beings at sundown, which serves as the demarcation of day from night. The question arises if the recovering baby needs to count down just as he would from the day of his birth. The little one need not wait seven full days from the day of his healing to be readied for the rite. In other words, any seven days will do, and the counting can start at any time of day

There are passages in the Talmud that sadden me deeply in a different sense than the one about stillborn babies. Even when accounting for customs 1,500 years ago and trying to discount the modern filter that I view everything through, there are passages that are still difficult for their hardness and lack of empathy and inclusiveness. We are presented with the image of a running spring awash with the ashes of red heifer. We are told that “everyone is fit to sanctify the waters”with the exception of certain people with disabilities and minors. Women are also excluded from bathing in the red-tinged waters. Some Rabbis would exclude intersex-men from the waters, while others would allow them to dip their toes in the running spring, because “anyone who could possibly be included in the category of a male” meets the definition of “every male” who must avail himself of the covenant of circumcision. It seems that even the possibility of being a male would save someone from the plight of being a woman.

Every time I comment on troubling portions of the text, I receive feedback that I need to understand the time, and the perspective of the Rabbis who were desperately trying to preserve their religion through proscriptive conformity. Others tell me that I need to understand the hidden messages in the text, and I can only do that if I read the Talmud in Hebrew. But all I have to go with is the actual words on the page and what I trust is a decent translation. In my heart of hearts – and I already told you that I am a bit of a bleeding heart – I cannot let these passages sweep over me without acknowledgement of the pain the words would have caused those who did not meet Rabbinical standards. Surely, compassion and appreciation of diversity must have existed among the open hearted 1,500 years ago. And surely, there is a place in this world to cry over the plight of a heroic pig like Babe and all the forgotten, discriminated-against and oppressed.

About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at
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