“And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not raise sword against nation, neither will they learn war anymore”
When I explain to friends and family that I have entered into a seven and half-year cycle of reading a portion of the Talmud each day, their comment is often that it is good during these difficult times to do something “spiritual.” The text is so rambling that spirituality is probably not what is prompting me to keep reading every day. For me, it has been an intellectual exercise in my struggle to pay close attention to the text and try to find meaning in stories that sometimes seem absurd, like the request in the Berakhot Tractate from a dead woman for blue eye shadow and a comb or the student who hid under a Rabbi’s bed in hopes of discovering the secrets of marital intimacy.
Today’s Daf Yomi is a good example of how rambling and stream of consciousness the Talmud can be. The Rabbis jump from topic to topic in their discussion of the arrogance of city dwellers in Jerusalem (there appears to be a rivalry between Babylonia and Jerusalem), the importance of honoring scholars and even the ones that are curmudgeons, the purity of garters, kneaded bread that they say refers to promiscuous women, and a wide divan that “refers to a fat woman.” This “whisper down the lane” of the Rabbis who offer commentary sums up today’s reading: “Rav Kahana said that Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said, and some say Rav Asi said that Reish Lakish said, and some say Rabbi Abba said that Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said.”
What resonated the most for me today is the discussion of weapons which are portrayed as ornaments for men. We are initially told that a man is prohibited from going out in the public domain on Shabbat with a sword, bow, shield or spear. Rabbi Eliezer contradicts this edict and says that because they are ornaments, it is permissible to wear them out in public and display them as one’s prized possessions.
The Rabbis call this brandishing of a man’s weapons as “nothing other than reprehensible.” We are provided with a vision of a future without weapons from Isaiah 2:4 that has been repeated often in the plea to end violence: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not raise sword against nation, neither will they learn war anymore.”
Rabbi Eliezer offers hope for a world-to-come where weapons will not be necessary for war and will be reduced to ornamentation and worn in the way that cadets display them as part of their dress uniforms. Abaye compares the wearing of a weapon as an ornament with the lighting of a candle in the afternoon; it is not needed for light, but for enjoyment of its scent and the warmth it exudes on a cold afternoon when one is sheltering in place and wants to create a hygge environment.
Shmuel, ever the pragmatic scientist, dispels the hope that war will ever end in this world or the next. He says that the world will remain the same and points to the suffering of the poor to support his point of view.
The Rabbis present an argument for gun control from their perspective of 2,000 years ago. And Shmuel offers the prescient assessment that despite all the violence he experienced in his lifetime, and all the violence that has come since, including inquisitions, religious wars, slavery, colonial wars, civil wars, world wars, pogroms, holocausts, terrorism, and mass killings, nothing will ever really change. All this pain and suffering has been executed with weapons of one sort or another. Every time there is a horrible mass killing in the United States where innocent people die there is yet another discussion of gun control, and then it is forgotten. And forgotten again.
There is hardly any spiritual solace to be found in Shmuel’s realistic vision of a world that will remain unchanged. Today, my heart goes out to all those women, children and animals who are in danger as they shelter in place with unhinged and violent family members or significant others or care takers who are threatening them with physical or verbal weapons. We are stuck in place as a society in every sense imaginable.