Disorders and Fate
In our Gemara on Amud Aleph, Rav Kahana is mentioned and regarded as a “great man,” emphasizing his practice of wearing a head covering. This practice reflects a broader discussion about the significance of head covering in Jewish tradition. A well-known Gemara in Shabbos (156b) touches on this topic:
“From Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak it can also be derived that there is no Mazal (astrological influence) for the Jewish people. Chaldean astrologers told Rav Naḥman bar Yitzḥak’s mother: Your son will be a thief. She did not allow him to uncover his head. She said to her son: Cover your head so that the fear of Heaven will be upon you, and pray for Divine mercy. He did not know why she said this to him. One day he was sitting and studying beneath a palm tree that did not belong to him, and the cloak fell off of his head. He lifted his eyes and saw the palm tree. He was overcome by impulse and he climbed up and detached a bunch of dates with his teeth. Apparently, he had an inborn inclination to steal, but was able to overcome that inclination with proper education and prayer.”
This discussion holds meaning in both psychological and deterministic contexts, just as it did for the sages exploring questions of astrology and determinism. During the time of the Gemara and through the Middle Ages, many scholars and scientists believed in the influence of celestial bodies on an individual’s fate, personality, and disposition. Although there were exceptions like the Rambam, who rejected this belief (see Pirush Mishnayos 4:7 & Iggeres Lechochmei Marseille), even rationalist rishonim such as the Ralbag believed in such influences (Ralbag Milchemes Hashem 2:2). The lesson from the Gemara in Shabbos is that while there might be some degree of predetermined fate for a person, as seen in the case of the young Rav Naḥman, prayer, proper guidance and mindful behaviors can overcome this natural fate.
In a modern context, some may confidently assert, “We in the modern age are not so naïve as to believe in astrology.” While it’s true that many contemporary individuals do not believe in astrology, it’s important to recognize that the human instinct to create mythologies persists, albeit often in different forms. The term “mythologies,” when viewed psychologically, refers to culturally constructed ways of passing down values through stories that influence how people think and feel. In this sense, even modern scientific assumptions can serve as mythologies, shaping our understanding of human behavior and experiences.
For instance, phrases like “born that way” or “chemical imbalance” are often invoked in modern discussions about human nature. However, these assumptions are not fully proven, and much remains unknown about the complexities of the human personality. The comparison to phrenology, a debunked pseudoscience, highlights the potential for oversimplification and arrogance in making sweeping claims about intricate matters that science has not yet fully unraveled. A person’s personality, sexual orientation, moods, and emotions may be influenced by various factors, but attributing them solely to a predetermined chemical imbalance oversimplifies the intricate interplay between genetics, environment, and conscious effort.
This brings us back to the age-old debate: Are our lives determined by the constitution we were born with, or by the “constellation of genes”? The reasonable and rational perspective suggests that while we may have certain inclinations, mindfulness, focus, and even prayer can play a pivotal role in impacting and potentially altering those tendencies. Just as tradition dictates head coverings to invoke a connection with the divine and foster reverence, individuals have the capacity to shape their lives through conscious choices and efforts thereby challenging the notion of predetermined destinies.
Dates Before Marriage
In our Gemara on Amud Aleph, various scenarios are discussed where a man proposes marriage in a playful manner, leading to uncertainty about the woman’s consent:
“There was a certain man who was picking dates from a date tree. A certain woman came and said to him: ‘Throw me two.’ He said to her: ‘If I throw two dates to you, will you be betrothed to me with them?’ She said to him: ‘Throw, throw.’ Rav Zevid said: Any use of the expression: ‘Throw, throw,’ is inconsequential, and she is not betrothed.”
A question was raised before the Sages: If she says: ‘Give,’ ‘Give to drink,’ or ‘Throw,’ without the repetition, what is the ruling? Does her straightforward statement indicate her agreement to the betrothal condition, or does she not agree to betrothal here? Ravina said: She is betrothed. Rav Sama bar Rakta emphatically declared: “By the king’s crown! She is not betrothed.” The ruling is that she is not betrothed.
What distinguishes scenario one from scenario two? In the first scenario, her repetition likely stemmed from frustration, conveying a dismissive attitude like, “Just give me the dates already!” In contrast, the second scenario’s single request implies greater determination, reduced anxiety, and heightened seriousness.
This situation underscores the significance of mindful communication. Repetition often arises from anxiety or insecurity. Conversely, excessive repetition can convey insecurity and lack of conviction. In negotiations and disciplinary contexts, speech should be employed thoughtfully. Expressing ideas, intentions, or requests clearly and unambiguously, without hesitation, allows for a confident and firm delivery. This approach doesn’t contradict humility; one can assert themselves confidently while inviting others’ perspectives by asking, “What are your thoughts on this?”
Rules About Exceptions
While no longer practiced and even already forbidden during the time of the Gemara (see 12b), one original method to establish a marriage bond was through sexual intercourse with the intention of consummation. Our Gemara on Amud Aleph delves into this process and examines when exactly the marriage bond is formed:
A question was posed to the Sages: Does the initiation of intercourse effect acquisition, or is it the completion of intercourse that effects acquisition? Does the moment of betrothal occur at the beginning or the end of intercourse?
Although this might appear overly meticulous, the Gemara presents practical halakhic distinctions. For example, if the sexual act couldn’t be completed, would the woman be considered married due to the initiation, or would she still be able to marry someone else? (The “beginning” of the sexual act refers to genital contact without full penetration.)
The Gemara also presents another case where the timing matters:
“Alternatively, there is a difference with regard to a High Priest who acquires a virgin through sexual intercourse. If only the end of intercourse effects acquisition, she is no longer a virgin at the time of the betrothal. Consequently, a High Priest cannot acquire a woman through intercourse, as marrying a non-virgin is prohibited for him (Leviticus 21:14).”
Why is a High Priest forbidden to marry a non-virgin? The Chinuch (272) explains that the High Priest should ideally maintain the highest standards in thought and marriage. A woman with prior sexual connections could introduce elements foreign to the marriage due to past attachments. While this standard may not apply to regular priests and has only a faint adulterous implication, it holds heightened significance for the High Priest.
The Chidos Yaakov (Kovetz Birchos Shlomo Kesser Torah 448, also quoted in Sefer Daf Al Daf) raises a question about the Chinuch’s explanation. If so, why would the scenario in our Gemara be problematic? Even if the completion of intercourse signifies the marriage, and she’s technically not a virgin due to the initiation of intercourse, her connection remains only with one man.
I do not agree with this presumption behind question. Any reason for a Torah rule is based on symbolic ideas. Even with exceptions, the law still applies. Moreover, the Chinuch makes this point earlier in Mitzvah 73 in regard to his proposed health reasons for the prohibtion of eating Tereifa. He suggests that the Torah’s laws and reasons are general principles to prevent excessive exceptions that could erode its foundation.
This theological principle underscores the human aspect of Torah. Despite God’s ability for fine distinctions, humans must uphold the Torah, which wouldn’t endure if overrun by exceptions rather than basic principles.
In the Guide for the Perplexed (III:34), the Rambam echoes this idea, stating that the Law focuses on generalities to promote spiritual and social health for society. He even says that occasionally, a Torah rule may benefit most but harm some individuals or circumstances:
“It’s necessary to understand that the Torah doesn’t focus on the rare, unusual, or limited cases, but rather teaches general principles. It ignores the occasional injury to an individual through a maxim or divine precept. The Law is divine, and its natural benefits may sometimes inadvertently cause harm in isolated instances. This is clear from our discussions and others.”
The Rambam emphasizes that not every individual will fully benefit from the Torah’s instruction. Just as nature’s forces produce general benefits but sometimes lead to isolated injury, the same applies to the Law. While exceptions may arise, one must recognize the overall intention of the Law. Just as in making healthy choices for physical well-being, anomalies don’t negate the argument for wise decisions in spiritual practices.
All Parts Make the Whole
Our Gemara on Amud Aleph delves into the case of a slave with severe character flaws, such as being a thief or a “kubyostos”. One might argue that the buyer is entitled to a refund, but the Gemara maintains that such character defects are common among slaves, making the purchase still valid.
The term “kubyostos” is defined by Rashi as a kidnapper, and by Tosafos as a gambler.
This derogatory term appears in two other Midrashim: one involving Yaakov and the angel he wrestled with, and another concerning accusations about Moshe. In the Gemara (Chulin 91a-b), the Angel is referred to as a “kubyostos,” and it suggests that one sage claims the Angel appeared to Yaakov as a Gentile, while another claims he appeared as a Talmid Chacham. Similarly, Moshe is accused of being a “kubyostos” and libeled as not keeping honest calculations (Bechoros 5a).
The term “kubyostos” carries a spiritual meaning of ambiguity, representing both potential good and bad. He is a trickster; his external appearances can’t determine whether someone is a friend or foe. (This is certainly true for the Gambler, but I think we can see how a kidnapper must be exceptionally crafty to lure his victim.) Shalah (Torah Shebikhtav, Vayishlach, Torah Ohr, 14) explains that the sages weren’t actually debating the reality. Rather, each sage discussed a different potential that Yaakov saw in Esav. Esav, and his spiritual representation, had the capacity for both good and evil, along with dimensions of greatness. Yaakov himself was uncertain about his upcoming reunion with his brother. What path had Esav chosen over the years that they were apart?
Similarly, Toldos Yaskov Yosef (Lech Lecha 15) suggests that Moshe was accused of being a “kubyostos” because he also possessed two natures. According to him, Moshe had inclinations towards thievery and immorality but overcame these tendencies to pursue spiritual greatness.
This principle appears universally valid: the greater the potential for evil, the greater the potential for good, and vice versa. This should provide some comfort when confronting our darker impulses and behaviors. Every aspect of ourselves contributes to the whole.
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Translations Courtesy of Sefaria, except when, sometimes, I disagree with the translation