Finding the right words (Daf Yomi Pesachim 4)

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“The bushes on the seashore are cypresses.”

The discussion on the importance of being measured with one’s language continues into today’s Daf Yomi. The text provides another example of how someone might not be forthcoming in their speech. I am especially committed to speaking the truth in plain spoken words, because we live in a time when it is too easy to resort to a condemnation of language if someone does not like the message, by claiming “fake news.” It is as though facts can be negated by proclaiming “fake news” and obfuscating one’s words.

Although the highly respected Rav does not advocate for fake news, we are told a story about how he avoided disseminating difficult news by not answering a question about his parents directly. In order to understand the story fully, one must understand how complicated Rav’s family tree was, and thank goodness the KorenTalmud Bavli provided a diagram.

Rav was the son of Rabby Hiyya’s half-brother and half-sister. It took me a whole to sort out the family connections, but with the help of a diagram, I think I am correct in assuming that there was no actual intermarriage from the perspective of genetics, because neither of his parents were related by blood. But I can only imagine how large and boisterous gatherings would have been of Rav’s family.

Rav traveled to Israel where he visited with Rabbi Hiyya, who inquired about Rav’s parents, Imma and Ayevu. Rabbi Hiyya was Rabbi Abba’s son from his second marriage. Rabbi Abba had a son from his first marriage, Ayevum who married Imma, who was Rabbi Hiyya’s step-sister on his mother’s side. Imma and Ayevu fathered one of the greatest sages of all time, Rav.

When Rabbi Hiyya inquired about Rav’s parents, who had recently passed away, the great scholar turned his head and replied with a question: “Is your sister, Imma, alive.” He then proceeded to ask if his half-brother Ayevu was alive. Rabbi Hiyya understood the implications of having his question answered with a question, which spared Rav from having to share difficult news. What is not expressed in the text, is the body language and expression on Rav’s face.

Rav must have been grieving if he had recently lost his parents when asked about their welfare. After the loss of someone you love, you can be fine and then when asked about them or when something triggers their memory, you can be swept over with a wave of sadness. Rav might have been hit with such a wave when he was asked about his parents, and the expression on his face, and the sadness in his eyes, might have conveyed what did not need to be said.

Upon hearing the news, Rabbi Hiyya removed his shoes and asked his attendant to carry his garments to the bathhouse. I imagine that he might have immersed himself in a bath as part of his personal ritual of mourning. We are told that such a bath was allowable because the Rabbi’s half-siblings had been dead for more than thirty days and he was only obligated to mourn for one, including a partial day. We are told that the ritualistic mourning period would have passed after the Rabbi had removed his shoes and he was free to immerse in the bath and contemplate the loss of those he loved.

I have struggled all my life with the loss of people I have loved. They are always with us, always inside us, like the hardy cypress trees that remind us of the endearing spirit of those we have lost. There is a reminder buried in the dark, thickly, intertwined branches of the cypress tree of how life continues without those we life, but continues, nonetheless. And then there is the smell – the heavenly, smoky, smell of cypress that is a reminder of the world we live in and the next one, wherever that might be.

And the necessity to speak the truth plainly and without obscuring one’s words? Sometimes words are not necessary and the sadness in one’s eyes convey what needs to be known. But when one does speak, it should be with truth from the heart.

This post is in honor of my departed father Paul Cagan, who I miss terribly. He was a man of few words, but when he spoke, his words mattered.

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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