Simcha Feuerman
Psychology, Torah and the Daf Yomi

Opposites in Marriage and Don’t Get Hit With a Big Bill Bava Metzia 85-88


Holy Cow, that’s A lot of Suffering 

Our Gemara on Amud aleph describes the intense years of gut pain that Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi experienced. The Gemara attributes his suffering to an incident where he was not merciful toward a calf. His suffering only abated, years later, when he spontaneously showed kindness toward weasels that were being harassed by his housekeeper:

There was a certain calf that was being led to slaughter. The calf went and hung its head on the corner of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi’s garment and was weeping. Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi said to it: Go, as you were created for this purpose. It was said in Heaven: Since he was not compassionate toward the calf, let afflictions come upon him.

One day, the maidservant of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi was sweeping his house. There were young weasels [karkushta] lying about, and she was in the process of sweeping them out. Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi said to her: Let them be, as it is written: “The Lord is good to all; and His mercies are over all His works” (Psalms 145:9). They said in Heaven: Since he was compassionate, we shall be compassionate on him, and he was relieved of his suffering.

The obvious difficulty with this Gemara is how can we believe that Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi committed any great cruelty for sending the calf to slaughter? Furthermore, what great kindness was accomplished by letting some rodents have free reign? Both of these situations are a part of nature and the world. Humans eat meat and dominate their spaces, not allowing pests or rodents to intrude. Is the Gemara promoting a Jainist type of philosophy, where one should be vigilant, even so as to avoid stepping on grass or insects?

Different commentaries offer explanations of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi’s transgression, each one serving as a projection for particular values and concepts in Jewish ethical thinking.

Maharsha says that the sin was due to Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi not realizing the animal’s potential. He was too quick to slaughter it, instead of using it for plowing. This explanation replaces the focus on a requirement  for extreme mercy to an extreme awareness of the potential and value of every object in this world, and to be careful not to neglect or underutilize it. Along similar lines, Tomer Devorah (ch. 3) relates Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi’s sin to any action that does not show objects their appropriate respect. Tomer Devorah says it is forbidden to misuse even inanimate objects or food, because it shows a lack of appreciation for God’s creations,

Ben Yehoyada and others understand Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi’s oversight as having to do with the calf being a reincarnated human who was required to repair something from his past life. Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi turned a deaf ear to the tortured soul’s pleading and fear of the pain of slaughter, because he believed this was the man’s fate and punishment which he needed for expiation. Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi’s error was to not realize that his prayers still could have allowed for an elevation and repair of this soul without as much suffering, and the soul could have been released prior to the slaughter. He should not have given up on the power of prayer to obtain redemption even after death. 

The Chasam Sofer (Vayikra 33) also follows the reincarnation idea, but sees Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi’s sin in not realizing that this soul wanted specifically for him to slaughter, eat and thereby assist him in sanctifying and elevating his physical experience that was supposed to function as a repair. Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi held that his slaughter and consumption of the meat was no more special than another Jew’s, and redirected the calf to stick with its fate. The sin was to be overly modest in a situation where he would have brought about a unique redemption, and his consumption was truly not equivalent to his peers.

It occurs to me that we might read the Gemara simply, but understand Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi’s sin to be of a subtle attitude that was not externally perceptible. The rabbis concluded that the correlation of his suffering which began with the slaughter of the calf and only ended with the mercy on the weasels showed something went wrong. However none of what went wrong could be discerned from the outside. It may have been the slightest degree of acting callously toward the slaughter of the animal, even if it was necessary. This is in consonance with what we discussed prior in blogpost Psychology of the Daf 83, in the name of the Be’er Mayyim Chaim (Bereishis 1:1)  and Shalah (Asara Maamaros, Seventh Maamar): For a person of a certain spiritual stature, otherwise permitted acts may be sinful if they fail to address the metaphysical repairs that are required for that person.

Regardless of whichever explanation you favor, the unmistakable lesson of this Gemara is that, at least some people, are held accountable to a different standard. I don’t think it stops there. Patterns repeat themselves from the highest to the lowest aspects of spirituality and physicality. It is not just Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi. We are all inevitably responsible to dynamically assess who we are and what is incumbent upon us. The technical rules are only the lower range of observance. Each of us, with our uniquely endowed souls and abilities, must intuit our mission in life.


Twin Towers

Our Gemara on Amud Aleph lists a series of notable sages, whose lifetimes and careers embodied a close of an era. 

Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and Rabbi Nasan are the end of the Mishna, i.e., the last of the tanna’im, the redactors of the Mishna. Rav Ashi and Ravina are the end of instruction, i.e., the end of the period of the amora’im, the redacting of the Talmud, which occurred after the period of the tanna’im.

There is something about the idea of pairs. The Megalleh Amukos (Eschanan 1) notes that most of the sages listed in the beginning of Pirke Avos also seem to come in pairs. He goes as far as to use that to deepen Moshe Rabbenu’s argument to God to enter the promised land. According to this idea, he wasn’t asking to hold back Yehoshua from his promotion and destiny as leader of the Jewish people. Instead, he just wanted to remain a leader as well, and they will follow the model of pairs which seemed to be the prevalent system.

What is the value of a paired leadership?  On the one hand, we have the aphorism utilized by the Moon at the dawn of creation: “Is it possible for two kings to serve with one crown?” (Chulin 60b).  And yet, the most fundamental unit of humanity, and the model for all relations, begins with a pair.  Husband and wife, mother and father.  Pairing offers many advantages: Company and support, as well as perspective from someone who knows you well enough but also can be more objective about matters when personal bias is powerful. This latter point is known in the psychological literature as complementarity, where differences in style and perception act as parts of a more complete whole, instead of frustrations. 

We all know this to be true, and there is no shortage of psychological books on how best to use these differences, and bridge gaps in emotional language, affect, and cognitive style.  In this article, I will focus on an interesting discovery about complementarity by researchers Vanessa K. Bohns et. al. (Social Cognition, Vol. 31, No. 1, 2013, pp. 1–14, “Opposites Fit: Regulatory Focus Complementarity And Relationship Well-Being.”)

What the researchers found was that marital harmony did indeed depend on shared goals, and in that way, lack of congruence led to dissatisfaction. However, once the goal is agreed upon, complementary and different self-regulation styles actually promote more success and satisfaction. In plain english, there are people who are more comfortable with risk, and others with security. To succeed in most goals, ranging broadly from parenting to investing, there needs to be a balance of risk-taking and caution.  If the goal is shared, the means to accomplish it, and the amount of risk versus security measures can be dynamically adjusted, based on the different perspectives that each person brings to the table. When one is being overly timid, the risk-taker can confront and/or take the lead in certain areas. Yet, if the risk taker is over-exposing to danger, the security-minded person can balance this out.  That is why major financial decisions should be made as a team, and if one partner sees an opportunity and the other a foolish risk, it needs to be sorted carefully with respect.  Each person is doing their job so to speak, but it is only a half-job, if they do not allow for cross influence.

This idea has implications for every aspect of relationships and parenting.  First establish a degree of goal congruence, so you are both able to aim in the same direction.  Then notice how you each manage regulation of risk.  As one example, parents might have the same goal to raise a child who is not selfish; other parents might have a goal of promoting confidence; while a third set of parents may prioritize raising a child who pursues excellence. The primary goal of what the chinuch is supposed to accomplish should be in harmony.  After that, methods may vary greatly. One parent may be more afraid that the child will not feel cared for, and take a softer approach. Another parent may believe the child must be challenged and held accountable.  Many struggles happen on this continuum.  It is important to first make sure that the goal is agreed upon, and then ongoing dialogue needs to happen where the vigilant party and the more risk-taking party can continuously work together in a complimentary fashion.  

It is conjecture, but perhaps those great teams of Rabbis, Shammai and Hillel, Ravina and Rav Ashi, and many others, represented different degrees of regulation of vigilance versus action, and their ability to work together and counterbalance offered the best leadership, because the goals were the same.


You Don’t Say

Our Gemara on amud aleph made an observation of the behavioral styles of the righteous versus the wicked, especially in terms of expressing and then following through with their commitments toward others: “The righteous say little and do much, whereas the wicked say much and do not do even a little.”

We can understand the wicked tend to over promise as they want to receive the admiration and appreciation in advance, without putting in the hard work. But, why is it a virtue for the righteous to “say little and do much”?  Would it not be just as exemplary to “say and do”, or even to “say much and do much”?

The Maharsha says the ethos of saying little is specific to the situation described in our gemara, of Avraham hosting guests.  The Tzaddik understates what he is offering so that the guests will feel comfortable, and once they are there, he gives them more.  “Stay for a bite to eat” is an easier way to convince the person to join you, even if you cooked a feast. Be’er Mayyim Chaim (Vayikra 13:9) offers an alternate explanation. It is simply hard to start things, so the righteous do not promise much, in case they cannot succeed in starting. Once they get into it, they are usually able to do far more, but they won’t know that until they get there.

An even more simple explanation that occurs to me, is that it is humble to refrain from saying much about intentions, and to let one’s hopefully successful actions speak for themselves. 

Psychologically speaking, when a person is overly affirmative about their intentions, it may be a reaction formation and betray ambivalence or conflict over it.  We find Gemaras where an overenthusiastic agreement is taken to actually signal misgivings and dissent, having halachic implications for determining intent in financial transactions (Bava Metzia 22a, “klach etzel yafos”). In addition, by engaging in a verbal fantasy about what the person promises to do, it discharges some of the psychic energy and motivation to do the work. The imagined achievement becomes a substitute for actual achievement.  When I was a child, my father Z”L used to say to me, “Don’t commit to a mitzvah too loudly, as the Satan will overhear and try to stop you.”  My father was being cute and accurate at the same time, he meant to say, the more you talk about it, the less you will tend to do it.   He would explain, don’t allow yourself the satisfaction of talking about it too much until after you achieve it, or you’ll get distracted in the day dreams of having accomplished it, when in actuality, as of yet, you did not.


Don’t Get Hit With a Big Bill at the End of Your Stay

Our Gemara on amud beis references the Biblical directive (Devarim 23:25) to allow a field laborer to eat from the food as he is harvesting, so long as he not abuse the privilege by hoarding:

כִּ֤י תָבֹא֙ בְּכֶ֣רֶם רֵעֶ֔ךָ וְאָכַלְתָּ֧ עֲנָבִ֛ים כְּנַפְשְׁךָ֖ שָׂבְעֶ֑ךָ וְאֶֽל־כֶּלְיְךָ֖ לֹ֥א תִתֵּֽן׃ 

When you enter a fellow [Israelite]’s vineyard, you may eat as many grapes as you want, until you are full, but you must not put any in your vessel.

Some of the more mystical commentaries read into this verse a metaphor about life’s pleasures and the afterworld. (See Likkutei Moharan 257 and Aderes Eliyahu Ki Tetze 12.)  Life is the vineyard, God is the landlord, and we are the laborers. God allows us to enjoy the fruits of our labor, to some extent in this world, but we must always keep in mind, “You must not put any in your vessel.” That is, “You cannot take it with you.” Or as it says in Tehillim (49:18):

כִּ֤י לֹ֣א בְ֭מוֹתוֹ יִקַּ֣ח הַכֹּ֑ל לֹֽא־יֵרֵ֖ד אַחֲרָ֣יו כְּבוֹדֽוֹ׃

For when he dies he can take none of it along; his goods cannot follow him down.

In the prior Daf Yomi cycle, Rav Shalom Rosner in his shiur related this verse to Koheles Rabbah (5:14), which tells us a brilliant parable about a fox that wanted to squeeze through a small hole in the fence to enter an orchard. The too-clever fox starves himself so he is thin enough to fit through the hole. He then gorges himself to satisfaction, only to discover that he is too fat to squeeze himself out.  In the end, he has to starve himself to leave, and he is back to where he started.  Of course it is a metaphor about everything in this world. The enjoyment is temporary and we lose it all when we need to leave.  It is also Pharaoh’s dream, the seven skinny cows looked the same, despite having just eaten the seven fat cows.

Rabbi Mordechai Elefant, the late Rosh Yeshiva and founder of the ITRI yeshiva, dictated a candid memoir of his eclectic life experiences as a Rosh Yeshiva, Investor-entrepreneur and fundraiser. His travels took him far and wide, as he engaged with fellow Roshei Yeshiva, but also secular statesmen, and assorted famous and not-so-famous shady characters in his various efforts on behalf of his yeshiva and other causes. (You can download this fascinating read at: This is no hagiographic exercise. It’s at once inspiring, disturbing and brutally honest.)

He relates a remarkable story that is apropos to this parable:

I walked in one morning and saw Rav Leib Malin himself, repairing a toilet. He noticed the look on my face and realized that I thought that what he was doing was not in keeping with his dignity. He sat me down and told me the secret of his life. 

He said, “Let me tell you something I heard in the name of Rav Simcha Zissel of Kelm: 

“God keeps very exact accounts of what we take from this world. We don’t get anything for free, other than life itself. Any person who is the least bit honest with himself understands how unworthy he is. At the same time he’s running up a big debt. Nothing is free – not a sip of water, not a breath of air.” 

“How do we stand a chance? There’s only one way. You have to view life as a big, luxury hotel. They’re charging you left and right. It’s great, but there’s going to be a huge bill when you check out. There’s only one guy who enjoys the delights of the hotel without paying. That’s the waiter. The waiter is devoted to serving others. He’s always smiling and ready to help. He is at the beck and call of the guests. He runs to help one, and then runs to help the other. But when he takes a break, he can go into the kitchen and make himself a sandwich with two thick steaks in it. Nobody looks, nobody cares, nobody charges him. That’s what you have to do. Be a waiter. Devote your life to serving others. Do whatever has to be done then at the end you won’t be hit with a big tab.”

About the Author
Rabbi, Psychotherapist with 30 years experience specializing in high conflict couples and families.
Related Topics
Related Posts