“Say to wisdom: You are my sister, and call understanding your kin.”
Rabbi Yohanan takes center stage is today’s Daf Yomi portion. He is a very busy man and spends most of his time teaching and mentoring students. And like many of us these days, he is very tired. He has been staying up late working on his seminal paper on pickled vegetables. Spending so many hours pondering how pickled vegetables can be consumed on Shabbat has resulted in a dislike of milk products, and especially a bitter milk product from Babylonia called kutah. He can taste the sour curdle in his mouth at the very mention of kutah and how it would interact with pickle juice.
The august Rabbi was so revolted by the thought of Babylonian kutah that the very mention of its name would result in an involuntary gagging reflux. His colleagues are perplexed by his somewhat violent aversion to the dairy product because it was considered a delicacy among some who would pepper it with a little bit of wine. The sour milk was also treasured as a curative for a variety of ailments. Rav Gazs said that when he prepared it “all the sick people” would ask for it. But Rabbi Yoḥanan had a particular distaste for kutah that he could not overcome.
Two younger Rabbis who admired Rabbi Yohanan were sitting in his office one day discussing their scholarly work, when the senior Rabbi feel asleep before them. While they chatted on about squeezing vegetables on Shabbat, he could not keep his eyes open and finally gave in to a deep slumber. When he was asleep, they spoke of his predilection for gagging at the mention of Babylonian kutah and through a misguided bonding with their sleeping colleague, disparaged the country from where it came. They concluded that because the senior Rabbi hated kutah, everything from the Babylonia must be inferior. They disparaged Babylonian fowl and festivals and its esteemed sages. They asked why fowl in Babylonia were fatter than those in Israel, why festivals were so joyful, and the scholars wore such colorful garments. Each answer they came up with compared Babylonia unfavorably with Israel.
When Rabbi Yohanan awakened from his deep nap he heard the two junior Rabbis joyfully engaged in word play that spoke to the inadequacies of Babylonia. He startled them when he interrupted their amusement and said: “You children, did I not tell you this, that the verse “Say to wisdom: You are my sister, and call understanding your kin. He corrected their negative impression by listing all the positive attributes of Babylonia.
The act of gossiping with friends can be a bonding experience where two comrades can feel like it is them against the world. It can lead to an overblown sense of one’s knowledge and feelings of superiority. Rabbi Yohanan reminds us that words matter and although slander and disparaging someone or something or entire country can be amusing in the moment, they are difficult to retract. I imagine there was a lot of tale telling and gossip in the Yeshivas of 1,500 years ago with Rabbis and students forming factions among themselves through their views on how to abide by Torah and Rabbinic laws.
I wrote in a previous blog about a man who asked for repentance after slandering the name of a certain Rabbi. When he attempted to repent before the Rabbi, he was told to tear apart a pillow and scatter its feathers to the wind. When he completed the task, he was told by the Rabbi to go back and collect all the feathers. When he said that it was an impossible ask because the feathers had scattered to the wind, the Rabbi said that was the point of the exercise: that once a person’s good name is tainted, the damage cannot be undone. Perception becomes reality and it is difficult to take back bad words and expunge them from where they have scattered. Rabbi Yohanan attempted to do just that when he corrected the impression of his younger colleagues. And like many of us, he needs more sleep.