Simcha Feuerman
Psychology, Torah and the Daf Yomi

True Love, The Ouroboros, Stolen Waters and the Moiser Bava Kamma 116-119


True Love

The Gemara on Amud Aleph uses a phrase to characterize an event where a person’s animal that was doomed to drown was miraculously saved, “Min Shamayim Rachimu Aleh – from Heaven they manifested Rachimu.” Many translations of this Gemara translate “Rachimu” as mercy, seeing the Hebrew root R-CH-M from Rachamim, mercy.

I believe this translation to be in error. The Aramaic Rachimu, though of the same root, actually means love. For example, Targum Onkelos on Bereishis (25:28) describes Yitschok’s love for Esau, “ve-recham”, amd same in regard to Achashveirosh’s love for Esther (Esther 2:18). We also find the mystical states of love and fear, known as “Dechilu U-Rechimu” (Tikunnei Zohar 25), clearly meaning “love and fear”, not ”mercy and fear.”

There is one use of a similar Aramaic words “ve-tircham alai” in the Berich Shmey prayer, which is often translated as, “Have mercy on me.” However, it might be more correctly translated as “Being loving toward me”, although I must admit that from this particular context, it sounds like it is mercy.  But still, I just do not believe that it is the correct Aramaic word for mercy.  “Chayyas” is the Aramaic word for mercy.  In Arabic, rachima is mercy, similar to Hebrew, but I have not seen anywhere the word form of “Rachimu” in Aramaic meaning anything other than love. Even that particular word form, Ve-Tircham, is used in other places in the Zohar to unequivocally mean love, not mercy, such as Zohar (Eschanan 10:68, Terumah 64:660), where one is instructed to “Tircham” Hashem. This must mean love hashem, and cannot mean to have mercy on Hashem, for obvious reasons.  Even if we were to grant that the form of Tircham means to have mercy in Aramaic, there is no such usage for Rechimu, which only is used to mean the word love.

Therefore, I believe the correct translation in our Gemara is, “They granted love upon him from Heaven.” Admittedly, from the context, and from the grammar, it still fits better to say it means mercy because if it was love, it might be more correct, to have the following construction to the sentence: “Min Shemaya yahavu Rachimu alei”, one gives mercy as opposed to their existing mercy. So, perhaps a translations are correct. Nevertheless, doing a word search one will find that there is absolutely no use of that particular word form Rachimu in Aramaic that means anything other than love as opposed to mercy.

The joint root of both Rachamim, mercy in Hebrew, and Rachimu, love in Aramaic, presumably come from the same Semitic root, R-Ch-M, womb. Language often gives a flavor of the culture and values of the community . Such as, there is no Biblical Hebrew word for retirement, because in Biblical society, that was not a thing. My father Z”L would often point out that Biblical Hebrew has no word for fail. Modern Hebrew uses “Kishalon”, but actually, its root is “K-Sh-L”, which is to stumble. Stumble has a different connotation than fail, as one usually gets back up from a fall, but not a fail. Similarly, the English word Charity comes from the word to care, but the Hebrew word is Tzedakka, which is related to justice or fairness. So when one gives tzedakah to a person, is it care or is it justice? Depends on the outlook and psychology of the culture.

In this light, consider the Aramaic word for love, “Rechimu.”  The Hebrew word for love is “A-Hav”, “I will give”. Hav in Hebrew can mean give, see Rachel’s grievance toward Yaakov: “Hava li banim “, “give me children.” We might consider, though that on occasion Aramaic forms, enter into the biblical lexicon and “Hav” is certainly an Aramaic word. Additionally, Rachel’s family spoke Aramaic (Bereishis 31:47), and when people are in distress they regress a bit, so perhaps Rachel spoke in Aramaic, her mother tongue when she was distraught with Yaakov about her childlessness.  Nevertheless, it is fair to say that “Hav” means “give” in Hebrew as well, and thus “A-hava”, probably comes from “I will give.”  Compare this to the Aramaic root of Love-Rechumi as mercy, and coming from the root word womb. 

Some people have not evolved past the infantile form of love, which is gratification and being taken care of by a lover like a mother. But Hebrew embodies a more mature form of love, based on giving, “A-Hava”, I will give.


Teacher or Student?

Our Gemara describes an interlude with Rabbi Yochanan, where he misjudges a student, Rav Kahana, several times:

Originally Rav Kahana was seated in the front row of the Shiur, as his reputation preceded him. However he was under instructions by his master, Rav, to not ask any questions in Rabbi Yochanan’s Shiur for seven years. Therefore, he appeared in the Shiur as a lackluster scholar whose hype was not commensurate with his performance. (What Rav’s intentions for his pupil is unknown, but it seemed to be some kind of penitential exercise or to teach humility.) 

The story continues:

The next day, they seated Rav Kahana in the first row, in front of Rabbi Yoḥanan. Rabbi Yoḥanan stated a halakha and Rav Kahana did not raise a difficulty, in accordance with Rav’s instruction. Rabbi Yoḥanan stated another halakha and again, Rav Kahana did not raise a difficulty. As a result, they placed Rav Kahana further back by one row. This occurred until he had been moved back seven rows, until he was seated in the last row. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish: The lion you mentioned has become a fox, i.e., he is not knowledgeable.

Unable to bear this isolation, Rav Kahana said to himself: 

May it be God’s will that these seven rows I have been moved should replace the seven years that Rav told me to wait before raising difficulties to the statements of Rabbi Yoḥanan. He stood up on his feet and said to Rabbi Yoḥanan: Let the Master go back to the beginning of the discourse and repeat what he said. Rabbi Yoḥanan stated a halakha and Rav Kahana raised a difficulty. Therefore, they placed him in the first row, and again, Rav Yoḥanan stated a halakha, and he raised a difficulty.

Rabbi Yoḥanan was sitting upon seven cushions [bistarkei] so that he could be seen by all the students, and since he could not answer Rav Kahana’s questions, he removed one cushion from under himself to demonstrate that he was lowering himself out of respect for Rav Kahana. He then stated another halakha and Rav Kahana raised another difficulty. This happened repeatedly until Rabbi Yoḥanan removed all the cushions from underneath himself until he was sitting on the ground. 

Rabbi Yochanan, seemingly in remorse for misjudging Rav Kahana, lowers his seat to Rav Kahana’s level. Unfortunately, Middos are difficult to change, and somehow Rabbi Yochanan misjudges Rav Kahana again, with even more disastrous consequences.  

(I wouldn’t be so bold as to criticize Rabbi Yochanan, except for the fact that the narrative of the Gemara is so plainly indicating Rabbi Yochanan’s errors and his own efforts to correct them.  The Gemara obviously recorded this for posterity so that we may learn from it):

Rabbi Yoḥanan was an old man and his eyebrows drooped over his eyes. He said to his students: Uncover my eyes for me and I will see Rav Kahana, so they uncovered his eyes for him with a silver eye brush.

Once his eyes were uncovered, Rabbi Yoḥanan saw that Rav Kahana’s lips were split and thought that Rav Kahana was smirking at him. As a result, Rabbi Yoḥanan was offended, and Rav Kahana died as punishment for the fact that he offended Rabbi Yoḥanan. The next day, Rabbi Yoḥanan said to the Rabbis, his students: Did you see how that Babylonian, Rav Kahana, behaved in such a disrespectful manner? They said to him: His usual manner of appearance is such, and he was not mocking you. Hearing this, Rabbi Yoḥanan went up to Rav Kahana’s burial cave and saw that it was encircled by a serpent [akhna], which had placed its tail in its mouth, completely encircling the cave and blocking the entrance. Rabbi Yoḥanan said to it: Serpent, serpent, open your mouth and allow the teacher to enter and be near the disciple, but the serpent did not open its mouth to allow him entry. He then said: Allow a colleague to enter and be near his colleague, but still the serpent did not open its mouth. Rabbi Yoḥanan said: Allow the disciple to enter and be near the teacher, referring to Rav Kahana as his own teacher. The snake then opened its mouth for him to allow him entry. Rabbi Yoḥanan requested divine mercy from God and raised Rav Kahana from the dead.

Rabbi Yochanan must seek out his student Rav Kahana by his grave, and is only allowed admittance by a menacing snake until he humbles himself and states that he is a student of Rav Kahana, instead of a master.

The menacing serpent that Rabbi Yochanan saw was a snake with its tail in its mouth, known in the Gemara as an “Achnai”. This is an ancient symbol, called the Ouroboros, which seems to connote the eternal cycle of life: Likely this is symbolized by the tail in its mouth, and possibly also because a snake sheds its skin and goes through a rebirth of sorts. The first known archaeological representation of the Ouroboros, is on one of the shrines enclosing the sarcophagus of Tutankhamun (see

The ancient tradition of this Ouroboros might also be related to the Leviathan, which has connotations of a powerful force present at the time of creation which God subdued (see Yeshaiyahu chapter 27, Iyov chapter 40, Bava Basra 74b, and Rashi Bereishis 1:21 quoting a midrash.) The Zohar (Tikkunei Zohar 52:2) describes it as similar to a circular intestine in the body. Similarly, the word Akalason found in those same verses in Yeshaiyahu (27) could be translated as a twisted serpent.  Thus the Leviathan, the Akalason and the Ouroboros seem to be one in the same. The Babylonian epic of Baal also describes a primordial battle of Baal with a giant serpentine creature. Even if it became distorted with idolatrous imagery, the Ouroboros may have been part of a shared mystical tradition from many ancient sources, originally a Jewish tradition. See Rambam (Laws of Idolatry 1:1), where he characterizes the original idolaters as having descended from Adam’s progeny who worshiped God, but then distorted their teachings.  We also might wonder if King Tutankhamun, utilized the Ouroboros-Leviathan symbol as part of a tradition learned from Joseph. The Midrash (Sotah 36b) tells us that Yosef taught Pharaoh Hebrew; perhaps he taught him a whole lot more. 

We also find the word Achnai coming up in regard to the famous dispute in Bava Metzia (59b) where the rabbis “argue” with God about a halacha. In that foundational aggadah, God has to concede to HIS talmidim, the rabbis, because “Torah is not in heaven.” And God says, as a proud father, “Nitzchuni Banai – my children have been victorious over me.” The message of eternity and humility become intertwined. Life is a great cycle of birth, death and renewal, as God Himself has to make room for the physical forces to manifest, out of their own free will to choose to strive and become elevated, and reunited with Him (see Derech Hashem, chapter one). The student and teacher all become one. 


When Stolen Waters are not so Sweet

Our Gemara on Amud Beis discusses the prohibition to buy stolen goods. The Rambam (Law of Theft 1:1) warns that to buy stolen goods of any kind is a grave sin, as it encourages the thief’s behavior.  Based on this, Yam Shel Shelomo (58:1) rules that it is still prohibited to purchase from a thief even if he technically acquired the item via making substantial changes so that it is no longer the same object, such as weaving wool into a sweater. After all, even if now it is legally not stolen goods, it is still encouraging sin. However, a responsum of the Rivash (273) rules that once the stolen textile has been changed and crafted into a wholly different item, it is permitted to purchase.

Sefer Daf Al Daf brings down a question from Rav Meir Stern (Commentary on Shulchan Aruch Harav, CM 7, end of Biurim 9): How does the Rivash not consider the Rambam’s ruling, especially when the Rambam’s position is supported by a powerful moral argument about incentivizing sin.  Rav Stern answers that since the thief has to go through all the trouble of refining and crafting the stolen raw material, it is not such an incentive to steal, given all the bother. So to speak, he might as well run a legitimate business for the same effort.

I believe Rav Stern is basing his argument on the psychology of a certain kind of thief. This is an impulsive person, who cannot delay gratification. Why else would he choose a life of crime? Thus, the act of buying material he crafted from stolen goods would not encourage his criminal behavior, as this was not his typical MO and in the future he would stick with more “profitable” forms of larceny.

This only addresses a specific kind of thief, however the white collar criminal or the con artist, seem to enjoy the efforts and machinations to commit their exploit. However, the halacha does not consider whether we are encouraging or discouraging such a person, perhaps due to the thought that he would be crafty regardless, and outwit any efforts to detect his thievery.


Clear and Present Danger

Our Gemara on amud aleph teaches that though it is permitted to kill an informer, there is an opinion that one may still not take his possessions. (In times where the local government was cruel and unjust toward Jews, an informant in the community posed mortal danger.) The rationale for this distinction is provided by the Gemara:

Perhaps he will have righteous children, and it is written: The wicked may prepare it, but the just shall put it on (see Job 27:17).

We see from here a Torah ethic. Before we take an action, even when justified, we must consider the far-reaching implications to later generations.  

We find a similar teaching in the Midrash regarding Moshe’s killing of the Egyptian who was beating a Jew with murderous intent.  The verse says, “He looked here and there and saw no man” (Shemos 2:12).  While the pashut peshat is that Moshe checked to see if the coast was clear, this might be seen as a lack of faith, and so the Midrashic explanation is different. Using his divine Ruach Hakodesh superpowers, Moshe looked into the future to make sure that there were no worthy descendants that might justify sparing this Egyptian’s life. (The pashut peshat is not necessarily a diminution of Moshe’s faith, as even a prophet is required to take precautions and not rely on miracles, see Chulin (142a).)

But you might ask, if we are so concerned about later generations, why do we kill the informer? Should we not also take into account his descendants, consistent with Moshe Rabbenu’s practice?

This shows the wonderful and ever practical side to Torah ethics. There is a hierarchy of concerns and values. For example, though we consider it sinful to cause an animal to suffer, we still eat them.  Likewise, though there is a concern about later generations, since this Quisling presents clear and present danger to the community, we do not quibble over vague ethical concerns. But that is only in regard to mortal danger; when it comes to financial concerns we will take his descendants into consideration.

Regarding ethics, we must be grounded in the teachings and traditions of the Torah. Otherwise, it is easy to lose a sense of priority, such as the way the “woke mob” preaches “me too” and “silence=violence”, but disregards the sadistic and monstrous sexual abuse committed by Hamas. Midrash Tehilim (7:20) makes an astute observation about human nature: “One who shows mercy when it is appropriate to be tough, will eventually be cruel when he is supposed to be merciful.”  This is what happened when King Shaul felt compassion for the King of Agag, and spared his life, yet later on, went on a genocidal rampage against the cohanim of the City of Nov for their crime of insurrection.

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