Monday, August 6, 2012

Thoughts On Berachot 6: Demons, Divine Tefillin and other tales from the Aggadah

The Rambam in his introduction to Helek describes three different groups of people in reference to the Agaddah, the non-halakhic portions of the Talmud.

The first group, which is the largest group, believes all the tales in the Aggaddah to be literally true even if they are quite fanciful and contradict any knowledge of science or common sense. Maimonides describes how these people think they are are honoring the rabbis when in fact they are degrading them. Others, when they hear these tales, rather than proclaiming what an intelligent and understanding people the Jews are will say what a foolish and confused people this little nation is.

The second group, which is also numerous, also interprets all the stories in the Gemara literally but reject these stories based on common sense, using them as proof to belittle our Sages. These people think they are smarter than our great rabbis. The Rambam describes this group as being even more foolish than the first and much more dangerous since they argue with our great scholars. If these people would only learn true philosophy, they would grow to appreciate the wisdom of our Sages.

The third group which is the smallest, barely a group at all, are the people who recognize the greatness of our Sages. They also understand that the rabbis are speaking truth which is often hidden in riddles. Our job as learners is to try to solve these riddles and unlock the hidden truth embedded within the fanciful stories in the Aggadah.

This Rambam comes to mind when trying to understand two main stories in today's daf. The Gemara describes Shedim, demons, which are invisible but number in the thousands to our right and to our left and cause many types of bodily harm. How can a person knowledgable in modern science understand these stories? Rav Aharon Soloveitchik provides an answer in his book, Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind (pages 50-52). He explains that these invisible demons are germs. Once one understands this basic point, the wisdom of the Gemara becomes readily apparent. How could rabbis before the age of microscopes and modern medicine explain microscoptic creatures that cause us harm? They describe them as invisible demons numbering in the thousands who, if we could only see them, would make us crazy. Imagine if we could see the thousands of germs all around us at all times. I think we would go crazy. They advise us because of these demons to wash our hands three times when we wake up in the morning, sound medical advice indeed.

Furthermore, Rav Aharon Soloveitchik explains that at times these Shedim do not refer to germs but other forms of invisible destructive forces in our world like mental illness, hallucinations and the like. The common denominator of these descriptions is rather than portraying our Sages as backwards superstitious people chas veshalom, they unlock the brilliant insight that our rabbis are providing.

Later, the Gemara continues with a lengthy description of Hashem's Tefillin. In contrast to our Tefillin which contain verses speaking of the oneness and uniqueness of the Almighty, Hashem's Tefillin contain verses attesting to the singular and unique nature of the Jewish people. Once again, the wise approach is not to take these stories at face value and assume G-d has a physical form on which he can wear Tefillin Shel Rosh and Tefillin Shel Yad, something that the Rambam would hold is heresy. Rather, as the commentators Meharsha, HaRashba, and HaKotev on the Ein Yaakov explain, this Gemara is beautifully and figuratively portraying the unique relationship between Hashem and the Jewish people. As we say in Shir HaShirim, I am to my beloved as my beloved is to me. Just as we wrap Tefillin which is like our wedding band proclaiming our singular devotion to G-d both on our heart, for our own personal testimony, and on our head for the world to see; so too Hashem, KeBeyachol, wraps his own Tefillin which proclaim his singular devotion to us, his only chosen nation, for all the world to see. This Gemara rather than becoming a seemingly anachronistic tale of the corporeality of G-d, is transformed into a beautifully romantic story of G-d’s love for us, his people.

Our job as learners of Aggaddah even in the rush of the Daf Yomi is to seek to unlock the truth of the brilliance of our Sages so we can appreciate the great philosophical ideas and timeless messages that they have embedded in the some of their most fanciful stories.

1 comment:

  1. This morning, I also thought about the fact that my son's pants are constantly dirty, based on the idea said in the daf that the mazikim brush up against the legs of those in yeshiva (or day school).