Tag Archives: Talmud Torah

A Woman Learning Talmud

by Dobra Levitt (Jerusalem, Israel)

       I love my Talmud Torah class.  It meets one morning a week in a shul in the heart of Jerusalem.  And just as no other place in the world has a heart like the heart of Jerusalem, no other Talmud teacher is quite like ours.  He hails  from England, that island of literary giants which seems to endow many of its inhabitants from birth with the gifts of language and wit.  So add his own talent for the spoken word and humor to what he’s imbibed from his native air, and you get a “one in a million” Talmud Torah class.

      The class has been learning the laws of lost objects.  When I started attending late in the year, they had nearly completed the laws involving distinguishing signs on a lost object that would require the finder to announce he had found it.  It seems though that a brand new article, say a vase or a hat, may not have to be announced since the owner would not have had sufficient time for his eyes to get used to it, which meant he wouldn’t be able to identify it as his.  This law was extremely problematic for me.  If I were buying a hat, for example, you can be sure I would examine it inside-out  before I walked out of the store with it.  I would definitely have been able to identify that hat as mine since it was for its particularities that I had chosen it.  Even if the choice had been between exactly similar hats, one of them would have been better for its fit or some other tangible quality.  I raised this issue in the class, and a gentleman called out from his seat, “That’s because you’re a woman buying it”.  There was, of course, nothing to answer to that.

      Then came those laws where the place the lost object was found had to be considered – whether it was a public thoroughfare or not; how well-traveled it was; whether mainly Jewish people lived there or non-Jews.  An interesting example of the place was what to do if one found a carcass of a kosher animal that looked as if it had been ritually schechted on the road between Tiberias and a town further north.  Since this highway was traveled mostly by religious Jews in Talmudic times, the law is it could be assumed the slaughtering was kosher and therefore the finder had to announce it.  I wondered how a person could lose an entire animal, say a goat or a cow, without knowing it.  True, there’s an enormous difference between presumably a Talmudic cart or wagon and a modern hauling van – I guess if the Talmud brings such a case, one has to imagine how this could have been possible:  maybe the owner had two or three animals piled up in his cart so that one just slid off onto the side of the road; maybe he had only one and as he was turning into the lane from the main road, his cart lurched or he was jolted by another wagoner.  Take into account also the hustle, racket and din of heavy Talmudic traffic as we can imagine it, and such an incident may not have been uncommon.  In any case, nobody in class seems to have been bothered by this question, and the discussion carried on touching on some of the details of the schecting evidence – how much of the windpipe was severed and so on, at which point one woman had to get up and leave  – “the gory details” were too much for her.

      The laws involving objects found in rubbish heaps were also puzzling.  It seems that in Talmudic times, a person having no storage room in his house for a pot he owned or wanting to hide it for some reason would stash it away in a rubbish heap for safekeeping.  Could it be that rubbish heaps then were different from rubbish as we know it?  And who in his right mind today would even think of storing a pot in such a place?  True, rummishers still exist (not to cast aspersion on anyone, heaven forbid), and usable objects can be retrieved from rubbish, but that’s only by accident.  Could this also be a situation where there is a difference between what a man or a woman would think of doing? (again, not to cast aspersion).  No one seems to have been disconcerted by these questions and the class continued delving into rubbish heaps, so to speak  – whether they were cleaned regularly or not; whether the object was large like a pot or small like knives and forks, etc. – so unless I did some research on rubbish heaps and their use in the Talmudic period, this subject will remain a mystery.

      I loved learning laws regarding what to do if one found doves or pigeons tied together near a wall where their owner had placed them while he went off on a nearby   errand, for example.  I love doves so I didn’t much like the idea of their being tied together, but concede that a dove-owner would not do harm to his own property.  Still it can’t be much fun to be tied up huddled by a wall, especially for birds, one would think, but that could be a pure and simple case of projection.  How do we know what doves feel?  Maybe since they’re so supremely loyal to each other, they’re loyal to their owner and wait for him very patiently by the wall.

      Another law involving domesticated doves shows how knowledgeable and exact our sages were. They determined that a dove would not fly more than fifty cubits from its dovecote so that if one found doves within this area, they would have to be returned to the owner.  The Gemarah relates many stories of Rav Yirmiyah (you might call him a Talmudic troublemaker) who would ask seemingly far-fetched and trivial questions on a halacha.  On the dove’s flight habits, Rav Yirmiyah asked:  What if one foot was within the fifty cubits and the other foot outside?  This was one too many for the sages and they threw him out of the study hall.  Eventually, of course, they let him back in, but maybe they wouldn’t have evicted him in the first place if they had known that centuries down the line, he would be vindicated.  How so?  Later the very same day we learned about Rav Yirmiyah and the doves, I began reading an article called “Moses’ Mother” by Rabbi Yanki Tauber, based on the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.  Imagine my astonished delight as I read him starting off by recounting the very same story in the Gemarah about the “troublesome” Rav Yirmiyah!  It could be that the Rav has a point, the article explains.  For example, sometimes you have to be both outside and inside a problem in order to resolve it. And if we look in Parshah Shemos at the number of those who went down to Egypt,  the Torah tells us Yacov’s descendants were seventy souls.  But if we examine Parshah Va’yigash, the number adds up to only sixty-nine. Who was the seventieth?  It was Yocheved, Moses’ mother, who was born at the boundary wall between Eretz Israel and Egypt. That meant that Moshe had a knowledge of two realities, a vision that Moshe would need to lead his people out of exile.  (or – to   express it another way, he had one foot in the darkness of exile, and the other foot in the light of redemption.  Rav Yirmiyah, now you have a leg to stand on!)

         With these thoughts, a woman learning Talmud will end her discussion for now, noting that since the Lubavitcher Rebbe often said we are on the threshold of redemption, she anticipates that time whenever her feet are planted in her Talmud Torah class.

             Dobra Levitt lives in Jerusalem where she writes; tutors English; and teaches  creative writing.  She recently published a memoir called The Fish in the Yellow Paper, a collection of essays describing her childhood and high school teaching years in Philadelphia. Here’s a link to her book if you’d like to take a look: https://amzn.to/2ukRsMG
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The Chametz Boys

by Chaim Weinstein (Brooklyn, NY)

When I was 11, I was the only one of my neighborhood friends who went to yeshivah. They all attended public school and then went to the Talmud Torah on Hendrix Street. 

My Talmud Torah friends and I rarely talked about school, religion, or life, but we all loved discussing baseball.   

We loved everything about the sport: playing it, watching it, trading team and player cards, knowing all the statistics better than we knew facts about our own families. I never knew, for example, the birthdate of my cousin Feivel, or where he was born, or exactly how old he was. But I knew everything about Mickey Mantle, including that he came from Oklahoma (an exotic “country” to us) and how extraordinary his baseball achievements were, especially in light of his being stricken with osteomyelitis. 

No one knew or cared then about his personal problems, just that he was voted MVP, won the Triple Crown Award, batted .356, and hit 52 homers in 1956, an extraordinary athlete. Plus, he wore number 7 on his uniform, so that meant he understood the importance of Shabbos. (Just kidding.)

But, seriously, how could you not love such a guy or his teammates, Whitey Ford, Tony Kubek or Bobbie Richardson, baseball warriors all? They played their hearts out with skill and passion, and we loved them for it.

Several days before Passover one year, one of my friends suggested that we all go to Yankee Stadium for a game. We grew thoroughly excited at the idea, and we all agreed to go. But we knew we could only afford to sit in the bleachers, where seats then cost about a dollar. My friends wanted to go on Yom Tov itself, but I convinced them to hold off until Chol Hamoed, the holiday’s Intermediate days, when work was permitted, so that we could all go together, and they agreed. 

I couldn’t wait for the day of the game to arrive.

Game day was a scorcher, 93 degrees in April at the first pitch, but who cared? We were traveling together on the subway from Brooklyn to a major league baseball game in the Bronx to see our beloved Yankees, and for me, a chance to see the great Mick. 

My mother, may she rest in peace, had made me a great Passover sandwich: egg salad on matzah, which she broke in half so I could feel like I was eating two sandwiches. It looked so good at home that I couldn’t wait to open it at the stadium. But when I saw what my friends were eating at the game, I was, frankly, you should pardon the pun, less excited: they’d bought franks at Yankee Stadium, and franks and more franks, and I was quite jealous. 

Still, we were all in the moment, sitting together at Yankee Stadium, the sounds and smells of a live baseball game filling our senses, and I eagerly awaited the appearance of my hero, Mickey Mantle, who would play centerfield and bat fourth, as usual. 

We couldn’t wait for the game to begin.

I stole glances at the hot dogs and buns and sodas my friends were enjoying, and I felt unhappy. But as they munched contentedly on their stadium hot dogs, I excitedly peeled back the tin foil that covered my egg salad matzah sandwich. When I took it out, however, holding half of my matzo sandwich in the palm of my hand in the noonday sun, both ends of my sandwich sloped downward, a soggy matzah mess. 

My friends looked at my wilting matzah sandwich and laughed out loud, elbowing each other and pointing to my sad matzah sandwich. I could only look at their buns and dogs and sigh jealously. They smirked, enjoying their hot food, and I sheepishly grinned, embarrassed at my own matzah and yellow egg-droop-sandwich and warm canteen water. 

In the end, none of it really mattered as all of us got caught up in the excitement of the game and watched the great Mick and his Yankees destroy the opposing team. 

The Cleveland Indians were the ones who really wilted in that game, and although my funny matzah sandwich was the butt of 11-year olds’ jokes for a few hours that day, we all glowed from the brilliance of the Yankees play in general, and the Mick’s in particular.

That was a happy Pesach indeed.

For more than thirty years, Chaim Weinstein taught English in grades six through college in New York City public schools as well as in several parochial schools. His poems and stories have appeared on The Jewish Writing Project, and his short story, “Ball Games and Things,” was published in Brooklyn College’s literary magazine, Nocturne.

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