These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

[PEP Student] Witch’s Brew

Posted on February 9, 2012 by Daniel Weinreb

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I am a student at Pardes. I’m learning like everyone else, reveling in my progress or in a boxing match with Jastrow trying to translate an Aramaic verb that long ago dropped every letter in its shoresh except vav.. I also am in the Educator Program which means that sometimes I step outside my student role and think about how I will teach next year in a Gemara or Tanakh class. Yesterday, I had an experience that shed some light on how engaging, and how frustrating, learning Gemara can be.

For context, let me describe what learning was like last year. I worked mainly on punctuation, learning the layout of the page, who the main speakers are and translation. Slow, arduous translation. For the thematic elements. I relied on my teacher. This year, the consistency of thought, the presence of the Gemara, has become more evident. I hear the voice of the Stama more easily, thinking about which amora, or tanna, the Stama decided to bring. The awareness that there is a larger design that supports the details of the individual debates makes an enormous difference in how I read. In particular, this awareness of context is particularly helpful in translation.

For example, recently my chavrutah and I were studying about lost items (Baba Metzia 24B). We had been reading about a ship that sank at sea. Following was a section that was a little puzzling – something took meat from a shuk and deposited it among trees. Contextually, we could surmise that this thing a) liked meat and b) could fly. So therefore either a) it was the Hamburglar with wings, or b) it was a carnivorous bird. Rashi told us that it was a vulture (or, at least the word for vulture in Old French.) That made sense, and made more sense as the sugya continued and we learned about other examples of purloined meat. That’s one of the two main point of this blog – that if you assume the Gemara makes sense, and moves logically from one point to the next, it becomes easier to translate.

In contrast, yesterday we were reading further on in the masechot (29B) and came across a teaching of R. Yohanan. The two lines prior had dealt with a tallit. Translating the vocabulary, we came up with the following words: cup, tepid, metal and another word “חרשין” that Jastrow translated as entangled, deaf or sorcery. Tangled seemed to make the most sense, as we had been talking about tallitot. Deaf made sense too because חרש is modern Hebrew for deaf. Sorcery made no sense at all. We still could not parse it, so we looked at Rashi, who used a word that had כ-ש-ף in the middle, (mis) leading us to think of silver, spelled with a samekh, not a sin. And so we did not look the word up, which in fact meant sorcerer. It turns out that R. Yohanan was saying “I would rather drink witches’ brew than drink tepid water.” Exclamation point.

There are a few things to note about this sentence. First, it is funny. What a thing for an amora to say. It’s personal, homey advice, like “Check the date on the milk carton before pouring it over your cereal.” And it’s ironic, a tone that I did not – prior to Pardes – expect to find in Gemara. But all of these attributes, particularly the irony, makes it very difficult to read. The first point that I made above is that if you the Gemara to make sense, it becomes easier to translate because you can anticipate and extrapolate from context. My second point is that when reading the Gemara a talmid needs to be ready to see irony or humor. And humor often, and irony almost always, operate by confounding expectations.

So, as I think about teaching next year, on the one hand I will encourage students to anticipate rational arguments and contextual significance in the Gemara. “It doesn’t make sense? Go back and read it again and find the connection because it is there,” I will tell them. Understanding things in context is a skill that is necessary not only in Gemara but also in life.. It is a sign of progress, and confidence, when a person can anticipate the next move of the Stama. But I also look forward to those moments when a student and I will recognize the unexpected and when we will laugh at ironic situations, because that is part of life too.

That is to say, I would not want to read a Gemara that only conformed to expectations….why, I’d rather drink witch’s brew.

Daniel Weinreb
Pardes Educators Program