Letters June 2021
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
Managing Sexual Urges
Reader: “If a snake endangers [encircles] a person, if he has another [person] with him, let him ride [carry] him four cubits. And if not [if the snake still chases him], let him jump over a ditch. And if not, let him cross a river. And at night let him place his bed on four barrels and sleep outside beneath the stars” (Talmud Shabbat 110a).
Can you please explain to me what this section of Talmud means? It’s extremely puzzling and I’m not sure how to understand it? Thank you.
Rabbi: As the Talmud doesn’t suggest to kill the snake—the wisest way to eliminate this danger—this talmudic portion cannot refer to a literal snake; this must be a metaphor. To decipher this metaphor, we must ask what reality a snake might parallel? What is dangerous? What sneaks (slithers) up on a person, which pursues a person, but is not a living creature? I explain this metaphor as follows:
“If a snake endangers a person, if he has another [person] with him, let him ride [carry] him four cubits.”
(I suggest sexual as the subject matter, as this is the strongest drive.) This means if one’s sexual urge starts to swell and overcome him, he should expend energy by carrying his friend on his back.This exertion drains the strength from the sexual urge, to make it subside and not sin. As Rabbi Israel Chait taught, there is but one energy source in man. That same energy that fuels the sexual drive, also fuels our Torah study. The Talmud says, “Rabbi Yishmael said, ‘If the wretched one [sexual drive] overcomes you, drag it to the study hall. If it is stone it will melt, if iron, it will break it to pieces’” (Kiddushin 30b). As we study, all our energies are directed towards Torah’s brilliance and we have no energy left to expend in other areas, like prohibited sexual activity. But when outdoors and not in a situation conducive to Torah study, this Talmudic portion suggests alternative measures to extinguish the sexual drive.
“And if not, let him jump over a ditch.”
This means if carrying his friend is insufficient to drain his energies, expend greater energy through jumping over pit. This transfers energy away from the sexual urge.
“And if not, let him cross a river.”
This requires even greater energy and is longer in duration than a single jump...and the river also cools him down.
“And at night let him place his bed on four barrels and sleep outside beneath the stars.”
Now, even though he might temporarily calm the urge with any of the above cures, at night one is alone and the urge will return, as night’s removal of daily distraction allows temptations to resurface. The rabbis say he is out in public and then he wont come to sin due to shame.
Additionally, we learn that when addressing more abstract matters like philosophy and psychology, Torah chooses to cloak its lessons. The reason is because many people are not ready to accept abstract concepts due to unfamiliarity with the area, or because the ideas oppose personal wishes. By cloaking the message, people will dismiss the matter, accepting they don't know what they’re reading. At a later date they might be ready to revisit it. And at the same time intelligent people will be able to decipher what the rabbis intend to share. Our case above with the snake, Bilam’s discussion with his donkey, Jacob’s wrestling with the man and the flaming sword and cherubs in Genesis are such cases.
Is Torah applicable in the Messianic era?
Member of Jewish/Christian Debates (facebook group): When messiah comes for real. Will torah still be in effect?
Rabbi: Talmud Niddah 61b states that garments made of kilayim (prohibited mixed materials) may be used as a shroud for the dead. Meaning, as the dead no longer follow Torah laws—mitzvahs—there is no violation to dress their bodies in kilayim. Rav Yosef said [Ibid.] “That is to say that the mitzvahs will be nullified in the future.” Rav Yosef suggests that as the dead will again live at resurrection, clothed in their shrouds, they will then not be in violation of kilayim upon awaking and wearing these garments. From here, Rav Yosef deduces that Torah will not apply in the Messianic era (Rav Steinsaltz).
But I wonder: God commands not to add or subtract from the Torah (Deut. 13:1) and God did not say kilayim or any law will be for a limited time. Thus, Torah applies unchanged, always, even after Messiah arrives.
Rashba [Ibid.] addresses this problem:
There are those who explain this according to what is written in Ketubot, that in the future the dead will be resurrected in their clothing. This is difficult for me because [in another story] the dead that Ezekiel brought back to life were obligated in mitzvahs. As it says in perek Challah (Sanhedrin 92b), “My father was from them [those resurrected] and these are the tefillin that my father gave me.” [Thus, descendants of those resurrected followed Torah—they wore tefillin.] It appears to me that in the coming age means from “the time of death” [the dead will be exempt from mitzvahs]. We learn that the living cannot cause the dead to violate a mitzvah, just as a parent cannot cause a child to eat something forbidden. The reason is because it says,“the dead are free.” Since the dead are free from mitzvahs from the time of death, in the time to come (may it come speedily in our time) we do not want to lead the person astray in the time to come [so we should not robe their corpses in kilayim].
Rashba proves from a previous case of resurrected people who were commanded in tefillin, that future resurrected people too will follow Torah. Thus, Torah does not expire in the Messianic era.
Our Real Demons
Reader: Talmud Pesachim 111b cites a demon “Ketev Meriri.” It resides between sunlight and shade and is active during a certain time period of the day, and in certain locations. One of the reasons why Jews are extra careful during the 9 days is because of this supposed demon being active during this time. How do we explain the effects of this “demon” during the 9 days, and why do we need to be careful from potentially harmful activities?
Rabbi: Let’s read that talmudic portion:
There are two types of “ketev” demons: one that is before noon and the other one is in the afternoon. The one before noon is called Ketev Meriri, and it appears in a jug of Babylonian spice, and continuously revolves around inside it. The ketev in the afternoon is called Ketev Yashud Tzaharayim (Psalms 91:6), and it appears inside the horn of a goat and revolves around inside it like a sifter (Pesachim 111b).
“Ketev Meriri” (Deut. 32:24) means “bitter destruction” (Ibid., Ibn Ezra) during morning time. The second demon, “Yashud Tzaharayim,” means “slaughter in the afternoon,” derived from Psalms 91:6. There, King David refers to dangers one need not fear as he follows God, and God protects him.
So we have a bitter destruction in the morning associated with spices, and some danger that slaughter’s man in the afternoon, which is associated with a goat’s horn.
The Gemara continues, providing more clues:
Abaye was coming and walking along the street. And Rav Pappa was walking on his right and Rav Huna, son of Rav Yehoshua was on his left. Abaye saw a certain ketev meriri coming on his left side and he switched Rav Pappa to his left and Rav Huna, son of Rav Yehoshua, he switched to his right. Rav Pappa said to Abaye: “What is different that you were not concerned about any possible harm to me?” Abaye said to him: “The time is in your favor. You are wealthy and fortunate, and therefore I believe that you will most likely not be harmed by the demon.”
A number of questions will lead us to the interpretation:
As Torah endorses the fundamental of Reward and Punishment (good people are not harmed), how can righteous Torah scholars as these be harmed?
Why wasn’t Abaye concerned for his own harm, or Rav Pappa’s harm?
What are demons?
What’s the distinction between “morning” demons and “afternoon” demons?
One must know that God is just; for justice is His nature. And human justice is His creation. He did not create destructive entities—“demons”—and certainly He did not do so and hide their existence from man! What then are these “demons” which the rabbis discuss?
They are psychological phenomena: they can be imaginary, like mirages, or phantom people seen by those when alone; images of people conjured-up to alleviate loneliness. Talmud Gittin 66a actually says demons are seen only in places of isolation. Meaning they are not real, but are imagined, to offer isolated lonely people a sense of company.
Demons refer to our psyches and out instincts. In the morning, man anticipates his day and is alert and full of ambition, like a spice’s effects on a person where he is made acutely alert to the effects of that spice. In the afternoon, man’s ambition wanes, as the sun starts leaning towards evening, one’s ambitions recoil to a more relaxed state of mind where he is more indifferent towards ambition. A goat’s horn is used for drinks when one relaxes.
This talmudic portion is sharing psychological insights into 2 emotions we experience each day: morning ambition, and afternoon recoiling. Morning ambition is sharp as spices, while afternoon recoiling is represented by a goat’s horn used for drinking alcohol, to relax. The Talmud wishes to educate man on his nature. We are to be aware of our varying emotional attitudes.
This answers why great rabbis like Abaye, Rav Pappa and Rav Huna could be subject to these “demons,” as these demons are truly nothing more than emotional attitudes possessed by each and every person. When Abaye saw Rav Pappa was on his right—right is a favored position—Abaye felt the lesser successful Rav Huna might be jealous of Rav Pappa taking the favored “right” side of Abaye. This disappointment might depress Rav Huna during that morning, when ambition is a good instinct to nurture for achieving success, which Rav Huna needed. As Rav Pappa was successful expressing strong ambition, Abaye had no concern that Rav Pappa would succumb to any disappointment generated by a left-side position to Abaye. So Abaye switched Rav Pappa to his left side. This also explains why Abaye was not concerned about himself: primarily, he was the center of attention and not the one vying for it. Additionally, he was aware of these moods, and therefore, in control of them. Had he been in Rav Huna’s shoes his knowledge of these moods would enable him to control himself from succumbing. Knowledge of any emotion offers one the ability to resist it. Only one blind to an emotion is controlled by it.
How does all this relate to the 9 days? Just as parts of the day evoke unique emotions, parts of the year too have this effect. During the 9 days we are conscious of the Temple’s destruction and the loss of Jewish lives. We focus on God’s disapproval of the Jews. It is a mournful period. As such, one’s emotions can be compromised and this in turn can effect our daily affairs, be it business or social dealings. Our worries compromise how sharp and alert we are, in contrast to when we are in better moods. In this depressed state, minimizing dealings will minimize failures. The harm is self-inflicted.
There are no evil “powers” God made without informing man about them. That would be an evil god. Just as we don’t drink and drive, we should not undertake activities if we sense our energies are compromised by the 9 days.
Torah vs. Kabbala, Heresy & Superstition
Reader: You wrote in your last JewishTimes "Any act that has no demonstrated effects, and people act expecting effects, is Nichush: a form of idolatry." What does that constitute? Do some or all acts of mysticism fall into that category? For example, is putting a cup out for Elijah and shouting “welcome” while the door is opened, constitute as sympathetic magic, which is doing something on earth that causes heaven to act? Or, for example, the “Indian rain dance”? Or when mystics dip bread into salt to cause heaven to rejoin the upper and lower disassembled parts (Sefirot) of G-d? Is prayer a form of sympathetic magic? How can we dispute mystics who do magically mystical acts when we insist that prayer works?
Rabbi: Superstitions are imaginary, and prohibited. But prayer is a real mechanism which God and the rabbis endorse throughout Torah. For in prayer, one relates his needs to the real God. But in superstition, one invents causal relationships between an assumed cause and a desired result, when in fact, no demonstrated relationship exists. This explains why no superstition ever worked. The cup for Elijah is not meant to cause his appearance; that would be superstitious. Rather, it is a demonstration of our belief in God’s deliverance of Messiah. “Rejoining the upper and lower disassembled parts (Sefirot) of God” is pure heresy; God has no parts.
This is how we dispute mystics: Torah deals with reality, i.e., what is sensed or based on reason or on Torah texts, while mysticism conflicts with reality, reason, and Torah fundamentals like God’s indivisible metaphysical nature. Mysticism imagines nonsense that cannot be explained rationally and demands blind faith like Christianity…the opposite of Torah.