26 Oct 2017

Touring the Talmud: Sanhedrin 97-103 – For Better or Worse

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ט׳ מרחשון תשע״ח לפ״ק

Touring the Talmud:

Sanhedrin 97-103 (Shabbat Lekh Lekha)

For Better or Worse

‘The Son of David will not come until all great establishments are devolved’.

— Daf 97a 

‘Even if it tarries, wait for it’. 

— Habakuk, 2:3 

‘Be the change that you wish to see in the world’. 

— Mahatma Gandhi

The Talmud approaches the days leading up to the Messianic era in two ways. In one the Mashiah comes as a natural culmination of humanity’s climb towards excellence emerging from a righteous age, and in the other the Mashiah comes as a saviour to rescue society from falling into irrevocable failure.

The Son of David will come only in a generation that is entirely innocent or a generation that is entirely guilty (98a)

Reading these treatments some two thousand years after their initial presentation the odds seem to be on the side of the latter. Things are not well with the world. There is an overwhelming feeling that the world is seething in grief and turmoil. Terrorising fundamentalism sweeps through the world in both religious and political guises. Leadership positions are held by individuals who seem more like caricatures than Greats. Extremism has become the familiar and easy-to-understand ‘safe zone’ for a human population that reels from the utter magnitude of information and complexity that floods it.

We find ourselves gravitating towards the clear, basic definitions of reality that we know in order to avoid dealing with the true subtleties of the world that must be discovered. Nuance terrifies us.

The messianic era in Judaism is one in which the details of history converge towards harmony; when the world’s disparate elements connect in a peaceful and functional coalescence. The Mashiah is the emergent crown of that reality; the representation of the wholeness and wholesomeness of the earth to itself.

The process of getting there however, is not at all straightforward. It is a long and winding road of fits and starts and successes and crashes. The variables that determine its unfolding are so numerous and multifaceted that no one could possibly understand or absorb them, much less accurately predict their elusive development.

Yet, in our readings this week we are offered general principles by the Hakhamim as to what will occur in the world upon nearing the threshold of the Messianic era. Although they entertain the possibility that the world will be in great strides of altruism and righteousness before the Anointed One (literal translation of Mashiah) arrives, more emphasis is placed on the alternative scenario — the breakdowns and failures of the world. The sages were known to say about these times: ‘Let them come, but let me not see them’. (98b)

But why should a world be allowed to sink to such lows? Why would the Mashiah who is meant to rehabilitate society and usher us into the most golden of ages, not come to protect the world from its worst states?

It seems there is something that reaching ‘the bottom’ provides and teaches that nothing else can. It is a firm and reliable foundation upon which a viable future can be built. When you can’t fall any further the only way you can go is up. It is the point we reach when we have tried everything else and followed it to failure. When we have tried something and experienced its lack of feasibility, we relinquish another potential illusion that could mislead us. The world’s most robust systems are built through trial and error. Failure is the essential ingredient for strong and reliable growth.

In this week’s discussions it is Rabbi Akiba who consistently finds comfort and solace in the dark circumstances, much to the surprise of his colleagues. He recognised that while the poor states are painful and challenging they herald growth and better futures.

Rabbi Akiba said ‘afflictions are beloved’ (101b)

By embracing fallibility we allow ourselves to experience why certain ways do not work. Simply understanding or intellectually accepting truth is rarely sufficient to rectify the illusions that false projections create. We must become the change and move from a reality that we know to a reality that we live. For such growth to occur the heart and mind must be transformed. More often than not this occurs not only by learning, but by living through events.

The road to real and lasting achievement is paved with disillusionment and therefore includes struggle, sadness and pain. But it is also paved with epiphany and with that comes grace, empathy and joy. It is the path of Life itself from the moment we are born, and its ultimate gift to us is that it awakens us from one level of consciousness to the next. When we awaken on any level, even if it is from our beds after a night’s sleep, if we are not yet ready to stir, we are faced with choices.  We can seize the new opportunities that the day brings, or we can resent the wakeup call and protest it by going back to sleep. Our choices will determine the trials that we will encounter.

One way that we tend to nurture a sleeping culture is to focus on answers instead of questions. We believe that there is always a correct answer that we can come up with and we hold tightly to a god complex, in which we believe that we can know clearly what is happening in the world and how events will unfold. We fail to take into account the massive complexities that run through our lives or the fact that they become exponentially more complex with the passage of time. Because we so deeply fear being wrong we often do not take into account the random events that can change the course of our lives and our world forever. Humility and trial and error help us surmount these issues and remain awake.

We have gone from a society of information scarcity to one of information surplus. Aside from the complexity of our world, the complexity that is the very makeup of our being and psyche is beyond our grasp and comprehension. What is it that determines our actions? Is it our situation? Our perceptions? Our hormones? Our childhood experiences? Our genes? Our ancestors? It is all of those things and much more. We are complicated beings, bundles of contradictions. We therefore find our best solutions through experience and experimentation. So God gives the world time and space to learn through discovery.

Is it ugly? Painful? Heart wrenching? Yes. But it is also reliable, sturdy, and promising. From the pangs of failure we learn the hallmarks of viability. We learn that we do not love because it is virtuous, but because it is the only way to live. We teach, embrace and practice kindness not because it feels good but because it is the only way a world can thrive. The moral truths stem from the existential ones not vice versa.

In a random world where there are an infinite number of possible paths and opportunities that face us, few are viable. It takes us time to learn these vital lessons. It takes successive events to bring us to the realisations that we need to have in order to thrive at every level. And while it does indeed seem that the world is in a poor state, it has always seemed so to us. At which point in history have things really been better? Yet, when we step back and look at the entirety we can see that we have made great progress. Few of us would genuinely choose to go back to any point in history other than our own. We would not wish to be a Jew or for that matter any person living one hundred or even one thousand years ago. We would not wish to give up our advances, sensitivities, knowledge, technologies, and the collective consciousness that we have steadily built and honed through the ages and that is bequeathed to us collectively with each passing generation. Nor should we. We are getting better. Yes, we still have a long way to go, but we should be hopeful that while the process is distasteful the products are splendid.

When it ultimately comes to a point that we have run out of solutions and are left with nothing but problems, a certain humility will ensue and we will be ready for help from He who spoke and made us. Our tradition for tens of centuries has had us look to an era when a tipping point will cause a change and the world will fully awaken. Humankind will have the opportunity to choose grace and peace as its highest value not just in theory, but in practice for there will be no other true option. And while we may not live to see it, it is our honour to live our lives anticipating its coming.

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joseph Dweck


Sanhedrin 97-103


Daf 97

MASHIAH’S (Messiah) Arrival: What are the Signals?

Hardships are the Overarching Harbinger:

  • A seven year cycle to watch for:

Year 1: Simultaneous rain and drought around the world.

Year 2: Pockets of famine around the world.

Year 3: Great famine indiscriminate of victims – Torah is forgotten from its              scholars.

Year 4: Pockets of plenty

Year 5: Great recovery – Torah is recalled from its forgotten days.

Year 6: Rumors of the Mashiah’s arrival.

Year 7: War – Mashiah arrives as it ends.

  • Gemara proceeds to list various statements from the Hakhamim regarding what the ‘Generation in which the Son of David (Mashiah) arrives in’ will be like:


  • The places in which rabbis gather will become places of prostitution.
  • Jewish refugees will not find peace or welcome.
  • People who genuinely fear sin will be disgusted with the generation.
  • The wisdom of the scholars will go rotten.
  • Truth will be elusive and found in bits in various groups and places.
  • Teachings will be so diverse and abundant no clarity or consistency will be found.
  • The righteous person will be deemed insane by the people.
  • Truth will disappear and be replaced with pure subjectivity.


  • Brazenness will spread and be abundant
  • Arrogance will proliferate
  • Cost of living will force people into corruption and deceit
  • All old and revered establishments will fall
  • There will be no capacity for proper rebuke due to the irreverence and subjectivity.


  • People will give up on the redemption
  • Students of Torah will diminish
  • When people least expect it, Mashiah will come.
  • Ribbi Natan says the time of Mashiah’s arrival is unfathomable and cannot be predicted. Therefore, as it is written in Habakuk: ‘Even if it tarries, wait for it’. The best way to relate to the Messianic era is to hope and wait for it.
  • Ribbi Yonatan says that those who spend time trying to predict the coming of the Mashiah are cursed. All we should do is wait.
  • Our merit is gained by our ability to look forward and wait for it.
  • Rab says all the times that people calculated for Mashiah have come and gone! Redemption depends on Israel repenting and doing good deeds.
  • Shemuel says the hardships of the exile are enough to merit the Mashiah (without mass repentance).
  • A similar argument is presented between Rabbi Eliezer and R Yehoshua. R Eliezer believes it must occur through repentance, R Yehoshua believes that it will occur regardless. R Yehoshua prevails with his proofs against R Eliezer.

Daf 98

  • The best sign that Mashiah is coming is when we see the Land of Israel blossoming and developing by the hands of the Jewish people. ‘There is no greater revelation of the time than this!’ says R Abba.
  • The Son of David will only come when:
    • all arrogance is eradicated from Israel i.e. people understand that they do not have solutions.
    • All leaders and judges cease.
  • ‘If you see a generation that is getting worse and worse, wait for him’.
  • Let the Mashiah come but let us not see him! (due to the hardships that will accompany)(Rab, Ula, R Yohanan)
  • Let the Mashiah come and I will sit in the shadow of his donkey’s excrement! (Rab Yosef)
  • The Jews will suffer during this time.
  • R Hillel believed that Mashiah was not a man, but God himself. His opinion is not accepted.
  • Various names of Mashiah are discussed.
  • What kind of person will he be? Some say he will be someone who is already in a position of great influence and authority.
  • The days of Mashiah will be painful and difficult for the immoral.

Daf 99

  • How long will the Mashiah reign for?[1] Various opinions are offered.

OLAM HABA – The World to Come

  • Is not to be confused with the days of Mashiah. No prophet ever saw a prophecy regarding the World to Come.
  • Who is greater, the fully righteous or those who have sinned and repented?
  • The Garden of Eden is not synonymous with Eden. Eden is a higher reality than the Garden.


  • The Talmud returns to the opening Mishna which questions who is considered to have lost one’s portion in Olam HaBa – The World to Come. For the first nine daf, the Gemara has dealt with discussions on and around one who negates that the Reseurrection of the Dead has its source in Torah. We now examine the second exception listed: ‘One who says that Torah is not from Heaven’


  • To say that Torah does not come from Heaven is to debase it and belittle it. As it is written ‘He has scorned the word of the Lord and breached His commandment; [that soul] shall be excised; his iniquity shall be upon him’. (Numbers 15:31)
  • Included in the above verse is one who interprets Torah inappropriately or incorrectly.
  • Also included is one who consistently:
  • desecrates consecrated items
  • treats the intermediate days of a festival as though they were mere weekdays
  • breaches the covenant of Abraham
  • humiliates another person (even a child) in public.
  • Although such people may have good deeds and considerable Torah study they have no portion in the World to Come.
  • One who does not consider Torah in its entirety to be from Heaven is included in this.
  • One is considered to be included in scorning God’s word if they:
    • study Torah but do not teach it.
    • Do not pay close attention to the sources of Torah when establishing law.
    • Study but do not review their learning.
  • More discussion on forgetting or treating one’s study of Torah casually or haphazardly.
  • Discussions on the life and actions of King Menashe ben Hizkiya who was a wicked and rebellious king but repented at the end of his life.
  • Origins of Amalek’s hatred for Israel: Early rejection from being able to become a part of Israel.
  • More on the value of faithful Torah study and teaching.
  • One who causes another to perform a mitsva is considered to have done it personally.


  • Another individual who loses a portion in the World to Come is an Derived from the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus[4] who taught that death is the end of the body and soul and the gods do not reward or punish people. The term is essentially taken by the Hakhamim of the Talmud to apply to one who treats holy things as mundane and ordinary.


  • Apikoros Includes:
    • One who scorns a talmid hakham – Torah scholar.
    • One who scorns his fellow in the presence of a talmid hakham. (One should not rebuke another in the presence of someone with greater stature)
    • One who says ‘what do those rabbis do for us anyway?!’
    • One who calls his Rav by name.

Daf 100

  • One who refers (disparagingly) to the rabbis as ‘those rabbis’.
  • Stories about students who scoffed at teachings of the Hakhamim that seemed implausible.
  • The rewards in the World to Come for one who toils greatly in Torah in this world.


Another individual who loses a portion is one who reads ‘external literature’ (books of idolatry, beliefs and rites of foreign worship – Rambam, Hilkhot Aboda Zara, 2:2)


  • Rav Yosef questions if the Book of Ben Sira[5] (a book of proverbs) is included in the prohibition.
    • Various reasons why it may or may not be valid are discussed.
  • Hakhamim question the meaning of the verse in Proverbs (15:15): ‘All the days of the poor are terrible, and for the good hearted it is always a feast’. And offer various explanations.

Daf 101

  • The verses of the Torah should not be disrespected and sung as love songs or mundane issues.


Another individual who loses a portion is one who whispers invocations over a wound.


  • R Yohanan says this is only when one spits into the wound at the same time.
  • Questions about whether massage for healing is permitted on Shabbat.
  • The permissibility of consulting demons in order to heal wounds. Varying opinions.
  • ‘All the disease that I placed on you in Egypt I shall not place upon you, for I am your Lord, your Healer’. (Exodus 15:26) – Question: If God will not place disease upon us why must He be a Healer?
    • R Yohanan says: Read the beginning of the verse! ‘If you hearken…I will not place’. Infer from this that if you do not hearken I will place disease, but nonetheless I am the Lord your Healer.
  • Stories about R Eliezer being ill and his visiting students’ (R Tarfon, R Yehoshua, R Elazar ben Azarya, & R Akiba) discussions with him.


Another individual who loses a portion is one who pronounces the Tetragrammaton (YHVH) as it is spelled.


  • This is referring to one who pronounces it this way in the outlying areas of the Temple.


There are three kings and four commoners who have no share in the World to Come. The Kings: Jeroboam, Ahab, and Menasheh.


  • The Hakhamim find in Jeroboam’s name hints to his wickedness.
  • Discussion on three people who saw visions of the future but misinterpreted them.
  • How do we know that Jeroboam lost the World to Come?
    • A verse (I Kings 13:34) brought from which we infer it.
  • Why did Jeroboam merit becoming king in the first place?
    • He rightly criticised King Solomon for building a house of worship for the daughter of Pharaoh.
  • Why then was he punished?
    • Because he did so publicly.
    • He acted disrespectfully and arrogantly in front of King Solomon. His arrogance drove him from the World to Come.
    • Insights into the accounts of Jeroboam’s ascent to power and reign….

Daf 102

  • R Papa: ‘Anyone who enjoys of this world without a beracha (blessing) is stealing from the Holy One and the congregation of Israel’.
    • He is compared to Jeroboam.
  • Moshe tells God that He caused the sin of the Golden Calf by providing the people with a surplus of gold and no outlet.
  • Jeroboam caused the nation of Israel to worship two Golden Calves.
  • R Abhu spoke disparagingly about King Menasheh only to be rebuffed by him in a dream that night. R Abhu apologises and says a halakha (Jewish law) that the king taught him in his name in the house of study the next day.
  • Discourse on King Ahab’s personality.
  • Discourse on King Menashe’s personality.
    • Argument as to whether he retains a portion in the World to Come.

Daf 103

  • R Yohanan: Anyone who says Menashe has no place in the World to Come weakens the hands of those who seek to repent!
  • Eras when God wished to bring the whole world back into chaos and void.
  • R Shimon ben Yohai: God saw that Israel was incorrigible. They worshipped idols whether they were rewarded or punished.
  • R Pappa brings secular proverbs to show the universality of the teachings of the Hakhamim.
  • Discussion on the spiritual and political decline of the kings of Judah.
  • Four types of people do not experience the Divine Presence:
    • Cynics
    • Liars
    • Flatterers
    • Slanderers
  • A study of Psalm 91:
    • The Divine protections for one who knows God.
  • The greatness of the Torah knowledge that the aforementioned kings (Menashe, Ahab and Jeroboam) had.
  • Discussion of the idol worship and sins that various kings of Israel committed.
  • The great merits of feeding the hungry.

[1] The Mashiah, lit. ‘the annointed one’ is essentially a king who will reign for a time and die. Leaving his heir to take the throne after him.

[2] The Mishna is the written distillation of the oral definitions that were passed down in each generation for the laws of written Torah. For example, When the Torah commands us to sit in a Succa it does not define what a succa is. The oral tradition carried these definitions. The Mishna is comprised of these definitions set in writing.

[3] The Gemara expounds on the words of the Mishna.

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epicurus

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Sira