08 Dec 2017

Touring the Talmud: Shebu’ot 02-10: The Roles We Play

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The Roles We Play

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts….

— William Shakespeare

The Torah’s account of the reign of King Saul is filled with uncertainty, paranoia, and jealousy. The first king of Israel struggled terribly with being king. He hid from his own coronation[1], and yet, viciously fought to keep his crown[2]. Ironically as long as that crown rested upon his head his spirit could not find rest and respite. He fluctuated between being ‘Saul the man’ and ‘Saul the monarch’. He failed to properly play his royal role one too many times[3] and finally lost his kingdom because of it. His role was later filled by a young man named David who went on to play it to legend.

Saul’s failure to assume his role is bluntly pointed out to him by Samuel the prophet[4]:

‘Samuel said: Though you may be small in your own eyes, you are head of the tribes of Israel,
for God has anointed you as king!’

Saul was not the only king of Israel who misunderstood his royal remit. King Uziya[5] tried to play the role of priest as well as king and is promptly admonished by the Divine Director.

When he was strong, he grew so arrogant he acted corruptly: he trespassed against his God by entering the Temple of the Lord to offer incense on the incense altar.

The priest Azariah, with eighty other brave priests of God, followed him in and, confronting King Uzziah, said to him, “It is not for you, Uzziah, to offer incense to God, but for the Aaronite priests, who have been consecrated, to offer incense. Get out of the Sanctuary, for you have trespassed; there will be no glory in it for you from the Lord God.”

Uzziah, holding the censer and ready to burn incense, got angry; but as he got angry with the priests, leprosy broke out on his forehead in front of the priests in the House of God beside the incense altar.

When the chief priest Azariah and all the other priests looked at him, his forehead was leprous, so they rushed him out of there; he too made haste to get out, for God had struck him with a plague.

King Uzziah was a leper until the day of his death.

It seems odd, but the question of identity is not straightforward. We spend our lives looking for ourselves, being surprised by ourselves, and questioning what we wish for ourselves. The self is often the most difficult and complicated person to truly get to know. Our identity is a complex confluence of givens and choices.

In that confluence we find ourselves inhabiting many different roles. We are children, parents, mentors, students, leaders, followers, husbands, wives and friends among so many others. We step in and out of them, sometimes several times, on any given day. We are all expected to be actors, and good ones at that! These roles remain true and authentic when they express ourselves and how we each uniquely play the roles.

In each role we adjust our thoughts and actions and play them as the circumstance requires. At times, however, we might misread the ‘script’ and misjudge the role we are meant to play and act inappropriately. We might act like a teacher when we should play the learner, or like a follower when we should be a leader. Misplaying roles can be damaging on many levels. We can confuse the other players as well as the viewers, and minimise the level of our reliability in the eyes of others. At worst, we can ruin the entire play. When the play is life itself the stakes are considerably higher.

Getting our roles right in life is crucial to living it well. When we regularly show that we do not know how to play our roles, or worse, we are unaware of the roles in which we find ourselves, we can lose our relevance and sense of authenticity and end up with no part to play at all.

This week the Talmud deals with this fundamental principle in an intriguing way. It addresses the mode of atonement for two instances in which a person inadvertently ‘breaks character’ from a temporarily assumed role. In one case, a person becomes ritually impure and while in this state forgets and enters the Holy Temple or touches certain consecrated items that one may only touch while pure. In the second case a person takes an oath restricting or committing himself to either do or not do something and inadvertently transgresses it. When the person recalls their status of impurity or of being under oath he must bring an offering to atone for the inadvertent transgression[6]. It is essentially a transgression of forgetting one’s role or place.

The required offering to be brought for atonement is also unique to these cases, as it varies depending on one’s financial status. The Oleh veYored (lit. ‘Rising and Descending’ or ‘Up and Down’) offering is a sliding-scale that must be determined by defining one’s financial status and acting accordingly. The rich person’s offering is more expensive than the poor man’s. The atonement for forgetting one’s status is to assess and repair according to one’s standing.

We all struggle at times to play our parts. When we get them right and play them well life flows and we find happiness, grace and peace. When we play them wrongly life feels like an awkward dance that causes us to trip over ourselves and others again and again.

Yet, the free and open nature of our minds and our world leaves us uneasy and insecure if we do not sense a clear and established self that is at the centre of every character we play.  When we get off stage and shed the costumes, who are we left with? Who is the one wearing the costumes? There must be a constant and consistent self that sits at the core of every character we play. The better we know that person, the better we are at assuming various characters we play without confusion.

There is a serendipitous connection between the pages we read this week in the Talmud and the reading of our parasha and the story of Joseph. Joseph learned well how to get into character. Whether it was slave, prisoner or viceroy, he played it faithfully and accurately. The one constant in all of it was that it was always Joseph playing the role. He was always there under the slave costume and viceroy’s robes. Joseph was the star.

God was with Joseph and he became a successful man…so that whatever he did, God made succeed in his hands. (Gen., 39:2-3)

When the Core Self is unstable, unclear and confused, there is great risk that the character we play will become so real to us that when it is time to leave it or change roles it will result in breakdown or devastation — it will be wrongly experienced as a loss of self. There are times that we play a role for so long or that it becomes so central to our lives that we do not know anymore how to live without it.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Perahia said: ‘Before I became the (Nasi) leader, anyone who offered the position to me I would bind and lay them before a hungry lion. Now that I am [the leader] I will pour a kettle of hot water over the head of anyone who tries to take it from me!’ (Menahot, 109b)

The very fact that there is such a possibility in humanity — that our perception of self can be so fluid and unstable — leaves even God ‘hoping’, so to speak, for His own atonement for having made it that way. It is expressed in the Sages’ story of the Moon[7].

God made two great lights. The great light to rule the day and the small light to rule the night.… (Gen, 1:16)

First it says, ‘the two great lights’ but then it says, ‘the great light and the small light’!

The moon said to the Holy One: Master of the Universe! Is it possible for two kings to share the same crown?
God said to her: Go then and diminish yourself.
She said to him: For saying something reasonable must I diminish myself?
He said: Go, and Israel will make you the measure of days and years.
She said: The sun too must still be the measure of seasons….

God saw that she could not find peace of mind. The Holy One said: ‘Bring atonement for Me that I diminished the moon….’ 

The ‘atonement’ of which God speaks, is the additional offering that was brought in the Holy Temple on Rosh Hodesh (the New Moon). It is there to atone for those who have wholly forgotten their very essence. Those who forget and do not remember….(02a)
And for cases in which one did not have awareness, neither at the beginning nor at the end, the goats brought as sin offerings for the additional offerings of the New Moon atone.

The story of the moon tells us that she did not just forget the role she was to play but also the very essence of her being. In God’s world she had the ability to misunderstand herself. We all have that ability and it is with the new moon that we are reminded we can always renew and rediscover ourselves and become whole again. We can find our essence and live in its strength so that we can play the roles we must play in life without damaging or detracting from our core existence.

There is nothing more important in life than discovering our core self and playing the roles we are given or that we choose, appropriately. With each character we learn something more about ourselves; with each scene and act we discover more about our ability to interact within the diversity of reality so that when the time comes for the final curtain call, we will take our bow without costume, makeup, set or stage. And we will have a self that, having played so many roles, will have learned about the mystery and diversity of God’s world and we will be richer, deeper and more beautiful beings because of it.

Touring the Talmud
Outline/Summary: SHEVUOT 2-10

“… A person that touches anything that is impure (and becomes impure himself)…and it (his impurity) [becomes] unknown to him, and then he remembers (that he entered the temple or ate holy foods *as proven in the gemara*) and is guilty.
Or a person that swears and utters with his mouth whether in his favour (sleep, eat..) or against his favour (not to eat, not to sleep..), to anything that a person might commit oneself to, and forgets, and he later remembers and is guilty of one of these.
And he shall bring…a lamb or a she-goat…and if it is not within his reach to bring a lamb, then he shall bring…two pigeons or two doves…and if his hand cannot acquire two pigeons or two doves, then he shall bring…one tenth of an ‘Efah’ of fine flour…”
Leviticus, 5, 2-11.

Though this tractate deals mainly with different types of oaths, it is not until the third chapter that it is properly addressed. The first two chapters are mainly about ‘awareness of impurity’, an impure person who eats/enters a holy place/food, by way of forgetting his own impurity, or the sanctity of the place/food. These two subjects share a tractate as they are mentioned together in Torah (verses above) and they have equal atonement offerings ‘Oleh VeYored’, a sacrifice that varies based on the culprit’s financial state.

Since both swearing and ‘awareness’ involve two explicitly written prohibitions as well as two others that are not explicit, but derived from verses hence: ‘two that are four’. Additional cases which are considered ‘two that are four’ are brought in our mishna as well.

Segue from Makot:
At the end of ‘Makkot the prohibition of shaving the sides of a man’s head is mentioned. If someone were to shave both sides of the head, he is punished for each side even though it falls under the same single name of prohibition. This is a case of One that is two. Since we ended there with ‘One that is two’ we now begin a tractate that starts with ‘Two that are four’.

Daf 2


‘Two that are four’:

Swears – Two: “I shall eat”, “I shall not eat” (future). That are four: “I ate”, “I did not eat” (past).
Awareness of impurity – Two: forgot his own impurity and either entered the Temple or ate holy food. That are four: forgot the sanctity of the Temple/food, but was aware of his own impurity.
Exits’ of Shabbat (moving an object from one domain to another (private and public) on Shabbat) – Two: two types of private to public exits. That are four: an additional two types of public to private ‘exits’.
Appearances of “Tzara’at (a white blemish on a person, article of clothing or house                       that is the outcome of a lack of spiritual homeostasis) – Two: ‘Se’et’ and ‘Baheret’ (Leviticus, 14, 56). That are four: each have a subcategory.

Daf 3


Whose opinion does our mishna follow?

There are elements of our mishna that follow R”Yishmael’s opinion and clash with R”Akiva’s opinion, as there are elements of our mishna that follow R”A’s opinion and clash with R”Yishmael’s opinion.
The Gemara suggests that it is possible to read our mishna according to the opinion of R”Yishmael, provided that the prohibitions are transgressed intentionally.

Daf 4

The Gemara responds that if we are switching the understanding of our mishna to be intentional and punishable by lashes, then it is possible to read it according to the opinion of R”Akiva as well. However, we cannot read the mishna as an intentional violation because the mishna later mentions that the actor must bring an Oleh VeYored sacrifice which is only brought by those who transgressed inadvertently.

Rab Yosef suggests that our mishna can be the opinion of Ribbi (Rabbi Yehuda HaNaSi), who when compiling the mishna, brought a mix of both R”Akiva and R”Yishmael’s opinions.

Though Ribbi wrote a mixture of both opinions in the mishna, the Gemara questions his own personal opinion:

  • A source is brought where Ribbi explicitly expresses his opinion to be like the portion of the mishna that is like R”Yishmael.
  • The Gemara assumes that Ribbi’s opinion is also consistent with the portion of the mishna that is like R”Akiva as they both use similar methods of textual analysis.
    • However it becomes clear that Ribbi’s opinion is not like that portion of the mishna, and the similarity in his method of analysis to that of R”A is circumstantial.

Ribbi holds like the opinion of R”Yishmael, but in the mishna he wrote the opinion of R”Akiva regarding the prohibition of swearing.

Daf 5
Ribbi understands that the word “Vene’elam” “and it is/becomes unknown”, indicates that the person had ‘knowledge’ prior to becoming impure.

There is debate as to how he understands this. Two opinions are brought.

‘Exits’ of Shabbat

The Gemara explains that although there are two examples of ‘Two that are four’ in the tractate of Shabbat, only the elements that are liable to punishment are brought in our tractate (forming a new ‘Two that are four’) since it is not the main subject of our tractate.

Since moving an object both from a private to a public domain, and from public to a private domain are included, the Gemara states that the mishna uses the term ‘Exits’ (that implies specifically from private to public), either because any from of shift between domains is considered an ‘exit’, or the language of the mishna should be altered to ‘Domains’.

Appearances of “Tzara’at

“LaSe’et LaSapahat VeLaBaheret” (Leviticus 14,56).

There are four shades of Tzara’at, from most bright to least:

Baheret – This literally means ‘clear’, or ‘bright’, this is the shade of bright white snow.

Se’et – Literally ‘uplift’, as it is a shade darker than Baheret and the darker colours don’t seem as deep, this is the shade of newborn lambswool, before it has a chance to get dirty.

That are four:
Sapahat #1 – Literally means, ‘addition’, its first form is like white plaster.
Sapahat #2 – This second shade is like that of an eggshell.

A mishna is brought that lists the main shades with their subsidiaries:

Baheret, second to it is the shade of wool. Se’et, second to it is the shade of an eggshell.

In order to reach the amount of discoloured skin necessary to be considered Tzara’at the two major shades may be combined, and each major shade may join its subsidiary. This is the result of understanding the above verse to mean that both “Baheret and ‘Se’et’ each have a ‘Sapahat’ (addition), as the word ‘Sapahat’ is between them.

However R”Akiva holds that since Sapahat is after Se’et in the verse as if to say: ”Se’et, its subsidiaries and Baheret”, both subsidiaries belong to Se’et. Therefore Baheret may join only with Se’et, and Se’et may join it’s two subsidiaries. Since Sapahat #1 is not related to Baheret R”A lists it in its order of shade:

Baheret, Se’et, Sapahat #1, Sapahat #2.

Daf 6

The Gemara searches for where we find that this is indeed R”Akiva’s opinion.

Two options are brought, the first is rebutted, while the second one stands.

Analogies to Hakhamim’s opinion of the interrelationships between different shades of white are brought in the form of political hierarchy by multiple scholars dependant on their respective time/place. When the Emperors of Rome and Persia are mentioned, Rab Pappa asks his teacher Raba ‘Which one is more powerful’, to which Raba retorts: ‘Do you live under a rock? Go out and see whose influence in the world is greater!’.

R”Yohanan likens the relationship between the two main shades of white and the the two additional shades of white to the relationship between fresh wool and cotton to worn wool and cotton in order  illustrate that while the two main shades are similar and the two additional shades are similar, there is a greater distance between the two pairs.


With regards to the awareness of ones own impurity:

If a person had knowledge of their own impurity,
followed by a lapse, during which they either:
1) entered the Temple
2) ate holy food
followed by a recollection that they were  impure at the time, they bring an Oleh VeYored.


The source of the mishna is questioned:

Daf 7

Ribbi brings a proof for eating holy food while impure by comparing two verses that have a shared term.

From where do we learn about entering the Temple?

  • Juxtaposition of two concepts in the Tora; refuted.
  • A seemingly unnecessary word in the verse; refuted.
  • A shared term between two verses, one of which deals with ‘awareness of the impure’. Sustained.


If a person had knowledge of their own impurity, followed by a lapse during which he entered the Temple or ate holy food, but never later remembered that they were impure:
The atonement offering brought to the inner chamber of the Temple on Yom Kippur (the inner atonement) along with the day of Yom Kippur itself act as atonement until they remember and are then able to bring an Oleh Veyored.


The atonement offering brought to the inner chamber of the Temple on Yom Kippur:

“And it atones for that is holy from the impurities of the children of Israel and from their rebellious (intentional) acts for all of their faults (unintentional transgressions)…”

A Tanaic source that deals with the understanding of this verse is quoted:

  • Proof that each of the three cardinal sins is called an ‘impurity’ in the scripture and they are therefore candidates to be atoned for by the inner atonement.
    • R”Yehuda: The word MiTum’ot – “from the impurities” – can also mean ‘from of the impurities’, and not all of them. Since we are singling out a specific impurity it must be ‘entering the Temple and
  • eating holy food while impure’ since it has already been set apart from the other ‘impurities’ in that the actor brings an Oleh VeYored.
  • R”Shimon: You don’t have to go so far. The verse clearly states that this atonement is “for that which is holy”.
  • We learn that this sacrifice only atones for faults that do not have personal atonement sacrifices allotted to them. Yet they must be able to become liable to bring their own personal atonement.

The Gemara wonders in what circumstance we entertain the option of the ‘inner atonement’ atoning for the three cardinal sins, different modes of atonement are already prescribed for all three prohibitions whether done intentionally or unintentionally.
We come to the conclusion that they were either transgressed intentionally, but without proper warning, so they cannot be put to death, or accidentally but they never found out and therefore cannot bring the ‘Hatat’ sacrifice generally prescribed.

Daf 8

The Gemara challenges R”Y’s assertion that – ‘since we are singling out a specific impurity it must be ‘entering the Temple and eating holy food while impure’ since it has already been set apart from the other ‘impurities’ in that the actor brings an Oleh VeYored’ – and brings other examples of ‘impurities’ whose atonement offerings are irregular. They are each refuted either because they have been set as aside as they are more serious/stringent, and this verse is a leniency, or because they are not coming to a atone for a prohibition that has been violated.

The opinions of R”Shimon and R”Yehuda on the source of other laws pertaining to the Yom Kippur sacrificial service are presented.

The Gemara elaborates on how we know that while the inner atonemnet only atones for faults that do not have personal atonement sacrifices, they must be able to become liable to bring their own personal atonement.

The Gemara notes that this sacrifice does not atone entirely, rather it protects the actor from punishment until he can can properly atone. This is learned from the term “for all of their faults”, which indicates that the mentioned sacrifice will act as a bandage for the fault, rather than cleanse them “from their faults”.


If there was no prior awareness but there was post awareness, the sacrifice brought in the courtyard of the Temple on Yom Kippur (the outer atonement) and Yom Kippur itself atone.

The inner and outer atonements are juxtaposed in the verses: just as the inner atonement atones for a transgression done by one who had knowledge (prior but not post), so to the outer atonement atones for one who had knowledge (post but not prior).


The Gemara states that although the inner and outer atonements are juxtaposed, the inner atonement cannot atone for prohibitions that the outer atonement atones for and vice versa. This is learned from nuance in the verses.

Daf 9

According to R”Yishmael, even if there is only post awareness, the person is subject to bring an Oleh VeYored. He also holds that the outer atonement (along with the monthly atonement and the holiday atonement) atones for someone who did not have awareness either before or after transgression, as well as for a pure person who ate holy food that became impure (his opinion is likened to that of R”Meir in the next mishna).


If there is neither prior awareness nor post awareness (even if it is clear that he will find out), the ‘Hatat’ that is brought at every New Moon as well as the ‘Hatat’ brought on the holidays atones.
If there is no prior awareness nor post awareness, the holiday atonement atones. However the monthly atonement atones specifically for a pure person who eats holy food that has become impure.
All of the atonement offerings (the monthly atonement, the holiday atonement, and the outer atonement) are equal in atonement for impurity/holiness: post awareness, never having awareness, and a pure person who eats holy food that has become impure.

R”Yehuda’s source:

Monthly atonement
The verse about the monthly ‘Hatat’ offering says that the ‘Hatat’ is “LaShem”. This can be understood either as ‘to God’, or as ‘for God’. Since there are definitive ways of saying both ‘to God’ and ‘for God’, we understand that the phrase chosen is specifically ambiguous to imply both meanings:
1) ‘To God’ – this is coming to atone for something that is only known to God (if there is no post or prior knowledge).
2) ‘For God’ – God tells us to bring an atonement on his behalf because he ‘diminished the moon’.

The Gemara brings proves that although “something that is only known to God” can include a large array of transgressions, the verse refers specifically “awareness of impurity”

Holiday atonement
Nuance in the verse.

R”Shimon’s source:

Monthly Atonement

By comparing the monthly atonement to High Priest’s coronet.

Although there is a shared term between the coronet of the High Priest and the monthly atonement, it is proven through nuance in the verse that they each atone exclusively fro their respective situations of impure meat.

Daf 10

Holiday atonement
Through nuance in the verse R”Shimon shows that the holiday atonement atones for matters of impurity/holiness. He learns that it atones specifically for when there is no post nor prior knowledge through process of elimination.

The source for R”Meir’s ruling is debated.

The sustained source is a verse that explicitly equates the sacrifices for all the ‘appointed times’
“These you are to sacrifice to God at your appointed times”
Numbers (29,39).

The Gemara states that R”M agrees that the ‘inner atonement’ (that atones when there is prior knowledge but before there is post knowledge) is set apart from the other atonements: It does not atone for what they atone, and they do not atone for what it atones.


R”Shimon would say:

Monthly atonement – Atones for a  pure person who eats holy food that has become impure.
Holiday atonement – Atones for a person that had neither prior nor post awareness of their own impurity.
Outer atonement on Yom Kippur – Atones for a person who had post awareness but no prior awareness.

Even if an animal is set aside for a specific sacrifice of the three it may be brought for either of he other two since they all come to atone for impurity in regards to holiness.

R”Shimon ben Yehuda would say in the name of R”Shimon:

Monthly atonement – Atones for a pure person who eats holy food that has become impure.
Holiday atonement – Atones for a person that had neither prior nor post awareness of their own impurity, as well as for a pure person who eats holy food that has become impure

Outer atonement on Yom Kippur – Atones for a person who had post awareness but no prior awareness as well as a person that had neither prior nor post awareness of their own impurity, as well as for a pure person who eats holy food that has become impure.

Even if an animal is set aside for one of the more specific atonements it can be used for a more broad atonement as they all come to atone for impurity in regards to holiness.


The Gemara illustrates the different ways that each of these scholars understand two specific verses, to come to their respective conclusions.

[1] I Samuel 10:22

[2] I Samuel 18:28-30,19:1

[3] I Samuel 13; 15.

[4] I Samuel 15:17

[5] II Chronicles 26:16-21

[6] Leviticus 5:2-13

[7] Hulin, 60b