The Wit and Practicality of the Talmud

By De Toledano, Ralph | Midstream, January 2002 | Go to article overview

The Wit and Practicality of the Talmud


De Toledano, Ralph, Midstream


The yeshiva-bochers have oversold the Talmud. So, by reputation, it is a many-volumed treatise of Godly wisdom, Biblical analysis, religious nit-picking, legal disquisitions, deep mysticism, and a reminder that Heaven is open to all, whatever their religion, if they lead a just life -- a work where only the chachamim can share the insights into Scripture, its meanings, and its consequences. But the Talmud is far more than that. Unlike the Pirkei Avot, the Talmud is also a compendium of observations, advice, and oftentimes ironic or whimsical commentary on daily life and behavior.

"Asparagus," the Talmud tells us, "is good for the heart and the eyes." (Berachot) And: "In nature there are no rectangles." (Nedarim) Continuing on the nutritionist line, the Talmud warns us, "It is forbidden to eat raw vegetables before breakfast" (Berachot), a practice that seems to have eluded modern man. Nutritionists agree with the Talmud, which noted before there were fast-food emporia, that "more people die of over-eating than of undernourishment." (Shabbat) But they would disagree that "Food is better for a man until he is forty; after forty drink is better." (Shabbat) On drink, however, the Talmud is ambivalent. Compare "when wine enters, reason departs" with "where there is no wine, drugs are needed." (Bava Batra) Still, drugs must be shunned and "even if you are sick, avoid taking medicine, if you can." (Pesachim)

Of sickness: "Everything is in the hands of heaven except fever and chills" and "every ache -- A except headache." (Shabbat) The American Medical Association, moreover, would applaud this adjuration: "A physician who does not take a fee is not worth a fee." (Bava Kamma) Moderation, however, is the key to health and well-being. "A little is good and much is bad in three things: yeast, salt, and hesitation (Berachot).... A little is good and much is bad in eight things: travel, sex, wealth, work, wine, sleep, hot drinks, and medicine." (Gittin)

The Talmud spends much time in discussing the merits of marriage and raising a family. Yet it lists "four things that cause a man to age prematurely: a fright, anger, children, and a bad wife." (Chayye Sarah) And, it ominously adds: "Every man gets the wife he deserves. (Sotah) ... A shrewish wife is like a skin disease ... Give me all evils -- except a bad wife (Shabbat) ... A woman's weapons are always with her." (Yevamot) Marriage, moreover, is not all honeymoon. "When love is strong, we can lie together on the edge of a sword; but when love fades, a bed sixty feet wide is not wide enough." (Yevamot) And of children the Talmud warns, "A man who gives his property to his children during his lifetime buys himself a master." (Bava Metzia)

"It is pleasant to ascend the pulpit, but hard to step down" (Yalkut Shemoni), the Talmud says in its disquisition on man's vanity. "If one man says you are a donkey, pay him no mind, but if two men say it, buy yourself a saddle." (Bereshit Rabbah) And to make the point even clearer: "Man was created on the sixth day. If he becomes vain, remind him that the flea preceded him in Creation." (Sanhedrin)

The Talmudist must have been thinking of rent control when he wrote: "When prosperity comes to my landlord, I do not share it, but when hard times hit him, I also suffer." (Eichah Rabbah) Of commerce: "Once a tradesman has set a price for his goods, it is wrong for him to raise it if he has a chance." (Kiddushin) Moreover, the Talmud says, "Do not offer to sell pearls to those who deal in onions. …

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