Monday, July 14, 2008

Sotah 46-48 – Theodicy, Elisha learning Talmud, and Complaining to Gd

As always, better to read this with a gemara in front of you.

Some more notes on 46b

The gemara (taking its discussion as a whole) identifies three benefits to escorting another person: (1) Protecting him, (2) Honoring him, (3) Learning Torah from/with him.

In discussing Elisha’s curse of the “young boys” in Melachim I 2, the gemara confronts the problematic scene of a prophet of Gd attacking children over a personal insult. Granted that the gemara (47a) views this as a sin on his part – for which he is punished – the gemara is still troubled by his actions.
In answering the question of מה ראה at the bottom of the page, the gemara offers three explanations of Elisha’s actions – which coincide with three of the answers the sages offer to address the fundamental problem of theodicy: If Gd rewards good behavior and (only) punishes harmful behavior, and Gd is omnipotent and omniscient, then why do apparently bad things happen to apparently good people?
1) Elisha didn’t consciously harm them; it was an automatic result of their insult to the prophet. In the theodicy discussion, this is known as the “natural consequences” view, that harm occurs outside the context of punishment, in the natural order of things.
2) Elisha saw that their parents were guilty of heinous sin. In the bad things/good people discussion, this is known as the “sins of the parents” view, that harm occurs to a family, even to innocent members of the family, because of collective guilt.
3) Elisha saw that they were personally guilty of grave sin. In the bad things/good people discussion, this is the approach of, “They weren’t really such great people in the first place.”
There are, of course, other approaches to the theodicy problem. I just find the parallel interesting.

The gemara mentions that Elisha was involved in “שמנה שרצים,” which I would have taken to mean he was involved in laws of purity related to those eight creepy-crawlies listed in Parshat Shemini. Rashi, though, takes it to mean that Elisha was learning the chapter in Gemara Shabbat entitled שמנה שרצים, which deals with far different matters. I wonder what compels Rashi to take that view.

Ben Dinai, the outlaw mentioned at the bottom of this page, is known to us in the Kinot prayers of Tisha b’Av as well.


The word רוצחנין should, presumably, be רצחנין or רוצחין.

In the punishment for our corruption, the text in our edition has ונולא and Rashi says it refers to the fall of the Jewish monarchy, but the Maharsha has it as ונזלא and explains it refers to the growth of the Roman monarchy.

If our gemara is uncomfortable with the Leviyyim saying the line from Tehillim (as they suffer Roman persecution), “Gd, awaken, why do You sleep,” then why did the sages canonize that line in Tehillim in the first place?
The Maharsha explains that when we have a Beit haMikdash and we are able to live in Israel, we are not entitled to complain. The line in Tehillim was written regarding the period of exile, at which point we are entitled to voice this complaint.

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