Sunday, August 19, 2012

Berachot 18b: Rabbi Chiya's sons, forgetting their learning

Consider the following section of aggadeta from Berachot 18b:
בני ר' חייא נפוק לקרייתא אייקר להו תלמודייהו הוו קא מצערי לאדכוריה א"ל חד לחבריה ידע אבון בהאי צערא א"ל אידך מנא ידע והא כתיב (איוב יד, כא) יכבדו בניו ולא ידע א"ל אידך ולא ידע והא כתיב (איוב יד, כב) אך בשרו עליו יכאב ונפשו עליו תאבל ואמר רבי יצחק קשה רמה למת כמחט בבשר החי אמרי בצערא דידהו ידעי בצערא דאחרינא לא ידעי
Or, in English:
The sons of R. Hiyya went out to cultivate their property,6  and they began to forget their learning.7  They tried very hard to recall it. Said one to the other: Does our father know of our trouble? How should he know, replied the other, seeing that it is written, His sons come to honour and he knoweth it not?8  Said the other to him: But does he not know? Is it not written: But his flesh grieveth for him, and his soul mourneth over him?9  And R. Isaac said [commenting on this]: The worm is as painful to the dead as a needle in the flesh of the living? [He replied]: It is explained that they know their own pain, they do not know the pain of others.
The words אייקר להו תלמודייהו mean that their learning became heavy upon them. As Rashi writes:

אייקר תלמודייהו - אשתכח תלמודם מגרסתם אייקר הוכבד עליהם מחמת שכחה:

Indeed, יקר is Aramaic for either heavy or precious. Gravity, dignity, weighty, burdensome. So too in Biblical Hebrew.

If so, perhaps we can understand the particulars of the derasha. In Iyov 14:21-22:
כ  תִּתְקְפֵהוּ לָנֶצַח, וַיַּהֲלֹךְ;    מְשַׁנֶּה פָנָיו, וַתְּשַׁלְּחֵהוּ.20 Thou prevailest for ever against him, and he passeth; Thou changest his countenance, and sendest him away.
כא  יִכְבְּדוּ בָנָיו, וְלֹא יֵדָע;    וְיִצְעֲרוּ, וְלֹא-יָבִין לָמוֹ.21 His sons come to honour, and he knoweth it not; and they are brought low, but he regardeth them not.
כב  אַךְ-בְּשָׂרוֹ, עָלָיו יִכְאָב;    וְנַפְשׁוֹ, עָלָיו תֶּאֱבָל.22 But his flesh grieveth for him, and his soul mourneth over him.

Firstly, why is the first part of the pasuk cited, that יִכְבְּדוּ בָנָיו, וְלֹא יֵדָע? The point is to show that Rabbi Chiya, or any deceased person, is unaware of the suffering of his children. If so, the latter half of the pasuk, וְיִצְעֲרוּ, וְלֹא-יָבִין לָמוֹ, would seem to be a better choice.

We could say the derasha is indeed on the second half of the pasuk, and that the first half was cited because it explicitly references בָנָיו. Or that both halves are intended, to convey that for neither good nor bad does the deceased notice. Or, it is a play on יִכְבְּדוּ. Regarding Rabbi Chiya's sons, אייקר להו תלמודייהו, and so it was fitting to say יִכְבְּדוּ בָנָיו.

Still, that the conclusion of the gemara is בצערא דידהו ידעי בצערא דאחרינא לא ידעי, making use of the word צערא, suggests that indeed the focus is really at least partly on וְיִצְעֲרוּ.

What of the response from the very next pasuk, that אַךְ-בְּשָׂרוֹ, עָלָיו יִכְאָב;    וְנַפְשׁוֹ, עָלָיו תֶּאֱבָל? Even with Rabbi Yitzchak's interpretation, that the deceased are bothered by the pain of the worms in their flesh, what in the world was the hava amina? The explicit peshat context with these two pesukim is to contrast the good and bad of the descendants to the pain, to his own pain and suffering. And Rabbi Yitzchak's derasha does not contradict that context, since the focus is on the deceased's own flesh. If so, the answer that בצערא דידהו ידעי בצערא דאחרינא לא ידעי is obvious! Did Rabbi Chiya's sons forget their learning to such an extent that they would make such an error?!

My guess is that Rabbi Chiya's other son was not intending the derasha of Rabbi Yitzchak, even though the setama degemara saw fit to bring in that famous derasha. Rather, Rabbi Chiyya's son was either taking אַךְ-בְּשָׂרוֹ to refer to his flesh and blood, meaning his sons (which would admittedly still yield a contradiction), or more likely, Rabbi Chiya's son was taking the slightly ambiguous עָלָיו as it is mentioned twice in the pasuk as referring to his son. And the answer of Rabbi Chiya's first son is that this עָלָיו  is self-referential.

(See Rashi, who gives Rabbi Yitzchak's derasha as commentary on that pasuk; and Ibn Ezra, who gives the self-referential explanation as peshat.)

In general, there may be a disconnect between Biblical conceptions of the afterlife and that of Chazal. And this can be solved by reinterpretation or simply by arguing with the Biblical figure. A few pesukim earlier in the same perek in Iyov, Iyov seems to deny resurrection of the dead:
יד  אִם-יָמוּת גֶּבֶר,    הֲיִחְיֶה:
כָּל-יְמֵי צְבָאִי אֲיַחֵל--    עַד-בּוֹא, חֲלִיפָתִי.
14 If a man die, may he live again? {N}
All the days of my service would I wait, till my relief should come--

Indeed, in Bava Batra 16a, Rava takes Iyov to task for a similar pasuk, in Iyov 7:9:
As the cloud is consumed and vanisheth away, so he that goeth down to Sheol shall come up no more.30  Raba said: This shows that Job denied the resurrection of the dead. For he breaketh me with a tempest and multiplieth my wounds without cause.31
Even so, here, they seem to be taking pesukim literally; even as others take contrary positions.

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