At the wedding feast of Mar the son of Ravina, the sages present turned to Rav Hamnuna Zuti and requested: "Let master sing for us." Most probably to the surprise of those present, who expected a cheery song or jovial ditty, Rav Hamnuna Zuti complied with a mournfully lament: "Woe to us that we are destined to die! Woe to us that we are destined to die!"
The Talmud does not explicitly tell us Rav Hamnuna Zuti's motive for bemoaning impending death at this festive occasion. From the context of the passage, it appears that he perceived an excessively frivolous atmosphere and sought to dampen the spirits of those present.
Why of all subjects did Rav Hamnuna Zuti mention the finality of death? Surely there are other ways to temper levity? Indeed, the Talmud mentions two other wedding tales in which the hosts sought to keep the frivolity of their rabbinic guests in check by breaking expensive glassware, a ploy that worked.
Drawing on other talmudic passages, one commentator offers a creative explanation to Rav Hamnuna Zuti's mournful words (Hida, 17th century, Jerusalem-Leghorn, Italy - in the name of German rabbis): He was faced with a dilemma - what should he sing about at this celebratory occasion?
Elsewhere in the Talmud there is a discussion as to the appropriate lyrics for dancing before the bride (B. Ketubot 16b-17a). According to the school of Shammai, we praise the bride as she is, that is on the basis of her actual virtues, attractiveness or stature. The school of Hillel argues that we always praise the bride, saying that she is beautiful and charming. Hearing this suggestion, the school of Shammai exclaimed: The Torah says distance yourself from falsehood (Exodus 23:7). If the bride is lame or blind do we still say she is beautiful and charming?
Beit Shammai clearly advocated sticking unerringly to the truth, even though this may produce harsh results. Indeed, deviating from the truth is no trifle. The Talmud relates the tale of Rav Tavus, who visited a place called Kushta (B. Sanhedrin 97a). Kushta, in Aramaic, means truth, and appropriately all the inhabitants were meticulously careful never to tell a lie or alter the truth. As a result of this virtue, the people of Kushta did not die before their time.
Rav Tavus married a woman from Kushta, and the couple had two sons. One day Rav Tavus's wife was washing her hair when a neighbor came knocking at the door. Thinking that it was inappropriate to tell the neighbor that his wife was washing, Rav Tavus innocently said: "She is not here." Subsequently the couple's two sons died prematurely.
The people of the town came to him and suspiciously demanded to know what was going on that his sons should die before their time, contrary to the Kushta norm. Rav Tavus told them of the circumstances when he had not spoken truthfully, and the townspeople said to him: "We beg of you, leave our town and do not incite death against the people." Deviating from the truth can carry unsympathetic consequences.
Returning to dirge of death: Had Rav Hamnuna Zuti sung the unbridled praises of the bride, digressing from the truth in his wedding song, he feared that he would incur death. The solution to this concern appears to be clear: Yet why didn't he sing the truth, as per the ruling of the school of Shammai?
This course, however, was also life-threatening, for ruling like the school of Shammai was a risky venture, as we see from another passage. The Mishna relates a disagreement between the two schools as to the appropriate stance for the recitation of Shema (M. Berachot 1:3). The school of Shammai mandated a reclining posture for the evening Shema and an upright position for the morning Shema. The school of Hillel had no such requirement, holding that people should recite the Shema in the posture of their choice.
The Mishna continues with a testimony from Rabbi Tarfon, who was once walking by the roadside when the time for reading Shema arrived. Seeking to follow the directive of the school of Shammai, he lay down to recite Shema. Rabbi Tarfon concluded his tale: "And I incurred danger from bandits." Rabbi Tarfon's colleagues were quick to respond: "You deserved to come to harm for you did not act in accordance with the rule of the school of Hillel!"
Building on this account (B. Berachot 11a), the Talmud suggests that one who follows the school of Shammai is liable for no less than the death penalty. Does this severe punishment apply only to the reading of Shema or is it a blanket statement regarding any ruling of the school of Shammai? Rav Hamnuna Zuti probably did not want to find out.
Thus either path chosen by Rav Hamnuna Zuti carried the danger of death: Whether he chose to sing the praises of the bride and chance deviating from the truth, or whether he chose to sing only truthful words following the ruling of Beit Shammai and thereby deviating from normative Halacha. Thus he lamented twice: "Woe to us that we are destined to die" - if we sing excessive praises and stray from the truth; "woe to us that we are destined to die" - if we sing precisely and abandon the accepted opinion of the school of Hillel.
"How can we respond after what you have said?" enquired those present at the wedding feast with despondency. What course should they chart in this depressing wedding minefield?
Rav Hamnuna Zuti replied; "Where is the Torah and where are the commandments that can protect us?" Thus evoking the protective qualities of our tradition. Indeed our existence is fraught with challenges: life augurs the eventuality of death and weddings carry the risk of divorce. Each height foreshadows a trough, each zenith a nadir. Rav Hamnuna Zuti suggests that comfort can be sought in the bosom of our tradition which provides a measure of protection against the endless travails of our lives.
The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.