World of the Sages: Lessons learned

The Talmud provides us with a number of paradigms when our sages sought to instruct students by vividly leaving an indelible impression.

Educators are always looking for innovative methods to teach their students. How can we effectively convey a message to pupils so that the teaching moment becomes a learning experience rather than a fleeting flash of interest? The Talmud provides us with a number of paradigms when our sages sought to instruct students by vividly leaving an indelible impression. The Mishna proscribes certain additions to the text of the Amida and the Talmud explains what is problematic with these insertions (M. Berachot 5:3; B. Berachot 32b). A supplicant may not repeat the word "modim," saying "We give thanks, we give thanks," for this would appear as if two deities were being addressed. Likewise, the phrase "Your Name shall be remembered for the goodness" may not be added, for this implies that we thank the Almighty for the good things but do not acknowledge God's hand in the bad things that befall us (see M. Berachot 9:8). Similarly it is forbidden for the leader to say: "Your mercy, God, extends to the bird's nest," referring to the requirement to chase the mother bird away before taking her eggs or chicks (Deuteronomy 22:6-7). The Talmud offers two possible problems with such a supplement. First, such an addition intimates that God's mercy extends to birds only. Alternatively, this phrase implies that God's directives are to be followed because they express a mercy, whereas in reality the rules are decrees of the unknowable divine will and as such must be respected (Rashi, 11th century, France). In all three instances the ruling is the same: We silence the supplicant who has added such phrases. The Talmud recounts a related incident where Rabbah and his student Abaye heard a certain prayer leader say: "You, God, have shown mercy on the bird's nest, so may you have compassion and mercy on us." Hearing this Rabbah exclaimed: "How well this sharp Torah scholar knows how to appease his God!" Abaye was shocked: "Didn't we learn in the Mishna that such a supplicant must be silenced? Why did you praise him?" The Talmud explains that Rabbah - who was certainly aware of this ruling - had intended to sharpen Abaye and wanted to see whether his pupil would challenge him. The commentators immediately question Rabbah's approach: This was no time to test Abaye; the supplicant should have been silenced in accordance with the law! While the commentators offer different approaches, perhaps we can suggest that for the sake of the opportunity to teach Abaye, Rabbah was willing to momentarily set aside the rule. Undoubtedly, such a dramatic experience would leave a stronger impression on the mind of a young pupil than a rote-recitation of a legal dictum. Another talmudic tale further illustrates the value of the practical educational experience, perhaps even at the expense of the law (B. Kiddushin 32a). Rav Huna once tore silks in the presence of his son. Ripping the expensive cloth to shreds, Rav Huna said to himself: "Let me see if my son gets angry at me or whether he is able to honor his father and control his fury." The Talmud dissects the scenario, questioning Rav Huna's conduct: Had his son not stood up to the challenge and cursed his father's wanton destruction, Rav Huna would effectively have caused his son to sin. Thus Rav Huna would have violated the biblical prohibition - "Before a blind person you shall not place a stumbling block" (Leviticus 19:14). The Talmud responds: Rav Huna must have waived the honor due to him and thus circumvented any possibility of his son sinning. Nevertheless, continues the Talmud, Rav Huna himself violated the prohibition against destroying useful property (see Deuteronomy 20:19). The Talmud explains that Rav Huna must have torn the garments along the seams. Thus he did not depreciate their value, for they could easily be sewn together. The Talmud objects to this suggestion, though, saying that perhaps the son was not infuriated because his father had rent the silk along the seam. The test would therefore be useless. The passage concludes by explaining that Rav Huna must have staged this test while his son was already upset regarding another issue. In his preoccupation with the other matter, the son would not have noticed that the tear was along the seam. The test was therefore real. While the Talmud presents a complicated scenario to explain why there was no transgression in this act, we may add that Rav Huna appears to be willing to walk a fine line for the sake of creating a challenging situation for his son. Of course we may wonder whether there is a limit to such paradigms. Can any law be temporarily set aside for the sake of a teaching moment? Such a conclusion would be most surprising and is hardly the thrust of these talmudic accounts. Here too we have a talmudic passage that belies the premise that educational experiences should be purchased at all costs (B. Bava Metzia 75a). After the lengthy discussion of the parameters and severity of the prohibition of interest on loans, the Talmud reports a surprising statement: It is permitted for people to lend on interest to their children and other household members, to let them taste the bitterness of paying interest. Indeed interest is generally proscribed, yet here it is allowed for educational purposes. The hope is that the child will feel the distress and the hopelessness of one caught in the net of interest payments and will in the future refrain from engaging in such practices. This proposed education exercise is quickly rejected by the Talmud: Such an experiment is too dangerous, for the child may realize how easy and tempting it is to earn money through interest. Instead of discouraging the youngster from interest, the opposite may result. While there may be room for bending the rules for the sake of educational experiences, there is no license for disregarding the law. Teaching moments are extremely valuable, but need to be purchased with care, lest the lessons learned be not those that we are trying to teach. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.