World of the Sages: Mystical Talmud

Some of the sages had mystical encounters with divine media.

talmud book 88 298 (photo credit: )
talmud book 88 298
(photo credit: )
Some of the sages, besides being legal scholars and bearers of our tradition, also had mystical encounters with divine media. Thus Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha - no stranger to mystical experiences (see B. Brachot 7a) - once related that a certain highly stationed angel called Suriel shared three instructions (B. Brachot 51a): First, do not take your shirt in the morning from the hand of the butler when getting dressed. Rather, you should take your shirt personally from where it is prepared. Second, upon arising in the morning you should not let someone who has not washed his own hands wash your hands for netilat yadayim, the ritual washing of the hands. And third, do not return the ispargus cup - that morning drink of cabbage fermented in wine - to the one who proffered it to you. These directives were designed as protection against tachsefit, a group of demons, or against istalganit, a group of angels of harm. These other-worldly factions lie in wait to see when a person will do one of these three things and thus become ensnared in the clutches of these heavenly bands. The Talmud further relates a similar mystical encounter that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi had with the angel of death. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi had previously met and matched the angel of death (see B. Ketubot 77b). This time the angel of death offered Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi three instructions; the first two were identical to those related to Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha. The third directive was not to stand in front of women as they are returning from a funeral. The angel of death explained: "I dance and come before them with my sword in my hand and I have a license to harm." The Talmud offers advice to the unfortunate soul who should chance upon women returning from a funeral with the angel of death merrily in their lead: You should jump four cubits from where you stand; if there is a river you should cross it; if there is another road you should take it; and if there is a wall you should stand behind it until the procession passes. If none of these options are feasible, you should turn away and recite the biblical verse "And God said to Satan: God will denounce you, O Satan" (Zechariah 3:2) - Satan himself being the angel of death (see B. Bava Batra 16a) - until the danger has passed. While these mystical directives appear to be beyond our ken, two of them are nevertheless codified in halachic treatise. Thus one who has not washed his hands should not pour the water for netilat yadayim (Shulhan Aruch OH 4:11), though it may be permissible for him to pass the water to you (Rabbi Avraham Abele Gombiner, 17th century, Poland). Female participation in funerals is also discouraged (Shulhan Aruch YD 359:2). The ispargus directive doesn't appear in the codes, probably because we no longer enjoy this alcoholic beverage each morning. The instruction not to take your shirt from the butler in the morning is also not recorded, yet scholars still attached supreme import to the adherence of this guideline. Thus the Klausenburger Rebbe, Rabbi Yehuda Yekutiel Halberstam (1904-1995), related the following tale of his great-grandfather, the Tzanzer Rebbe, Rabbi Haim Halberstam of Nowy Sacz (1797-1876). Once one of the members of the Tzanzer Rebbe's household hung the rebbe's bekishe, the long silk coat favored by the hassidim, on a high peg so that it wouldn't be trampled underfoot. When the rebbe awoke from a nap, he found his bekishe out of reach. The Tzanzer Rebbe called his attendant, Reb Rafael, and asked for a table and chair that would be aligned against the wall below the bekishe. Reb Rafael hastily did the bidding of his master. When the chair and table were in place, the Tzanzer Rebbe climbed on to the chair and from there on to the table. Alas, the master could still not reach his bekishe. The attendant Reb Rafael offered: "I will get it for you," but the Tzanzer Rebbe adamantly refused. Reb Rafael offered to place the chair on top of the table. The Tzanzer Rebbe, who was already aging, gingerly climbed up on to the chair and reached for the bekishe. Alas, the Tzanzer Rebbe still could not reach the coat. Once again Reb Rafael proposed to get the bekishe for the rebbe, and once again the Tzanzer Rebbe obstinately rejected the offer. Finally Reb Rafael suggested a solution: He - who was a strong man - would climb onto the table and from there on to the chair, and he would lift the Tzanzer Rebbe up so that the master could take the bekishe with his own hands. This proposition was acceptable to the Tzanzer Rebbe who, meticulously following the heavenly directive as communicated by the angels to our sages, did not want to take his bekishe from the hand of an attendant. Commenting on the episode the Klausenburger Rebbe noted the high regard demonstrated by his great-grandfather for the words of our sages: Despite the fact that the Tzanzer Rebbe was elderly and weak, and despite the fact that many would have been honored to hand him his coat, he chose to exert every possible effort to avoid deviating from the angels' directive. The Klausenburger Rebbe added that if a ministering angel felt it worthy to warn Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, and moreover the Talmud went to the trouble of recording the incident - and we might add: and we, as a people, have chosen to preserve this account - we are certainly dealing with a noteworthy matter. The Talmud is generally read as a text which addresses reality as perceived by all. It offers legal instruction and ethical guidelines, both presented as either maxims or as stories. In this passage, another facet of the Talmud is revealed: The Talmud is a text that also preserves supernatural encounters and strategies for dealing with the esoteric world, thus giving us a window into the mystical world of the sages. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.