If now, with offensive brevity and ecumenical ignorance, we attempt to sketch some phases of this immense Talmud that entered into every cranny of medieval Hebrew life, let us confess that we are but scratching a mountain, and that our external approach condemns us to error.
First, said the rabbis, one must study the Law, written and oral. “Greater is study of Torah than the rebuilding of the Temple.”14 “Every day when a man busies himself with the study of the Law he should say to himself, ‘It is as if this day I received it from Sinai.’”15 No other study is necessary; Greek philosophy, secular science, may be studied only “at that hour which is neither day nor night.”16 Every word of the Hebrew Scriptures is literally the word of God; even the Song of Songs is a hymn inspired by God—to portray allegorically the union of Yahveh with Israel as His chosen bride.*17 Since without the Law there would be moral chaos, the Law must have existed before the creation of the world, “in the bosom or mind of God”; † only its communication to Moses was an event in time. The Talmud, so far as it is halacha, is also God’s eternal word; it is the formulation of laws orally communicated to Moses by God, and by Moses to his successors; and its decrees are as binding as anything in the Scriptures.‡ Some rabbis ranked the Mishna above the Scriptures in authority, as being a later and revised form of the Law.18 Certain rabbinical edicts frankly voided laws of the Pentateuch, or interpreted them into harmlessness.19 During the Middle Ages (476-1492) the Jews of Germany and France studied the Talmud far more than the Scriptures.
The Talmud, like the Bible, takes for granted the existence of an intelligent and omnipotent God. There were occasional skeptics among the Jews, like the learned Elisha ben Abuyah whom the pious Rabbi Meir befriended; but they were apparently a tiny and hardly vocal minority. The Talmud’s God is frankly anthropomorphic: He loves and hates, gets angry,20 laughs,21weeps,22 feels remorse,23 wears phylacteries,24 sits on a throne surrounded by a ministering hierarchy of cherubim and seraphim, and studies the Torah three times a day.25 The rabbis acknowledged that these human attributes were a bit hypothetical; “we borrow terms from His creatures to apply to Him,” they said, “in order to assist the understanding”;26 it was not their fault if the commonalty could think only in pictures. They also represented God as the soul of the universe, invisible, pervasive, vitalizing, at once transcendent and immanent, above the world and yet present in every nook and fragment of it. This universal divine presence, the Shekinah (dwelling), is especially real in sacred places, persons, and things, and in moments of study or prayer. Nevertheless this omnipresent God is one. Of all ideas the most distasteful to Judaism is that of a plurality of gods. The unity of God is passionately reiterated against the polytheism of the pagans and the apparent tritheism of the Christian Trinity; it is proclaimed in the most famous and universal of Jewish prayers, the Shema Yisrael: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one” (Shema Yisrael adonoi elohenu, adonoi ehad).27 No messiah, no prophet, no saint is to have a place beside Him in His temple or worship. The rabbis forbade, except on rare occasions, the utterance of His name, hoping to deter profanity and magic; to avoid the sacred tetragrammaton JHVH they used the word Adonai, Lord, and recommended even for this such substitutions as “The Holy One,” “The Merciful One,” “The Heavens,” and “Our Father which is in heaven.” God can and does work miracles, especially through great rabbis; but these marvels are not to be thought of as infractions of nature’s laws; there are no laws but the will of God.
Everything created has a divine and beneficent purpose. “God created the snail as a cure for the scab, the fly as a cure for the sting of the wasp, and the gnat as a cure for the bite of the serpent, and the serpent as a cure for a sore.”28 Between God and man there is a continuous relation; every step of man’s life is taken in the inescapable sight of God; every deed or thought of man’s day honors or dishonors the divine presence. All men are descended from Adam; nevertheless, “man was first created with a tail like an animal”;29and “up to the generation of Enoch the faces of the people resembled those of monkeys.”30 Man is composed of body and soul; his soul is from God, his body is of the earth. The soul impels him to virtue, the body to sin. Or perhaps his evil impulses come from Satan, and that multitude of malignant spirits which lurks about everywhere.31 Every evil, however, may be ultimately good; without his earthy desires man might neither toil nor breed; “Come,” says a jolly passage, “let us ascribe merit to our ancestors, for if they had not sinned we should not have come into the world.”32
Sin is natural, but its guilt is not inherited. The rabbis accepted the doctrine of the fall of man, but not of original sin or divine atonement. A man suffers only for his own sins. If he suffers more on earth than his sins seem to warrant, that may be because we do not know the full measure of his sins; or such excess of punishment may be a great blessing, as entitling the sufferer to exceptional rewards in heaven; therefore, said Akiba, a man should rejoice in the multitude of his misfortunes.33 As for death, it came into the world through sin; a really sinless person would never die.34 Death is a debt owed by a sinful humanity to the author of all life. A midrash tells a touching story of death and Rabbi Meir:
While Rabbi Meir was holding his weekly discourse on a Sabbath afternoon, his two beloved sons died suddenly at home. Their mother covered them with a sheet, and forbore to mourn on the sacred day. When Rabbi Meir returned after evening services he asked for his sons, whom he had not seen in the synagogue. She asked him to recite the habdalah [a ceremony marking the close of the Sabbath], and gave him his evening meal. Then she said: “I have a question to ask thee. A friend once gave me jewels to keep for him; now he wishes them again; shall I return them?” “Beyond doubt thou must,” said Rabbi Meir. His wife took him by the hand, led him to the bed, and drew back the sheet. Rabbi Meir burst into bitter weeping, and his wife said: “They were entrusted to us for a time; now their Master has taken back His very own.”35
The Hebrew Scriptures had said little of an immortality of reward and punishment; but that idea now played a major role in rabbinical theology. Hell was pictured at Ge Hinnom or Sheol,* and divided like heaven into seven stories, with graduated degrees of torment. Only the most wicked of the circumcised would enter it,36 and even confirmed sinners would not be punished forever. “All who go down to hell shall come up again, except these three: he who commits adultery, he who shames another in public, and he who gives another a bad name.”37 Heaven was called Gan Eden, and was represented as a garden of every physical and spiritual delight; the wine there would be of a vintage preserved from the six days of the creation; perfumes would bless the air; and God Himself would join the saved in a banquet whose supreme joy would be the sight of His face. However, some rabbis confessed that no man can say what lies beyond the grave.38
The Jews thought of salvation in terms of the nation rather than of the individual. Driven across the earth with apparently irrational ruthlessness, they strengthened themselves with the belief that they were still the chosen and favored people of God. He was their father, and a just God; it could not be that He would break covenant with Israel. Was it not to them that He had given those Scriptures which both the Christians and the Moslems accepted and revered? In the depths of their despair they mounted to such compensatory pride that their rabbis, who had exalted them, had to humble them with reproof. Then, as now, they longed for the land of their nation’s birth, and idealized it in loving memory. “He who walks four ells in Palestine is sure of everlasting life,” they said; “he who lives in Palestine is without sin”;39 “even the merest talk of those who dwell in Palestine is Torah.”40 The central part of the daily prayers, the Shemoneh Esreh (“eighteen paragraphs”), included a petition for the coming of the son of David, the Messiah King who would make the Jews a nation again, united, free, worshiping God in their own Temple with the ancient ritual and song.
What distinguished the Jews in this Age of Faith, what kept them one in their scattering, was not theology but ritual, not a creed that Christianity had merely extended and that Islam would substantially adopt, but a ceremonial law of such burdensome complexity that only this proud and high-strung people showed the humility and patience required to obey it. Christianity sought unity through uniform belief, Judaism through uniform ritual. The laws “were given,” said Abba Areca, “only for the purpose of disciplining and refining men by their observance.”41
The ritual was first of all a law of worship. When the synagogue succeeded the Temple, animal sacrifice was replaced by offerings and prayer. But no more in the synagogue than in the Temple was any image of God or man allowed. Every approach to idol worship was shunned; and instrumental music, permitted in the Temple, was forbidden in the synagogue. Here Christianity diverged, Mohammedanism stemmed, from Judaism; the Semites developed a somber piety, the Christians a somber art.
Prayer made every day, almost every hour, a religious experience for the orthodox Jew. Morning prayers were to be said with phylacteries (small cases containing passages from the Scriptures) affixed to the forehead and the arms. No meal was to be eaten without a brief grace before it, and a longer prayer of thanksgiving at its close. But these domestic prayers were not enough; men can be held together only by doing things together; and the rabbis argued, with Oriental hyperbole, that “a man’s prayer is heard by God only when offered in a synagogue.”42 The public liturgy consisted mainly of the Shemoneh Esreh, the Shema Yisrael, readings from the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the Psalms, a homily of Scriptural explanation, the Kaddish (prayers of praise and blessing for the living and the dead), and a concluding benediction. This remains the essential synagogue ritual to the present day.
Far more detailed than these regulations of worship were the rules for cleanliness or ritual purity. Physical hygiene was considered favorable to spiritual health.43 The rabbis forbade living in a city in which there was no bathhouse,44 and gave almost medical instructions for the bath. “If one bathes with hot water, and does not follow it with cold water, it is like iron which is inserted into a furnace and not afterward plunged into cold water”;45 the body, like the iron, must be tempered and steeled. Anointing should follow the bath.46 Hands were to be washed immediately upon rising, before and after each meal, and before ceremonial prayer or any other ritual observance. Corpses, sexual functions, menstruation, childbirth, vermin, pigs, and leprosy (i.e., various skin diseases) were ritually (i.e., by religious law) unclean. Persons touched or affected by any of these were to go to the synagogue and perform a purification ceremonial. A woman was considered unclean (not to be sexually approached) for forty days after bearing a son, eighty days after bearing a daughter.47 In accord with the Biblical injunction (Gen. xvii, 9-14), a boy was to be circumcised on his eighth day. This was represented as a sacrifice to, and a covenant with, Yahveh; but the prevalence of the custom among Egyptians, Ethiopians, Phoenicians, Syrians, and Arabs suggests that it was a hygienic measure indicated in a climate more favorable to sexual precocity and excitability than to cleanliness; and this conclusion is reinforced by the rabbinical command that no Jew should keep beyond twelve months an uncircumcised slave.48
The Talmud occasionally reads like a manual of home medicine rather than a code of religious laws; it had to be an encyclopedia of advice for its people. The Jews of the fourth and fifth centuries, like most Mediterranean peoples, were slipping back into the medical superstitions and makeshifts of the isolated and the poor; and a good deal of this popular and superstitious medicine entered into the Talmud. Nevertheless we find in the Babylonian Gemara excellent descriptions of the esophagus, larynx, trachea, lungs, meninges, and genitals; tumors of the lungs, cirrhosis of the liver, caseous degeneration, and many other diseases are accurately described; the rabbis note that flies and drinking cups may carry infection;49 and hemophilia is recognized as an hereditary ailment making circumcision of the offspring inadvisable. Mingled with these ideas are magical formulas for exorcising demons supposed to cause disease.
The rabbis, like all of us, were experts on diet. Dietary wisdom begins with the teeth. These should never be extracted, no matter how they ache,50 for “if a man chews well with his teeth his feet will find strength.”51 Vegetables and fruits, except the date, are highly recommended. Meat is a luxury, which only the well washed should have.52 The animal is to be killed in such a way as to minimize its pain, and draw the blood out of the meat; to eat flesh with blood is an abomination. Hence the slaughter of animals for food must be left to trained persons, who will also examine the viscera to make sure that the animal is not diseased. Meat and milk, and dishes prepared with them, must not be eaten at the same meal, or even placed near each other in the kitchen.53 The flesh of swine is to be abhorred. Eat no eggs, onions, or garlic that have been left overnight without their shell or peel.54 Eat at stated hours only; “don’t peck all day like hens.”55 “More people die from overeating than from undernourishment.”56 “Up to forty eating is beneficial; after that age, drinking is beneficial.”57 Moderation in drinking is better than total abstinence; wine is often a good medicine,58 and “there is no gladness without it.”59 Pursuing the subject of diet to its end, the rabbis argued that he “who prolongs his stay in a privy lengthens his years,” and recommended a prayer of thanksgiving after every answer to nature’s call.60
They frowned upon asceticism, and counseled their people to enjoy the good things of life where no sin was involved.61 Fasts were obligatory at certain periods and on some holydays; but perhaps here too religion was used as a prod to health. The wisdom of the race bade the Jews keep festival and make feast now and then, despite the overtones of sorrow and longing that sounded even in their joys. “On a festival a man must make glad his wife and household”; if possible he must outfit them with new clothes.62 The Sabbath—greatest of Jewish inventions—was apparently a burden in Talmudic days; the pious Jew was then expected to speak as little as possible, light no fire in his home, and spend hours at the synagogue and in prayer. A long tractate discussed with head-splitting hair-splitting just what might and what might not be done on the Sabbath. But the casuistry of the rabbis was directed to mitigating, rather than increasing, the terrors of piety. Their subtlety devised convincing reasons for doing what one had to do on the day of rest. More-over the good Jew discovered a secret happiness in observing the ancient Sabbath ritual. He began it with a little ceremony of “sanctification” (kid-dush). Surrounded by his family and his guests (for this was a favorite day for entertaining friends), he took a full cup of wine, pronounced a benediction over it, drank, and passed the cup along for guests and wife and children to drink. Then he took bread and blessed it, thanking the God “who bringeth forth bread from the earth,” and passed portions of it to all who shared his table. No fasting or mourning was permitted on the Sabbath.
Many holydays divided the year, and gave new occasions for pious remembrance or grateful rest. Pesach, beginning on the fourteenth of Nisan (April), commemorated through eight days the escape of the Jews from Egypt. In Biblical times it had been called the Feast of Unleavened Bread, because the Jews had fled with the dough of their bread still unleavened; Talmudic times called it Pesach, i.e., Passover, because Yahveh, smiting the firstborn of the Egyptians, “passed over” those houses whose doorposts had been sprinkled, by the Jewish occupants, with the blood of the lamb.63 On the first day of the feast the Jews celebrated the Paschal meal (Seder); each father acted as leader of the service for his gathered family, performed with them a ritual recalling those bitter Mosaic days, and passed on, by questions and answers, their treasured story to the young. At Pentecost, seven weeks after Passover, the feast of Shavuot celebrated the wheat harvest, and the revelation on Mt. Sinai. On the first day of Tishri—the seventh month of theecclesiastical, the first month of the Jewish civil year, corresponding roughly with the autumnal equinox—the Jews celebrated Rosh-ha-Shana, the Feast of the New Year and of the month’s new moon, and blew the ram’s horn (shofar) to commemorate the revealing of the Torah, to call men to repentance, and to anticipate the happy day when such a blast would summon all the Jews of the world to worship their God in jerusalem. From the eve of Rosh-ha-Shana to the tenth day of Tishri were penitential days; on all but the ninth of those days pious Jews fasted and prayed; and on the tenth, Yom-ha-Kippurim, the Day of Atonement, from sunset to sunset, they were not to eat or drink or wear shoes or labor or bathe or indulge in love; all day long they attended services in the synagogue, confessed and mourned their sins and those of their people, even from the worship of the Golden Calf. On the fifteenth day of Tishri came Sukkoth, the Feast of Tabernacles; for seven days the Jews were supposed to live in booths, to commemorate the tents in which, it was said, their ancestors had slept during their forty years’ sojourn in the wilderness. In the Dispersion a literal fulfillment of this old vintage or harvest festival offered difficulties, and the rabbis showed their good will by redefining sukka to mean almost anything that could symbolize a habitation. On the twenty-fifth of the ninth month, Kislev (December), and for seven days thereafter, the festival of Hanukkah, or Dedication, recalled the purification of the Temple by the Maccabees (165 B.C.) after its defilement by Antiochus Epiphanes. And on the fourteenth of Adar (March) the Jews celebrated Purim (“lots”), the deliverance of their people from the wiles of the Persian minister Haman by Esther and Mordecai. Gifts and good wishes were exchanged in a joyful and vinous feast; on that day, said Rab Raba, a man should drink until he could no longer distinguish between “Cursed be Haman!” and “Cursed be Mordecai!”64
We must not think of those Talmudic Jews as dour pessimists, sick with the pangs of despised talents, tossed about by the storms of doctrine, and lost in longing for their ravished fatherland. Amid dispersion and oppression, atonement and poverty, they kept their heads erect, relished the tang and strife of life, the brief beauty of their burdened women, and the abiding splendor of earth and sky. “Every day,” said Rabbi Meir, “a man should utter a hundred benedictions.”65 And another said, for all of us: “To walk even four ells without bowing the head is an offense to Heaven; for is it not written, ‘The whole earth is full of His glory’?”66
3. Ethics of the Talmud
The Talmud is not only an encyclopedia of Jewish history, theology, ritual, medicine, and folklore; it is also a treatise on agriculture, gardens, industry, the professions, commerce,67 finance, taxation, property, slavery, inheritance, theft, legal procedure, and penal law. To do the book justice it would be necessary with polymathic wisdom to survey its judgments in all these fields.
The Talmud is above all a code of ethics, so different from the Christian, and so like the Moslem, that even a running acquaintance with it challenges the view of the Middle Ages as merely the story of medieval Christianity. The three religions agreed in rejecting the practicability of a natural—non religious—morality; most men, they believed, can be persuaded to tolerable behavior only by the fear of God. All three based their moral code on identical conceptions: the all-seeing eye and all-recording hand of God, the divine authorship of the moral code, and the ultimate equalization of virtue with happiness by post-mortem punishments and rewards. In the two Semitic cultures law, as well as ethics, was inseparable from religion; no distinction was admitted between crime and sin, between civil and ecclesiastical law; every discreditable act is an offense against God, a profanation of His presence and Holy Name.
The three religions agreed further on certain elements of morality: the sanctity of the family and the home, the honor due to parents and the old, the loving care of children, and charity to all. No people has surpassed the Jews in the order of beauty of family life. In Judaism, as in Islam, voluntary celibacy or childlessness was a major sin;68 to make a home and a family was a religious mandate,69 the first of the 613 precepts of the Law; “a childless person,” says a midrash,70 “is accounted as dead.” Jew, Christian, and Moslem agreed that the adequate continuance of the group is endangered when the religious command to parentage loses its force. Under certain circumstances, however, the rabbis permitted family limitation, preferably by contraception. “There are three classes of women who should employ an absorbent: a minor, lest pregnancy should prove fatal; a pregnant woman, lest abortion should result; and a nursing mother, lest she become pregnant and prematurely wean the child so that it dies.”71
The Jews, like their contemporaries, were reluctant to have daughters, but rejoiced at the birth of a son; he, not she, could carry on the father’s name, family, and property, and tend his grave; the daughter would marry into another, perhaps a distant, household, and be lost to her parents as soon as her rearing was complete. But once children came, they were cherished without favoritism, and with a wise mixture of discipline and love. “If thou must strike a child,” said one rabbi, “do it with a shoestring”;72 “if one refrains from punishing a child,” says another, “it will end by becoming utterly depraved.”73 Every sacrifice must be made to give the child an education—i.e., to instruct the mind and train the character by a knowledge of “the Law and the Prophets.” “The world is saved,” said a Hebrew proverb, “by the breath of school children”;74 the Shekinah, or divine presence, shines in their faces. The child in turn must honor and protect the parents, under all conditions, to the end.
Charity was an inescapable obligation. “Greater is he who practices charity than” he who performs “all the sacrifices.”75 Some Jews were niggardly, some were miserly, but by and large no other people has ever given as generously as the Jews. The rabbis had to forbid men to give more than a fifth of their property to charity; yet some were found, at their death, to have given half.76 “On Abba Umna’s face there was always a holy peace. He was a surgeon, but would never accept with his hands any payment for his service. He had a box placed in a corner of his consulting room, so that those who were able to pay could deposit what they wished… and those who could not afford to pay would not be shamed.”77 Rab Huna, “when he sat down to a meal, would open the doors and exclaim, ‘Let whoever is in need enter and eat’”78 Chama ben Ilai gave bread to all who sought it, and kept his hand in his purse when he walked abroad, so that none need hesitate to ask.79 But the Talmud reproved conspicous giving, and counseled a modest secrecy: “He who dispenses charity in private is greater than Moses.”80
To the institution of marriage the rabbis addressed all their learning and eloquence; on it and religion rested the whole structure of Jewish life. They did not condemn the sexual appetite, but they feared its force, and labored to control it. Some advised that salt be eaten with bread “to lessen the seminal fluid”;81 others felt that the only recourse against sexual temptation was hard work combined with study of the Torah. If this availed not, “let him go to a place where he is unknown, put on black clothes, and do what his heart desires; but let him not publicly profane the Name.”82 A man should avoid any situation that may excite his passions; he should not talk much with women; and he “should never walk behind a woman along the road, not even his own wife. … A man should walk behind a lion rather than behind a woman.”83 The delightful humor of the rabbis appears again in the story of Reb Kahan. He
was once selling ladies’ baskets when he was exposed to temptation. He pleaded with his tempter to let him off, and promised to return. But instead of returning he went up to the roof of a house and threw himself down. Before he reached the ground Elijah came and caught him, and reproached him with having brought him a distance of 400 miles to save him from self-destruction.84
The rabbis apparently felt that virginity is all right in its place, but that perpetual virginity is arrested development; in their view the supreme perfection of a woman is perfect motherhood, as the supreme virtue of man is perfect fatherhood. Every father was urged to save and provide a dowry for each of his daughters, and a marriage settlement for each son, lest their marriage be unhealthily delayed. Early marriage was recommended—at fourteen for the girl, eighteen for the man. A girl might legally marry at twelve years and six months, a man at thirteen. Postponement of marriage was permitted to students engaged in the study of the Law. Some rabbis argued that a man should get his economic footing before marrying—“A man should first build a house, then plant a vineyard, then marry”85—but this was a minority opinion, and perhaps involved no contradiction if the parents provided the expected financial aid. The youth was advised to choose his mate not for her beauty but for her prospective qualities as a mother.86“Descend a step in choosing a wife, ascend a step in choosing a friend”;87 to marry a woman above one’s rank is to invite contumely.
The Talmud, like the Old Testament and the Koran, allowed polygamy. “A man may marry as many wives as he pleases,” said one rabbi; but another passage in the same tractate limited the number to four; and a third required the husband, when taking a second wife, to give a divorce to the first wife if she should ask for it.88 The institution of the levirate, by which a Jew was required to marry his brother’s widow, presumed polygamy, and was probably due not only to kindly sentiment but also to a desire for a high birth rate in a community which, like all ancient and medieval societies, suffered high mortality. Having allowed such freedom of mating for the man, the rabbis made adultery a capital crime. Some of them agreed with Jesus that “one may commit adultery with the eyes”;89some went further, saying, “Whoever regards even the little finger of a woman hath already sinned in his heart.”90But Rab Areca was more humane: “A man will have a demerit in his record on Judgment Day for everything he beheld with his eyes and declined to enjoy.91
Divorce by mutual consent was allowed. The husband could be divorced only with his consent; the wife without her consent. To divorce an adulterous wife was mandatory, and divorce was recommended where the wife had remained childless ten years after marriage.92 The school of Shammai had allowed the husband to put away his wife only for adultery; the school of Hillel allowed it if the husband found in her “anything unseemly.” Hillel’s view prevailed in the Talmudic period; and Akiba went so far as to say that a husband “may divorce his wife if he finds another woman more beautiful.”93 A man might, without surrendering the marriage settlement, divorce “a woman who transgresses Jewish law, such as going in public with uncovered head, spinning in the street, or conversing with all sorts of men”; or “a loud-voiced woman—i.e., one who talks in her house and her neighbors can hear what she says.”94 Desertion by the husband gave no ground for divorce.95 Some rabbis permitted the wife to ask the court for divorce from a cruel, impotent, or unwilling husband, or one who did not support her properly,96 or was maimed, or stank.97 The rabbis did something to discourage divorce by requiring complex legal formalities, and, in all but a few cases, the forfeiture of both dowry and marriage settlement to the wife. “The very altar sheds tears,” said Rabbi Eleazar, “on him who divorces the wife of his youth.”98
All in all, Talmudic law, like the Mohammedan, was man-made law, and favored the male so strongly as to suggest, in the rabbis, a very terror of woman’s power. Like the Christian Fathers, they blamed her for extinguishing the “Soul of the World” through Eve’s intelligent curiosity. They considered woman “light-minded,”99 and yet admitted in her an instinctive wisdom missing in man.100 They deplored the loquacity of women at great length (“Ten measures of speech descended to the world; women took nine, men one”101); they condemned their addiction to the occult,102 to rouge and kohl.103 They approved of a man spending generously on his wife’s raiment, but wished she would beautify herself for her husband rather than for other men.104 In law, according to one rabbi, “a hundred women are equal to only one witness.”105 Their property rights were as limited in the Talmud as in eighteenth-century England; their earnings, and the income from any property they might own, belonged to their husbands.106 Woman’s place was in the home. In the Utopian “Days of the Messiah,” said a hopeful rabbi, woman “will bear a child every day.”107 “A man who has a bad wife will never see the face of hell.”108 On the other hand no man is so rich, said Akiba, as one who has a wife noted for her good deeds.109“Everything derives from the woman,” says a midrash.110 According to Hebrew proverbs: “All the blessings of a household come through the wife; therefore should her husband honor her… Let men beware of causing women to weep; God counts their tears.”111
In the most delightful part of the Talmud, the little treatise Pirke Aboth, an unknown editor gathered the maxims of the great rabbis of the last two centuries before, and the first two centuries after, Christ. Many of these apothegms praise wisdom, and some define it.
Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? He who learns from every man.… Who is mighty? He who subdues his (evil) inclination.… He that ruleth his spirit is better than he that taketh a city. Who is rich? He who rejoices in his lot…When thou eatest of the labor of thy hands, happy shalt thou be. … Who is honored? He who honors his fellow men.112… Despise not any man, nor anything; for there is no man that has not his hour, and there is nothing that has not its place.113 … All my days I grew up among the sages, and I have found nothing better for a person than silence….114
Rabbi Eleazar used to say: One whose wisdom exceeds his deeds may be compared to a tree whereof the branches are many and the roots few, so that when the winds come it is uprooted and turned upon its face.… But one whose deeds exceed his wisdom may be compared to a tree whereof the branches are few and the roots many, so that even if all the winds in the world blow upon it they move it not from its place.115