The Talmudic Inverse
In a graphic and disturbing discussion of the crush and aftermath of Beitar, the Babylonian Talmud (Gittin 58a) turns to the destruction of the First Temple, and the gruesome measurements of the quantity of brain material left on the rocks from the smashing of children’s skulls.
אמר רבי אסי: ארבעה קבין מוח נמצאו על אבן אחת. עולא אמר: תשעת קבין. אמר רב כהנא, ואיתימא שילא בר מרי:
Rabbi Asi said: “Four kabin [kav = 1.2 liters in volume] of brain matter were found on one rock.” Ulla said: “Nine kabin.” Rav Kahana [and some say it was Sheila bar Mari] said:
“What is the scriptural source?”
בת בבל השדודה אשרי שישלם לך את גמולך שגמלת לנו. אשרי שיאחז ונפץ את עולליך אל הסלע.
Fair Babylon, you predator, a blessing on him who repays you in kind what you have inflicted on us; a blessing on him who seizes your babies and dashes them against the rocks!
As Maharsha (R. Shmuel Eidels, 1555-1631) points out, the Talmud is deducing what happened to us from the phrase, “repays you in kind.”
ודאי דהאי קרא לא מתפרש אלא בניפוץ עוללים דבני בבל על הסלע אבל מרישא דקרא מפורש שגם הם עשו כן בבני ישראל.
Certainly this verse is referring only to the dashing of the Babylonian babies against rocks, but from the beginning of the verse we can deduce that they did this very thing to the Jewish [babies].
I understand why the sages created such a strange reading, picking up on the extreme phrasing of the verse written in the aftermath of destruction and utter despair. The rabbis, like the Psalmist, needed a language to describe an experience which itself could never be limited by language.
I came to a similar conclusion when, years ago, I spent months studying the eighth perek of Bava Kamma making sure that not one sage understood the Bible’s eye for an eye literally. None of them did, but I came to understand that the statement was phrased this way in the Torah to express equivalence. The starkness of the phrase “eye for an eye” conveys the limitations of money as compensation for something that can never be compensated for, namely the loss of eyesight.
When I read psalm 137:9 or this Talmudic use, I do not think for a moment that it was ever understood literally – that a blessing would befall anyone who seizes babies and dashes them against rocks, or that someone would be counting and measuring the contents of a child’s brain. It is antithetical to everything we believe about the foundations of Judaism and the ethos of religion generally: our emphasis on life, on children, on continuity. Yet it is fascinating that people who give divrei Torah often so mired in derush that their point is incomprehensible, would suddenly revert to literalism when it serves a political agenda.
Thus, although our tradition does include harsh or shocking statements, they are usually meant to give voice to something ineffable, emotional, or intangible, and not to be taken at face value. By privileging interpretation over literalism, our tradition encourages us to live through the Torah and not die through it or promote violence through its teachings. That some fail to see this is a betrayal of thousands of years of scholarship.
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February 28, 2015
November 12, 2020
Dr. Erica Brown is a writer and educator who works as the scholar-in-residence for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and consults with for the Jewish Agency and other Jewish non-profits. Among her books are Happier Endings: A Meditation on Life and Death and Leadership in the Wilderness: Authority and Anxiety in the Book of Numbers.
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