Cultural History Through the Talmud - Berakhot 8
Then we find a marvelous passage asking if one praises God at a time of “finding,” what has one found. One Rabbi suggests it means finding a wife, but one must ask “Matza or Motze,” code words for a good wife or one “more bitter than death.” Another suggests it means finding death, from a verse in Psalms – one of the 903 varieties (based on the numerical value, or gematria, of the word “findings”), from a violent cough to the gentle “death by a kiss.” A third proposes it means finding a peaceful grave, but the best answer is given by Mar Zutra: one praises God for finding a latrine. That may indeed provide the most satisfying relief!
The other intriguing aspect of this Talmud page is the window it provides on life in Talmudic times, both by direct description and by implication. We read that the rabbis preferred to pray where they studied, and that it was considered better for them to earn a living than to live off of their “fear of God”; i.e. by the charity of the community that would have to support their piety (this has been an issue among non-Orthodox Israelis for many years). They read the Torah in their synagogues in both the Hebrew original and in Aramaic translation, and having someone leave in the middle was problematic but not unheard of.
We also read of the encounters of Talmudic rabbis with other peoples, even foreign women. If one imagined the Talmud’s authors to be isolated from and hostile to their surroundings, it was not so. We see a warning not to sit on the bed of an Aramean woman, or perhaps to marry a female convert to Judaism, indicating that Rabbinic encounters with both Aramean women and female converts to Judaism were real events. And the admiration of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Gamliel of traits of the Medes and Persians, including their modesty and temperance, indicate that even very important rabbis could learn values from the people around them. If they could learn thus, so may we.
We finally return at the end of the page to the Mishnah text that started this whole discussion. We have journeyed from reciting the evening Shema to Persia and back again.
Rabbi Adam Chalom