Sunday 31 May 2020



How does one define and describe a Talmudic sage?

It’s not so easy because the Talmudic Period spanned about 500 years, two geographical regions (Palestine and Babylonia) and incorporated about one thousand Tanaim (sages from the Mishnaic Period, 10 -220 CE) and Amoraim (Sages from the Gemara Period, 220 - 500 CE).[1]

However, from various Talmudic works dealing specifically with expected codes of ethical behaviour for rabbis, we can certainly get some idea of what the Talmudic man was supposed to be.

In this article, I have again drawn from Rabbi Professor Daniel Sperber, a Talmud professor at Bar Ilan University who has researched the neglected topic of the development and evolution of rabbinical ethics.


Alongside the ubiquitous Talmudic discussion, a secondary literature emerged which detailed the required social and ethical behaviour for rabbis.

Certain external signs were required to distinguish the rabbi from the ordinary population.

Sperber writes:

“His headgear was different; so were his robes, his cleanliness and general comportment, his manner of speech and dress, and so on.”


This information is scattered in a typically haphazard fashion throughout Talmudic literature, particularly in Braitot (parallel texts from the Mishnaic Period which were not considered as authoritative as those which were to form part of the official canon of the Mishna). In the post-Talmudic Period, some ‘mini tractates’ known as ‘Perakim’ or chapters began to emerge. At first these Perakim, such as Perek Talmidei Chachamim, simply collated some of these earlier Braitot - and later, by the time of the Rishonim (1038-1500), these had developed into more comprehensive works and were well incorporated into Halachot Gedolot (from the earlier Gaonic period) and Machzor Vitry by a student of Rashi.


Sperber describes the evolutionary nature of this, now a well-established, genre of rabbinical ethical writings:

 “[E]ach passage evolved, was modified, at time even underwent radical transformation, as it was fitted into its new context. Such analyses are studies not merely in literary history, but also in the ever-changing history of Jewish etiquette and manners, a subject that has elicited scant scholarly attention...”

Sperber discusses the intricate editorial process some of these ethical writings were to undergo:

“The editorial process to which the original [Talmudic][2] sources were subjected in the course of their transitions, first being incorporated into ‘mini tractates’ (peraqim) and then to the more standard-size tractates (massekhtot), and subsequently being assimilated into the medieval genre of ethical literature, is both complex and enlightening.”



What follows is an example of a reworked text found in an ethical manual entitled Derech Eretz Zeira[3]:

“Five are [the rules concerning invitation to a gathering or a meeting]: A person should always know with whom he is standing, with whom he is sitting, with whom he is dining, with whom he is conversing, and with whom he is signing his documents.”

This text is based on an early Tannaic source from Second Temple times (i.e., before 70 CE) entitled Mechilta deKaspa[4], which deals with (two) customs of the Jerusalem aristocracy:

“Such was the conduct of the pure-minded (Neqiyyei ha-da’at) [i.e., the scholarly elite][5] Jerusalem: none of them would go to...a banquet unless he knew who would be there with him, and none of them would sign [a] document...unless he knew who would sign with him.” 

One can see how this original and shorter text (with two customs) was later reworked and expanded upon in Derech Eretz Zeira (to five customs).

Then, in a slightly later text than Mechilta deKaspa, this time from the Talmud[6] we see another version (with three customs):

“Such was the conduct of the pure-minded people in Jerusalem: they would not sign a document unless they knew who would sign with them, neither would they sit in judgement unless they knew who would sit with them, nor would they go in to a banquet unless they knew who would be dining with them.”


Sperber cites a source that explains that these ‘pure-minded’ scholars of Jerusalem would not attend a banquet unless the invitation was extended again on the very day the function was to occur. This was based on an Egyptian custom. After being ‘re-invited’ on the day itself, they would show that they were ‘booked’ for the occasion by dressing up. This way they would not disappoint anyone else who wanted to invite them for another function at the same time. Also, the host would write out the menu on embroidered napkins hanging on his gate so as to ensure the food was acceptable to the guests. The guests could arrive and enter anytime that the napkins were still hanging on the gate.


This group of scholarly elite had some interesting drinking habits as well. They would not drink from the portion of the cup opposite the handle, as most people do, but they drank from close to the handle.[7]


They had another custom too:

“This was the custom of the pure-minded of Jerusalem: when they took the Torah out and returned it, they would walk after it to honor it.”[8]


Since manuscripts were rare and expensive, the scholars would often have to share from the same book. Hence a need was created to ensure that the elite also ‘knew’ the suitability of ‘their book companions’.


Not everyone was happy with this culture of rabbinic elitism that was beginning to emerge. The Talmud[9] records the following statement in the name of Rav:

“The people of Jerusalem were obscene...A man would say to his neighbour; ‘On what did you dine today? On what sort of bread...on what sort of wine...? On a wide couch or a narrow couch. In good company or bad?”

However, this type of criticism was rare and the elitist scholarly culture was allowed to foster. We even see that R. Yehudah haNasi would not open his storehouses to non-scholars during periods of famine. [See Historic Rabbinic Responses to Pestilence.]



Here is another text from Derech Eretz Zeira:[10]

“Four things are not befitting to a scholar: he should not stay out on the road at night; he should not go to the market [while he is][11] reeking of fragrance; he should not be the last to enter the synagogue; and he should not keep company with the ignorant.”


Focusing on the first ethical teaching suggesting that scholars do not stay out on the road at night, we notice that this is dealt with in a number of places in Talmudic literature:


A Beraita teaches that the reason has to do with what it refers to as ‘demons’[12]:

“We should not go out alone at night, not on a Wednesday night nor on Shabbat night, because [the demon] Aggerat daughter of Machlat is aboard with her eighteen [MS Munich, twelve] myriad malevolent angels. And each one of them is permitted to cause harm...

At first they used to roam about every day. However, once upon a time, R. Chanina ben Dosa [fl. ca. 40-80] met up with her, and she said to him: Were it not for the fact that in heaven they proclaim, ‘Beware of Chanina and his Torah [= learning],’ I would surely endanger your life.’

To which R. Chanina ben Dosa replied: ‘If indeed I be well regarded in heaven, I decree that never again may you pass through inhabited areas.’

She said: ‘Please [I beseech you – absent from in MS Munich], leave me some slight freedom [to indulge in my practices].’

So he left her Shabbat night and Wednesday nights.’”[13]

In a similar vein we read in another Talmudic text:

“’[And Jacob was left alone] and there wrestled a man with him until the break of day.’(Gen. 32:24). Said R. Yitzchak [fl. ca. 250-300]: ‘From here [it is that we learn] that a scholar should not go out alone at night.’...

R.Abahu said: From here. ‘And Avraham rose up early in the morning’. (Gen 22:3). [Rashi: ‘And not before morning, and even though he was not alone – how much more so, one who is alone.]”[14]


Sperber shows that the reason for a person not being out alone at night may have some more natural dangers which had to be avoided, such as wild animals. Additionally, there was also the danger of being attacked by highway robbers.

In certain areas in Babylonia, synagogues were built outside ‘in the field’, and people made sure not to return home alone at night (hence certain additions were added to the evening service to accommodate those arriving a little late).

This begs the question as to why - in the face of such well known and common natural dangers of the night - was it necessary to stress that a rabbinic scholar must beware of the demons? The answer is that while all people are equally susceptible to natural dangers it is specifically the rabbinic sage, due to his Torah knowledge, who is most liable to being confronted and attacked by demons.[15]

As Sperber put it:

“[T]he dangers of night on the open road for the scholar were, most probably, those that emanate from malevolent powers, and not merely the natural perils of the dark.”

One could add to this the well known mystical notion that the ‘forces of evil’ are wont to attack the ‘forces of good’.


There is another reason why a scholar should not venture out at night and that has to do with an even more natural form of peril and is more directly related to ethics.

The Talmud states:

“And he [specifically the scholar] should not go out alone at night lest he come under suspicion of improper conduct (mishum chashada).”[16]

Rashi explains that this refers to zenut or unsuitable moral behaviour.

The Talmudic text thus continues to provide one exception to this rule:

“And when do we say this [that a scholar may not go out alone at night]? If he does not have a fixed time [for study], but if his time is fixed, he will be known to go to his appointment [ and not indulge in questionable nightlife].”

- Hence we have a wide array of reasons which were developed according to varying circumstances, as to why scholars should not go out on the road at night.


Sperber does not bring this case but there is another text which is also of interest:

“[Quoting the Beraita]: He may not go out perfumed to the marketplace...R. Yochanan said: [This prohibition only applies] in a place where they are suspected of homosexuality.
Rav Sheshet said: We only said this with regard to [perfume on] his clothing, but with regard to [perfume on] his body [it is permitted]...”[17]


At first the scholarly Talmudic class adopted many of the ethics of pre-destruction Jerusalem aristocracy. Then they adopted some of the exclusive ethics of Egyptian culture and simultaneously appropriated a number of Babylonian societal norms and even beliefs.[18]

As Sperber puts it:

“[W]e clearly have here an example of exclusivist ‘high-society’ etiquette becoming the hallmark of the almost certainly nonaristocratic scholar-rabbi.”

A new form of scholarly aristocracy had now replaced the historically elitist class.

And even within Babylonia itself, different regions had different customs as well as ethical guidelines (as we saw in the examples of preventing suspicions varying from zenut to homosexuality depending on localized trends). All these very different influences, etiquettes and societal systems merged over time into what was to become known as ‘rabbinical ethics’.

What is interesting is that these rabbinical ethics, pertaining to a relatively small scholarly elite, were later to become the standard - almost across the board - for the religious but less scholarly masses who were later to mimic practices and even dress like ‘scholars’.

Thus, fascinatingly, all the particularistic customs of the elitist rabbinical and scholarly class were - in principle and over time - to become the hallmarks for much of the mainstream religious community of the future.

Sperber writes that when these scholarly ethics and practices became ‘democratized’ and more widespread, a new problem had been created:

“Backgrounds are rejected, contexts altered, and the text itself modified accordingly...

 Apparently later writers felt it legitimate to draw upon the stock of ethical maxims, working them into their own particularized context.”

In other words, in an attempt at conformity, standards were eventually adopted which did not take into consideration the local needs and customs (as they had been when they were first innovated).

We have also seen how the original ethical texts developed according to the various beliefs and social tendencies of different cultures and how they were reworked and altered as those influences changed. 

Then, it seems, that at some point all further ethical development froze and henceforth an approach of ‘one size fits all forever’ was universally adopted.

However, the original style of adaptation and transformation of ethical norms was a good thing - as by definition - ethics should always be relevant to specific times and cultures for them to be meaningful (unless of course, they are harmful or against Torah values).

The problem is that today, anyone who wears clothing or appendaged items that visibly show  he or she is a religious Jew or Jewess must remember that they are deemed by the public to be of the ‘scholarly religious class.’ Hence a de facto set of ethics is expected of them whether they are aware of it or not.

All Jews who are ‘scholars’ - or at least perceived by the general public to be so because they stand out by their dress and behaviour - automatically and immediately represent the religious community. 

They need to be aware that in essence, ethics are relative not just to them but also to the culture in which they find themselves. And when it comes to ethics, that outside culture - as we have seen - is in many ways is the final arbiter of what constitutes ethical behaviour.

For Torah ethics to be effective, all people who are seen to represent Judaism need to remember that they are not the only ones defining the societal parameters of acceptable ethical behaviour.

In the final analysis, ethical behaviour or Kidush haShem - whether we agree or not - is not only defined by us; but is the unwritten language, common denominator, partnership and contract between all human beings.

[1] Of that 1000, about 120 were Tanaim.
[2] Parenthesis mine.
[3] Derech Eretz Zeira, 5:2.  Derech Eretz Zeira is a small Talmudic tractate embedded within Derech Eretz Zutra. It deals with the norms of rabbinic etiquette.
[4] Mechilta deKaspa, Mishpatim.
[5] Parenthesis mine.
[6] Sanhedrin 23a. This text is quoting a Braita.
[7] Chagiga 3:1.
[8] Masechet Soferim 14:11.
[9] Shabbat 62b.
[10] Derech Eretz Zeira, 6:1.
[11] Parenthesis mine.
[12] Although the reference to evil spirits and demons is common particularly in the Babylonian Talmud (as was demonology popular in Zoroastrian Babylonia; see here and here and here) Rambam and other rationalists did not believe demons were a Jewish idea.
[13] Pesachim 112b. (I have used a more readable and modern English in all Talmudic excerpts and other quotations.)
[14] Chulin 91a.
[15] We see this in the reference to Chulin above the scholar is specified as the one to avoid the dangers of demons at night.
[16] Berachot 43b.
[17] Ibid.
[18] See note 12 for links to Babylonian influences on the Babylonian Talmud.

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