Sages and Doctors Face-Off: A First Consideration of a Story in the Talmud [Talmud Tuesday]
There is a fascinating text found in the Babylonian Talmud that I wanted to explore a little bit, share some thoughts, and, hopefully, at a later point in time, have researched it to provide a greater sense of it. Here it is (bSanhedrin 75a):
אמר רב יהודה אמר רב מעשה באדם אחד שנתן עיניו באשה אחת והעלה לבו טינא
ובאו ושאלו לרופאים ואמרו אין לו תקנה עד שתבעל
אמרו חכמים ימות ואל תבעל לו
תעמוד לפניו ערומה
ימות ואל תעמוד לפניו ערומה
תספר עמו מאחורי הגדר
ימות ולא תספר עמו מאחורי הגדר
Rav Yehudah said: “Rav said: ‘It occurred with one man who gave his eyes onto one woman and a burning desire ascended upon his heart. They came and they asked the doctors, and they said, “There is no remedy until she is penetrated.”
The sages said, “Rather that he shall die and she shall not be penetrated by him.”
“She should stand in front of him nakedly.”
“He shall die and she shall not stand nakedly in front of him.”
“She should speak with him from behind the fence.”
“He shall die and she shall not speak with him from behind the fence.”‘”
Wow! This text has a lot going on! The first thing I noticed about it was that Rav was being quoted as relating a story. This style is more reminiscent of that found in beraisos than in statements by Rav. Furthermore, we typically see Rav as stating terse halakhic apodictic statements, which this text is certainly not.
I also am not familiar with many stories in the Talmud either of consultations with doctors, nor of “showdowns” between doctors and sages. One piece of inquiry that one ought to do is to find the following:
- How frequently do doctors occur in stories in Rav’s generation?
- How frequently does Rav mention doctors? Also, how does he speak about doctors?
- How frequently does Rav engage in story-telling?
- Are there other Talmudic stories featuring a showdown between sages and doctors?
It is amusingly fascinating that Rav’s portrayal of the story involves the doctors not only being bargained down by the sages, but that the ultimata being issued were even flexible. If so, the story presents the doctors as being either wrong or imprecise: if he could see her naked, for instance, and not die, then their statement about penetrating her being the only way he could live would be wrong. It also shows not only the wisdom of the sages, but also the wrongness of the doctors.
One important piece of the story that we are missing is what happens to the man. Does he die from not even being able to speak to her from behind a fence (and the doctors were finally correct) or did he continue to have this great lustful desire for her, yet live (or, perhaps, yet another possibility: his lustful desire for her gradually subsides and he lives)? This makes us wonder why Rav stops his story where it is. Of course, it’s possible that Rav told the story with the conclusion and what happened to this man, although Rav Yehudah did not transmit the end of the story….
פליגי בה רבי יעקב בר אידי ורבי שמואל בר נחמני חד אמר אשת איש היתה וחד אמר פנויה היתה
Now Rabbi Jacob, son of Idi, and Rabbi Samuel, son of Nahmani, disagreed about it: one said that she was a married woman; the other that she was unmarried.
With no reason provided in the story as to what is problematic for the sages, of course, provides a wide opening for later amoraim to come in and try to figure out what was problematic. They start here: trying to determine if the problem was the woman, herself. The first opinion (she was married) focusses on the woman’s status of being off-limits, of already being claimed for. However, it is unclear what is necessarily problematic for the sages in the story, as is further explored:
בשלמא למאן דאמר אשת איש היתה שפיר אלא למאן דאמר פנויה היתה מאי כולי האי
רב פפא אמר משום פגם משפחה
רב אחא בריה דרב איקא אמר כדי שלא יהו בנות ישראל פרוצות בעריות
Now, this is perfectly understandable for the one who said she was a married woman, but, for the one who says that she was an available lady why all this?
Rav Papa said: “Because of the disgrace to her family.”
Rav Aha, son of Rav Eeka, said: “That the daughters of Israel should not become sexually promiscuous.”
It’s great that these amoraim are not satisfied with the woman already being taken and willing to explore other possibilities. Rav Papa points out how it would negatively affect her family, while Rav Aha, son of Rav Eeka, articulates a broader societal concern. While these opinions make sense regarding the man having sex with her, and maybe possibly perhaps even seeing her nakedly would be a concern for these matters, how would speaking with her behind a fence match up with these concerns?
Did the amoraim did discuss the third ultimatum of the doctors? Either they did or they did not. For the possibility that they did, was it some sort of bizarre slippery slope? That, in the opinion of these two amoraim, by talking with her from behind a fence, it would be problematic to her family or it would somehow be a license to sexual promiscuity amongst Jewish ladies? It’s really hard to agree with that. On the other hand, maybe these two amoraim were only discussing the the first and, perhaps, the second of the two ultimata, but the third did not fit into their reasons and that they were actually stumped as to a possible reason for the third ultimatum.
I don’t yet have an answer as to why the sages in the story might have had an issue with him speaking with her even from behind a fence, however, but I may have one possible angle from which to consider this story: the doctors seem to be advocating for the man (perhaps his physical/mental/physiological needs/welfare/health), while the sages seem to be advocating on behalf of the woman (whether for her physical, mental, and/or social welfare). This position seems an interesting angle, since neither of the two central characters – the man and the woman – speak (or have a voice): it is only the doctors and sages negotiating (or advocating).
- While I think I have laid some interesting approaches to this text, I think there is more to explore. For instance:
- What Is Rav’s attitude towards doctors?
- How many other times does he use מעשה? (This seems like a common occurrence in tannaitic texts, but not so much with Rav’s statements.)
- Also, how have other commentators approached this text (e.g. Medieval commentators, modern, etc.)?
To be continued….