Berakhot 63

Vulnerability enhances holiness.

Much of today’s daf deals with defining boundaries.

The rabbis cycle through a range of debates in the early part of the daf, discussing such matters as the connection between the ancient Temple and the synagogue; the relationship between Torah scholars, their students and the general Jewish populace outside the walls of the academy; and the differences between Judaism as practiced in the land of Israel and the broader Diaspora.

The questions hanging over all these discussions are: What are the boundaries? Who defines them? And are they permeable?

By the end of the daf, the Gemara has moved away from these macro questions of Judaism and community and into the experience of the individual who struggles with their relationship to Torah study — and also with their relationship to themselves.

Rabbi Shmuel bar Naḥmani said: What is the meaning of the verse “If you are foolish in your pursuit of exaltation, and you scheme towards wickedness, you should put your hand on your mouth.” (Proverbs 30:32)? Anyone who is willing to expose his foolishness for the sake of learning, the end game is that he will be exalted. But, if he muzzled himself, a hand for the mouth! He won’t be able to learn.

In biblical context, this verse from Proverbs seems like an exhortation, a command to silence people we don’t want in our community. But the rabbis radically reread the verse, flipping the subject so it’s not a praise-hungry person they are seeking to silence, but a student too ashamed to learn that they want to empower. The verse then becomes an invitation to expose one’s vulnerability in Torah study and not be silenced by shame.

The root of the word for foolish here is N-V-L (נבל) which is related to the word neveilah (נבלה), the term for an animal carcass that was considered impure and forbidden from being brought into the temple. The neveilah’s place was outside the boundaries of the holy. But the vulnerable one, the rabbis teach, should not be considered outside the boundary of the holy — rather, they specifically belong in Torah study, which is the deepest expression of holiness that we have outside of the Temple.

Today’s daf suggests that rather than defiling the learning process, vulnerability enhances its holiness. Whether as teacher or student, the rabbis have tasked us with the sacred responsibility of creating holy Jewish spaces where vulnerability is exalted.

In effect, the rabbis have redefined and expanded the definition of holy space and what (or who) belongs in it. Take a moment now to reflect on your Talmud learning: Have you felt like an outsider? Now imagine that the rabbis are inviting you to be at the center of this process. How might this invitation carry you into the next daf?

Read all of Berakhot 63 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 6, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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