Talmudic pages

Gittin 58

Tefillin and paper clips.

“One death is a tragedy. One million is a statistic.” This quote, often attributed to Joseph Stalin, points to the difficulty of truly grappling with large-scale violence and loss. 

Stalin was talking about how to get people to not care about mass violence. But as people who want to understand our history, a history which includes far too much violence, we must continually come up with ways to try to understand such enormous losses. 

In 1998, a group of middle school students in Whitwell, Tennessee were learning about the Holocaust. They struggled to understand the scale of the murder of six million Jews, and so decided to collect paper clips — one per Jewish victim of the Holocaust — to help visualize it. Thanks to publicity for the project, over the next few years they collected over 24 million paper clips, 11 million of which (representing six million Jews and five million other victims) are now on view in a German railcar housed at the Children’s Holocaust Museum. This project represents one of many attempts to resist the statistics and see each death as a tragedy. 

For the last few pages, we have been discussing the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Today, the rabbis have turned to a different tragedy: the Bar Kochba Revolt. This revolt, staged a few generations after the destruction of the Temple, was a disastrous attempt to take Judea back from the Romans. According to rabbinic literature, Beitar was the last Jewish stronghold in the Bar Kochba Revolt and when it fell, the Romans massacred its residents. On today’s daf, we see the rabbis grapple with the scale of this disaster.

Rabba bar bar Hana says that Rabbi Yohanan says: Forty se’ah of tefillin were found on the heads of those killed in Beitar.

Rabbi Yannai, son of Rabbi Yishmael, says: Three large baskets each holding 40 se’ah.

And it was taught in a beraita: There were 40 large baskets each holding three se’ah

A se’ah is about 7.7 liters. Forty baskets that hold three se’ah each, or three baskets that hold forty se’ah each, hold 924 liters (244 gallons) of tefillin boxes. If each box represents one human life, that’s a stark visual marker of the scale. 

But of course, the baskets of boxes do not represent the total loss of life at Beitar. Because for the rabbis of the Talmud, only adult men were commanded to wear tefillin. Women and children would not have worn tefillin, and so the scale of destruction would have actually been substantially larger. Indeed, elsewhere the rabbis describe in detail the effects of the wars on women and children, who were also massacred that day. There’s more on our daf, and a powerful parallel text from the Jerusalem Talmud (the other Talmud) which offers further detail:

They (the Romans at Beitar) killed them continuously until a horse was immersed in blood up to his nose. The blood was moving rocks of 40 se’ah loads, until the blood colored the sea for four mil (about two miles). If you would say that it was close to the sea, in fact it is 40 mil (20 miles) distant from the sea … It was stated, Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: Five hundred schools were in Beitar, the smallest one for not less than 500 children … they were binding each single (child) into his book and burning him; and of them only (one) remained. (Jerusalem Talmud, Taanit, 4:5)

Stories, paper clips, boxes of tefillin, horses submerged in blood up to their shoulders, seas that are reddened for miles around. When huge numbers of people are killed, we must resist being overwhelmed by the numbers and create ways to reckon with the magnitude of the loss. Sometimes we are wrapped up in the intellectual achievements of the rabbis, the great minds of their generations. Today’s daf reminds us just how human they also were, living with an inherited trauma difficult for the mind to grasp. 

And yet, even in their most profound humanity, the rabbis remain rabbis. Perhaps there was even comfort in employing their usual intellectual patterns of thought. The description of the loss on today’s daf actually contains two different opinions. One rabbi says 40 se’ah of tefillin total were found; the other two traditions insist that it was actually 120 se’ah, though they disagree if they were collected in three large or 40 small baskets. And so the rabbis conclude their discussion of the tefillin by harmonizing the discrepancy:

And these do not disagree: This of the head, this of the arm.

The tefillin box that is placed on the crown of the head contains more scrolls than that wrapped on the arm, so both opinions can both be correct — 40 se’ah of head tefillin would perhaps have an equivalent volume to 120 se’ah of arm tefillin. 

Rabbis are human, and humans are rabbis. And it’s that combination which produced this distinctive and powerful meditation on loss.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 13th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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