Today we read the final daf of Ketubot, a tractate that has taken us on a three-month odyssey through the laws of marriage. Perhaps taking its cue from a discussion we read a few days ago, in which the rabbis asserted that a husband or wife can go to extraordinary measures to compel the other to live in the land of Israel, yesterday and today’s pages collect a series of encomiums about the promised land. This may seem a strange way to end a tractate that has been largely engrossed with the ins and (often brutal) outs of marriage, an unexpectedly optimistic and reverent note for a book that could, through its discussion of the myriad conflicts and abuses possible in the context of marriage, inspire a rather cynical view about that venerable institution. But at least the effusiveness, much of it expressed in playful midrash, is refreshing.
The bulk of the rabbis’ accolades for Israel emphasize the fecundity: wheat so plump it yields untold surpluses of flour; vines with grape clusters so large and numerous they are mistaken for cows; peaches the size of soup pots; figs so rich in “honey” that people must wade through ankle-deep streams of it; goats whose milk leaks from their udders unbidden, mixing with the aforementioned date honey, thereby fulfilling the verse that describes Israel as “a land flowing with milk and honey.” Israel is so abundant, the sages assert, that even the rocky territory of Hebron, home to the Cave of Machpelah which Abraham purchased as a family burial plot, is seven times more fertile than the most fertile region of Egypt, an acknowledged breadbasket of antiquity.
As this daf draws to a close, the rabbis do not overtly return to their discussion of marriage. Yet there is something that feels right about ending on this note of fervid love. Ideally, a marriage is also a great love, and partners see one another the way the rabbis describe Israel — dripping with immense riches. Also ideally, such love can help guard against some of the uglier litigious sides of marriage we have been considering for the last 111 pages. And even though the land of Israel was, in this telling, miraculously fertile and therefore not difficult to love, the rabbis knew they could not live in a state of perpetual honeymoon. Therefore, they record what measures their colleagues took to safeguard that love:
Rabbi Abba would kiss the rocks of Akko.
Rabbi Hanina would repair its stumbling blocks.
Rabbi Ammi and Rabbi Asi would stand and pass from a sunny spot to a shady one, and from a shady spot to a sunny one.
Rabbi Hiyya bar Gamda would roll in the dust of the land, as it is stated: For Your servants take pleasure in her stones, and love her dust. (Psalms 102:15)
Israel, for the rabbis, was a prize beyond measure. But that didn’t mean they didn’t need to work on their love for her. Rabbi Abba kissed the craggy rocks of Akko, positioned at the very boundary of the land, actively performing his love even at the periphery. Rabbi Hanina saw the places she was broken and repaired them. Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi didn’t complain when the weather was too hot or cold, they simply sought out more comfortable locations. And Rabbi Hiyya bar Gamda, perhaps the most inventive of them all, forced himself to revel even in the land’s unremarkable dust. Taken together, it’s a recipe for maintaining love for a land that, even if it really is the most fecund the world has ever known, is not without flaws.
Just like a spouse. How many of the wrenching scenarios we just studied could have been avoided if spouses were able to kiss one another’s craggy spots, repair each other’s broken bits, move without resentment out of difficult moments, and appreciate one another’s mundanities?
Our tractate ends by crescendoing to a messianic note. Peaches the size of soup pots and date palms that rain down torrents of fruit notwithstanding, in the future the land will be even more fertile:
Rav Hiyya bar Ashi said that Rav said: In the future all barren trees in the land of Israel will bear fruit, as it is stated: For the tree bears its fruit, the fig tree and the vine yield their strength. (Joel 2:22)
In the end times, there will be no tree in the land of Israel that doesn’t produce fruit. The land will thus come to resemble the original paradise, the Garden of Eden. And just maybe, marriages too will become like Adam and Eve’s in the garden was meant to be — uncomplicated and eternally loving.
Read all of Ketubot 112 on Sefaria.