Ketubot 77

Talmudic brain surgery.

Some pages of Talmud make you feel like you’re stranded in an endless desert, searching in desperation for any feature of interest. Others make you feel like you’re standing at the bottom of a mountain looking at a clear and central point you can appreciate, if not necessarily summit. Today’s daf feels more like driving through a field of flowers packed with so many fascinating colors and shapes you can only briefly glimpse before moving on to the next one. We encounter husbands too smelly to stay married, terrifying brain surgeries, and an angel of death who is, shall we say, a little slow.

We might as well start at the beginning, where the rabbis conclude their discussion of blemished brides and move on to blemished husbands. The rabbis, who assign themselves great power to dissolve marriages, describe a number of situations in which a husband is so physically repulsive that the marriage can — and in some cases must — be ended.

Most of the blemishes involve non-typical bodies or physical repulsion. A woman married to a blind man or a man without hands, for example, is allowed to decide that she wants the marriage to end, even if her husband’s condition was known to her before the wedding. Worse, if a man has a smelly job — if he collects excrement for tanning or smelts copper — divorce is actually forced on the couple, regardless of what the wife wants. Some men, according to the rabbis, basically can’t get married at all.

Among those who are forcibly divorced are those with specific diseases. One of these is a skin ailment called ra’atan, whose symptoms include watery eyes, runny nose and drooling. If you have ra’atan, there is good news: The Talmud has a surgery you can perform to get rid of it, but it isn’t pretty. The first step is to mix up a potion: 

Abaye said: (Take) pila and ladanum, and the ground shell of a nut, and shavings of smoothed hides, and artemisia, and the calyx of a red date palm. And cook them together and bring (the patient) into a marble house.

The concoction is then spread on the patient’s head to soften up the skull. This is followed by opening up the head, locating the insect that the rabbis believed to be the cause of the affliction, and placing a myrtle leaf under each of its feet to pry it off the brain. 

Importantly, the rabbis understood ra’atan to be contagious, and so some rabbis refused to be in the proximity of those infected. Others even refused to eat food made close to the infected person. One rabbi, however, did not avoid ra’atan victims. In fact, he would seek them out and study Torah with them. It is to his story that the Talmud now turns.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi was about to die. Being on good terms with the angel of death, the rabbi asks if he can gaze upon paradise before he is taken away. The angel assents, and even agrees to hand the rabbi his big scary knife during the trip. When they arrive at the garden, the rabbi asks the angel to lift him up to see it all. Yehoshua ben Levi then hops the fence, stealing the knife in the process. Now in a much better negotiating position, the rabbi extracts a promise that death will never return, only returning the knife because God reminds him that:

It is necessary to (kill) created (beings).

Apparently, death learns from its mistakes. When Rabbi Hanina bar Pappa tries to pull the same trick, the angel refuses to hand over the knife, and indeed the rabbi dies as usual. Still, even in death he gets special treatment: After he passes away, a pillar of fire separates him from his mourners.

Bottom line: If you want to avoid ra’atan, you’re going to have to come up with something better. Or, as today’s daf concludes, you could do what the Babylonians do.

Rabbi Hanina said: For what reason are there no people afflicted with ra’atan in Babylonia? Because (the Babylonians) eat beets and drink beer.

Read all of Ketubot 77 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 21st, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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