Kiddushin 36

Children of God.

Deuteronomy 14:1–2 states, “You are children of the Lord, your God. You shall not gash yourselves or shave the front of your heads because of the dead. For you are a holy nation to the Lord, your God, and God chose you from among all the nations on the earth to be a special nation.” 

This mitzvah precludes self-mutilation as a mourning practice. In the midst of the rabbis’ discussion of it on today’s daf, the following beraita (Tannaitic source) is quoted:

“You are the children of the Lord, your God”: When you act like children, you are called children, and when you don’t act like children, you are not called children — these are the words of Rabbi Yehudah.

Rabbi Meir says: Either way, you are called children, as it is written, “They are foolish sons,” (Jeremiah 4:22) and it says, “children in whom there is no faithfulness,” (Deuteronomy 32:20) and it says, “a seed of evildoers, children who deal corruptly,” (Isaiah 1:4) and it says, “And it shall come to pass that, instead of what was said to them — You are not my people — it shall be said to them, children of the living God.” (Hosea 2:1)

According to Rabbi Yehudah, if Israel partakes in the idolatrous practices of the nations around them, including self-mutilation, they cease to be called children of God. In other words, they are only called children of God when they follow God’s commands — perhaps particularly when those commands relate to idol worship, as acknowledging other gods would abrogate the relationship God has created with the people of Israel.

Rabbi Meir, on the other hand, thinks the relationship between Israel and God is always undisputed; he quotes four different verses to prove his position. In Jeremiah 4:22, Israel is described as foolish, while in Deuteronomy 32:20, they are unfaithful. In Isaiah 1:4, Israel is described as evil and corrupt. In each verse, Israel’s sins are progressively more serious and yet, Rabbi Meir notes, the people are in all circumstances nonetheless called children of God. Unlike Rabbi Yehudah, he thinks the relationship can withstand the people’s betrayal.

At the same time, each of these verses, in the context in which they appear, offer the possibility of teshuvah, of repentance, that will repair the relationship with God. And each verse also places some of the responsibility on God, as a partner in the relationship. For example, Jeremiah 4:14 declares, “Cleanse your heart of evil, O Jerusalem, in order that you be saved…” while at the same time Jeremiah himself argues that God “misled this people” (4:10). Similar ideas are found in the passages surrounding the verses from Deuteronomy and Isaiah. Just as Israel sins and draws back from the relationship with God, God threatens to draw back from the relationship with His people. But the possibility of repenting, of repairing the relationship, is never foreclosed.

The last of the four verses quoted by Rabbi Meir is Hosea 2:1, and, although this verse, too, appears in the context of a passage listing Israel’s sins, what he chooses to quote are words of comfort: “And the number of children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which shall neither be measured nor counted; and it shall come to pass that, instead of saying to them, ‘You are not my people,’ it shall be said to them, ‘The children of the living God.’” This verse recalls the promise God made to Abraham, at the beginning of the covenantal relationship, that the Israelites would grow to be numerous. Hosea clearly states that the promise will not be forsaken; Israel will always be God’s people, and will always be called children of God. 

For Rabbi Meir to make his case against Rabbi Yehudah, he really only needed one verse. So why didn’t he simply skip the first three — which detail Israel’s sins — and go straight to the comforting verse from Hosea?

I would argue that Rabbi Meir is making an important point with the four verses he has selected: God’s love for Israel is eternal, but it’s not always a primrose path. The relationship involves ups and downs, testing boundaries and repairing mistakes. Repentance, making ourselves better, must be a part of the relationship, as well as a realization that both parties contribute to its success.

Every year, during the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Jews everywhere engage in an individual and communal process of teshuvah, of thinking through how we can improve our relationship with God (and with others). Rabbi Meir reminds us that as we engage in this difficult and sometimes frightening process, we can feel secure in knowing that our relationship with God is ultimately unbreakable, even if it can be bent.

Read all of Kiddushin 36 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 18th, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

Discover More

Kiddushin 22

The ear that hears and the door that witnesses.

Kiddushin 68

The limits of kiddushin.

Kiddushin 61

Double conditional.