Talmudic pages

Kiddushin 39

When bad things happen to good people.

In a now iconic book, Rabbi Harold Kushner notes that “there is only one question which really matters: why do bad things happen to good people?” And yet, he titled his book with the interrogatory when, not why: When Bad Things Happen to Good People. We all know that tragedy and trauma visit the righteous as well as the wicked, and the rabbis did, too. But how can a good God who seeks to reward righteousness allow such suffering? To many, this is the greatest obstacle to adhering to a religious worldview. And, as we see on today’s daf, it was for one talmudic rabbi in particular as well.

Today’s daf contains the following beraita (early rabbinic teaching of the same era as the Mishnah):

As it is taught that Rabbi Ya’akov says: There is not a single mitzvah written in the Torah whose reward is stated alongside it which is not dependent on the resurrection of the dead.

With regard to honoring one’s father and mother it is written: “That your days may be long, and that it may go well with you” (Deuteronomy 5:16). With regard to the dispatch of the mother bird from the nest it is written: “That it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days.” (Deuteronomy 22:7)

Not all mitzvot in the Torah state rewards for those who follow them, but these two do: Honoring one’s parents will lengthen and improve one’s days and shooing a mother bird away from a nest before collecting the eggs, to protect her from having to witness the destruction of her nascent young, will do the same. But what does Rabbi Ya’akov mean when he says this reward is dependent on the resurrection of the dead? The tragic story that follows gives us a clue as to what he had in mind: 

There was one whose father said to him: “Climb to the top of the building and fetch me chicks.” And he climbed to the top of the building and dispatched the mother bird and took the young, but upon his return he fell and died. Where is the goodness of his days and where is the length of his days? 

A boy fulfills both commandments at once when he honors his father by following his directive to climb up to the top of the building and shoo away a mother bird before gathering her chicks. But almost immediately he falls to his death. How can a child doing not one, but both mitzvot, be denied the promises the Torah attaches to them — a long and good life? 

The rabbis spend the rest of today’s daf trying to figure it out. Their first attempt is exegetical:

Rather, the verse “that it may be well with you” means in the world where all is well, and “that your days may be long” is referring to the world that is entirely long.

In other words, the reward is not promised in this world; only in the World to Come, where time and good things are both in abundance. This is perhaps what Rabbi Ya’akov means when he says these rewards depend on the resurrection of the dead: We know that reward is not doled out in proportion to merit in this world, so the balance sheets must be rectified in the World to Come. This explanation provides some comfort in the face of the heartbreaking (and, in the ancient world, all-too-common) reality of innocent children dying.

On some level, though, this answer must not be completely satisfactory because the Gemara considers another possibility:

But perhaps this incident never occurred?

Perhaps it’s not true? Immediately, the Gemara debunks this wish, stating that Rabbi Ya’akov himself saw something like this occur. And, tragically, all of us can think of similar examples. These things do happen.

The Gemara continues in this vein, suggesting and then discarding various possibilities, including whether the boy was thinking about sinning or contemplating idol worship (God doesn’t punish people for their thoughts). The Gemara also considers that any protection afforded him while going to do a mitzvah expired once he started down the ladder. None of these “solutions” really satisfy.

Indeed, according to the Gemara, this is why the great sage Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya ultimately lost his faith. The Talmud’s most famous apostate, Elisha ben Abuya is not referred to by name but only as Aher, or “Other.” Here is what the Gemara says about his withdrawal from Judaism:

Rav Yosef said: Had Aher interpreted this verse: “That it may go well with you” (Deuteronomy 5:16) homiletically, as referring to the World to Come, as did Rabbi Ya’akov, son of his daughter, he would not have sinned. 

And what caused Aher to sin? There are those who say he saw a case like this. 

Here, the Gemara does something astonishing: It acknowledges that when faced with incomprehensible tragedy, sometimes people — even great sages — give up on God. Rav Yosef’s position is that if only Elisha ben Abuya had understood that the promised “good” is in the World to Come rather than this one, he wouldn’t have lost faith. But the discussion on today’s page also hints that this answer isn’t always satisfactory to us — and wasn’t to all rabbis, either.

Like Rabbi Kushner, the rabbis of the Talmud were keenly aware that bad things happen to good people. The rabbis’ attempts to explain this unfairness echo today in thoughts we might have when faced with undeserved and incomprehensible tragedy: Maybe something caused it; maybe there is a reward in the hereafter; maybe bad things just happen.  

Life includes tragedy, and there are no easy answers. All we can do, Rabbi Kushner writes, “is try to rise beyond the ‘why did it happen’ to begin to ask the question ‘what do I do now?’”

Read all of Kiddushin 39 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 21st, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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