I have spent most of my life in two places: Canada — land of maple syrup, hockey and frigid winters that drag on for months; and Texas — land of cowboys, bluebonnets and Tex-Mex. Each country and region has their own stereotypes, the things that are renowned to both outsiders and sometimes insiders.
Today’s daf presents us with a series of regional stereotypes that explain where various characteristics are concentrated in the world known to the rabbis. The tradition starts out touting the glory of the land of Israel:
Ten kav (a measure of volume) of wisdom descended to the world; Eretz Yisrael took nine and all the world one. Ten kav of beauty descended to the world; Jerusalem took nine and all the world in its entirety one.
For the rabbis, the land of Israel was the wisest place in the world (with 90% of the world’s wisdom!) and Jerusalem was its most beautiful. From here, the rabbis turn to their most proximate imperial powers.
Ten kav of wealth descended to the world; Rome took nine and all the rest of the world in its entirety took one. Ten kav of poverty descended to the world; Babylonia took nine and all the rest of the world took one.
Rome was famous for its wealth and Babylonia was famous for its poverty. The Ben Ish Chai suggests that Babylonia was poor in metals, but wealthy in wheat and other kinds of bounty. The Gemara goes on to list other groups and what they got the bulk of. Here are just a few of the ones mentioned:
Ten kav of strength descended to the world; the Persians took nine.
Ten kav of lice descended to the world; Media took nine.
Ten kav of witchcraft descended to the world; Egypt took nine.
Ten kav of licentiousness descended to the world; Arabia took nine.
Ten kav of drunkenness descended to the world; the Kushites took nine.
Some of these stereotypes are positive (wealth, strength), but others are profoundly negative. Some of these stereotypes are rooted in common perceptions in the ancient world. Many people in antiquity associated Egypt with witchcraft, for example. Others may be unique to the rabbis.
Psychologists have noted that stereotyping is a normal part of human cognition “that stems from a basic cognitive need to categorize, simplify, and process the complex world.” Stereotypes, both positive and negative, flatten the complex reality of a particular place or people and are the first step to understanding those around us. But stereotypes also cause harm. Negative stereotypes can affect how we treat each other and the kinds of opportunities that are available to everyone. Positive stereotypes can make us overlook the needs of particular communities. So part of developing a healthy sense of the world is looking beyond the stereotype to see the diversity beneath it.
Today’s daf offers us a picture of what that first step of understanding looked like for the late antique rabbis. But its flatness challenges us to take the next step, to break down the stereotypes in favor of the world in all its complexity.