Yesterday’s daf discussed the lineage of Jews in the heartland of rabbinic Judaism — the land of Israel and the rabbinic centers in Babylonia — and the challenge of preserving and identifying those of pure lineage in these locations. Today’s daf concerns farther-flung places where Jews had been widely intermarried and assimilated and identifies a variety of historical events that disrupted Jewish lineage. For example:
When Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi was dying, he said: There is a place called Homanya in Babylonia, and all its people are the sons of Ammon. There is a place called Masgariya in Babylonia, and all its people are mamzerim. There is a place called Bireka in Babylonia, and there are two brothers there who exchange wives with each other (and their children are therefore mamzerim). There is a place called Birta DeSatya in Babylonia and today they turned away from the Omnipresent. A ditch with fish overflowed, and they went and trapped the fish on Shabbat. Rabbi Ahai, son of Rabbi Yoshiya, excommunicated them, and they all became apostates.
Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi describes several ways in which Jewish lineages have been tainted, including intermarriage with non-Jews, sexual immorality and laxity of Jewish practice. The city called Birta DeStya, literally “the capital of going astray,” is the most full and interesting account: When a fish pond overflowed, bringing the fish to the surface or maybe throwing them over onto the land, the people apparently thought it was acceptable to collect the fish on Shabbat.
However, this was a violation of halakhah, one which led Rabbi Ahai the son of Rabbi Yoshiya to excommunicate them. And the excommunication of the people, in turn, seems to have driven them away from God to become full fledged apostates. This story places responsibility on the rabbis to stem the tide of assimilation, not by strictly enforcing halakhah but rather by being careful not to alienate the Jews in their orbit.
But not all of today’s daf blames the rabbis for the degradation of Jewish lineages. In some cases, the Talmud points to the conquerors of Israel from centuries past, from Assyria to Babylonia to Persia to Rome.
Alongside noting the disruptions to Jewish continuity, the Gemara also seeks to explain how Babylonian lineage retained its integrity with the following story of Nebuchadnezzer, who destroyed the first Temple, and a clever Jewish minister:
The governor of the province of Meishan was the son-in-law of Nebuchadnezzar. He sent a message to his father-in-law: From all those captives you have brought for yourself you have not sent us anyone to stand before us.
Nebuchadnezzar wanted to send him captives from the Jews. Pelatiah, son of Benaiah, said to Nebuchadnezzar: We, who are important, shall stand and serve before you here, and our slaves will go there.
If Nebuchandezzer had sent the Jewish captives to the periphery, even the elite of Judah might have disappeared into Babylonian society. But Pelatiah (a name which means refugee of God), a Jewish minister at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem, flattered Nebuchadnezzer and convinced him to keep the Jewish captives in the capital city. According to the rabbis, it was this twist of history that ultimately enabled the rabbinic community to remain cohesive, observant and of pure lineage.
On today’s daf, there is no single reason Jewish lineage is disrupted. Foreign conquerors threaten Jewish lineage, but so do the behaviors of Jews themselves. What fascinates me about these stories is that the Talmud draws a through-line from the Babylonian exile in the wake of the destruction of the first Temple (6th century BCE) to current communities (nearly a millennium later). Both the despair of being uprooted from the land and the resilience of the exiles makes the Jewish people who they are. And while I find it painful to see the rabbis dismissing certain communities for their sullied lineage or lack of detailed observance, one can understand their obsession with lineage through this lens; lineage becomes a way to preserve the link with the past and a symbol of the survival of the Jewish people despite countless persecutions and exiles.