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Kiddushin 81

You are fire and I am mere flesh.

We’re in a section of Kiddushin that discusses whether men can be trusted in the unsupervised company of women. The general conclusion is that they cannot and a series of vignettes is brought to illustrate this point. Some are a bit upsetting, but let’s focus on one rabbi who behaves in a comparatively admirable fashion: Rav Amram the Pious.

If you know Rav Amram from elsewhere in the Talmud, this moniker might be a bit surprising. He isn’t a major player, appearing only a handful times across 63 tractates, and he isn’t universally loved, perhaps because his constraining, even oppressive, legal conclusions stand in contrast to those of his colleagues. For example, although Rav permits hops to be sown in a vineyard, Rav Amram administers lashes for such an action. Members of the exilarch’s household mistreat Rav Amram to the point that he becomes ill (according to Rashi, they were exacting retribution for his strict halakhic decisions and the limitations they imposed on others), but Yalta, Rav Nahman’s wife, nurses him back to health. 

Despite his conduct elsewhere, the story on today’s daf perhaps helps explain how he came to be known as Rav Amram the Pious:

Those captive women who were brought to Neharde’a, where they were redeemed, were brought up to the house of Rav Amram the Pious. They removed the ladder from before them to prevent men from climbing up after them to the attic where they were to sleep.

When one of [the women] passed by the entrance to the upper chamber, it was as though a light shone in the aperture due to her great beauty. Out of his desire for her, Rav Amram grabbed a ladder that ten men together could not lift, lifted it on his own and began climbing.

To keep the captive women safe from assault, they are brought to the attic of Rav Amram’s house (which speaks well of him) where the community takes an additional precaution by removing the ladder to prevent anyone from ascending to harass them. Unfortunately, one is so stunning that her beauty literally radiated down from the attic and even Rav Amram was unable to restrain himself. Overcome by passion and adrenaline, he lifts an impossibly heavy ladder and begins ascending. But he doesn’t make it to the top:

When he was halfway up the ladder, he strengthened his legs against the sides of the ladder to stop himself from climbing further, raised his voice, and cried out: “There is a fire in the house of Amram.” Upon hearing this, the sages came and found him in that position. They said to him: “You have embarrassed us, since everyone sees what you had intended to do.” Rav Amram said to them: “It is better that you be shamed in Amram’s house in this world, and not be ashamed of him in the World to Come.”

Rav Amram prevents his own further misconduct by pulling the not-so-proverbial fire alarm to get his colleagues’ attention. They come rushing and are immediately dismayed because it is clear what he was planning to do and he thinks it will reflect badly on all of them. But we have to admire Rav Amram here: He publicly calls himself out for his own behavior, ensuring that he’ll be held accountable for it. He acknowledges how this compromises his colleagues as well, taking full responsibility and explaining that experiencing shame in this world is better than in the World to Come — which presumably would have been the outcome for him and, by extension them, if he’d made it all the way up the ladder.

In the culmination of this dramatic story, Rav Amram confronts his own demons — literally — and tells them who’s boss:

He took an oath that his evil inclination should come out from him, and an apparition similar to a pillar of fire emerged. He said to his evil inclination: “See, as you are fire and I am mere flesh, and yet, I am still superior to you, as I was able to overcome you.”

Perhaps that’s what makes Rav Amram pious: Not his strict interpretations of halakhah, but his ability to master himself, restraining destructive urges. That and his willingness to take the heat for his actions.

While the sages may have understood Rav Amram’s alert to be a false alarm, perhaps he was spot on: There was, indeed, a fire in Rav Amram’s house, the pillar of fire that was his evil inclination, pushing him to assault a woman given sanctuary in his attic. Moreover, in the context of our talmudic argument, if someone of Rav Amram’s stature has such a difficult time holding himself back, it substantiates the rabbis’ conclusion that men in general couldn’t be readily trusted. But that’s no excuse for bad behavior. They place the burden on men to subdue their evil inclination, even if doing so will have other real world consequences.

Read all of Kiddushin 81 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 2nd, 2023. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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