Pesachim 118

Competitive suffering.

The discussion on today’s page — animated by a mishnah about the 3rd and 4th cups of wine, Grace After Meals, and the recitation of Hallel (a sequence of psalms recited at the Passover meal and on other occasions) — is crammed with amazing midrashim (biblical interpretations) on the verses of Hallel. My favorite is probably the one in which Rav Huna teaches that the Israelites rebelled against Moses even as they were crossing the Red Sea. Apparently ten terrifying supernatural plagues plus a split sea wasn’t enough proof of God’s power and intention. So God commanded the fish of the Red Sea to spit the drowned Egyptians back out onto dry land because the Israelites needed to see the corpses of their enemies to be convinced of God’s might and goodness. It’s poignant, bizarre, morbid and an incredible interpretation of key Torah verses. Check it out here.

But I’m going to draw our attention to a different midrash today. On the first side of the page, the rabbis explore the idea, found in Hallel, that God sustains the world. This leads to a meditation on the challenges of feeding oneself and one’s family. This was a tough thing to do in antiquity; people had to scratch their living out of the dirt without the benefit of modern agricultural techniques, and were subject to the whims of weather and other natural disasters. Listen to the rabbis describe how hard it is:

Rabbi Yohanan said: The task of providing a person’s food is twice as difficult as the suffering endured by a woman in childbirth. While, with regard to a woman in childbirth, it is written: “Toiling (be’etzev) you shall bring forth children” (Genesis 3:16), with regard to food, it is written: “In toil (be’itzavon) you shall eat of it, all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:17).

Umm … really? Let me first explain how the midrash works, then we’ll get back to the claim it makes.

Both verses come from the chapter in Genesis in which Adam and Eve are kicked out of the Garden of Eden and given the bad news that life will now be hard. Eve will suffer in childbirth; Adam will suffer to cultivate the land. The Hebrew word used for the pain or toil each will experience is essentially the same, etzev. But, says Rabbi Yohanan, the grammatical form of the word in the verse applied to Adam implies that his pain is greater — twice as great.

It is no secret that the Talmud is male-oriented. But I can’t help but chuckle (or grimace, depending on my mood) at the idea that farming is more painful than childbirth. I’ve never farmed, but I’ve done the latter three times. Even with the support of modern medicine, it’s a doozy — though the results are adorable.

As a modern female reader of Talmud, I find myself often moved by the thoughtful empathy of the rabbis and their emotional depth and vulnerability — traits not always considered “masculine” by our current culture, to its detriment. And I am also sometimes dismayed by their myopia, especially with regard to women. 

Reading this midrash in its full context helps a bit. The rabbis go on to assert that the task of providing food for a family is not only more painful than giving birth but also more difficult than splitting the Red Sea and redeeming a people. They don’t just toil more than women — they toil more than God?

There’s one more surprising turn in this unlikely set of midrashim:

Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya said: A person’s orifices (when he cannot properly relieve himself) are as difficult for him as the day of death and the splitting of the Red Sea, as it is stated: “He who is bent down shall speedily be loosed; and he shall not go down dying into the pit, neither shall his bread fail” (Isaiah 51:14). And afterward it is written: “Who stirs up the sea, that its waves roar” (Isaiah 51:15) (implying a comparison between the first concern and the splitting of the sea).

It turns out that there is one thing even more difficult than childbirth, splitting the Red Sea, redemption and even feeding a family: struggling with a bodily orifice that will not open at the opportune moment. That is like death.

Are they serious? Or have we just been punked? Too bad Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya isn’t here to tell us.

Read all of Pesachim 118 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 19th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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