Today’s page of Talmud offers a stark view of aging and death. No niceties or euphemisms obscure the physical ravages that time wreaks on all of us. Many of these are described through midrashic readings of the book of Ecclesiastes. For instance:
On the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble, and the strong men shall bow themselves, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look out the windows shall be dimmed. (Ecclesiastes 12:3)
“On the day when the keepers of the house shall tremble” — this is referring to the flanks and ribs that surround and protect a person’s internal organs.
“And the strong men shall bow themselves” — these are the thighs.
“And the grinders cease” — these are the teeth.
“And those that look out the windows shall be dimmed” — these are the eyes.
The last of these physical deteriorations, the loss of eyesight, is considered in particular detail. Tears, which are a part of everyone’s life, were thought to diminish eyesight. To be more explicit, only certain kinds of tears. Tears shed from smoke, sorrow and strain (specifically in the bathroom) are bad for the eyes; but tears caused by peels of laughter, onions, and medicines are in fact beneficial. In any case, by age 40 (which was quite old in the ancient world), loss of eyesight was considered inevitable.
Old age is not romanticized on today’s page, which describes many other indignities that might assault an aging body, mostly through further interpretations of verses from Ecclesiastes. Perhaps because the Gemara knows just how heavy this material is, we suddenly come to a moment of comic relief in the form of a verbal joust between Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korha, who was bald, and an apostate who was also a eunuch. They rib one another about their various physical inefficiencies:
A certain eunuch said to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korha: How far is it from here to Karhina?
This is not an innocent question, but a jibe. The name of the place, Karhina, recalls both Yehoshua ben Korha’s name and the fact that he is bald (in Hebrew: kere’ah). Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korha doesn’t take it lying down:
He said to him: It is the same as from here to Gozen.
This is also not a geographic answer, but another jibe since the Aramaic word for castration is goza.
The eunuch said to him: A bald buck is sold for four dinar.
He said to him: A castrated goat is sold for eight.
The apostate saw that Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korha was not wearing shoes. He said to him: One who rides on a horse is a king. One who rides on a donkey is a free man. And one who wears shoes is at least a human being…
Now the apostate has taken things up a notch, insulting the rabbi not only for his baldness, but for being unshod — suggesting the lack of shoes makes him somehow barely human. But Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korha has an answer:
He said to him: Eunuch, eunuch, you said to me three things, and now hear three things: The glory of a face is the beard, the joy of the heart is a wife, and “the portion of the Lord is children” (Psalms 127:3); blessed is the Omnipresent who has denied you all of them.
Now what initially appeared to be sophomoric has become downright painful. The exchange ends like this:
He said to him: Does a bald man quarrel?
He said to him: Does a castrated male goat speak words of rebuke?
Perhaps disability, whether minor or more significant, is not so funny after all.