Tractate Taanit is concerned with the proper spiritual response to droughts and famines. But in times of lack, not everyone is equally afflicted. Those who have adequate provisions might think, “This situation doesn’t touch me.” They might be tempted to go home, close the door, and just look out for themselves.
Today’s daf says otherwise, relating a number of teachings about the importance of solidarity when the community is suffering.
Rav Yehuda said that Rav said: Anyone who (has food for himself but nevertheless) makes himself go hungry in years of famine will be saved from an unusual death, as it is stated: “In famine, He will redeem you from death.” (Job 5:20)
According to this teaching, it is laudatory to make personal sacrifices during difficult times. Moreover, what goes around comes around. Someone who sacrificed for others in the past can expect divine (and maybe human) support when needed.
Reish Lakish takes this idea even further:
Reish Lakish said: It is prohibited for a person to have conjugal relations in years of famine, (so that children not be born during these difficult years). As it is stated: “And to Joseph were born two sons before the year of famine came.” (Genesis 41:50)
Reish Lakish reads the verse from Genesis as suggesting that Joseph and his wife Asenath, despite their position of comfort and privilege, practiced abstinence so as not to bring more children into the world at a precarious time. (The Jewish value of childbearing still stands, though, as the rabbis immediately add that those who have no children can engage in procreation even during a famine.)
The daf continues with other teachings that underscore the severity of separation from the community in times of suffering:
When the Jewish people is immersed in distress, and one of them separates himself (from the community and does not share their suffering), the two ministering angels who accompany a person come and place their hands on his head, and say: This man, so-and-so, who has separated himself from the community, let him not see the consolation of the community.
The dramatic imagery of angels putting their hands on the separator’s head hints that if one isn’t willing to make sacrifices for the greater good, divine punishment may ensue. On a psychological level, this might suggest that one who doesn’t make sacrifices for the community in its hour of need will not be able to truly rejoice with the community when things improve.
But the clearest message of solidarity on today’s daf comes from this beraita:
When the community is immersed in suffering, a person may not say: I will go to my home and I will eat and drink, and peace be upon you, my soul … a person should be distressed together with the community.
The beraita goes on to cite the example of Moses, who during the battle with Amalek after the Exodus from Egypt lifted his hands to miraculously help the Israelites triumph in battle. Eventually that became tiring, so Aaron and Hur got him a rock to sit on and supported his hands. The Talmud wonders: What kind of seat is a rock for one as great as Moses? Couldn’t he have found a pillow or a cushion to sit on?
Rather, Moses said as follows: Since the Jewish people are immersed in suffering, I too will be with them in suffering.
The beraita concludes with a promise that is nearly the opposite of the angel’s curse above: Anyone who is distressed together with the community will merit seeing the consolation of the community.
The message is clear from these various warnings, promises and biblical exemplars: Communal solidarity in tough times is vital. But what if, despite all of this, self-interest prevails and people persist in seeking refuge in their homes? The Talmud imaginatively warns that the very house in which they sought to exclude the suffering of others will come to testify against them on some future day of reckoning.
And lest a person say, who will testify against me (on the Day of Judgment? Our teaching explains that) the stones of a person’s house and the beams of a person’s house will testify against him, as it is stated: “For a stone shall cry out from the wall, and a beam out of the timber shall answer it.” (Habakkuk 2:11).
Solidarity has continued to be an expression of Jewish identity even in modern times. Some contemporary Jewish leaders have universalized this message, quoting today’s daf to emphasize Jewish responsibility to the broader society on issues like racism or social injustice. Is it time for the Talmud’s message of communal responsibility to be extended outward to a more open and interconnected world? And how far should that responsibility go?
Questions like these are part of what make the Talmud not just a historical document, but a living and breathing text.
Read all of Taanit 11 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 23rd, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.