Taanit 20

Soft like a reed.

Some Jewish scribes have a custom to never write a sefer Torah with a metal implement because metal is an instrument of war. Rather, a Torah scroll is written with a goose feather quill or a reed because these materials are soft, pliant.

It’s an interesting idea — that the strength of the Torah would come from something so seemingly flimsy. But, as the rabbis remind us on this page, flexibility is a sign of strength. 

Today we encounter a rabbi who studied much Torah, and was puffed up with pride. Walking along the side of a river, he encounters a man. When the man extended pleasantries to him, the rabbi pompously returned:

Worthless (literally: empty) person, how ugly is this man? Are all the people of your city as ugly as you?

Without missing a beat,

The man said to him: I do not know, but you should go and say to the craftsman who made me: How ugly is the vessel you made!

Many of us find it difficult, especially when we are insulted, to find a perfect response. But this man did exactly that, reminding the rabbi that by insulting him, the rabbi was insulting his Creator — God. 

To his credit, the rabbi immediately realizes his error and apologizes. No longer stubborn or prideful and having fully acknowledged the accuracy of the man’s observation, he repents. This is a quality that the townspeople who have witnessed the encounter (and also been insulted) recognize as worthy, and they beseech the man to accept the rabbi’s apology. In another act of bending, the man yields to the townspeople’s request and forgives the rude rabbi. 

There is certainly a lesson here in humility, but the rabbis focus on the quality of flexibility. Because of these two demonstrations of flexibility, the relationship between the rabbi and the man is repaired. The town is not divided by taking one or the other’s side. The community is held together because neither side defensively doubled down on their position. Both chose to be elastic and pliable. Being soft in this way — or soft-hearted, we might say — makes positive change possible. 

Recognizing this teachable moment:

Immediately, Rabbi Elazar, son of Rabbi Shimon, entered the study hall and taught: A person should always be soft like a reed and not be stiff like a cedar, as one who is proud like a cedar is likely to sin. Therefore, due to its gentle qualities, the reed merited that a quill is taken from it to write with it a Torah scroll, tefillin and mezuzahs.

Softies for the win!

Read all of Taanit 20 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 2nd, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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