Taanit 22

Secret identities.

Dangerous deceptions, dramatic disguises, daring deeds — today’s daf has it all.

Our story of secret identities is set in Bei Lefet, a city in the Sasanian province of Khuzistan. The Gemara opens with an air of legend and romance, telling us that Rabbi Beroka Hoza’a and Elijah the prophet himself would regularly hang out together in the city market. As so often happens when friends get together, their conversation would turn to discussing the people around them. Rabbi Berkokah said to Elijah:

Is there anyone in this market worthy of the World to Come?

He (Elijah) said to him: No.

In the meantime, he saw a man wearing black shoes, and who did not place the sky-blue thread on his tzizit. Elijah said to Rabbi Beroka: That man is worthy of the World to Come.

We learn from this story that apparently Jewish men did not usually wear black shoes and included a blue thread in their tzitzit. This man is not dressed as a Jew and yet, of all the people bustling around in the marketplace, he is identified as the only one worthy of the World to Come. Rabbi Beroka, full of questions, ran after the man to ask his occupation. But the man responded, “Go away, but come back tomorrow.”

The next day, Rabbi Beroka met the man in the market and got some answers from the mysterious figure in black shoes:

I am a prison guard, and I imprison the men separately and the women separately, and I place my bed between them so that they will not come to transgression. When I see a Jewish woman upon whom gentiles have set their eyes, I risk my life to save her. One day, there was a betrothed young woman among us, upon whom the gentiles had set their eyes. I took dregs of red wine and threw them on the lower part, and I said: She is menstruating.

The man tells us that he works for the Sasanian government in the prison system, but tries to ensure that those who are imprisoned are able to live in as much safety and dignity as possible. The text doesn’t tell us why these people are imprisoned, or whether they are guilty of a crime. What matters to our storytellers is that the guard is sensitive to the vulnerability to sexual assault of those who are imprisoned.

The Sasanian government was Zoroastrian, and like rabbinic Judaism, Zoroastrianism has numerous rules regulating purity, menstruation and physical intimacy. Here the guard uses a common taboo to the Jewish woman’s advantage, feigning menstruation to keep her attackers at bay.

If he’s so dedicated to the Jewish people, then, why is he dressed in a decidedly non-Jewish way? The man goes on to explain the power of his disguise:

I come and go among gentiles, I dress this way so that they will not know that I am a Jew. When they issue a decree, I inform the sages, and they pray for mercy and annul the decree.

He keeps his Jewishness a secret so that he can be best positioned to learn about the government’s rulings and attitudes. Though he isn’t himself a rabbi, he recognizes the rabbis’ profound relationship with God and uses them to intercede and save the Jewish people.

He is also well-versed in the art of triage. Rabbi Berokah asks him why he was in such a rush the day before and was unable to talk. The man replies:

At that moment, they issued a decree, and I said: First I must go and inform the sages, so that they will pray for mercy over this matter.

This Jew, dressed as a gentile, looks out for his whole community — from the rabbis to the general populace to those who have been imprisoned. 

There’s a common saying: “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.” Today’s daf is a good reminder that something that looks like a duck might actually not be a duck! Sometimes a Sasanian prison guard is actually a heroic Jew in disguise. And sometimes a person who is rushing through the marketplace is actually worthy of the World to Come.

Read all of Taanit 22 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on December 4th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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