I am a professor of theology at St. Mary’s University, a small Catholic and Marianist university in San Antonio, where I teach courses in the Hebrew Bible and ancient Judaism. But part of my job is teaching sections of the required introduction to Catholic theology (yes, actually!).
Let’s spend a minute on Catholic theology before we get to today’s daf (I promise it relates). One key element is the concept of original sin. This idea, which first developed in the third and fourth centuries, states that when Adam ate from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, that implanted an “original sin” in his body that was then transmitted to his descendants for all time. According to Catholic teaching, baptism and Jesus are the ways to be cleansed of this sin.
Many of us think that the idea that human beings are innately sinful is foreign to Judaism. So imagine my surprise as I read today’s daf:
Rabbi Yohanan said: When the serpent came upon Eve, he infected her with filth. When Israel stood at Mount Sinai their filth ceased, but gentiles, who did not stand at Mount Sinai, their filth never ceased.
We’ve actually already encountered this tradition before, in Tractate Shabbat. Here in Yevamot, Rabbi Yohanan’s statement is quoted in the context of the story of Yael, the biblical heroine who murders the Caananite army commander Sisera by driving a peg through his head. The rabbis think that Yael seduced Sisera in order to distract and exhaust him, and that this physical act of sex was abhorrent to her because it allowed his “filth” to enter her body. The juxtaposition implies that Rabbi Yohanan believes the serpent implanted Eve with his filth in the same way — and that this act then corrupted all of humankind until the revelation at Sinai.
An initial contamination with filth that then affected the entire human race? That sounds an awful lot like original sin. So what are we to make of this strange theological parallel? Let me offer three possible responses:
Rabbi Yohanan is an individual. Perhaps he is offering an interpretation that does not reflect the rabbinic consensus about human nature.
Perhaps what Rabbi Yohanan is really insisting upon is the transformative nature of the giving of the Torah. God’s gift of the Torah to the Jewish people transformed not only our obligations, or our relationship to God, but the very nature of what it means to be a human being. And according to this interpretation, it isn’t just the performance of mitzvot that is transformative, but the initial transmission of the commandments on Mount Sinai. Just being obligated is transformative, even before we actually start observing God’s commandments.
Rabbi Yohanan is a rabbi who lived in the third century in Roman Palestine. There likely were Christians around debating the nature of sin at the time (fun fact: the eastern Orthodox Christian church doesn’t have a concept of original sin, so the Babylonian rabbis would likely not have known about the idea). In a world with religious competition and interreligious debate, I can imagine Rabbi Yohanan saying – yes, maybe YOU were born sinful, but not us! The Talmud really does contain everything, including all kinds of attempts to explain what makes Jews different from their neighbors.
Read all of Yevamot 103 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 18th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.