ח׳ בתמוז ה׳תשע״ג (June 16, 2013)

Eiruvin 100a-b: Learning Proper Behavior From the Animal Kingdom

A well-known Talmudic homily appears on today’s daf:

Rabbi Yohanan said: Even if the Torah had not been given, we would nonetheless have learned modesty from the cat, which covers its excrement, and that stealing is objectionable from the ant, which does not take grain from another ant, and forbidden relations from the dove, which is faithful to its partner, and proper relations from the rooster, which first appeases the hen and then mates with it.

As is often the case, this discussion evolved from the “stream-of-consciousness” flow of the Gemara’s dialogue. It opened with Rami bar Abba quoting Rav Asi as forbidding people from walking on grass on Shabbat, based on the passage in Mishlei 19:2, “and he who hastens with his feet, sins.” (The conclusion of the Gemara is that this is permissible, since we rule like Rabbi Shimon that something done unintentionally on Shabbat is permitted.) In the continuation of the Gemara, Rami bar Hama quotes Rav Asi, who interprets this passage metaphorically, as a reference to sexual relations between husband and wife. According to this reading, the passage teaches that a person cannot force his wife to engage “in a mitzva against her will. The Gemara’s reference to sexual relations as a mitzva indicates both the attitude of the Gemara that relations within the framework of marriage is a positive act, and yet it is forbidden for the husband to force his wife to participate, even if his intention is for a mitzva.

From this, the Gemara launches into a discussion of appropriate relationships between husbands and wives in sexual matters, including the admonition to learn from the natural behaviors of the animal kingdom how to conduct oneself in such matters. From the rooster we learn the importance of mating rituals and how thoughtful, generous and loving words and acts should lead up to intimacy.

On a different level, the case of doves is instructive because we find animals that are monogamous. Once the male and female join up, they are loyal to one-another to the extent that, should one of them disappear, the other will not choose another partner for the duration of that season.

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