כ׳ בסיון ה׳תשע״ד (June 18, 2014)

Ta’anit 7a-b: A Simple Vessel

Should we expect that a person who is a Torah scholar should also be a physically attractive person? Rabbi Oshaya says that we should not. He points out that the Torah is compared to three liquids – water, wine and milk (see Yeshayahu 55:1) – all of which are stored best in simple, clay vessels. In fact, the Rambam teaches (Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:9) that we should not expect to find Torah in haughty, self-centered people, but rather among those who are modest and unassuming.

The Gemara tells of the Caesar’s daughter who approached Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananya and asked how his wisdom could be contained in such an ugly vessel (Rabbi Yehoshua was well-known for his unappealing looks). Rabbi Yehoshua pointed out to her that the most expensive wine in the Caesar’s house was kept in pottery – why not in gold and silver vessels? Taking his suggestion seriously, she ordered all of the wine to be transferred to gold and silver, but found that after a short time it had all spoiled.

The Caesar’s daughter was not being mean or frivolous in her question; she was asking why God would choose to “store” the beautiful words of Torah in a container that was ugly. Wouldn’t it be more fitting for the Torah to be kept in a more appropriate storage vessel? In his response to her, Rabbi Yehoshua suggested that she do something that she certainly knew was inappropriate. Nevertheless, since people keep wine in silver cups for a short time at the table, why not keep it there longer? Her experiment showed that wine could be kept for a short time in a gold or silver cup, but not for a long time. Rabbi Yehoshua hinted that perhaps hearing a short Torah idea from a handsome person is an attractive idea, but that for long-term Torah study, a more simple container is more appropriate.

Wine is not ordinarily stored in gold or silver bottles because of chemicals in wine (and vinegar) that partially dissolve most metals with which they come into contact. Moreover, the makeup of many of these metals includes poisonous materials, so they are not only bad tasting, but potentially dangerous, as well.

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