Talmud Tips

For the week ending 23 May 2020 / 29 Iyyar 5780

Shabbat 72-78

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
Library Library Library

Gnat a Mosquito?

Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav, “Whatever Hashem created in this world, not one thing was created without a purpose.

Nothing in Creation is superfluous or “just happens to be there.” And not only does everything have a purpose, its purpose is potentially positive in nature. A number of examples are cited in the gemara, where seemingly purposeless crawling bugs and flying insects have important specific medicinal qualities. And if nowadays we don’t recognize these benefits, it might be best to just admit we don’t fully understand the functioning of the forms of matter and energy that are in existence. “He created the fly (zvuv) for the wasp (tzirah).” Rashi explains: If one is stung by a wasp, a fly is ground up and placed there to heal the wound.

In addition to seemingly useless creatures existing for their medicinal benefits, Chazal also teach us that they may also serve as agents for directly meting out Divine punishment. For example, the mosquito can be unleashed to cause great direct distress — aside from its being a disease carrier acting as host for another organism that spreads contagion.

What is an example of an apparently worthless creature serving as Hashem’s messenger to serve justice in this world? The infamous Titus, an evil ancient Roman leader and warrior, destroyed the Second Beit Hamikdash. He perpetrated his wickedness from his own free will, and added insult to injury by also defiling and blaspheming as he carried out the destruction of the holy Sanctuary in Jerusalem. As depicted in the landmark Arch bearing his name in Rome, he stole a variety of holy contents from the Beit Hamikdash to take back to Rome as “souvenirs.” On the boat to Rome, Hashem called for a giant wave to sink the ship. Titus then defiantly challenged Hashem to a fight!

Hashem's replied with scorn that He would send the tiniest of His creatures to vanquish Titus. When Titus landed, a mosquito (or gnat) entered his nostril, making its way into his brain. It stayed there for seven years, eating away at Titus’ brain and causing him indescribable pain. After his death, his head was cut open, and Rabbi Pinchas ben Aruva was present at the autopsy. He testified that the tiny mosquito had grown into a substantial bird. (Gittin 56b) This true event is a clear example of a seemingly superfluous creature carrying out its Divinely-dictated purpose. (A neurologist in Jerusalem once tried to convince me that this rasha was actually suffering from tinnitus — ringing in the ears due to nerve damage. However, after discussing with him the details mentioned in the gemara in Gittin, I think I managed to convince him otherwise. Or at least he agreed to learn the gemara and reconsider his position.)

Speaking of this Italian landmark, a childhood memory has stayed with me that I would like to share with you. As in many newspapers of that time, in our local Washington DC metro newspaper there was a feature called “Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” It was a cartoon with a message, supposedly true although surprising to learn. One day I recall seeing a drawing of the Arch and a statement to the effect that “No Jew has ever passed under this Arch.” “What!” I thought to myself. “Are Jews not allowed to ever pass through there? Is Rome still so anti-Semitic in the 20th century?” I responded in a manner you might expect from a cynical and incredulous Jewish youth — I asked my Rabbi from Cheder how they could publish such a ridiculous claim. My Rabbi answered that, believe it or not, a ban had been proclaimed by the authorities against Jewish passage through the Arch. I inherently believed him as my Torah teacher, who, with my parents, had taught me virtually everything important in life. Nowadays, in the era of Wikipedia, we find, “At an unknown date, a local ban on Jews walking under the Arch was placed on the monument by Rome's Chief Rabbinate. This was rescinded on the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948, and at a Chanukah event in 1997 the change was made public.”A different Rabbi at the Cheder had heard our discussion and offered a different explanation. He said that he was told that there was a religious rule that any Jew who passes under the Arch of Titus automatically is considered as having “converted out” and is no longer a Jew. This second Rabbi claimed that this was the intent of what I saw in the paper.

(Readers are invited to share their knowledge and opinions with the author — Ohr@Ohr.edu or by filling out a contact form at Ohr.edu.)

· Shabbat 77 b

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