I often chat with a retired doctor neighbour as I walk by his house with my dog. When he mentioned hiking solo on the famously difficult Mantario Trail in southeastern Manitoba, it sounded risky to me. I asked him what safety precautions he was taking. Afterwards, he chided me for being overly motherly and a worrywart. While his response made me feel uncomfortable, maybe it was because he was defensive about a potentially unsafe hike. The defensiveness might be a sign that part of his brain thought I might be right.
I just studied Kiddushin 29, a page of the Babylonian Talmud, while doing Daf Yomi (a page a day of Talmud). It turns out, this scene has played out before. At the time, rabbis had their own yeshivas/schools where others came to learn and a seven-headed demon was in Rav Abaye’s “study hall.” The best advice to avoid a demon, according to the rabbis, was to travel during the day and in pairs. Demons were known to come out at night, but this situation was so dangerous that students were unsafe even during the day.
Now, it happened that Rav Aha bar Yaakov wanted to come study with Abaye, but had nowhere to stay. Instead of helping Rav Aha find a place to sleep, Abaye tells others not to accommodate him. This forces Rav Aha to stay overnight at the study hall. It’s a set up. There, Rav Aha must battle the demon and vanquish it. Abaye hopes for a miracle to take place.
When Rav Aha is faced with the demon, the text indicates that he prayed. As he prayed, he bowed to shuckle (the movement many Jews make when davening/praying), and each vigorous bow resulted in knocking off one of the demon’s heads. Rav Aha battles the demon with prayer and survives.
This storyline, according to Dr. Sara Ronis’s introduction to the page on My Jewish Learning, fits into a greater literary and historic context. There are many tales of a divine hero combating a demon in Ugarit and ancient Mesopotamia. There are Zoroastrian, Christian and Jewish holy heroes who triumph over demons through prayer.
Rav Aha was a pious and great man who came eagerly to study with Abaye. However, he wasn’t without fault. Just before this story takes place, Kiddushin 29b says that Rav Aha sent his son to study. Alas, his son’s studies weren’t sufficiently “sharp,” so Aha left his son at home to manage the household while Rav Aha went to study instead.
After his confrontation with the demon, Rav Aha says to the others, “If a miracle hadn’t occurred, you would have placed me in danger.” Rav Aha was given no warning about the demon. He had no opportunity to stay elsewhere. Abaye relied on Rav Aha pulling off a miracle to save his study hall and his students.
This is one of the talmudic stories you can “sink your teeth into.” The rabbis appear as flawed people and a product of their time. There were stories about demons floating around the wider community, and people in general worried about demons and how to fight them. In the Jewish community, you see a “pious and learned” person, Rav Aha, who chooses his own study over further opportunity for his son’s education. And Abaye is a famous scholar, but asks others to deny hospitality to a student, and chooses to endanger others.
After my concern over the Mantario Trail hike, I got to wondering. If your friend is about to be in a potentially unsafe situation, do you have an obligation to warn them, to show concern? I believe we do. I still think I have this obligation, even if I’m belittled for it. I think we have the obligation even if some see it as hovering, annoying or overly solicitous.
I think about this a lot. We live in a peaceful urban residential enclave, but it’s not unusual to hear news reports of violent crime just a few blocks away. We have a neighbourhood watch, too. It pays to be cautious to avoid “demons” that might endanger us. It isn’t just a motherly inclination to be street smart. It’s not wrong to let others know if we foresee danger ahead.
Returning to this talmudic story, I’m angry that Abaye doesn’t warn or protect his student, Rav Aha. Abaye had an opportunity to do the right thing and failed in his responsibilities as a teacher. I’m also amazed at Rav Aha’s tact and self-control. After being endangered in this way, I might have made a much bigger fuss.
This time of year, we’ve got a lot to think about in the Jewish world. On Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, we spend time thinking about our behaviours and failings as individuals and in community, the concept of forgiveness and our fate for the coming year. Yet we also look forward to Sukkot, grateful for the harvest, and to celebrating the Torah with joy on Simchat Torah.
Our calendar is complicated. Like the story of Abaye and Aha, we can’t find just a single obvious answer. Maybe this keeps us from getting bored as we repeat the rituals of each Jewish year. Perhaps it helps us sharpen our skills so we can perform miracles, protect and look out for one another, and slay unexpected (proverbial) demons, too.
Joanne Seiff has written regularly for CBC Manitoba and various Jewish publications. She is the author of three books, including From the Outside In: Jewish Post Columns 2015-2016, a collection of essays available for digital download or as a paperback from Amazon. Check her out on Instagram @yrnspinner or at joanneseiff.blogspot.com.