« Hold me back, take away my library card. | Main | Book Report: The Pillowman »

Pirke Avot, chapter four, verse twenty-one

Today’s verse is another one that is, on the face of it, not only straightforward but wrong. Here’s Herbert Danby:

R. Jacob said: This world is like a vestibule before the world to come; prepare thyself in the vestibule that thou mayest enter into the banqueting hall.

Straightforward. The world to come is the real world; this is only the preparation for it.

So the metaphor is from buildings, and particularly from roman buildings: the banqueting hall is a t’rak’leen, the triclinium; the vestibule is a prozdor, the prothuron. My understanding is that the prothuron and the vestibulum were not exactly the same thing, but that the Roman vestibulum more or less took the place of the Greek prothuron, and from an eschatological point of view, I suppose it doesn’t make much difference whether we are just inside the outer doors or in a hallway through the wall. Plus, I should say, ancient architecture? Not my field.

But it turns out that while the Rabbis do use this metaphor to talk about the world to come, with admission to the outer and inner courts and the contempt for those rubes who mistake the waiting room for the throne room, what they really use this house metaphor to discuss is women’s bodies.

Not because they were a bunch of dirty old men, you understand. No, there are a bunch of very important and detailed questions about women and their reproductive systems that require the Rabbis to discuss in some detail the outer and inner chambers thereof. It’s not the only metaphor they use, but it is the primary metaphor, and they differ (according to a small amount of research) from the Greek and Roman physicians in how closely the stick to that metaphor and how far they are willing to extend it.

Of course, there is a more fundamental and all-encompassing idea tying the idea of wife to house; there is a quote in the Talmud (Shabbat 118a) about Rabbi Jose claiming to only ever call his wife bayit, his house. This is in the context of his sexual purity, after he claims to have only had sex with her five times (he had five sons). On the other hand, I came across a claim that a woman’s bayit was slang for what used to be called Down There. And of course the great Yiddish word baleboosteh, which indicates an almost fearful respect for a woman of great competence, dominant personality and force of will comes from the Hebrew for the master of the house, ba’al ha-bayit.

More seriously, there really is a fundamental (and of course patriarchal, restrictive and fortunately outdated) association of woman and house in the Jewish Tradition. This plays out in positive and negative ways, with the woman responsible for shalom ha-bayit, the peace in the house, and the man enjoined to submit for the sake of shalom ha-bayit. While women are not obligated to fulfill the mitzvot that would take them outside the house; they are responsible for the mitzvot that are within the house, which are the most important ones, particularly the preparation for the Shabbat.

The preparation for the Shabbat is also likened to the preparation for the world to come; as we cannot cook or do work on the Shabbat, preparation in advance is absolutely necessary if we are to celebrate with the three meals, or for that matter just dressing to go out to services. Just as Rabbi Jacob says that we must do the adequate preparation here, in the vestibule, so that we may enter the banqueting hall of the world to come, we must do the adequate preparation on Friday, so that our Shabbat will be a banquet and not a fast.

And, of course, one of the mitzvoth of Shabbat is for married couples to have sex. I leave further analysis of the metaphor of preparation and penetration to Gentle Readers as an exercise.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

Post a comment

Please join in. Comments on older posts will be held for moderation. Don't be a jerk. Eat fruit.