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Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse twenty-six

And now… the last and final verse of the Pirke Avot! Drum roll, please:

Ben Hai Hai said, According to the labour is the reward.

Do you remember last week that I said there was a story about Ben Bag Bag’s name? Here it is: Rabbi Yochanan was the child of a father who was ben ger, the son of non-Jews and a mother who was bat ger, the daughter of non-Jews. It is unusual for a married couple to convert, or for two converts to marry, so this Yochanan was notable for a Rabbi who was the son of two converts. Thus he had a nickname: ben Bag Bag, the son of bg-bg, ben-ger and bat-gar. But the bg abbreviation for ben-ger has another connection, as well. It’s— numerology time!

Y’all know about Hebrew numerology? It’s pretty simple, on the face of it: the letters have number values (like the Roman Numerals, but superior in every way), and words have the value of the sum of the letters, and words that have the same value are connected in some way, and words that add up to other words are connected, and so on and so forth. In practice, it can be insanely complicated, and it makes no sense whatsoever as attempts to understand the universe, but you can make certain kinds of alphanumeric puns with it, which is kinda cool. OK, cool is probably not the correct descriptor.

The first nine letters have the values one to nine: aleph is one, bet is two, gimel is three, dalet is four, hay is five, and so forth. The next nine are ten, twenty, thirty and so on, and then the remaining letters are 100, 200, 300 and so on. Pretty simple, yes? So bg or bet gimel is two plus three, or five. And five is hay. Now, what is significant about the letter hay in connection with those who convert to Judaism? Anyone? Anyone? No? OK, who were the first to convert to Judaism, who can tell me that? Abraham, yes, and his wife Sarah. Only… come on, let’s see hands, now. Yes, that’s right, before the conversion, their names were not Abraham and Sarah but Abram and Sara; the Divine renamed them by adding a hay to their names. He, in point fact, gave them five, giving them a hay which is numerically the same as giving them bg. Thus ben Bag Bag is also ben Hay Hay, or ben Five Five, or Ben Abraham and Sarah.

What lesson do we learn from this?

We learn that Jews can be real jerks toward the children of non-Jews, and even to the children of converts. Very clever nickname, there, Hillel.

Yochanan gets the last word, though, and although he doesn’t actually say Genetic Judaism is for shit, I think the implication is pretty clear.


So labor doesn't have the childbirth meaning as well in Hebrew?

What is the word that's translated as labor (or pain, or effort)? It's not avodah. There are so many words that could have been used, there must be lots of ways to analyze the semantic contours of the verse through the words that were not chosen.

I guess what I'm trying to say is don't be done -- you're my continuing ed!

The word is tza'ar, suffering, and is not the word for childbirth, which is yalad. I think tza'ar is a word used in the rabbinic period, not so much in the Scripture itself—it isn't, for instance, used in Gen 3:16. I don't have any connotations to explicate, not that there aren't any, but I don't know Hebrew/Aramaic from that period at all.

I am not done with looking at Scripture in this Tohu Bohu, certainly. I may or may not look at the "sixth chapter" of the Avot, which isn't actually part of the Mishnah at all, but was added later. It seems to more properly be called a baraita of R. Mair, but liturgically a sixth chapter was needed (for the sixth Shabbat between Passover and Shavuous) so it got tacked on to the end. A quick look doesn't inspire me to study it closely at this time.

I'm not sure what Scripture study I will do next. Requests will (as always) be seriously considered.


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