Temurah 9a ~ Cucumbers, Gourds and the Marshmallow Test

Small Gourds vs Big Gourds, or Cucumbers vs Gourds?

In the middle of a long discussion of the regulations allowing one sacrificial animal to be substituted by another we find this gem:

בוצינא טב מקרא

A small gourd now is better than a large gourd later (Temurah 9a).

Elsewhere Rashi (Ketuvot 83b) explains the meaning of this phrase:

 בוצינא דלעת קטנה קרא דלעת גדולה והאומר לחבירו קח לך דלעת קטנה בגינתי או המתן עד שיגדילו וקח גדולה טוב לו ליקח הקטנה מיד כי לא ידע מה יולד יום

...When a person says to his friend "you may take this small gourd in my garden now or you can wait until it grows larger and then take it" it is better to take the small gourd immediately, because you cannot know what the future may bring.

This is a fairly unremarkable observation, and it finds a similar expression in the adage "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." The meaning is clear: it's better to have a small but certain gain rather than risk a larger one that is less certain (though see here for an interesting alternative origin of the expression). This is Rashi's explanation. But there is another way to explain the phrase (and this is followed by the Koren-Steinsaltz Talmud).  According to Tosafot (Ketuvot 83b)  cited in the name of Rabbenu Tam (d.1171), the proverb means the following:

ומשל הדיוט כך הוא שאדם אוהב הקישות יותר שיהנה בה מהרה ממה שהוא אוהב דלעת ולהמתינה אע"פ שהיא טובה יותר

This common saying means that a person would prefer [fast growing] cucumbers because he can enjoy them sooner, rather than gourds [which grow slowly and] which require waiting, even though they [taste] better. (Tosafot, בוצינא טב מקרא, Ketuvot 83b).

So according to the great Rabbenu Tam, this saying does not address any element of risk. Instead it is addressing the ability to have self-control and to plan for the future.  The larger reward is certain, but is only available if you can wait. In fact, Rabbenu Tam is describing the famous Marshmallow Test.

The Marshmallow Test

The man behind the Marshmallow Test is the psychologist Walter Mischel, who was born in Vienna and fled to the US in 1938. Last September he died at the age of 88. Mischel was the emeritus chair of the Department of Psychology at Columbia University, and as his obituary in The New York Times noted, “his studies of delayed gratification in young children clarified the importance of self-control in human development, and…led to a broad reconsideration of how personality is understood.”

The Marshmallow Test is simple: give kindergarten children an option -one reward now (in the original experiments the children could choose any reward, not just a marshmallow) or two if you can sit and not touch the reward for fifteen minutes. The studies were performed at Stanford between 1968 and 1974 and involved some 550 children.  If you haven't already seen what the test looks like, grab a coffee and watch the video. It's quite wonderful.

There have been dozens and dozens of academic papers written on the Marshmallow test, since Mischel first published his findings in 1969.  But perhaps most surprisingly, the findings of the Marshmallow experiment on pre-schoolers seems to predict the future behaviors of the test subjects when they are adults. Here is Mischel summarizing his findings in his recent book called (predictably enough,) The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control.

What the preschoolers did as they tried to keep waiting, and how they did or didn’t manage to delay gratification, unexpectedly turned out to predict much about their future lives. The more seconds they waited at age four or five, the higher their SAT sores and the better their rated social and cognitive functioning in adolescence. At age 27-32, those who had waited longer during the Marshmallow Test in preschool had a lower body mass index and better sense of self-worth, pursued their goals more effectively, and coped more adaptively with frustration and stress. At midlife, those who could consistently wait (“high delay”), versus those who couldn’t consistently wait (“low delay”), were characterized by distinctively different brain scans in areas linked to addictions and obesity.
— Walter Mischel, The Marshmallow Test 2014, p5.

Wow. That's some test. But before you run out and test your preschool aged children (or grandchildren), remember that according to Tosafot, most people prefer a smaller instant reward to a larger but delayed reward. The classic Marshmallow Test measured how long young children could control their desires for an instant reward, but gives a new insight into  this daf. If you can hold out for slow growing gourds rather than go for the faster growing cucumbers, you might just do very well in later life.

 

Print Friendly and PDF

Arachin 22a ~ The Psychological Impact of Corporal Punishment

ערכין כב, א

הכי אמר רב חסדא מאבימי קולפי טאבי בלעי עלה דהא שמעתא

Rav Chisda said “I was hit a lot by Avimi because of this halacha”

During a rather minor dispute (over how long before the sale of an orphan’s property must public notice be given,) the Babylonian sage Rav Chisda (died ~ 320CE) let slip a painful memory. His teacher Avimi had severely beaten him in a warped attempt to teach him the correct answer. (In case you are wondering, it is thirty consecutive days or sixty days if the announcement is made only on Mondays and Thursdays). Chisda the student was, in a way, lucky. His teacher might have killed him. In the tractate Makkot, a Mishna teaches that a parent or a teacher who kills a child in the process of administering corporal punishment is not liable to any punishment:

מכות ח,א

אבא שאול אומר מה חטבת עצים רשות אף כל רשות יצא האב המכה את בנו והרב הרודה את תלמידו

Abba Shaul taught…[there is no penalty for] a father who killed his son while hitting him or for a teacher who strikes his student…

Cartoon from 1888 depicting J.S.Kerr, an Australian proponent of corporal punishment.

Cartoon from 1888 depicting J.S.Kerr, an Australian proponent of corporal punishment.

Punishing by physical humiliation

In describing the procedure for administering corporal punishment, the Mishnah (Makkot 22b) teaches the following: 

If the criminal soiled himself [because of his fear of being lashed] with his own urine or feces, he is exempt from lashing. Rabbi Yehudah, a man is only exempted if he soils himself with his own excrement; and a woman is exempt even if she only soils herself with urine.

The Talmud makes it clear that in using corporal punishment, the goal is humiliation. That objective may be realized when the criminal is flogged; there the humiliation is the flogging itself. But it may also be realized if the criminal soils himself out of fear, immediately before being flogged.  That too is humiliating, and so no flogging is required. Humiliation is not something we usually associate with the goals of punishment: they are most commonly thought of as 

  1. Deterrence - the threat of punishment will deter people from committing the act.

  2. Retribution - the criminal inflicted harm on others. So we may now inflict harm on him.

  3. Rehabilitation - through punishment (typically, but not only prison,) the criminal learns how to become a better citizen

  4. Incapacitation - the criminal is removed from society, and which is made safer as a result.

  5. Restitution - the criminal repays the victim for his crime

Humiliation does not feature as a goal of punishment in any theory of justice I could find. Of course there is shame and humiliation that results from being caught and punishment, but this is a secondary outcome. The Talmud understands that the primary goal of corporal punishment is humiliation.  

where is the corporal punishment of children still legal?

Some believe that there is a distinction to be made between corporal punishment and child abuse. For example, Murray A. Straus, a professor of sociology at the University of New Hampshire, suggests that  corporal punishment is the use of physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience pain but not injury for the purposes of correction or control of the child’s behavior. In the US, most states have banned the corporal punishment of children. However it is still legal in 19 states including, Florida and Texas. Since 1998  corporal punishment of children has been  banned in England. In Israel, it has been banned since 2000.

Elizabeth Thompson Gershoff has studied how corporal punishment affects children. In a paper published in 2002, she identified all the articles that examined the associations between parental corporal punishment and child behaviors and experiences. This exhaustive review included over 300 relevant works, as well as 63 dissertations and 88 studies. She concluded that:

Parental corporal punishment is associated significantly with a range of child behaviors and experiences, including both short- and long-term, individual- and relationship-level, and direct (physical abuse) and indirect (e.g., delinquency and antisocial behavior) constructs...parental corporal punishment is associated with the following undesirable behaviors and experiences: decreased moral internalization, increased child aggression, increased child delinquent and antisocial behavior, decreased quality of relationship between parent and child, decreased child mental health, increased risk of being a victim of physical abuse, increased adult aggression, increased adult criminal and antisocial behavior, decreased adult mental health, and increased risk of abusing own child or spouse. Corporal punishment was associated with only one desirable behavior, namely, increased immediate compliance...

In another paper Gershoff notes that corporal punishment persists because it is a practice with strong ties to religion, particularly to Christianity.

Religious leaders and religiously inspired parenting experts in our twenty-first century, like their eighteenth-century compatriots, make connections between firm discipline and a child's spiritual well-being, and encourage parents to use corporal punishment as an important part of their discipline repertoire. Parents with conservative Protestant affiliations in particular are more supportive of corporal punishment and use it more frequently than do parents of other Christian and non-Christian religious affiliations.

Judicial corporal punishment is still legal in over thirty countries, including Afghanistan, Indonesia, Pakistan, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Fortunately, most urban Israeli Jews do not endorse corporal punishment for children.

Whatever became of Rav Chisda?

As a child, Rav Chisda quite literally had Jewish law beaten into him. In some respects perhaps he managed to overcome this child abuse; he rose to become the head of the Yeshiva at Sura and lived to the ripe old age of 92. His many statements are found all over the Talmud. Despite this, it is clear that his abuse had a profound effect on his teachings, many of which address issues of the respect owed to a teacher. For example:

  • As a result of a dispute over precisely this issue, Rav Chisda and Rav Huna ignored each other for forty years.

  • In Kiddushin (32a) he taught that while a father may forgo the honor due to him from his son, a teacher may never do so (האב שמחל על כבודו כבודו מחול הרב שמחל על כבודו אין כבודו מחול).

  • And in Sanhedrin (110a) he made this startling comparison: “Anyone who disagrees with his teacher is like one who disagrees with the Divine Presence.” 

From today’s page of Talmud, it becomes clear why issues of authority were of such importance to Rav Chisda. How fortunate we are to be able to teach our children to respect their teachers without resorting to violence.

The results from these meta-analyses do not imply that all children who experience corporal punishment turn out to be aggressive or delinquent; a variety of parent, child, and situational factors not examined here have the potential to moderate the associations between corporal punishment and child behaviors. ... The presence of corporal punishment may make certain behaviors more likely but clearly not inevitable.
— Gershoff E.T. Corporal Punishment by Parents and Associated Child Behaviors and Experiences: A Meta-Analytic and Theoretical Review. Psychological Review 2002. 128 ( 4); 539–579.


Print Friendly and PDF

Arachin 19a ~ The Mechanical Engineering of a Pledge

ערכין יט, א

אמר רב יהודה: האומר קומתי עלי נותן שרביט שאינו נכפף, מלא קומתי עלי נותן שרביט הנכפף.

Rav Yehuda says that one who says: It is incumbent upon me to donate my height, gives a thick rod that cannot be bent equivalent to his height. One who says: It is incumbent upon me to donate my full height, may give even a thin rod that can be bent, provided it is equivalent to his height.

What are we to do with a person who pledges to donate to the Temple the “amount of his height” ?Rav Yehuda comes up with an ingenious idea. Find a rod of the same height as the person, and the value of the rod would be donated to the Temple.

Rashi explains the passage along these lines:

קומתי - משמע כקומתו ונותן שרביט עב שלא יוכל לכופפו אם פירש כסף כסף ואם זהב זהב

My height: He means the same height as his own. He donates a thick rod which cannot be bent: if he agreed that it be made of silver, then it is the value of that silver rod; and if he agreed that it be made of gold, it is the value of that gold rod.

Last year, three mechanical engineers published a paper in the journal Hakirah which described some of the features of this '“rod that does not bend.” They noted that “technically speaking, “unable to bend” cannot be an exact term, as even the most brittle material has a Modulus of Elasticity (Young’s Modulus) and will bend under a load.” Good point; everything bends eventually. It’s gravity. To demonstrate this the authors consider a cantilever beam, one end of which is free (A), and the other is fixed (B) allowing for no translation or rotation. They continue:

The uniformly applied weight loading is the result of the Earth’s gravitational pull exerted on the cantilever of length and radius r, with the cantilever consisting of a homogeneous material of an isotropic Young’s Modulus E.

But wait. There’s more:

Screen Shot 2019-07-01 at 12.13.57 PM.png

And so things always bend. Gravity is a cruel mistress. In fact if you pledged to give your height in gold and you were say 1.7m tall (that’s 5 feet 7 inches for those of you in the US), a gold rod with a 10cm diameter would deflect a full 3.5 mm at its tip.

Deflection of a 1.7m cylindrical rod of Gold, Silver and Copper for a given radius. From Ehrenberg I. Siegel J. Erb B. The Tallest Column: On Monetary Value of Stature in Jewish Law.   Hakirah   2018:(25); 161-173

Deflection of a 1.7m cylindrical rod of Gold, Silver and Copper for a given radius. From Ehrenberg I. Siegel J. Erb B. The Tallest Column: On Monetary Value of Stature in Jewish Law. Hakirah 2018:(25); 161-173

Anyway the engineers continue to analyze the physics behind the various statements in today’s day of Talmud, but to follow their reasoning, I recommend you have a strong background in mathematics, Hooke’s law and “the moment-curvature relationship (𝑀 􏰁=𝐸𝐼𝜅).” Depending on the precise dimensions of the rod, they conclude that at today’s prices its value would range from $64 for a copper rod with a radius of 4.3mm to $112,710 for a gold rod with a radius of 5.3mm. So next time you donate the value of your height to the charity of your choice, be very explicit about what precisely, you mean, or it could cost you a great deal of money.

Print Friendly and PDF

Arachin 15b ~ The Evolutionary Advantages of Gossip

ערכין טו,א

האומר בפיו חמור מן העושה מעשה

One who utters malicious speech with his mouth is a more severe transgressor than one who performs a [forbidden] action

Today the Talmud launches into a long discussion of the sin on lashon hara (lit. evil language), which is most commonly (though not only) understood to mean gossip. It is considered to be a terrible sin, as shown in these examples:

שכן מצינו שלא נתחתם גזר דין על אבותינו במדבר אלא על לשון הרע

אמר ר' יוחנן משום ר' יוסי בן זימרא כל המספר לשון הרע כאילו כפר בעיקר

אמר ר' יוסי בן זימרא כל המספר לשון הרע נגעים באים עליו

ואמר ריש לקיש כל המספר לשון הרע מגדיל עונות עד לשמים

אמר רב חסדא אמר מר עוקבא כל המספר לשון הרע ראוי לסוקלו באבן

רבי אחא ברבי חנינא אומר סיפר אין לו תקנה

תנא דבי רבי ישמעאל כל המספר לשון הרע מגדיל עונות כנגד שלש עבירות עבודת כוכבים וגילוי עריות ושפיכות דמים

במערבא אמרי לשון תליתאי קטיל תליתאי הורג למספרו ולמקבלו ולאומרו 

Our ancestors in the wilderness were only punished because they spoke lashon hara

Speaking lashon hara is like denying a fundamental tenet of Judaism

Speaking lashon hara is punished with leprosy

When you speak lashon hara the sin is magnified all the way to the heavens

It is fitting that a person who spoke lashon hara be executed by stoning

There is no remedy for one who has spoken lashing hara

Anyone who speaks malicious speech increases his sins to the degree that they correspond to the three cardinal transgressions: Idol worship, and forbidden sexual relations, and bloodshed

In the West, Eretz Yisrael, they say: malicious speech about a third party, kills three people. It kills the one who speaks it, the one who hears it, and the one about whom the malicious speech was said.

THE SCIENCE OF Gossip

gossip.jpeg

Because gossip is widespread across different cultures, it has been the subject of academic study. Over fifty years ago, for example, Bruce Cox spent time on a Hopi Reservation of Native Americans in northeastern Arizona, to study, among other things, what it was that Hopi gossip about. It turns out that they mostly talked about oil exploration, roads, and the installation of utility lines in the villages. So not your usual stuff of gossip. But most of the content of gossip that we recognize as such is about people and what they have done. The academic study of all things gossip is now so important that this year Oxford University Press published The Oxford Handbook of Gossip and Reputation, which fills an intellectual gap, “providing an integrated understanding of the foundations of gossip and reputation, as well as outlining a potential framework for future research.” And it can be yours for only $121.

So why do we gossip?

From the academic literature there appear to be four main reasons why people gossip. First, to maintain or strengthen the close relationship between the teller and the hearer. Second, to enable the hearer to learn more about the subject, and third, to harm the subject of the gossip. It is this last reason that is most in keeping with the Jewish aversion to gossip. But there is a fourth reason to gossip that turns out to be vital to the functioning of our human interactions: gossip helps people learn about how to function effectively within the complex and ambiguous structures of human social (and cultural) life.

Why gossiping is good for you

Might this be a positive aspect of gossip? In a review of the literature published in 2004, Roy Baumeister of Florida State University noted that gossip can be used to learn the unwritten rules of social groups and cultures. “Gossip anecdotes communicate rules in narrative form, such as by describing how someone else came to grief by violating social norms. Gossip is thus an extension of observational learning, allowing one to learn from the triumphs and misadventures of people beyond one’s immediate perceptual sphere.”

Modern human society is a rapidly changing, highly complex system. It offers great opportunities but also contains unforeseen risks and problems. Often neither the problem nor its solution can be foreseen reliably and safely. Individuals may therefore have to make their painful way through a problem’s shifting mazes by hard experience.
The way can be smoothed and softened, however, by learning about the adventures and misadventures of others.
— Baumeister F. Zhang L. Vohs D. Gossip as Cultural Learning. Review of General Psychology 2004.8, (2): 111–121.

The original work of psychologists who study gossip was based on the view that it was a form of aggression, and was rooted in the malicious desire to harm others by damaging their reputation. Baumeister concedes that sometimes this may be the case. “People may well seek to harm someone by passing along information that makes him or her look bad, thereby encouraging people to hold a poor opinion of that person (whom we label the target of gossip).” But this might not be the primary motive of the gossiper.

Consider the work of Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist who directs the the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at the University of Oxford. He has spent much of his academic career studying gossip and has come to the conclusion that gossip is an important form of social communication. It bonds people together as they share information in the form of gossip about themselves and about others in their social community. In humans, gossip has replaced grooming as a way for people to maintain social relationships. “Apes spend hours picking bugs off each other,” wrote Baumeister summarizing Dunbar’s work, “while people spend hours discussing the misadventures of their neighbors, and in both cases the jointly spent time can help cement and maintain social bonds.”

In addition, gossip serves as observational learning of a cultural kind. By hearing about the troubles of others, we may not have to endure costs to ourselves because we will have successfully avoided making the mistake they made. Gossip not only serves to educate the listener about social norms; it also affirms them. And gossip is not just for adults. Children as young as four and five will gossip in a way “which sounds remarkably similar in form to the gossip of adults.”

The Chofetz Chaim, Guardian against Gossip

In 1873 Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan of Radin (1839-1933) published Sefer Chofetz Chaim (The Book of the One who Cherishes Life) on the laws of lashon hara and rechilut (gossip and slander). Yisrael Meir soon came to be known as “The Chofetz Chaim” and his book has remained in print and widely read ever since. The Chofetz Chaim wrote that lashon hara was the most significant cause (אַךְ חֵטְא הַלָּשׁוֹן הוּא עַל כִֻּלּוֹ) of the then prolonged exile of the Jewish people, and that if the magnitude of the rabbinic prohibitions against the practice were really understood, it would “make the hairs of your head stand on end” (וּמִי שֶׁיְּעַיֵּן וְיִתְבּוֹנִן הֵיטֵב בָּהֶם, תִּסְמַּר שַׂעֲרוֹת רֹאשׁוֹ מִגֹּדֶל הֶעָוֹן).

As the Chofetz Chaim makes clear, though, not all negative speech about others falls under the prohibition of lashon hara. He gives this example:

If a person sees that Reuven wants to enter into partnership with Shimon, and Shimon does not know Reuven's nature, and the person knows Reuven well from the past — that he is indifferent to the money of others because of his bad nature — he should warn Shimon from the beginning not to enter into partnership with him, and there is no lashon hara in this.

This example is what some academics have described as helpful gossip - it provides useful knowledge for living in a community that would otherwise have to be learned the hard way. The Chofetz Chaim would agree, but there are many more examples in which such gossip would be prohibited. And in the politically fractured and highly partisan societies in which we are living, there is no doubt that whether or not gossip is an evolutionary necessary tool, the damage that is caused by malicious speech is profound and irreversible. And it’s not just the target of the speech that is damaged, as the today’s page of Talmud teaches. Lashon hara “kills the one who speaks it, the one who hears it, and the one about whom it is said.”

National Speak No Evil Day

In his book Words That Hurt, Words That Heal: How to Choose Words Wisely and Well, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin envisioned a “National Speak No Evil Day” that would eliminate “the pollution of our emotional atmosphere.” It would be a day on which “we would refrain from saying a single nasty comment about others…and will speak about others with the same kindness and fairness that they wish others to exercise when speaking about them.”

In fact a resolution in the US Senate introduced by Senators Connie Mack of Florida and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut aimed to establish a “National Speak No Evil Day.” The Canadian Member of Parliament Irwin Cotler, made a similar proposal: to declare a day on which “both citizens and politicians would refrain from personal insults and ad-hominem attacks.” So it’s not just the Talmud that attempts to prevent lashon hara. Some of our cherished democracies have had the same laudable aspiration.

Whereas words used unfairly, whether expressed through excessive anger, unfair criticism, public and private humiliation, bigoted comments, cruel jokes, or rumors and malicious gossip, traumatize and destroy many lives;

Whereas an unwillingness or inability of many parents to control what the parents say when angry causes the infliction of often irrevocably damaging verbal abuse on the children;

Whereas bigoted words are often used to dehumanize entire religious, racial, and ethnic groups, and inflame hostility in a manner that may lead to physical attacks;

Whereas the spreading of negative, often unfair, untrue, or exaggerated, comments or rumors about others often inflicts irrevocable damage on the victim of the gossip, the damage epitomized in the expression “character assassination’’; and

Whereas the inability of a person to refrain for 24 hours from speaking unkind and cruel words demonstrates a lack of control as striking as the inability of an alcoholic to refrain for 24 hours from drinking liquor:

Now, therefore, be it Resolved, That the Senate designates May 14, 1996, and May 14, 1997, as ``National Speak No Evil Day’’.

The Senate requests that the President issue a proclamation calling on the people of the United States to observe the days with appropriate ceremonies, activities, and educational endeavors.
— S.Res.151 — 104th Congress (1995-1996)
Print Friendly and PDF