Sanhedrin 107a ~ Blushing, Shame, and Humiliation

סנהדרין קז, א

דוד הבא על אשת איש מיתתו במה אמרתי להם הבא על אשת איש מיתתו בחנק ויש לו חלק לעוה"ב אבל המלבין פני חבירו ברבים אין לו חלק לעולם הבא

The enemies of King David would taunt him. "David! What is the form of execution for a man who committed adultery?" I [David] replied: "He is executed by strangulation, but he still has a share in the world to come.  One who embarrasses another in public, causing his face to turn white [as you are doing to me] has no share in the world to come."

Embarrassing  another is considered a grievous transgression.  Elsewhere, the Talmud suggests a person must commit suicide rather than shame another: 

 תלמוד בבלי כתובות סז ב 

נוח לו לאדם שימסור עצמו לכבשן האש ואל ילבין פני חבירו ברבים

It is better for a person to jump into a fiery furnace, rather than embarrass his friend in public
Humiliation photo.jpg

The phrase used to denote embarrassment in the Talmud is להלבין פני חבירו – to whiten the face of another. At first, embarrassment causes the face to redden as the blood pools; then, as it drains away the victim is left "white with shame."  As a child, I blushed easily. This did not rise to the level of an illness (I think) but I was most certainly aware of of how easily I blushed, and so were some of my high school teachers, who would only need to call my name and my face would turn red. (I now know this is not that uncommon. The easy blushing that is. Actually, nor is the cruelty of teachers, now I come to think of it.)  Darwin called blushing "the most peculiar and the most human of all expressions." It occurs when the face, ears, neck and upper chest redden on darken in response to perceived social scrutiny or evaluation. 

Shame is, in one sense, nothing more than the loss of honor. Shame depends of the failure to measure up to the external standard imposed by the honor group
— William Ian Miller. Humiliation: And Other Essays on Honor, Social Discomfort, and Violence. Cornell University Press 1993. 114

When Do We Blush?

There appear to be four social triggers that result in blushing: a) a threat to public identity; 2) praise or public attention 3) scrutiny, and oddly enough, 4) accusations of blushing. This last trigger is especially fascinating: just telling a person that they are blushing - even when they are not - can trigger a blush. 

Blushing is not only triggered by certain social situations; it also triggers other responses in those who blush. The most commonly associated behaviors are averting the gaze and smiling. Although gaze aversion is a universal feature of embarrassment, its frequency differs across cultures: in the United kingdom 41% report averting their eyes when they are embarrassed, whereas only 8% of Italians report doing so. Smiling is also a common response. Up to a third of those who are embarrassed display a "nervous" or "silly grin." 

Why Do We Blush?

We blush when we are embarrassed, but why should this physiological response occur? The blood vessels in the face (and the other areas that blush) seem to differ structurally from other vessels, and so respond in a unique way. But just how they do so, and why, remains a physiological mystery.  Here's the surgeon Atul Gawande's explanation, from the pages of The New Yorker.

Why we have such a reflex is perplexing. One theory is that the blush exists to show embarrassment, just as the smile exists to show happiness. This would explain why the reaction appears only in the visible regions of the body (the face, the neck, and the upper chest). But then why do dark-skinned people blush? Surveys find that nearly everyone blushes, regardless of skin color, despite the fact that in many people it is nearly invisible. And you don’t need to turn red in order for people to recognize that you’re embarrassed. Studies show that people detect embarrassment before you blush. Apparently, blushing takes between fifteen and twenty seconds to reach its peak, yet most people need less than five seconds to recognize that someone is embarrassed—they pick it up from the almost immediate shift in gaze, usually down and to the left, or from the sheepish, self-conscious grin that follows a half second to a second later. So there’s reason to doubt that the purpose of blushing is entirely expressive.
There is, however, an alternative view held by a growing number of scientists. The effect of intensifying embarrassment may not be incidental; perhaps that is what blushing is for. The notion isn’t as absurd as it sounds. People may hate being embarrassed and strive not to show it when they are, but embarrassment serves an important good. For, unlike sadness or anger or even love, it is fundamentally a moral emotion. Arising from sensitivity to what others think, embarrassment provides painful notice that one has crossed certain bounds while at the same time providing others with a kind of apology. It keeps us in good standing in the world. And if blushing serves to heighten such sensitivity this may be to one’s ultimate advantage.

Blushing and Crossing Boundaries

So blushing may confer an advantage. It keeps us in good social standing, insuring that we do not step outside of the bounds of accepted behavior. This notion is supported by some recent work (published more than a decade after Gawande's 2001 article) that supports this notion of blushing having a social utility.  Those who blush frequently showed a positive association between blushing and shame. These frequent blushers generally behaved less dominantly and more submissively. Writing in the journal Emotion in 2011 (yes, that really is the name of this academic journal), three Dutch psychologists demonstrated that blushing after a social transgression serves a remedial function. In their (highly experimental lab) work on human volunteers, blushers were judged more positively and were perceived as more trustworthy than their non-blushing counterparts.  

Still, helpful as it may be to regain the trust of others, social embarrassment can come at a huge cost - including the suicide of those who have been embarrassed. As we have seen, in the Talmud embarrassing another person is called הלבנת פני חבר - literally translated as "making the face of another turn white." This is of course quite the opposite of what actually occurs when a person blushes, and seems to suggest another, deeper level of embarrassment, (though it's not something discussed in the scientific literature). According to the Talmud, the person is so embarrassed that the blood drains from his face, causing him to turn pale.  This raises an interesting question: if  blushing serves an important social function - reminding a person that he has violated rules which should be held sacred - why does the Talmud tell us to to avoid causing embarrassment? Haven't they been caught in the act of  violating our rules?  King David transgressed religious boundaries and committed a capital offense. When called out on this, he felt deeply ashamed and embarrassed. But isn't that precisely how he should have felt? As Gawande wrote: "...embarrassment provides painful notice that one has crossed certain bounds while at the same time providing others with a kind of apology. It keeps us in good standing in the world."

Nuanced Translations

In our discourse we have three words that have nuanced but important differences. Here is what the Oxford English Dictionary has to say:

Embarrass The archaic use of this word meant to hamper or impede. Today we use it to mean to cause someone to feel awkward, self-conscious, or ashamed.

Shame The painful emotion arising from the consciousness of something dishonoring, ridiculous or indecorous in one's own conduct. Or of being in a situation which offends one's sense of modesty or decency.

Humiliate To make low or humble in position, condition or feeling. 

To describe each of these emotions, the Talmud uses only a single term, להלבין פני חבר.  It is translated into English in various ways. The Artscroll and Soncino translations use the term shame whereas the Koren Talmud translates it as humiliation.   In modern Hebrew each of these three emotions has its own word. Embarrassment is מבוכה; shame is בושה, and humiliation is השפלה. 

The three terms are often used interchangeably, but humiliation is perhaps the harshest of them.  To feel embarrassed in public seems to be less of a big deal than to feel humiliated in public, although both are surely unpleasant. The best way to translate what King David felt is humiliation. And it is to avoid humiliating others the Talmud takes its extreme position: "It is better to jump into a fiery  furnace than to humiliate another in public."

DO MONKEYS FEEL SHAME?

In a 2006 paper, a group of researchers demonstrated that primate color vision has been selected to discriminate changes in skin color - those changes (like blushing) that give useful information about the emotional state of another.  But does this mean that non-human primates feel shame? That's a harder question.

Frans De Waal directs the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta. In his wonderful book The Bonobo and the Atheist (guess which of these he is), De Waal discusses emotional control among primates - and in particular, the role of shame. When a human feels shame after a transgression, "we lower our face, avoid the gaze of others, slump our shoulders, bend our knees, and generally look diminished in stature...We feel ashamed and hide our face behind our hands or "want to sink into the ground." This is rather like the submissive displays made by other primates: "Chimpanzees crawl in the dust for their leader, lower their body so as to look up at him or turn their rump towards tim to appear unthreatening...shame reflects awareness that one has upset others, who need to be appeased."

Only humans blush, De Waal writes, and he doesn't know of "any instant face reddening in other primates."

Blushing is an evolutionary mystery... The only advantage of blushing that I can imagine is that it tells others that you are aware of how your actions affect them.  This fosters trust.  We prefer people whose emotions we can read from their faces over those who never show the slightest hint of shame or guilt. That we evolved an honest signal to communicate unease about rule violations says something profound about our species. (The Bonobo and the Atheist, 155.)

And then De Wall makes a remarkable observation: 

Blushing is part of the same evolutionary package that gave us morality.

So it turns out that evolutionary biologists, psychologists, and social scientists, while they may disagree on some details, agree on one feature of the emotion of shame. It is a vital emotion for any ethically sound society. This is echoed in Nedarim, the tractate we learned a couple of years ago: 

נדרים כ, א

תניא "בעבור תהיה יראתו על פניכם" זו בושה "לבלתי תחטאו" מלמד שהבושה מביאה לידי יראת חטא מיכן אמרו סימן יפה באדם שהוא ביישן. אחרים אומרים כל אדם המתבייש לא במהרה הוא חוטא, ומי שאין לו בושת פנים בידוע שלא עמדו אבותיו על הר סיני

It was taught in a Baraisa: "So that the awe of Him will be on your faces" (Ex. 20:17). This refers to the characteristic of being susceptible to shame [since bushing is that which is noted "on your faces". The verse continues] "So that you will not sin". This teaches that shame leads to the fear of sin.  From this [teaching] they said it is a good sign for a person to be [easily] embarrassed. Others said that any person who feels embarrassed will not quickly sin. And if a person is not [the kind of person who is] embarrassed - it is known that his ancestors did not stand and Mount Sinai. 

 

Print Friendly and PDF

Sanhedrin 91 ~ Spontaneous Generation

A dead Deer

Two weeks ago when walking to shul on the morning of Rosh Hashanah I came across the carcass of a deer that had been killed by a car.  Its ribs had already been picked clean by vultures (yes, we have vultures here in Maryland) and there was a mass of maggots covering the rear of the carcass. And by a mass I mean that it was not possible to see anything other than this swarm. The deer had been killed just a short time ago.  The maggots appeared to have generated spontaneously.

The spontaneous generation of the half-mouse

In today's page of Talmud, we read about the mysterious mud mouse, a creature that is half flesh and half mud, that also appeared spontaneously.

סנהדרין צא, א

צא לבקעה וראה עכבר שהיום חציו בשר וחציו אדמה למחר השריץ ונעשה כלו בשר

Consider the mouse which today is half flesh and half earth, and tomorrow it has become a creeping thing made entirely of flesh.  

Elsewhere, Rashi provides us with a detailed explanation about the creature that seems to raise more questions than answers:

רשי, חולין קכו, ב

 יש מין עכבר שאינו פרה ורבה  אלא מעצמו נוצר מאדמה כאשפה המשרצת תולעים 

There is a species of mouse that does not reproduce sexually but is spontaneously generated from the earth, just as maggots appear at a garbage site.

Apparently, Rashi and the rabbis of the Talmud believed in spontaneous generation. Here is the opening of the Wiki article on the subject:

Spontaneous generation or anomalous generation is an obsolete body of thought on the ordinary formation of living organisms without descent from similar organisms. Typically, the idea was that certain forms such as fleas could arise from inanimate matter such as dust, or that maggots could arise from dead flesh.

Everyone Believed it

How could our esteemed rabbis believe in spontaneous generation? The answer is that everyone believed it, from the time of Aristotle until Louis Pasteur. Here is Aristotle (d. 322 BCE):

So with animals, some spring from parent animals according to their kind, whilst others grow spontaneously and not from kindred stock; and of these instances of spontaneous generation some come from putrefying earth or vegetable matter. [History of Animals 539a, 18-26.]

Aristotle’s theory of spontaneous generation was as influential as his other teachings in philosophy and natural history; it was accepted with reverence, not only among his contemporaries but well into modern times
— Jan Bondeson. The Feejee Mermaid and other Essays in Natural and Unnatural History. Cornell University Press 1999. p194

Spontaneous generation was an accepted theory throughout the middle ages and was found in the writings of Arab naturalists, such as Averroes. Sir Francis Bacon, (d.1626) the English "philosopher, statesman, scientist, jurist, orator, and author" accepted the theory. And so did Willam Harvey, who discovered the circulation of the blood,  - at least under certain circumstances.  And why not believe is spontaneous generation? Before the invention of the microscope, it certainly explained how worms, fleas and insects could appear out of no-where.

Pasteur's Experiments

Then came the microscope. Using one, in October 1676, Leeuwenhoek reported finding tiny micro-organisms in lake water. Now perhaps there was another explanation for how things were created, although not much progress was made for a couple of hundred more years.  It was Louis Pasteur (d.1895) who finally disproved the theory of spontaneous generation with some elegant experiments. He boiled a meat broth in a flask like this, with its neck pointed downwards.

Sanhedrin 91. Spntaneous Generation.jpeg

Boiling sterilized the mixture, and with the neck pointing down, no organisms could contaminate the broth. As a result, there was no growth of bacteria or could inside the flask. He did the same using a flask with a neck that was upturned. This allowed the broth to become contaminated with organisms in the outside air, and the mixture soon became cloudy. Spontaneous generation had been disproven.

Where did those maggots come from?

After Rosh Hashanah ended I looked into the question of how those maggots could have appeared so quickly on the flesh of the dead deer. It turns out that the blowfly eggs are laid within minutes and hatch in a matter of hours.  They did not appear spontaneously after all.

The history of science reminds us how to read the Talmud. Spontaneous generation was the way everyone assumed that some things were created. Whether you were a rabbi in the Talmud, a Greek philosopher, or an English scientist. 

Print Friendly and PDF

Sanhedrin 87a ~ How High is Jerusalem?

Picture of a mountain.jpeg

סנהדרין פז, א 

ועלית מלמד שבית המקדש גבוה מא"י וא"י גבוה מכל הארצות אל המקום בשלמא בית המקדש גבוה מא"י דכתיב ועלית אלא א"י גבוה מכל הארצות מנא ליה דכתיב לכן הנה ימים באים נאם ה' (לא יאמר) חי ה' אשר העלה את בני ישראל מארץ מצרים כי אם חי ה' אשר העלה ואשר הביא את זרע בית ישראל מארץ צפונה ומכל הארצות אשר הדחתים שם וישבו על אדמתם

"And you shall go up" [Deut 17:8] This teaches that the Holy Temple is higher than all other places in Israel...And from where do we now that Israel is higher than all other lands? From the verses [Jeremiah 23: 7-8] "Therefore, behold the days come, saith the Lord, that they shall no more say, The Lord liveth, which brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt,' But the Lord liveth, which brought up and which led the seed of the house of Israel out of the north country, and from all the countries whither I have driven them; and they shall dwell in their own land."

This passage is unequivocal in its meaning: Jerusalem - that is, the Temple Mount -  is the highest place in Israel, and Israel itself is the highest place on earth. Now you don't need me to tell you that this is not a true statement. But I will anyway. It's not true. When I lived in Efrat it would often snow there while in Jerusalem, a mere twenty minutes away, there would be no snow. Why? Because Efrat is at a higher elevation than is Jerusalem. And if you have looked out from the Bet Midrash of the Hebrew University's Mount Scopus campus you will look down on the Temple Mount some three hundred feet below.

Google To the Rescue

Here are some other places, randomly chosen that are physically higher than Jerusalem.

Location Elevation (feet)
Jerusalem 2,424
Mount of Olives 2,710
Hebron 3,051
Efrat 3,150
Ben Nevis (UK) 4,413
Denver, Colorado 5,280
Johannesburg, South Africa 5,751
Mount Everest 29,029

Maharsha to the Rescue?

The Maharsha, R. Shmuel Eidels (1555 – 1631) in his commentary to Kiddushin 69a  suggests that since the Earth is a sphere, Israel and Jerusalem can be seen as if they were its "center."

מהרש"א חידושי אגדות מסכת קידושין דף סט עמוד א

 שהעולם הוא כתפוח ומקום בהמ"ק הוא מרכז עולם וכן א"י ולכך אמרו בא"י כיון דהוא מקום הממוצע אוירו מזוג ומחכים ויותר מקום המקדש שע"כ היו שם בלשכת הגזית חכמי סנהדרין וק"ל

Perhaps the Maharsha means that the spherical earth spins on its axis and that is the highest point, just like you might see a model of the earth on a bookshelf that spins on an axis with the North Pole at the top. But that cannot be, because the axis of the rotation of the Earth does not pass through Israel. It passes through the North Pole.  

No No. It is all metaphorical

Because the Talmud's claim is measurably incorrect, several commentators suggest a metaphorical explanation: Jerusalem is, spiritually speaking, the highest point on Earth.  Tomorrow, Jews in Israel celebrate the completion of the reading of the Torah, and start to read it again from the beginning. Perhaps it is those kind of celebrations that give Israel and its capital a shot at the claim of being most spiritually elevated.  Perhaps. 

חג שמח from Talmudology.  

 

Print Friendly and PDF