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Talmud’s Warriors and Scholars

This week’s Daf Yomi reframes the debate over the primacy of force or scholarship in Jewish values

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At the end of the second book of Samuel, after a report of King David’s last words, we are introduced to a roster of “David’s warriors,” the greatest fighters in his retinue. Nowhere does the Bible come closer to the heroic ethos of the Iliad than in this catalog of mighty deeds. Josheb-Basshebeth fought alone against 800 enemy soldiers; Shammah son of Agee singlehandedly defeated a Philistine army in a battle in a lentil field; three chiefs infiltrated a Philistine camp to get water for David to drink. Last in the list comes Benaiah son of Jehoiada, “a brave soldier who performed great deeds”: Namely, he killed the two sons of Ariel of Moab, and he went down into a pit on a snowy day and killed a lion.

Benaiah turns up rather unexpectedly in this week’s Talmud reading, in Berachot 18a. At first he enters the text not on his own account, but because the Bible happens to describe him as “the son of a living man.” Why, Rabbi Chiya asks, should the text bother to mention that Benaiah’s father is alive? After all, he says rather impatiently, “are the rest of the world then the sons of dead men?” No, Chiya argues, the reason is that Benaiah’s father was so righteous that he was called “a living man” even though he was actually dead. In this way Chiya contributes to an ongoing Talmudic debate about whether the righteous enjoy life after death.

More fascinating to me, however, is what comes next. In one of the lateral moves that can make a Gemara discussion so unpredictable, Chiya goes on to analyze the Bible’s description of Benaiah himself. And he does this in a way that turns the Davidic warrior into a Talmudic rabbi. Benaiah is called “a man of many achievements, from Kabzeel”; by changing the way the place name is read (a favorite hermeneutic technique in the Talmud), this can be understood to say mekabetz El, “a man of many achievements for God’s sake.” And such achievements, to the authors of the Gemara, can only be feats of Torah scholarship: “this means that he increased and garnered achievements for Torah.”

Reading in this allegorical fashion, Chiya argues that when the Bible says Benaiah struck down two men of Moab, it means that “he did not leave anyone comparable to himself [in scholarship], neither in the period of the First Temple nor in the period of the Second Temple.” When it says that he killed a lion in a pit on a winter day, this means that he immersed himself in a freezing pool, to purify himself before studying Torah. Alternatively, it means that he studied an entire treatise on the Book of Leviticus on a single freezing day.

This remarkable transformation of Benaiah from a killer into a scholar raised two questions for me. First is the perhaps unanswerable one of how Chiya understood allegory. When he argues that the biblical descriptions of Benaiah’s physical feats were really descriptions of mental and spiritual feats, did he think that this meant that the physical feats did not happen at all? If so, how do the rabbis understand the entire David story, which plainly belongs to a world of fighting kings and their armies?

If, on the other hand, Chiya understood that he was reading against the grain of the biblical text—that is, imposing on it a new meaning and a new system of values—the second question arises. How did he and his fellow rabbis think and feel about the enormous change in Jewish life that had made warrior-heroism so archaic and scholar-heroism so important? Clearly, between the time of the Israelites and the time of the Amoraim, there was a revolution in Jewish values, in which something was lost as well as gained. From a Zionist point of view, it’s even possible to feel that the denigration of Benaiah’s fighting spirit was a dangerous mistake for the Jews. Not until 1948 would the Jewish people once again produce warriors on Benaiah’s scale.

Yet reading the Talmud has also made me more inclined than I used to be to see this question from the other side, from the rabbinic point of view. After all, if Torah study is the most worthy and most distinctively Jewish of human pursuits, then mere skill at fighting is negligible, a barbarism. Which, finally, does Judaism need more, warriors or scholars? Which is a higher human type?

The Talmud’s answer seems clear enough. Indeed, in this week’s reading, there is a section that acts as a rabbinic parallel, and rebuttal, to the praise of David’s warriors in the book of Samuel. This is the account, starting in Berachot 16b, of the personal prayers that some of the most famous rabbis would recite after saying the Shemoneh Esrei, what we now usually call the Amidah.

David’s warriors are defined by the number of men they killed, a kind of statistical heroism that makes them all blend together: This one slew 300 Philistines, that one slew 800. The rabbis, on the other hand, are individualized by their prayers, which seem to communicate something of their distinctive personalities. Rabbi Elazar prayed hopefully, asking for love and brotherhood, a large number of students, and a portion in the Garden of Eden. Rabbi Yochanan prayed darkly, asking God to “gaze upon our shame and behold our evil plight.” Rabbi Chiya—appropriately, given what we have learned of him—prayed that “Your Torah be our preoccupation.”

Is it possible to be too preoccupied with Torah? This is not merely an abstract question. It’s possible to trace a direct line from Chiya’s interpretation of Benaiah to the debate currently roiling in Israeli politics about whether ultra-Orthodox students should be drafted into the army. Reading the Talmud has already given me a greater appreciation of the logic behind the Haredi resistance to being drafted. For the authors of the Talmud, Torah study was not only the best thing men could do, it was the best means to preserve the Jewish people as well. Those who maintain today that Torah study is what keeps Judaism alive have a good deal of history on their side. On the other hand, history also teaches that Judaism cannot live unless Jews live, and that force is sometimes the only way to preserve life. Benaiah and Chiya may need each other more than either one suspects.


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PhillipNagle says:

The dilema for the Talmudic scholar might also be put, how do you justify your importance as a scholar, when the Bible glorfies men of war. Scholars can keep the Jewish people existing, but in the end, only warriors can reestablish a Jewish nation.

SandmanNY says:

Very compelling point about the primacy and sustaining influence of Torah study. So many Jews today are distanced from this preserving discipline. Lox and bagels didn’t get us this far in our historic march through the nations. I think it’s tautological to say when the People of the Book lose their connection to the Book, they eventually lose their connection to the People.

King David was a great warrior all his life, and even extended the borders of Judah into an empire that embraced much of present-day Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, certainly the greatest Jewish empire of Biblical times. You would think he would be heroized at length for this in the Tanakh, and his triumphal battles in foreign lands would be related in detail. He was not, and they were not either. Rather, after a succinct account of his conquests the detailed narrative was about his sending Uriah the Hittite off into the frontline so that he himself could bed Bathsheva, and similar questionable things in his personal and domestic life and rule, including bloody conflicts with his sons over the succession (cf. II Samuel 8-21). The account of his life ends with a plague brought upon all Israel because of his centralization of power and intrusively bureaucratic rule, for which he had to do repentance (II Samuel 24). It fell to his peaceable son, King Solomon, to whom “Men of all nations came to hear … wisdom” (I Kings 5:14), to build the Temple to God that King David himself was prevented from doing, “because of the war which surrounded him” (I Kings 5:17). Or, as stated in I Chron. 22:8-10, David himself explained to Solomon that God had told him: “You shall not build a House for My Name, for you have shed much blood on the earth in My presence. Instead, a son will be born to you who will be a man of tranquility … Solomon (Shelomoh) shall be his name, and in his time I will confer peace (shalom) and serenity on Israel. He will build a House for My Name.” At this Temple all peoples would come in peace and worship (I Kings 8:43). So the Torah itself asserts the superiority of peace and multi-sided and all-inclusive Torah wisdom over divisive physical violence, war and bloodshed. In fact, the Torah much earlier declares that what brought about the Flood was the hamath, the violent robberies and criminal blood-lusts, of the Generation of the Flood (Gen. 6:11). Similarly, the impulsive self-exculpatory battle that the Generation of the Exodus suddenly waged against the Canaanites after the 12 spies incident was bound to fail because it followed the collapse of trust in God and His Teaching as the true sources of victory (Numbers 14:20-45). So the values which Adam Kirsch discovers are so stressed in the Talmud were ancient Torah values, and the Rabbinic stress was entirely traditional. The prophets themselves, long before the Exile, hammer away at the same theme.

It is therefore no modern Haredi novelty but a thoroughly Torah-true and ancient teaching retained down through the ages that Israel, the Jewish people, exists and is preserved solely through its devotion to God and His Torah; battles even for national self-determination are subsidiary, but their success or failure will only reflect the purity or lack of it of this primary devotion which is Israel’s raison d’etre and should be Israel’s chief concern.

Finally, an insight into the Haredi mindset! Understanding that Torah study is not a hobby, or a “nice thing to do”, but the soul and purpose of creation and the Jewish people.
When R. Shimon Bar Yochai emerged from the cave after hiding many years, he saw a farmer working and burned him up, for he was not engaged in Torah study. While he was sent back into the cave, for the world cannot exist without working, Rashbi’s perspective holds truth: the point of existence is be engaged in Torah study.

    “The point of existence” is also to earn a living to support that Torah learning, give charity, and conduct other honorable activities and projects. Most of the Talmudic sages and rabbis had day jobs, whether carpenter, blacksmith, tenant farmer, or teacher, as examples.

Matt Tardo says:

It’s a shame that we don’t get to read more about the exploits of those gibborim – those “mighty heroes” – since there were probably plenty of oral (or lost written) stories concerning them floating around. Who knows? Perhaps an entire collection existed at one time, but had difficulty finding a place alongside the main history of Israel’s initial forays into monarchy.

While some may allegorize them into heroes of the word, rather than of the sword, I think that the original tellers of these tales would have raised their eyebrows at such a suggestion – after all, is there a reliable measuring stick that lets one determine how deep one must dive for meaning that attempts to bring ancient thoughts more in line with our own? Or are we then guilty of usurping the tale-teller’s prerogative to express his own time’s contextual meaning?

Interesting article.

    You can find much about exploits of these “mighty” heroes in the Torah and other sacred Jewish texts. Reach for your concordance as a starting place/index.

Eh… I think the rabbis wanted to defend themselves against the charge against intellectuals in all times and cultures, namely that they are wimps. The only reason they won among Jews was that we didn’t have a country and had to survive by providing services such as banking that required education to non-Jews.

If you have your own country, you have to defend it.


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Talmud’s Warriors and Scholars

This week’s Daf Yomi reframes the debate over the primacy of force or scholarship in Jewish values

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