May 28, 2024
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Surprising Olam Haba Members

The Gemara (Ta’anit 22a) relates a remarkable episode:

Rabi Beroka Hoza’ah used to frequent the market at Bei Lapat, where Eliyahu HaNavi often appeared to him. Once he asked [Elijah], “Is there anyone in this market who is a ‘Ben Olam Haba’?” He replied, “No.” Meanwhile, Eliyahu caught sight of a man wearing black shoes (which was not the Jewish manner of dress; see Bava Kama 59b and Tosafot ad. loc. s.v. Havah) and who had no thread of blue on the corners of his garment (i.e., he was not wearing tzitzit). Eliyahu exclaimed this man is a “Ben Olam Haba,” who has a share in the world to come. Rabi Beroka ran after him and asked him, “What is your occupation?” The man replied: “Go away and come back tomorrow.” The next day he asked him again, “What is your occupation?” And he replied: “I am a warden, and I keep the men and women separate, and I place my bed between them so that they may not come to sin; when I see a Jewish girl upon whom the nochrim cast their eyes, I risk my life and save her. Once there was amongst us a betrothed girl upon whom the nochrim cast their eyes. I, therefore, took red wine and put them in her skirt, and I told them that she was teme’ah.” [Rabi Beroka further] asked the man, “Why have you no fringes, and why do you wear black shoes?” He replied: “That the nochrim amongst whom I move may not know that I am a Jew, so that when a harsh decree is made [against Jews] I inform the rabbis and they pray [to God] and the decree is annulled.” He further asked him, “When I asked you, ‘What is your occupation,’ why did you say to me, ‘Go away now and come back tomorrow?’” He answered, “They had just issued a harsh decree, and I said I would first go and acquaint the rabbis of it so that they might pray to God.”

When [they were conversing] two [men] passed by and [Elijah] remarked, “These two are also Bnei Olam Haba.” Rabi Beroka then approached and asked them, “What is your occupation?” They replied, “We are jesters; when we see men depressed, we cheer them up; furthermore, when we see two people quarreling, we strive to make peace between them.”

Manifold Lessons

What lessons are Chazal seeking to impart with this most intriguing anecdote? I suggest that we may glean a host of essential teachings from this episode.

First, the story fits very well with some central “chasidic” ideas. Chasidut teaches that every Jew can excel in spirituality, not only those blessed with the talent and opportunity to become Torah scholars. The warden and the jesters are of the highest spiritual rank in our story, and the local scholars are not even mentioned. We should also note that the warden’s deep devotion to the local sages (regarding whom he cannot waste a second to inform them of trouble brewing for the Jews) and his trust in the efficacy of their tefillot also constitute major chasidic themes. The story also teaches the idea emphasized by chasidut that appearances (in our case, black shoes and no tzitzit) can be deceiving, and sometimes the least-expected individual can be of the highest spiritual ranks.

Another chasidic lesson that emerges from our story is that one can earn his Olam Haba from his efforts to make a living for his family and not only from more predictable spiritual endeavors such as tefillah and talmud Torah. One would hardly think that serving as a prison warden or town jester could serve as a means to earn a prominent place in Olam Haba. Our story teaches us not to view our professional endeavors as a break from our spiritual pursuits. Instead, if conducted properly, one’s professional life can constitute an integral part and extension of his spiritual life (as also expressed by Tosafot to Berachot 11b s.v. SheKevar).

In addition, we may understand our story in light of the Gemara (Bava Batra 10b) relating what transpired when Yosef, the son of Rav Yehoshua, died and was restored to life. His father asked him what he saw during the time he was dead. Yosef answered, “He saw an upside-down world; those who were prominent in this world were the least prominent in Olam Haba, while those who were on the lowest rungs of society in this world were on the highest rungs in Olam Haba.” In our story, it is difficult to imagine that the warden and the jesters were regarded as high-ranking members of society. Nonetheless, they advance first and furthest in Olam Haba.

Yet another idea is that our story constitutes the exact opposite of the Kamtza and Bar Kamtza episode, for which the Gemara (Gittin 55b) states Jerusalem was destroyed. The Gemara records:

It happened this way: A certain man had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy called Bar Kamtza. He once made a party and said to his servant, “Go and bring Kamtza.” So the man went and brought Bar Kamtza. When the man who gave the party found Bar Kamtza there, he said, “See, you are my enemy; what are you doing here? Get out!” Said the other: “Since I am already here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.” Said the host: “Absolutely not.” “Then let me give you half the cost of the party.” The host refused. “Then let me pay for the whole party.” Still, the host refused and took him by the hand and threw him out.

Rav Yehuda Amital explained that the very names Kamtza and Bar Kamtza express the essence of the problem with society at the time of the Churban. The Jewish community, explains Rav Amital, was splintered into cliques, kemitzot (kamatz means limited). Yerushalayim, by contrast, is intended to unify our people, as it says in Tehillim 122:3, “Yerushalayim habenuyah k’ir shechubrah lah yachdav,” “Yerushalayim that is built as a city that is united together.” Thus, when the Yerushalayim community splintered into cliques, it was not fulfilling its mandate and no longer deserved to exist.

The warden and the jesters represent the antithesis of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. The warden made great efforts to help the least-regarded in society, the ones condemned to prison. The jesters helped those who were depressed, not necessarily the most highly respected members of the community. Kamtza and Bar Kamtza represent the ugly behavior of those who wish to advance their social standing by limiting their association to those who will help them in their senseless pursuit. The warden and the jesters were eager to help anyone regardless of their stature. Those who behave like Kamtza and Bar Kamtza will have to rectify their behavior before gaining entry into Olam Haba. Only those whose behavior mirrors that of the warden and the jesters will be welcomed into Olam Haba without the need to correct their souls.

Conclusion

The Aggadic portions do not serve as entertaining diversions from the “real” business of the Gemara, the halacha. Instead, Chazal intended the stories to impart life lessons that create very high expectations and demand that we make the necessary corrections if we have not done so already. The story of the warden and the jesters is not simply a heartwarming tale about kindly Jews; instead, their behavior establishes a model we are expected to emulate.


Rabbi Haim Jachter is the spiritual leader of Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic Congregation of Teaneck. He also serves as a rebbe at Torah Academy of Bergen County and a dayan on the Beth Din of Elizabeth.

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