Talmudic Metaphors


Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim



Rava said, ‘If one is righteous, he could create worlds [like God]. As it says, “For your sins separate you from your God”[1].  Rava thereby created a man, and sent him to Rav Zeira. He spoke to him but he did not answer. Rav Zeira said, “You are from the chavrei [sorcerers], return to your dust.” On each Friday evening Rav Chanina and Rav Oshiah would indulge in Sefer Yetzira [book of Creation] and would create a third-grown calf and eat it.”[2]


That is some portion of Talmud! Over the years, we hear others recite such metaphors with literal acceptance. However, we know God is the only creator, so this dismisses any literal interpretation. As always, we must ask what are the questions that can unravel metaphors.

What strikes us first, is that Rava “created” a human being, and others created an animal. Such stories must be metaphoric, and perhaps the Talmud commences with the most glaring impossibility, to set the tone that the entire story is metaphoric. Why did Rava send the man he created to Rav Zeira, and about what did Rav Zeira disapprove? Also, what is the flow of the quote from Isaiah? What is the connection between the two acts of creation of a man, and a calf? And why were Rav Chanina and Rav Oshiah apparently successful, as they enjoyed their creation, while Rava was not?

Comparing the two creations, the second one is animal, not a man, and that it had a positive outcome. My understanding of this story follows.

The Talmud cites a quote from Isaiah that might be misunderstood, “For your sins separate you from your God”[3]. It appears that only our sins separate us from God, otherwise, we would not be separated, and perhaps similar. But this is not so, as we recite numerous times daily that God is “Kadosh”—unlike anything He created. The Talmud then goes on to show how man cannot even understand human creation, let alone perform creation. But the Talmud does so in a metaphor.

Sabbath is the day of Creation. As such, the Rabbis were accustomed to study areas of Creation on sabbath, as they always studied “matters of the day.” On one such Sabbath eve, Rava studied man’s creation, and felt he had a new understanding about how God created man, as if Rava “could create a man” himself. Rava did not send a “man” to Rav Zeira, but rather, he sent his findings from his studies, asserting he obtained a new insight. His sending must have been out of some doubt, so he desired his teacher’s analysis. Rav Zeira asked a question to Rava, to which Rava had no answer. Rav Zeira said “return to the dust” meaning, return to studies about dust (lower matters), and not man (a higher level being). Rav Zeira was saying that we cannot know so much about how God created beings with a soul: metaphysics is difficult. “Return to the dust” is Rav Zeira’s ridicule that Rava should return to studying lower areas within his grasp, i.e., “dust.” However, Rav Chanina and Rav Oshiah studied matters of biology alone, well within their abilities. “Creating” a calf and “eating” it mean, “understanding biology” and “enjoying” it, respectively. But even in the more approachable area of biology, we read that Rav Chanina and Rav Oshiah were only able to create a “third-grown” calf. This means that human knowledge, although grasping some amount, is still incomplete.

Perhaps also explained, is that Rava’s independent studies resulted in errors, while Rav Chanina and Rav Oshiah who studied together were successful. This illustrates how essential it is to test one’s ideas on another, removing the possibility of errors generated by overestimation of the self and personal infallibility. Gaining a critique almost always minimizes mistakes, “…in a multitude of counselors there is safety.”[4] And as a Rabbi once taught, the very first verse of Proverbs also teaches this idea: “The proverbs of Solomon son of David, King over Israel” was stated by King Solomon to teach that he had a great teacher, and the environment that fostered wisdom. The King wished to express that his work Proverbs was substantiated by great minds who influenced his thinking.

Due to the problem regarding man “crossing the line” and being a creator like God, one must not accept a literal understanding of this and all such Midrashim. Avraham ben Rambam’s intro to Ein Yaakov warns against literal understandings of Midrash. Chazal were very wise and didn’t write stories of monsters, with nothing else deeper than spooky fables. Chazal always taught deep concepts, so one must “dig for the ideas like silver and buried treasures” as King Solomon taught in Mishlei 2:4. Other Rishonim too talked about how Chazal wrote in metaphors like Mishlei, so as to hide ideas from the masses until they matured their intellects and could realize such stories could not be literal.

[1] Isaiah 59

[2] Talmud Sanhedrin 67b

[3] Isaiah 59

[4] Proverbs 11:14