The physically handicapped in the mishnah

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Simcha Fishbane

Touro College, New York



This essay will examine how redactors of the Mishnah, in their utopian world, the both express and view the visibly physically handicapped. Let us first turn to the theoretical framework necessary for a proper understanding of the world of the Mishnah, and of the treatment of the physically handicapped within the texts. Edited in approximately 2 AD, the Mishnah1, a document devoted primarily to topics related to the Jerusalem Temple destroyed in 70 CE, serves as the foundation of rabbinic literature. Although the razing of this center of Judaism occurred a century and a half prior to the appearance of the Mishnah, two of its six divisions – the fifth and sixth (Holy Things and Purities) – are devoted almost entirely to Temple matters. Even a cursory examination of the remaining four divisions reveals large sections concerned with behavior and rituals directly related to the Temple and its Priests. Neusner (1991 pp. 56 - 58 ) in his discussion of Mishnah expounds on this issue writing that the Mishnah is a document, one congruent whole. Thus even the divisions devoted to daily life are a reflection of the Temple society, the holy society of the Lord.

Why the redactors chose to make a destroyed Temple the central and focal point of their document is not the concern of this essay. They may have believed that through the grace of the Lord of Israel they would soon return to this society. Since the Rabbis had now replaced the Priests, the Sages could establish their documents – and thus their authority – by directly identifying with the Jerusalem Temple. Schmidt, who elaborates on this assertion that the world of Mishnah is the symbolic representation of the Temple, puts it well: “The institution of the Temple, in spite of the fact that this society finds itself dispossessed of political power, confronted with Hellenism then Roman imperialism, succeeded in transforming and adapting itself to the new realities. When Hasmonaean Judea loses its political autonomy, this adaptation takes place owing to the extension of the world of thought proper to the Temple to all Jewish society. With the passage from the old to the new system, a new structure is introduced, owing to which the destruction of the Temple does not mark the end of Judaism.” (p. 251) “Put in writing in the late second century CE," he continues, "the Mishnah in its oldest strata resembles the oldest traditions… There you have recorded the whole body of laws, the great works of the Sages from the end of the Second Temple, who extended to all of Israel the prescriptions until then centered on the Sanctuary alone, its priestly personnel, its pilgrims. There is codified and transmitted ‘the new system’ that makes the thinking of the Temple go out beyond the very boundaries of the Temple. After 70, from being sacrificial Jewish society is transformed into a non-sacrificial society. But the thinking of the Temple inscribed in the Mishnah, normative, commented on in the Talmuds, studied in the House of Study, applied to all the actions of daily life, has at the same time the power to ensure the everlastingness of Judaism from the time before to the hereafter of the Temple”. (pp 265-266)

Our issue here, however, is the Mishnah document. This work is Temple oriented not only in content but also in structural organization. The Temple is the paradigm for the Mishnah’s society. Even in its architecture, it is an image of the Mishnah’s community. Israel continues without the physical Temple structure, but with a symbolic representation.

Just like the Temple, the new Jewish society, as manifested through the Mishnah has clearly defined physical borders and boundaries, courtyards and inner courtyards, categories and sub-categories of individuals who may enter at specific times and through specific locations, its own hierarchical system, classifications, procedures for rites of passage and rituals. And therefore in seeking to understand how the Mishnah views the physically handicapped, we must be concerned with the same issue as was the case for the Temple.

The primary issue for the Temple concerning handicapped persons is the Priests. Our focus is not upon animals for sacrifice, or the first born, for these are very different issues. The Mishnah is very clear in its instructions. It does not have to inform its readers of a new law2. Leviticus 21:16-23 is explicit here: “And the Lord said to Moses, Say to Aaron, None of your descendents throughout their generations who has a blemish may approach to offer the bread of his God. For no one who has a blemish shall draw near, a blind man or lame, or one who has a mutilated face or limb too long, or a man who has an injured foot or an injured hand, or a hunchback, or dwarf, or man with a defect in his sight or an itching disease or scabs or crushed testicles; no man of the descendents of Aaron the preist who has a blemish shall come near to offer the Lord’s offering by fire, since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the bread of his God. He may eat the bread of his God, both of the most holy and of the holy things, but he shall not come near the veil or approach the altar, because he has a blemish, that he may not profane my sanctuaries; for I am your Lord who sanctify them.”

Following its literary pattern, the Mishnah does not quote scripture but elaborates upon the stated list of physical deformities. The theme is discussed in Tractate Bekhorot, found in the fifth division of Purities, primarily in chapters six and seven. It is obviously not possible within the confines of this essay to cite the two complete chapters dealing with blemishes, and a full classification is not necessary here. A few examples will suffice. An ear that is damaged (6:1), an eyelid which is damaged (6:2), a nose which is damaged (6:3), a sexual organ which is broken (6:5,6), a broken leg, dislocated or deformed hip (6:8). Chapter six speaks about first-born animals, and Chapter seven clarifies the issue “These blemishes (referring to chapter six) whether permanent or transient, disqualify man [priests from serving in the Temple].”(7:1) “In addition to them in the case of man…”(7:1) The Mishnah continues to list cases concerning various deformed heads, humpbacks (7:1), baldhead ness, eyebrow problems (7:2), eye and nose problems including bleary eyes (7:3), mis proportionate limbs (7:4,5) no teeth (7:5). 7:6 concludes the list of invalid deformities: “He who knocks together his ankles or his knees, and one who has swellings [in his feet], and one who is bowlegged. Who is bowlegged? Any who puts together his soles and whose knees do not touch one another…”.

These priestly blemishes, defects and abnormalities referred to in the Mishnah are divided into three categories: a. Those that disqualify the priest from sacrificing and the animal from being sacrificed; b. those blemishes which are unique to the priest but do not disqualify the animal; c. Those that disqualify the priest because of a negative outward appearance, such as baldness. The first two categories are deduced from the Torah and are considered as biblically prohibited; the last category is rabbinically prohibited.

These handicapped, deformed Priests can be classified within the category of persons who cannot participate in the Temple ritual of sacrifice. Yet they are stilled considered priests with all the obligations and rights attributed to the priesthood, except for the fact that they are restricted from offering sacrifices in the Jerusalem Temple. For example, they are required to keep the specified laws of purity and are permitted to receive and eat the priestly presents3. They also have responsibilities in the Temple other than sacrifices. For example, the Mishnah states in Midot Chapter 2 paragraph 5, in discussing the structure and purpose of different courtyards and offices of the Temple, “That in the southeastern corner was the office of the Nazirites, in which the Nazarites cook their peace offerings, shave off their hair which they throw under the pot [Num. 6:18, M. Nazir 6:8]. That in the northeastern corner was the office in charge of the wood supply, in which the priests who are blemished examine the wood [for worms]. And any piece of wood in which a worm is found is invalid for use on the altar”4.Following the same structural literary pattern, we turn to the Israelite (in contrast to the priest) in the Mishnah world. The Rabbis of the Mishnah formed a different type of grouping than did the Temple priests. For while the culture of the rabbis displays an extension of the priestly ideal that encompasses the lay (or Israelite) Jew, the sages felt compelled to introduce changes into the priestly rules and classifications.5 Since the Sages' society was part of late antiquity, it must be taken into consideration although it is not directly reflected in the Mishnah’s ideal society. Studies have shown that in earlier societies handicapped or deformed persons were social outcastes, or at least to some extent were stigmatized as second-class citizens,6 inherently repulsive to the people of the ancient world. The body played an significant role, often serving an important function as a ubiquitous target for public ritual and symbolism. If a child was born with a visible physical disability, the Greeks and especially the Spartans and Athenians practiced infanticide, disposing of them on a regular basis.7 Whether, as Edwards argues (1998, 3) attitudes towards physical disability in the ancient world were considered as a social construct, defined by any given community’s understanding of people's roles, or as a political or medical liability8, the fact is that persons with physical deformities were liminal individuals often living on the social borders of their societies.

We have no empirical historical evidence as to what was the reality of how the Rabbis and communities viewed and treated the deformed and disabled in their world. We do know that they did not have the same philosophical outlook towards the human body as did the Greeks, for whom the ideal of symmetry and balance was central9. That view was crucial for an understanding of the Greek Gods and the idea of perfection; it also had implications for the religious life and practice of the community10. Whether or not religious belief influenced the community's attitude towards the disabled is unclear. The fact is that Greek and Roman societies liminalized the physically disabled individual.

In every society the body provided a problem for social relativism.11 Mary Douglas (1970, 1973) goes even further, explaining that the body in all social structures as a classificatory system. For her the body is metaphor, a readymade source of allegories of order and disorder. It is the central metaphor of political and social order.12 Thus the handicapped form part of the disorder, and this disorder is a part of the systematic classification which creates ordered categories that explain both disorder and order. I believe that this concept of the deformed or physically handicapped as part of disorder is not true of the Mishnah’s world. For here they are not considered as “disorder,” and thus not as a separate category.

The Mishnah, after all, is not a book of social history, but a book of rules. Even when the Mishnah editors inform us of laws and cases that reflect a social reality we are not sure if they are writing of their society or that of the Temple. What we can construe is that these rules expressed in the Mishnah reflect the ideological and philosophical (as well as legal) stance of the Rabbis.

The Mishnah classifies two categories of deformities or handicaps.. The first is related to mental disorders. They are the “Heresh” – the deaf-mute person who is grouped with the fool (mentally disabled [shoteh]) and the minor [katan]13. Abrams (1998, p 168) places them in what she calls a master status, stigmatized by the Rabbis in almost every situation. “They have not been able to receive the sages’ cultural gnosis.” Any and all qualifications whatever which these individuals may possess do not have any consequences or bearing upon their active participant role in the rabbinical society, for they are considered as mentally incompetent to fulfill the laws and participate in the holy nation. For that reason I do not in fact consider them as part of the group that the Mishnah identifies as physically disabled, for it is not their physical handicap that limits or categorizes them but the mental result of their problem. The Mishnah in Yebamot chapter 14 which is concerned with the marriage and levirate marriage of a deaf-mute and a mate of “good sense” (pikeach) underscores this point. Throughout the chapter the Mishnah is contrasting the two, leaving no doubt that the deaf-mute is a psychologically limited individual14. For example, M. 13:1 states: “A deaf-mute who married a woman of good senses – or a man who of good senses who married a deaf-mute- if he wanted, he puts her away15. And if he wanted, he confirms the marriage. Just as he marries her by means of sign language, so he puts her away by signs of sign language.”

The second category are the visibly disabled Jews. These include such disabilities as those of the blind (sumah), lame, (either in one leg or two- kitah or chigger) or dumb cheresh. In discussing these handicaps the Mishnah presents different categories. The first category is that in which the Mishnah recognizes the fact that having a physical, visual handicap is an inadequacy. In Peah 8:9 the Mishnah writes: “And any man who is not lame in one foot, or in both feet, or blind, but pretends to be will not die of old age before he actually has had such [an injury]”. The Mishnah editors are thus not ignoring the fact that being handicapped is a severe inadequacy.

Throughout the Mishnah we find that its redactors also use the handicapped person as an actor in a scenario, or make use of the disability itself to clarify a halakhic situation.. This scenario is a legal situation in which the handicapped is the actor who emphasizes a specific issue. These cases have little bearing upon the Mishnah editors' perception of these disabled individuals aside from the fact that they are disabled and may not always be able to function without assistance. The cases in the Mishnah are part of the following situation:

The Mishnah is discussing specific types of oaths relating to financial penalties. M. Shabuot 5:5 “You stole my ox,”- and he says, “I did not steal it” “I impose an oath on you,” and he said, “Amen”- he is liable. “I stole it, but I did not slaughter it and I did not sell it” “I impose an oath on you” and he said, “Amen” – he is exempt. “Your ox killed my ox” – and he said, “It did not kill” and he says, “I impose an oath on you:- and he said, “Amen” – he is liable. “Your ox killed my slave” – and he says, “It did not kill” – “ I impose an oath on your” – and he said, “Amen, “ he is exempt. [If] he said to him, “you injured me and made a wound on me,” and he said, “ I did not injure you and I did not make a mark on you.” “I impose an oath on you” – and he said, “Amen” – he is liable. [If] his slave said to him, “You knocked out my tooth and you blinded my eye,” and he said, “I did not knock out your tooth or blind your eye,” and he said to him, “I impose an oath on you,” he is exempt. This is the governing principle: Whoever pays compensation on the basis of his own testimony is liable. And whoever does not pay compensation on the basis of his own testimony is exempt [in the case of these oaths]”. While the Sages are explicit on the laws of oaths there is no evidence from the above text regarding how they viewed the disabled in their ideal society.

The following Mishnah in discussing the monetary compensation for causing a person physical injury tells us in M. Baba Kamma 8:1 “He who injures his fellow is liable to [compensate] him on five counts: 1. injury 2. pain 3. medical costs 4. loss of income [lit. loss of time] and 5. indignity. For injury: how so? [If] one has blinded his eye, cut off his hand, broken his leg, they regard him as a slave up for sale in the market and make an estimate of how much he was worth beforehand (when whole), and how much he is now worth. Pain: [If] he burned him with a spit or a nail, and even on his fingernail, a place in which [the injury] does not leave a lasting wound, they assess how much a man in his status is willing to take to suffer pain of that sort. Medical costs: [If] he hit him, he is liable to provide for his medical care. [If] sores arise on him, if [they are] on account of the blow, he is liable; [but if] they are not on account of the blow, he is exempt. [If] the wound got better and opened up again, got better and opened up again, he remains liable to provide for his medical care. [If the wound] properly healed, he is no longer liable to provide medical care for him. Loss of income: They regard him [in estimating income] as if he is a keeper of a cucumber field, for [the defendant] already has paid off the value of his hand or his leg. Indignity: All [is assessed] in accord with the status of the one who inflicts the indignity and the one who suffers the indignity. He who inflicts indignity on one who is naked, he who inflicts indignity on one who is blind, or he who inflicts indignity on one who is asleep is liable. But one who is sleeping who inflicted indignity is exempt (on that count). [If] he fell from the roof and did injury and also inflicted indignity, he is liable for the injury [he has inflicted] but exempt from the indignity, as it is said, And she puts forth her hand and grabs him by the private parts (Dt. 25:11). One is liable on the count of indignity only if he intended [to inflict indignity].” The above laws which are emphasized are linked with the financial compensation for injuries to a fellow Jew. While this situation might be be compared to that of a slave, suggesting a social shortcoming, in our case it is only related to financial issues. In other words, this is an economic and not a social issue.

The Mishnah in Baba Qamma continues to discuss payment for injuries. M. Baba Qamma 8:7 states; “Even though [the defendant] pays off [the plaintiff], he is not forgiven until he seeks [forgiveness] from [the plaintiff]’since it is said Now restore the man’s wife… and he will pray for you (Gen. 20:7).

He who says blind my eye, cut off my hand, break my leg [the one who does so] is liable. [If he added], on condition of being exempt, [the one who does so] is liable [anyhow].

Do it to Mr. So-and-so, on condition of being exempt, he [who does so] is liable, whether this is to his person or to his property.” The discussion here and above in Baba Qamma does not shed any light on how the world of Mishnah perceives the disabled other as a Jew like any other. The law of payment is the issue here, and not the status of an individual who is now handicapped.16

The M. Nedarim 3:7 discusses the continuation of the previous Mishnah (M. Nedarin 3:6) that begins to present the laws in which a person vows not to receive any enjoyment from various types of persons, and specifies whom it does or does not include under the prohibition imposed by the vow. One of these types is called those who “see the sun”. The Mishnah discusses whether a blind person is included, since he cannot “see the sun”. “He who vows [not to enjoy benefit] from those who see the sun is prohibited even [to enjoy benefit] even from the blind, for he intended [to separate himself] only from the one whom the sun sees.” The blind person is not the one with whom the Mishnah editors are concerned, for he is only an actor in the scenario. Rather, the concern is that of legal issues concerning vows. This specific impairment is one of contrast in a long list of the “enjoyments” and their opposites under discussion.

This Mishnah is a part of a group of Mishnayot that discuss witnesses who saw an individual disappear. The concern is whether the husband will be deemed dead and his wife permitted to remarry. M. Yebamot 16:4 “[If] he fell into a body of a water, whether within sight of shore or not within sight of shore- his wife is prohibited [until the corpse turns up]. Said R. Meir M”SH B17: A certain person fell into a large cistern, and came up [alive] after three days. Said R. Yose MS’h B; A blind man went down to immerse in a cave, and his guide went down after him, and they stayed [in the water[ long enough to drown, and they [the sages] permitted their wives to marry.

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