This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

My Aching Back*

I have reached an age where my everyday movements are accompanied by occasional creaks and groans, and I have to be careful not to flout the law of gravity by standing or sitting too abruptly. My lower back seems to be the most vulnerable to abuses.

While I am hardly suggesting that back problems are a distinctly Jewish complaint, it has not escaped my notice that our ancestor Jacob suffered from sciatic pains and a permanent limp, inflicted upon him by a mysterious supernatural figure in that enigmatic wrestling bout at the Jabbok river. That incident was the source of the name Israel in the sense of one who strives with God and men and prevails, and is subject to countless levels of profound symbolic and mystical interpretations; but it might also serve as a precedent for a hereditary sensitivity in the lumbar regions. Several figures in later Jewish history would struggle with disorders of that sort.

Take for example the case of Levi bar Sissi, a talmudic sage who lived in the Land of Israel during the early third century. In the course of his studies, Levi learned the tradition about Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel, who performed remarkable acrobatic feats while celebrating Sukkot during the days of the second Temple.

After juggling eight torches, Rabban Simeon had been able to stoop down, supporting his weight by pressing his thumbs into the ground, then kiss the earth, and finally straighten himself and resume his standing posture. This act of gymnastic prowess was portrayed as a rare ability in his generation, though it had been a common form of obeisance in biblical worship, designated by the Hebrew word kidah.

As part of his interactive learning of the tradition about Rabban Simeon's acrobatic feat, Levi been Sissi volunteered to replicate it himself before his teacher, Rabbi Judah the Prince. Unfortunately, Levi's body was not quite up to the strain that was thereby placed on his hips, and he emerged from the demonstration with a persistent injury to his back.

In relating this episode, the Talmud is bothered by the fact that another rabbinic tradition ascribes a different cause for Levi's ailment. According to that version, Levi's limp was not occasioned by a physical activity he had undergone; rather, it had been inflicted on him as retribution for a spiritual indiscretion:

Once, during a time of drought, Levi convened a communal fast, and was so moved by the plight of the people that he challenged the Almighty in an accusatory tone: Master of the universe, you have ascended and settled yourself in the highest realms, and no longer pay attention to your children. Although the passionate prayer did achieve its goal of bringing rain, a rabbinic tradition related that Levi's physical affliction was imposed on him as punishment for his chutzpah.

In the end, the Talmud concludes that there is no real contradiction between the two accounts of Levi ben Sissi's injury. As Rashi explained it, once the verdict was decreed against him for his impudent way of addressing his Creator, it was just a matter of waiting for an appropriate occasion to carry out the sentence. The occasion was eventually supplied by Levi himself when he invited trouble, as it were, by contorting his lower back for his classroom demonstration.

An interesting piece of rabbinic lore would have it that a human spine transforms itself into a snake seven years after the person's death. The Talmud is quick to qualify this odd biological claim by noting that this change only applies to individuals who, during their lifetimes, were not meticulous in bowing, as is customary when reciting the passage we give thanks unto you, Lord [modim anahnu lakh] during the daily prayers.

The traditional commentators expanded in various ways on the profound spiritual symbolism of this text.

A particularly elaborate interpretation of the talmudic passage was suggested by the Maharal of Prague. He pointed to the fact that the serpent in the Garden of Eden was punished by being made to crawl in the dust. This implies that until that point he must have been capable of standing upright, a quality that is otherwise unique to humans.

From this premise, the Maharal derived the edifying lesson that the dignity of upright stature is bestowed upon humans on account of our readiness to acknowledge our reliance on divine grace. However, those individuals who deny or make light of this relationship, as signified by their refusal to bend their backs in subservience to their creator, are emulating the sin of the primordial serpent and thereby foregoing their right to a distinguished position in the spiritual hierarchy.

The Maharal concludes that the Jewish sages were expressing this analogy figuratively by means of the bizarre image of the spine being mutated into a snake--a creature whose entire skeletal structure, after all, consists of not much more than a spine.

In the previous examples, spinal and sciatic disorders were attributed to lapses into sin or irreverence. Sometimes, however, the aches and pains can be the consequence of pious behaviour. Even that most revered of Jewish activities, the pursuit of religious study, could be the cause of back problems--or, at least, they might serve to exacerbate the discomfort.

This may have been the case for Moses Mendelssohn of Dessau, the pioneer of Jewish emancipation in eighteenth-century Germany. As is well-known, Mendelssohn suffered from a hunched back, a condition that originated in a childhood illness that had left him with a curvature of the spine.

In his adult years, Mendeslssohn was accustomed to blame his plight, at least in part, on the great philosopher Moses Maimonides. An excellent new edition of the Guide of the Perplexed had recently been published (the first in almost two centuries) with the approval and support of the local rabbinical authorities. The young Mendelssohn quickly became so devoted to the study of the medieval philosophical classic that (so he would suggest many years later) it weakened his body's ability to resist the illness that caused his disability.

An unfortunate situation, to be sure; but I suppose it could have been worse. At least Mendelssohn did not go in for demonstrations of torch-juggling acrobatics. I have reached an age where my everyday movements are accompanied by occasional creaks and groans, and I have to be careful not to flout the law of gravity by standing or sitting too abruptly. My lower back seems to be the most vulnerable to abuses.

While I am hardly suggesting that back problems are a distinctly Jewish complaint, it has not escaped my notice that our ancestor Jacob suffered from sciatic pains and a permanent limp, inflicted upon him by a mysterious supernatural figure in that enigmatic wrestling bout at the Jabbok river. That incident wass the source of the name Israel in the sense of one who strives with God and men and prevails, and is subject to countless levels of profound symbolic and mystical interpretations; but it might also serve as a precedent for a hereditary sensitivity in the lumbar regions. Several figures in later Jewish history would struggle with disorders of that sort.

Take for example the case of Levi bar Sissi, a talmudic sage who lived in the Land of Israel during the early third century. In the course of his studies, Levi learned the tradition about Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel, who performed remarkable acrobatic feats while celebrating Sukkot during the days of the second Temple.

After juggling eight torches, Rabban Simeon had been able to stoop down, supporting his weight by pressing his thumbs into the ground, then kiss the earth, and finally straighten himself and resume his standing posture. This act of gymnastic prowess was portrayed as a rare ability in his generation, though it had been a common form of obeisance in biblical worship, designated by the Hebrew word kidah.

As part of his interactive learning of the tradition about Rabban Simeon's acrobatic feat, Levi been Sissi volunteered to replicate it himself before his teacher, Rabbi Judah the Prince. Unfortunately, Levi's body was not quite up to the strain that was thereby placed on his hips, and he emerged from the demonstration with a persistent injury to his back.

In relating this episode, the Talmud is bothered by the fact that another rabbinic tradition ascribes a different cause for Levi's ailment. According to that version, Levi's limp was not occasioned by a physical activity he had undergone; rather, it had been inflicted on him as retribution for a spiritual indiscretion:

Once, during a time of drought, Levi convened a communal fast, and was so moved by the plight of the people that he challenged the Almighty in an accusatory tone: Master of the universe, you have ascended and settled yourself in the highest realms, and no longer pay attention to your children. Although the passionate prayer did achieve its goal of bringing rain, a rabbinic tradition related that Levi's physical affliction was imposed on him as punishment for his chutzpah.

In the end, the Talmud concludes that there is no real contradiction between the two accounts of Levi ben Sissi's injury. As Rashi explained it, once the verdict was decreed against him for his impudent way of addressing his Creator, it was just a matter of waiting for an appropriate occasion to carry out the sentence. The occasion was eventually supplied by Levi himself when he invited trouble, as it were, by contorting his lower back for his classroom demonstration.

An interesting piece of rabbinic lore would have it that a human spine transforms itself into a snake seven years after the person's death. The Talmud is quick to qualify this odd biological claim by noting that this change only applies to individuals who, during their lifetimes, were not meticulous in bowing, as is customary when reciting the passage we give thanks unto you, Lord [modim anahnu lakh] during the daily prayers.

The traditional commentators expanded in various ways on the profound spiritual symbolism of this text.

A particularly elaborate interpretation of the talmudic passage was suggested by the Maharal of Prague. He pointed to the fact that the serpent in the Garden of Eden was punished by being made to crawl in the dust. This implies that until that point he must have been capable of standing upright, a quality that is otherwise unique to humans.

From this premise, the Maharal derived the edifying lesson that the dignity of upright stature is bestowed upon humans on account of our readiness to acknowledge our reliance on divine grace. However, those individuals who deny or make light of this relationship, as signified by their refusal to bend their backs in subservience to their creator, are emulating the sin of the primordial serpent and thereby foregoing their right to a distinguished position in the spiritual hierarchy.

The Maharal concludes that the Jewish sages were expressing this analogy figuratively by means of the bizarre image of the spine being mutated into a snake--a creature whose entire skeletal structure, after all, consists of not much more than a spine.

In the previous examples, spinal and sciatic disorders were attributed to lapses into sin or irreverence. Sometimes, however, the aches and pains can be the consequence of pious behaviour. Even that most revered of Jewish activities, the pursuit of religious study, could be the cause of back problems--or, at least, they might serve to exacerbate the discomfort.

This may have been the case for Moses Mendelssohn of Dessau, the pioneer of Jewish emancipation in eighteenth-century Germany. As is well-known, Mendelssohn suffered from a hunched back, a condition that originated in a childhood illness that had left him with a curvature of the spine.

In his adult years, Mendeslssohn was accustomed to blame his plight, at least in part, on the great philosopher Moses Maimonides. An excellent new edition of the Guide of the Perplexed had recently been published (the first in almost two centuries) with the approval and support of the local rabbinical authorities. The young Mendelssohn quickly became so devoted to the study of the medieval philosophical classic that (so he would suggest many years later) it weakened his body's ability to resist the illness that caused his disability.

An unfortunate situation, to be sure; but I suppose it could have been worse. At least Mendelssohn did not go in for demonstrations of torch-juggling acrobatics.


This article and many others are now included in the book

A Meeting-Place for the Wise
A Meeting-Place for the Wise

published by

CreateSpace
Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

 

[1]