There are times when the Halachic and Aggadic masters of the Gemara teach ideas and laws that are clearly understandable, while there are other times when we encounter veiled and cryptic teachings which we – as the learner – are then invited to explore what their possible meanings may be.
A good example of this is found in today’s daf (Eruvin 19a) where Rabbi Yirmiyah Ben Elazar teaches that: ‘There are three entrances to Gehenom: One in the wilderness, one in the sea, and one in Jerusalem’ while providing biblical prooftexts for each.
In terms of the wilderness, Rabbi Yirmiyah Ben Elazar references Bemidbar 16:33 which describes the punishment of those involved in the rebellion against Moshe who were swallowed into an entrance of ‘Sheol’ (a biblical term often interpreted to refer to Gehenom). In terms of the sea, he references Yonah 2:3 which tells us about Yonah who was swallowed by a fish and from where he prayed ‘from the belly of Sheol’. And in terms of Jerusalem, he references Yeshayahu 31:9 which speaks – in the context of God’s intervention to help the Jewish people overcome the Assyrians – about the ‘fire in Zion whose furnace is in Jerusalem’, which had previously been interpreted by Rabbi Yishmael to be an allusion to Gehenom.
1. When first pondering these biblical prooftexts it is noteworthy that two of the three verses explicitly describe the event as a ‘swallowing’, while it is interesting that this term is also regularly used with respect to materials that are swallowed into the fire of a furnace. Furthermore, it is significant that all three of these instances refer to openings and ‘swallowings’ that were each unexpected and miraculous. Given this, Rabbi Yirmiyah Ben Elazar may be trying to teach us that each of us can be swallowed into Gehenom wherever we are and at any moment in our lives, and so we should always heed the word of God and live in accordance with the will of God.
2. Reflecting on this teaching a little more, it is also interesting that these three entrances to Gehenom contain an allusion to the elements: Wilderness represents Earth; Sea represents Water; and Jerusalem represents both Fire (which the verse explicitly mentions) and Air (because fire needs oxygen). Based on this, it is possible that Rabbi Yirmiyah Ben Elazar wishes to teach us that while each of the elements can be harnessed to lift and build society, each can also be harnessed to lower and to destroy society towards Gehenom. Therefore, we should use the elements and the materials that we have in our lives for the good and not, God forbid, for the bad.
3. Significantly, each of the three stories speak of different types of rebellions which threatened the physical or spiritual future of the Jewish people and other nations. In the wilderness, it was an internal rebellion within the Jewish people against the authority of Moshe – as chosen by God – which threatened the internal unity of the Jewish people. In the sea, this was a personal rebellion by Yonah against the mission he had been assigned by God which threatened the possibility of stimulating a process of repentance by the people of Nineveh. And in Jerusalem, this was a national rebellion by the Assyrian’s against the Jewish people which threatened the existence of the entire Jewish people. Based on this, it is possible that Rabbi Yirmiyah Ben Elazar wishes to teach us that by being a Jew, we need to be aware of our responsibilities and loyalties within our nation, within ourselves, and beyond our nation as well.
4. Finally, each of these three stories have an allusion to Teshuva (repentance). In terms of Korach, tradition teaches that those who were consumed did eventually teshuva. But beyond this, we are also taught that upon realizing that they had erred, Korach’s sons did teshuva and avoided the punishment of being swallowed into Sheol – which is one of the reasons why, just prior to the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, we read Tehillim Ch. 47 which is a psalm ‘by the sons of Korach’. In terms of Yonah, his mission was to encourage the people of Nineveh to do Teshuvah which they then did – which is one of the reasons why Sefer Yonah is read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. And in terms of the salvation of the Jewish people from Assyria, the Jewish people are told – just a few verses before the previously cited prooftext – to ‘return to the One from Whom you have profoundly turned away, O Children of Israel’ (Yeshayahu 31:6) and by doing so, God would protect and save them.
What we learn from here is that while there are a limited number of entrances to Gehenom, there are an infinite number of entrances to spiritual growth which, especially in this holy month of Ellul, we should do all we can to open.