A fascinating and cryptic Talmudic story takes us on a journey into the heart of the Jewish struggle for identity and survival some 1900 years ago, teaches us about the essence of "The Three Weeks," and conveys the secret of resilience and endurance in times of crisis and destruction.

The Rabbi and the Greeks

The Talmud (Bechorot 8b) recounts a fascinating confrontation that occurred between the Wise Men of Athens and the great sage of Israel, Rabbi Yehoshua son of Chananya, which took place during the first century CE, only a few years after the destruction of the second Temple by the Romans in the year 68 CE.

Athens was known in the ancient world as the seat of wisdom and philosophy...

Athens was known in the ancient world as the seat of wisdom and philosophy, and its sages saw themselves as the deepest and wisest thinkers of the time. Amongst the sages of Israel, Rabbi Yehoshua stood out as the sharpest and most quick witted, able to best anyone in an argument.

The impoverished Rabbi Joshua was a fearsome debater and a brilliant scholar, though to earn a livelihood he would sell charcoal. He was a Levite who played music back in the Second Temple (the Levites would perform a daily morning concerto in the Temple) and witnessed the destruction. In the following decades, one of the worst moments in all of our history, Rabbi Joshua served as the most prominent spokesman for Judaism and the Jewish people.

So when the Roman Caesar demanded to test who was wiser, the Jews or the Greeks, Rabbi Yehoshua was the clear choice to represent the Torah of Israel.

Sixty sages of Athens challenged the Jewish sage and the battle of wits began. The Talmud records the back and forth between these sages, that took the form of a cryptic exchange of riddles. The Athenian sages would throw a challenge in front of Rabbi Yehoshua, and Rabbi Yehoshua would come back with an answer each time, usually in the form of a counter-question. The exchange went like this:

The sages of Athens asked: ‘If a chick dies while in the egg, before the egg is hatched [and it is sealed from all sides], from where does its soul escape?’ Rabbi Yehoshua’s response: ‘The soul escapes through the same place it entered [into the sealed egg].’

They asked him, "When salt gets spoilt, what do we use to preserve it?" His response: "We use the afterbirth of a mule." "Do mules have afterbirth?" they asked. [A mule cannot give birth.] "Does salt spoil?" he retorted.

What do these bizarre questions really mean...?

Each one of these exchanges – and there were many of them — begs explanation. What do these bizarre questions really mean, and what lies behind the sharp answers? What wisdom is being displayed here? Here is one more, equally strange.

The Sages of Athens showed Rabbi Yehoshua two eggs, and asked him, "Which of these eggs came from a white hen and which from a black hen?"

In response Rabbi Yehoshua presented before them two pieces of cheese and asked, "Which of these cheeses is from the milk of a white goat, and which from the milk of a black goat?"

This response silenced the Athenians. They were defeated. But why? What were they asking, and how were they answered? They came with eggs, he responded with cheese. What’s going on here? Are they showing each other their lunch, as in the hoary Jewish joke about Yankel and the Pope? (see below * )

The various Talmudic commentaries all agree that the conversations between the Rabbi and the Greeks were allegorical. They were discussing lofty issues of the spirit, the meaning of life and death, G‑d’s role in the universe, human destiny, the meaning of existence. They spoke in symbolic terms, the language of wise men, and their words are not to be taken literally. This discussion was not about eggs and cheese.

So what were they talking about?

Two sets of 21 days

The great 16th century Polish Talmudist, Rabbi Shmuel Eidels, known as the Maharsha, interpreted this enigmatic exchange in a profoundly moving and original way. The Greeks were communicating, in a rather sophisticated way, one of the key ideas in Greek philosophy. They were also making a dire prediction. They were warning of the imminent extinction of the Jewish people. Israel was about to disappear. And they could prove it.

Here is how the Maharsha explains it:

It takes 21 days for a hen egg to hatch. For three weeks, the mother hen sits on her eggs to keep them warm (she sits lightly on them, so as not to squash them, and she covers the eggs with her thick fluffy feathers and wings), until the chicks hatch from the eggs and nothing remains but an outer shell. The "life-span" of an egg is three weeks (unless the egg is taken from the hen to be eaten.)

The two eggs...represented two 21 day periods in the Jewish calendar.

This was the metaphor of the two eggs in our narrative. The two eggs that the Sages of Athens presented before Rabbi Yehoshua represented two 21-day periods in the Jewish calendar.

Firstly, there are the 21 days between 17th Tammuz and 9th Av, the annual three weeks of mourning for the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. This time period — in which we find ourselves right now — commemorates sadness and tragedy. It starts on the day that the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the enemy, and ends on the day that the Temple was burned to the ground. These 21 days are represented metaphorically by an egg that was laid by a black hen – a three week period which brought darkness and gloom to the Jewish people.

But there is another "egg" in the Jewish calendar, another three week period on the Jewish calendar: the very first 21 days of the Jewish year, beginning on Rosh Hashanah and culminating with Hashanah Raba. These are festive and purifying "white" days. On Rosh Hashanah our souls are renewed and made fresh, on Yom Kippur we are cleansed and whitened from our sins, receiving atonement for each and every sin. On Sukkot we dance and celebrate, and on Hashanah Raba we rejoice with the final judgment for a year of blessing and good. This 21 day period is like the egg laid by a white and pure hen, a time of purification, whiteness, cleansing and positivity.

These are the two eggs, from the white hen and from the black hen. With this imagery, the Greek sages presented Rabbi Yehoshua with a grim proposition. You can’t tell the difference between the two eggs. The egg that was laid by the black hen is identical to the egg laid by the white hen. So too, your days of celebration and purification have been equaled by your days of mourning and blackness. Your 21 days of joy have thus been neutralized by the 21 days of mourning. Darkness is akin to light; despair is as powerful as hope; gloom is an equal to happiness. The world is essentially a random, hopeless, meaningless arena, where fortune and misfortune share an equal chance of victory. Evil is as powerful and potent as good. Your times of light do not even get one additional day over your period of darkness.

...the Greeks were intimating, this egg experiment demonstrated that there is no hope for Israel.

What is more, the Greeks were intimating, this egg experiment demonstrated that there is no hope for Israel.

In times gone by, the Jewish people could claim that they had a special place in G‑d’s eyes, for G‑d granted them three weeks in the year to be elevated and purified. But now, in the aftermath of the Temple’s destruction, that special relationship has been eclipsed, for 21 days of pain and sadness have come to cancel out the 21 days of celebration and joy. The egg from the black hen looks the same as the egg from the white hen. G‑d’s love of the Jews is a thing of the past. Darkness has fallen over Israel. The Jewish moment is over.

This was the challenge the Athenian sages lay before Rabbi Yehoshua. And indeed they had a point. From the looks of things, the grand majestic history of the Jewish people was coming to an end. The nation that left Egypt with miracles and wonders, received the Torah from the hand of G‑d Himself, settled the Promised Land to create a kingdom of priests, and built the Temple as a home for G‑d on earth, this once extraordinary nation was now beaten and exiled, their land conquered by a foreign invader, their religion outlawed and their Temple reduced to a disgraced pile of rubble. Millions of their people were massacred. Any observer would predict that the end was near. The era of the white hen, the 21 days when G‑d finds favor with the Jewish people, seemed to have been pushed aside by a new era, the era of the black hen. The sun had set on Israel, and the darkness was descending all too fast.

Two Goats of Whiteness

But the Athenians were wrong. And Rabbi Yehoshua showed them why. He took out two pieces of cheese, one from a black goat, the other from a white goat. They too were indistinguishable. With this he taught them something that even Greek wisdom could not fathom: the Jewish message of hope after tragedy; rebirth after destruction. Where the Greeks saw an egg coming from a black hen, Rabbi Yehoshua saw cheese curdled from a black goat. Even from the black goat white cheese was born.

The two goats alluded to the goats that were used in the Temple on Yom Kippur, just several decades before this debate took place. The Torah (Leviticus 16) commands us to bring two identical goats on the holiest day of the Jewish year. One of them is brought as an offering to G‑d, its blood sprinkled in the Holy of Holies and on the sacred altar; the other goat is cast off a cliff in the desert, a symbolic casting away of negative energy and sin.

(The famous term "scapegoat" is taken from this biblical instruction to select a goat that would "carry" away the sins of Israel. The word "scapegoat" has come to mean a person, often innocent, who is blamed and punished for the crimes or sufferings of others, often as a way of distracting attention from the real causes.)

The other goat...represents the darker side of this relationship...

These two goats are opposites. One goat is an expression of the deep bond between G‑d and His people, an offering of repentance brought on His holy altar on the holiest day. The other goat, cast away to the wilderness, represents the darker side of this relationship, the fact that humans have the capacity to betray their loved ones, their soul, their G‑d, themselves, and need to rid themselves of the negative energy created through betrayal and evil. Metaphorically speaking, one goat is white and the other black. One goat represents our "whiteness," our ability to enter into the holy of holies; the other goat embodies the darker side of our personality, which can take us to the abyss.

And yet, white cheese comes from both!

While a white goat and black goat look very different, the cheese that they produce is indistinguishable. The source may be different, but the end product is the same. The darker side of our life, the sins we commit, the mistakes we make, the "downers" we experience, are not fun or pure. But their ultimate objective is to allow us to reach a depth in our relationship with G‑d which we could not appreciate without these mistakes. Even a black goat is capable of producing pure white cheese.

Here Rabbi Yehoshua revealed one of the great ideas which gave the Jews strength for thousands of years. Just as the cheese from black goats is as white as the cheese from white goats, and you can’t distinguish between the two, so too, the pain and suffering that the Jewish people witnessed at the destruction of the Temple during the black three weeks was not random and meaningless; it was not a demonstration that evil is as potent as good and that the sun has set on the people of the Divine book. No! No, beneath the pain there was a streak of whiteness; at the core of the "black hole" there was infinite light. Even the black goats of life are there to produce white cheese; even the hardships we face are there to help us get where we need to be.

We have all seen it, in or own lives and in the lives of those around us. The illness that brings us a deeper perspective in life, the relationship breakdown that allows us to find true love and humility, the passing of a loved one that gives us new appreciation of our short time in this world and the spirituality of life. What Rabbi Yehoshua understood, what the Jewish soul understands, is that there are two forms of light – light that appears as light, and light that appears as darkness. The good times are good. The tough times are there for us to make them good. "Problems are only opportunities with thorns."

Sure, we would rather not have to go through the tough times. We don’t seek out suffering, even if it will make us stronger. We would rather learn the lessons and gain the inspiration we need through pleasant and comfortable means, not through pain. It would be wonderful if all eggs could be born from white hens. But the reality of life is that we all have our share of challenges, difficulties and trials. And as long as that is the case, the Jewish response to life’s challenges is to make them a springboard for positive change.

The Light of Redemption

Destruction is a step toward rebuilding...

It is during this time of year, the three weeks of mourning for the Temple, that we focus on this powerful idea. Destruction is a step toward rebuilding, and failure is a chance to regroup and get our strength back. We all go through black times, we all get knocked over and we all fall. But "failure is not falling down, it is staying down." As Jews we know that we must get back up, shake off the dust and keep on laying eggs.

The Three Weeks, from a Jewish perspective, are like the Black Hole in modern physics, which is filled with endless light, but does not allow it to escape its pull. (A black hole is a region of space in which the gravitational field is so powerful that nothing, including light, can escape its pull.) Our job is to penetrate the black hole and reveal its inner light, the light of Moshiach.

[Excerpted and adapted by Yerachmiel Tilles from //theyeshiva.net. (Click here to watch Rabbi YY Jacobson’s class on this theme.)]


* Yankel vs. the Pope

Several centuries ago, the Pope decreed that all the Jews had to convert to Catholicism or leave Italy. After a huge outcry from the Jewish community, the Pope offered a deal. He would have a religious debate with the leader of the Jewish community. If the Jews won, they could stay in Italy; if the Pope won, they would have to convert or leave.

...it was agreed that it would be a 'silent' debate.

The Jewish people met and tried to pick a representative, but no one volunteered. Finally, Yankel, the janitor of the shul, an elderly simpleton, said, "If no one else will do it, I will." However, as the janitor spoke no Italian, and the Pope spoke no Yiddish, it was agreed that it would be a 'silent' debate.

On the chosen day the Pope and Yankel the janitor sat opposite each other. The Pope raised his hand and showed three fingers. Yankel looked back and raised one finger. Next, the Pope waved his finger around his head. Yankel pointed to the ground where he sat.

Looking desperate, the Pope brought out a communion wafer and a chalice of wine. Yankel pulled out an apple.

With that the Pope stood up and declared that he was beaten, and that the janitor was too clever. The Jews could stay in Italy.

Later the Cardinals met with the Pope and asked him what had happened? The Pope said, 'First I held up three fingers to represent the Trinity. He responded by holding up one finger to remind me there is still only one G‑d common to both our beliefs.

‘Then, I waved my finger around my head to show him that G‑d was all around us. He responded by pointing to the ground to show that G‑d was also right here with us.

‘Finally, I pulled out the wine and water, to show that G‑d absolves us of all our sins. He pulled out an apple to remind me of the original sin.

‘He had beaten me at every move and I could not continue.’

'I haven't a clue' said Yankel.

Meanwhile, the Jewish community gathered to ask Yankel the janitor how he had won. 'I haven't a clue' said Yankel.

‘First he said to me that we had three days to get out of Italy, so I gave him the finger. Then he tells me that the whole country would be cleared of Jews, so I said to him that we were staying right here.’

'And then what?' someone asked. 'Who knows?' said Yankel. 'He took out his lunch so I took out mine.'