The Entrance to Hell
By Avi Lazerson
The Talmud has its own style in relating deep concepts which is quite different from the literary style that we are used to. The sages of the Talmud normally package their deep ideas in quite simple rhetoric which appears generally as a story. Although at first sight, the metaphors that the sages use may seem ludicrous, it was just this type of symbolism in verbal communication that the sages of the Talmud used as external wrapping to reveal the deepest secrets of life as they passed it down to the succeeding generations. A simpleton could not understand what was being said other than the exotic external wrapping of the story. Only the wise would be able to penetrate the superficial outer layer and reach to the fruit of the sages wisdom.
This non-legal type of learning that is featured side by side with the legal debates in the Talmud is called the agada or agadita. An excellent example of this is an agadda that is found in the Tractate "Eruvin" on page 19a. A first glance it is a simple statement but upon analysis the depths of the sages' wisdom is revealed.
On this page in the Talmud the sages are discussing various aspects of gehenom (Hebrew for Hell). During the discussion Rabbi Merion says in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi (and others say it was a teaching of Raba the son of Merion regarding a teaching of Rabbi Yochanon ben Zakai):
"There are two palm trees in the valley of Ben Henom (a valley that is next to the old city of Jerusalem) and a pillar of smoke comes up from between these two trees. This refers to what is taught (in the Tractate of Succot) that the lulavs (the new leaf which grows at the top of the palm tree that has not yet opened) called Tzinai Har HaBarzel are kosher. This is the entrance to Hell." (Tzinai har HaBarzel are a type of lulav in which the leafs grow in very meagerly, but as long as the top of the bottom leaf touches the bottom of the leaf above it, it is kosher.)
Now what exactly these rabbis are trying to tell us would remain quite a mystery unless we are fortunate to have some one who is competent in the ways of the ancient sages who can unlock the hidden meaning of this tale. We are fortunate to have the explanation of the famed Marhasha, Rabbi Shmuel Eliezer Adeles, (know by his initials as the Marhasha) who lived approximately four hundred years ago. His explanations are our keys to understanding the above passage. The Marhasha explains that the palm or date tree was sought after because of its sweet fruits. Remember that in the time of the Talmud, sugar was unknown; it was the date fruit that furnished the sweetness that many craved. The date was a staple and could be pressed and stored for many long winter months.
We understand from the Marhasha that the entrance to hell is situated between two date trees and for a purpose. One date tree represents the normal enjoyment of the sweets of this world; some sweets are permissible and a person is certainly justified in having a portion of sweets from the date tree. One of the praises of the land of Israel is its sweet dates. But two date trees represent over indulgence and it is just this over indulgence in the pleasures of this world that lead a person into hell.
This is the reason that the gate to hell is located between the two date trees. As long as a person can restrain himself and take only one reasonable portion of sweets, he is okay. It is when in the heat of his passions he searches and reaches out for more than is justifiable that he will fall into hell. That is why there is smoke rising from the between the trees, the smoke comes from the heat of passion that cause people to desire more than is beneficial and more than is proper to take.
The luluv at the top of the date trees are kosher. If you are not satisfied with your first kosher luluv and desire a different one, one that is even more beautiful, it is kosher for you to do so for desire to increase one's service to G-d in doing mitzvot is certainly proper.
The above might seem like a simple message, but if you look around at other people who have ruined their lives by overeating, by over indulgence in alcohol, in sex, in gambling, etc. we can appreciate the wisdom of our sages. A little bit can be fine, but it is when man tries to take too much for himself, he will land in hell. Too much of worldly desires can be detrimental, but increase in one's mitzvah observance is a positive thing.
This is the message of our sages and it is a very moral and ethical teaching; one that each of us should incorporate in our daily life. With this teaching close to our heart we can be ready to go out and conquer the world.
from the January 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine