Bilga and Synthesis: An Ancient Response to the Clash of Universalism and Particularism

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In October 2014, Jewish sociologist Alan Wolfe published a book entitled, “At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora Is Good for the Jews.” In it, he argues that particularism, an extreme patriotism to one’s own nation, is not a good Jewish trait, though he recognizes it definitely exists in Jewish history and thought. The exile is therefore good for the Jews because it is allowing them to open themselves up to universalism, which he defines as a commitment to defend the rights of all nations and peoples, but also tends to includes the belief in a universalistic value system. As Peter Beinart argues in the NY Times Sunday Book Review,[i] it is hard to see such universalistic values as being good for American Jews. One point he makes is that the universalistic values of non-Orthodox Jewish groups that Wolfe celebrates has expressed itself in mass intermarriage, with the latest Pew polls showing a full 71 percent of American non-Orthodox Jews intermarrying. As I read this adept review, I was reminded of another case of unfortunate universalism that manifested in intermarriage, apostasy, and cultural confusion. It is a case from more than 2,000 years ago, referenced in the Mishnah and explicitly described in the Tosefta, that could perhaps shed light on how to successfully integrate the important value of universalism into Judaism.

The last mishnah in Sukkah (5:8) states:

 “Those who entered, shared [their portion] on the north side; and those who went out, on the south side [of the Temple court]. The order of Bilga always divided [their share] on the south side; their slaughter ring was fastened down, and the cabinet window closed up.”

The last two mishnayot of Masekhet Sukkah had been dealing with the different work rotations, known as the “mishmarot” of the priestly class, 24 set groups who would offer the sacrifices in the Holy Temple throughout the year. After detailing all the different mishmarot, we are told, in the very last line of all of Mishnayot Sukkah, that there is one exception - the mishmar of “Bilga”. They are very different from the rest in three ways.

Normally, each priestly family served in the Holy Temple for a week at a time, and at the end of the week, the incoming and outgoing families would divide the priestly bread between themselves. The incoming family would eat their portion in the north of the Temple courtyard, while the outgoing family would do so in the south. The Bilga family, however, were required to always share their bread in the south, in the area where the other groups were exiting - even when they were the incoming group. Additionally, while all the other groups had their own ring attached to the floor that was used to place the head of the animal sacrifice so that it would not move during slaughter, the Bilga family’s was closed off, forcing them to ask other groups to use theirs. Lastly, their storage cupboards were locked, requiring them to go to other groups to use their slaughter knives and priestly garb. Each of these required the Bilga group to socialize with other groups particularly in the very beginning of their service.[ii]

What is the cause for this difference? One of the explanations that the Talmud Sukkah (56b) offers for this mysterious statement in the mishna is the following story:[iii]

Our Rabbis taught, It happened that Miriam the daughter of Bilga apostatized and married an officer of the Greek government. When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, she kicked with her sandal upon the altar,[iv] crying out, “Lukos! Lukos![v] Until when will you consume Israel’s money,[vi] and not stand by them in the time of oppression?”[vii] When the Sages heard of the incident, they fastened down her ring and closed up her cabinet…

The Talmudic rabbis sensed the seemingly unfair punishment. They end Tractate Sukkah by asking:

…Do we penalize a father on account of his daughter?

Abaye said, “Yes. It is as they say, ‘The talk of the child in the marketplace, is either that of his father or of his mother’.”

Do we penalize the entire watch on account of her father or mother?

Abaye said, “Woe to the wicked and woe to his neighbor; Well are the righteous and well is his neighbor.”

The placement of this story at the end of Tractate Sukkah leaves us on a rather bitter note. Is there any purpose or intent, even a small connection, to the placement of this story at the end of Mishnah Sukkah (as well as the Babylonian Talmud and Jerusalem Talmud, and the Tosefta), or is it simple coincidence? Within the story itself, how can one understand the nature of Miriam’s apostasy? Lastly, how does the three-fold punishment of the Sages fit her crime?

The story, situated as it is at the end of Tractate Sukkah, is a great lead-in to the next holiday on the Jewish calendar, Hanukkah. There are many connections between the Bilga story and the context of Hanukkah. The Greeks taking over Jerusalem and the Temple, as this story describes, resulted in the Maccabean revolt. The assimilation characterized by Miriam, who apostatized and married a Greek man, was probably typical of the Hellenization of so many Jewish people at that time. Miriam represents the inculcation of Hellenistic values that the Hasmoneans fought against. Additionally, the story incorporates a major rabbinic theme of Hanukkah, that of divine intervention. The cause of Miriam’s apostasy, as she cries out herself, is somehow connected to the seeming non-responsiveness of the divine will, which the holiday of Hanukkah righted. In fact, this aspect of Hanukkah was emphasized by the Talmudic rabbis when they chose to focus on the miracles involved in Hanukkah instead of the war victory, in Talmud Shabbat 21b.

Many have noted Sukkot’s connection to Hanukkah as a whole. This goes as far back as to 2nd century Book of Maccabees (II, 10:5-8), which is explicit in this regard. In it, the author states that the Maccabees, after reestablishing the Holy Temple, instituted an eight day holiday as a remembrance to how they were unable to celebrate Sukkot only a short time prior. In their celebration of what became known as Hanukkah, they brought out palm branches and other plants, singing psalms, an obvious nod to Sukkot.[viii] If the rabbis felt, as the author of II Maccabees did, that the holidays were linked in some way, the Mishnah’s inclusion of a Hanukkah story at the end of Sukkah highlights this relationship between the two holidays.[ix]

This relationship unfolds in an interesting way. It could be a theme of Hanukkah ends Mishnah Sukkah in order to be a capstone definition for the holiday of Sukkot as a whole, and to allow us to better understand Hanukkah. In Tanakh and in the Talmud, Sukkot stands out as one of the most universalistic holidays on the Jewish calendar. In the end of days, says Zechariah (14:16-19), all nations will observe the festival of Sukkot. This concept of a universal holiday of Sukkot is connected to the reason given in the Talmud Sukkah 55b for the reason of 70 total sacrifices on Sukkot:

 To what do the seventy bulls that were offered during the seven days [of Sukkot] correspond? To the seventy [gentile] nations. To what does the single bullock [of Shemini Atzeret] correspond? To the unique nation [of the Jewish people].

The sacrifices for an entire holiday are for the purpose of the gentiles. The surprise at such a concept is expressed in Numbers Rabbah 21:24 and Midrash Shochar Tov 109:4, which lament the hate of the world against the Jewish people, even as the Jews sacrifice on their behalf. Nevertheless, the universality of Sukkot is clear. And yet, Hanukkah seems to steer away from such notions. Far from universalistic, it was established as a celebration of a proud victory over other nations, the reinstitution of the Jewish religious center, and the miracles wrought for the Jews in particular.

With these two holidays clashing, the Bilga story at the end of Sukkah may be the rabbis’ way of warning us of the dangers of excessive universalism. When we allow our consideration of cosmopolitan ideals to interfere with our ethnic and religious identities, confusion and contradictions abound.[x] Though Miriam was the daughter of Bilga, a priest of the Temple whose mishmar is named after him, she married not just a Greek man, but a member of an army which sought to destroy the Temple. She entered the Temple, yet kicks the altar. She speaks in Greek to the holy altar, but speaks Hebrew in reference to her people. She cries out about the oppression of the Jewish people and how the altar, and by extension, God, abandons her people in their time of need, yet she abandons her own people in their time of need by leaving her faith and family. She is obviously concerned for the Jewish people, but her unchecked universalistic ideals have caused her to desert her religion, her familial ties, and her unique identity, in the process of bringing in all other kinds of relationships and cultures. The dangers of Sukkot’s universalism comes to a head at Hanukkah, which is a holiday built on fighting for the protection and preservation of the Jewish people and religion against Greek-Hellenistic notions.

What is the solution, then? To abandon Sukkot’s universalism for particularism, or to synthesize the two and take the good in both? This question may explain the famous argument between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel in the Talmud, Shabbat 21b about the order of lighting of the Hanukkah candles. Beit Hillel holds that the best way to light the candles to add one candle each night. However, Beit Shammai holds that the best way to start with eight candles and take away one candle each night. One of the opinions quoted in the Talmud for this dispute is that Beit Shammai saw a connection between Sukkot and Hanukkah - just like the process of the Sukkot sacrifices go down in number each day, so too should the candles of Hanukkah. Beit Hillel, however, respond that, “We go higher in holiness, not lower!”

Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel seem to be talking past each other; these concepts do not necessarily conflict. However, the argument can be understood in light of the question of how to deal with universalism in Judaism. Two different views emerge. Beit Shammai are realists, and Beit Hillel are idealists. Or, Beit Shammai are absolutists, and Beit Hillel are harmonists. If Sukkot represents unbridled universalism, and Hanukkah represents complete particularism, Beit Shammai believe that realistically, universalistic ideals will spell the end of a Jewish identity. Hanukkah is therefore meant to replace universalism with particularism, and the “sacrifices of Sukkot” with the candles, and the holiday of Sukkot is thus redefined as particularist in light of Hanukkah.[xi] Beit Hillel can be interpreted as meaning that we rise in holiness - if there is a danger of uninhibited universalism, Hanukkah corrects this by inhibiting it. If unbridled universalism caused war, strife and apostasy, Hanukkah teaches the necessity of universalism combined with a strong nationalist identity.[xii]

The Mishnah’s placement of the Bilga-Hanukkah story in Tractate Sukkah shows it is supporting Beit Hillel’s view of synthesis. This support can be found throughout the Talmud. For example, though the Talmud Sukkah 55b, as we saw above, states that the sacrifices are for the other nations during Sukkot, it is also sure to mention that the last day’s one bull was for the uniqueness of the Jewish people. Similarly, in the same breath that Rabbi Akiva (Pirkei Avot 3:14) praises all of humanity for being created in the image of God, he praises the Jewish people for being called “God’s children.” Both are worthy of praise, but Judaism confers a unique identity on its people.

This value, of holding onto Jewish identity and religion, while believing in the universalistic ideal, plays a large part in a fascinating Talmudic story (see Rosh Hashanah 19a, Taanit 18).[xiii] As related by the Talmud, the Roman government forbade Jews from studying Torah, performing circumcisions, and keeping the Sabbath. Judah ben Shammua and his colleagues consulted a certain woman whom all the Roman leaders would frequent. She told them to protest in the night. And so they did, crying out, “Ay, in heaven’s name, are we not your brothers, are we not the sons of one father and are we not the sons of one mother? Why are we different from every nation and tongue that you issue such harsh decrees against us?” They were successful, and the decree was annulled.

There is a pattern in the three laws of Torah, circumcision, and Sabbath. These are commandments that only apply to Jews. They are exclusionary, particularist. Laws that separate Jews from general society represents dangerous political and moral ideals to the Romans. To convince the Romans that this was not so, the rabbis sought help, from a woman who understood Roman political society in their most private ways. She advises that they should make a statement at night. Go out at a time when people cannot see each other’s unique faces in the darkness unless they are close together, to symbolize humans are all the same, yet unique at closer inspection (indeed, perhaps in the light of a candle). They went out, demanding to be treated the same as every other country, by being true to their unique laws and culture. A thesis of successful combination of universalism and particularism, and it worked. The Romans repealed the decree, and the Jews made a holiday.

If untempered universalism was the problem that Miriam represented, the rabbis’ seemingly harsh response to the Bilga group is actually ingenious. For what reason was there an eternal decree on the family of Bilga to constantly embarrass them, an act the Talmud Bava Metziah 58b states is tantamount to murder? How could such a punishment be decreed to have a family be embarrassed forever, and in the Holy Temple of all places? And why, if the Bilga group had done something so bad it warranted this response, why were they allowed to keep their privileged status as a Temple mishmar? Perhaps embarrassment was never the goal. Instead, the rabbis intended to fix the problem of excessive universalism that had come out in the ranks of the family of Bilga, by forcing them to interact with other priestly families. They couldn’t access their slaughter ring which kept their animals in place for ritual slaughter, nor their cupboard, which contained their knives or other items for the slaughtering of animals, so they had to go to other groups and request to use theirs. In doing so, they were forced to seek out fellow Jews and become familiar with them, on their way in to begin their weekly service. They were to eat their portion in the area where others were leaving, forcing them to see others and socialize with the groups that had just finished their weekly service, so that the Bilga group could enter having just made a connection to another group.

This is the import of Abaye’s two statements. If Miriam acted as she did because of what she saw in the home, how her parents spoke and behaved, then the solution is to pull the family out of the home and circle, into other social groups. Indeed, “Woe to the wicked, and woe to his neighbor. Well are the righteous and well is his neighbor.” Neighbors have an impact on each other. If the Bilga group could learn to be part of a community of fellow Jews, move outside themselves and look at others within the Jewish community, they can learn what it means to have a Jewish identity, an appreciation for the Jewish community and ritual law.

Many ask why the Talmud ends with an unnecessary line that goes further than the needs of the question. The reason why the entire Bilga mishmar is punished is answered with one line, “Woe to the wicked, and woe to his neighbor.” The next and ultimate line seems to just be, as Meharsha, ad loc. suggests, simply to end the Talmud on a better note. However, this line explains exactly what the motives were of the sages who sought to “fix” the Bilga group’s broken culture. Though it is true that one can turn off from the right path through bad community, this can be undone by being part of a good community, because “Well are the righteous and well to his neighbor.”

There is an amazing textual variant that truly brings this point home. One manuscript[xiv] does not have that last line, “Well are the righteous and well to his neighbor.” Instead it ends with,  “Said R. Elazar in the name of R.  Hananya: Torah scholars increase peace in the world, as it says, (Isaiah 54:13) ‘All your children shall be taught by God, and great shall be the peace of your children.’” Though some have joked that this is evidence of humor in the Talmud, the placement here of this line really helps us understand the “peace” the Talmudic rabbis had in mind. The rabbis did not want to hurt and humiliate the Bilga people. Rather, they desired the harmony of conflicting philosophies, of seemingly opposite ideals, into a beautiful harmony and great synthesis. Universalism does not have to destroy Judaism, as long as it is tempered by recognition of difference, being proud of national identity, and holding true to the tradition of our ancestors.

Aryeh is a senior at YU majoring in English, and is a staff writer for Kol Hamevaser.

[i] Beinart, Peter, “‘At Home in the Exile’ and ‘The Pious Ones’,” NYTimes Online, 6 November, 2014, available at:

[ii] Some interpret this as merely indicating that they were never really welcome, as if they were always leaving, see Meiri ad loc.

[iii] See also Tosefta Sukkah 4:28

[iv] This line has many different versions in manuscript; above is the standard Vilna printed version. We can speculate that its reference to apostasy, and the mentioning of a “Miriam”, probably put some scribes and censors on edge. One significant variant is whether she kicked the altar with her sandal (as we have it), or even stood upon it (see the standard Jerusalem Talmud Sukkah 5:8, London - BL Harl. 5508 (400), and Munich 95), or simply hit her head with her sandal (see Munich 140, New York - JTS Rab. 218 (EMC 270), and Bodl. heb. e. 51 (2677)), which seems to be a symbolic gesture. These variants could change the tone of her words from anger to frustration. The root of “b-’-t”, “kick”, to reference what she does to the altar, present in our printed version and in many manuscripts, might be in reference to I Samuel 2:29, “Why do you kick at My sacrifice and at My offering which I have commanded in My dwelling…”

[v] The Greek word for “wolf”. This might be a reference to the altar’s service in the Temple, which consumes sheep like a wolf, or it could refer, as some suggest (R. Reuven Margoliot, Nitzotzei Ohr ad loc., and R. Yehezkel Abramsky in Hazon Yehezkel on Tosefta Sukkah 4:28), to the location of the altar, which is the portion of Benjamin, who is compared to a ravenous wolf, see Genesis 49:27, and Targum Onkelos there. The calling of the altar in a twice-repeated proclamation occurs in I Kings 13:2, “Altar, Altar!”, and the connection between these scenarios would be an interesting area of study.

[vi] The Tosefta and Jerusalem Talmud have, “destroy the property of”, perhaps a reference to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the enemy army.

[vii] Most versions similarly have “their oppression”, instead of simply, “the oppression”. However, there is a version that has it as “our oppression” (see BL Harl. 5508 (400)), which may change how she views herself.

[viii] Indeed, the relationship between eight days of Sukkot and eight days of Hanukkah easily answers the question as to why Hanukkah is eight days if the miracle was only the final seven days.

[ix] A possibility also might be that a Tractate Hanukkah was planned, and the story of Bilga is perhaps a lead-in to the tractate (and this is not completely unfounded, the medieval sages generally assume a thematic connection between tractates in an order of Mishna). But, for whatever reason (political, religious), the tractate was never created or published as part of the Mishnah collection. More interestingly, it may have been created but lost. See R. Avraham ben HaRambam, Rav UPoalim, Hakdama 8a, who posits a “minor tractate” of Hanukkah, and R. Schorr, Mishnas Ya’akov Jerusalem 1990, pp. 33-34, on a similar answer to why there is no Tractate Tefillin.

[x] The Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, suggests in a video that can be viewed here ( that the lesson of Bilga is that a Jew remains a Jew, regardless of how far they fall; the yiddishe neshama can still be there. This does not seem to explain all the elements of the story and placement, as I seek to do.

[xi] Perhaps this is the import of Shammai’s Pirkei Avot saying (1:16), “Make the Torah keva” - make it fixed, the ideal to focus on!

[xii] Perhaps this is the import of Hillel’s Pirkei Avot saying (1:12), “Love peace and pursue peace, love people and bring them closer to Torah.” He believed that universal ideals can be “made peace” with Torah ideals, and that it is the Jewish obligation. While it is true that “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”, focus on identity, it is equally true that, “If I am only for myself, what am I?”, with a focus on others.

[xiii] See also Scolion to Megillat Taanit

[xiv] JTS Rab. 218 (EMC 270)