Bag Bag turns Torah

What kind of tree is this? Keep reading to find out.

I have to admit I picked studying this mishnah of Pirkei Avot because of the humorous name, Bag-Bag. The next mishnah has a guy named He He. Did the mishnah mean to be funny?

25. Ben Bag-Bag used to say of the Torah: Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it. Pore over it, and wax gray and old over it. Stir not from it for you can have no better rule than it.

בן בגבג אומר, הפוך בה והפך בה, והגי בה דכולא בה, ובה תחזי, סיב ובלי בה; ומינה לא תזוז, שאין לך מידה טובה יותר ממנה

Irving Bunim, in his book Ethics from Sinai, tells us that Ben Bag-Bag and Ben He He were proselytes, converts to Judaism. But perhaps it is only to my ears that the names sound humorous or sing-song. According to the commentator Kehati, if you add the letters Beit(2) and Gimel(3) —the letters in Bag—you get 5, the same as amount as Heh. The reason why they are given names with a Heh is to compare them to Abraham and Sarah, who both had ‘Heh’s added to their names when they took Judaism upon themselves (Abraham used to be Avram and Sarah used to be Sarai).

So, what does this mean, turn the Torah? We do turn it a bit in the synagogue each week, as the Torah portion of the week is read, and by the end of the cycle, in September, we have turned all the way to Devarim, the fifth and last book of the Torah.

Irving Bunim relates:

If you can, visit the Rare Book Room of the New York Public Library. In a special glass case lies a copy of the Gutenberg Bible, one of the most valuable printed books in the world, open to some page. Why?— it is the best way to keep the precious book from deteriorating, by exposing a different page every day.

So perhaps, Bunim explains, we should keep the Torah fresh in our minds by turning its pages each day.

He then explores a different way to look at this turning:

When you find two conflicting opinions in your Torah study, turn from one view to the other, and consider each separately, to reach as full an understanding as possible of both sides…A warning lies in these words, not to forsake any part of the Torah after a cursory examination, because it is too easy and we already know it, or worse, because it seems illogical or unreasonable. Turn to it again and again.

In Rashi one can find a comparison of a fig tree, the type of tree in the top photo, to Torah. Rashi quotes Eruvin 54:2 that says “Why is a fig tree like Torah?” The figs on a tree don’t ripen all at once but rather a few at a time, so every time one looks, one might find a new fig. Thus it is with learning Torah; each time, one may find something new.

And just one original thought here on my own: the language of the mishnah is Haphoch or to change, and it is similar to the language of Purim, when we say V’nahapoch, or everything should be changed around (in the Purim story, Haman gets hung on the tree instead of Mordechai, for example). So now that we are in the Three Weeks, a time of sadness when we mourn Jewish losses, perhaps we can hope for things to be changed about and to have this become a time of joy and redemption.

 A summary of Pirkei Avot posts on Ilana-Davita’s blog

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9 thoughts on “Bag Bag turns Torah

  • I have always thought Ben Bag-Bag was a funny name too. Never heard of Ben He He before. I really like the Bag-Bag quote at the beginning of your post. “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it.” So true.

  • I just came from someone else’s blog who had mentioned a fig tree…synchronicity perhaps? I liked reading how a fig tree is compared to Torah. Each time finding something new. 🙂

  • Gail, glad you are turning and turning it, too. I enjoyed your post on the Three Weeks.

    Rosie, I love the way you find interest all the variety of my posts! How flexible you are in how you see the world.

  • Many interesting things here that are new to me.
    Now this may be because I studied Pirkei Avot with my Rabbi in Chicago at the tender age of 16, or because the text says “hafoch BAH” (IN it), but I always had a picture in my mind not of turning pages or winding a scroll but of RUMMAGING. Forgive me if this reminds you of a rummage sale, but yeah, like with the same tenacity, energy, curiousity, and joy that we would dig through a bin of great bargains. Well…I mean, I think it means Dig right in! Leave no stone unturned! etc.
    My Rabbi also advised us to approach term paper writing by “turning the idea on its head,” i.e. going at the subject from some new direction. Hafuch? Turning it upside down.
    I especially like your conclusion of this post.
    Shavua tov.

  • Dina, thanks for sharing your thoughts on the mishnah. Glad you liked the conclusion. Actually, the bit about turning the Torah scroll each week in shul was my own idea, too.

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