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The Philosophers and the Jews: Black Eggs and White Cheese

The Secret of Jewish Resilience

37 min

Class Summary:

The Talmud (Bechoros 8b) recounts the tale of a fascinating confrontation that occurred between the ‘Wise Men of Athens’ and the Great Sage of Israel, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananya. Athens was known in the ancient world as the seat of wisdom and philosophy, and its philosophers 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." Rabbi Yehoshua was a remarkable man. Although a fearsome debater and a brilliant scholar, to earn a livelihood he would sell charcoal. He was also a Levite who played music in the Second Temple and witnessed its devastating destruction. In the following decades, from the darkest times 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 unanimous choice for representing the Torah of Israel."

Sixty sages of Athens challenged the Jewish sage and the battle of wits began. The Talmud records the dialogue between these sages, back and forth, all in the form of a cryptic exchange of riddles. The Wise Men of Athens would challenge Rabbi Yehoshua, and without fail Rabbi Yehoshua would respond with an answer, usually in the form of a counter-question."

Part of this historic 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 replied: ‘The soul departs through the same place it entered.’ They asked him, ‘When salt gets spoilt, what do we use to preserve it?’ His response: ‘We use the afterbirth of a mule.’ ‘But do mules have afterbirth?’ they asked. [A mule cannot give birth.] ‘Does salt spoil?’ he retorted." "They asked him, ‘When salt gets spoilt, what do we use to preserve it?’ His response: ‘We use the afterbirth of a mule.’ ‘But do mules have afterbirth?’ they asked. [A mule cannot give birth.] ‘Does salt spoil?’ he retorted.

Each one of these dialogues—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?’ 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?’ And it was this response that finally silenced the Athenians. They conceded defeat. But why? What were they asking, and how were they answered? They came with eggs, he responded with cheese. What’s going on here? 

This class will explore the symbolism behind this exchange, showing the Jewish response to pain, suffering, and a long and better exile.

Please leave your comment below!

  • Anonymous -5 years ago

    Came back to watch this again!

    Saw this brilliant shiur in the past, but had to come back today and wach this again so to be ready for the daf hayomi of tomorrow.

    Thanks Rabbi again and again for your most inspiring shiurim!


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  • Anonymous -6 years ago

    black eggs white cheese

    where can i get the rest of this essay

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  • RM

    Rosemary Murray -10 years ago

    Nice. Also, when I read "Beneath the surface of our perception there exists a reality in which every single Jew from Abraham till our present day is alive.", I shake my head, unable to nod, endorse this & move on, as most people seem to do, seemingly without thinking it through & considering the implications of this, including the implications in light of Jewish precepts. What of these Jews? Where are they? Does one basically leave it to Hashem to care for the ones without a ticket to ride? A bit of food here & there & crafted smiles are nice of course. Maybe some things are just sham, as usual.

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  • PK

    Philipp Kornreich -10 years ago

    Multiverse Theory

    Yes, there is a theory, the Multiverse Theory, stating that there is not only one universe abut an infinite number of universes. There might be a universe where the holocaust did not occur and moses did not smash the tablets.


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  • A

    Anonymous -10 years ago

    the survivor
    G-d bless israel. thank you Rabbi for another wonderful and inspiring lesson full of hope. its much needed for many throughout the world and all the more so in this month of Elul. the month of hope and faith. Thank you and G-d bless you and yours for your outreach to us noahides also. blessings.

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  • BM

    boruch merkur -10 years ago

    excellent work!

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  • L

    light -10 years ago

    darkness to light
    What a great light you are! You bring light and hope in a time of darkness and suffering. it is in your merit that Moshiach will come immediately even before the advent of the nine days. 

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  • A

    A.G. -12 years ago

    To Yisroel and Isaac
    rabbi yehoshua did not want to respond with the example of eggs because the eggs are just white from a black chicken, it can be a white egg because it is showing that there is no difference between black chickens and white chickens like the elders of athens claim or it can be as r' yehoshua claims, but when you use the example of the black goat which the 2nd goat clearly represents the "dark chambers of the human spirit" and everything evil, and that is why it is cast off the mountain, still it produces white cheese and the red string turns to white and it transforms the darkness into light. in other words the black chicken producing white eggs doesnt necessarily represent transformation of darkness to light it can be representing what the elders are claiming, as oppose to the black goat which produces white cheese is clearly showing the jewish view on darkness that the black goat on yom kippur, the evil, the trangressions, the dark days can all and will all be transformed to light, to a white string, and clear the jews from all iniquity (which is the purpose of the goats on yom kippur). But the question is still there that r' yehoshu could of used an example of the goats milk why go to chesse? so for this question i think isaac's first answer is is really interesting, and another possible answer is that it wouldn't be as funny watching rabbi jacobson hold a gallon of milk as it was watching him flap around the cheese!

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  • KT

    Kayo, Tokyo -13 years ago

    The Light revealed
    Baruch HaShem

    I have been having schizophrenia for 16 years.
    The darkness revealed its light - I met Chabad because of this illness.

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  • GS

    Gittle S -13 years ago

    Is there a position
    After reading your article the burning desire to help yidden to see the light of Hakodosh Boruch hu ignited.
    My Husband has a masters in Psycology and used to be a Rav in the five towns he is a tremendous Marbitz Torah and is looking for a position as Rav or kiruv....Do you know of a position or a kihilla where my husband and myself can do kiruv?

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  • H

    harry -13 years ago

    Dear Rav YY,

    This was an excellent article. I remember you telling this story at the JLI retreat in Colorodao some years ago.

    I was the Jew who took your flight home from Israel after Tish B'Av.

    All the best,
    Harry Abram

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  • BM

    Barbara Mintzer -13 years ago

    Embracing Your Fragments
    This was a beautifully written, poignant article. The writing was rich and full and illustrative. I enjoyed reading it very much. It was thought-provoking as well. Thank you for your perceptive insights.

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  • SM

    Sonya Matsui -13 years ago

    your Elul article

    Such beautiful encouragement for one and all.

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  • RG

    Reyzl Gerut -13 years ago

    Dear Rabbi Jacobson,
    I read this article and thought of my mother who grew up in the the Gere Rebbe's hoif in Poland.
    Before the war the Rebbe told her father, Rabbi Nechemiah Warszawski, not to take the family to Palestine and leave the community. Tragically, my mother's entire family was killed with the exception of one sister and one cousin. My mother endured the Lodz ghetto and Auschwitz and told us, her children, that she believes in hell because she was there...
    She did not believe in G-d any more after that - like the man in your story.
    When we sat together with Rabbi Polter at the Chabad of Acton, he listened and later told her - "It is not that you don't believe in G-d, you are angry with G-d." She said, "you are right."

    I so appreciate reading your teachings.
    Thank you so very much.
    Reyzl Warszawska Gerut

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  • MG

    moshe gruda -13 years ago

    dear r' yy.jakobson, i do read your articels, they are very uplifting and allways to the point, thanks a lot, i will try to send something sonn.. now i am involwed with all kind of medical problems.


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  • K

    Kayo -13 years ago

    Depth of Yiddish Kait
    Baruch HaShem,

    Because I can learn the depth of Yiddish Kait, I watch The Yeshiva.net

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  • CT

    chaim teleshevsky -13 years ago

    21 days
    I thought 21 days represented the days of holiness in the year?
    shabbos = 1
    rosh chodesh = 1
    rosh hashona = 2
    yom kippur = 1
    succos = 7
    shmini atzeres = 1
    pessach = 7
    shavuos = 1

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  • I

    Isaac -13 years ago

    To Yisroel
    Perhaps because eggs are created by nature; cheese has to be created by the human being. The light that comes from the transformation of drakness is a human creation; it is the unique contribution of mankind.
    Also, the whiteness of cheese is far sharper than that of eggs.
    Also, after he explained it through the goats, that blackness too produces light, then indeed it can be applied to aggs as well. but first he had to introduce the very concept through the cheese of the goats. i think this is really the answer.

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  • M

    Michale -13 years ago

    As always, I like your essay / class. Bright days always come; it does not matter how long darkness continues it will be replaced with lightness. The same is true for Jewish history book.

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  • Y

    Yisroel -13 years ago

    Eggs and Cheese
    I understand the symbolism of the eggs and the goats, but for simplicity's sake, couldn't R' Yehoshua have responded by arguing that the eggs themselves are both white?

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  • J

    joe -13 years ago

    as always, we are looking forward very very much.

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The Three Weeks

Rabbi YY Jacobson

  • July 20, 2010
  • |
  • 9 Av 5770
  • |

Dedicated by David and Eda Schottenstein in the loving memory of Alta Shula Swerdlov Rabbi Gavriel Noach and Rivki Holtzberg and all of the Mumbai Kedoshim

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