In the days following the Pittsburgh shooting, that tragically left 11 of our Jewish brothers and sisters dead and many others and law enforcement officials wounded, and which brought reports of still further anti-semitic vandalism and other hatred around this country, I have drawn some strength and resolve from a rather odd source: a fantastical legend recorded in a medieval Talmud commentary.
The Talmud, in the midst of the main discussion of the intricacies of the mitzva of tefillin (phylacteries) in tractate Menahot (37a) records that the sage Peleimu raised the following dilemma in a conversation with Rabbi Yehuda haNasi:
?מי שיש לו שני ראשים באיזה מהן מניח תפילין
A person with two heads—on which should he wear the tefila shel rosh?
The student of Talmud is usually prepared for questions and dilemmas which push the envelope, which test how far a law or legal principle can be applied, but even to the seasoned scholar, this seems a bit too much. Really? A man with two heads?
The Tosafot here comment (s.v. O Kum):
בעולם הזה ליכא אבל …
In this world there are no such people; however …
And with that “however” the Tosafot introduce the following story (the full version presented here is preserved in the Shita Mekubetzet of Rabbi Betzalel Ashkenazi Menahot 37a #18):
The demon-lord Asmodeus (Ashmodai) wanted to test the judicial prowess of Shlomo Hamelekh, so he brought up from the netherworld a man with two heads. And over the years that followed that man married a human woman (with one head!) and had several sons. Some of the sons took after their mother and bore only a single head. And some took after their father and bore two heads. And when their father died, the brothers with two heads tried to claim each a double portion of the inheritance—to be counted as two individuals not one.
To resolve their dispute, they came before the ever wise Shlomo for judgement. How was Shlomo to determine if these two-headed men were to be considered each a single individual or each as two individuals who happened to share a body? Shlomo in his wisdom determined a cleaver plan. He boiled a pot of water, and blindfolded one of the head, and poured the boiling water on the other. He noticed that both heads cried out in pain. Shlomo said, “This is proof that both heads grow from a single root.” Thus the two-headed men were judged each as a single individual.
Shlomo was able to determine what it means to be a single individual, a single entity, to be united by testing the response to suffering. How do we—the Jewish people—respond when some of our brothers and sisters are suffering? When they are mourning? Even if we are not those immediately affected‚ even when we live in New York and the tragedy is in Pittsburgh or when we live in america and the tragedy is in Israel, if there are Jews in pain then we are all in pain. That is what it means for us to be one people. That is what it means for us to be united.