Talmud on the Mind: Exploring Chazal and Practical Psychology to Lead a Better Life

Talmud on the Mind: Exploring Chazal and Practical Psychology to Lead a Better Life (Maseches Berachos) by Rabbi Dr. Ethan Eisen (Kodesh Press, 2020)

Reviewed by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein

This extremely enjoyable book offers about fourteen short essays on various ideas related to psychology and psychobiology. The author uses the mention of some of these ideas in Maseches Berachos to further expand on them and present his own novel interpretations. Throughout the book, traditional Jewish sources and academic/popular medical sources are used side-by-side to present new ways of looking at the various topics discussed. The author compares and contrasts how these two different types of sources address each given issue, and uses data from one corpus to fill in lacuna in the others. At the close of each chapter, Rabbi Dr. Eisen offers practical “Lessons for Today” that bring home the point of that chapter and tie it in to something more useful.

In his opening chapter, Eisen talks about how the rabbis’ preferred antidote to the pox of procrastination echoes the famous words of Nike’s iconic slogan: “Just do it.” This simple, but effective advice encourages people to overcome their indolence and dithering, and puts an end to the use of delay tactics. Eisen further develops this idea by showing how the Halakhic principle of zerizim makdimim l’mitzvos preempts man’s dilly-dallying and allows a person the freedom to live a more productive and meaningful life. He also draws on various psychological studies to probe the cognitive and behavioral causes of procrastination.

In another chapter, Eisen discusses how consistent synagogue-attendance alleviates many of the problems associated with loneliness, and how studies even seem to support the Talmudic assertion that such regular attendance contributes to longevity. As Eisen so cleverly puts it, “80% of life is just showing up.”

One of the most creative and powerful essays that Eisen presents discusses the so-called “IKEA effect” which asserts that people value things according to the amount of effort that they put in to achieving or building that thing. Eisen uses this idea to explain why the Talmud assumes that Chana was so intent on Eli sparing the life of her son Shmuel, when she could have just as easily allowed Eli to put Shmuel to death and prayed for her to be granted another son.

This reviewer was particularly interested in Eisen’s chapter on colors. He asks the age-old question of how a person can ever be certain that what he sees is the same thing that someone else sees. Color obviously has various Halachic ramifications, and the question of how different people might perceive the same color has implications for psychology, social studies, and even linguistics. This chapter uses the disagreement amongst Halachic authorities over how to exactly define the color of techeiles as a sort of case study to make generalizations into the question of color. [One opinion that the author omitted is that of Rabbi Yair Chaim Bachrach (1639–1702) who characterized the color of techeiles as "purple."]

Another discussion related to psycholinguistics is the cultural phenomenon of giving people a few seconds to finalize their statements and decisions. For chess players, this leeway allows a person to retract his move until he lifts his fingers from the chess piece that he moved, and in Halacha, this leeway allows a person to delay the effects of his Halachic speech-acts until what we call toch k’dai dibbur (roughly, the amount of time it takes to greet another person) has passed. This leeway is not to be taken for granted in all cultures, yet Eisen shows how it has some basis in the neurosciences.

Eisen also offers a few discussions that aren’t quite related to psychology, per se, but do touch on issues related to the human body. For example, he offers a chapter that discusses the physiological effects of shame and humiliation, which lead to both blushing and the paling of one’s face. The rabbis, of course, refer to embarrassing another as “whitening the face of one’s fellow.” Another chapter explores King David’s sleeping habits and considers the effects of a midnight candle on a person’s circadian rhythm. While on the surface these types of discussions seem more related to physiology, their effects are also studied by research psychologists and applied by clinical psychologists.

What is arguably the most important chapter of this book is saved for last. In this last chapter, Eisen shows how the sensitivity to so-called microaggressions is not just a post-Modern oversensitivity, but has a basis in basic human decency. He demonstrates how the Torah and Talmud are sensitive to the plight of victims and the down-trodden, leading to the expectation that Jews be especially vigilant in avoiding even miniscule acts of aggression.

The matters discussed in this book are loosely arranged by their appearances in Maseches Berachos and this reviewer looks forward to seeing similar books by Rabbi Dr. Eisen on other parts of the Talmud. Rabbi Dr. Eisen is trained in both rabbinics and psychology, using his mastery of each to complement our knowledge of the other. With witty chapter titles and easy-to-read discussions, this book is truly delightful and informative.