Reading the Sefer ha-Aggadah last night I came to a piece of Aggadah (non-legal material from the Talmud) the first and least interesting part of which is so well known to Jews that I must have heard it from a half a dozen rabbis in the time I have been a Jew (I began my conversion at 20 and it took several years–through unfortunate accident–for me to convert). Anyway, the well know part of the midrash quoted is:
Our masters taught: How does one praise a bride while dancing attendance upon her? The school of Shamai says: Describe her as she is. The School of Hillel says: Describe her as beautiful and full of grace. The school of Shamai says: But suppose she is lame or blind… The school of Hillel replied to the school of Shamai: in your opinion if a man made a bad purchase and a man made a bad purchase in the marketplace, should a friend belittle it? Surely he should praise it to his face. Hence, the sages inferred that a man should always endeavor to be pleasant to people.
Hillel is described in the Talmud as being one “whose ways are pleasant.” However, I found a certain amount of amusement in what followed of Rabbis who lived according to injunction to be pleasant to brides, beautiful or not:
It is said of R. Judah bar Ilai that he used to take a myrtle twig and dance before the bride, chanting, “O bride, beautiful and full of grace.” R. Samuel bar R. Isaac used to dance holding three twigs.
When R. Zera saw him, [he was so embarrassed] he tried to keep out of sight, saying, “Look at this old man, how he embarrasses us.”
However when R. Samuel died, there were three peals of thunder and lightning for three hours and finally a divine voice came forth and proclaimed, “R. Samuel bar R. Isaac, the lavish dispenser of kindness, is dead. Let everyone show kindess to him.”
[When they came out], a pillar of five stood between him and stood between him and the rest of the people (and we have a tradition that such a pillar intervenes for only one man, or at most two, for a generation).
R. Zera said, “Shoto,” his twig benefited the old man. According to R. Zera said: “Shetuto,” his folly benefited the old man. According to others, R. Zera said: “Shitato,” his custom benefited him.
I prefer to believe it was “his folly benefited the old man.” This means that the Talmud indicates that like Russian and Yiddish “fools for God,” we should not fear to look foolish in expressing our faith. Think of the story when David danced before the Ark of the Covenant while bringing it into Jerusalem. Supposedly Michal, his wife, objected, telling him he was embarrassing dancing before slave girls and the crowds. He told her that he danced for God, and because she questioned that, he put her away.