Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Survey – Eruvin 51-55 (November 25-29)

Life is hardly convenient, and we are forever busy. Thus it is entirely conceivable, in our day or in the days of the Talmud, that one could find oneself at some distance from their home as Shabbat was about to begin. If one cares to follow the rules, is there any way to make it home without traveling beyond the limit permissible? Indeed, even the Mishnah envisioned this possibility – if a person knows of a specific tree, he can claim to make his Shabbat base [shevita] under that tree, and thus can walk the allowed 2000 cubits to the tree, and another 2000 cubits to his home. A legal fiction, of course, since my guess is that he never plans to go BACK to that tree during Shabbat, but a fiction with the object of getting home for Shabbat at least makes some kind of sense.

It is the Talmud’s task, however to explain the peculiarities of that legal fiction. Raba claims it only applies if you can run and reach that root before Shabbat begins, even if evening would hit before you reached home. And can you rely on some ELSE knowing of a specific tree? Rabbi Yosef in this case lies to Rabbah, claiming that Rabbi Yose taught that one may rely on another’s knowledge. Even though Yosef says “s’mokh alie – trust me,” the Talmud confesses that he claimed Yose said it so Rabbah would agree with him, not because it was true! The ethics of this “well-intentioned falsehood” are not probed by the Talmud, and the status of the ruling itself is up in the air – if Rabbi Yose didn’t teach it, does that mean it’s still halakha [law] by someone else, or is the very ruling not really true? The pious would at least attribute it to Rabbi Yosef, but we might disqualify him for reverse plagiarism, or what scholars sometimes refer to as pseudepigraphy – claiming a citation to an older authority for his own original work!

In a classic Talmudic question, we are asked “where did the figure of 2000 cubits come from?” And in classic Talmudic style, the answer makes no logical sense: by a series of gezerah shavah [shared language], Rabbi Hisda connects in sequence Exodus 16:29 to Exodus 21:13 (both have the word “place”), then that verse to Numbers 35:26 (both have “flee”), then that verse to Numbers 35:27 (both have “border”), then that verse to Numbers 35:5 (both have “outside”) – the last verse specifies the open space around cities at 2000 cubits. There are, of course, plenty of other verses that use the same words (“place” is pretty common!), so the kind of reasoning WE would accept is again absent. Another reminder that Talmudic “logic” can appropriately be put in scare quotes.

We also find a common feature of life in every age that unfortunately is hard to change: the fact that rules for rich and poor are different. The subject here is defining an eruv (Sabbath border marker) with one’s feet or with bread – the poor perhaps could not afford to use bread, while it would inconvenience the rich to require them to walk out when they could send a servant with bread they could easily afford. Rabbi Meir claims the essence [ikar] of an eruv is bread, and thus relax the rule for the poor to let them use their feet, while Rabbi Judah says the essence of the eruv is one’s feet, but only a poor man could make a breadless eruv. And while Judah wants both rich and poor to define an eruv with their feet, other Sages are more generous to the rich, allowing a servant to set it and requiring bread from a poor person at home, assuming they will have enough. Credit for egalitarian impulses, deduction for problematic execution.

So far we have considered the cases of people punctilious in their observance of the law. What of someone who forgets to make such a declaration? Or someone who goes beyond their own prescribed border? In the latter case, the Mishnah would ban anyone going even one cubit (1.5 feet) beyond from returning, while others have a greater margin of error. And (you can almost predict it), the Talmud asks, “what about the person who has one foot on one side of the border and another on the other?” In addition to wanting to smack that person, it turns out it takes two feet to place one outside the point of no return. What if darkness fell when just outside the border? Again, the Mishnah is unforgiving, but Rabbi Simeon is generous, giving a 15 cubit margin of error for “hato’in – those who make mistakes.”

As the Mishnah goes on to discussing how to set a tekhom [boundary] around a town and what shape they should be, the Talmud instead goes off on another midrashic [homiletical] tangent to explain a few unusual places, names and incidents in the Torah; for example, does the new king that did not know Joseph at the beginning of the book of Exodus mean a new king or the old king who made new decrees as if he didn’t know Joseph? Archaeologists might actually have a third answer: a native Egypt king who rebelled and rejected the Hyksos kings and their fellow Semites. But a topic for another class, or for a commentary on the Torah rather than the Talmud.

We also learn that Rabbi Oshaia Beribi was a profound teacher – they would crowd closely in 8 students per cubit to learn from him, and like Rabbi Meir lo yokhlu haverav la’amod al sof da’ato – he was above and beyond his generation [literally “his colleagues could not stand at the end of his understanding”]. And again, we see the principle that earlier generations were greater, and this generation is terrible: their hearts were as wide as the Temple, and ours are like a thin needle; compared to them, for us debating is very difficult, our sabara [logical argument] is weak like a finger that can’t break wax, and we forget as easily as a finger fits in a large hole. And this from a generation that could quote the Hebrew Bible line and verse from memory, though they couldn’t cure an infection. We today have used our brains differently, but we have also learned that the intellectual achievements of yesterday are not always greater or more important than those since.

The most interesting section of this Talmud selection concerns the keys to good learning – what the b’nai yehuda [Judeans] did right and the b’nai galil [Galileans] did wrong. The Judeans cared for or were exact in their language and made simna [mnemonics], learned from one teacher, and made their learning public. And the Galileans did the opposite on everything; for example slurring their speech so people couldn’t know if they wanted ‘amar (wool), imar (a lamb), hamor (an ass) or hamar (wine). Of course, when asked to clarify the correct spelling of certain words in dispute, some Judeans said one while the other said the other! However, some others are smart by creating double meanings or speaking enigmatically, as other examples attest.

We also read a great story by Rabbi Joshua ben Hanina, a great sage who admits that he was only defeated in argument 3 times: by a woman, by a little boy, and by a little girl. Staying in an inn, he ate all the beans the hostess gave him the first two days, but when she over-salted them the third he claimed to have eaten earlier. She pointed out he still ate the bread, and that the sages have said one should leave none in the pot but a little on the plate. The little girl caught him “illegally” crossing a field on a path clearly made illegitimately. And when Joshua asked a little boy which of two roads to take to get to town, he was told “one is short but long, and the other is long but short.” Taking the first, Joshua found his way blocked, and came back to complain that the boy told him that that route was short. The boy answered “I also said it’s long. . .” and got a kiss on the head for his cleverness. And in the spirit of unexpected cleverness, we also see series of anecdotes about Beruriah, the very clever and learned wife of Rabbi Meir. She corrected Rabbi Jose the Galilean when he asked her in too many words how to get to Lydda, and a student who studied too quietly.

When should one study Torah? Why all the time of course, says Rabbi Joshua ben Levi. When traveling by yourself, or feeling pain in your head or throat or bowels or bones or even the entire body – because, like a universal magic potion, the Rabbis believed Torah study could fix everything. And that’s why so much space here and throughout the Talmud is spent on trying to get the exact meaning behind every word, phrase and verse; even if our way of understanding text, history, and authorial intent are light years away. And how do they claim to have gotten it right? They explain in Eruvin 54b that Moses received it from God, taught it to Aaron, then to Aaron’s two sons in his hearing, then the elders > thus Aaron heard it 4 times, so you can know what YOU received from your tradition is true too; so goes the traditional argument. We might dryly say the same about believing the world to be flat. This is the model for traditional learning: repeat, teach until the student has mastered it (even 400 times!), use mnemonics, study at fixed times, and be humble in your knowledge.

Finally, finally, we return to towns and Sabbath borders. But after this excursion, do we really want to get back to small details instead of great visions, idealism, pedagogy and anecdotes?

Rabbi Adam Chalom