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.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Survey – Eruvin 76-80 (December 20-24)

There are times, working one’s way through the various permutations of eruv possibilities when multiple interlocking courtyards are considered, that one wishes there had been an ancient building code forbidding such structures. Why? Because they raise all kinds of possibilities of residents in an inner or outer courtyard participating or not in their courtyard’s eruv, and how that effects their desire to travel through one or the other. Our current survey begins with a discussion of how large a window between the courtyards must be to allow the residents to use one eruv for both if they choose. The Mishnah declares that it must be 4 hands wide by 4 hands tall, and less than 10 hands above the ground. So, the Talmud asks, why does the Mishnah go on to also explain the opposite: that if it is less than 4x4 or higher than 10, one eruv may not serve for both courtyards? Why, PART of the window could be under 10 handsbreadths and the rest over – only if ALL of the window is higher than 10 hands must 2 eruvs be prepared. We might say that it was simply the Mishnah’s style to say both the law and its corollary opposite, but because the Talmud considered the Mishnah its law source, it was assumed that nothing was stylistic and everything admitted of legal analysis.

And then you can debate how large a round window must be, which shows us again that the rabbis could have derived a rough sense of pi (a circumference of 3 is about a diameter of 1 > a diameter of 1 creates a circumference 3.14159… to be more precise), or the diameter of an isosceles right triangle – sides of 1, diameter of 1 + 2/5 (or 1.4142 with a calculator). They were not about to discover the law of gravity, but we can often forget that the ancients had some sophistication with mathematics, engineering, and other sciences we sometimes assume are basically modern. Even if there isn’t a permanent wall, there are other ways to designate division: a pile of hay 10 hands high can count, and residents of each courtyard could feed their cattle on their respective sides, provided they didn’t take any away but just fed them from the pile. But the cattle shouldn’t eat it down to under 10 hands high, since that would create new problems.

How low and how thin can the wall between the courtyards be to permit a joint eruv (10 hands high and 4 thick)? How large of a breach in the wall counts as a doorway for the same purpose (10 cubits, or 15 feet)? In fact, a larger breach means they’re one courtyard and may ONLY prepare one eruv – thus giving us some sense of the rabbis’ minimum balance of wall and open space needed to define property lines. And what about a trench – how deep must it be (10 as well), and if it’s been filled in with hay or gravel or dirt does that make them be considered one courtyard? What if there’s a ladder against the wall – does that make a difference, and what does the ratio of wall-height to ladder-height need to be to enable sharing an eruv? We even read that using a tree as a ladder is forbidden while using an asherah, a tree dedicated to a Canaanite fertility goddess from which any benefit is absolutely forbidden as idolatry and paganism, IS permitted! The Talmud tries to explain that since the prohibition on using the asherah comes from something other than Shabbat, it’s allowed for this purpose, but the ruling still strikes one as odd, given the Biblical and rabbinic abhorrence of the asherah (see, for example, II Kings 23:6).

We also get a Mishnah explanation for a concept explored in previous pages: how to create a shittuf, or shared space in an alley. One places a jar there (later explained to have wine or other food), declaring “this belongs to everyone,” and then a person considered an independent individual needs to “receive” it: a grown-up son or daughter, or a wife, or a Hebrew maid or slave/servant (eved) can do so. But a minor child or a Canaanite maid or slave cannot. We easily understand the distinction for the minor, but why treat the slave differently? Because Hebrew slaves are periodically freed, but Canaanite slaves can be slaves forever! Cheers for considering Hebrew slaves still people, but jeers for not doing the same for all peoples.

Rather than delve right into this topic, however, our Talmud page instead jumps from a ruling of the savei d’pumbedita – the elders of Pumbedita, one of the pre-eminent rabbinic academies in Babylon – on this subject to a whole host of other rulings by the same group. One who recites Kiddush [wine blessing] for Shabbat or a holiday must taste at least a mouthful; one may only light a fire on Shabbat for a woman in childbirth; and an asherah by implication is a tree guarded by priests but not eaten from. Only then does the Talmud return to questions of whether a real transfer of possession is required to define shittuf, or merely the declaration by the individual is enough. And there are even cases where a wife may set up shittuf without her husband’s knowledge – heaven forbid!

There are two rulings of special interest and relevance to us with which we may conclude. First, Rabbi Ishmael, the son of Rabbi Yose, speaks to our reaction to these many laws when he quotes his father, who said, “Every time you can be relax eruvim rules, relax them!” And second, when debating what minimum quantity of food is required to keep an eruv valid after some have eaten from it over the course of Shabbat, Rabbi Yose rules that even the smallest quantity of food is all right, since they only enacted the rule of eruvim for courtyards so that the children should not forget it. Does this mean that all of this legal discussion was only to provide an educational point? In fact, that is the precisely the role it is serving for us here – not a guide to active living, but an opportunity for memory that these rules existed and were lived by by our ancestors once upon a time.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Friday, April 14, 2006

Survey – Eruvin 71-75 (December 15-19)

So far in Eruvin, we have seen how ownership is a balance between private possession and shared space – my household versus a shared courtyard. Our current survey begins with a further such complication: what if two or more households have agreed to split a common possession in a shared space, like an alley? I can think of friendly neighbors today, for example, who would share a more expensive lawnmower and just take turns using it rather than buy and maintain it alone. In our case, the Mishnah claims that if they share a vat of wine, they need no special eruv, but if it is wine and oil, they do. Why? As the Talmud explains, the wine could be kept in one large vat, but wine and oil require two containers and thus are not as clearly shared property. The reason this discussion is included in Eruvin is that there is a secondary kind of connection neighbors may make called a shittuf, or “association” – by contributing to a shared pot, they create a shared space for Shabbat. Not quite a modern “co-op,” but something in that direction. Unlike an eruv, which must be made with bread, a shittuf may be made with wine or, of course, with bread. Rabbi Meir would require an eruv for courtyards and a shittuf for alleys, but the consensus of the other Rabbis was that either device would work to cover both – an eruv in a courtyard covers the alleys, and a shittuf in an alley covers the courtyard.

BUT don’t think that the Rabbis of Meir’s generation have the last word, for later Rabbis claim three ways Rabbi Meir wins out in the long run:

- Rab Judah claims Rab said “the halakha [religious law] is as Rabbi Meir [says].”
- Rabbi Huna says, “the minhag [custom, lower force than halakha] is as Rabbi Meir.”
- Rabbi Yokhanan says, “the people act [nahagu ha-am] as Rabbi Meir.”

In other words, three sources of authority for a particular practice: halakha, minhag, and what the people actually do. Personally, I’ve always found the second two both more relevant and more interesting to my life than the first. Would you really rather think through the permutations of five courtyards and an alley – an eruv in one with no shittuf in the other, or a shittuf in the alley but one inhabitant of one of the courtyards forgets to chip in for the eruv, or one forgets about the shittuf – or hear about the cultural customs and daily life conditions as actually lived in Talmudic times? In truth, both are important: after all, halakha is a testimony both to some lived experience and to what the rabbis wanted people to do (even if they didn’t). And even the rabbis draw on actual experience: one common phrase used in this survey is ta sh’ma – come and hear of a real example that demonstrates the legal principle under debate.

The Talmud considers still more possible eruv situations – if several groups stay in a room, need they contribute one eruv portion to the common courtyard eruv for each group, or one for the whole room? How much of a partition counts to treat them as if they were in different rooms? And if children eat for Shabbat at their father’s table before going back to their own homes (on the same courtyard, a commentator clarifies) to sleep, can they participate in his eruv without contributing on their own, or need they renounce their share of the courtyard to be able to use it? The most important consideration in that last case is whether the son receives pras, or a maintenance allowance, from his father. Where does the Talmud learn that? From the case of a man who has 5 wives or 5 slaves he maintains with a pras – there is unrestricted movement between households automatically (though we can only imagine what the 5 wives thought about that). In fact, a similar relationship also applies to teacher and student.

Again, architects and urban planners would find the discussions of what to do when there is an inner courtyard entirely contained by an outer one – can those in the inner court walk through the outer courtyard to travel their permitted 2000 cubits, even though their eruv technically only applies to their own courtyard? Or can those from the outer go through the inner, since it’s contained in their own? I could draw a stretched analogy about how this could be compared today to relationships between inner cities and suburbs, or the “inner” person and the “outer” person, but to be honest, the rabbis who wrote this discussion were talking about inner and outer courtyards and what kind of restrictions on personal behavior they thought were required – NOT moral behavior, just private personal behavior! And whether people carry something in or out of their houses, in my mind, is much less important than whether they love their neighbors as themselves. Sharing a lawnmower, now THAT’S significant.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Survey – Eruvin 66-70 (December 10-14)

Who knew that a simple commandment like “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20) could create so many laws and conditions? Today’s selection continues earlier discussions of the conditions to create an eruv [Sabbath home marker] for a shared courtyard, but with a new situation: what if you have renters in a home owned by someone else? And what if the landowner is non-Jewish but the renters are Jewish? In fact, the renters can cause the non-Jewish landlord’s share of a courtyard to be counted towards a shared eruv, though again Rabbi Joseph claims to have never head this ruling and Abaye reminds him that Joseph himself taught that ruling! Even without a detailed medical history, we can suspect what Joseph was dealing with.

In addition to the interesting sociological tidbit that Jews would rent rooms in buildings owned by non-Jews (hardly a ghetto-style mutual separation), we also hear cases of interest to urban planners and architects: what if you have an inner and an outer courtyard? In this case, the inner courtyard takes precedence, for its eruv can be valid even if the outer courtyard has one “shareholder” not participating, but if the inner is invalid so too is the outer. There also is more haggling to be had concerning the size of a non-Jews doorway into a shared courtyard: what size may be considered a karmelit, an intermediary space between public and private ground. And if one renounces his right to a piece of the courtyard for the purposes of an eruv, how permanent is that, does it apply to their house as well, if they forget to participate in the eruv can they participate in the now-common space defined by the others, and so on and so on. Even to the case of someone dying in the middle of Shabbat – what then is the status of his share of the courtyard?

You may notice that I haven’t tried to answer any of these questions, or explain the Talmud’s way of working through them. One saying in our selection about two sages gives me the opportunity to explain why. We read about Rabbi Hisda and Rabbi Sheshet that they were a little afraid of each other: Rabbi Hisda was intimidated by how many mitaniya [rabbinic rulings or sayings] Rabbi Sheshet knew, and Rabbi Sheshet trembled from the pilpul of Rabbi Hisda. What is pilpul? It is quintessentially-Talmudic logic, splitting hairs for the sake of further discussion, on and on ad boredom. Much of the aforementioned discussion, particularly for the vast majority of contemporary Jews who do not observe Sabbath restrictions on carrying between private and public space (let alone other Shabbat rules!), is thus little more than pilpul. But the Talmud takes it very seriously: if there is a question in a particular teacher’s ruling, one should object before obeying if it concerns a Torah rule, but one should obey and object later if it’s a Rabbinic rule! You could say that this puts Torah rules on a higher level, since one should be extra careful about not breaking the rule, but it also puts the individual rabbinic teacher in a very powerful position. Never underestimate the importance of who wrote the document to who is given authority.

As one example, in our original Mishnah text under Talmudic discussion, Rabban Gamliel related his childhood experience of sharing an alley with a tsdoki [Sadducee] – a member of the Jerusalem priestly elite who disagreed on many ritual questions with the Pharisees or early rabbis. Interestingly, while the Talmud claims the Sadducee is like a non-Jew for eruv questions, Rabban Gamliel says they are not – personal experience with a neighbor, perhaps? But in a Talmudic retelling of the anecdote by Rabbi Meir, the Sadducee is referred to as to’av – abomination. On one hand, they are closer to each other by both being Jews; on the other, their differences are magnified by their very proximity and conflicting claims to authority.

We also read a fascinating discussion of other kinds of renegade Jews, from the rabbinic perspective: the mumar [“changed”, one who doesn’t follow rabbinic law] and the gilui panim [“revealed face”, bold public sinner]. Can they renounce their portion of a shared courtyard for an eruv? It hinges on an old debate between Rabbi Meir and the sages: Rabbi Meir felt that someone who disregarded one area of the Torah was suspect in all areas, while the Rabbis gave him the benefit of the doubt unless the one area he violated was idolatry [avodat kokhavim, literally “serving the stars”]. In our experience, consider our debates over the question of whether someone cheating on their taxes (or their spouse) makes them suspect everywhere else. In fact, the conclusion to the Talmud’s discussion is that offering wine to idols is on the same level of violation as public Sabbath desecration, since one who does either was not allowed to offer sacrifices. In other words, according to this reading of the Talmud, those who publicly violate Shabbat (most Jews today) can be suspected of violating every Torah commandment, including honoring their parents or bestiality!

And we who celebrate Shabbat Friday night or even Saturday morning but go to the gym on Saturday afternoon are not exempt – we read here that something permitted for part of Shabbat is allowed for all of Shabbat, and something forbidden for part is forbidden for all. This “all or nothing” approach is one reason why the most traditional lump Conservative, Reform, Humanistic and other Jews into one bag – do they observe traditional halakha [religious law] in its entirety or not? If not, then they’re like the Sadducee of Rabban Gamliel – to be avoided. But who needs their approval to have a personally-meaningful connection with one’s heritage?

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Survey – Eruvin 61-65 (December 5-9)

One of the fascinating features of Talmudic discussion is the interaction of multiple chronological layers of halakhic [Jewish religious legal] debate. In the beginning of this survey, the Talmud continues its earlier discussion two towns close enough to each other to be considered one for the purposes of traveling on Shabbat by discussing the next Mishnah passage that has not yet been cited, since the rabbis discussing it already knew it was coming. In that passage, we see a record of Rabbi Akiva disagreeing with the multitude: on Shabbat they would allow a person to walk through both towns, and then 2000 cubits beyond (as if they were really one), while Akiva would be more strict and only allow one 2000 cubits from their individual eruv [Shabbat home marker]. He makes a reasonable analogy: if he put his eruv in a cave, you’d only let him travel 2000 cubits! They respond: “aymatie – when is this? When no one lives there!” In other words, if you’re creating a legal-fictional home by your eruv, it might as well extend through inhabited space like a town. And then the Talmud continues the debate – his contemporaries and later consider the case of a deserted town, or a large and spacious cave like that attributed to King Zedekiah (Jeremian 52:7), but the final result is stated succinctly by Raba centuries later: in eruvin, we don’t listen to Rabbi Akiva.

The next topic, however, is another of anthropological as well as halakhic interest: the Mishnah and following Talmud discussion considers the case of a Jew sharing a courtyard with a nokhri [non-Jew], or with someone (Jewish) who “ayno modeh b’eruvin – who does not accept the principle of eruv.” Does it take only one of those to make the courtyard off limits for Shabbat, or does it take several Jews who disagree? Rabban Gamliel even remembers growing up in Jerusalem sharing an alley with a tsdoki [Sadducee – rival Jewish sect to the early rabbis] and his abba [father] telling them to hurry up and put out what they’d need to use before he could restrict their use of the eruv. All of this is wonderful historical information: Jews and non-Jews sharing courtyards, Jews disagreeing with each other about Jewish practice, Sadducees who had a reputation for Biblical literalism not accepting the rabbinic innovation of the eruv, and so on.

The crux for the discussion in the following Talmud pages is the standing of the non-Jew’s home for the purposes of Shabbat. Is indeed a valid dwelling, or is another saying applicable: “khatsiro shel nokhri, haray hoo k’dir shel b’hayma – the courtyard of a non-Jew, behold it is like a cattle-pen.” In other words, their status in the courtyard is negligible, so they really can’t restrict its use. The ethics of that ruling notwithstanding, what would then give that “resident” the standing to interfere with an eruv? In fact, reasons the Talmud, the ruling was instead likely made to prevent the Jew from seeing and learning from what the non-Jew did, either by breaking Shabbat restrictions or general evil-doing, since by default “a non-Jew is suspected of bloodshed (nokhri khashood ashpikhoot damim).” To use the courtyard for Shabbat, the non-Jew must lease his piece of the courtyard to the Jews for that day, and so they debate how strict of a lease would be required to get him to agree – is a “perfect” lease (for some minimal sum or with documents and witnesses) required, or would an “imperfect” lease be acceptable? Acceptable that is, both to the non-Jew who has to consent, and to the rabbis for their own followers to offer. And there may be the case where the non-Jew simply suspects the Jew of “witchcraft” – if they don’t understand Shabbat in the first place, they’re unlikely to make temporary leases around it. As a later commentator put it, having to deal with the hassle every week would inspire the Jew to move elsewhere, saving him “from the evil influence of the heathen’s questionable mode of life.” We can see through this that sometimes ghettos were not only imposed from outside the Jewish community.

We saw earlier in this selection how later generations understood earlier legal discussions – what about two authorities operating in the same time? Even if there is a clear “master” in that period, or even in that place, can others proclaim halakhic [religious law] decisions? Raba claims that “a young scholar may examine his own knife” (for purposes of ritual slaughter), thus granting some autonomy in legal decisions. And Rabina explains that he can be both a talmid [student] and khaver [colleague] to his master, the ideal relationship of any scholar (even today) to their former students. But on the same page, Raba decrees that in general it is assur [forbidden] on penalty of death to make a legal ruling in the presence of one’s Master, and even in his absence (though not under penalty of death). Several anecdotes make the same point: such a student should be bitten by a snake, or die within a year, or go to she’ol [the afterlife] without children, and so on. While some claim that Judaism is a tradition of unfettered and unbiased debate and argument, there is also a clear sense of hierarchy, maintaining the ego and dignity of the teacher, and limiting the autonomy and independence of the student. This does have a practical side of restricting innovation, but a concomitant result of restricting innovation!

After all, what if your Master is like Rabbi Nahman, who disagreed Rabbi Judah’s prohibition on making legal rulings after drinking a log [six eggs’ worth] of wine – Nahman claims that without drinking a quarter log, his mind isn’t clear! And in a modern incarnation of the difference between DUI (Driving Under the Influence) and DWI (Driving While Intoxicated), the rabbis try to determine when one is shatui [had drunk] versus shikor [drunk] – the former may pray a valid prayer, but the latter may not. Some suggest walking or sleeping off the drink, but others claim it will make you more tired and drunk if you’ve have over a quarter log. And “Italian wine” [yayin italki – i.e. Roman wine] is considered stronger, requiring 3 times the walking to wear off. Those who are drunk and sell themselves into servitude, or commit a capital or flogging-worthy offense must face the consequences of their actions, unless they are as “drunk as Lot” (see Genesis 19:30 – unconscious). So what is a responsible use of wine? Rabbi Hanin claims it can comfort mourners and the wicked about to perish for their sins. Keeping a clear mind having drunk some wine puts one in august rabbinic company. And when wine flows like water in a house, it is a sign of blessing (we might say, alcoholism!). In all seriousness, it is very reasonable to have as a general guideline “shikor lo yoreh – a drunk should not make legal decisions.”

We’ll end this survey with one other piece of valuable wisdom: “a person is known by three things: his cup (how he drinks), his purse (how generous he is), and his anger.” The Aramaic is even more clever: koso, keeso, v’ka’aso. And others add: also by his laughter [sakhako]. If you want a way to understand others, or know if a person is a good person, these are not bad places to start.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Monday, February 20, 2006

Note on February 20th, 2006

Some of my readers may have noticed that I have gotten behind in posting to “Not Your Father’s Talmud.” What I have been doing is filling in entries from the end of 2005, working to catch up to the current daf yomi [daily page]. For example, in the last few weeks I posted several entries from November. So if you’re looking for new material to read, start there. I hope to get through December and January and get back on schedule soon.

Thank you for your patience,

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Survey – Eruvin 56-60 (November 30-December 4)

Again and again we have been struck by the combination of insight and ignorance we find when it comes to Rabbinic knowledge of the natural world. On one hand, we read at the very beginning of this survey that darkened bread, new beer and vegetables were thought to increase one’s excrement, bend the stature and reduce 1/500th of human eyesight. And there was some debate over whether a radish should be considered a sam khayim [drug of life] or sam ha-mavet [drug of death]! This particular radish hair is split by differentiating between the roots and leaves, or between eating it in winter or summer; we might say “it’s just a matter of personal taste!”

At the same time, however, we have a detailed discussion of compass directions and seasons in the context of setting the official boundary sides of a town to match the four directions. How to tell what are North and South (at least in the Northern Hemisphere)? Simple: on a “yom arokh – long day [i.e. summer day]”, the side on which the sun rises and sets is North; and on a “yom katzar – short day [winter day]”, it will do so in the South. And at tekufat Nisan and Tishrei [the “turning” of these two months], the sun rises and sets exactly in the middle of East and West – we would say, on the equinox. In fact, our terminology differentiates between solstice (longest or shortest day) and equinox (equal day and night), while the Talmud calls each event a tekufat in its particular month. And it defines the space between them as “91 days and 7.5 hours.” And if you do the math through 4 seasons, you reach 365 days and 6 hours, or the solar year under the Julian calendar (365 ¼ days, made even by a leap year every 4). We know today that the actual solar year is 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes (see, which is why in our Gregorian calendar there are exceptions to leap years for years divisible by 100 or 400, but not bad on the Talmud’s part!

This solar insight came from deciding the boundaries of a town, a discussion the explanation of which requires both more drawing and more geometric ability than I innately possess. More interesting than the intricacies of square area versus circles, and open space at the corners versus the sides, is the question of a karpaf, or extension of a city boundary. If one is allowed limited travel beyond the official city boundaries on Shabbat, but two cities are very close to one another, is there any way to have them count as one city for Shabbat travel? But of course, respond the Mishnah and Talmud – each town can extend their boundary a karpaf [about 70 cubits], and if the two karpafs touch, voila! You have two towns considered one for Shabbat travel! And if there are three towns in the shape of a triangle, the middle one can even be used to connect the further two! We might then ask, how restricting is this travel restriction now, anyways?

So how do you measure a tekhom Shabbat – Shabbat travel boundary? The Mishnah decrees one must use a rope exactly 50 cubits long (75 feet), based on the measurement of Exodus 27:18 of the court of the Ark of the Covenant. After debating of what material the rope must be made, the Talmud explores a dilemma raised by the Mishnah – what to do while measuring if you reach a valley or a hill? After all, going up or down would use up a lot of the 2000 cubits allowed. Being generous, the Mishnah and Talmud assume that the 2000 cubits are in a straight line – straight over a chasm (of a certain minimum depth, of course) or piercing straight through a hill (over a certain minimum height). In fact, we read further on that generosity is the entire rationale behind Shabbat boundaries in the first place – one is able to take the further out of two markers, or even the word of a slave or maidservant that ad kan tekhom Shabbat – the Shabbat boundary goes to here. The Mishnah claims that the reason for this automatic permissiveness is that the entire concept of the Shabbat boundary was declared by the sages lo l’hekhmir ayleh le’hakayl – not to be make more difficult but to make easier. Lest we think they are proto-Reformers, however, the Talmud “clarifies” this latter saying: another tradition holds they enacted rules not to make easier but to make harder, so in the classic tradition of “holier than thou,” divrei torah [Torah rules] are made stricter even if they may relax Shabbat boundaries, which are only d’rabanan [rabbinical].

We also read of the interesting case of a town that had been owned by one person [i.e. was all one private space] and became a town of many households [many private spaces] – one eruv is permitted for the entire town, even though the Talmud has a hard time imagining such a scenario actually taking place. And we find that a person cannot set their eruv up in the karpaf (see above), but that they can use one set up by their son to make it home for Shabbat even though that would limit their travel to 2000 cubits from the eruv but not from the city boundaries themselves. Evidently you can’t use two legal fictions at once to get TOO far beyond the letter of the law.

Since for liberal Jews these discussions of Shabbat boundaries are more academic or historical than life-altering, it is legitimate for us to ask what else might have been done if the time, energy, learning and discussion spent on these definitions and their enforcement had been turned to charity, science, poetry or other pursuits we today value? We can find allegorical meaning for ourselves in exploring what defines a neighborhood or a community, or how to define Shabbat as different in space as well as time by limiting our attention to a more restricted radius. But exact precision in such pursuits is more picky than practical.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

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

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Survey – Eruvin 46-50

We have seen many previous examples of the Talmud recording both sides of an argument, often without a clear ruling as to what the final halakha [Jewish religious law] is. Over the course of 1000 years of rabbinic argument, there was a constant creative tension between legal code and legal discussion – a legal code (like the mid-1500s Shulkhan Arukh [set table] by Rabbi Joseph Caro or Maimonides’ earlier Mishneh Torah) states clearly and simply the halakha for each topic, while legal discussion explores hypotheticals, alternate rulings, and other possibilities. So one generation would want a clear statement of halakha, while the next wanted more discussion, and so on. The Talmud is clearly a case of legal discussion, and in our current selection we finally get some rules of thumb when it comes to resolving disputes between authorities.

The first case they consider is the difference between two individual rabbis with conflicting rulings and one rabbi who disagrees with several of his khaverim [colleagues – literally “friends”]. You can imagine that it would take extraordinary circumstances for one to prevail against many, and indeed that is the case. For example, Rabbi Akiva disagrees with the khakhamim [sages] for what to do when one hears a report of the death of a close relative – if the news arrives after 30 days after the death, Akiva says one need only mourn one day, while the sages say the full seven strict and 30 semi-strict mourning days must be observed from the point the news is received. It turns out that the halakha follows Akiva, for another sage gives the general rule: whenever you find a case where an individual rabbi is permissive and several are restrictive, the halakha follows the many EXCEPT for this case with Akiva! But the Talmud claims immediately that this is the only exception, based on another general rule that halakha follows more lenient rules in mourning – by and large, yekhid bamakom rabim [one versus many] follows the rabim.

And what of the many cases where it is yekhid bamakom yekhid/one on one? Here Rabbi Jacob and Rabbi Zerika, and then Rabbi Johanan and Rabbi Assi, finally come to the rescue. Here is the simplest form of the discussion, in the format of a single-elimination tournament – those familiar with the 1990s band “They Might Be Giants” will recognize the pattern too!*

Rabbi Akiva versus any one other colleague – Akiva wins
Rabbi Yose versus several of his colleagues at once – Yose wins
Rabbi (i.e. Rabbi Judah) versus any one other colleague – Rabbi wins

Rabbi Meir versus Rabbi Judah – Judah wins
Rabbi Judah versus Rabbi Yose – Yose wins
Rabbi Simeon versus Rabbi Judah – Judah wins

And, the Talmud says, no need to say explicitly that Meir or Simeon lose badly to Yose by the transitive power of halakhic superiority! And what is Rabbi Simeon goes up against Rabbi Meir in the “consolation match?” Teku – it remains undecided. There is some debate as to how strictly these general rules were meant – for usual halakhic decisions, or to incline the judgment in that direction, or merely to say it’s acceptable to end up that way? Nevertheless, this general road map to the halakha is very useful!

However, Rabbi Mesharyeha tries to throw a wrench in the works, claiming that these “matchups” should be disregarded. And the next full daf [page] is consumed trying to find on what that ruling was based (again you see the creative tension between simple rule and reasoning/argument behind it). Possible supports range from examples in the Mishnah text currently under discussion to many others; e.g., Rabbi Simeon’s ruling defeats Rabbi Judah’s in the case of an eruv for three intersecting courtyards. Or take the case of a person out of his house on Shabbat affecting the eruv of the courtyard he shares with others: Rabbi Meir says it affects the others, Rabbi Judah says it doesn’t, Rabbi Jose says it affects them if he’s not Jewish (and could be expected to return even on Shabbat) but not if he’s Jewish (and wouldn’t be expected to break the rules), and Rabbi Simeon says even if he stays in town but goes to his daughter’s house, he’s not expected to return so he doesn’t affect his courtyard neighbors. And Rabbi Simeon sets the halakha! And so on for many examples – but to each example, the Talmud offers this rebuttal: “mai kushiya? Dilma: heikha d’itmar, itmar; heikha d’lo itmar, lo itmar – What’s the difficulty? Perhaps if it’s said it’s said, but if not said it’s not said.” In other words, if an exception to the general rule of “who beats whom” is stated in the tradition, then we follow that; but if not stated, why not use our new guidelines?

The opposite kind of proof is also tried – in cases of conflicts between individual rabbis, examples where they DO follow the pattern of “who beats whom” and explicitly say “the halakha follow Rabbi X” might disprove the general guideline; after all, why would they have to say explicitly “the halakha follows Rabbi X” if everyone knows it does? And these cases are much further afield – whether one can make a man wait 3 months to marry certain kinds of women after their husbands die, or whether one can risk defilement by going to non-Jewish fairs, courts, or other areas to do business or to study Torah. In the end, the most the Talmud admits to Rabbi Mesharyeha is that these general guidelines were not universally approved, since Rab disagreed. But I have to admit, there seemed to be plenty of examples to disprove the rule – how many exceptions to a guideline constitute a problem? We might even be more interested in the anthropological details of which kind of widows were more problematic, or details of contacts between Jew and non-Jew, like the cases of Jews borrowing objects from non-Jews over Shabbat or festivals, or a non-Jew returning something on Shabbat previously borrowed from a Jew, that are turned to next.

Finally, we arrive at the core of our discussion – the few cubits allowed to a person who has found himself BEYOND the Shabbat limit. While I mentioned above that a cubit [amah] is about 18 inches, technically a cubit is the distance between one’s elbow and middle finger. So Rabbi Mesharyeha astutely asks his son to ask Rabbi Pappa whether one should use their own arm or the standard amah for sacred objects? And what about the legendary giant Og of Bashan – did he get an extra advantage? Pappa’s response is priceless: “if we were so exact, we’d never get anywhere – always use your own arm!”

And what of two people who find themselves next to each other – can they treat each other’s 4 amot [6 feet] like a common courtyard, giving them more room to move? A series of rabbis compare this example to intersecting courtyards, courtyards and alleys, and so on, but we also find a general discussion of the principle underlying the very institution of the eruv itself – is it kinyan [acquisition of property], so the residents around a shared courtyard become joint owners of everything, or is it dira [residence], since people depend on food so where food is placed they can all be considered to be living? The practical question is whether one may use an object or only food to define an eruv, but it is fascinating that what the basis is for the very institution in this tractate is not fully clarified – we haven’t been told who wins between Samuel and Rabbah.

The issue that will consume our next selection is begun at the end of this one – what if someone is approaching their home as night falls on a Friday evening but is still about 4000 cubits away, and they know of a particular tree or wall; can they say “my eruv is placed there” and thus be able to get to their house even though Shabbat has already begun? Points for cleverness, but you have to have a very specific 4 cubit space in mind for this to work; if you’re not specific, “lo amar kloom – [it’s as if] he said nothing.” We also learn from the Mishnah, without discussion from the Talmud, that Rabbi Judah said that both rich and poor could define an eruv by their feet (b’raglav), but that the Rabbis were nice to the rich man who could afford an eruv loaf of bread so he didn’t have to personally go out with his feet at sundown. Isn’t that generous to the rich – rather than make both face the same rule, here the rich get an advantage. Just goes to show that even rabbis are not immune to making life easier for those who already have it easy. I prefer the line from E.K. Hornbeck in Inherit the Wind: “my job is to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.”

Rabbi Adam Chalom

* See the lyrics to “Particle Man” from the album Flood to get the reference. E.g. at