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The Talmud’s Absolute Value

Through reasoning, the rabbis brought all of natural creation under the rule of law

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(Collage Tablet Magazine; original image Wikipedia)
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One of the recurring patterns I have noticed in my reading of the Talmud is the way the text puts off explaining its key terms. From the beginning of Tractate Eruvin, for instance, it has been axiomatic that on Shabbat it is permitted to move only within a 2,000-amot techum or boundary. But why is the boundary 2,000 amot in the first place? If the Talmud were a textbook, this would be explained on the first page. But the compilers of the Talmud clearly did not envision it being read the way I, and many others doing Daf Yomi, read it—that is, in isolation.

Rather, the Talmud is a product of and commentary on a living tradition, whose principles have been passed on from generation to generation, in word and action. Presumably, in the fifth century CE, every Jewish child would have known about the 2,000-amot boundary from the time he or she began to walk. It was a rule handed down for centuries—ostensibly, since Moses received the Oral Law on Sinai—and it didn’t need to be explained or justified.

In this week’s reading, however, the rabbis finally did explain where the 2,000-amot figure comes from—and the explanation raises as many questions as it answers. “These 2,000 amot, where are they written?” the Gemara asks on Eruvin 51a. The answer refers us to Exodus 16:29, which is part of the story of the manna in the desert. To feed the Israelites, God sent down manna in the form of dew from heaven (“it was white like coriander seed, and the taste of it was like wafers made of honey”). God’s instructions were that the Israelites should gather their daily ration each morning, but on the sixth day they should gather a double portion, since no manna would descend on Shabbat.

As frequently happens in the Torah, the Israelites ignored this command and went out on Shabbat, expecting to find manna. Instead, they got a reproach from God: “And the Lord said unto Moses: ‘How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My laws? See that the Lord has given you the Sabbath; therefore He gives you on the sixth day the bread of two days; sit, each man, in his place, let no man leave his place on the seventh day.’ ”

These two uses of the word place, the Gemara explains, refer to the two kinds of Shabbat restriction. “Sit each man in his place” refers to the four amot which are allowed to a Jew who has left his techum; this is just enough room for sitting down in. “Let no man leave his place,” on the other hand, refers to the 2,000 amot which are allowed to a Jew inside his techum. Yet this explanation, any reader must notice, does not actually explain where the figure of 2,000 amot comes from.

To establish it, the rabbis engage in a remarkable relay-race of interpretation, using a technique called gezeirah shavah. With this tool, the rabbis can link one instance of a word in the Bible with another use of the same word. In this case, they perform five consecutive linkages. The word “place” (makom) in Exodus 16:29 connects with the word “place” in Exodus 21:13, where it appears near the word “flee.” This instance of “flee” connects with another use of “flee,” in Numbers 35:26—a verse that also contains the word “border.” The following verse in Numbers uses the word “border” near the word “outside.” And this “outside” connects to Numbers 35:5, which reads: “And you shall measure from outside the city on the east side, 2,000 amot.”

At last, then, the figure itself appears—at the end of a long chain of verbal coincidences. To a secular reader, of course, this kind of interpretation will probably appear totally arbitrary, a kind of violence done to the plain meaning of the text. If such random juxtapositions are allowed to dictate the meaning of the Bible, surely anything could be proved—all you would have to do is construct a long enough chain of words.

My watchword in reading Daf Yomi, however, has been to distrust my own impatience—or, rather, to use it as a guide. It is just those moments in the text that seem most alien to me that might help to open up the profoundly different worldview of the rabbis. In this case, I think, it’s crucial to remember two points. The first is that the rabbis are not trying to establish the 2,000-amot rule from first principles. Rather, they are looking for textual support for an already established Jewish practice. In other words, they know what they need the Bible to show; their problem is how to find what must already be there.

And the rabbis know the answer is there because the Torah is unlike every other document in the world, since it alone was authored (or dictated) by God. God is absolute, and he introduces a kind of absoluteness into the text that it would be absurd to expect to find in merely human productions. Humans may use words randomly, picking the ones that come to hand; but God is omniscient, and everything he does has a purpose. Once this idea is accepted, gezeirah shavah becomes not just rational but necessary. Of course God intends the linkages that tradition has identified: To say otherwise would be to say that God writes like a human being.

The totalizing nature of rabbinic interpretation is not limited to texts. As we saw this week, the halakhah about Shabbat boundaries is extended to cover the most basic natural phenomena—even clouds and water molecules. Of course, the law cannot constrain clouds or water from moving more than 2,000 amot on Shabbat. But ownerless objects, we learn from a baraita on Eruvin 45b, do have a techum: Wherever they happen to be at the beginning of Shabbat, they must remain within 2,000 amot of that spot until the end of Shabbat. This applies even to rainwater: Wherever the water lies at the beginning of Shabbat (presumably in a cistern or container) is its residence.

God created the world, but the rabbis’ achievement was to bring that world under the rule of law.

And what if the rain falls on Shabbat or a holiday? In that case, “it is treated like the feet of anyone”—that is, anyone who claims it thereby confers his own techum upon it. But this answer is not enough for the Gemara, which raises an objection based on the water cycle. After all, rainwater originally comes from the ocean—as Rabbi Eliezer states, “The entire world drinks the waters of the ocean”—from which it evaporates to form a cloud. If the rain in a cloud was in fact in the ocean at the start of Shabbat, shouldn’t its Shabbat residence should be calculated from the ocean? But how can we know whether any given raincloud formed on Shabbat or before Shabbat started? And even if the rain was in the cloud at the beginning of Shabbat, why doesn’t it establish its residence in the cloud? Or “should it be concluded that the techum laws do not apply above 10 tefachim”—the same principle we discussed last week, apropos of the coming of the Messiah?

The Gemara offers one possible solution to this problem. As long as water is suspended in cloud form, perhaps it should be considered not yet in existence, so that it would only be “born” when it actually started to fall. But this, the rabbis quickly note, would raise a different legal problem. Remember from Tractate Shabbat that things which are nolad—newly born or created on Shabbat—cannot be used on Shabbat, since they have not been prepared for that purpose in advance. If rainwater was nolad, it could not be handled at all.

Instead, the Gemara opts for a different, and scientifically sounder, theory of the case. “Rather, the water in the clouds is constantly in motion,” and because of this it can’t establish a Shabbat residence until it comes to a halt. The same principle nicely solves the problem of the ocean: In the ocean, too, water is turbulent, and so it can’t be said to establish its residence in any given place. It follows that it is legal to collect rainwater on Shabbat and that it can be moved anywhere within the techum of the person who collects it. The whole issue of the rainwater might be felt to be an unnecessary problem, a problem of the rabbis’ own creation. But to them, there was no reason to cut short the chain of legal reasoning when confronted with natural phenomena. God created the world, but the rabbis’ achievement was to bring that world under the rule of law.


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41953 says:

No comments?

Maybe it is because despite Kirsch’s best efforts, he cannot hide the fact that the Talmud obsesses on obscure matters that have no relevance to the overwhelming majority of American Jews.

    By American “Jews” do you mean people like Anthony Weiner, Debbie Wassermann Schultz, Noam Chomsky, Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod etc etc??

      Bill Robbins says:

      Exactly! Some of the finest examples of nature’s only self-destructive species.

        Not really. The problem is really that the people you listed don’t, as the ancient Greek proverb has it, “know themselves” – they don’t realize what their true “self” is. If they did, then they – like any sentient person – would act far differently.

    As do physicists, biologists, and scientists in a wide variety of fields. To a layman, is there really that much of a difference between one and another type of quark, or whether an an atom has 6 or 7 protons, or whether a person’s cells have 2 or 3 copies of chromosome 21? But of course, these tiny differences have real-world effects.

    In a similar way, then, the “obscure matters” you claim to be unimportant – not that this keeps you from coming back week after week to comment on how unimportant you find them – are no less vital than the “bigger” issues. (Indeed, it has been said that we approach Torah the way a scientist approaches nature: no detail is too insignificant to investigate.)

      41953 says:

      Please! Comparing the study of science with Talmudic pilpul! What real word effects are there in the study of an eruv!
      By the way, why do you say Torah when you mean Talmud?

        Let me ask you: what real-world effects are there from the broadcast of a radio show, if you don’t have a receiver for it? None at all; the waves pass through your body without your even knowing of them. But turn on a radio and tune it to the correct channel, and suddenly those waves become something “real” to you.

        To appreciate the real-world effects of Torah, you have to similarly be “tuned” to the right frequency.

        (The word “Torah” means “instruction” in Hebrew. It consists of the written words of the Bible as well as the oral tradition accompanying it, and the whole of it is described in Jewish literature as the wisdom of the infinite G-d. The Talmud as we have it – as vast as it is – is just one part of that whole.)

          41953 says:

          The oral tradition? Isn’t the Talmud written down?

          Torah means the first five books of the Tanakh. Your definition, which I have heard before, is too broad.
          I do not trust in “the wisdom of the infinite God,” so I guess we do not have a common frame of reference.

          The Talmud is written now, but it was originally taught orally. Even now, Schottenstein and Steinzaltz (the translators/elucidators that Adam uses) notwithstanding, it is better studied under a teacher.

          “Torah” has a dual meaning, much as does “New York”: a narrower one (the definition you give – the five books of Moses) and a broader one (the one I gave). To carry the analogy further: just as the state is so called because it grew out of the city, so is Torah in its broader sense so called because it is all encapsulated in the text of the written Torah – and indeed, Adam’s summary of the Talmud’s “word chain” is an example of this.

          The idea about “the wisdom of the infinite G-d” is obviously a lot to swallow at once, and I can certainly understand that you find it foreign. My point in mentioning it was to point out that there is a great deal more depth to the Talmud than can be seen from Adam’s necessarily brief summaries.

          41953 says:

          So it was once the oral law, but that was ages ago.

          If you use your broad definition of Torah, what do you call the first five books of the Tanakh, which stands for Torah, Neviim and Ketuvim?
          I am very happy in my atheism. If I find wisdom in the Talmud it will be because it makes sense to me. Endless debate about the size of an eruv or what you can carry or how far you can travel means nothing to me. Nor to most religious Jews outside of the orthodox.
          I wish rabbis used their intellectual gifts to explore more serious subjects. Occasionally they do, but not often enough to hold my interest.

          We still call it the “oral law” because that is how it was meant to be transmitted (it was written only out of fear that this information would be lost with the dispersion of the Jewish people). There are actually practical differences as well, such as that the precise spelling and vocalization of the written Torah is essential (if the Torah reader in the synagogue reads a word wrongly, he must correct the error), whereas that of the Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, etc., is not.

          A popular Jewish term for the five books of Moses is “Chumash,” which literally means “one-fifth” and, by synecdoche, all five of them. But we can also call it “Torah” without that necessarily being ambiguous, just as with “New York” in my example above.

          I’m not here to try to change your mind or talk you out of your beliefs; don’t worry about that. But consider: I, a religious Jew for whom every word of the Talmud is sacred, find it fascinating to read Adam’s viewpoint (that of viewing it as a rich literary text but nothing more), and don’t feel the need to comment on the contrast. In the same way, isn’t it worth it for you to know that there exist other ways of looking at the Talmud (mine, Adam’s, and no doubt many others), and to not have to comment weekly on how un-meaningful you find a particular detail – a detail which, to those with an appropriate background, has a profound depth of meaning?

          dantheman08822 says:

          I am not an atheist, 41953, but what you write makes perfect sense. What intrigues me about Torah and Talmudic study is why people who almost certainly are highly intelligent waste their time worrying about whether cars powered by internal combustion engines are assur while cars powered strictly by electricity (ie. the Tesla Model S) may not be.

        Bill Robbins says:

        Knowing the way science works, I would say that you do not understand science, nor do you understand the analogy between science and Talmud. I have known plenty of great scientists who, in another time, could have made a career out of studying other obscure matters.

    Bill Robbins says:

    To me, the crazier our world becomes, the more sanity I find in Talmud, and I appreciate Adam’s efforts to share a bit of something I might not otherwise have explored on my own.

41953 says:

And a about 5-6 million others…..including most Tablet subscribers who could not care less about arguments over eruvim

I enjoy these because they are quaint. There is a string around my neighborhood, so the black hats can go wherever they want on Shabbat. Reading about the mental gymnastics that go into this sort of thing reminds me that the human mind is capable of remarkable feats. There are people who study chess this way, and follow the games that appear, like knitting patterns, in the pages of the newspaper. There are people who tie flies, to fool a trout. And there are Talmud hobbyists. “God created the world, but the rabbis’ achievement was to bring that world under the rule of law.” Well, not exactly. The rain falls according to God’s laws of physics, still.

    The laws of physics tell us how rain falls, but they can’t tell us anything about why it falls. Indeed, it is a scientific fallacy to attempt a “teleological” (purposeful) explanation for a natural phenomenon.

    Jewish thought aims to delve deeper, into that why. Did an infinite and omnipotent creator have to design our world the way it is, with a rain cycle? No. So, given that He did so, and set it up according to natural laws that are (somewhat) predictable, then we want to understand His purpose in doing so. And that is, as is the purpose of all of creation, that we use the resources He gave us to make the world into a “home for the divine”; a major part of that is to use our puny human brains to understand the infinite divine wisdom that is the Torah.

    So by all means, if you want to understand the details of how the rain cycle works, talk to a physicist or a meterologist. If you want to understand why it is designed the way it is, talk to a student of Torah.

41953 says:

I do not comment weekly, but I do comment frequently, because I am constantly amazed how the Talmud can make mountains out of molehills and how brilliant minds can wast their time on trivia while leaving profound questions of ethics and morality unanswered. Yes, once in a blue moon the rabbis will turn to those questions but where is their sense of proportion? A paragraph or two on ethics followed by ten pages of mind-numbing convoluted arguments about matters of ritual that do not interest the vast majority of Jews.
And we have not even begun to discuss the obnoxious passages about Gentiles and women.
Give me Pirkey Avot any day.

    I absolutely agree with your last sentence! Consider statements in Pirkei Avot such as “Moses received the Torah from Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua”… “Make a fence around the Torah”… “The world stands on three things: Torah, [divine] service and acts of kindness”… “Make your Torah study a fixed part of your schedule”… “Be as careful with a minor mitzvah as with a major one”… “Nullify your wishes in the face of G-d’s”… “Be careful with the recital of Shema and prayer”… and that’s just from the first two chapters! And as it says at the end of ch. 5, “Turn it [the Torah] over and over, for everything is in it… for there is nothing better than it.” Yep, those are certainly words to live by.

    But you know, in a way you’re right: you have a leg up on the rabbis of the Talmud, or on me, as far as ethics and morals. Why? Because religious Jews – religious people in general, in fact – constantly have to battle a tendency to say about injustice in the world or about human suffering, “Well, that’s G-d’s decision, whatareyougonnado?” In that sense atheism is a positive thing: a religious person is indeed expected in such a situation to set aside their belief that G-d runs the world, pretend as though it’s not so, and do what they can to assist. Well, then, you have that part easier. So, instead of noodling about what the rabbis of the Talmud did or didn’t do (and they lived 1500 years ago, so your comments aren’t going to change the past), how about redirecting the time and energy you spend on these comments into helping those in need and making the world a better place? (Not that I am implying that you don’t do so already, but there is always room for growth and improvement, and to not be satisfied with one’s current accomplishments.)

41953 says:

What I like about Pirkey Avot are the ethical maxims, not the claim that they come from Moses on Sinai or the maxims that urge prayer and Torah study. You do not have to believe in God to subscribe to Hillel’s golden rule or his statement about one’s obligation to self, community or Tarfon’s call to engage in tikkun olam.
I try to do my part in my work as a union representative. I also write books and articles on Jewish topics.
But I still have time to comment on Kirsch’s commentary.
However as an experiment, I will refrain for a while to test my theory that few people are genuinely interested. Kirsch does a great job, but as I have been saying for a while, the subject matter is absurd. Only the chosen few (like you) get anything out of it.
For example, Sandy Permutter finds the Talmudic arguments quaint, which is not exactly a rave review.
So good bye for now and thank you for keeping the discourse civil and respectful. There are way too many nasty people on this list. You are clearly not one of them.

My watchword in reading Daf Yomi, however, has been to distrust my own impatience—or, rather, to use it as a guide. It is just those moments in the text that seem most alien to me that might help to open up the profoundly different worldview of the rabbis.

It might be profoundly different, but is it crazy? It looks crazy. I wonder what its function is, sociologically speaking? Both internally, in the Jewish communities, and externally, in their relations to the people around them? I have some ideas but I will mistrust my impatience too. I do appreciate what you are doing. Thanks,


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The Talmud’s Absolute Value

Through reasoning, the rabbis brought all of natural creation under the rule of law