You Only Live Once
The Talmudic rabbis saw the world as a wedding—a place of charity and pleasures to be enjoyed while it lasts
Delmore Schwartz titled one of his best short stories “The World Is a Wedding,” and while I knew that this phrase came from the Talmud, it was not until this week’s Daf Yomi reading that I learned what the Talmud meant by it. Schwartz’s story diagnoses the impotent vanity and self-importance of a group of 20-something intellectuals—slackers before the term was invented—and he turns the “the world is a wedding” into something like E.M. Forster’s “only connect,” an exhortation to celebrate life and relationships. When the rabbis use the phrase, however, in Eruvin 54a, it means something more like the classical carpe diem, “seize the day.” “Shmuel said to Rav Yehudah: Sharp one, grab and eat, grab and drink, because this world from which we depart is like a wedding celebration.” That is because, as the Schottenstein edition glosses it, “it begins and ends within a short period of time.”
This advice, to eat and drink as much as you can while you’re still alive, clearly gave later commentators—including the Schottenstein’s editors—an uneasy feeling. Do the rabbis really mean that Jews should gorge themselves, like Romans at a drunken feast? Not at all, the notes insist: “Many commentators explain that the Gemara does not refer to the physical pleasures of the world, but to the performance of good deeds. A person should spend his money on mitzvot and charitable acts as soon as he possibly can, because he might die suddenly, and then it will be too late.”
This is pious, but perhaps it is too pious. The Talmud is not at all abstemious—on the contrary, it speaks quite openly about sex, digestion, excretion, and other bodily matters—and some of the greatest Tannaim were rich men, who presumably led lives of luxury. (On the other hand, the Gemara has also spoken of the extreme poverty of many Torah students, who had to stretch their food budgets as far as possible in order to stay alive.) It’s hard to imagine any sage encouraging outright gluttony and drunkenness, but the idea that the world is a wedding—a place of pleasures that should be savored while they last—doesn’t seem out of place in the Talmud.
This evocative saying was just one item in the feast of aggadah in this week’s Daf Yomi reading. Chapter 5 of Tractate Eruvin is technically devoted to a further elaboration of the laws of techum, the Shabbat boundary. As we’ve seen before, a person is allowed to walk only 2,000 amot from the place where he is residing when Shabbat begins. However, the entire city in which he lives is considered as part of his own personal space, so that the techum is only measured from beyond the city limits. This leniency vastly extends the area in which a person can move around on Shabbat.
This week, we learned that a city is defined for these purposes as a square or rectangle drawn to include its furthest extended point. As the Mishnah on 52b puts it, “How do we extend the boundaries of cities? If a house is recessed or a house protrudes from the city’s perimeter, or a tower is recessed and a tower protrudes from the wall, or if there were ruins there 10 tefachim high extending from one of the city’s corners, or bridges, or tomb buildings, in which there is a dwelling place—these extend the techum measure opposite them.”
The discussion that follows explains how this rule operates in various cases—if the city is circular, if it is an incomplete square, if it is in two adjacent but separate sections, if it is shaped like a bow and arrow or like the Greek letter gamma. I was able to follow the argument thanks to the Schottenstein edition’s useful diagrams, but of course the original Talmud has no such illustrations: A good geometrical imagination is one of the many mental skills needed for Talmud study. And determining a city’s boundary is only the beginning: You must then draw the techum extending two thousand amot from each side. Doing this involves a whole other set of calculations, and even leads the rabbis, in Eruvin 56a, to a discussion of astronomy—because a surveyor needs to know how to determine north and south based on the movement of the sun and stars.
Before the discussion can get under way, however, the rabbis spend two full pages on a chain of digressions, whose subjects include the importance of speaking clearly, the cleverness of Jewish children, and the value of Torah study as a cure for stomachaches. The proverbs and anecdotes come so thick and fast that it’s easy to lose track of just how we got here, so it’s worth paying close attention to the unexpected ways the rabbis move from subject to subject.
The Gemara to the Mishnah I quoted above starts out by asking a spelling question. Is the second word in the text, me’abrin, supposed to be spelled with an alef or an ayin? (That the question could be raised suggests that, as early as the Talmudic period, these originally distinct letters were being pronounced alike.) If it’s with an alef, the word becomes “limb,” and we are to understand the parts of the city that protrude outward as being like limbs. If it’s with an ayin, on the other hand, the word is related to “pregnant,” and we should envision the boundary of the city bulging outward like a pregnant woman’s belly.
Practically speaking, it doesn’t seem to matter which etymology we choose. But the Gemara now goes on to cite several other examples of rabbis disputing the exact meaning of words. For instance, the beginning of the book of Exodus says that “a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” Rav held that this meant just what it said: A new king took the throne. Shmuel, on the other hand, thought it was metaphorical: The same Pharaoh was reigning, but his attitude toward the Jews changed so radically that it was as if he had never heard of Joseph.
After a few of these disputes, the Gemara returns to the alef/ayin question. Rabbi Oshaya b’Ribbi—the second word is an honorific, given to the leading rabbi of his generation—taught that me’abrin should be spelled with an alef. Once his name is mentioned, it is the cue for various rabbis to praise his wisdom and describe how many students he had, so many that they had to cram together, “four to an amah.” Earlier, we heard about how Rabbi Meir was so subtle a thinker that even his colleagues couldn’t follow his arguments, and the same was true of Oshaya.
Men of such outstanding wisdom, the Gemara laments, are no longer to be found. In a pessimistic passage on Eruvin 53a, the rabbis describe the transmission of Torah knowledge as a continual decline: “The minds of the earlier scholars were like the entrance hall of the Temple, and the minds of the later scholars were like the entrance to the chamber of the Temple, but as for us, our minds are like the eye of a needle which is used to mend tears in clothing.” Various other rabbis extend the metaphor: For them, studying Torah is so hard that it is like forcing a peg into a narrow hole, or poking a finger into a lump of hard wax.
This passage says something important about the way the Talmud regards the transmission of knowledge. One of the key assumptions of modernity is that we are constantly progressing in our knowledge. Every generation knows more about how the world works than the one before, so that a high-school student today knows more about physics than Isaac Newton did in his time. The Talmudists have exactly the opposite view. The time of full knowledge is in the distant past, when great scholars like the Tannaim were alive. The task of the present is to try to preserve what we can of that heritage, even though we will inevitably let most of it slip through our fingers. This way of looking at time helps to explain why Judaism became, to such a large extent, a religion based on commentary. All new thoughts and discoveries had to be presented as retrieving the original meaning of canonical texts.
From here, the text proceeds to give a good deal of advice about the best way to study Torah. The residents of Judea “were precise in matters of language,” so they retained their Torah knowledge, while the Galileans “were not particular in their manner of speech,” and they forgot what they learned. David, the great warrior king of Judea, is recast—not for the first time—as a Torah sage, and his superiority to Saul is explained this way: “David elucidated the Talmudic tracts, Saul did not elucidate the Talmudic tracts.”
In a similar spirit, an erotic verse from the book of Proverbs is reinterpreted chastely, to refer to Torah study. “A beloved hind and she effuses charm, may her breasts satisfy you at all times, may you always be insane in her love,” reads Proverbs 5:19. “Why are the words of Torah compared to a hind?” asks Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani, and gives a surprisingly explicit answer: “To tell you that just as a hind has a narrow womb, and therefore is as desirable to her mate every time, as much as she was the first time, so too, the words of Torah are as desirable to those who study them every time as they were the first time.” Somehow it makes sense that the sages who could come up with such a comparison would also believe that the world is a wedding, to be enjoyed while it lasts.
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