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The Irrelevance of Pleasure

As the rabbis remind us again this week, the law is the law—whether it pleases you or not

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock)
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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

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

Last week, I discussed the Talmud’s declaration that “the world is a wedding,” a brief celebration that should be enjoyed to the full while it lasts. But what kind of enjoyment are the rabbis talking about? The passage in question mentions food and drink; but as we learned in this week’s Daf Yomi reading, the supreme earthly pleasure for the rabbis is always Torah study. This becomes clear in Eruvin 65a, when we hear about the study habits of Rav Chisda, whose daughter once asked him: “Does the master not need to doze a little?” Chisda replied with the Talmudic equivalent of “I’ll sleep when I’m dead”: “Soon [that is, in the grave], there will come days that are long [for the purpose of sleeping] and short [for the purpose of Torah study], and we will sleep very much.”

This is a kind of carpe diem, but utterly without the erotic hedonism usually associated with that phrase. Chisda’s sentence reminded me of the famous lines of the Latin poet Catullus, who pleaded with his lover: “For us, once our brief sun sets,/We must sleep an eternal night./Therefore give me a thousand kisses, then a hundred,/Then another thousand, then another hundred.” For the Roman, death was a reminder to make hay while the sun shines; for the Jew, it is a reminder to study Torah while the sun shines. Or, indeed, while the moon shines, for in the opinion of Shimon ben Lakish, “The moon was created specifically for Torah study.”

The proper discipline of the Talmud scholar was a major theme of the first part of Chapter 6 of Tractate Eruvin, which we began to read this week. Ostensibly, the subject of the chapter is a further refinement of the law of courtyard eruvs, which were discussed at the beginning of the tractate. When houses share a courtyard, or chatzeir, the owners are permitted to legally merge their residences for the purpose of Shabbat. This allows them to treat the whole courtyard as a private domain, in which carrying is permitted.

As long as all the residents of a courtyard are Jews, this doesn’t present a problem. But what happens, the Mishnah asks, if one of the residents is a non-Jew, an “idolater”? (The Hebrew term for idolater is rather poetic: oved kochavim, a servant of the stars.) The Tannaim rule that it is impossible for a Jew to establish an eruv with a non-Jew—or, for that matter, with a Jew who rejects the authority of the Oral Law (like the Second Temple-era Sadducees), and so believes eruvs to be illegitimate.

The Gemara goes on to explain that the residence of an idolater has no legal status in Jewish law—it is considered ownerless, “similar to an animal stable.” Because a non-Jew can’t join in an eruv, the Jews in the courtyard must rent the premises of the non-Jew for the duration of Shabbat, using either a formal lease or what the rabbis call a “token lease,” one that requires only a nominal exchange of money.

This requirement was instituted, the Gemara candidly explains, specifically in order to make it difficult for a Jew to live alongside a non-Jew. In Talmudic times, the text makes clear, Jews and non-Jews were expected to regard each other with grave suspicion. To a Jew, “an idolater is suspected of having murderous intentions,” and conversely, “the idolater will be suspicious that the Jew is engaged in acts of sorcery.” For these reasons, the Talmud says, it is virtually unheard of for a Jew to live alone in a non-Jewish courtyard. By increasing the legal burden on a Jew cohabiting with non-Jews, the rabbis hoped to discourage such mingling even further. Clearly, multiculturalism is not a Talmudic value.

After this discussion, the Gemara makes a characteristically lateral move to a new subject. In the course of the argument, the rabbis declare that the halakhah on a certain point follows Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov, whose mishnaic rulings are said to be “limited and pure”: that is, while he has few legal opinions to his name, the ones he did issue are always authoritative.

This leads Abaye to raise an unexpected question. Ordinarily, it is forbidden for a Torah sage, no matter how eminent, to issue a legal ruling “in the vicinity of his teacher.” A student must always defer to his teacher’s authority, even after he has become a master himself. But if it is a rule of thumb that Eliezer ben Yaakov’s view is always right, can a disciple issue a decision following Eliezer in the presence of his teacher? In other words, does the law of precedence apply even in routine cases, where there can be no doubt of the right answer to a question?

The answer, we quickly learn, is yes. Even when the student knows for sure what his teacher would say in response to a certain problem, he is forbidden to anticipate his teacher’s ruling. This is a clear demonstration of the patriarchal nature of rabbinic authority: A teacher is like a father, a student like a son, and the son must always humble himself before the father. The Gemara goes on to explain that this applies only to a student’s primary teacher; if a student has learned a small amount of Torah from another elder, he does not need to defer to him once he has become the elder’s talmid chaver, or peer in learning.

To make things crystal clear, we learn on Eruvin 63a that a disciple who renders legal decisions in the presence of his teacher “is liable to death.” That is how the Gemara interprets the enigmatic episode in Leviticus where Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu, offer “strange fire” on the Lord’s altar and are punished by being burned up by a flame from Heaven. On its face, the crime of Nadab and Abihu seems to be a cultic or ritual violation: They contaminated the tabernacle with unclean incense. To the rabbis, however, their crime appears different and more substantive. By deciding for themselves when to make a sacrifice, they effectively “rendered a legal decision in the presence of Moses, their teacher,” and it was for this arrogance that they were punished.

Later, on Eruvin 64a, we learn another point of rabbinic protocol. On one occasion, Rav Nachman heard Rav Yehudah state a certain point of law and pronounced the ruling “excellent.” Then Rav Yehudah ruled that a rabbi who has drunk wine cannot make legal decisions, since he is not in full possession of his judgment. But this time Nachman did not agree, and he said: “This statement is not excellent; for until I drink wine my mind is not clear.” This demurral got Nachman into double trouble. First, he was wrong on the merits: The Gemara goes on to discuss at length how drinking wine renders a Jew unfit for prayer, much less for rendering a complex legal judgment.

Second, Nachman erred by expressing his personal opinion about another sage’s Torah rulings. “Anyone who comments ‘this statement is beautiful’ and ‘this is not beautiful,’ ” said Acha bar Chanina, “diminishes the honor of the Torah.” The law is so sacred that it is forbidden to prefer one part of it to another. Whether the rabbis always held themselves to such a strict standard is open to doubt. Certainly, I have already come across several occasions where a particular sage’s ruling is singled out for praise. But the stern Talmudic principle is clear: The law is the law, whether it pleases you or not.


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Torah is Great-There is no need for Rabbis any longer-not even mentioned in TORAH!

    That would be like saying that Twitter isn’t covered under the First Amendment, because it’s not mentioned in the Constitution. The substance of it is there, though, under “freedom of speech.”

    So it is with rabbis and the Torah. Deuteronomy (17:8-13) charges us to listen to “the Levitic kohanim and the judge who will be in those days” and follow their instructions to the letter. These authorities went by various names at various times, including “judge,” “elder,” and – yes – “rabbi,” but they all serve the same function – to clarify to us the word of G-d.

    Natan79 says:


Neil Fiertel says:

IN a nutshell, this sort of article is exactly why most of us who think of ourselves as Jewish do not think of it as religion but culture. The Torah, the Talmud and etc are the ancient writings of man. They are nothing more than that. Being Jewish is about how we raise our children, how we see our ethical imperatives, how we learn to think and how we treat others along with the other differences from food to politics. Those that hold on with dear life to old tomes, spending their lives intoning them, arguing over this or that intention within it are living much as dinosaurs must have done when the asteroid was arriving..looking up and saying in their sluggish way, say wha? We live in a modern scientific world and the idea of supreme creators and such like has utterly no place within it. Mythology being this or that god is for children. I like this website for the cultural issues but this sort of well intentioned article is irrlevant to modern Jews, I suggest. The laws are the laws…and I guess that makes Men just little worms that must follow orders from an imaginery rule maker…I don’t think so…Laws are made by society. Different societies choose different paths. We are social creatures and we ought to be guided by our rational intellects.To follow a book collected from scraps from ancient societes is interesting just as any ancient text ought to be. To be lived by? Well…spare me.

    Bill Robbins says:

    Well, that’s one way to look at it. On the other hand…and while standing on one leg…it depends…except…under the following circumstances…

    In other words, you have not studied enough to know what you do not know.

      cipher says:

      In other words, he needs to study until he comes to the same conclusions you have. [/sarcasm]

        Bill Robbins says:

        If I get your sarcasm, well, yeah.

          cipher says:

          Unbelievable. After decades of experience, the arrogance of the observant still amazes me.

          HappyandProud says:

          I don’t think it’s arrogant to state that someone doesn’t know enough about a subject to give overarching generalizations about it, especially when the person giving the generalization says they don’t know much about it.

          HappyandProud says:

          I don’t think it’s arrogant to state that someone doesn’t know enough about a subject to give overarching generalizations about it, especially when the person giving the generalization says they don’t know much about it.

          Natan79 says:

          It shouldn’t. Holier-than-thou is their way of operating. Especially when they and their sons dodge the draft in Israel.

      Natan79 says:

      Claims based on authority, instead of argument, are null. This applies to you. It also applies to the whole article, whose idea that you should DEFER to your teacher (regardless of how valid his opinions are), is idiotic, abusive and stifling to any search for truth.

        Grigalem says:

        Moses & Rabbi Akiba (Talmud Menachot 29b)
        The Notorious R.A.V. —

        Rav Yehuda quoted Rav: When Moses ascended to the heights [to receive the Torah] he found God sitting and drawing crowns upon the letters. Moses said to God, “Master of the Universe, what is staying Your hand [from giving me the Torah unadorned]?”

        God replied, “There is a man who will arise many generations in the future, his name is Akiva ben Yosef. He will interpret mound upon mound of halachot (laws) from each and every marking.”

        Moses requested, “Master of the Universe, show him to me.” God said, “Turn backwards [and you will see him].”

        Moses [found himself in R. Akiva’s classroom where he] sat at the back of the eighth row. He didn’t understand what they were talking about and felt weak. Then, they came to a matter about which the students asked Akiva, “Rabbi, how do you know this?” He told them, “It is the [oral] law given to Moses at Sinai.” Moses felt relieved.

        He returned to God and said, “Master of the Universe, you have a person like this and [still You choose to] give the Torah through my hands?” God replied, “Silence! This is according to My plan.”

        Moses said, “Master of the Universe, you’ve shown me his teaching (Torah), show me his reward.” God said, “Turn [backwards and you may see it]. Moses turned around and beheld [the Roman torturers] weighing his [Akiva’s] flesh on the market scales. He said to God, “Master of the Universe, that was his Torah and this is his reward!?”

        God said, “Silence! This is according to My plan”.

        The first part of the story suggests that the Torah and laws did not emanate from Sinai in their final form. While this may be obvious, given the volumes upon volumes of interpretation written over the centuries, traditionalists have insisted upon the “oral law” being given along with the written Torah. This text challenges that viewpoint, acknowledging that even Moses didn’t understand the “Torah” that was being taught in the academy of Akiba.

        What is the lesson to be learned (Why should this text be taught)? The first part of the text sets a belief in a Torah that is given to and by Moses and yet, at the same time, is subject to reinterpretation and innovation. It disproves the idea that all interpretations were given “at Sinai”, as the Talmud shows us that even Moses cannot recognize how the Torah has changed in the study hall of Rabbi Akiba. This text opens the way for teaching and discussion about the nature of a Torah that is both “given at Sinai” but also changing.

    Bill Robbins says:

    Well, that’s one way to look at it. On the other hand…and while standing on one leg…it depends…except…under the following circumstances…

    In other words, you have not studied enough to know what you do not know.

    Grigalem says:

    The US Constitution and the Federal Law Code are the ancient writings of man. They are
    nothing more than that. Being American is about how we raise our children …..

      Natan79 says:

      The US Constitution is subject to amendment. Its validity is only as good as the voluntary agreement of the US citizens it applies to. Similarly, in Israel the law is based on Israeli basic laws and on the declaration of independence, both underwritten by its citizens.

      As a Zionist Jew and an Israeli citizen, I abide by Israeli law, whose validity is based on the freely given consent of a majority of Israeli citizens. Otherwise, I couldn’t care less about what some Iraqi rabbis said 1,600 years ago that I should do without ever asking my consent. Whatever these rabbis said say is mere opinion.

        Grigalem says:

        We KNOW it is an opinion. A definitive opinion. With as much force for its constituency as the Israeli Supreme Court’s opinions are for its. Duh!

        If you couldn’t care less, then why are you here week after week, reading a summary of what some Iraqi rabbis [sic] said 1600 years ago?

          Natan79 says:

          I read literature, I don’t consider it holy. No man is holy and no man’s opinion is definitive.You must have forgotten that this is crucial for Jews. If you want to worship men, go to the Christians. Don’t come here to worship rabbis as they worship dead saints.

          Grigalem says:

          Thinking the Talmud is “literature” is the booby prize. Try Lady Murakami. She’s got a better plot and characterizations.

          The notion of worshiping rabbis is too bizarely loopy to discuss on a Jewish site, other than to mention that it violates the Ten Utterances. God alone knows where you thought it up. Or why.

          When the Supreme Court makes a decision it IS definitive. We don’t worship Alito either.

          You didn’t change your ID recently, did you? You sound an awful lot like a “Humanist Jew” who has been pestering everybody on the Daf Yomi site.

          If you couldn’t care less about this, then why are you here week after week, reading a summary of what (you think) some Iraqi rabbis said 1600 years ago? It isn’t, of course, but still …. You “forgot” to answer the other time.

          I mean, I don’t go to TV plot summary sites, or sports sites or chess sites, or wristwatch enthusiasts sites … because I DON’T CARE. So what are you doing here week after week following something you don’t care about?

          Natan79 says:

          Changed my ID, daf yomi website? You’re a paranoid fellow with a tin foil hat – hardly surprising for the arrogant and authoritarian asshole you have consistently shown yourself to be.

          You can’t understand the distinction between consent and lack of consent. The US Supreme Court has an authority because US citizens gave it to them. Some its decisions are reversed, contrary to what you say. Everything you say is a lie or an idiocy. Sometimes you manage both – congratulations! In stark contrast, the decisions of your Iraqi rabbis have not been a subject of approval of Jews and certainly not of Israeli citizens. Why don’t you move to Iran or Lebanon? It’s a more appropriate place for religious fundamentalists like yourself. Speaking of which, go to hell with questions about what I do here on this website. I am a Zionist Jew and the last thing I need is the approval of a medieval jerk like yourself.

          It also is clear you understand nothing if you believe I want to convince you. I don’t. First, you are an aggressive ignoramus with zero respect for freedom and civil rights. Second, I simply want paranoid authoritarians like yourself to have NO power. For example, I don’t like kids to be taken on class trips to the graves of saintly rabbis, a demented, un-Jewish and worshipful practice in Israeli religious schools that I know first-hand – perpetrated by your fundamentalist type, who are indeed bizarrely loopy, as you memorably said. Will you tell them that? I doubt, as it is your type that does this bizarro stuff in Israel.

          It gives me great pleasure that people like yourself do NOT hold the power in Israel. Try Lebanon, tin foil hat boy. Or Neturei Karta, which you actually fit best.

          With sincere contempt, regards

          Grigalem says:

          I take this to mean that you have not changed your ID.

          I have no interest in addressing bizarre and loopy screeds … with one quick exception. Supreme Court decisions are not “reversed”. They are the final word. If we don’t like it we pass new legislation or amend the Constitution.


          a Reconstructionist Zionist Jew from HaShomer HaTzair.

          Natan79 says:

          So you do not actually sport a tin foil hat under which your bizarro conspiracy fantasies are born? Oh well.

          US Supreme Court decisions can be and sometimes are reversed. Educate yourself – and try harder next time you’re in school. Clearly the first time you learnt little. More time with the books and less time in Commonwealth Avenue bars could work wonders. Though in your case, I doubt it.

          Grigalem says:

          “US Supreme Court decisions can be and sometimes are reversed.”

          Oh? By whom? By what? The Super Secret Super Supreme Court? The Queen of England? Ahmadinejad? The Cleveland City Council?

          Tell us, o educated one.

          Natan79 says:

          By subsequent Supreme Court decisions and by changing laws. It it is no surprise that you do not know and that you are not capable of looking up elementary resources. You have shown yourself to be stupid, aggressive and ignorant.

          So just as I’m not going to teach you the alphabet or tell you when the US was founded I’m not going to tell you how and which US Supreme Court decisions are reversed. These are all too easy to find, and helping a religious fanatic and a paranoid conspiracy theorist like yourself is the last thing I would ever like to do. Go back to daf yomi webpages and build there some more paranoid theories, that’s your only proven specialty.

          Grigalem says:

          I repeat what I have already posted: “If we don’t like it we pass new legislation or amend the Constitution.”

          Apparently it is difficult for you to advance the conversation … because you forget too many things too quickly.

          Natan79 says:

          No decision is definitive, regardless of what you claim. No man can claim authority, especially no man whose decisions we do not vote on. That is why claims of definitive authority are pernicious, even for things we do vote on: they are valid only as long as we don’t vote them down.

          Concerning rabbis’ claims which you consider definitive, they have not been agreed upon, so they are actually even less valid or binding than Israeli or US laws, or US Supreme Court decisions, are. Whatever they say, it is just a bunch of people expressing their opinions. Sometimes interesting, sometimes nonsense, but never binding. A man, and certainly an observant Jew, is not bound by what these guys said. But a crazy religious fanatic is.

          I’ve met people like you in Israel. They tried to lecture me just like you do. That was happening while I was serving in the Israeli army while these local holy chaps were dodging the draft. They, like you, did not feel any need to prove that validity of their claims. No, they just invoked authority from thin air, they proved validity merely by stating it.

          As a bonus, you’re a dime-a-dozen conspiracy theorist with paranoid messages about how I changed my ID from another website and other tin-foil hat dreams. So by people like you, I mean crazy fanatics with a screw loose.

          Grigalem says:

          I repeat: If you couldn’t care less, then why are you here week after week, reading a summary of what some Iraqi rabbis [sic] said 1600 years ago?

          I repeat: Thinking the Talmud is “literature” is the booby prize. Try Lady Murakami. She’s got a better plot and deeper characterizations.

          I repeat: The notion of worshiping rabbis is too bizarrely loopy to discuss on a Jewish site, other than to mention that it violates the Ten Utterances.

          I repeat: I did a word search and you the the one and only person who mentioned holiness [in regards to the Talmud]. The trick is not to pretend I said something I never said and then condemn me for saying it. That is sad, as well as bizarre and loopy.

          When the Supreme Court reverses itself we usually say the Court made a contradictory decision on a new case that results in overturning the old precedent. The word “vacate” is in there somewhere.


          Your cum laude buddy, who knows an whole lot more than you …. not only about legal matters, but about the Talmud, too.

          PS – Nobody here gives a shit about this … including me, and most likely you as well. This is a space to discuss Adam Kirsch’s summary of the Daf Yomi.

          Grigalem says:

          “a religious fanatic and a paranoid conspiracy theorist”????

          I realize that I take a weekly class in Talmud (Tractate Sanhedrin), but I never know that it made me a religious fanatic. THE THINGS YOU LEARN!

          The description “conspiracy theorist” would make more sense if there was some conspiracy I subscribed to or promulgated here.

          I don’t have the time to worry about it, though, as I am grilling burgers and dogs for our Memorial Day picnic. Perhaps Memorial Day is part of the conspiracy. Who can tell? BWAHAHAHAHAHA!

          PS — I haven’t lived in Boston for 25 years, though I was a well-regarded street musician on Brattle Street at the time. Newspaper articles, lectures at Harvard, the whole shmear.

          No idea what you are on about in regards to Boston. Or what “people like you” is supposed to mean. Irish musicians? Frankly, my dear, I don’t give two shits.

          dantheman08822 says:

          By a subsequent Supreme Court, o arrogant one.

          dantheman08822 says:

          U.S. Supreme Court decisions have been reversed, in whole or in part, by subsequent courts. Perhaps the most famous is Brown vs. Board of Education (1954) which reversed Plessy vs. Ferguson (1898).

          Grigalem says:

          And thousands of rabbinic decisions have been amended, overturned, made obsolete (slavery, death penalty), re-interpreted, or ignored (blue threads). Then and now.

          Your Talmud says:

          God replied, “There is a man who will arise many generations in the future, his name is Akiva ben Yosef. He will interpret mound upon mound of halachot (laws) from each and every marking.”

          So what’s your point?

Harry Herskovitz says:

I read these weekly articles with great interest and I admire the writer’s objectivity, analysis and respect for the subject matter. In his own way, he has taught me something about Talmud and introduced me to a level of critical thinking that i had not delved into before. I haven’t taken on a Daf Yomi commitment, but I do learn on at least a weekly basis. Thanks to Tablet and especially Adam Kirsch, for giving us (certainly me) thoughtful and intelligent exposure to a subject that for many of us, was merely a closed book.

Natan79 says:

Rabbis are teachers entitled to an offer an opinion, not masters whose opinion one should defer to. Never. A Jew who DEFERS to another Jew’s opinion is not a Jew.

That is what so repellent in the rabbinical culture: the claim to authority and the sociological culture they spawned, in which rabbis rule what other Jews should do. A rabbi is not entitle to rule on anything, he is merely entitled to offer his own interpretation of what Jewish Law prescribes.

    Grigalem says:

    Um, if the authorities do not make a claim to authority, then who should? That’s why they are the authorities and their decisions are authoritative … after hundreds of years of discussion on said decisions (which is what the Talmud is). Sheesh.

      Natan79 says:

      A claim of authority must be consented to by those on who authority is exerted. Merely declaring authority is worthless and evil, and is the essence of dictatorship. That you personally agree to such claims, it’s your problem. Most other Jews don’t. As a case in point, that is why the State of Israel is ruled by civil law that is freely voted upon and revised by its citizens, as it should be – not by Jewish religious law promulgated by unelected and self-proclaimed “authorities”. I’m quite happy that people like you don’t call the shots in Israel.

        dantheman08822 says:

        Unfortunately, and to the chagrin of the majority of Jews in Israel, Jewish religious law is the law of the land. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a huge stain upon the Land of Israel, not that the Israelis aren’t nice and loving to their Islamic enemies.

dantheman08822 says:

My point is the same as that of many other posters here. Namely, that you’re an arrogant, conceited little shmendrick who desperately needs an attitude adjustment.


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The Irrelevance of Pleasure

As the rabbis remind us again this week, the law is the law—whether it pleases you or not

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