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How the Talmud Maps Behavior by Exploring Definitions, Not Listing Rules

Daf Yomi: The rabbis examined practical dimensions of deep questions, including those raised around saliva, urine, and sex

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This week’s Daf Yomi reading was a wonderful example of the range of the Talmud’s concerns, and the twisting paths that connect them. What starts out as a discussion of the laws of tefillin becomes an examination of the biology of urination and spitting, which is really a debate on the definition of substances and objects. Finally the rabbis turn to questions of sex, marriage, and the status of women, in which the notion of original sin and its punishment is refined in very unexpected ways. Chapter 10 of Tractate Eruvin is all by itself a good argument for the idea that the Talmud is not just a book but an ocean.

One thing I’ve learned over the last year of reading Talmud is that you seldom find subjects in the place where you expect them. You might think, for example, that the question of whether it is permitted to wear tefillin on Shabbat would be covered somewhere in Tractate Shabbat. The subject is addressed there, but it returns for a fuller treatment in Tractate Eruvin, by a roundabout method. What should you do, the Mishnah asks on Eruvin 95a, if you are out walking on Shabbat and you come across some tefillin abandoned in an open field?

Carrying them back home, of course, is forbidden, since you are not allowed to carry anything more than four amot at a time in a public domain. But leaving the tefillin there is also problematic, since they may end up being desecrated. So, the Mishnah recommends a method of carrying that is not really carrying: You should put them on, according to the usual ritual procedure, and then walk home with them. According to Rabban Gamliel, you can even bring them in “two by two”: that is, wearing two sets of tefillin (a set has two pieces, one for the head and one for the arm). If there are more than one pair of abandoned tefillin, you should repeat the procedure as many times as needed. But if there are so many tefillin that it would be impossible to wear them each home before nightfall, the Jew is obligated to stay with them until Shabbat is over.

The Gemara feeds on moments when the Mishnah is ambiguous or contradictory, and so it zeroes in immediately on Rabban Gamliel’s statement. First the Tanna Kamma—the first quoted opinion in the Mishnah, the one that carries the voice of law—holds that a Jew should bring the tefillin home one pair at a time. Why, then, does Rabban Gamliel say he should wear two pairs at a time? What principle underlies this distinction?

The discussion begins by quoting something Rabbi Meir says in Tractate Shabbat about saving clothing from a fire on Shabbat. In such an emergency, the Mishnah rules, it is still forbidden to pick up your clothes and bring them to safety in a big bundle, since that would constitute an act of carrying. However, the opinion of Meir holds, you can wear as many layers of clothing as you can possibly put on and in that way transport them to safety. Because wearing is permitted on Shabbat, it’s allowed to wear as much as you want; after all, on a cold day you might put on a lot of layers of clothing, so the procedure in case of a fire doesn’t differ that much from ordinary use.

Now the Gemara applies this principle to the question of the tefillin. The Mishnah allows wearing lots of layers of clothes in an emergency; why, then, does it only allow wearing one pair of tefillin in an emergency? The answer is that the Mishnah considers wearing tefillin not to be an ordinary act of dressing, but the fulfillment of a particular mitzvah. The mitzvah calls for wearing one pair of tefillin on Shabbat, but not more than one; and God commanded in Deuteronomy 13:1, “You shall take care to do every matter that I command you; neither add to it nor subtract from it.” Wearing two tefillin would be “adding” and therefore a violation.

If Rabban Gamliel does allow wearing two pairs of tefillin, then, it is because—paradoxically, it might seem—he does not consider wearing tefillin to be necessary on Shabbat. Because wearing tefillin on Shabbat is not a mitzvah, it is therefore not a violation to wear more than one pair; according to Rabban Gamliel, it is simply like wearing an ornament, and there is no limit to the number of ornaments you can wear on Shabbat. The Gemara goes on to discuss the practical dimensions of the question: Is there, in fact, room, on one’s forehead and bicep for two tefillin? In the process, the rabbis lay down the rule for exactly where tefillin is to be bound: The head tefillin goes on the kadkod, which is defined as “the place where an infant’s skull is soft.”

Later in Chapter 10, the rabbis return to the much-discussed question of transferring objects between a public domain, a reshut harabim, and a private domain, a reshut hayachid. But the case in point this time is a surprising one. It is forbidden, the Mishnah holds on Eruvin 98b, to stand in a public domain and urinate into a private one, or vice versa (the person in question is presumably a man). The same holds of spitting. Then Rabbi Yehudah follows this logic to its natural conclusion: If saliva is an object that can be transferred between domains, doesn’t it follow that carrying it around in your mouth constitutes an act of carrying? Which means that if your mouth fills with saliva, you cannot go more than four amot in a public domain without spitting it out.

This has some unpleasant hygienic implications—one imagines a lot of spitting going on during Shabbat—but it also has some interesting logical ones. What the rabbis are really debating here, as is often the case, is not so much a point of behavior as one of essences, of definitions. What is an object, really—does it have to have a fixed shape and form, or does liquid count? At what point does saliva cease to be a part of one substance, the body, and become its own substance?

In the Gemara, Rava pushes Rabbi Yehudah’s reasoning a step further by applying it to the question of urination. Urine, too, is a liquid carried inside the body. Should we consider it as part of the body, then, or as a separate object that we carry around inside the bladder? And if urine resides in the bladder, then what happens, Rava asks, if someone (again, the assumption is that we are talking about a man) is standing in such a way that the bladder is in a public domain but the orifice of the penis is in a private domain? Would the passage of urine through the urinary tract then become a forbidden transfer? The question sounds a little absurd—not unlike something that a bright and disruptive student might come up with—and the Talmud decides not even to engage with it: Teku, the rabbis say, “Let it stand” without resolution.

Later in the chapter, the subject shifts to whether a tree’s branches form a valid partition, like a wall. In the course of this discussion, the rabbis say that it is forbidden to walk on grass on Shabbat, on account of a verse from the Book of Proverbs: “And one who acts impetuously with his feet is a sinner.” The application to walking on grass is clear enough; but for the rabbis, raglayim, feet, is also frequently a euphemism for the genitals. The sentence is also applied, therefore, to acting “impetuously” in sexual matters.

For the rabbis, this does not mean, as it might for us, casual or extramarital sex, which are beyond imagining. Instead, Rabbi bar Chama says, it means that “a man is forbidden to force his wife to engage in marital relations.” Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi seconds, “Whoever forces his wife to engage in marital relations will have children who are not of good character.” For the rabbis, a wife is not property, whom a husband can make use of as he sees fit, but an equal sexual partner, who must always give consent.

Consent, however, is passive. Is a woman also allowed to actually propose sex, to initiate it? Here the rabbis disagree. Rabbi Yochanan says it is highly praiseworthy for a wife to initiate sex: “Every woman who petitions her husband to engage in marital relations will have children the like of whom did not exist even in the generation of Moses.” Rav Yitzchak bar Avdimi, on the other hand, holds that only the husband can explicitly ask for sex: “A woman petitions in her heart, whereas a man petitions verbally.”

This imbalance, he says, is a direct result of Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden. When she ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge, God laid a series of curses on her, including the phrase, “your craving shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” This “ruling over,” Rav Yitzchak explains, means that the man always has the initiative in sexual matters. Still, the rabbis hold, the woman does have ways of making her desires known: “acting in a pleasing manner,” the Gemara says, is the wife’s way of “petitioning.” The Talmud will never be accused of strict egalitarianism, but its treatment of marital relations and sexual dynamics seems pretty progressive for a work that is more than 1,500 years old.


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Facebook User says:

Interesting… the whole week I’ve been thinking that surely Adam is going to cite the part of the discussion (on 96a-b) about women wearing tefillin, but then in the end nothing about that! I guess part of literary writing is the surprises. :)

41953 says:

“The Talmud will never be accused of strict egalitarianism, but its treatment of marital relations and sexual dynamics seems pretty progressive for a work that is more than 1,500 years old.”

A valid observation.

See, when there is something of value, I say so. It just so happens that the rest of the daf yomi is the usual intellectual masturbation. Or just plain ridiculous as it “for the rabbis, raglayim, feet, is also frequently a euphemism for the genitals.”
Feet and genitals? The only connection I can think of is getting kicked in the balls.

    Facebook User says:

    Adam didn’t explain it properly. In Hebrew “raglayim” doesn’t just mean “feet,” but “legs.” Does that help make clearer the connection with the genitals?
    And really, “intellectual masturbation”? Was that really necessary?

      Grigalem says:

      Sure it was mnecessary. That’s what “fuck you all” LOOKS like, SOUNDS like, and IS..

        Facebook User says:

        We will learn in next week’s daf (Pesachim 3a-b) that “a person should always use clean speech.” You – and the teacher you mentioned last week who used this expression – ought to know better, and find a nicer term to use.

          Facebook User says:

          Furthermore, I submit that you may be wrong about his motivation. Have you stopped to consider that it may be a way of justifying himself – both to himself and to others? In other words, that his pintele Yid is nagging at him that he needs real Yiddishkeit, and so all of this is a way of rationalizing away that feeling?

          Well, then, ask yourself: is your invective, your gutter speech, your outright hatred, likely to help out his pintele Yid, or – G-d forbid – to cover it up with yet another layer of rationalization? “So-and-so, who studied Torah – look how corrupt are his actions, how repulsive are his ways!” (Yoma 86a). Why instead should he not be shown how Torah and Yiddishkeit refine one’s character – that on the contrary, as the Gemara there puts it, “Woe to those who never studied Torah; so-and-so, who studied Torah – look how pleasant are his ways, how upright are his actions!”

          Grigalem says:

          Figuring out his motivation is the booby prize.

          You are mistaking invective for hatred. I am annoyed enough to invect. I am nowhere near hatred.

          Do you HONESTLY think that my posting “Oh how goodly and pleasant are your weekly mockings” will encourage him to stop annoying everyone every week?

          For all you know, Torah HAS refined my character to where I am today.

          Facebook User says:

          Haven’t you ever heard of “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all”? No one is asking you to approve of 41953’s comments; downvote them to your heart’s content. But disapproval and invective are two very different things.

          As for your last sentence: first of all, since neither I nor 41953 know you in real life, then all we have to go by is what we see from your postings. Anyway, though, your character development has to keep pace with your Torah development: every daf of Gemara you cover should also come with a concomitant improvement in middos, because the purpose of Torah study is not just to gain knowledge but to come closer to G-d and to the “portion of G-d from above” that is within your fellow Jew.

          Grigalem says:

          He’s the one saying “fuck you” to you. I am just clarifying that’s what “fuck you all” LOOKS like, SOUNDS like, and IS.

          You seem more upset with my using the only word that accurately describes what needs to be described than with him mocking you, calling you insane … and worse.

          Pardon me for not caring But if my saying fuck offended you, then I’m fucking sorry.

          >> “If you can’t say “fuck” you can’t say, “Fuck the government.” — Lenny Bruce

          Any suggestions as to what nicer term accurately expresses what 41953 is saying to you (and at you)? If I find it equally accurate, I’ll be glad to switch.

          Grigalem says:

          In other words, you couldn’t think of a more accurate descriptive either.

          Facebook User says:

          I don’t believe in the first place that yours is an accurate description of what he’s saying, so why should I need to look for a synonym? You’re the one who is imputing bad faith to him, so it is your responsibility to find the appropriate terminology to describe it.

          Grigalem says:

          I found the appropriate terminology .. something you seem to be more concerned with than with his bad faith (and I DO mean “humanistic Judaism”).

          Facebook User says:

          Thank you. (I meant “bad faith” in the sense of “doing something for no good reason but to provoke,” rather than anything to do with what he believes. We Jews tend to talk about our religion in terms of down-to-earth thought, speech and deed rather than airy “faith,” so the other meaning of the term didn’t even occur to me.)

          “Humanistic Judaism” is in fact a tautology: real genuine Yiddishkeit includes the best aspects of humanism (though with the key difference that its norms of behavior come from G-d rather than from fallible and finite human thinkers). As Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch put it, G-d demands of each of us to be “mentsch-Yisroel,” having in him/herself the highest moral qualities of humanity plus the holiness that comes from Torah and mitzvos.

          That people like 41953 feel the need to add “humanistic” to “Judaism,” as though there is another kind without that, is a tragedy (and one for which frum Jews like myself must share in part of the blame, for allowing the “Yisroel” to override the “mentch”). But as you well know, you don’t get rid of darkness by flailing and cursing at it, but by lighting a candle of “ner mitzvah ve-Torah ohr”: demonstrating by personal example the beauty and morality of Torah and of a life lived in accordance with it, and then – where appropriate – dealing with the misconceptions gently.

          (Let it also be stressed, as in the quotation from Tanya below, that all of this has to be undergirded with a firm ahavas Yisroel. And it will show; people can tell the difference between the insincere “love” shown by missionaries, who are interested only in your conversion and not in you as a person, and the genuine ahavah – from hav, “to give” – of a member of the family, which then naturally results in the desire to help them be the best that they can be.)

          Grigalem says:

          Tell him … not me. I have already said that I am outta this topic.

          PS – “Bad faith” was a rather clever joke. Too bad you missed it.

    Allen Roth says:

    More of you should have picked up on the connection between feet and genitals/sex: Starting with Oedipus, who had the symbolic wound in his ankle, from being chained, and consequently limped. Hitchcock used this old symbolism in his film Rear Window, which has James Stewart in a cast on his leg, resulting from an accident sustained in his photojournalism career, rendering him symbolically impotent throughout the film, while emotionally paralyzed in trying to decide whether or not to marry Grace Kelly. I am just surprised to find this symbolism in the Talmud; I’ve never come across it before.

      Isabel Herron says:

      as Sylvia replied I didnt even know that anyone can earn $6971 in 1 month on the internet. have you read this webpage w­w­w.K­E­P­2.c­o­m

altershmalter says:

Blah, blah, blah…EXCEPT: The part about women initiating sex has, no doubt, been excised from the Talmud of today’s Kovah Shachor crowd.

    Facebook User says:

    “No doubt” should mean “I’ve checked this out and found this to be so,” not “this is my opinion, absolutely unsupported by any evidence.”

41953 says:

Intellectual gymnatiics, then. Rules concering urination or salivation in or out of an eruv is not something that any sane person should care about.

    Facebook User says:

    Thank you; that’s a much nicer way of making your point.

    I should start by pointing out that here, actually, we’re not dealing so much with eruvin, but with actual defined “domains,” such as a house (called in Hebrew reshus hayachid, “the domain of one”) vs. the street (reshus harabbim, “the domain of the many”).

    Why indeed should it make a difference?

    Well, first of all, in Jewish life the mundane is important too, because looking after the small things helps us develop our relationship with G-d regarding the bigger things. (In the same way: it’s wonderful to buy your wife an expensive gift, but you can show your love for her by paying attention to the smaller daily things such as putting down the toilet seat.)

    Second, there is an idea in Jewish literature that the “domain of one” represents the areas of life and the world around us that work harmoniously together towards the goal for which they were created, while the “domain of the many” is those parts of the world, and of ourselves, that still are fragmented and often at loggerheads. Our attention to the nuances of these “domains” as regards Shabbat observance, then – even to the point of being careful about spitting or urinating from one to the other – can, and should, lead a thinking Jew to notice that distinction throughout the rest of the week, and then to spur him or her to do as much as possible to turn more of the “domain of the many” into the “domain of the one” – to make him/herself, and the world at large, a more moral place.

    Surely, then, you’ll agree that this goal is indeed something that every sane person should care about!

      Grigalem says:

      “Thank you; that’s a much nicer way of making your point.”

      No it isn’t. He called you INSANE.

      He also called the entire 3000-year-old rabbinate (as well as 3500-year-old institution of the priests, teachers, and the judges of criminal and civil law) insane.

      By the way – that’s how he justifies marrying a non-Jew while pretending he is a Jew — by calling it all “insane”. And hiself a “humanist Jew”.

        Facebook User says:

        First of all, you’ve “stepped on” the point I’m trying to make. Is 41953 – or any other reader – now going to notice it, or are they going to be sidetracked by your rant?

        Anyway, the following statement needs to be engraved on the mind and heart of every Torah-observant Jew who interacts with those who are not at that level. It comes from Tanya, ch. 32:

        “But as for the person who is not one’s colleague and is not on intimate terms with him, Hillel the Elder said, “Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving the creatures and drawing them near to the Torah.” This means that even in the case of those who are removed from G-d’s Torah and His service, and are therefore classified simply as “creatures,” one must attract them with strong cords of love, perchance one might succeed in drawing them near to the Torah and Divine service. Even if one fails, one has not forfeited the merit of the precept of neighborly love.”

          Grigalem says:

          “First of all, you’ve “stepped on” the point I’m trying to make. Is 41953 – or any other reader – now going to notice it, or are they going to be sidetracked by your rant?”

          I rant for the sheer pleasure of it. If you think it steps on your point than I shall desist. YOU tell him what the rabbis he mocks have to say about his weekly mockery. THAT’LL show him.

          Facebook User says:

          Sorry, but “just for the sheer pleasure of it” won’t wash. “Kol maasecha yihyu lesheim Shamayim”: a person is expected to constantly be on guard to see to it their pleasure has a higher purpose.

Fred Simonelli says:

I’d be grateful if a learned friend would respond to my question. As a (gentile) historian I’ve studied the separation of the Jesus sect from Judaism in the first four centuries of the Common Era. At the apex of that separation, Talmud appears in written form. Are the two events related?

    Facebook User says:

    I guess I’d say it’s somewhat related. One of the big differences between Judaism and Christianity is that Judaism believes in an “oral law” parallel to the “written law” (the Bible) and deriving from the same divine source; whereas Christianity does not. The Talmud, then, is the compilation of that oral law.

      Grigalem says:

      As is the “other” Talmud, the Baraita and (maybe) the beginnings of Kaballah.

      Fred Simonelli says:

      Thank you for the courtesy of your reply and for your clarification. I’m interested in any evidence of causality (if such exists) between the theological conflict within Judaism over the teachings of the Jesus cult and the practice of committing oral law to a written form within mainstream Judaism.

        Facebook User says:

        I see. In that case, there isn’t any connection that I know of, although I can’t say I’m familiar with all of the scholarly research on the subject.

        There are some specific Jewish practices that were instituted in response to the “minim” (a catchall term for various heretical Jewish sects, certainly including the early followers of Jesus). One of these is an extra blessing in the daily prayers calling for divine vengeance against them; one idea behind this was that any clandestine member of such a sect would refuse to say this blessing and thereby “out” themselves, so that the community could take appropriate action.

        But other than that, as Grigalem noted, the primary driver for the writing of the oral law – which occurred in stages between about the 3rd and 7th centuries – was the repeated Roman (first pagan, later Christian) persecutions and massacres of the Jews, and the resulting diaspora of Jewry, which led to the concern that these details would be forgotten.

    Grigalem says:

    This is neither the time, the place or the appropriate forum for your Jesus. Sorry.

    Very briefly, the Talmud derives from 1100 years of rabbinic dialogue, teachings, and rulings — from about 500 BCE to 600 CE. If we consider that apex to be around 200 CE, your Jesus and his worshipers had little do do with the process.

    The Talmud “appeared” in written form because (among other things) the Romans murdered most of the teachers, rabbis, judges, professional memorizers and professional translators; and (as we learn from Tr. Sanhedrin), made it a capital offense to grant smicha, to accept smicha, or to adjudicate a legal case.

    So far as anyone can tell, the Romans murdered between 25% and 50% of all Jews on Earth. Possible more. It seemed prudent to write things down before they were lost.

    Of course, when the volumes of Talmud “emerged”, the process of compiling discussions did not slow or stop. It is ongoing today.

      Fred Simonelli says:

      First, a clarification. I identified myself as a gentile, not as a Christian (they are not necessarily the same) so referring to a first century Jewish rabbi as “my Jesus” is curious. To better understand the historical emergence of Christianity from its Jewish roots requires understanding of both the historical man (Joshua bar Joseph) and the mythical man (Jesus Christ). The mythical man didn’t fully emerge until the 4th century when the Roman Emperor Constantine made Christianity the state religion of the empire. The historical man would have been appalled at how his teaching and his life were depicted within the myth.
      The reason for my initial inquiry was an interest in Jewish religious life during that period between the emergence of the Jesus cult within Judaism and the final separation of that cult from Judaism (a period covering approximately the first four centuries of the Common Era). My studies reveal a dispute during that time between a small but persistent group of Jews and the vast majority of Jews over the teachings of Rabbi Joshua bar Joseph (the historical Jesus). Much of his teaching centered on ritual and appropriate behavior for an observant Jew. So, the emergence of a written/codified Talmud near the end of this period raises the kind of question historians find irresistible: was there an element of causality between the two events or is there merely a temporal association? The insights you provided filled in a bit more of the picture for me; thank you.
      As you know, the Jesus cult eventually quit trying to press their beliefs onto mainstream Judaism and accepted Constantine’s invitation (which proved to be a pact with the devil) to follow a religious path apart from Judaism. Meanwhile, mainstream Judaism consigned the historical Jesus to the role of minor prophet with little lasting impact on Jewish religious practice.

        Mush says:

        The questions you raise are very interesting and have been the subject of much historical debate. One major question is considering how quickly the Jesus movement grew in the Third Century, why was there not more mention of it at all in the Talmud.. Unless, the references had been censored for fear of the Church.
        Traditional Judaism was a strong competitor to Early Christianity , through the 3rd century. Scholars estimate that 10% of the Roman Empire was Jewish before Christianity took over.You can still see this as late as the 4th century, by the anti Jewish sermons of St. John of Chrysostum, warning his parishioners not to go to synagogues on the holidays, in spite of the nice music and prayers. There were still many who identified as Jews but were also followers of Jesus.

        Fred Simonelli says:

        My research confirms what you say: Traditional Judaism was the main competitor to early Christianity through the first 5 centuries of the Common Era. The preaching of John of Chrysostom and others demonstrate how fearful the early church leaders were of what they termed “Judaizing” among early Christians. To counter the inclination of early Christians to return to Jewish rituals and customs, the church became more and more extreme in depicting Jews in a negative light. In doing so, the early church sowed the seeds of antisemitism. Echoes of these early sermons are clearly heard in anti-Semitic calumnies throughout the Middle Ages and resonate up to and including the Shoah. In its struggle to suppress competition from traditional Judaism, the early church infected Western culture with the plague of antisemitism.

        Once the church controlled the apparatus of the state and demonized Jews and Judaism sufficiently to repress the threat of Judaizing, the historical record, including the church’s own sacred texts, the Gospels, were “sanitized” to make the achieved outcome seem inevitable. Given the church’s reach in the early Middle Ages, it would not be surprising if even the Talmud was censored. After the 4th century, it was dangerous for anyone, within or outside the church, to dispute that Christian hegemony over Western culture was ordained by God.

        The reason I started this discussion was to inquire if there were any sources within Jewish literature that discussed that critical period of separation in uncensored detail since I’ve exhausted what is available from Christian sources.


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How the Talmud Maps Behavior by Exploring Definitions, Not Listing Rules

Daf Yomi: The rabbis examined practical dimensions of deep questions, including those raised around saliva, urine, and sex