What is Talmud Tweets?

What is Talmud Tweets? A short, personal take on a page of Talmud - every day!

For several years now, I have been following the tradition of "Daf Yomi" - reading a set page of Talmud daily. With the start of a new 7 1/2 year cycle, I thought I would share a taste of what the Talmud offers, with a bit of personal commentary included. The idea is not to give a scholarly explanation. Rather, it is for those new to Talmud to give a little taste - a tweet, as it were - of the richness of this text and dialogue it contains. The Talmud is a window into a style of thinking as well as the world as it changed over the centuries of its compilation.

These are not literal "tweets" - I don't limit myself to 140 characters. Rather, these are intended to be short, quick takes - focusing in on one part of a much richer discussion. Hopefully, I will pique your interest. As Hillel says: "Go and study it!" (Shabbat 31a)

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Shabbat 95 – 'Just Because'

As noted, any action forbidden on Shabbat must fall into one of the 39 categories of “work” defined by the rabbis as actions involved in the construction of the Tabernacle. Sometimes, it is a bit of creative work to figure out what category things fall into. For example, the Mishnah states that a woman plaiting her hair, painting her eyelids or putting rouge on her face is liable (although there is debate about whether these are biblical or rabbinic).

The Talmudic text debates what categories these fall into. Is plaiting the hair “weaving”? Is it “building”? (note this sweet midrash: And the Lord God builded the rib [… into a woman]: (Gen. 2:22) this teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, plaited Eve['s hair] and brought her to Adam, for in the sea-towns plaiting is called 'building'. )

But a story of told of one rabbi who didn’t bother trying to fit things into categories.

R. Nahman b. Guria visited Nehardea. He was asked. If one milks, on what score is he culpable? On the score of milking, He replied. If one sets milk, or what score is he culpable? On the score of setting milk, he replied. If one makes cheese, on what score is he liable? On account of making cheese, he replied.

In other words, R. Nahman’s responds to the people – “just because.” That does not fly. And the people knew it:

"Your teacher must have been a reed-cutter in a marsh," they jeered at him.

R. Nahman goes back to the study hall and gets the answers (milking is like “unloading”, setting milk is like “selecting”). The people were right not to accept high-handed answer.

The result is not the point, the process is. And it is not arbitrary. There has to be a logical reason for a law, particularly a restriction – ultimately backed by text.

The answer is never: “Just because.”

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