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, March 31, 2013

Eruvin 23 – Tabernacle in a Courtyard

Courtyard space.


There are other requirements, including the size of a wall and the presence of something to indicate that it is a “dwelling.” For now, we’ll just concentrate on size.

R. Akiva agrees with this size (70 2/3 x 70 2/3 cubit area) although an earlier Mishnah (on 18a) has the area as “two bet se’ah”.

There is a marginal difference between the two. But where does this numerical value come from? Torah:

The length of the (Tabernacle) court shall be a hundred cubits, and the breadth fifty everywhere (Ex. 27:18)

Creating an area (100 x 50 = 5000 sq. cubits) similar to the area described here (70 2/3 x 70 2/3 = 4992 sq. cubits).

But this brings the question: what is “fifty everywhere” (chamishim b’chamishim). Divide the 100 cubit length in half, creating two fifty cubit squares. Then:

Abaye replied: Put up the Tabernacle (which is 10 wide x 30 cubits long) at the edge of fifty cubits so that there might be [a space of] fifty cubits in front of it and one of twenty cubits on every side.

The Tabernacle would thus sit inserted into the courtyard with its entrance at an imaginary 50 cubit line bisecting the 100 cubit length. It would be centered inside the 50 cubit width with 20 cubits on each side. The back of the Tabernacle would then be 20 cubits from the back of the Courtyard wall.

It helps if you draw it! (at least it helped me.)

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Eruvin 22 – Just Do It

There is a discussion on this page about a traditional ruling that “In the Land of Israel not guilt is incurred on account of [moving objects] in a public domain.” The implication being that there is a natural eruv around it. Or perhaps that it is the steep inclines which are not considered “public” because they are relatively inaccessible. Joshua, in this account, established unique public and private roads – so that this could only be meaningful in the Holy Land (remember that the Babylonian Talmud is written in. . . Babylon).

But it is this statement I want to call out:

R. Joshua b. Levi stated: What [is the implication of] what was written: (You shall therefore keep the commandments, and the statutes, and the judgments,) which I command thee this day, to do them? (Deut. 7:11)

This day [you are] to do them’ but you cannot postpone doing them for tomorrow; (i.e. after death)  

this day [you are in a position] to do them’ and tomorrow [is reserved] for receiving reward for [doing] them.

Why does the text bother to include the unnecessary “this day”? To remind us that mitzvot cannot be performed after death – it is our responsibility to do them now. And the reward, according to this view, is not in this world but in the World to Come.

Just do it.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Eruvin 21 – Infinite Exposition

A series of interpretations are given – allusions which are hinted at lines from Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. For example:

Raba made the following exposition: What [are the allusions] in the Scriptural text: Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the field; let us lodge in the villages, let us get up early to the vineyards; let us see whether the vine hath budded, whether the vine-blossom be opened and the pomegranates be in flower; there will I give thee my love? (Song of Songs 7:12f)

Obvious and somewhat unsubtle erotic love poetry, right? Budding vines, open vine-blossoms, flowering pomegranates. Ahem.

Well, maybe not.

‘Come, my beloved, let us go forth in to the field’; the congregation of Israel spoke before the Holy One, blessed be He: Lord of the universe, do not judge me as [thou wouldst] those who reside in large towns who indulge in robbery, in adultery, and in vain and false oaths;

‘let us go forth into the field’, come, and I will show Thee scholars who study the Torah in poverty;

‘let us lodge in the villages’ . . .come and I will show Thee those upon whom Thou hast bestowed much bounty and they disbelieve in Thee;

‘let us get up early in the vineyards’ is an allusion to the synagogues and schoolhouses;

‘let us see whether the vine hath budded’ is an allusion to the students of Scripture;

‘whether the vine-blossom be opened’ alludes to the students of the Mishnah;

‘and the pomegranates be in flower’ alludes to the students of the Gemara;

‘there will I give thee my love’, I will show Thee my glory and my greatness, the praise of my sons and my daughters.

It’s ‘love poetry’ in praise of pastoral study!

And just in case you think this is surprising to make such wild interpretations:

R. Hamnuna said: What [are the allusions in what was written in Scripture: And he spoke three thousand proverbs; and his songs were a thousand and five? (I Kings 5:12)

This teaches that Solomon uttered three thousand proverbs for every single word of the Torah and one thousand and five reasons for every single word of the Scribes.

We’re just getting started!

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Eruvin 20 – Camels and Cows and Heads and Bodies

The Mishnah (from page 17b) discusses an enclosure built around a well – particularly water for animals:


Our page discusses this in some detail. (Some? A lot!)

[This refers,] does it not, to a case where [the keeper] holds both the cow and the vessel? — No, [it may refer to one] who holds the vessel but not the cow. . .

But is it at all permitted [to give drink to a cow on the Sabbath] where one holds the vessel and not the animal? Was it not in fact taught: A man must not6 fill [a vessel with] water and hold it before his beast on the Sabbath but he fills [his bucket] and pours it out
[into a trough] and the cow drinks of its own accord?

The concern being that the animal could pull the bucket out of the enclosure – or worse still – some cause the keeper to carry the bucket out, thus removing it from private to public domain. But what about a camel?

Come and hear: A camel whose head and the greater part of its body is within [a private domain] may be crammed within [that domain]. Now is not the act of cramming, the same as holding the bucket and the animal, and yet it is required that its head and the greater part of its body [shall be within the private domain]. R. Aha son of R. Huna replied in the name of R. Shesheth: A camel is different since its neck is long.

His head is enough!

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Eruvin 19 – Heaven and Hell

Rabbinic texts do not dwell on the afterlife or the images of Heaven and Hell. This can be difficult for those who believe the role of religion is to give confidence about the world to come. Not that it goes unmentioned, though.

A passing reference to “Gehenna” – Hell – on the prior page leads to a discussion of Divine Punishment – and the way it accepted:

R. Jeremiah b. Eleazar further stated: Come and see that human relationship is not like that with the Holy One, blessed be He. In human relationship when a man is sentenced to death for [an offence against] a government, a hook must be placed in his mouth in order that he shall not [be able to] curse the king, but in the relationship with the Holy One, blessed be He, when a man incurs [the penalty of] death for [an offence against] the Omnipresent he keeps silence, as it is said: Towards Thee silence is praise; (Ps. 65: 2)

This is exactly in line with what R. Joshua b. Levi has said:

Passing through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; yea, the early rain clotheth it with blessings, (Ps. 84: 7.)

passing’ is an allusion to men who transgress the will of the Holy One, blessed be He;
‘valley’ [is an allusion to these men] for whom Gehenna is made deep;
‘of Baca’ [signifies] that they weep and shed tears;
‘they make it a place of springs’, like the constant flow of the altar drains;
‘Yea, the early rain clotheth it with blessings’, they acknowledge the justice of their punishment and declare before Him:

‘Lord of the universe, Thou hast judged well, Thou hast condemned well, and well provided Gehenna for the wicked and Paradise for the righteous’.

This passive acceptance of the Divine will is a bit surprising – and perhaps not universally acknowledged:

But this is not [so]? For did not R. Simeon b. Lakish state: The wicked do not repent even at the gate of Gehenna, for it is said: And they shall go forth and look upon the carcasses of the men, that rebel against me etc.; (Isa. 66: 24.) it was not said: ‘that have rebelled’, but ‘that rebel’ [implying] that they go on rebelling forever?

Whether accepted or not, the reference to “Gehenna for the wicked and Paradise for the righteous” is only one of many views of the afterlife mentioned in rabbinic text. It is interesting to see it so definitively stated here.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Eruvin 18 – Adam’s Tail!

A creative translation allows for an extended discussion of the unique creation of Adam – the first man.

R. Jeremiah b. Eleazar said: The first man had two full faces, for it is said in Scripture: Thou hast shaped me behind and before. (PS. 139:5)

The Hebrew word tzartani , usually translated as “hemmed me in (before and after)” is here connected to tzurah (shape). This, along with the statement:

And the Lord God builded the side (tzaylah), etc. (Gen. 2:22)

 This creates a midrashic idea that G-d constructed Adam differently in the front than in behind.

What could that difference be? There are two schools of thought: “a full face” and “a tail.”

A “full face” means that Adam and Eve were created from the beginning as one entity – male and female back to back. “A tail” means that Adam was created originally as a tailed being, and that Eve was built up from that tail.

G-d either split the doubled human or split off the tail. The textual proofs and challenges for both are explored. But in either case, it is a far different story that Adam’s Rib!

And this is the strength of Jewish biblical interpretation – such views only strengthen not challenge the text.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Eruvin 17 – Military Exemption and Burial

The Mishnah grants four special exemptions to soldiers in the field:


It is noted that in Baba Kama 80b there is another list of military exemptions:

Our Rabbis taught: Joshua [on his entry into the land of Israel] laid down ten stipulations:
1.       That cattle be permitted to pasture in woods;
2.       that wood may be gathered [by all] in private fields;
3.       that grasses may similarly be gathered [by all] in all places. . .;
4.       that shoots be permitted to be cut off [by all] in all places. . .;
5.       that a spring emerging [even] for the first time may be used by the townspeople;
6.       that it be permitted to fish with an angle in the Sea of Tiberias, provided no sail is spread as this would detain boats [and thus interfere with navigation];
7.       that it be permitted to ease one's self at the back of a fence even in a field full of saffron;
8.       that it be permitted [to the public] to use the paths in private fields until the time when the second rain is expected;
9.       that it be permitted to turn aside to [private] sidewalks in order to avoid the road-pegs;
10.   that one who has lost himself in the vineyards be permitted to cut his way through when going up and cut his way through when coming down;
11.   and that a dead body, which anyone finds has to bury should acquire [the right to be buried on] the spot [where found].

(Yes, there are 11 not 10. The rabbis say that number 8 is implied in a separate statement of Solomon’s.)

On our page, the focus is on the eruv – and it is determined that this is only a limited exemption:

It was stated at the schoolhouse of R. Jannai: [This ruling] was taught only in regard to an eruv of courtyards but their obligation to an eruv of boundaries remains unaffected

And discussion on whether the penalty for carrying on Shabbat outside of an eruv is death or flogging.

But the primary discussion is on the last Joshua’s exemptions: the permission to bury a dead soldier where he lay.

Is not this obvious, since [a killed warrior is] a met mitzvah and a met mitzvah acquires [the right to be buried on] the spot where it is found?

A met mitzvah is a dead body discovered and who has no one else to bury. The one who discovers the body – even a Levite, for whom a corpse brings ritual defilement – has the obligation to bury such a one.

A solider, or any lone corpse, has the right to be buried where it lay - which supersedes the right of property (although care is taken, if possible, to limit the damage to a working agricultural field). This is the honor given to the dead and part of the purity of the land.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Eruvin 16 – Caravan and a Camel Fence

What exactly constitutes a fence is discussed in some detail – particularly if that fence is made of reeds and has various gaps. The Mishnah also discusses more temporary structures within which Shabbat laws may be relaxed:


This is echoed an expanded by a beratia (mishnaic era text which did not make it into the written document):

Come and hear: If a caravan camped in a valley and it was surrounded by camels, saddles, saddle-cushions, saddlebags, reeds or stalks [it is permitted to] move objects within it, provided there is no more than the space of one camel between any two camels, that of one saddle between any two saddles, and that of one saddle-cushion between any two saddle-cushions!

This kind of ad hoc barrier might be limited to caravan (which is perhaps defined as simply more than 2 people) but it gives an idea of the attempt to make the law achievable for people in different situations. A  caravan might have difficulty constructing an actual fence (although a rope fence with stakes is also permissible). Having that kind of space is important – animals have to be fed and cared for, even on Shabbat. A workable space would have to be defined.

If needed, the camels themselves, along with their saddles, might be considered a fence!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Eruvin 15 – Accidental Side-post

We have been dealing with structures which contain certain spaces. A side-post may be used to define some of these spaces so that they are free to be used on Shabbat as a private space. This side-post can really be anything – literally thin as a reed – so long as it is intentional.
It was stated: A side-post put up accidentally [not for the intention of Shabbat], Abaye ruled, is a valid side-post, but Raba ruled: It is no valid side-post.
They differ only where [the residents] did rely upon it on the previous day.
 That is, if they used it on the day before Shabbat then it would count. For example a proper side-post which fell down on Shabbat. If we relied on an “accidental” side-post – some other item – it would count.

These side-posts can be made of anything, by the way. According to the Mishnah: even living animals! (I’m envisioning a cow tethered inside an alley. “Stay, Bessie!”) The same holds true for documents – including a writ of divorce! (now that has to be a scene in someone’s movie: a woman receives her divorce written on a cow’s hide. Hilarity ensues.)

But it is another scene found on this page which I find interesting:
Come and hear [of the incident] where Rab was sitting in a certain alley and [his student] R. Huna sat before him when [Rab] said to his attendant, ‘Go, bring me a jar of water’. By the time the latter returned, the side-post fell down and he motioned to him with his hand to remain in his place.
Said R. Huna to him, ‘Is not the Master of the opinion that one may rely upon the palm-tree?’(which happened to be at the entrance)
‘This young Rabbi’, he replied: ‘seems to think that people cannot explain a ruling they have heard! Did we rely upon it since yesterday?’

We don’t rely on the accident of a something already in place, which we suddenly convert for another purpose. It is the intention that matters.



Friday, March 22, 2013

Eruvin 14 – The Value of Pi

In a discussion of various shapes and strengths that beam over alley might take, the Mishnah (page 13b) makes this statement:


This is a legal fiction to allow approximations. A straw beam is thought of as metal, a curved beam is thought of as straight. All well and good. But then, the Mishnah enters into dangerous territory:


Thereby establishing a 3:1 proportion of circumference to diameter. But we know that that ratio is actually described by pi to 3.14159 (etc.) This was known in the rabbi’s world to at least a few digits. And in a unique question – the only time in the entire Talmud that this occurs – the rabbis ask:

Whence are these calculations deduced?

All this stems from a well-known mathematical problem in the Bible. In a description of items created by King Solomon there is this statement:

And he made a molten sea, ten cubits from one brim to the other; it was round all around, and its height was five cubits; and a line of thirty cubits measured the circle around it. (I Kings 7:23)

Again the ratio of 3:1 is explicitly stated – and impossible! A precisely 30 cubit line could not encompass a circle whose diameter was precisely 10 cubits. The line would have to be 31.415 (etc.) long!

This has caused grief for generations for those who view the bible as inerrant. For Jews, of course, there is a big difference between Torah (the 5 books of Moses) and Kituvin (the scriptural writings, including Kings). These measurements are seen as human, not divine. None-the-less, it has been a point discussed in rabbinic literature and no less than Maimonides is thought to be the first to declare pi an irrational number.

The internet is rife with theories and explanations. Some good detailed discussions are in Abarim Publications and Rationalist Judaism. (For more on numbers in the bible, see Jewish Virtual Library.)

Some have resorted to numerology to find hidden codes of pi. Others even declared that the value calculated humans is simply wrong.

The rabbis in our discussion on this page are not quite so apoplectic. Maybe the point, particularly in our Mishnah, is to give a handy approximation. Or maybe not everything has been considered:

But surely there was [the thickness of] its brim?

R. Papa replied: Of its brim, it is written in Scripture [that it was as thin as] the flower of a lily; for it is written: And it was a handbreadth thick, and the brim thereof was wrought like the brim of a cup, like the flower of a lily; it held two thousand baths.

But there was [still] a fraction at least? — When [the measurement of the circumference] was computed it was that of the inner circumference.

So the 3:1 ratio could have been approximate, or it could have been the difference between the inner and outer measurements! In any case it makes for some fascinating reading. For Jews this is not threatening.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Eruvin 13 – The Humble are Raised and the Exalted are Humbled

There is are many side notes on this page – the normal kinds of diversions in the Talmudic conversation. But the following is worth repeating virtually whole.

We’ve read often about the disputes between the schools great schools of Hillel and Shammai. We know that the rabbis follow the rulings of Hillel yet reproduce the rulings of Shammai, even though they do not have the force of halachah (Jewish law). Why? Ah, there is a lesson in that – a lesson which comes from a bat kol - a disembodied heavenly voice:

R. Abba stated in the name of Samuel: For three years there was a dispute between Beth Shammai and Beth Hillel, the former asserting, ‘The halachah is in agreement with our views’ and the latter contending, ‘The halachah is in agreement with our views’.

Then a bath kol  issued announcing, “[The utterances of] both are the words of the living God, but the halachah is in agreement with the rulings of Beth Hillel”.

Aeylu v’aeylu divrey Elohim Chayyim – both this and that are the words of the living God. Such a profound statement that opposing sides can disagree but do so out of the best of intentions. God spoke both!

But, of course, since we are not God, we need one answer:

Since, however, both are ‘the words of the living God’ what was it that entitled Beth Hillel to have the halachah fixed in agreement with their rulings?

Because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of Beth Shammai, and were even so [humble] as to mention the actions of Beth Shammai before theirs,

This teaches you that him who humbles himself, the Holy One, blessed be He, raises up, and him who exalts himself, the Holy One, blessed be He, humbles; from him who seeks greatness, greatness flees, but him who flees from greatness, greatness follows; he who forces time is forced back by time but he who yields to time finds time standing at his side.

Re-read that last paragraph. THAT is Torah.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Eruvin 12 – Circle and Square

The second Mishnah of the tractate appears on the previous page (11). It deals with what is needed to define a permissible Shabbat space in an alley:


The question is are these just symbolic or are they substantial? The size and width of the side posts are argued. Whether one or two are necessary is argued. And much might be dependent on the size of the alley.

And it’s shape.

R. Nahman stated: ‘We have a tradition that if [the movement of objects in] an alley is to be permitted [on the Sabbath] by means of a side-post and a cross-beam, its length must exceed its width

This would exclude square shaped alleys. This is a courtyard! Alleys and courtyards are treated differently.

Only one that is square shaped but not one that is round?

Guess not. Apparently there is no such thing as a circular alley!

And [by] how much [must its length exceed its width]?

Samuel intended to rule: By no less than twice its width;  but Rab said to him: Thus ruled my uncle ‘Even by one fraction’.

Turn your square into a rectangle and leave your circle alone. Isn’t geometry fun!

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Eruvin 11 – Arch Enmity

And , finally, the very last sentence of the Mishnah from the beginning of the tractate on page 2:


What is not clear is if this “shape of a doorway” refers only to the width, or to the height as well. If the cross-beam is too high (over 20 cubits) but it still “has the shape of a doorway” does it still need to be reduced?

And what is a “shape of a doorway”?

On both these points there are many debates. Perhaps a doorway is defined by the ability to have a door (even if one is not present). This might be shown by marks for hinges. There is also a mention of “Semitic” doors (coming from the name of Noah’s son Shem – as in, those from the Philistine or Palestinian areas) which may be doors without side-posts or without lintels.

What about an archway?

R. Shesheth met Rabbah b. Samuel and asked him, ‘Has the Master learnt anything about the shape of a doorway?’ — ‘Yes’, the other replied, ‘we have learnt: An arched [doorway], said R. Meir, is subject to the obligation of a mezuzah but the Sages exempt it.

Since a doorway must be a minimum of 4 handbreadths wide to have a mezuzah attached, does an arch count? After all the top of the arch is by definition less (as in – 0 handbreadths!). Perhaps it depends on the height of the sides before the arch begins.

They agree, however that if its lower section (before the arch begins) was ten handbreadths in height [the doorway] is subject to the obligation.

And Abaye stated: All agree that, if [an arched doorway] was ten handbreadths high but its lower section was less than three [handbreadths in height], or even if the lower section was three [handbreadths high] but its total height was less than ten handbreadths, the doorway is not valid at all.

There was reported architectural disagreement about the home the leader of the Jewish community in Babylon – the Exilarch:

‘If you meet the people of the Exilarch's house’, (R. Shesheth) said to (Rabbah b. Samuel), ‘tell them nothing whatever of the Baraitha about the arched doorway’.

Some things are better left unmentioned!

Monday, March 18, 2013

Eruvin 10 – It’s a Matter of Perspective

The previous Talmud pages (2-9) have been spurred by only one sentence in the Mishnah:


Uncommented on until now was the sentence which followed:


Although it has come up on previous pages, we have discussion now on width, not height, based on the conclusion of the Mishnah from page 2:


This “reduction” in the width of an entrance can occur with the use of side-posts. But it can get complicated when one courtyard or alley leads into another through a hole or breach. The side-posts might be flush from one perspective. And, although it is greatly argued, that matters:

it must be concluded [that a post that can be] seen from without but appears even from within cannot be regarded as a valid side-post. This is conclusive.

Similarly, a barrier might be erected in the middle of a 20 cubit wide entrance making two parallel “doorways.” Maybe it’s just a symbolic divider?

Levi learned: If [an entrance to] all alley was twenty cubits wide a reed may be inserted in the center of it and this is sufficient.

Ah, no:

He himself has learnt it and he himself said that the halachah is not in agreement with that teaching

Instead a strip of boarding is constructed 10 handbreadths high by 4 cubits long and placed in the middle of the entrance parallel to the length – effectively creating two alleys.

Illusion and perspective: these matter!

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Eruvin 9 – Legal Fictions: Horizontal and Vertical

Several conditions of alleyways and side posts to define them are described on this page – so complexly that only illustrations included in the commentaries make them intelligible.

One more direct example invokes a legal fiction known as labud:

If a cross-beam was drawn away or suspended [at a distance of] less than three handbreadths [from the walls of the alley] there is no need to provide another beam, [but if the distance was] three handbreadths another beam must be provided.

It is then argued whether 3 or 4 handbreadths is the correct amount. What is described here is a beam which stretched over the entrance to an alley but which does not reach one or both sides. The can happen if there are pins in wall which the beam is resting on, or if it is suspended from the ground T-shaped by a pole in its middle. Either way the principle of labud is invoked. Literally meaning “joined” it states that if the gap is small enough (less than 3 or 4 handbreadths depending on which authority you follow) it is treated as if it is actually joined to the wall.

A similar principle known as chabut (“pressed down”) works in the vertical realm – that is pins which are inclined and holding up a beam are treated as if they are level in terms of the height of the beam (making legal a beam suspended too high on them).

These kinds of legal fictions make complicated situations a bit more reasonable. A kind of “benefit of doubt” made possible.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Eruvin 8 – Bounded by the Sea

I am grateful that a little bit of my own family history is found on this page:

Said R. Cahana b. Tahlifa in the name of R. Cahana b. Minyomi in the name of Rab Cahana b. Malkio who had it from R. Cahana the teacher of Rab [others say that R. Cahana b. Malkio is the same R. Cahana who was Rab's teacher]:

Ok, not really – there are many Cahana’s quoted in the Talmud (usually spelled Kahana or Kahane in English – but all the same in Aramaic!) Who knows who is really related?

But I digress.

We have discussions of interestingly shaped alleyways. For example, one shaped like a centipede – that is a major alleyway with multiple smaller ones running perpendicular off of it, like the legs of a centipede. Except that the opposing mini-alleys cannot be directly across from each other, or they would be considered continuous – they must be staggered. In the instance of that design:

Abaye said: the shape of a doorway is made [at the entrance] of the major alley and all the others are rendered ritually fit by means of a side-post and cross-beam

Another interesting exception is where the terminus of the alley is something other than a wall or door.
It once occurred that one side of an alley terminated in the sea and the other terminated in a rubbish heap, and when the facts were submitted to Rabbi he neither permitted nor forbade [the movement of objects on the Sabbath] in that alley. [He did not declare it] forbidden because partitions in fact existed, [and he did not declare it] permitted since the possibility had to be considered that the rubbish heap might be removed or the sea might recede.

Likewise where a river make a boundary in Sura – nets were raised since there was a possibility of the river receding.

Permanence is important, because people become used to a certain way of doing things and might not recognize when conditions change.

I can relate to that!

Friday, March 15, 2013

Eruvin 7 – Don’t Listen to the Heavenly Voice

On the previous page there is a discussion about certain measures regarding alleyways. The argument was raised that the restrictive rulings of both the school of Hillel and the school of Shammai should be observed. But against that was a general principle:

Do we, however, adopt the restrictions of two [authorities who differ from one another]? Was it not in fact taught: The law is always in agreement with Beth Hillel, but he who wishes to act in agreement with the ruling of Beth Shammai may do so, and he who wishes to act according to the view of Beth Hillel may do so;

[he, however, who adopts] the more lenient rulings of Beth Shammai and the more lenient rulings of Beth Hillel is a wicked man, [while of the man who adopts] the restrictions of Beth Shammai and the restrictions of Beth Hillel Scripture said: But the fool walketh in darkness.(Eccl. 2:14)

A man should rather act either in agreement with Beth Shammai both in their lenient and their restrictive rulings or in agreement with Beth Hillel in both their lenient and their restrictive rulings?

Or page then gives a series of instances in which the restrictions of both are followed – creating a more difficult environment – one of walking in darkness.

One resolution of how it possible to say that the law is always in accordance with Hillel, but one is permitted to follow Shammai (isn’t that by definition illegal?) is to argue that this statement was made after the “bat kol” – the Divine Voice which spoke from Heaven and stated that the law is always in accordance with the School of Hillel.

And some (represented by Rabbi Joshua) don’t agree that a Divine Voice should determine the law. Lo ba Shamayim, he – the law is not in Heaven, it is in human hands!

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Eruvin 6 – Public Works

It is one thing to talk about creating “private” space in alleys and open courtyards. Quite another to talk about transforming public city spaces into artificial “private” spaces, so that Shabbat laws – such as carrying – can be relaxed.

Our Rabbis taught: How is a road through a public domain to be provided with an eruv? The shape of a doorway is made at one end, and a side-post and cross-beam, [are fixed] at the other.

This is a major road – 16 cubits wide – going all the way through a major town of 600,000 or more, and no wall around. The road itself needs entrances in order to be considered “contained.” The school of Shammai, as usual, made a more restrictive ruling:

 A door is made at the one end as well as at the other and it must be locked as soon as one goes out or enters

And the primary example:

did not Rabbah b. Bar Hana state in the name of R. Johanan that Jerusalem, were it not that its gates were closed at night, would have been subject to the restrictions of a public domain

It makes me think of the communal effort that would have to dedicated to make the entire city a “private” domain by way of this eruv. I have walked through those massive gateways in the Old City of Jerusalem, and think about the commitment to build for Shabbat.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Eruvin 5 – Build it up, Dig it down

We’ve discussed the maximum height of a cross-beam over a blind alley. This beam marks the space as enclosed and therefore a “private” domain in which some of the Sabbath laws are relaxed. The beam can’t be too high (over twenty cubits) for then it will not be apparent to the user. The Mishnah (back on 2a) tells us “lower it.” Well how does that happen, practically?

You don’t lower the cross-beam – you raise the ground!

This page discusses how this happens. Specifically, the minimum width of the new ramp underneath the beam. Rabbi Joseph suggests on one handbreadth wide. Abaye suggests four. They differ on the principle. Is it wide enough to “make use” of it, or is it just wide enough to be a “distinguishing mark” ?

And the same question arises for the opposite problem: what if the cross-beam is too low (less than 10 handbreadths high)? Then you have to excavate a ditch under the beam! How wide? Rabbi Joseph says 4 handbreadths, Abaye says four cubits! (of 5 or 6 handbreadths – see previous page).

This and other issues – such as breaches in the side walls – are discussed at length. But how is a decision arrived at? They create uncertainty

in respect of a Rabbinical enactment, (as opposed to a Torah law) and in any uncertainty appertaining to a Rabbinical enactment the more lenient course is followed.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Eruvin 4 – What’s a Cubit?

Fans of the old Bill Cosby routine “Noah” will remember the punch line as G-d gives Noah all the specific measurements of the ark he is to build, Noah responds: “Riiight. What’s a ‘cubit’?”

The rabbis discuss this very question on our page.

It is clear that some measurements the rabbis discuss are empirically larger than others. The argument is that in some cases, like the sukkah, a cubit is 5 handbreadths while for others, like kilayin (the distance between crops so that they are not sown together) a cubit is 6 handbreadths.

Raba, however, stated in the name of R. Nahman: All cubits [prescribed for legal measurements are] of the size of six [handbreadths], but the latter are expanded while the former are compact.

That is, for some measurements the hand is held closed and for other it is opened wide.

The question is also raised about the legal authority of the measurements. Do they actually come from Torah, or are they part of the Oral Tradition:

R. Hiyya b. Ashi stated in the name of Rab: [The laws relating to] standards, interpositions and partitions [are a part of] the halachic code [that was entrusted] to Moses at Sinai (i.e. Oral).

Are [not the laws relating to] standards Pentateuchal, since it is written in Scripture: A land of wheat and barley etc. (Deut. 8:8) and R. Hanan stated that all this verse was said [with reference to the laws] of standards?

That is, are these laws derived directly from written text – as in Then shall he bathe all his flesh (Lev. 15:16) – the all indicating a minimum measurement of water and the laws of interpositions (nothing can come between the waters of the mikve and the individual)? Or are they laws the rabbis created and then found legal justifications in Torah text? For example the specific measurements in the rabbinic texts?

Do you then imagine that the standards were actually prescribed [in the Pentateuch]? [The fact is that] they are but traditional laws for which the Rabbis have found allusions in Scripture.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Eruvin 3 – Too Many Cooks; It's Somebody Else's Problem

The maximal height of a cross-beam to designate an “entrance” to a blind alleyway continues to be discussed. Again the question continues to be debated: is the standard the maximal of height of a sukkah or the height of one of the entrances of the Temple? In this case, it is even more complicated: do we include the height of the crossbeam itself, or just the lowest portion of it? The limitation on the height of the sukkah seems to be stricter. A sukkah might sag and thus be lower than the 20 cubit minimum – but it might change (say the covering dries up or blows away) and the person would be unaware. The same could happen to a cross beam which might sag just a bit under the minimum height but then change. The latter might be allowed, but the former is not. Why?

Raba of Parazika replied: In the case of a sukkah, since [it is usually intended] for the use of an individual, one might not remember [the altitude of the roof]. In the case of an entrance however, since [it is made] for the use of many, [the people concerned] would remind one another.

Sounds reasonable. Unless it isn’t. Are people really that careful about communal responsibilities?

Raba of Parazika replied: In the case of a sukkah, since [it is usually made] for one individual, that person realizes his responsibility and makes a point of remembering [the conditions of the roof]. In the case of an entrance, however, since [it is made] for the use of many, [the people affected might] rely upon one another and so overlook [any defects in the cross-beam];

for do not people say: ‘a pot in charge of two cooks is neither hot nor cold’.

I love that the same person can have two contradictory opinions. But I also love that last expression. Or, as Douglas Adams might have it, it’s an SEP: somebody else’s problem. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Eruvin 2 – How Big the Doorway? Fix it!

We begin today a new tractate (and yes, remember that all Talmudic tractates begin on page 2): Eruvin. This, the second Order of Mo’ed is a continuation of the laws of Shabbat from the previous tractate.

However this one focuses on a special issue: the eruv - a device which allows public space to be considered “private” for the purpose of Shabbat laws.

Remember that in a private space there is far more permissible on Shabbat than in public ones. The moving of objects, for example.

Our Mishnah begins with a discussion of a blind alley. Presumably bounded on three sides by private courtyards but opening onto public space, it is defined as an enclosed space with the presence of a cross beam over the entrance. However:


There is extensive discussion of where these numbers come from. Is it from the measurements of the entrance to the Tabernacle, the Sanctuary? Or perhaps it comes from the limits on the size of a sukkah?

Elsewhere we have learnt: A sukkah which [in its interior] is more than twenty cubits high is unfit, but R. Judah regards it as fit.

This seems to fit! But what is strange is that the Mishnah here suggests a fix (lower the beam!) That is not the case for the sukkah. Why not?

[In respect of a] sukkah, since it is a Torah ordinance, it [was proper categorically to] rule it, ‘unfit’; in respect of the ENTRANCE, however, since [the prohibition against moving objects about in the alley is only] Rabbinical, a remedy could well be indicated.

Thus the distinction between d’rabbanan and d’orita. There is more flexibility in the laws imposed by the rabbis through interpretation than those directly written.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Shabbat 157 – Annulling Vows and the End of the Tractate

This relates to the Torah section on vows (Num. 30:1ff)

If a woman also vows a vow to the Lord, and binds herself by a bond. . . And her husband heard it, and held his peace at her in the day that he heard it; then her vows shall stand, and her bonds with which she bound her soul shall stand.

But if her husband disallowed her on the day that he heard it; then he shall make her vow which she vowed, and that which she uttered with her lips, with which she bound her soul, of no effect; and the Lord shall forgive her. (Num. 30:4, 8-9)

Of course the Talmudic rabbis do not comment on the gross unfairness of the idea that a woman’s words could be annulled by her husband. This was simply their reality – as it was even until very recent times in America. They do ask, though, why this Mishnah is here – what, exactly is the point. Specifically, why are they two separate sentences?

The scholars asked: Is annulment [permitted] whether it is required [for the Sabbath] or not, whereas absolution [may be granted] only when it is necessary, but not otherwise, and for that reason they are divided from each other? . . .

Come and hear: For Zuti, of the School of R. Papa, recited: Vows may be annulled on the Sabbath when they are required for the Sabbath: thus, only when required for the Sabbath, but not otherwise.

That bears on the question of what “on the day” means. Is it 24 hours, in which case one could most likely wait until after Shabbat, or is it a lesser amount of time in which case they would often have to be annulled during Shabbat or risk standing.

It is not resolved:

It is dependent on Tannaim: [The period for] the annulling of vows is all day; R. Jose son of R. Judah and R. Eleazar son of R. Simeon maintain: Twenty-four hours

And there is a short discussion on measuring.

Rabbah b. R. Hunah was found measuring water while sitting in a bathtub:

“I was merely occupying myself”, he replied.

And with that – the tractate Shabbat abruptly ends.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Shabbat 156 – Astrology: Hebrew Style!

The gemara states:

It was recorded in R. Joshua b. Levi's notebook: He who [is born] on the first day of the week [Sunday] shall be a man without one [thing] in him — What does 'without one [thing] in him' mean? . . . it means either completely virtuous or completely wicked.[What is the reason? Because light and darkness were created on that day.]

He who is born on the second day of the week will be bad-tempered — What is the reason? Because the waters were divided thereon.

He who is born on the third day of the week will be wealthy and unchaste. What is the reason? Because herbs were created thereon.

He who is born on the fourth day of the week will be wise and of a retentive memory. What is the reason? Because the luminaries were suspended [thereon]

He who is born on the fifth day of the week will practice benevolence. What is the reason? Because the fishes and birds were created thereon.

He who is born on the eve of the Sabbath will be a seeker. R. Nahman b. Isaac commented: A seeker after good deeds.

He who is born on the Sabbath will die on the Sabbath, because the great day of the Sabbath was desecrated on his account. Raba son of R. Shila observed: And he shall be called a great and holy man.

Even after more examination of astrological convention, the rabbis go on to declare that “Israel is immune from planetary influence.” How do we know?

Thus saith the Lord, Learn not the way of the nations, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the nations are dismayed at them: (Jer. 10:2)

They are dismayed but not Israel.

Astrology is for "them" - not "us". Which is not to say that the Talmudic rabbis disavowed Astrology is worthless - but that they believed that they had a secret weapon to counter it.

There follows a series of stories about Israelites who survived events even when astrologers predicted they would die. Upon investigation it was found that they had recently performed an unusual act of kindness. Thus prompting the reading from Proverbs 10:2 regarding tzedakah:

but righteousness delivereth from death.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Shabbat 155 – Foie Gras

Although one has a responsibility to take care of animals on Shabbat, including to feed them, this Mishnah specifically disallows the forced feeding used to artificially fatten an animal. The rabbis discuss various forms to glean the meaning – including forcing food down by hand and with a utensil. This practice was attested even as far back as ancient Egypt (2500 BCE) and would have been known to the rabbis through the practices of the Roman empire. It continues today, for example in the making foie gras.


Although it is a responsibility to care for animals (and not to overcare to their detriment) on Shabbat, it does not include when the animal has the ability to fend for itself – i.e. bees who can easily find their own water.
Dogs, for example, who were semi-domesticated – could barely scrap out a living and thus it was proper to throw them some raw meat. Domesticated pigs were fed, even though in theory they could find their own food.

Thus a saying of R. Papa:

None are poorer than a dog and none richer than a swine.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Shabbat 154 - Donkey Work

But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, . . . nor your cattle (Ex. 20:10)
Rami b. Hama said: If one leads a laden ass on the Sabbath unwittingly, he is liable to a sin-offering; if deliberately, he is liable to stoning.
Now, how does he reason that deliberately leading a burdened donkey on Shabbat is punishable with the death penalty? Rabbah reasons that under the stricture of Ex. 20:10, "your cattle" is equal to "you." That is, the punishments of working an animal on Shabbat are the same as working oneself. If unintentional, it is a sin-offering, if intentional: death.

We should stop and note that the death penalty for breaking Shabbat laws was probably never imposed - only a theoretical extreme.

Raba counters that only actions the individual performs himself make him liable. This is based on another text, this one dealing with idolatry:
You shall have one Torah for him who sins through ignorance. . . But the soul who does anything presumptuously . . .that soul shall be cut off from among his people. (Num. 15:29-30)
Now since idolatry can only be performed by the person himself (not, for example, by an animal) one cannot be guilty of leading a laden donkey.

This is all from the previous page and it is debated in some detail on this page. The argument concludes with a question:

Why does the Torah not say:
you shall not do any work . . .nor your cattle
Instead of:
you shall not do any work, you, . . . nor your cattle
That is, why the extra "you"?
 [To teach:] only [when] he personally [works] is he liable, but [if] his animal works, he is not liable.
Now, that is not to say that it is permissible - only that the punishment is not death!

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Shabbat 153 - Preparing for the Afterlife

As we know, traditional Judaism - being focused on the responsibilities of this world - does not spend a lot of time on speculation about the world to come. There are some exceptions, though:
For it was taught: For a full [twelve months] the body is in existence and the soul ascends and descends; after twelve months the body ceases to exist and the soul ascends but descends nevermore.
Unlike the Greek philosophies, Judiasm sees body and soul as linked. While the body still exists, the soul is tied to this world.

Our actions in this world prepare us of the world to come. The parable is told of a king who announces that a banquet will take place but does not say when. Some of the guests prepare themselves and wait at the gate, others say they will be ready when the time comes. When the banquet is suddenly announced, those who are prepared rejoice in the king's presence, while those who were unready are humiliated. Thus the famous statement of R. Eliezer:
We learnt elsewhere, R. Eliezer said: Repent one day before your death. His disciples asked him, Does then one know on what day he will die? Then all the more reason that he repent to-day, he replied, lest he die to-morrow, and thus his whole life is spent in repentance. 
And Solomon too said in his wisdom, Let thy garments be always white; and let not thy head lack ointment. (Eccl. 9:8)