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First-Century Technology

When new inventions made widespread sinning the norm, ancient rabbis adapted. The Talmud’s God approved.

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine)

The tale seems to communicate a certain resigned wisdom about piety and the common Jew. To expect everyone to be as holy as Shimon is a grave mistake: God himself does not want or expect so much holiness from the average Jew, and he deplores the rage and arrogance that would punish such a Jew for being average. In the end, after another year in their cave, Shimon and his son emerge chastened: “My son,” Shimon says, “the world has enough total devotees of Torah study in you and me alone.” There must be, the Talmud suggests, a hierarchy of piety and observance. Shimon may be on top, but it’s not necessary, or possible, for everyone to join him there.

Finally, Shimon’s story also offers an interesting sidelight on the way the rabbis measure Torah knowledge. Before he entered the cave, the Gemara explains, Shimon would pose a legal question and Rabbi Pinchas would respond with 12 possible solutions. But after his years of isolated study, Shimon was able to provide 24 possible answers to every question of Pinchas’.

This is deeply counter-intuitive, for our usual expectation is that every question has one correct answer. Shimon, we might think, ought to be able to find out what that answer is, just as a good judge delivers the one correct verdict and a good scientist comes up with the one correct result. But in the Talmud, on the contrary, it is the power to multiply possibilities, to see more facets of every question, which demonstrates real Torah knowledge. This is what comes from seeing Torah study not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself—an activity that can fill not just 12 years in a cave, but an entire lifetime, and the whole World to Come.


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Michael Hoffman says:

You omitted Shimon’s statement that even the best of the gentiles should all be killed. Kinda ruins the cozy aura you’ve created for him.

Meshulam says:

The Rabbis rescinded their own decree about bathing in the Tiberian hotsprings, which was actually permitted by Torah law. This was a decree that the community could not or would not abide by, and so they rescinded it. This is a far cry from suggesting that the Rabbis abrogate one of the 39 categories of work that the Rabbis understand were forbidden by the Torah.

Jim Rogozen says:

RE: the “tension between the common people and the rabbinic elite.”

One of the biggest challenges we have today is identifying the “people” for whom Rabbis are making halakhic decisions. What do they know? What do they believe? What is their sense of obligation in terms of observing halakha? Have our synagogues filled up with people who have so many different approaches to Judaism and Jewish life (and access to so many opinions) that no one Rabbi (or collection of Rabbis) can truly be thought of as authoritative for them?

“Is this so different from Conservative Jews insisting on driving to synagogue on Shabbat—another case when “sinners” proliferated so much that the sin became a new norm?”

I can think of one difference, which is quite substantial in practice. In the case here, the rabbis issued a decree prohibiting something which is similar to a biblical violation lest someone violate the biblical prohibition (heating water by means of a flame) and claim, without any proof that they are wrong, that they were only doing the permitted act (passing cold water through naturally hot water). When the people were disregarding the decree, the rabbis were able to suspend the decree.

With the Conservative movement, the issue is with the people disregarding biblical prohibitions (starting the ignition of a car, modulating fuel burn rate). Permitting that is qualitatively different from what was permitted in Tiberias.

The two threads of this piece is just great, but fails to weave together the two points nicely: apparent law abrogation and the harsh judgment of elites. The harsh judgment of elites is often manifested in the punishment of what amounts to only apparent law abrogation. It’s the overreach of power – the overreach of ego. HaShem humbles Rabbi Shimon, deflating his ego. This teaches us the most important lesson: let not our achievements make us indignant or even wrathful of others not so blessed. Indeed, Torah study should make us more humble and in awe of HaShem, and thereby more loving to our world, not less.

He had seen the Romans depopulate Judea (murdering hundreds of thousands of Jews and enslaving almost all survivors, thus crushing any possibility of their being part of the Jewish community or even continuing a Jewish life), destroy the Temple and level Jerusalem, torture in excruciating fashion and kill most of the Rabbinic sages his masters, colleagues and disciples, and boast loudly about such atrocities. He himself had to hide in a cave for 12 years, as explained above, lest he too be tortured to death just for criticising the Romans. Tradition therefore grants him a little emotional lee-way on this statement, but never cites it as an authoritative teaching nor a halakhic statement. In fact, his occasional tendency to excessive and even thoughtless anger is treated very critically in Talmudic discussions, as Kirsch already makes clear above.

Another of your eloquent replies delivered in the manner of the teaching, “A soft answer turns away wrath.” (Proverbs 15:1)


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First-Century Technology

When new inventions made widespread sinning the norm, ancient rabbis adapted. The Talmud’s God approved.

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