Your email is not valid
Recipient's email is not valid
Submit Close

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

Eggs and Babies

This week’s Talmud study reveals legal debates that refine the limits and nature of inherently abstract concepts

Print Email
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine, original photo Shutterstock)
Related Content

First-Century Technology

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

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

This week’s Talmud reading was largely devoted to the legal concept of muktzeh, a category of items that may not be moved or used on Shabbat. It is a fairly technical discussion, but in the course of it, in Shabbat 43b, the Talmud comes up with a bizarre image that makes all the abstractions immediately memorable: a baby or a loaf of bread placed deliberately on top of a dead body. This is Rav’s solution to one of the difficult Shabbat-related cases the rabbis consider: What can you do on Shabbat with a corpse that is decomposing in the sun? “One should place a loaf of bread or an infant on the corpse and then move it,” Rav says.

To understand how he came up with this macabre recommendation, it’s necessary to go back to the beginning of the rabbis’ discussion of muktzeh. The principle is that the only objects one is allowed to handle on Shabbat are those that have been explicitly or implicitly prepared for use on the holy day. The origin of this rule lies in Moses’ instructions to the Israelites concerning the gathering of manna in the desert. The day before Shabbat, the people were instructed to gather a double portion of manna and “prepare” it for the next day. By extension, the Oral Law insists that only “prepared” items are fit for Shabbat; everything else is muktzeh, “set aside.” The Talmud’s examples include oil dripping from a lamp, an egg newly laid by a hen, money, and a corpse; all are considered muktzeh and cannot be used or moved.

The rabbinical debate recorded in this week’s Daf Yomi reading has to do with the proper scope of muktzeh. In Shabbat 42b, a mishnah instructs that on Shabbat it is forbidden to “place a vessel under a lamp to catch the dripping oil in it.” The reason is that the oil is muktzeh, and it is forbidden to move a non-muktzeh vessel for the sake of something that is itself muktzeh. Taking this as a precedent, the rabbis of Gemara go on to consider a more difficult case. What about an egg that a chicken lays on Shabbat? By definition, the egg can’t be considered prepared for Shabbat, since it did not exist before Shabbat; it belongs to a type of muktzeh item called nolad, “just born.”

What happens, then, if a chicken lays an egg on Shabbat and you are afraid that someone will accidentally step on it? Are you allowed to catch the egg in a basket as it comes out? By analogy with the Mishnaic example, the rabbis argue that this is prohibited: Just as you can’t use a non-muktzeh vessel to catch muktzeh oil, so you can’t use a non-muktzeh basket to catch a muktzeh egg.

But, Rav Chisda adds pragmatically, you can put a basket over the egg so that it doesn’t get broken. This is because “the rabbis allowed precautions that are needed to prevent commonplace losses, but they did not allow taking precautions that are needed to prevent uncommon losses.” It is common for a chicken to lay an egg on a flat surface, where it could be protected by a basket. But it is uncommon for a chicken to lay an egg on an inclined plane, where it could roll and be cracked; so it is forbidden to take precautions to prevent such a loss, say by catching the egg in a basket in the first place.

This may seem like a trivial problem, but it’s plain enough that the rabbis are not going to such lengths to define muktzeh because of their concern for egg production. Rather, this homely example is being used to demonstrate the limits and nature of an inherently abstract concept. And the discussion that follows shows how much the rabbis enjoyed the sheer intellectual work involved in refining that concept as well as the cut and thrust of legal debate.

The Gemara records a long exchange between Rabbah and Abaye in which they duel over the question of how to define an “uncommon loss.” Abaye cites a baraita that states that if a barrel of wine or oil breaks on your rooftop on Shabbat, you are permitted to use a vessel to catch it. Surely such an event qualifies as uncommon, yet here the authorities allow us to use a non-muktzeh vessel to catch muktzeh liquid. Isn’t this a contradiction of the earlier ruling, which allows such an action only in case of “common losses”?

The law is concerned with what you do, not why you do it.

But Rabbah has an answer ready. The breakage is not actually uncommon, because the baraita here is talking about “new earthenware kegs, which frequently burst.” Abaye returns to the attack: According to the Mishnah, “we may invert a bowl over a lamp in order that it not set fire to an overhead beam.” Surely such a fire is uncommon? No, Rabbah retorts: This mishnah was talking about “houses that have low ceilings, in which fires are commonplace.” What about the rule that if a roof beam breaks on Shabbat you are allowed to support it with a bench or a bed? Rabbah is prepared again: This rule has in mind “new beams, which often break.”

And so on, for several paragraphs. In each case, the concern of the rabbis is to harmonize their sources. If one Tanna seems to authorize what another prohibits, there must be a catch somewhere, and the rabbis’ imagination and ingenuity are brought to bear on finding it—or, as it sometimes appears, inventing it. For me, as I imagine for many modern readers, Rabbah’s arguments seem a little too convenient. But if you begin, as the rabbis did, with the principle that the law cannot contradict itself, then Rabbah’s argument is not just acceptable, but highly meritorious, since it preserves the agreement of the Tannaim.

It is this same ingenuity that leads to the odd case of the corpse with a baby on it. A corpse, naturally, is muktzeh—it would have to be, since there is no possible use for it. And the law states that we are not allowed to move muktzeh items on Shabbat. This would leave you in a difficult situation—especially in the hot climate of Palestine or Babylonia—if you were stuck on Shabbat with a corpse sitting out in the sun. Can the rabbis come up with a way around the prohibition, which would allow moving the corpse into the shade?

In fact, they offer several solutions. You could put up an awning over the corpse—on the condition that the awning also protects a living person from the sun. In that case, the awning would be considered for the sake of the living person, not for the sake of the dead one, who is muktzeh. (Remember, it is forbidden to move something non-muktzeh, like an awning, for the sake of something muktzeh.) Alternatively, you could roll the corpse over from one bed to another, until it reaches the shade; the justification here, according to Rashi, is that “one is not moving the corpse in the usual manner.”

Finally, Rav suggests, “One could place a loaf of bread or an infant on the corpse and then move it.” This is because, in such a case, the most important thing being moved would be the bread or the child, which are highly non-muktzeh; the corpse would be considered ancillary. So the reasoning goes, at least. But this seems highly vulnerable to the objection that, in fact, moving the corpse really is the whole point of the exercise—if it weren’t for that, the child or the loaf would never have gotten involved in the first place. Here again—as in the earlier discussion of transfers on Shabbat—the Talmud seems strikingly indifferent to motive; the law is concerned with what you do, not why you do it. This attribution of purity and impurity, not to motives, but to objects and actions is perhaps the most difficult thing for me to wrap my mind around, even in the thorniest Talmudic discussion.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

Print Email

Fair. But occasionally the intent is actually what matters more than the substance of the action. Maybe more in the Mishnah than Gemara, but entire portions of Kodashim talk about how if you think about making a korban in the wrong place or at the wrong time, the entire action is invalid.

More narishkayt (foolishness) from the great rabbinic thinkers. How much can poor Adam take?

gwhepner says:


Resolving contradictions may be meritorious

if you do this with arguments that aren’t uproarious,

when the arguments are themselves a contradiction

of common sense they turn into bad legal fiction.

gwhepner says:

Intention and its lack create the concepts of mezid and shogeg, which affect culpability in almost any action a person performs, so you don’t need to go to Qodashim to refute Adam Kirsch’s point in what was otherwise quite a well-written analysis.

This sort of reaction is understandable coming from people dwelling in another universe, such as secular people do as far as genuinely frum Jews are concerned. But perhaps an analogy or two might begin to help enlightenment, even if it is comparing trivia with very lofty things, so one must begin with a “lehavdil,” i.e., the things are not comparable really. When I was a kid a lot of us were concerned about playing with marbles. We became obsessed with it at school and elsewhere. The varieties of glass in the marbles, we decided, made some more desirable than others, and we developed a whole vocabulary for that, showing off our collections to each other and haunting the “five-and-dime” stores where bags of marbles were sold. A little later, the cards that came with bubble-gum purchases became all the rage. These cards each featured a particular baseball player, and had all his statistics listed on the back. It is amazing how much ingenuity went into discussions about each card, trading them, etc.

When you love something, you want to probe more into it, extend its implications, explore its modalities, discover its depths. The more the love, the more the depths that are discovered, and the more delight. This creates an entire universe of meaning, within which you rejoice to live. So it is with Torah and mitzvot, especially because these are precisely about how to live a life surrounded by holiness and godliness. If the Torah is the plan of the universe and the very pattern of cosmic wisdom translated into the human sphere, as devout Jews have always believed, then its ramifications cover everything, and are just there to be discovered always anew, waiting to be found when you look a little deeper. The Torah Sages show their delight in Torah study in every possible way. And it is beautiful to see how marvellously, and humanely, they do so.

There is somewhere a Jewish teaching to explain all this. If a person from a society of deaf people suddenly happened upon strangers hopping and jerking around in a village square, that person could only conclude that those strangers were suffering from madness, what 41953 calls “narishkayt.” That observer just does not hear the music, and does not even understand the possibility of music.

Playing with marbles and baseball cards fascinated you as a child. But adults have better things to do. There are certainly passages in the Talmud worthy of study, but it is not worth the time and effort to go page by page. In fact it is depressing because the meaningful passages are few and far between. The aggada is far superior to the halacha, so I would rather read a collection of aggadot, for example Bialik and Ravnitsky’s.
Further Torah study is not the same as Talmud study. They are very different texts.

Placing an infant on a corpse–now why didn’t I think of that! How creepy can you get.

Eliezer Pennywhistler says:

Yes it is. The word “torah” has two meanings – one of which is the Five Books, the other of which is all scripture and commentary.

On your other topic – how would you know ahead of time which passages are “worthy of study”? Who’s word are you willing to take on that?

How would you know ahead of time which passages are “meaningful”? Who’s word are you willing to take on that?

A woman might find something meaningful that a man might not. A teenager in France might find something meaningful that an old man in Uzbekistan might not. And the same student WILL find something different to be meaningful the next time round.

Don’t you pray from our Prayer Book?

Which take on “A Catcher In The Rye” is the right one? “Moby-Dick”? The Binding of Isaac story?

“The aggada is far superior to the halacha”. One or two people may disagree with you. Namely, people who have studied Talmud.

I would much rather read Catcher in the Rye or Moby Dick. I have delved into the Talmud and it strikes me as one part obscure, one part irrelevant and one part obnoxious. There are exceptions, which I rely on scholars to elucidate in various anthologies. This spares me the ordeal of wading through the pilpul.
You may be right. Unless you really believe in the sanctity of the Torah and the innate wisdom of the Talmudic rabbis somehow inspired by God, the Talmud takes on a completely different meaning.
I don’t have these beliefs. I look upon the Talmud as a human-created, time-bound text and find it unbearable and unreadable.
But let me commend you for keeping the conversation civil. Too many contributors on this list are nasty with those they disagree with.

A bit of humour is always a good thing, and self-parody is one form of it. 41953 shows us how to do it. All real adults such as himself, he advises us, have better things to do than study what he roundly calls the “obscure,” “irrelevant,” “obnoxious,” “unbearable and unreadable” Talmud. The discourse, piety and learning of Talmudic Sages, however devout and brilliant they and later rabbis were and are, and however astoundingly effective in preserving the Jewish people down through the ages when all the other civilizations around them crumbled into dust and their peoples dissolved away, were, we are told, actually just a waste of time, not worthy of our close attention, and of no real consequence. It is a merely “time-bound text” that has nothing to teach moderns like himself.

(E.g., that the South Korean government has actually made Talmud study a mandatory part of their school curriculum is a huge error. They did this because according to them it inculcates a proven way to innovative and resourceful thinking such as has marked out the Jews as a people down through the ages. The South Koreans say this shows that the Talmudic regime promotes intelligence throughout the whole of society.)

For in fact, 41953 says, the Talmudic path is just “narishkayt,” childish foolishness, unbearable. This then was the nature of the religion of Judaism as such, over the past two thousand years. But let no one feel offended by such seemingly sharp terminology. Certainly not. For 41953 presents this to us as actually “civil” discourse, something he strongly applauds. Yes, we should instead deplore those dissenters from his views who, entirely unlike him, are “nasty with those they disagree with.” Hm-m-m.

Perhaps it is just a misunderstanding of what 41953 means by “civil” and “nasty.” For discussion of these matters, however, I do recommend to him the reading of the post-Talmudic tractates, often included with them, called Derech Eretz Rabbah and Derech Eretz Zuta. The Sages in their childish narishkayt said that “derech eretz, (what we call “etiquette and courteous conduct”) precedes Torah,” and even that “Without derech eretz, there is no Torah.”

To get serious, however, the problem of evil is the central problem of human existence, starting in Eden, and reaching a kind of ultimate climax in the Generation of the Flood, according to the Torah. What was the nature of the evil that characterized that most horrible generation? The Torah word for it was Hamas, defined in the dictionary as “robbery with violence,” arbitrary seizure of other people’s possessions, often accompanied by assault and murder. In short, it was ceaseless selfishness and bloodlust. Let no one suppose that this tendency in humanity ended with the Flood. There are still very many entire cultures and peoples governed by Hamas today, even if they do not all confess its name or nature.

The religion of Judaism is presented in the Torah as HaShem’s solution to the problem that the Flood most dramatically presented. He had to create a whole new people based from the start on a higher path, a path that for the first time devalued violence and blood-lust, refused to heroize those who exemplified those traits, and that refused to make idols out of their own natural urges to self-gratification and power. What was that higher path? The study of Torah itself, within which all things are encompassed, but at the heart of which stands utter transcendence, HaShem himself, the all-merciful judge of all the earth. And what does this study lead to? The enactment of HaShem’s will in all things: the mitzvot. Let them extend HaShem’s will through their own minds and bodies into all the details of everyday life, and let that be the focus of human intelligence rather than the self-regarding rule of tooth and claw and the idolatries of projected desires. Let this new people learn to subdue and redirect their impulses, allowing their impulses newly free reign then but now in tune with the harmony of the whole under the one God, in covenant together.

A key focus of this teaching process is the insight that things are never quite so simple as one first thinks. One must understand the deeper contexts of everything one studies. Often the Sages surprise us with the disclosure of radically different ramifications and relevancies hidden in what seems like the simplest and most straightforward issues. Everything relates to everything else, so one cannot rely on one’s preliminary impulse to say: ‘That is just foolishness!’ One learns to respect many different perspectives on the same thing: each can be true in its way, although some things are just false and other things only partly true. Truth is not relative, but neither is it absolutistic and dogmatic — for that serves only the power-urge, and ultimately leads to violence.

Few things could be more consequential for humanity’s entire future. Talmudic Judaism shows how to remake the whole of human culture in the cause of peace, attaining harmonious unity within diversity. Imagine an entire culture that does not glorify war as a vocation for its young men, nor hunting, nor physical conflict of any sort, nor even bullying. Instead, it turns the attention of its young men, charged though they too are with the strong competitive and acquisitive urges of young men everywhere, to the ceaseless study of past masters of Torah wisdom, leading to the refinement of their intellect and deeper entry into the culture that gave them birth. Instead of gladitorial games they are taught to love a collegial sport of close reasoning and contextualization of all issues that they can compete in and share together without harm or violence, a study of past harmonies as a model for future ones, and extension of this into all aspects of present life. Few things could be more Jewishly consequential. It has made us the people we are, and its secular echoes are still with us even amongst the most assimilated. That is how powerful and consequential it has been.

If the wisdom of the Talmud consists of arguing that placing a baby on a corpse would allow the corpse to be moved on Sabbath, it is all yours…..

If that were all it was, 41953, then you would be right in your mockery. But the whole point of what I have written is that is very far from the case. You seem to have missed that entirely, and of course purposely, refusing to understand anything beyond your own preconceived and, I am sorry to say, openly intolerant views. We must conclude that you are too eager to throw out the baby with the bathwater to attend to anything else. Perhaps I need to spell it out. The baby’s presence in the passage is not to be taken literally, but as a symbol in a larger reasoning process, dramatic and therefore useful in teaching (there are indeed endless instances of this sort of theoretical reasoning in the Talmud). It is symbolic of all non-mutkzeh items that could be used to move the corpse. After all, who does not have a spare loaf of bread on the Shabbat that they could use for the same purpose, not to mention other standard non-muktzeh items? We may even detect in the passage a sly bit of Rabbinic humour.

Loosen up, 41953.

There are further dimensions to all this that may be worth exploring. It is a basic principle in Torah- and Talmud-study, that nothing in the text is there by accident: everything is meaningful, but only if we are ready to explore further and are willing to be instructed. The same is true of life itself according to our tradition: there are in reality no coincidences; everything bears a part in the overall plan of HaShem’s universe, everyone has a unique destiny and a call, but not everyone is ready to discover this message in their own lives and it may have to shake them up a little before they do become ready to hear it, if they ever do. It occurs therefore for me to ask, why exactly is it that specifically a corpse and an infant are invoked by the Sages in this discussion of muktzeh and non-muktzeh? This too cannot be accidental. All the observations I suggested above help to supply the answer, including the pedagogical one of dramatic instruction and humour, and I am sure that there are other answers too, no doubt better ones than I can guess at, but it seems to me that the fact that the corpse vividly signifies the death and corruption of the flesh that awaits us all at the end of life, and the infant on the contrary signifies the most vital and pure start of life, cannot be coincidental. These are seemingly absolute and irreconcilable contraries and opposites. They cannot be brought together, we might think, and should not be brought together. Yet (as in the sacrifices in the Temple services themselves) they are brought together here in this discussion of what is permitted and what is not permitted to do on Shabbat, as if Shabbat itself, like the Temple, is a realm beyond both the life and the death of the six days of worldliness, a realm that provides the way to reconcile both extremes for good and for holiness. Muktzeh issues themselves thus are matters that overcome life and death. They are after all not trivial at all. This does indeed teach something very deep about holiness and the mitzvot themselves.

Jesus was right… these are blind guides who strain at a gnat whilst swallowing a camel. You keep the letter of the law in every detail yet you neglect the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy, and by doing so miss the point of the law.

Jesus was right… these are blind guides who strain at a gnat whilst swallowing a camel. You keep the letter of the law in every detail yet you neglect the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy, and by doing so miss the point of the law.

Alas, although Christianity puts into the mouth of Jesus and thereafter affirms this slanderous and indeed false claim about the Pharisees it immediately invalidates its own testimony, and shows its own abysmal lack of justice and mercy, in that same chapter 23 of the Gospel of Matthew, by demonizing in racial fashion not just the Pharisees but all Jews and the whole of Judaism as such, Christianity’s own spiritual source. Certainly Jesus could not have said that demonization, nor therefore probably some of the other paragraphs of this chapter, because he too and his followers by their shared Jewish ancestry would have been involved in those he cursed so racially and cruelly. Obviously the entire passage was written by a later hand, an antisemitic gentile; no Jew could have composed it. I will not soil this page by quoting the hate-text of Matthew 23:29-35, but suffice it to say that it condemned Jews precisely as a group for their loyalty to God and their religion, their love of Torah and prophets, in explicitly racist fashion and through all their generations (just as Matt. 27:24-25 more famously did, so it reflects the same gentile editorial hand), and served as one of the prime sources for Christian antisemitism down through the ages. That is how it can be that now, in this present generation, we have Mr. MacDonald intruding himself into this Jewish website to show his own justice and mercy by slandering his readers and the religion of all observant Jews, damning them collectively just as Matt. 23:29-35 and John 8:31-59 did. What a shame. When will true justice and mercy be practiced by Christians?

Ha, ha. Everyone knows what great kidders they were.

I respect your right to think, feel, and express yourself openly here — questioning, disagreeing, even dumping. I ask, what do you seek in this series that causes you to return to each new post? Is it to convince others of the correctness of your conclusions? To find something interesting, even important, in the posts and comments?

Brilliant, compelling content and teaching style. Thank you. By the way, who are you Tzur? Clicking your name brings me to this post, and not to your identity, specifically your religious studies, intellectual studies, interests, “day job,” place of residence, and so on.

I am always looking for something interesting in the Talmud, but the harder I look, the less I see. Wait till Adam gets to the commentaries on the rabbi’s deal with non-Jews.

The Talmud is, it is said, an ocean in which one can swim life-long, for it encompasses life itself. Of course, it is true what one finds of interest in anything, including the Talmud, can reflect oneself more than anything else, especially for those who chiefly seek themselves. After all, even an ocean can just mirror the face of those who gaze dismissively or narcissistically on its surface, those without any interest in swimming in it, much less plumbing its depths. The question of why if you dislike what you find you peruse these webpages is therefore a pertinent one, 41953. And the answer, given in terms of what “interests” you, raises questions rather than answers them. There is even a disturbing suggestion in your post that one motivation is positively gleeful if not outright malicious anticipation of whatever you think will discredit Talmudic Judaism.

There are, I think, four stages in the study of any other social, cultural or religiious group, at least as I have witnessed it in my own classrooms. In the first, one thinks one knows the essentials, which are understood in terms of their relationship to one’s own social, cultural or religious group and self-identity, and so the focus of study is to fill in the details. That is what is “interesting,” either to confirm the badness of the other or its agreement with oneself and “goodness.” It helpfully simplifies things. But it is a highly parochial and self-referential sort of knowledge: the other group is made to answer one’s own questions.

In the second stage, one finds on deeper study that one knows nothing of the other group after all, since nothing is quite the same as in one’s own self-referential group, yet everything works together richly and even seemingly in self-contradictory but interdependent fashion to achieve some of the ends one recognizes and values. Even the “solid details” turn out to be variable in their workings and appearances. Here, one learns that one knows nothing: a distinct advance in knowledge. One’s ignorance extends even to not knowing what questions to ask or where to go to get a firm answer.

In the third, reached only after long and arduous study and working through all the actualities of the other that can be found, one knows the group from the inside and on its own terms, with a fuller grasp of its own internal diversities and differences. The powerful logic of the whole thing is now clear. The questions the other group poses are now the crucial ones that guide further study: one knows what one does not know and how to find out more about it. But the deeper knowledge invites a kind of full immersion in which one can abandon oneself. On the other hand, it may be that one finds oneself fully and truly, for the first time, in this encounter. Then we have to do with conversion. In that case one’s self-referencial group has become what was at first “other.”

There is another possible outcome, a fourth stage. Only in it are self and other reference-groups restored to their distinctive identities and differences but now able, in the student’s understanding, fully to face each other in a living relationship, and to bring each other’s questions together in a larger context that includes each other. This does not abolish the sovereign questions, and answers, of one’s own reference group. But it does make them far more sophisticated and fair.

If you are really searching for further knowledge of Talmudic thought and values, 41953, instead of merely mocking, a good place to start might be Solomon Schechter’s Aspects of Rabbinic Theology (1906, 1961). That at least will give you some contextual setting. And a book to take into account in regard to Talmudic views of non-Jews is David Novak, The Image of the Non-Jew in Judaism: An Historical and Constructive Study of the Noachide Laws (1983).

Thank you very much, Tamar, for your kind words. I really appreciate them. As for myself, and as you may have guessed, I am a retired university professor of religious studies. I have taught about Judaism and the history of the Jews for decades, and continue to love, study, delight in and learn from our Jewish sources. I think it is great that the internet gives me the opportunity to share some of this with fellow Jews and non-Jews not just in written articles but now, in more relaxed and informal fashion, in these discussion pages. It is the best sort of use of this amazing technology.

Thank you for replying. You are a solidly qualified mentor, and your detailed comments not only inform on the material but address fellow commenters respectfully, assuming intelligence, even wisdom, and deserving attention, at least initially. I agree that these pages offer “the best sort of use of this amazing technology” — amazingly, mirroring the branching, hyperlinked-like pages of the Talmud.

‎עשה לך רב, וקנה לך חבר; והוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות אבות.
“Find yourself a teacher, acquire a [study] companion, and judge everyone favorably [seeing the positive side].” (Pirkei Avot 1:6)

I have read books about the Talmud by Steinsaltz, Bokser and others.

I have read Eyn Yaacov and many anthologies on aggada. I even edited an anthology of Jewish folklore.
I am not the ignoramus you think I am.

But when I read that placing a baby on a corpse makes it OK to move the corpse on Sabbath, I shake my head and wonder why anyone would want to study a book with such a deranged point of view.

“Deranged” — again very extremist either-or language telling us only of what you think, and yet another proof that you have learned nothing at all, neither from the subject at hand, from my comments above, nor it seems from any of your reading detailed above. I have explained some at least of the rationale for the Talmud passage in terms that emerge from within it, and that show that it is very rational indeed. As far as is possible, its own context is taken seriously, respected, and is allowed to explain itself. This is the direction that understanding takes, true knowledge. It is important to underline this. Mere knowledge does not mean understanding. There is a difference between a genuine scholar and the proverbial ass laden with books. “Understanding” itself, standing under what is being taught, refers to allowing the subject to dominate you, not insisting that you dominate it. I have already mentioned that knowledge does not automatically confer understanding in my previous post. The reason that there are so many academics that have learned nothing from their study is that they insist from the start on imposing their own views on their material, no matter what it is. They have learned nothing, only amassed data. Their will is bad in regard to what they are studying, and closes out the reality of the “other,” whatever does not coincide with themselves.

It is good that you have read books on the Talmud by authorities that do respect it. Perhaps, however, you have not really READ either them or the Talmud itself, merely looked at them. Read them again, or better, read the Talmud itself, with openness, i.e., with readiness to listen and learn. Instead of shouting it down, hear its own quiet voice.

A very good introduction to Talmudic reasoning as such, quite apart from specific Talmudic passages, is Rav Joseph Soloveitchik’s The Halakhic Mind. Rav Soloveitchik gained university degrees in philosophy in Germany before the Holocaust, and the book gives his assessment of the history and nature of Western philosophy and how “the halakhic mind” relates to it. As compared to Western philosophy, especially as it culminated in for example Heidegger’s thought, the halakhic mind ends up posing a sharp and fundamental contrast, and to me seems to stand for the epitome of sanity and decency. It is not deranged.

Did you read Kirsch’s latest commentary? Again the subject matter of the blat Gemora is irrelevant. If that is what floats your boat, gey gezunterheyt.
Placing a baby on a corpse may not be meant literally, but placing a pure object on an impure object so you can move it on Sabbath is a ruse anyway.
And the 39 forbidden activities on Shabbes have been cited to keep a child from coloring or riding a bicycle on that day. Now what kind of sense does that make?

PS I also read Emanuel Rackman’s book on halakha and A Short History of Jewish Ethics by Alan Mittleman.
Maybe it would help if you read some Sherwin Wine.

In school, six days a week, a child is kept from doing anything but studying during classroom hours, a huge chunk of every day, and is also prevented from a lot of things pleasurable during recess, too. Shall we condemn that as cruel or senseless? Some restraints on children’s behaviour, so that they learn what is appropriate to the given time and place, is always necessary, in every culture including whatever one you endorse. Jewish children enjoy Shabbat; it is a time of visiting and playing, and gives them time with their parents and relatives, something often lacking in secular families. I believe I have said enough; it is clear you are not interested in listening, either to me, to the sources you claim to have read, or to the Sages.

Eliezer Pennywhistler says:

“I am not the ignoramus you think I am.”

Yes, you are.

I feel no need to be as polite and respectful of you as Tzur is. I know a fool when I see one, and I don’t suffer them at all well.

Nor will I waste my time trying to explain how the Talmud works. If you haven’t gotten that from Steinsaltz and all the other writers you claim to have have read, I won’t be able to crack your mental coffin.

“But when I read that placing a baby on a corpse makes it OK to move the corpse on Sabbath,”

Very very briefly, the Mishna derives laws from the Torah. The Gemara discusses those laws and extends them into new situations that developed as civilization evolved. The way it does that is by pushing the Mishna’s logic to see how far it can stretch … and thus see what can and cannot be extended.

This would be one example of that process. It is an intellectual exercise. Not even a five-year-old child would take it literally,

Ask any lawyer (or law student) how that works.

Eliezer Pennywhistler says:

I know several editors of Jewish folklore anthologies – Howard Schwartz, Rabbi Jim Diamond and Elie Weisel, among others.

I have studied Jewish folklore and I have taught Jewish folklore. And I am stating definitively that you cannot have edited an anthology of Jewish folklore because you are unfamiliar with Jewish life as it was lived and as it is lived. With Jewish thought and thought processes. With Jewish praxis. With Jewish hopes and dreams. With Jewish languages.

I would no more believe that you edited an anthology of the folklore of the Fon people of Dahomey or the significance of Trumpeter Hornbills to the people of Matabeleland

It is creepy. And a ruse. If it forbidden to move a corpse on the Sabbath, it is forbidden. Placing a pure item on the impure item does not make it pure. It is dishonest.
By the way I am very familiar with the law, so you do not need to lecture me.

So you don’t believe me? Now I am a liar too! Please do not contact me again–ever.

Eliezer Pennywhistler says:

It will be a pleasure.

Unless, liar, you care to name this alleged anthology.

Eliezer Pennywhistler says:

I have never in my life actually come across someone who exemplifies the old proverb: “a cynic knows the price of everything but the value of nothing”.

Now I have.

Since you are so familiar with the law, should I say “shehechaiyanu” or “gomel”?

Books? I read books!

“Books? I read books!” – Homer Simpson


Your comment may be no longer than 2,000 characters, approximately 400 words. HTML tags are not permitted, nor are more than two URLs per comment. We reserve the right to delete inappropriate comments.

Thank You!

Thank you for subscribing to the Tablet Magazine Daily Digest.
Please tell us about you.

Eggs and Babies

This week’s Talmud study reveals legal debates that refine the limits and nature of inherently abstract concepts

More on Tablet:

The Real Story Behind Those Fliers in Ukraine

By Batya Ungar-Sargon — Leaflets telling Jews to register with authorities not actually from ‘authorities’