Intention Versus Action
This week, the rabbis ask if two half-sins equal a whole one. In what part of a sin is sinfulness located?
But if you think Rava will let you off that easily, you’re as mistaken as the hapless food-carrier. For now he raises the third, most unlikely hypothetical of all. What if you leave your house carrying a fig’s worth of food, and as you walk it shrinks to half that size, and then it grows again back to its full size, and then you set it down outside. Effectively, you have made a forbidden transfer. But if you consider the action in two halves, both would be innocent: You started out with a fig’s worth, but ended up with a half-fig’s worth; then you started out with a half-fig’s worth, and ended up with a fig’s worth. Would the transfer be effectively “broken” by the shrinkage, so that it could not be considered a sin? In the Gemara’s terminology, “Is negation (dichui) an operative principle with respect to Sabbath law?”
It is at this point that the Talmud makes its most amazing, and yet somehow most characteristic, gesture. After laying out these intricate logic problems—so intricate that I’m not totally confident I’ve grasped every nuance of them—the rabbis conclude, “Let it stand”: that is, the question remains open. We are not even given the satisfaction of a resolution to Rava’s problems! This is frustrating and casts further doubt on the practical application of everything that’s gone before: If the rabbis are willing to leave these questions unanswered, they couldn’t be very relevant to actual Jewish practice.
However, the Talmud is also sending a powerful implicit message. The act of thinking about law, of reasoning out its most distant ramifications, is itself sacred and pleasurable to the rabbis, regardless of its practical application. To read the Talmud at all, I’m finding, it’s necessary to be able to share at least their pleasure, if not their sense of sanctity.
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At his bar mitzvah, my son took his place in the men’s section of the shul—a place where mothers can’t go