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

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

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?

Print Email
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine, original photo Matt Green/Flickr)
Related Content

Why the Sabbath Is Everything

This week, the Talmud’s rabbis explore possible holy day violations to determine the nature of the sinner

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.


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

1 2View as single page
Print Email
41953 says:

What a bore! Not Kirsch, but this topic. Carry what you want on Sabbath. What does that have to do with the prohibition against work anyway???

Eliezer Pennywhistler says:

The bore, habibi, is you.

If this does not appeal to you, why do you read it every week, and then feel the desire to tell everyone that it does not appeal to you … every week?

Because people like you think it is the fount of wisdom. Actually that is just a snide remark. Because I am waiting for something meaningful.
Why should Jewish law prohibit people from carrying this on Sabbath? What is the rationale? Who does it offend if I carry an umbrella?
God? Or you?

Eliezer Pennywhistler says:

I mention that your dreary weekly posts are a bore and now you know what I think about Talmud?

Words fail me.

We all saw what happened the last time you tried to sucker someone into an argument, so I will not be joining your search for meaning in the comments section of a series of articles you find distasteful.

Gey gezunterheyt!

Gee, who is forcing you to respond to my posts anyway!

Do me a favor and ignore me.

Eliezer Pennywhistler says:

I will reply to anyone I want at any time I want for any reason I want for any purpose i want.

Someone so opposed to coercion probably shouldn’t be seeking to coerce behavior from others, IMHO.

An excellent and enjoyable article, thank you Adam for it. The Talmud is among other things an ongoing tutorial on how to think, including how to vary contexts, dare thought-experiments to probe implications, and consider things “laterally,” all focussed on living a Jewish life joyfully within HaShem’s presence and at one’s highest intellectual powers. There is a lot of play in it, and ultimate seriousness as well. The real topic of this specific Talmudic passage is the interplay in halakhah and real life between intention and deed, and it teaches us that these matters are much more complex than we tend to think. We learn that both intention and deed must be considered contextually; simple either-ors will not do. To take these problems only literally is merely a reflection on one’s own superficiality, as has been said before. In this case, it is clear to all that simple-minded either-ors, and literal interpretations as such, must falsify the content and intent.

Fascinating… This analysis of things and intentions moving and changing on the way is a powerful tool for analyzing complex phenomena we actually see in our modern life where things go fast and all tricks can be done during the way the infos and the datas are conveyed (eg : computers, internet..). Great lesson from Adam Kirsch. Am happy to read you !


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.

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?

More on Tablet:

How To Make Gefilte Fish That Your Guests Will Actually Want To Eat

By Joan Nathan — Video: Throw away your jars of gray fish patties. This Rosh Hashanah, make a terrine that’ll have doubters asking for seconds.