In order to understand Sabbath rules, the rabbis show, one must imagine exactly what work the Israelites did
What’s fascinating about this kind of Talmudic question is the way it unites the pragmatic and the theoretical. If you consider the pit problem in strictly practical terms, it may seem pointless; how often would a Jew inadvertently shovel just the right quantity of dirt into the right-sized pit on Shabbat? But if you imagine the case study as a problem in logic, a kind of tool to think with, then its appeal becomes clearer. Here it’s possible to see the Talmud’s question as one about the nature of time. Can the pit possess two opposite qualities (being private and being public) at the same time, or do we have to imagine these qualities as succeeding one another at some hypothetical instant? It’s not unlike the problem known to the Greeks as Zeno’s paradox, in which Achilles races a tortoise; both are addressing the question of whether a continuous medium like time is divisible into finite sections.
To answer the question, the Gemara makes a considerable detour. On Shabbat, it is forbidden to carry an object in a public domain further than four amot (an amah is approximately two feet). But the public domain is considered to extend only 10 tefachim from the ground, above which the airspace is automatically exempt from liability. Say, then, that you stand four amot from a wall and throw an object at it. According to the Mishnah, if the object strikes the wall below the 10 tefachim mark, it is considered as if you had thrown it on the ground, and you are liable for a forbidden transfer.
But wait, the Gemara replies. If you threw an object at a wall that was four amot away, it would surely bounce back at you and come to rest between you and the wall—that is, less than four amot from its starting point. Why, then, are you liable for moving it? Here we return to Yochanan, who came up with an ingenious, if bizarre, answer: In this case, he argued, the Mishnah is referring to throwing a sticky object like a fig-cake. If you threw a fig-cake at a wall, it would stick and not bounce back toward you. And yet, other rabbis objected, this is to neglect the width of the fig-cake itself! Even if it sticks to the wall, it would protrude by an inch or so, meaning that it would have traveled an inch less than the forbidden four amot. Why, then, is the thrower liable?
Finally, after still more comparisons and hypothetical situations, the Gemara concludes, teiku: “let it stand,” that is, let it go unresolved. The problem of simultaneity has defeated the rabbis: They are unable to say whether a pit can be 10 and nine tefachim deep at the same time, or whether a fig-cake can go four amot and less than four amot in the same throw. But in pursuing the inquiry to the very edge of logical possibility, they have shown exactly where the paradox lies—an achievement that may not really help us observe Shabbat but that has intellectual value in its own right.
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A former rabbi-teacher of mine has been accused of molesting students. So, why can’t I stop thinking of the good he did?