(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Eleanor Saitta/Flickr)

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

On account of Passover, I didn’t have the opportunity to write about the last several weeks’ Daf Yomi reading. But before returning to the schedule with this week’s reading, the beginning of Chapter 3 of Tractate Eruvin, I can’t resist looking back to Eruvin 13b, a page that features several striking and important statements. The first of these is a boast, or rather a series of boasts, in which the Talmud lists rabbis who were famous for their interpretive prowess. We hear about Sumchos, who could give 48 reasons why any item should be considered ritually pure or impure; and about another student, unnamed, who could come up with 150 reasons why a certain impure animal should be considered pure.

This numerical inflation reminded me of the saying chanted by the Israelites, in the First Book of Samuel, about Saul and David, comparing their greatness in battle: “Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands.” In Talmudic times, Jewish manliness was no longer measured in Philistine corpses, but in legal creativity. Still, there is a point, Eruvin 13b teaches, beyond which a sage can become too intellectually advanced.

Rabbi Meir, we learn, was the greatest scholar of his time: “It is revealed and known before Him Who spoke and the world came into being, that there was none in the generation of Rabbi Meir like him.” It might seem, then, that Meir’s opinion should always hold sway; but often “they did not fix the halakhah in accordance with his view.” The reason is that “his colleagues could not fathom the depths of his reasoning,” especially when he made seemingly counter-intuitive statements, “for he would assert that something impure was pure and make it seem plausible, and that something impure was pure and make it seem plausible.”

This seems, in part, like a warning against intellectual facility for its own sake. Just as Socrates disliked the Sophists, philosophers-for-hire who could argue all sides of any issue, so the rabbis distrusted Meir, who was so brilliant as to make every position convincing. More important, however, it is an appeal to the prime Talmudic value of consensus. It’s no use making brilliant arguments if no one can follow them; law is not like physics, where a theory can be right even if only two people on earth understand it. If a line of reasoning wasn’t clear to the majority of the rabbis, they refused to endorse it, no matter how much they respected Meir.

The classic example of disagreement between sages is the recurring clash between the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel. We have already seen, in Tractate Berachot, that the law always follows Beit Hillel, with a few specific exceptions. Now, in Eruvin 13b, we learn the reason why: It is because of a divine decree. On one occasion, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai debated each other for three years, with neither side giving in, until finally God intervened: “A heavenly voice went forth and declared: ‘These and those are the words of the living God, but the halachah follows Beit Hillel.’ ”

This Talmudic phrase is often quoted to illustrate the intellectual pluralism of the rabbis. What matters in the Talmud is not coming to a single conclusion—often enough, discussion of a problem will end in deadlock, or trail off inconclusively. The Talmud lives, rather, in the process of discussion and debate. That is why even minority positions and rejected authorities are always quoted. “These and these,” both sides of the argument, are necessary to understand the law, and so both are serving the purpose of Torah.

The Talmud lives in the process of discussion and debate.

If Hillel and Shammai are both speaking God’s words, however, why is it that Hillel always prevails in practical terms? For two reasons, the Talmud explains: because Beit Hillel is both more lenient and more humble. “They would study their own opinion and the opinion of Beit Shammai. Not only that, but they would mention the matters of Beit Shammai before their own.” Clearly, the rabbis—like scholars and intellectuals down the ages—knew all about the temptations of self-righteousness and arrogance; that is why they exalted the Hillelian virtues of forbearance and modesty.

Finally, and most momentously, Eruvin 13b offers a shockingly grim verdict on human existence in general. “For two and a half years,” we read, “Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel debated the following question. These would say: ‘It would have been more pleasant for a person not have been created than to have been created.’

Whereas these would say: ‘It is more pleasant for a person to have been created than had he not been created.’ ” Sophocles famously addressed this very issue in Oedipus at Colonus, where the chorus proclaims, “Not to be born is best.” It is surprising, however, to find the rabbis reaching the same bleak conclusion as the tragedian: “They finally took a vote on the matter and concluded: It would have been more pleasant for a person not to have been created.” But, they go on, “now that he has been created, let him search his deeds’”—that is, let him repent of his sins and avoid sins in the future.

How did the rabbis reconcile this pessimism with what God said about the world and mankind at their creation—that they were “very good”? It is true that the rabbis are not debating whether life is good, only whether it is “pleasant.” But how could it be that the world is good in itself, and yet unpleasant to live in? Isn’t life itself supposed to be the greatest blessing in Judaism, as opposed to other faiths that emphasize the hereafter? Or is the rabbis’ dark opinion applicable only to their own time, a time of exile and oppression—so that life under the Temple, or once the Temple has been restored, would be considered worth living? One thing is clear: No matter how hard life is, its hardness doesn’t excuse us from following the law. There is something almost existentialist about this worldview. We are thrown into a world of death and suffering, yet we must choose to do what we know is right.

You might think that, having delivered themselves of such a cosmic judgment, the rabbis would stop to reflect on it for a while. But no; in the next sentence, we are back to the question of how wide a legally valid crossbeam must be. The concrete and the specific are more important to the Talmud than philosophical ruminations, and there is perhaps a kind of solace in this. We may never know why God made the world the way it is, but in the rabbis’ view at least, we can always know what He expects us to do here.

In Chapter 3 of Eruvin, which we reached in this week’s Daf Yomi reading, the questions at issue have to do with a specific provision of Shabbat law, the techum, or boundary. The principle of the techum is not explained in the Mishnah or Gemara; the rabbis take it for granted that all students will know what they are talking about, and they move directly to advanced case studies. Thankfully, the Schottenstein edition’s notes lay the groundwork for the novice reader. On Shabbat, it is not permitted to travel more than 2,000 amot from where one is residing when Shabbat begins. (An amah, or cubit, is a bit less than two feet, so the distance we are dealing with is about two-thirds of a mile.)

This techum can be expanded, however, by establishing an eruvei techumin, a merger of boundaries. This is done by creating a legal residence other than one’s actual residence, so that the Shabbat boundary is extended to 2,000 amot from that new location. To create this legal fiction, one must place food at the spot that is to be considered one’s Shabbat residence. (Note, however, that the new location must be within the techum of where one actually is when Shabbat starts, so that the maximum extension one can create is 4,000 amot in a single direction—2,000 from where one actually is to the legal residence, then another 2,000 from the legal residence.)

What kinds of food, the rabbis ask, are capable of creating an eruv? Any food or drink, the Mishnah says in Eruvin 26b, except for salt and water. The food does not even have to be a kind that the person in question can actually eat. A Nazirite, for instance, vows not to drink wine, but it is permissible to use wine to create an eruv for him. This might seem so plain as to require no further discussion. But, of course, there is one, because of a principle the Gemara goes on to explain. “We cannot learn from general rules,” Rabbi Yochanan says, because any rule might carry unstated exceptions.

This principle seems designed to make legal interpretation as difficult as possible, since what it means is that no law can be taken at face value. Rather, one must consult the collective memory of all the scholars, to see if anyone remembers an exception handed down from the tannaim. And when it comes to eruvs, there is indeed an exception: Truffles and mushrooms cannot be used, though this rule is not attributed to anyone by name.

The rabbis go on to discuss many other kinds of food, using analogies from other areas of law to determine whether they really qualify as food items. Are hearts of palm, for instance, food or wood? If salt and water are each unusable separately, what about if you mix them together to make salt water, which was used as a dip? To make an eruv you are supposed to use enough food for two meals: Exactly how much does that mean for different kinds of food? Along the way, the rabbis offer some dietary advice: Coriander makes men impotent, we are told, and onions are potentially lethal. From the worth of human life to onions: Reading Tractate Eruvin is a reminder that the Talmud really does contain everything.


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