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

Your email has been sent.

Click here to send another

Are Truffles Food?

As our Talmud column returns, debates over Oral Law range from the existential to the mundane

Print Email
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Eleanor Saitta/Flickr)
Related Content

Close Encounters With Talmud

Seven months into a seven-and-a-half-year study cycle, book critic Adam Kirsch is hookedand flummoxed

Can Boundaries Cause Unity?

Two exhibits ask whether eruvs speak to our essential beings or just replicate the conditions of our wanderings

Encounters With the God Particle: The Higgs Boson Meets Organized Religion

The Higgs boson, the pope, and the curious interaction between organized religion and big science

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.

1 2View as single page
Print Email
41953 says:

That the Talmud values discussion and debate is commendable. That the rabbis chose to spend an immense amount of time and effort debating things like the boundaries of an eruv is lamentable. That is pilpul.

Grigalem says:

It’s also how we know what an eruv is and is not.

Duh.

It’s also how we learn to derive living practice from the Torah.

These poor saps had to define their terms and discuss the issues. Too bad they didn’t have you for their prophet, logician, judge and jury, and High Priest of Snark.

You wouldn’t know what pilpul is if you found it in your pantry spread on bread.

41953 says:

“…in the next sentence, we are back to the question of how wide a legally valid crossbeam must be

Along the way, the rabbis offer some dietary advice: Coriander makes men impotent, we are told, and onions are potentially lethal.”
How about this? Is this also “deriving living practice from the Torah”?
Walk as far as you like on sabbath carrying what you want, without creating legal fictions. You think God gives a goddamn?

Grigalem says:

If you don’t like Judaism you can always leave. And take your psychotic hatred of rabbis with you.

41953 says:

“Psychotic hatred?” Shame on you for using such strong language!
I prefer Elisha Ben Abuyeh.
There is more than one way to be Jewish.

Grigalem says:

Your psychotic hatred is evident. Everyone but you can see it. No one knows what you get out of this hatred. That is why it is a psychological problem.

There are many ways to be Jewish … and trying to mock rabbis under a literary critic’s exploration of Daf Yomi isn’t one of them …especially as you are ignorant of the contents, the methods and the purposes of the Talmud.

What Judaism …or “Judaism” … do you do? When? How? With whom?

Grigalem says:

Some hero. Elisha ben Abuyah left Judaism. The fact that you still hang around a system you reject has psychological issues all around it.

Judaism still follows the Pharisees of 2000 years ago (as well as the Prophets). NO ONE follows Elisha ben Abuyah. If any Jew ever DID follow him they died out long ago. He was the dodo of Judaism.

Judaism is growing and evolving. You are on the wrong end of evolution, son — the dodo end.

Grigalem says:

“There is more than one way to be Jewish.”

And you don’t do any of them. So what’s your point?

Grigalem says:

“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.”

Have you anything useful to add here? Any discerning comment?

Or are you going to give Mr. Kirsch the last word, leaving you fomenting impotently?

41953 says:

Indeed I do. Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Grigalem says:

Then you believe in the primacy of human dignity — which does not include mocking Jewish rabbis and Jewish texts.

41953 says:

When I see value in Jewish texts and the teaching of rabbis I say so. Discussion and debate are virtues. Hillel was a mentch. But when I think they promote parochial thinking and obsessive ritual I also say so. I cannot see how pushing a baby in a stroller on Shabbes should require an intricate set of rules to make it permissible.

Mike H says:

Mr. Kirsch, you are wrong. the halacha follows Hillel because his students “were pleasant and patient, and would teach Beis Shamai’s opinion as well as their own. Further, they taught Beis Shamai’s opinion before their own” (Eruvin 13b) not because it was a heavenly decree

only when an argument is l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven, eilu v’eilu applies.

aside from that, we do not pasken halacha from a bat kol shamayim. in general, the last time a bat kol was truly followed as halacha was in the presence of Moshe Rabbeinu, alav haShalom. occasional neviim and hachamim would hear the voice, but generally they were not followed as halacha

in other words: the halacha follows Hillel, because Hillel follows the halacha

Mike H says:

oh, and there are ways to expand a techum 6000 measures from point of origin :)

2000

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.

Are Truffles Food?

As our Talmud column returns, debates over Oral Law range from the existential to the mundane

More on Tablet:

Read Students’ Letters to Holocaust Survivors

By Stephanie Butnick — A seventh-grade class responds to our feature on survivors living in poverty