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When Messiah Is an Afterthought

The Talmud’s pragmatism and wonder meet in a technical problem about the height of a boundary line

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original image Illegal Art)
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As best I can recall, in my Talmud reading so far there has been only one reference to the Messiah. This came in Tractate Berachot, where one sage was cited as saying that the deeds of the Messiah would not be supernatural, but political—that the only difference between our world and the messianic age would be the restoration of Jewish sovereignty. And it makes sense that messianism should not, at least so far, be a major concern of the Talmud’s rabbis. After all, they are not theologians but legislators, concerned with how Jews should live in the here and now.

In this week’s Daf Yomi reading, however, the subject of the Messiah returned, in an utterly unexpected and roundabout fashion. To see how, let’s return to the subject of the Shabbat boundary, which continued to dominate this week’s reading. In Chapter 3 of Eruvin, the rabbis discussed the rules of the techum, the boundary beyond which it is forbidden to walk on Shabbat. That limit, as we have seen, is 2,000 amot, or about 2/3 of a mile. Now, in Chapter 4, they turn to the question of what happens if a Jew ends up outside his techum on Shabbat. The rabbis don’t envision this happening deliberately—as always, the question of what happens to a Jew who deliberately violates Shabbat law goes more or less unanswered. Rather, the Mishnah on Eruvin 41b imagines “One whom gentiles removed from his techum, or an evil spirit”: that is, someone who is made to transgress the boundary without conscious consent.

The terms used here seem to conjure a dire picture of Jewish-gentile relations in Talmudic times: Were kidnappings and abductions such a regular feature of Jewish life that they had to be legislated for? But it’s also possible, I think, that this is simply a rhetorical device for illustrating an abstract question: What happens if somehow you end up outside your techum? Likewise, the reference to “evil spirits” doesn’t necessarily mean that Jews were regularly possessed by demons. Rather, it could mean a kind of mental disturbance or distraction that took someone’s mind off the observance of the techum.

In any case, the Mishnah instructs that once you are beyond your 2,000-amot boundary, your personal domain becomes a mere four amot—about three square feet, barely enough to move in. This is the minimum necessary to define a “place” in Talmudic terms. However, for Shabbat purposes, any enclosed space, including a house, a corral, or even a city, also qualifies as a place. So, if you are abducted beyond your techum and deposited in a city, you are able to move around anywhere in that city without violating Shabbat. Such, at least, is the lenient view of Rabban Gamliel and Elazar ben Azaryah. Yehoshua and Akiva, on the other hand, would not allow you to move beyond the four amot, even in a city or enclosed place.

The Talmud goes on to illustrate this disagreement, and draw out some of its implications, with a story about these four sages—a story that may be less a historical report than a thought experiment. Evidently, the four rabbis were on a ship traveling from a city called “Plandrasin” or “Prandisin”—which the Schottenstein Edition’s notes suggest might be Brindisi, in southern Italy. When Shabbat began, their ship was in port, so that their legal Shabbat residence was established in the city. But then the ship started to move out to sea, putting them more than 2,000 amot from where they started out. The question now became: Were the sages free to move around anywhere in the ship, on the theory that it is a single place? Or were they restricted to the four-amot personal zone? Opinion split along the lines suggested above. Rabban Gamliel and Elazar moved around the ship, while Yehoshua and Akiva “wished to be strict with themselves” and did not move.

When the Gemara comes to discuss this incident, in Eruvin 42b, it holds that the law follows the more lenient interpretation of Gamliel and Elazar. There are two possible reasons for this. One, advanced by Rabbah, is that “he established his Sabbath residence within the walls of the ship while it was still day.” That is, because the passenger was on the ship when Shabbat began, the ship itself, rather than the port city, became his Shabbat residence, so he could move anywhere within it.

But Rabbi Zeira proposed another explanation, one that invokes principles of physics and mathematics. The passenger is indeed restricted to a four-amot zone, Zeira holds; but since the ship is constantly in motion, the location of that zone is constantly changing with it, being carried along the surface of the sea. As a result, it would be impossible for the passenger ever to leave his personal zone, since as soon as he takes a step, the zone has already shifted with him. (As I mentioned last week, it’s easy to see how this discussion of ships might apply to airplanes today.)

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41953 says:

If you are holding a sapling in your hand and someone tells you the Messiah has come, plant the sapling first, then go look for the Messiah.
Rabbi Yohanah be Zakkai from The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan

Adam, I’ve really been loving your Daf Yomi discussion, and today’s example is one of the best.

Just read through the entire series from the beginning. I must say that it has been very thought-provoking to see the Talmud through a different set of eyes. Aleh ve-hatzlach!

Some comments on this week’s installment:

1. “As always, the question of what happens to a Jew who deliberately violates Shabbat law goes more or less unanswered.” In fact it does not; while the mishnah there indeed deals only with forcible abduction, the Gemara (specifically, Rav Nachman quoting Shmuel) discusses someone who left the techum voluntarily, or who was taken out forcibly but then returned on his own.

2. The subject of the Messiah has in fact come up a number of times already: the discussion you mentioned in Berachot (34b) is supplemented by two others in Shabbat (63a and 151b), the first about whether weapons will still exist in that era, the second about whether “merit or demerit” will.

Bernecky says:

At what point is the Messiah not equidistant from everyone?

The collision of the sublime and the pragmatic in this discussion struck me as peculiarly wonderful. It demonstrates the indefatigability of the Talmudists. . .

Definition of WONDERFUL
1: exciting wonder : marvelous, astonishing
2: unusually good : admirable

Definition of INDEFATIGABLE
Persisting tirelessly; untiring.

Well, ok. I would only question whether it were admirable? There is no question that Talmudic Judaism preserved the Jewish people as a people (or, perhaps, several peoples) through many centuries all over the world, but this still leaves open the question, “To what purpose?” I hope you will explore that question as you go along. My own view is that there are competing narratives throughout Jewish history, one universal, one tribal (see here) and I wonder if these competing narratives also show up in the Talmud.

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When Messiah Is an Afterthought

The Talmud’s pragmatism and wonder meet in a technical problem about the height of a boundary line