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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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Does it matter whether we accept Rabbah’s explanation or Zeira’s? In either case, the law is the same. But, typically, the Talmud does think the reasoning behind the law matters, because it can have unexpected collateral effects. What happens, for instance, if you are onboard a ship whose walls are less than 10 tefachim high—about two and a half feet? (Whether such a ship could actually exist is another, less important question.) It takes a wall of 10 tefachim to create a legally distinct space on Shabbat. So, if the ship’s walls were shorter than that, the Gemara reasons, Rabbah’s answer would have to change: The ship would no longer qualify as a place, and Rabbah would compel the passenger to stand still in his four-amot zone. Whereas Zeira’s explanation, which is based on the motion of the ship, would still be valid; Zeira would continue to allow the passenger to move about the ship, on the theory that his four-amot zone was in constant motion with him.

From this discussion of the height of walls, the Talmud now pivots to a related question: Does a techum boundary extend only 10 tefachim from the ground, or does it continue up in an imaginary straight line? One might think this is a wholly abstract point, because any human being walking on the ground would come in contact with the barrier even if it is only two feet high. Only someone who can fly through the air would have to worry about whether the techum extends indefinitely upward. And in an age before airplanes, no one could fly that high.

Except that one person could: the Messiah, who would come down through the sky from heaven. In this way, the Talmud introduces the Messiah into the discussion—not in order to ask questions about redemption or the world to come but simply to answer a technical problem about the imaginary height of a boundary line. For it turns out that the question of whether a techum extends more than 10 tefachim upward has important consequences for when the Messiah might arrive on Earth. If he is coming down from heaven, the rabbis reason, he would have to move more than 2,000 amot, which means that if he came on Shabbat he would be violating his techum. Ergo, it is impossible for the Messiah to come on Shabbat (or on a holiday). Thus, the Gemara says, if a man swears an oath that he will not drink wine once the Messiah comes, he can safely drink on Shabbat, knowing that the Messiah can’t come that day.

But this is only the case if the techum does indeed extend upward into the sky. If it does not, if it’s only valid for 10 tefachim from the ground, then the Messiah can simply fly above it. That means he could come on Shabbat as easily as on any other day. And yet there is a tradition, the Talmud acknowledges, that the Messiah will not arrive on Shabbat; and the sages are very reluctant to challenge what seems to be merely a folk belief, on the grounds that if so many Jews believe something, it stands a good chance of being true.

If it’s not because of the techum, then, how can we be so sure that the Messiah will not come on Shabbat? It is because, the rabbis explain, the Messiah will be heralded the day before his arrival by the Prophet Elijah. And if Elijah arrived the day before Shabbat, the ensuing uproar would make it impossible for Jews to prepare for Shabbat properly. To preserve the sanctity of Shabbat, then, Elijah and the Messiah will time their arrival so that they come during the week.

The collision of the sublime and the pragmatic in this discussion struck me as peculiarly wonderful. It demonstrates the indefatigability of the Talmudists, who were not dazzled by the presence of the Messiah in their argument, but simply took him into account while pursuing their original legal problem. The Messiah becomes one of several variables in the equation they must solve—no more, no less. This is not to say, of course, that if the Messiah did come, the rabbis would not have greeted him in ecstasy. But in the meantime, we need to know how far we can walk on Shabbat, and what time in the morning to say the Shema.


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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

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

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