When Messiah Is an Afterthought
The Talmud’s pragmatism and wonder meet in a technical problem about the height of a boundary line
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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