The Talmud’s Absolute Value
Through reasoning, the rabbis brought all of natural creation under the rule of law
One of the recurring patterns I have noticed in my reading of the Talmud is the way the text puts off explaining its key terms. From the beginning of Tractate Eruvin, for instance, it has been axiomatic that on Shabbat it is permitted to move only within a 2,000-amot techum or boundary. But why is the boundary 2,000 amot in the first place? If the Talmud were a textbook, this would be explained on the first page. But the compilers of the Talmud clearly did not envision it being read the way I, and many others doing Daf Yomi, read it—that is, in isolation.
Rather, the Talmud is a product of and commentary on a living tradition, whose principles have been passed on from generation to generation, in word and action. Presumably, in the fifth century CE, every Jewish child would have known about the 2,000-amot boundary from the time he or she began to walk. It was a rule handed down for centuries—ostensibly, since Moses received the Oral Law on Sinai—and it didn’t need to be explained or justified.
In this week’s reading, however, the rabbis finally did explain where the 2,000-amot figure comes from—and the explanation raises as many questions as it answers. “These 2,000 amot, where are they written?” the Gemara asks on Eruvin 51a. The answer refers us to Exodus 16:29, which is part of the story of the manna in the desert. To feed the Israelites, God sent down manna in the form of dew from heaven (“it was white like coriander seed, and the taste of it was like wafers made of honey”). God’s instructions were that the Israelites should gather their daily ration each morning, but on the sixth day they should gather a double portion, since no manna would descend on Shabbat.
As frequently happens in the Torah, the Israelites ignored this command and went out on Shabbat, expecting to find manna. Instead, they got a reproach from God: “And the Lord said unto Moses: ‘How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My laws? See that the Lord has given you the Sabbath; therefore He gives you on the sixth day the bread of two days; sit, each man, in his place, let no man leave his place on the seventh day.’ ”
These two uses of the word place, the Gemara explains, refer to the two kinds of Shabbat restriction. “Sit each man in his place” refers to the four amot which are allowed to a Jew who has left his techum; this is just enough room for sitting down in. “Let no man leave his place,” on the other hand, refers to the 2,000 amot which are allowed to a Jew inside his techum. Yet this explanation, any reader must notice, does not actually explain where the figure of 2,000 amot comes from.
To establish it, the rabbis engage in a remarkable relay-race of interpretation, using a technique called gezeirah shavah. With this tool, the rabbis can link one instance of a word in the Bible with another use of the same word. In this case, they perform five consecutive linkages. The word “place” (makom) in Exodus 16:29 connects with the word “place” in Exodus 21:13, where it appears near the word “flee.” This instance of “flee” connects with another use of “flee,” in Numbers 35:26—a verse that also contains the word “border.” The following verse in Numbers uses the word “border” near the word “outside.” And this “outside” connects to Numbers 35:5, which reads: “And you shall measure from outside the city on the east side, 2,000 amot.”
At last, then, the figure itself appears—at the end of a long chain of verbal coincidences. To a secular reader, of course, this kind of interpretation will probably appear totally arbitrary, a kind of violence done to the plain meaning of the text. If such random juxtapositions are allowed to dictate the meaning of the Bible, surely anything could be proved—all you would have to do is construct a long enough chain of words.
My watchword in reading Daf Yomi, however, has been to distrust my own impatience—or, rather, to use it as a guide. It is just those moments in the text that seem most alien to me that might help to open up the profoundly different worldview of the rabbis. In this case, I think, it’s crucial to remember two points. The first is that the rabbis are not trying to establish the 2,000-amot rule from first principles. Rather, they are looking for textual support for an already established Jewish practice. In other words, they know what they need the Bible to show; their problem is how to find what must already be there.
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