The Talmud’s Absolute Value
Through reasoning, the rabbis brought all of natural creation under the rule of law
And the rabbis know the answer is there because the Torah is unlike every other document in the world, since it alone was authored (or dictated) by God. God is absolute, and he introduces a kind of absoluteness into the text that it would be absurd to expect to find in merely human productions. Humans may use words randomly, picking the ones that come to hand; but God is omniscient, and everything he does has a purpose. Once this idea is accepted, gezeirah shavah becomes not just rational but necessary. Of course God intends the linkages that tradition has identified: To say otherwise would be to say that God writes like a human being.
The totalizing nature of rabbinic interpretation is not limited to texts. As we saw this week, the halakhah about Shabbat boundaries is extended to cover the most basic natural phenomena—even clouds and water molecules. Of course, the law cannot constrain clouds or water from moving more than 2,000 amot on Shabbat. But ownerless objects, we learn from a baraita on Eruvin 45b, do have a techum: Wherever they happen to be at the beginning of Shabbat, they must remain within 2,000 amot of that spot until the end of Shabbat. This applies even to rainwater: Wherever the water lies at the beginning of Shabbat (presumably in a cistern or container) is its residence.
And what if the rain falls on Shabbat or a holiday? In that case, “it is treated like the feet of anyone”—that is, anyone who claims it thereby confers his own techum upon it. But this answer is not enough for the Gemara, which raises an objection based on the water cycle. After all, rainwater originally comes from the ocean—as Rabbi Eliezer states, “The entire world drinks the waters of the ocean”—from which it evaporates to form a cloud. If the rain in a cloud was in fact in the ocean at the start of Shabbat, shouldn’t its Shabbat residence should be calculated from the ocean? But how can we know whether any given raincloud formed on Shabbat or before Shabbat started? And even if the rain was in the cloud at the beginning of Shabbat, why doesn’t it establish its residence in the cloud? Or “should it be concluded that the techum laws do not apply above 10 tefachim”—the same principle we discussed last week, apropos of the coming of the Messiah?
The Gemara offers one possible solution to this problem. As long as water is suspended in cloud form, perhaps it should be considered not yet in existence, so that it would only be “born” when it actually started to fall. But this, the rabbis quickly note, would raise a different legal problem. Remember from Tractate Shabbat that things which are nolad—newly born or created on Shabbat—cannot be used on Shabbat, since they have not been prepared for that purpose in advance. If rainwater was nolad, it could not be handled at all.
Instead, the Gemara opts for a different, and scientifically sounder, theory of the case. “Rather, the water in the clouds is constantly in motion,” and because of this it can’t establish a Shabbat residence until it comes to a halt. The same principle nicely solves the problem of the ocean: In the ocean, too, water is turbulent, and so it can’t be said to establish its residence in any given place. It follows that it is legal to collect rainwater on Shabbat and that it can be moved anywhere within the techum of the person who collects it. The whole issue of the rainwater might be felt to be an unnecessary problem, a problem of the rabbis’ own creation. But to them, there was no reason to cut short the chain of legal reasoning when confronted with natural phenomena. God created the world, but the rabbis’ achievement was to bring that world under the rule of law.
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Asher Lopatin succeeds Avi Weiss at an influential seminary, offering a pluralistic version of Orthodoxy