You Only Live Once
The Talmudic rabbis saw the world as a wedding—a place of charity and pleasures to be enjoyed while it lasts
Delmore Schwartz titled one of his best short stories “The World Is a Wedding,” and while I knew that this phrase came from the Talmud, it was not until this week’s Daf Yomi reading that I learned what the Talmud meant by it. Schwartz’s story diagnoses the impotent vanity and self-importance of a group of 20-something intellectuals—slackers before the term was invented—and he turns the “the world is a wedding” into something like E.M. Forster’s “only connect,” an exhortation to celebrate life and relationships. When the rabbis use the phrase, however, in Eruvin 54a, it means something more like the classical carpe diem, “seize the day.” “Shmuel said to Rav Yehudah: Sharp one, grab and eat, grab and drink, because this world from which we depart is like a wedding celebration.” That is because, as the Schottenstein edition glosses it, “it begins and ends within a short period of time.”
This advice, to eat and drink as much as you can while you’re still alive, clearly gave later commentators—including the Schottenstein’s editors—an uneasy feeling. Do the rabbis really mean that Jews should gorge themselves, like Romans at a drunken feast? Not at all, the notes insist: “Many commentators explain that the Gemara does not refer to the physical pleasures of the world, but to the performance of good deeds. A person should spend his money on mitzvot and charitable acts as soon as he possibly can, because he might die suddenly, and then it will be too late.”
This is pious, but perhaps it is too pious. The Talmud is not at all abstemious—on the contrary, it speaks quite openly about sex, digestion, excretion, and other bodily matters—and some of the greatest Tannaim were rich men, who presumably led lives of luxury. (On the other hand, the Gemara has also spoken of the extreme poverty of many Torah students, who had to stretch their food budgets as far as possible in order to stay alive.) It’s hard to imagine any sage encouraging outright gluttony and drunkenness, but the idea that the world is a wedding—a place of pleasures that should be savored while they last—doesn’t seem out of place in the Talmud.
This evocative saying was just one item in the feast of aggadah in this week’s Daf Yomi reading. Chapter 5 of Tractate Eruvin is technically devoted to a further elaboration of the laws of techum, the Shabbat boundary. As we’ve seen before, a person is allowed to walk only 2,000 amot from the place where he is residing when Shabbat begins. However, the entire city in which he lives is considered as part of his own personal space, so that the techum is only measured from beyond the city limits. This leniency vastly extends the area in which a person can move around on Shabbat.
This week, we learned that a city is defined for these purposes as a square or rectangle drawn to include its furthest extended point. As the Mishnah on 52b puts it, “How do we extend the boundaries of cities? If a house is recessed or a house protrudes from the city’s perimeter, or a tower is recessed and a tower protrudes from the wall, or if there were ruins there 10 tefachim high extending from one of the city’s corners, or bridges, or tomb buildings, in which there is a dwelling place—these extend the techum measure opposite them.”
The discussion that follows explains how this rule operates in various cases—if the city is circular, if it is an incomplete square, if it is in two adjacent but separate sections, if it is shaped like a bow and arrow or like the Greek letter gamma. I was able to follow the argument thanks to the Schottenstein edition’s useful diagrams, but of course the original Talmud has no such illustrations: A good geometrical imagination is one of the many mental skills needed for Talmud study. And determining a city’s boundary is only the beginning: You must then draw the techum extending two thousand amot from each side. Doing this involves a whole other set of calculations, and even leads the rabbis, in Eruvin 56a, to a discussion of astronomy—because a surveyor needs to know how to determine north and south based on the movement of the sun and stars.
Before the discussion can get under way, however, the rabbis spend two full pages on a chain of digressions, whose subjects include the importance of speaking clearly, the cleverness of Jewish children, and the value of Torah study as a cure for stomachaches. The proverbs and anecdotes come so thick and fast that it’s easy to lose track of just how we got here, so it’s worth paying close attention to the unexpected ways the rabbis move from subject to subject.
The Gemara to the Mishnah I quoted above starts out by asking a spelling question. Is the second word in the text, me’abrin, supposed to be spelled with an alef or an ayin? (That the question could be raised suggests that, as early as the Talmudic period, these originally distinct letters were being pronounced alike.) If it’s with an alef, the word becomes “limb,” and we are to understand the parts of the city that protrude outward as being like limbs. If it’s with an ayin, on the other hand, the word is related to “pregnant,” and we should envision the boundary of the city bulging outward like a pregnant woman’s belly.
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