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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

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Paolo Veronese, detail from The Wedding at Cana, 1563. (Collage Tablet Magazine; original image via Wikimedia Commons)
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Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

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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One of the many differences between Judaism and some other religions is indeed in their respective attitudes towards physical pleasures such as food and sex. The statement in the Talmud here about the world being like a wedding dovetails with one in the Jerusalem Talmud (end of Kiddushin), that “a person will be called to give account for anything that his eyes saw [kosher, of course] and he did not eat therefrom.” The deeper reason for that is related to the idea in the Schottenstein notes, though: eating and other pleasures aren’t ends in themselves, but means to a fuller relationship with G-d – by using the resources of the physical world for spiritually directed pursuits.

Same thing, then, as far as the verse cited in the last paragraph and its explanation. Given that sex is pleasurable (which, after all, it didn’t have to be; G-d could just as easily have designed us in this regard like the various kinds of creatures for whom mating is strictly utilitarian, to produce offspring), then that pleasure needn’t be eschewed or condemned, but on the other hand it must have a purpose – and one part of that is to give us a metaphor for the pleasures of Torah study and other spiritual pursuits.

Judah Rosen says:

strange that you use a photo with Jesus prominently figured in it to discuss the Talmud.

Grigalem says:

If you know of a Jewish painting or illustration about a joyous wedding, why don’t you share it with us?

gwhepner says:

THE
WORLD IS LIKE A WEDDING CELEBRATION

The world is like a wedding celebration,

Samuel to a rabbi once explained.

In contrast to this vivid explanation,

too many people sadly have complained

they feel that haven’t been invited

to this celebration, wondering

why people get about it so excited,

never having had in life a fling.

The problem with such people is that they

are not prepared to make commitments to

the world, despite the fact that every day

gwhepner@yahoo.com

we have to make them, in the pas de deux

that leads not only to each wedding, but

to celebrating what the world can offer

all those for whom the world provides a glut

of pleasures greater than a wedding coffer.

Like a wedding, Samuel clarified

his teaching, life is over soon, and there

will be no chance for you, once you have died,

to have the pleasures this world lets you share

with all who love you, all those whom you love,

You have to take advantage of them while

you live. In heaven they will be above

your reach, and disapproved of as bad style.

gwhepner@yahoo.com

Grigalem says:

I was thinking more of a picture out of copyright or one that has a Creative Commons license.

Your picture would not be legal to use here, nice though it is.

41953 says:

What does “sharp one” mean?

Tamar says:

Jesus was a Jew.

It’s Shmuel’s pet name for Rav Yehudah (who was his student) throughout the Talmud. The usual explanation is that it means exactly what it sounds like – a compliment for his sharpness at legal analysis.

Judah Rosen says:

yes, but I don’t believe he had a halo

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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