Who Can Follow These Rules?
This week’s Talmud reading prompts strikingly contemporary questions about observance and belief
In reading the Talmud, I have been especially interested in the glimpses it offers of how its complex rules were, or were not, actually observed in real life. It’s hard to imagine the average Jew in fifth-century-C.E. Babylonia—a farmer, soldier, or merchant—mastering the knowledge required to make judgments on every aspect of Jewish law. The question then becomes, did the majority of Jews consult experts frequently, or did they proceed by custom and rule of thumb, or did they simply ignore the law altogether? Was strict observance the exception, as it is among American Jews today, or the rule?
The question came into focus in this week’s Daf Yomi reading, in the course of a discussion of eruvin chatzeirot, the merger of courtyards for Shabbat purposes. From the beginning of Tractate Eruvin, the rabbis have assumed that Jews will live in houses joined by a courtyard (chatzeir); courtyards are in turn are joined by an alleyway (mavoi). In order for residents of adjoining courtyards to carry items on Shabbat in their common alley, they must perform a kind of legal merger called a shituf, which requires that all the participants deposit food together—the example the Talmud gives is wine or vinegar. For residents of adjoining courtyards to carry in one another’s courtyards, however, a more rigorous kind of merger called an eruv is required, and for this purpose only bread can be used.
In Eruvin 67b, the Gemara recounts an episode that raises several legal complications. When a boy was circumcised in Talmudic times, the common practice was to bathe him in hot water before the procedure—a forward-thinking sanitary practice. On Shabbat, as we have seen in Tractate Shabbat, performing circumcisions was a tricky matter, because it was forbidden to carry the necessary implements, including the hot water. Everything had to be prepared in advance.
On one occasion, a Shabbat circumcision was supposed to be performed in a courtyard where two great sages lived, Abaye and Rabbah. Before the boy could be bathed, however, the hot water spilled out, and more needed to be fetched. Rabbah instructed, “Bring hot water from my house”—which would require carrying through the courtyard. Whereupon Abaye objected, “But we did not join in an eruv!” Rabbah replied, “Let us rely on the shituf,” but Abaye reminded him, “But we did not merge in a shituf either!” Finally Rabbah suggested, “Let them tell a non-Jew to bring the hot water.”
The first question this story raises has to do with the propriety of asking a non-Jew to do something that a Jew is prohibited from doing on Shabbat. In Tractate Shabbat, we learned that this is forbidden—a Jew cannot use a non-Jew to circumvent Shabbat laws. I remember that this puzzled me at the time, since the institution of the shabbos goy—a non-Jewish neighbor or employee who does chores for observant Jews—is a standard figure in Eastern European tradition.
Here the Gemara explains that it is only forbidden to ask a non-Jew to do something that is biblically prohibited—for instance, lighting a fire on Shabbat. It is OK, however, to ask a non-Jew to do something that is merely rabbinically prohibited, such as carrying through a courtyard. That is why “the master [Rabbah] did not tell the non-Jew, ‘Go heat some water,’ ” only to bring some water that was already hot. (Later, in Eruvin 68a, we will learn that it is even allowed to ask a non-Jew to heat the water, if it is necessary to preserve the health of the mother.)
But the more pertinent question is raised a bit later on by Rabbah bar Rav Chanin, who said to Abaye: “Is it possible that a mavoi that has in it two men as great as these rabbis did not have in it either an eruv or a shituf?” Why would these Torah sages not have set up a merger in advance of Shabbat, the way the law permits? The answer is quite revealing. Rabbah, we learn, could not go around collecting food for the shituf, because it would be beneath his dignity; and Abaye could not be bothered to do it, because “I am busy with my studies.” There is a great irony here. These same rabbis would never consider themselves too busy or too important to debate the laws of shituf; that would be studying Torah, a mitzvah. But when it comes to the actual implementation, they have better things to do.
Molecular gastronomy finally takes off in Israel, drawing kosher foodies and experimental chefs alike