How the Talmud Maps Behavior by Exploring Definitions, Not Listing Rules
Daf Yomi: The rabbis examined practical dimensions of deep questions, including those raised around saliva, urine, and sex
This week’s Daf Yomi reading was a wonderful example of the range of the Talmud’s concerns, and the twisting paths that connect them. What starts out as a discussion of the laws of tefillin becomes an examination of the biology of urination and spitting, which is really a debate on the definition of substances and objects. Finally the rabbis turn to questions of sex, marriage, and the status of women, in which the notion of original sin and its punishment is refined in very unexpected ways. Chapter 10 of Tractate Eruvin is all by itself a good argument for the idea that the Talmud is not just a book but an ocean.
One thing I’ve learned over the last year of reading Talmud is that you seldom find subjects in the place where you expect them. You might think, for example, that the question of whether it is permitted to wear tefillin on Shabbat would be covered somewhere in Tractate Shabbat. The subject is addressed there, but it returns for a fuller treatment in Tractate Eruvin, by a roundabout method. What should you do, the Mishnah asks on Eruvin 95a, if you are out walking on Shabbat and you come across some tefillin abandoned in an open field?
Carrying them back home, of course, is forbidden, since you are not allowed to carry anything more than four amot at a time in a public domain. But leaving the tefillin there is also problematic, since they may end up being desecrated. So, the Mishnah recommends a method of carrying that is not really carrying: You should put them on, according to the usual ritual procedure, and then walk home with them. According to Rabban Gamliel, you can even bring them in “two by two”: that is, wearing two sets of tefillin (a set has two pieces, one for the head and one for the arm). If there are more than one pair of abandoned tefillin, you should repeat the procedure as many times as needed. But if there are so many tefillin that it would be impossible to wear them each home before nightfall, the Jew is obligated to stay with them until Shabbat is over.
The Gemara feeds on moments when the Mishnah is ambiguous or contradictory, and so it zeroes in immediately on Rabban Gamliel’s statement. First the Tanna Kamma—the first quoted opinion in the Mishnah, the one that carries the voice of law—holds that a Jew should bring the tefillin home one pair at a time. Why, then, does Rabban Gamliel say he should wear two pairs at a time? What principle underlies this distinction?
The discussion begins by quoting something Rabbi Meir says in Tractate Shabbat about saving clothing from a fire on Shabbat. In such an emergency, the Mishnah rules, it is still forbidden to pick up your clothes and bring them to safety in a big bundle, since that would constitute an act of carrying. However, the opinion of Meir holds, you can wear as many layers of clothing as you can possibly put on and in that way transport them to safety. Because wearing is permitted on Shabbat, it’s allowed to wear as much as you want; after all, on a cold day you might put on a lot of layers of clothing, so the procedure in case of a fire doesn’t differ that much from ordinary use.
Now the Gemara applies this principle to the question of the tefillin. The Mishnah allows wearing lots of layers of clothes in an emergency; why, then, does it only allow wearing one pair of tefillin in an emergency? The answer is that the Mishnah considers wearing tefillin not to be an ordinary act of dressing, but the fulfillment of a particular mitzvah. The mitzvah calls for wearing one pair of tefillin on Shabbat, but not more than one; and God commanded in Deuteronomy 13:1, “You shall take care to do every matter that I command you; neither add to it nor subtract from it.” Wearing two tefillin would be “adding” and therefore a violation.
If Rabban Gamliel does allow wearing two pairs of tefillin, then, it is because—paradoxically, it might seem—he does not consider wearing tefillin to be necessary on Shabbat. Because wearing tefillin on Shabbat is not a mitzvah, it is therefore not a violation to wear more than one pair; according to Rabban Gamliel, it is simply like wearing an ornament, and there is no limit to the number of ornaments you can wear on Shabbat. The Gemara goes on to discuss the practical dimensions of the question: Is there, in fact, room, on one’s forehead and bicep for two tefillin? In the process, the rabbis lay down the rule for exactly where tefillin is to be bound: The head tefillin goes on the kadkod, which is defined as “the place where an infant’s skull is soft.”
Later in Chapter 10, the rabbis return to the much-discussed question of transferring objects between a public domain, a reshut harabim, and a private domain, a reshut hayachid. But the case in point this time is a surprising one. It is forbidden, the Mishnah holds on Eruvin 98b, to stand in a public domain and urinate into a private one, or vice versa (the person in question is presumably a man). The same holds of spitting. Then Rabbi Yehudah follows this logic to its natural conclusion: If saliva is an object that can be transferred between domains, doesn’t it follow that carrying it around in your mouth constitutes an act of carrying? Which means that if your mouth fills with saliva, you cannot go more than four amot in a public domain without spitting it out.
This has some unpleasant hygienic implications—one imagines a lot of spitting going on during Shabbat—but it also has some interesting logical ones. What the rabbis are really debating here, as is often the case, is not so much a point of behavior as one of essences, of definitions. What is an object, really—does it have to have a fixed shape and form, or does liquid count? At what point does saliva cease to be a part of one substance, the body, and become its own substance?
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