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First-Century Technology

When new inventions made widespread sinning the norm, ancient rabbis adapted. The Talmud’s God approved.

Adam Kirsch
November 13, 2012
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine)

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

American Judaism has been profoundly shaped by the challenges that arise when technology and Jewish law intersect. Take, for instance, the rise of the suburbs in the postwar period. All at once, a new legal question became urgent: Was it permissible for a Jew to drive to synagogue on Shabbat? For the Orthodox, the answer was no, for the traditional reasons I have been exploring in Tractate Shabbat: Operating a car involved one (or several) of the 39 categories of prohibited work. For many Conservative synagogues, on the other hand, the answer was yes, less by deduction than by default. Their rabbis knew that to prohibit driving would be to cut off attendance.

This week’s Daf Yomireading showed that such dilemmas are not unique to the 20th century. Much of the Talmudic discussion was focused on a kind of oven called a kirah, and dealt with the question of whether it was permissible to take advantage of a kirah’s heat on Shabbat—a matter on which several rabbis gave conflicting rulings. In Shabbat 38b, however, we learn that—just like today, with inventions like the Shabbat elevator—the prohibition on one kind of technology gave rise to clever work-arounds. If it is forbidden to cook an egg on Shabbat, the Mishnah asks, is it all right to place an egg next to a hot kettle in order to roast it slightly? What about leaving cloths in the sun to get hot and then using that heat to fry an egg, or burying the egg in hot sand?

All these methods take advantage of the distinction the rabbis draw between cooking with fire, which is prohibited on Shabbat, and cooking using the heat of the sun, which is permitted. Even so, the Mishnah rules that these techniques are prohibited, and the Gemara supplies the reasons. Cooking with a hot cloth might lead observers to think that one had used fire to heat the cloth and thus encourage them to violate the Sabbath. (This kind of reasoning, where an action is judged by its potential to mislead, is common in Talmudic discussions.) Cooking with hot sand, Rabbah similarly argues, might lead an onlooker to think that one is cooking with hot ash from a fire.

But then comes a more interesting problem—interesting both for its technological implications and for the way the rabbis resolve it. This is the case of the aqueduct in the city of Tiberias. “There was an incident in which the people of Tiberias went ahead and ran a pipe of cold water into a canal of hot water,” so that the cold water would be heated on the Sabbath. “The Sages said to them: If water flowed through the pipe on the Sabbath, it is like hot water that was heated manually on the Sabbath, and is forbidden for both bathing and drinking.”

A few pages later, however, in Shabbat 40a, we learn that a related ruling actually had to be suspended, for the simple reason that the citizens of Tiberias refused to obey it. Bathing in public baths was a common practice throughout the Roman world, including Roman Palestine. In keeping with the reasoning described above, the Sages forbade using a bath in which water was heated on the Sabbath, but they permitted bathing in the Tiberian hot springs, which were naturally heated. (The reasoning seems to be that the hot springs did not fall into the same category as the Tiberian aqueduct, which used human labor and ingenuity to heat cold water.)

“However,” the Gemara explains, “people would still bathe in water that was heated by fire, and when apprehended, would say, ‘We actually bathed in the Tiberian hot-springs!’ ” To counter this abuse, “The Sages forbade [the people] to bathe in the waters of the Tiberian hot-springs and allowed them only to bathe in cold water. However, when the Sages saw that this broad injunction could not be sustained, they once again allowed them to bathe in the waters of the Tiberian hot-springs.”

The change came about, a Baraita explains, because “sinners proliferated.” But one might also say that this was an example of popular sovereignty in action. The rabbis function as judges and legislators for the Jewish people, but when a particular edict is rejected by the whole body of the people, their veto must stand. Is this so different from Conservative Jews insisting on driving to synagogue on Shabbat—another case when “sinners” proliferated so much that the sin became a new norm?

Several times in my reading, I’ve had occasion to wonder about this kind of tension between the common people and the rabbinic elite—as when the Talmud discussed the am haaretz, the unlearned and unobservant common man. That conflict came into sharp focus in this week’s reading, in Shabbat 33b, where the Talmud tells the legend of Rabbi Shimon. The story goes that once, while talking with Shimon, Rabbi Yehudah made an admiring comment about Roman civilization: “How admirable are the deeds of this nation! They have established marketplaces, they have established bridges, and they have established bathhouses!” This tribute to Roman achievements was perhaps justified—we still marvel at the ruins of those bridges and baths—but it came oddly from a rabbi living in the aftermath of the Roman devastation of Judea.

Shimon responded, piously and patriotically, that Roman achievements were actually disgraceful: “Everything they established, they established only to serve their own needs. They established marketplaces to quarter harlots therein; bathhouses in order to beautify their own bodies; and bridges in order to collect tolls.” These critical words were reported to the authorities, and Shimon was sentenced to death, whereupon he fled into the wilderness and hid in a cave. For 12 years, he and his son Elazar lived in the cave, sustained by a miraculously created carob tree, studying Torah while buried up to their necks in sand. Finally, the prophet Elijah came and informed them that Caesar had died and the sentence on Shimon had been lifted.

So far, Shimon’s persecution and piety are the familiar stuff of miracle tales. (Christians were telling similar stories about their saints at just the same time.) The interesting twist comes when Shimon leaves the cave and sees ordinary Jews going about their business, plowing and sowing crops. “These people,” he raged, “are forsaking the life of the World to Come and occupying themselves with the transitory life!” To someone who had just spent a dozen years living on miraculous food and studying Torah, even the regular activity of earning a living seemed blasphemous. So holy and so enraged were Shimon and Elazar that everyone they looked at “would immediately be incinerated.” Finally, “a heavenly voice rang out and proclaimed to them: ‘Have you emerged from seclusion in order to destroy My world? Return to your cave!’ ”

The tale seems to communicate a certain resigned wisdom about piety and the common Jew. To expect everyone to be as holy as Shimon is a grave mistake: God himself does not want or expect so much holiness from the average Jew, and he deplores the rage and arrogance that would punish such a Jew for being average. In the end, after another year in their cave, Shimon and his son emerge chastened: “My son,” Shimon says, “the world has enough total devotees of Torah study in you and me alone.” There must be, the Talmud suggests, a hierarchy of piety and observance. Shimon may be on top, but it’s not necessary, or possible, for everyone to join him there.

Finally, Shimon’s story also offers an interesting sidelight on the way the rabbis measure Torah knowledge. Before he entered the cave, the Gemara explains, Shimon would pose a legal question and Rabbi Pinchas would respond with 12 possible solutions. But after his years of isolated study, Shimon was able to provide 24 possible answers to every question of Pinchas’.

This is deeply counter-intuitive, for our usual expectation is that every question has one correct answer. Shimon, we might think, ought to be able to find out what that answer is, just as a good judge delivers the one correct verdict and a good scientist comes up with the one correct result. But in the Talmud, on the contrary, it is the power to multiply possibilities, to see more facets of every question, which demonstrates real Torah knowledge. This is what comes from seeing Torah study not as a means to an end, but as an end in itself—an activity that can fill not just 12 years in a cave, but an entire lifetime, and the whole World to Come.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.