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Ancient Laws for Modern Times

When is a tent just a tent and not like a bed or a hat? To update Jewish laws, the rabbis reasoned by analogy.

Adam Kirsch
February 26, 2013

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

A good deal of the intellectual work involved in Tractate Shabbat, I have seen over the last several months, has to do with making analogies. As we have repeatedly observed, the 39 melachot, the kinds of work prohibited on Shabbat, are derived from the kinds of work performed by the Israelites during the construction of the Tabernacle, the mishkan. But the Jews of the first centuries CE, when the Mishnah and Talmud were being compiled, were living more than a millennium after the Exodus in a completely different social and technological milieu. They were not building tents in the desert; they were running tanneries and wineries, building houses, doing laundry, and carrying out all the day-to-day business of what was then a modern society. How could the example of the mishkan generate the whole range of laws and rules needed to govern this very different Jewish life?

If the rabbis were genuine legislators, this wouldn’t have been a problem: They could simply invent new laws to keep up with the times. But the rabbis of the Talmud are not law-makers. They are interpreters of already existing laws, both the written laws of the Torah and the Oral Law handed down over generations. Their job was to close the gaps between ancient laws and modern problems, a task that requires a particular kind of intellectual creativity. This is a creativity that is not, or can’t admit itself to be, originality. The rabbis always insist that the answers to problems are already present in the sources—biblical verses or Tannaitic rulings—and only need to be uncovered. What looks to a modern reader like Talmudic contortions of logic often has to do with the rabbis’ insistence on connecting a new case to an old precedent.

Analogy is one of the rabbis’ favorite ways of making such connections. A good example comes at the beginning of Chapter 20, which was covered in this week’s Daf Yomi reading. One of the prohibited melachot is making a tent. But what sorts of things, the rabbis ask, qualify as tents? According to Abaye, in Shabbat 138a, “With regard to a large wineskin, a wine strainer, a canopy hung over a bed, and a folding chair … one may not assemble them due to the prohibition against making a temporary tent.” None of these things are actually tents, but all of them involve suspending things from a point or unfolding fabric or creating shelter, which renders them in some sense tentlike.

This kind of analogy involves a great deal of ambiguity, which makes it fertile ground for rabbinic debate. We hear an apparently self-contradictory ruling from Rav, who first holds that “a bed is prohibited” and “a canopy is permitted” and then holds that “a canopy is prohibited and a bed is permitted.” The Gemara remarks that this is “not difficult,” which is its standard language for something that is, in fact, difficult. But the Gemara believes that the difficulty can be resolved. When Rav prohibited setting up a bed on Shabbat, he was referring to “beds like those of the Carmanians,” which were folding beds; unfolding a bed is too much like pitching a tent. When he permitted setting up a canopy, he meant a canopy that was already constructed before Shabbat and only needed its fabric sides to be opened up. Conversely, a bed that does not require folding is permitted on Shabbat, while a canopy that needs to be strung up is forbidden.

And the rabbis carry the tent analogies still further. Given the importance of hats to many sects of Hasidim, I was surprised to learn that it is prohibited on Shabbat to wear a hat whose brim is more than a handbreadth wide, because it is analogous to a tent. (The Koren edition’s notes explain that later authorities allowed more leniency on this point.) Rav Sheshet gives further grounds for banning hats on Shabbat: The hat may fly off in the wind, and the owner would be tempted to pick it up and carry it in a public domain, which is prohibited.

Focused on this detailed discussion, I found myself all the more shocked when, in Shabbat 138b, the Gemara relates a terrible prophecy: “Rav said: The Torah is destined to be forgotten from the Jewish people.” In the context of the Talmud, this has an apocalyptic sound. Torah, here, means not just the Pentateuch but the whole oral and written law, and all the interpretations of it, and the whole way of life it inspires. Did the rabbis really think all this could simply disappear? According to Rav, scripture predicts that it must. “And the Lord will make your plagues astonishing,” reads Deuteronomy, and the same word, “astonishment” (haflaah), appears in Isaiah in connection with “the wisdom of the wise and the understanding of the men of understanding.” Using a standard hermeneutic technique, Rav connects the two instances of the word: The astonishing plague will be a plague on wisdom and understanding, that is, on knowledge of Torah.

There was, in fact, a particular historical moment when this prediction seemed to be coming true—after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans, in 70 CE. Following this catastrophe, Yochanan ben Zakkai was given permission to start a school at Yavneh, and “When our Sages entered the vineyard in Yavneh,” we read in the Talmud, “they said: The Torah is destined to be forgotten.” Yet Yavneh is traditionally regarded as the origin of rabbinic Judaism, the religion that the Talmud created and codified. The fear of forgetting Torah led to the writing down of the Oral Law, something that had previously been taboo; under the threat of disappearance, Judaism reinvented itself. Two thousand years later, the Torah has still not been forgotten, though it is often read and lived today in ways that the rabbis of the Talmud would not have recognized.

Those sages, we go on to read in Chapter 20, had the very highest expectations of themselves. If Torah was God’s greatest gift to the world, and the rabbis were the guardians of Torah, then they bore a truly cosmic responsibility. Failure would have dire consequences not just for themselves, but for the Jewish people and even for the world as a whole. “Rabbi Yosei ben Elisha says: If you see a generation that many troubles are befalling it, go and examine the judges of Israel, as any calamity that comes to the world comes due to the judges of Israel acting corruptly.” God will not visit the Jewish people until their leaders are righteous: “The Holy One, Blessed be He, will not rest His Divine Presence on the Jewish people until evil judges and officers shall be eliminated from the Jewish people.”

This is, in a way, a reassuring message, since it grants the Jews a kind of autonomy. At a time when the Jews were politically under the sway of Rome and Persia and had little control over their own destiny, the Talmud assures them that the key to world history lies in their own behavior, their own leadership. Indeed, Jewish righteousness even has the power to abolish other religions: “Rav Pappa said: If the arrogant will cease to exist, the Persian fire priests will cease to exist as well.”

After these enormous claims, it is touching to read the rabbis’ advice, given in Shabbat 140b, to aspiring Torah students. The rabbis may have had the fate of the world in their hands, spiritually speaking, but in concrete terms they often seem to have had trouble finding enough to eat. “Rav Chisda said: A student of a Torah academy who buys vegetables should buy long ones.” The reasoning here is that vegetables were sold in bundles measured widthwise: “A bundle is a bundle, and they have a standard thickness at a standard price. However, the addition of length comes free.” Rav Chisda goes on to advise, “A student of a Torah academy who does not have much bread should not eat a vegetable, because it whets the appetite,” and “a student of a Torah academy who has no oil should wash with ditch water.” It is a remarkably concrete picture of scholarly poverty: To study Torah, for many students at least, meant genuine hunger and want. It’s a testament to the rabbis’ faith in Torah that this was considered a fair price to pay.

Finally, Rav Chisda’s litany of advice concludes with his words to his daughters about feminine behavior. “Do not eat bread before your husbands,” he warns, since a man will be disgusted at the sight of a woman’s gluttony. “Do not relieve yourself in the place where your husbands relieve themselves,” since a man must not be exposed to the fact that women also relieve themselves. Then comes an object lesson about sexual modesty. Rav Chisda held out one hand to his daughters, displaying a pearl, and hid something from them in his other hand. They begged and begged to see what it was, until he finally showed them that it was a clod of dirt. The message, in the Koren edition’s words: “A concealed object is more attractive than one on display, even if it is less valuable.” What Chisda’s daughters thought about being likened to clods of dirt is left to the reader to imagine.


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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.

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