Navigate to Belief section

Bookends

In Tractate Bava Metzia, the Talmud emerges as the Jewish people’s timeless sanctuary

by
Dovid Bashevkin
June 26, 2024

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Whoever put on a tallis when he was young,” writes the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai, “will never forget it.”

Amichai’s moving Hebrew poem recalls so many of the memories associated with donning a tallis: the velvet bag, kissing the neckband, the “great swoop overhead like a sky, a wedding canopy, a parachute.” But you know what tallis imagery Amichai does not mention? People fighting over a tallis. And I don’t blame him. I don’t think I have ever seen two people fight over a tallis. I’ve seen fighting over toys, clothes, parking spots, but never—not once—over a tallis. But, strangely, that is precisely how Tractate Bava Metzia begins: two people fighting over a tallis, both claiming it belongs to them. Tractate Bava Metzia, which focuses on establishing ownership in Jewish law, chose a strange object to introduce the concept of contested ownership. Why a tallis and not, say, just a regular article of clothing, or even just an unnamed object? This, of course, is a deliberate choice, because Bava Metzia is about so much more than establishing ownership over mundane objects. It is about who owns the sacred tallis of Jewish life itself.

Most of Tractate Bava Metzia centers on the principles that establish ownership: the muchzak, the person who currently has possession of the item in question; kinyanim, methods of acquisition of an object; and the different evidentiary rules required to establish who owns what. One dispute that winds its way throughout the entire tractate is whether a contested item should be awarded to the muchzak (i.e., whoever has controlling possession), an opinion held by the rabbinic majority, or, as Rabbi Sumchos advocates, the item should be split. The soul of a tractate, however, does not just emerge from the laws contained within, but also the aggadic, meaning narrative or theological, texts. And inside Tractate Bava Metzia—for reasons, at first glance, that are not entirely clear—appears arguably the most famous story in the entire Talmud. It is the story of a dispute about an oven, known as the Tanur of Achnai, literally translated as the Oven of the Snake.

Here is the basic outline.

The story begins with an oven that is created by holding earthenware shards together with sand. Only a whole vessel can become contaminated, and the question at hand is whether this oven made with shards is considered a whole vessel. Rabbi Eliezer rules that such an oven is tahor, ritually pure, because it is not considered a whole vessel. The rabbis, however, rule that it is tamei, impure, since even though it is just shards held together with sand, it is still considered a whole object.

So far, so good! Then, the story gets weird.

Rabbi Eliezer tries to marshal support for his position by invoking miracles. “If the Halacha is in accordance with me, this carob tree will prove it,” Rabbi Eliezer says as the carob tree is miraculously uprooted from the ground. The rabbis are unimpressed. Next, Rabbi Eliezer causes the streams of a river to flow in the opposite direction. The rabbis remain unconvinced. “The walls of the Beit Medrash will prove I am correct,” says Rabbi Eliezer. As the walls began to cave in, another rabbi, Rabbi Yehoshua, scolds the inanimate walls to remain standing. The walls don’t collapse and neither does the stance of the rabbis. Finally, Rabbi Eliezer invokes his most incontrovertible proof. “If the Halacha is like me,” says Rabbi Eliezer, “the Heavens will prove it.” A heavenly voice emerges, affirming the law is in accordance with Rabbi Eliezer. The rabbis still do not budge: “The Torah is not in heaven!” Even with a heavenly voice, the rabbis do not change their minds. As this part of the story concludes, Elijah the Prophet is cited saying that as this debate was taking place, God smiled and said, nitzchuni banei, “my children have triumphed over me, my children have triumphed over me.”

Why does this story appear in Tractate Bava Metzia? At first glance, it seems to be about a dispute about the ritual purity laws of a vessel—hardly the topic of our tractate. Yet, upon closer examination, this story reframes the central theme of ownership that occupies our tractate: Who owns the Torah? Like the tallis, the traditions of the Torah are held by two parties: God and the Jewish people. Each grasping their corner of the Torah, tugging it in their direction, each saying it belongs to them. The Jewish people, however, are the muchzakim of Torah—the Torah is not in heaven, it is in our possession.

This is a powerful story often used in educational settings to highlight the power of rabbinic authority. Rabbis, the Talmudic passage seem to teach, can even overturn God’s will. I think the moral of the story is something else. It is not about superiority of rabbinic authority—the losing party, Rabbi Eliezer, was also a rabbi. Instead, this is a story about the nature of religious authority itself: top-down or bottom-up.

For much of Jewish history, the Jewish people, like Rabbi Eliezer, looked upward for prophetic revelation to know the proper way forward. Following the destruction of the Temple, the cessation of prophesy, and the disappearance of open miracles, the Jewish people were left adrift. Where should we turn now? Some continued to wait with their eyes trained toward the heavens, continuing to hope to hear a divine voice. Rabbinic law, however, is built on the central idea that even after the destruction of the Temple, even after the explicit divine voice has been muted, God has not abandoned the Jewish people—God speaks through the Jewish people. The collective body of the Jewish people, Knesset Yisrael, still possesses the divine word. Now however, the divine voice no longer emanates from the heavens—the Torah is not in heaven—but through the interpretive community of the Jewish people.

And without the explicit word of God, we are left only with the shards of revelation that each generation and each community piece together into the edifice we call Jewish life. Can mere shards reconstitute the wholeness of revelation? This is precisely the dispute between Rabbi Eliezer and the rabbis regarding the Oven of the Snake—itself built together from fragments to form a new whole. And, as the rabbis insist, even what is constructed through shards and remains can still embody the wholeness of a full vessel. Even without a clear divine voice, the shards of divinity that remain in this world can still create the fullness of Jewish life.

Each page of the Babylonian Talmud takes a different shard of revelation and builds castles of divine law. Where did the Jewish people derive this power? Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlop (1882-1951) shares a remarkable idea: Our interpretive power emanates from Babylonia itself. We are first introduced to Babylonia in the early chapters of the Torah, when the post-diluvian society attempts to build a tower that reaches the heavens. Seemingly, they planned on fighting God Himself, so to speak. “How could those who built the Tower of Babel,” asks Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlop, “think they could fight God in heaven?” They sensed, he explains, the eventual unfolding of Talmud Bavli wherein we can argue with God and emerge victorious. And, as the story of the oven teaches us, each successive generation of the Jewish people continue to build Talmudic towers that can reach the heavens.

At the heart of Tractate Bava Metzia is the very purpose of the Babylonian Talmud: reclaiming ownership of the lost shards of revelation. The very canonization of the Talmud is discussed in our tractate. “Ravina and Rav Ashi,” the Talmud says, “are the end of Talmudic transmission.” The precise meaning of this passage has been debated by scholars—there are clearly rabbis mentioned in the Talmud who lived after Ravina and Rav Ashi—but the Talmud adds a very strange mnemonic to remember this fact. As elucidated by Sefaria, the Talmud adds:

And your mnemonic to remember that Rav Ashi and Ravina redacted the Talmud is the verse: “Until I entered into the sanctuary [mikdashei] of God, and considered [avina] their end” (Psalms 73:17). The sanctuary, mikdashei, alludes to Rav Ashi, while the term avina alludes to Ravina, which is a contraction of Rav Avina. The phrase: Their end, is interpreted as a reference to the redacting of the Talmud.

Yes, it’s cute that Rav Ashi’s name sounds like the word mikdashei, my sanctuary, and Ravina’s name sounds like the word avina, meaning considered, but there is more to this mnemonic than meets the eye. The verse in Psalms cited in the mnemonic tells the story of the search for divine justice in a world where the wicked live with great prosperity. What’s the point of being good, asks the Psalmist, if bad people have such good lives? So, the Psalmist goes to the Temple, the Sanctuary, to better understand the afterlife and the purpose of living in this world. And it is within this search in the Sanctuary that the Talmud finds allusions for the names of Ravina and Rav Ashi. This is more than a clever mnemonic: The Talmud is sharing the very purpose of Talmud study. We no longer have a Sanctuary and since its destruction, it is unclear where to turn to discover divine purpose in this world. The answer, the Talmud suggests, is that we do, in fact, still have a Sanctuary. Our Sanctuary is no longer built with stones in Jerusalem but endures through the very words and wisdom of the Talmud, the project of Ravina and Rav Ashi. Eternity endures in the towering edifice of the Talmud, linking together our individual lives with the symposium of generations of Knesset Yisrael, the collective and immortal body of the Jewish people. God still speaks, but no longer from a Sanctuary but through the pages.

Which brings us back to Tractate Bava Metzia. It begins with a dispute over a tallis. This one says all of it is mine, and the other person says all of it is mine. We are still involved in this cosmic tug-of-war, trying to assert ownership of the precious tallis of Jewish life. And like a tallis, Torah itself, to quote Yehuda Amichai’s description, begins as a game of hide-and-seek, wrapping our entire bodies within it, “snuggling into it like the cocoon of a butterfly, then opening would-be wings to fly.” And then the poem asks:

And why is the tallis striped and not checkered black and white
like a chessboard? Because squares are finite and hopeless.
Stripes come from infinity and to infinity they go
like airport runways where angels land and take off
Whoever has put on a tallis will never forget.

And so it is with the lines of the Talmud. Each line of Talmud is a runway, a sanctuary to eternity, reminding us what is really worth owning in this short life. And as God sees us snuggled tight in the shards of His words, He smiles. Nitzchunei banei, my children have defeated me, for they have found nitzchiyus, eternity. And nothing brings a parent greater joy than the continuity of their children. Netzach Yisrael lo Yishaker, the eternity of the Jewish people is irrefutable, whoever has opened a Talmud, will surely never forget.

הדרן עלך מסכת בבא מציעא והדרך עלן

Dovid Bashevkin is the Director of Education at NCSY and author of Sin·a·gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought. He is the founder of 18Forty, a media site exploring big Jewish questions. His Twitter feed is @DBashIdeas.

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.