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The Talmud as Fossil Record of Ancient, Everyday Jewish Life and Idioms

In this week’s ‘Daf Yomi’ study, why vows are hardly sacred, and why circumcision is the most glorious of rituals

Adam Kirsch
June 30, 2015
Main image: National Park Service
Main image: National Park Service
Main image: National Park Service
Main image: National Park Service

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

What did it mean for a Talmudic-era Jew to take a vow to God? This is not the kind of question the Talmud ever asks explicitly: When the rabbis discuss vowing, in Tractate Nedarim, they are concerned with practical details rather than psychological motivations. Still, in the course of learning about these practicalities—what words can be used in a vow, how vows are made and dissolved—it’s possible to glimpse the role that vows played in ordinary Jewish life. Vows, as we have seen for the last several weeks of Daf Yomi reading, are treated very skeptically by the rabbis. They do not encourage Jews to take vows or oaths to God; on the contrary, the Talmud sees vowing as regrettable, impulsive behavior, usually motivated by anger or spite. But precisely this disapproval suggests that, in vowing, we are looking at a spontaneous kind of folk practice—the way Jews actually behaved in ancient Palestine and Babylon, rather than the way they were told to behave. This gap between religious expectation and lived reality is one of the themes that interests me most in reading the Talmud, perhaps because American Judaism today is so defined by it.

This week, the rabbis’ discussion of vowing revolved around a number of idioms that were apparently commonplace in vows. Like a fossil leaf in a stone, these pieces of everyday language are preserved in the Mishna, showing how our ancestors talked when they got mad 2,000 years ago. Today, people tend to use expressions like “I swear” or “I’ll be damned” thoughtlessly, not intending them to be actual vows or promises to God; and reading the Talmud, one gets the impression that Talmudic-era Jews were often no more serious in their vows. Why else would they resort to expressions of such obvious hyperbole? Under what circumstances, for instance, would it make sense for someone to vow “that he will not derive benefit from people who live on dry land”? As the rabbis point out, this category includes more or less everyone in the world.

You might think that sailors would be an exception, since they spend much of their time on the water. But the law makes clear that “he is also prohibited from deriving benefit from seafarers,” since even they make their permanent homes on land. Such a vow, then, amounts to saying that you will never have anything to do with anyone—an obviously impossible promise, and therefore a meaningless one. If, on the other hand, you vow not to derive benefit from sailors specifically, then you must shun them, though you can still do business with land-lubbers. (For this purpose, the Mishna makes clear, a “seafarer” means someone who undertakes long sea journeys, and not “those that travel by ship from Akko to Jaffa,” a relatively short distance along the Mediterranean coast.) Here too, however, it’s hard to imagine a good reason for vowing not to have anything to do with sailors—except maybe if you’ve just been insulted or injured by a sailor and take the vow in a moment of passion.

Other common vows, enumerated in Nedarim 30 and the following pages, are just as hyperbolic. We hear about vows “not to derive benefit from those who see the sun,” “from those who have dark heads,” and even “from those that are born.” In each case, the rabbis understand that these are simply colloquial expressions meaning “everyone,” not specific classes of individuals. Thus they explain that if you swear not to derive benefit from those who see the sun, you cannot then derive benefit from the blind, as if they were not included in your vow; for what the expression really means is “all those that the sun sees,” that is, everyone. The only creatures who can be said not to “see the sun” are fish, which live underwater, and fetuses, which are inside the womb; and so it is permitted to deal with them, though exactly how you might live solely among fish and fetuses goes unexplained.

Again, “those who have dark heads” is taken by the rabbis to mean, not simply people with brown or black hair—which would be a bizarre classification of people to disavow—but everyone. (I suppose that, for Jews in the ancient Near East, just about everyone they met would indeed have dark hair.) Thus if a person is bald, or if his hair has gone white, he is not an exception to the vow; these people too must be forsworn. However, “those with dark heads” apparently does not include women or children, because “only men are called ‘dark heads.’ ” The Gemara struggles to give a reason for this, suggesting that it is because only men sometimes cover their hair and sometimes uncover it, while women’s hair is always covered and children’s never is. But this doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the color of the hair, and one has the feeling that the Amoraim are offering an ex post facto explanation for what is in fact just an idiomatic expression.

American Judaism today is defined by the gap between religious expectation and lived reality.

As for swearing never to have to do with “those that are born,” here the rabbis debate how expansively the vow is to be read. Does “those that are born” also include “those who will be born” after the time of the vow? Or does it apply only to every person and animal already existence at the time the vow was made? Rabbi Meir takes a literal approach: If you vow not to benefit from those who will be born, you can benefit from those who were already born, and vice versa. The rabbis, however, again follow the colloquial understanding of the phrase: “He intended ‘one whose nature is to be born,’ ” which means everyone, regardless of the time of birth. The only creatures excluded from such a vow are those who are not born but hatched—that is, non-mammals like fish and birds. Here, too, it’s hard to imagine how a person might live under such restrictions. This seems like a case where the vower would hurry to make use of one of the many rabbinical justifications for dissolving vows, for instance, that this was a vow of exaggeration.

More interesting, because less blindly universal, are vows not to benefit from either Jews as a whole or gentiles as a whole. Apparently, it was not uncommon for a Jew to get so exasperated with other Jews that he swore not to have anything to do with them anymore. Such a person would use expressions like “those who rest on Shabbat,” “the offspring of Abraham,” or “those who are circumcised.” Each of these, the Talmud explains, means all Jews, with no exception for, say, a Jew who for some medical reason was not circumcised, or a Jew who fails to observe Shabbat. Contrariwise, if you forswear “those who are uncircumcised,” you are taken to mean all gentiles, with no exception for a non-Jew who happens to be circumcised. That is because, the rabbis explain, “uncircumcised is used only to name the nations of the world,” that is, the nations other than Israel.

This brief mention of circumcision allows the Talmud to pivot into a series of edifying sayings about the importance of the brit milah. The foreskin, says Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya, is a “repulsive” thing, which is why God removes it from Jews and leaves it on gentiles, who are “disgraced” by it. Other rabbis say that circumcision is more important than Shabbat, since after all it is permitted to violate Shabbat in order to perform a circumcision. In the Gemara, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha brings up the famously weird episode from Exodus 4, where God tries to kill Moses and is dissuaded when Zipporah circumcises their son and touches Moses’ feet with the bloody foreskin. As the rabbi says: “So great is circumcision that all the merits of Moses our teacher … did not protect him when he was negligent about circumcision.” On this reading, the reason for God’s attack on Moses—which is never explicit in the Bible itself—is that Moses was slow in having his son circumcised; and it was Zipporah’s quick fulfillment of the mitzvah that saved her husband.

But it is Yehuda HaNasi who plays the trump card: “So great is circumcision that if not for it, the Holy One, blessed be he, would not have created his world.” In the Gemara, other rabbis dispute this point, suggesting that surely the Torah itself was the justification for the world. But one does not get the sense that a serious theological discussion is intended here. Rather, the rabbis are competing with each other to use scripture verses to glorify a Jewish ritual—one that historically set Jews apart from many of the peoples around them. Interestingly, no one in this Talmud discussion brings up the justification for circumcision that Maimonides, rightly or wrongly, would offer—that it dampens sexual pleasure and therefore helps to liberate Jewish men from the bonds of sexual desire. For the rabbis, apparently, circumcision was no handicap.


To read Tablet’s complete archive of Daf Yomi Talmud study, click here.

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