Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.
Who wrote the Torah? The question arose in last week’s Daf Yomi reading, in a typically unexpected and elliptical fashion. The main subject of Chapter One of Tractate Bava Batra is the division of land between partners; last week we read about how co-owners of a field or a garden should go about building a wall to separate their areas. In Bava Batra 11a, the mishna goes on to specify that while a piece of land of any size can be divided by the mutual consent of the owners, the court cannot compel the division of a courtyard that is smaller than eight square cubits: “The court does not divide a courtyard unless there will be four cubits for this one and four cubits for that one.” Likewise, the court cannot order the division of a field unless each plot will be sufficient to plant nine kav of seed.
The basic principle is that “anything for which when it is divided, each of the parts is large enough to retain the name of the original item, the court divides it. But if the parts will not retain the original name, the court does not divide it.” This makes good sense: There is no point in dividing a field into pieces so small that they can’t serve the function of a field. Better an adequate shared space than an inadequate private one. Perhaps one could deduce from this a Talmudic teaching about privatization in general: A society should not privatize goods that are only useful when held in common. This would include things like roads and public transportation, as well as intangible goods like clean air and water. Indeed, the rabbis teach in Bava Batra 12a that if the public establishes a right of way, such as a path, on private property, the owner cannot seize it: “If the public has chosen a route for itself, what they have chosen is chosen.”
In the middle of this discussion, several pages are given over to the praise of charity, which, according to Rav Asi, is “equivalent to all the other mitzvot combined.” Rabbi Elazar goes even further, saying that “one who performs acts of charity in secret is greater than Moses our teacher.” The absolute centrality of charity, tzedakah, to Judaism is worth keeping in mind at a time when, according to news reports, the Trump administration is considering doing away with the tax deduction for charitable donations.
But charity, in the Talmud, is not just a matter of voluntary contributions; it is something closer to progressive taxation or wealth redistribution. Charity collectors are empowered to “seize collateral for the charity”—that is, to collect by force. Poor people are exempt from this, but rich people must give according to their means, as when “Rava compelled Rav Natan bar Ami and took 400 dinars from him for charity.” Similarly, in Bava Batra 7b, Rabbi Yochanan decrees that when a city is building a common defensive wall, it should not divide the cost equally between the citizens but “collect based on net worth,” with the rich paying more and the poor less. “Fix nails in this,” Yochanan added, to emphasize that this was an ironclad rule.
In addition to small plots of land, the mishna explains, another thing that cannot be divided is a scroll containing sacred writings. Even if both owners of the scroll want to divide it, they are not allowed to, since it would be disrespectful to the holy text. This statement leads, in the Gemara, to a discussion of how the Bible is to be written and organized. Is it allowed, for instance, to include all three parts of the Tanakh—the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings—in a single scroll? Rabbi Meir says yes, while Rabbi Yehuda says that each section should be a separate scroll. The Sages go even further, ruling that each individual book of the Prophets and Writings must be on a separate scroll. However, in practice, joining them into a single scroll is allowed, so long as each book is separated by four blank lines and the entire scroll has “enough empty parchment at the beginning for winding around the pole.”
As for the size of the scroll, the Gemara instructs that the height of a Torah should be equal to its circumference when rolled up. However, this seems physically impossible and is certainly not the way Torah scrolls are made today. A Torah is always taller than it is wide; the only way to avoid this would be to use a very squat piece of parchment. Indeed, the Gemara itself acknowledges that the requirement is seldom met: “Rav Huna wrote 70 Torah scrolls and it happened for him only once that the length and the circumference were equal.”
After discussing how to copy a Torah scroll, the Gemara moves on to the more interesting question of who wrote the Torah in the first place. The traditional Jewish answer, of course, is that Moses wrote it at the dictation of God. That is what the Talmud says in Bava Batra 15a: “The Holy One, Blessed be He, dictated and Moses repeated after him and wrote.” But the text of the Torah itself raises a problem for this idea, which is that after Moses’ death, the book of Deuteronomy continues for another eight verses. How could Moses have written a description of his own death? “Is it possible that after Moses died, he wrote ‘And Moses died there’?” asks the Gemara.
To avoid this absurdity, Rabbi Yehuda explains that the last eight verses of Deuteronomy were actually written by Joshua, Moses’ successor. This explains why, when the Torah is read aloud, those eight verses are always assigned to a single reader, not divided up. They form a natural unit because they came from Joshua’s hand. But Rabbi Shimon disagrees, suggesting instead that “the Holy One, blessed be He, dictated and Moses wrote with tears.” It is a beautiful, poetic image—Moses outlining the letters in his own tears, mourning his death in advance.
Actually, the Gemara goes on to point out, the problem of posthumousness is found in several books of the Bible. The Talmud’s basic principle is that most books of the Bible were written by their protagonists or namesakes: Joshua wrote the Book of Joshua, Samuel wrote the book of Samuel, Jeremiah wrote the book of Jeremiah. These same figures authored other books as well: Moses, the Gemara says, wrote the Book of Job in addition to the Torah, while Jeremiah wrote the Book of Kings and Lamentations. But many books, in addition to Deuteronomy, end by recording the deaths of their putative authors. To explain this, the Talmud says each was finished by another hand: Gad the seer and Nathan the prophet completed the Book of Samuel, while Pinehas completed the Book of Joshua. In this way, the Sages preserve the principle that the Bible was written by important figures named in the Bible itself.
The Book of Psalms is traditionally attributed to King David, but the Sages note that David did not write all 150 of the Psalms. Rather, he “wrote by means of 10 elders,” editing together their poems into a single collection. These elders include Abraham, Melchizedek, and even Adam himself. While the Talmud does not say which poems can be attributed to which author, this idea assumes that human beings back to the time of Adam spoke and wrote Hebrew—a theory that seems to contradict the Bible’s own story of the Tower of Babel. Still, the notion that Hebrew is the original language of humanity does reflect the Torah’s way of narrating the history of creation, as a line leading directly to Abraham and his covenant with God.
Adam Kirsch embarked on the Daf Yomi cycle of daily Talmud study in August, 2012. To catch up on Tablet’s complete archive of more than four years of columns, click here.
Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.