Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.
Anyone who reads the Talmud—as Daf Yomi readers have been doing for the last five years—will eventually start to wonder about the logic of its organization. The Talmud is divided into orders, sedarim, which in turn are divided into tractates, masekhtot, and each tractate contains a number of chapters, perakim. But at each level of organization, there are anomalies—moments when it is not clear why the rabbis chose to address this subject matter in this place. Thus the name of Seder Nashim suggests that it will focus on laws relating to women, as it does in the tractates about marriage and divorce; it also contains tractate Nedarim, which deals with vow-taking, a seemingly unrelated topic. Within tractates there is even more variety, because the rabbis will frequently break off their discussion of the main subject to teach unrelated laws that happen to come from the same Tannaitic source, or that follow a similar logical pattern. As a result, it’s impossible to use the titles of the tractates as a reliable guide to their contents. If you want to know about, say, the laws of temple sacrifices, or of Shabbat, or of ritual purity, you have to look in many different places, not just in the tractates nominally devoted to those subjects.
The beginning of Tractate Shevuot, which Daf Yomi readers started last week, is one of the rare places where the Talmud wonders explicitly about its own organization. In the order of tractates, Shevuot follows Sanhedrin, which deals with capital crimes, and Makkot, which discusses crimes punishable by lashes or exile. The main subject matter of Shevuot is the taking of oaths—that’s the meaning of the word shevuot—and in its later chapters, we will learn about the oaths administered to witnesses in court. This explains why Shevuot is in Seder Nezikin, following Sanhedrin, which laid out court procedures and the laws of witnesses. It also answers the question of why Shevuot does not follow Nedarim, the tractate devoted to personal vows, even though the subjects of oaths and vows might seem to belong together. The vows in Nedarim were voluntary and had to do with making gratuitous promises to God (which the rabbis generally discourage), while the oaths in Shevuot are part of court procedure.
Yet while the first word of Shevuot is “shevuot,” the first chapter turns out to discuss oaths barely at all. The Mishna begins by stating, “There are two oaths that are four”—a typically condensed and cryptic Talmudic statement, which the Koren Talmud helpfully unpacks by means of expansion and paraphrase. In Leviticus 5, we learn that there are certain transgressions for which the sinner atones by bringing a sacrifice in accordance with his means: A rich man offers up a goat or a lamb, while a poor man offers pigeons or flour meal. (From this we might deduce the principle of progressive taxation.) These are sins committed in what the rabbis call “a lapse of awareness”—that is, when the sinner doesn’t realize that the thing he is doing is illegal. American law has the principle that “ignorance of the law is no excuse,” but in Jewish law much depends on intention. Indeed, as we have seen, a person cannot be convicted of a capital crime unless he was specifically warned in advance not only that he was about to commit a crime, but also what the punishment would be.
Among the crimes that can be committed during a lapse of awareness is violating an oath. The Torah specifies two kinds of oaths: positive, an oath to do something; and negative, an oath to refrain from doing something. Both of these promises have to do with future behavior; but the rabbis explain that, in addition, the law applies to oaths about actions performed or not performed in the past. Thus a witness in court might swear to tell the truth in the testimony he is about to give—an oath about the future—and also swear that he did or didn’t witness a certain incident—an oath about the past. This is what the Mishna means by “there are two oaths that are four”: While the Torah only explicitly mentions positive and negative oaths about the future, it also encompasses positive and negative oaths about the past.
Rather than pursue this subject, however, the Mishna goes on to list unrelated laws that happen to follow the same rhetorical pattern. Thus we learn there are two ways of defiling the temple that are actually four, and two types of carrying on Shabbat that are actually four, and two kinds of leprous marks that are actually four. The Mishna only makes these curt, uninformative statements, leaving it to the rabbis of the Gemara to explain what they actually mean. In the case of the temple, we are once again dealing with sins committed in “a lapse of awareness.” The Torah mentions two ways that a person could defile the temple, by entering its grounds while in a state of ritual impurity or by eating consecrated offerings while in a state of ritual impurity. If one does either of these things without being conscious that he is ritually impure, he is liable to bring a sliding-scale offering of the kind described in Leviticus 5. Yet the rabbis observe that there are two additional kinds of unconscious sin possible here because one might be unaware that he is entering the temple grounds or that the food he is eating is consecrated. Thus here, too, two types of sin that are really four. Similar explanations are given with regard to Shabbat carrying and the marks of leprosy.
But the Gemara begins, in Shevuot 2b, by asking an organizational question—one of the rare moments in the Talmud when the rabbis themselves sound uncertain about its structure. Why are we hearing about all these “twos are that are fours” now? What is the relationship between this material and the end of the preceding tractate Makkot? The rabbis find an ingenious answer. Toward the end of Makkot, we learned that a Jewish man is prohibited from shaving his beard. This is a single prohibition in the Torah, but the rabbis say that one who violates it is subject to double punishment, receiving one set of lashes for each side of his face. Here is a case of one sin that is really two; thus it is natural for Shevuot to begin by teaching two sins that are really four.
Still, the Gemara acknowledges, one might wonder why the different kinds of two-that-are-four are taught in a single group, rather than each being taught in the appropriate tractate. Why do we learn about carrying on Shabbat here rather than in tractate Shabbat, and about leprous marks here rather than in tractate Negaim, the section devoted to leprosy? The answer is not totally satisfying. The Mishna began with oaths because this is a tractate about oaths. As we saw, the Torah law about accidental violation of an oath is found in Leviticus 5; and the law about unintentionally defiling the Temple is found in the same passage because both require a sliding-scale offering of atonement. Both of these issues follow the pattern of “two that are four,” and, the Gemara concludes, “once it taught two, it taught all of them”—that is, all the laws that take the form of “two that are four.” And why, if the subject of Shevuot is oaths, are the first two chapters largely devoted to defiling the Temple? Because, the Gemara explains, defiling the temple involves “few” details, while oaths involve “numerous” details; so the rabbis got the shorter subject out of the way before proceeding to the more complicated one. These may not be the most convincing explanations, but they are enough to settle the rabbis’ own doubts about the Talmud’s organization.
Adam Kirsch embarked on the Daf Yomi cycle of daily Talmud study in August 2012. To catch up on the complete archive, click here.
Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.