One of the things about the Talmud that takes most getting used to is the way it is organized—or, as it often seems, disorganized. While each tractate and chapter has a central focus, there are constant digressions, sometimes leading to totally unrelated subjects. This is one reason why mastery of the Talmud requires a prodigious memory: Simply knowing where in the vast text to look for a relevant passage is very challenging. It also explains why Jewish sages often devoted their energies to producing systematic law codes, such as the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides and the Shulkhan Arukh of Joseph Caro, which rearrange the Talmud’s laws in more logical and usable form.
The reason why digressions are so common in the Talmud is that it began as an oral tradition, not a written text—a vast memorized accumulation of the debates held in the Babylonian academies. What look like digressions on the page usually served some mnemonic purpose. The appearance of a certain sage’s name, for instance, might trigger the recollection of his opinions on different subjects. Often, the common principle is grammatical: When a teaching that takes a certain verbal form arises in the Gemara, the sages will recount other, unrelated laws that happen to follow the same pattern.
Chapter 2 of Tractate Arakhin, which Daf Yomi readers studied last week, is a perfect example. This tractate deals with vows of valuation, in which a person promises to donate to the priests a sum of money equivalent to the value of himself or another person. This value, as we saw last week, is established in Leviticus on a sliding scale whose key variables are age and gender—ranging from 3 shekels for a girl under the age of 5 to 50 shekels for a man in the prime of life.
But what happens, the mishna asks in Arakhin 7b, if you take a vow of valuation but don’t have enough money to pay it? The answer is that a person can discharge his vow of valuation with as little as 1 sela—the coin that was the Talmudic-era equivalent of the biblical shekel. “One cannot be charged for a valuation less than a sela nor more than 50 sela,” the mishna says. In other words, if you take a vow that would obligate you to pay 50 sela and you only have one, you can give that one and your obligation is satisfied; if you later come into more money, you don’t have to make up the difference. If, however, you pay less than 1 sela, it is as if you have done nothing, since 1 sela is the minimum acceptable payment. If you later become rich, then, you are obligated to pay the full 50 sela.
This law establishes a minimum and a maximum, using the verbal for “neither less than X nor more than Y.” And for the next several pages, the rabbis compile a series of mishnayot on completely unrelated subjects that happen to use that same verbal form. The first example, in Arakhin 8a, has to do with menstruation: “Alleviation does not occur in fewer than seven days nor in more than 17 days.”
“Alleviation,” in this context, has to do with the uncertain status of a woman’s ritual purity when she has a discharge of blood but doesn’t know whether she is menstruating. Ordinarily, a woman is tamei, and so forbidden to have sexual relations with her husband, for seven days starting from the first sign of menstruation. After seven days, if she has stopped bleeding, she can immerse in a ritual bath and become pure again. If, however, a woman starts to bleed during the 11 days following the end of the menstrual period, she is categorized as a zava, a status that carries its own kind of ritual impurity, and requires another period of abstention followed by immersion in a ritual bath.
Accordingly, if a woman doesn’t know whether her bleeding is the beginning of her menstrual cycle or not, she must combine both periods of abstention: six days until the end of the menstrual cycle, followed by 11 days to make sure she is not a zava. This is how the rabbis reach the formula stated in the mishna: She returns to ritual purity after a minimum of seven days and a maximum of 17 days.
The next example of this formula has to do with tzaraat, a skin condition that is traditionally translated as “leprosy,” though it is not the disease modern medicine knows by that name. Indeed, it is not exactly a disease at all, since Leviticus holds that houses and garments, as well as people, can be afflicted with tzaraat. The presence of this condition is revealed by certain repellent marks—sores or boils in people, moldy or discolored patches in objects.
When a person or thing is diagnosed with tzaraat, it must be quarantined to avoid spreading the condition, and the length of the quarantine varies: “There is no quarantine that is less than one week and none greater than three weeks.” The Gemara explains that a person is quarantined for one week, while a house needs three weeks. Rav Pappa goes on to compare this distinction to a phrase from Psalms: “Your benevolence is like the mighty mountains, your judgments are like the great deep.” It is a sign of God’s benevolence, Rav Pappa suggests, that a person requires a shorter quarantine than a house.
The last and most intriguing example of “minimum and maximum” comes in Arakhin 10a, where the mishna discusses the orchestra that accompanied the recitation of prayers and psalms in the Temple: “The Levites do not use fewer than two lyres and do not use more than six. They do not use fewer than two flutes and do not use more than 12.” The mishna goes on to note that “one would not play with a copper flute; rather, one would play with a flute of reed, because its sound is more pleasant.” The Gemara speculates about other instruments used in the Temple: One such instrument, we read, was the magreifa, which was 1 cubit wide and 1 cubit tall and was capable of producing 100 different tones—or 1,000, depending on which source you trust. Here as often in the Talmud’s recollections of the Temple, longing and nostalgia seem to result in exaggeration—or, as Keats put it 1,500 years later, “Heard melodies are sweet, but those unheard/Are sweeter.”
Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.