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In the Talmud’s Timeless Laws, a Vast Temple of the Mind

Long after the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed, Talmudic rabbis kept it alive in their imaginations, and ours

Adam Kirsch
June 25, 2013
(Collage Tablet Magazine; original image Library of Congress)
(Collage Tablet Magazine; original image Library of Congress)

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

When is a law not a law? As we learned this week at the end of Tractate Eruvin, the answer is: when obeying the law might interfere with the Temple service. Temple service, in this context, does not mean a prayer service at a synagogue, even though we sometimes call our synagogues temples. Rather, it means the schedule of sacrifices and prayers in the Temple, the one that stood in Jerusalem for almost a thousand years, before it was destroyed for good in the year 70 C.E. The Talmud, which was compiled some 400 years after that destruction, is in essence a vast textual replacement for the Temple—a structure of laws and practices to replace the physical structure where Jews once worshipped God.

Yet as the last few pages of Eruvin show, the memory of the Temple remains vivid in the Talmud. In Eruvin 102a, the Mishnah discusses which kinds of locks and bolts may be used to fasten doors on Shabbat. When a door has a bolt “that drags”—that is, a bolt tied to a door with a cord so long that the bolt rests on the ground—one may not use it to lock the door on Shabbat. That is, one may not do so in the medina, “the provinces,” which is anyplace outside the Temple grounds. But in the Temple, “one may lock with it.” What is the reason for this distinction?

The answer seems to be that the Temple, geographically a tiny area, is metaphysically on another plane from the rest of the world. As the notes to the Schottenstein Edition of the Talmud explain, “The Rabbis suspended their decrees where they interfere with the Temple service.” The Temple enjoys a kind of extra-territoriality, the way an embassy obeys not the laws of the country where it resides but the laws of the country it belongs to. In the same way, the work of the Temple is governed by God’s rules, not the rules of the rabbis.

This becomes clear in a series of mishnayot on the following pages, which list various actions that are ordinarily forbidden but that are permitted in the Temple. If the bottom hinge of a door comes off on Shabbat, for instance, it is usually forbidden to reattach it. As the Gemara explains, this is one of those precautionary rules instituted by the rabbis to stop people from violating Shabbat directly. In this case, the rabbis were afraid that if they allowed people to reattach a fallen hinge, they would use a hammer to do it; and striking with a hammer is one of the 39 categories of labor forbidden on Shabbat. In the Temple, however, this concern was suspended—presumably, because the priests of the Temple would know better than to use a hammer. The precautions needed to keep the people in line could be relaxed for the elite.

Further examples follow. If the dressing of a wound falls off on Shabbat, ordinarily it cannot be reapplied. Once again, this is a precautionary measure. What the rabbis are really worried about is not reapplying the dressing itself, but the chance that, while doing so, a person would smooth the bandage out, which would be an instance of another forbidden labor, “smoothing.” In the Temple, by contrast, it is allowed to reapply a bandage. It is reassuring to know, however, that if the bandage falls off of its own accord, then it is all right to put it back on. This qualifies as an “unusual occurrence,” and the rabbis do not legislate on the basis of unusual occurrences.

Another example involves the animals sacrificed in the Temple. To be acceptable, these had to be perfect and unblemished. What to do, then, if the priest encountered an animal with a wart? Ordinarily, he would cut it off with a knife; on Shabbat, however, such cutting would be considered a variety of “shearing wool,” a forbidden labor. But as we have seen in Tractate Shabbat, doing something in an unusual fashion is usually enough to exempt it from the Shabbat prohibitions. Thus, if the priest in the Temple used his hands to remove a wart—not a pleasant procedure to think about—it would be permitted.

In the discussion that follows, the Gemara gives a striking example of the same logic at work. Just as an animal has to be free of blemishes to be sacrificed, so the priest doing the sacrifice has to be unblemished. What if, on Shabbat, a wart appears on his body? Then, the rabbis advise, “his friend may cut it off with his teeth.” Slicing off the wart would, again, be forbidden labor, but by varying the technique to biting, it becomes “unusual” and therefore permitted.

But why, the Gemara goes on to ask, is it the priest’s friend that must bite off his wart? Why can’t he bite it off himself? Here the rabbis give two possible answers. According to Rabbi Eliezer, biting a growth off of one’s own body is forbidden on Shabbat, so getting a friend to do it is another instance of finding an “unusual” method. But the rabbis disagree with Eliezer. They do not believe that there’s anything wrong with biting off your own wart. Instead, they hold, the rule is purely pragmatic: If the wart appears on a part of the priest’s body that he can’t reach with his teeth, such as his back, then he should ask a friend to bite it for him.

All of this is remarkable, not just for its attention to detail, but because of the way the rabbis of the Talmud think about the Temple. There is no acknowledgment, in the cases of the bandage, the wart, and the hinge, that these rules apply to a Temple that does not exist. At the time the Gemara was being composed, the Temple had been gone for three centuries; most of the sages of Babylonia had never even seen the spot where it stood. Yet they continued to legislate for the Temple, to reconcile their own rules with the Temple’s rules, as if it existed in the present tense.

Were the rabbis looking forward to a time—after the Messiah came, perhaps—when the Temple would rebuilt? If so, they were demonstrating a powerful confidence, not just in God’s providence, but in the importance and value of their own lawmaking. Even in that miraculous future, when the Temple was finally restored by God’s hand, the laws of the Talmud would still be in force. They might be applied differently within the Temple itself, but in the provinces—that is, everywhere else—the rabbis’ rules would continue to govern.

The Talmud, in other words, exists in a kind of virtual time, both inside and outside of history. Its laws apply to a perpetual present, in which neither the destruction nor the rebuilding of the Temple have taken place. I was reminded of this sublime suspension of time when, after reaching the last page of Eruvin, I read the prayer that is meant to be recited at the completion of a tractate, the “Hadran.” “Hadran” means “we shall return,” and what we shall return to is the text we have just finished reading: “We shall return to you, Tractate Eruvin, and you shall return to us. Our thoughts are on you, Tractate Eruvin, and your thoughts are on us. We will not forget you, Tractate Eruvin, and you will not forget us—neither in this world, nor in the world to come.” That we will keep thinking about the Talmud is one thing—but can the Talmud think about us? Does it exist, a presence outside of time, always ready to return to us, even in the next world? I think the rabbis would have said yes.


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

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