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Good Jewish Fences Once Made Good Jewish Neighbors. Do They Still?

One of many ancient local customs analyzed in this week’s Talmud study is the habit of separating Jews from gentiles

Adam Kirsch
August 20, 2013

Literary criticAdam Kirschis readinga page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

Last week, we learned the Talmudic principle that a person should always follow the customs of the place where he happens to be—a Jewish version of “when in Rome, do as the Romans do.” In this week’s Daf Yomi reading, the Mishnah offered a series of examples of such customs, which were then analyzed and challenged by the rabbis of the Gemara. In Pesachim 53a, for example, we learn that in some places it is forbidden for Jews to sell small livestock to gentiles, while elsewhere it is permitted. But everywhere the rule is that Jews may not sell gentiles large animals like oxen or horses. The prohibition on small livestock, in fact, was a kind of “fence” around the more serious prohibition on large livestock—do not sell goats, certain towns believed, or else you might end up selling an ox. But why, exactly, is it forbidden for a Jew to sell an ox to a non-Jew?

It turns out, Rashi explains, that this too is a kind of “fence”—a Rabbinic law enacted to prevent us from violating a biblical law. In this case, the biblical law in question has to do with making animals do work on Shabbat. As we saw earlier in Tractate Shabbat, the biblical prohibition on Shabbat labor extends to all animals owned by a Jew: According to Exodus 23:12, “Six days thou shalt do thy work, but on the seventh day thou shalt rest, that thine ox and thine ass may have rest.” The rabbis were concerned that a Jew might rent his ox to a gentile, who would then use it to plow a field on Shabbat, not remembering or caring that, as a “Jewish” ox, it was supposed to rest. The prohibition on selling was enacted as a “fence” around the prohibition on renting.

I wonder, however, whether the rabbis were also motivated by their general tendency to discourage Jews from mingling too much with non-Jews. In Tractate Eruvin, we saw how the rabbis strongly advised a Jew not to live on his own in a non-Jewish neighborhood, lest he end up getting murdered. In an age when the non-Jew was seldom encountered except as an enemy, the rabbis may have thought it wiser for Jews not to do any business with their non-Jewish neighbors. Happily, I learned from the Schottenstein Talmud’s notes that this ban, like many Talmudic provisions, is no longer in force; so if you have an ox to sell, feel free to put it on Craigslist.

Another local custom that varies from place to place concerns eating roast meat on Passover. As we know from our Seder plates, the Passover sacrifice was the centerpiece of the Seder in biblical and Temple times. But like all sacrifices, it could only be offered up at the Temple in Jerusalem. Passover, like Shavuot and Sukkot, was a pilgrimage holiday, when Jews around the Land of Israel, and beyond, flocked to Jerusalem.

This raised the question of whether it was permitted for Jewish communities in the Diaspora to eat roast meat on Passover. After all, their meat was not a sacrifice, because it wasn’t slaughtered by priests in the Temple. “It is forbidden,” Rav Yehuda says, “for a person to say ‘this meat is for Pesach,’ because he appears as one who consecrates his animal and eats consecrated meat outside of Jerusalem.” Maybe it would be better, some communities decided, not to eat any roast meat on Passover, rather than encourage such a mistake.

This was not the view, however, of Todos of Rome. This interesting figure stands out in the Talmud because, unlike the rabbis, he came neither from Palestine nor Babylonia. Rather, as his name suggests, he lived in the heart of the Diaspora, in the capital of the Empire that had destroyed the Jewish kingdom. Yet while he is not called a rabbi, he apparently had the power to establish local Jewish practices. Indeed, he decreed that the Jews of Rome must eat goats roasted in the same way they were roasted in the Temple—that is, on a spit, “with their entrails alongside them.” The rabbis were none too pleased with this, but apparently they respected Todos enough not to challenge him: “If you were not Todos,” they told him, “we would decree excommunication upon you, for you are causing Jews to eat sacrificial meat outside Jerusalem.”

This remarkable deference leads the rabbis of the Gemara themselves to exhibit some curiosity about him: “They inquired, was Todos of Rome a great man, or was he a powerful or violent man?” If the latter, perhaps the rabbis deferred to him simply out of fear. But no, we learn that Todos was actually a virtuous man, who was very generous to Torah scholars. He also came up with an ingenious point of scriptural interpretation. In the Book of Daniel we read about how Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—or, to use their original, Hebrew names, Chananyah, Mishael, and Azaryah—enter a fiery furnace rather than bow down to an idol. Why, Todos asked, did they agree to do this? The answer is that they must have remembered the story of the Ten Plagues, in which the frogs are said to go “into the ovens” of the Egyptians. If frogs would willingly be burned alive for God’s sake, even though they are not under a specific commandment to do so, how much more must a Jew accept martyrdom!

Another local custom discussed in the Mishnah has to do with whether we should keep a lamp burning in the house on the night of Yom Kippur. In some places, Jews light a lamp, and in others they don’t, but oddly, the rabbis tell us, both courses of action have the same goal in mind: to discourage couples from having sex on Yom Kippur. Apparently, some Jewish communities felt that a lighted bedroom would encourage sexual relations, because it would allow spouses to see each other at night, while others felt that a dark bedroom was more conducive. Since sex is forbidden on the holiday in any case, we should follow the custom of the place we happen to be.

It is while discussing Yom Kippur rituals that the rabbis embark on their most fascinating digression—one that leaves the realms of law for those of mysticism. Why, the rabbis ask, do we only say a blessing over fire just one time in the week, during the Havdalah service on Saturday night? After all, one might expect that we should thank God for creating fire every time we light a candle—which, in the Talmudic age, would have been at least once a day.

The reason, we learn from Shmuel, is that Saturday night “is the beginning of fire’s creation.” That is, God created the first flame at the close of Shabbat during the first week of Creation. This detail does not appear in the Bible; it is, rather, a mystical tradition. And in Pesachim 54a, the rabbis list a whole catalog of miraculous things that God created on the evening before the first Shabbat, including manna, the rainbow, the tablets of the Law, and even the talking donkey of Balaam in the book of Numbers.

Each of these things can be interpreted as violations of the order of nature, which happened once and only once in human history. Manna only rained down on the Israelites during their wandering in the desert, and Balaam’s ass is the only one ever to have talked. Yet we know from Genesis that God created the world all at once, during the first six days. It follows, the rabbis believed, that even the miracles must have been created then—or, at least, their potential was created, to be held in reserve for the appropriate moment in Jewish history.

This is, in its own way, a kind of scientific approach to the problem of miracles. Rather than the miracle being a disruption of the natural order, we can think of it as a part of the natural order that has just been biding its time, waiting to appear. In this way, the scandal of the miraculous, which bothered modern thinkers like David Hume so much that they dismissed miracles altogether, can be minimized.

The idea of a secret creation also helps the rabbis to avoid the problem of infinite regress—the chicken-and-the-egg problem. As Rabbi Yehudah pointed out, “tongs are made with tongs”: when casting a pair of tongs out of molten metal, you need a pair of tongs to handle it with. How, then, did the first pair of tongs ever get made? “It was, perforce, a heavenly creation!” Yehudah concludes, and God Himself made the first tongs on the eve of the first Shabbat.

It is left to another, unnamed rabbi to point out that, strictly speaking, you don’t need tongs to make tongs: “It is possible to make tongs by means of a mold and quickly forming it. Accordingly, the original pair was, in truth, a human creation!” The rabbis definitely believed in miracles, but they didn’t want everything they couldn’t explain to be called a miracle. The Talmud’s logical approach to what seem, by modern standards, plainly illogical beliefs is one of the things that creates its distinctive spiritual atmosphere.


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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.

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