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The Talmud Says God Can’t Protect Jews From Persecution; They Must Take Precautions

A ‘mezuzah,’ like Judaism, is designed for life in this world, not for a messianic future, or for martyrdom

Adam Kirsch
November 26, 2013
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Anthony Fine/Flickr)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Anthony Fine/Flickr)

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

Recently I’ve been reading about Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, the first comprehensive code of Jewish law. This work, written in the 1170s, gave Judaism a logically organized reference, which could tell the inquiring reader exactly what the law said about any subject. Such a code was needed because, as I’ve come to see firsthand in reading Daf Yomi, the Talmud itself is so unpredictably structured that it is almost unusable as a practical legal guide. In order to know where to look for a given subject, you’d have to know the entire Talmud in advance: Merely following the titles of the tractates would be no help at all. And even when you do find the subject you’re looking for, the Talmudic discussion doesn’t always make clear what legal ruling is actually in force. This very complexity is what made Maimonides’ achievement in the Mishneh Torah so enormous. For one person to master the entire body of Jewish law would seem to be the work of a lifetime, but Maimonides did it by the age of 40.

This week’s Daf Yomi reading gave striking examples of such Talmudic difficulties. Say, for instance, that you wanted to know whether a certain building or doorway required a mezuzah. We know that the door of every residence is supposed to have one. But what about a public building, like a synagogue? What about a building that gets filthy, like a barn or a bathhouse, or a temporary structure, like a sukkah? What if two people own a house in partnership—do they both have to put up a mezuzah? And what about unusual entryways, like a tall arch—do they qualify? These are the kinds of minutely detailed questions you would expect the Talmud to ask, since it is always concerned with anticipating the full range of possible questions, no matter how unlikely. What you would not expect is that the answers to those mezuzah-related questions would be found in Tractate Yoma, which is supposed to be about Yom Kippur.

But starting with Yoma 10a, and continuing for two full pages, the rabbis talk about the laws of mezuzot. The connection with the ostensible subject of the tractate, as often happens in the Talmud, is so fleeting that if you blinked you might miss it. As we saw last week, Yoma began with a mishna describing how, seven days before Yom Kippur, the High Priest relocated from his home to a chamber in the Temple, called the Chamber of Parhedrin. The purpose of this was to protect the High Priest from ritual impurity, which would make him ineligible to serve on the holy day. But the Gemara wonders: Did the Chamber of Parhedrin have a mezuzah?

The rabbis agree that it did—in fact, it was the only room in the Holy Temple that had a mezuzah. Where they disagree is the reason why this was so. First, the rabbis suggest that it was because the Chamber of Parhedrin functioned as a (temporary) residence. But Rabbi Yehuda points out that, in fact, “there were several chambers in the Temple in which there was a place of residence, yet they did not have a mezuzah.” According to him, the mezuzah on the Chamber of Parhedrin was not in fact required by Torah law but was only placed there by rabbinic decree. The reason it was not required, Yehuda argues, is that a house only needs a mezuzah if it is lived in year round—“designated for the summer and for the rainy season.”

Rava, a Babylonian amora, transmits this opinion of Yehuda’s; but Rava’s regular antagonist, Abaye, objects to it by bringing up an analogous point from the laws of Sukkot. When it came to the sukkah, Abaye points out, Rabbi Yehuda required that it be treated like a house in regard to tithing produce, establishing an eruv for Shabbat, and affixing a mezuzah. But a sukkah is a house that is lived in for only seven days, not year-round. How can this be reconciled with Yehuda’s view that a mezuzah is required only for a year-round dwelling?

The rabbis puzzle over this problem, finally reaching a logical solution: The difference has to do with whether you are living in the temporary residence voluntarily or involuntarily. On Sukkot, a Jew dwells in a sukkah willingly, and so he must put up a mezuzah; but the High Priest is constrained to live in the Chamber of Parhedrin, so he doesn’t need one. This doesn’t strike me as an air-tight argument—after all, one could say that a Jew is “constrained” to live in the Sukkah by Jewish law—but it nicely demonstrates the rabbis’ desire to find some kind of explanation for every distinction in the law.

In America today, Jews don’t think twice about putting up mezuzot—indeed, as the New York Times reported in 2010, even many non-Jews have come to embrace the custom, keeping a mezuzah on the doorway when they move into a home where Jews used to live. But as the discussion in Yoma goes on, it becomes clear that, in Talmudic times, it could be dangerous for a Jew to openly display this symbol. Legally, any town with a Jewish majority was required to put a mezuzah on the town gates. But Abaye points out that the city of Mechoza failed to do this, “due to the danger involved.” The Gemara goes on to relate a story about the town of Tzippori, in Palestine, where a Roman official found a Jew inspecting mezuzot and punished him with an enormous fine.

This anecdote in turn raises a serious theological question. “Didn’t Rabbi Elazar say that those on the path to perform a mitzvah are not susceptible to harm?” the Gemara asks. How could God allow a Jew who is carrying out a divine commandment to be punished for it? Here the Talmud’s essential pragmatism is evident: “Where danger is permanent it is different,” the rabbis say. In a place where Jews are persecuted, they can’t expect God to miraculously intervene to protect them; they have to take reasonable precautions. I am repeatedly struck by the way the Talmud allows this sort of realism to co-exist with an implicit belief in God’s providence. Rabbinic Judaism is designed for life in this world, not for a messianic future, or for martyrdom.

Further on in this week’s reading, in Yoma 13a, we saw another important aspect of the Talmud in action: Its interest in theoretical argument, even when no practical issue is at stake. The opening mishna of this tractate mentioned that an alternate High Priest was appointed for Yom Kippur, in case the regular one was disqualified by ritual impurity. Rabbi Yehuda then suggested that, because the High Priest had to be married, an alternate wife should be appointed as well, in case his wife died before the holiday. However, the majority of rabbis dismissed this argument, saying that it was an unnecessary precaution.

But this doesn’t stop the Gemara from picking up Yehuda’s suggestion and examining its legal implications. The High Priest doesn’t need an alternate wife, the rabbis say—but what if he did? How exactly would that arrangement work? At issue is the biblical requirement that the High Priest make atonement “for himself and his house”—that is, his family, which requires that he have a wife. But if the High Priest picked an alternate, and then on Yom Kippur his wife died, he would not actually be married to that alternate yet—he would still have to marry her, and in the interim he would be without a “house” and ineligible to perform his duties. Say, then, that he betrothed the alternate, that is, promised to marry her. But this wouldn’t do either, since betrothal isn’t the same as actual marriage.

All right, the rabbis say, what if the High Priest simply married the alternate in advance? This would present no legal problems from the point of view of bigamy, since the Talmud, like the Bible, makes no objection to a man having multiple wives. (This would be changed by Jewish legal authorities later on.) But the biblical verse speaks of the high priest’s “house,” not his “houses,” and if he had two wives he would have two houses; so he would once again be ineligible. Finally, after considering many possible cases, the rabbis work out a solution: The High Priest would marry the alternate but give her a conditional bill of divorce, which would take effect if the original wife seemed likely to survive Yom Kippur.

All this makes for a lengthy and intricate discussion about a problem that the rabbis themselves admit is not really a problem, since the High Priest doesn’t need an alternate wife in the first place. This is the kind of thing that puts some people off the Talmud; but by now I’ve grown to enjoy these intellectual work-outs, which the rabbis clearly engaged in for the sheer pleasure of thinking about the law. The Mishneh Torah may be a place to look for answers, but the Talmud is a realm devoted to questions.


To listen to a Vox Tablet conversation with literary critic Adam Kirsch about his Daf Yomi study, click here.

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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