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Too Much, Too Little: Talmudic Rabbis’ Creativity Shines When Interpreting Prohibitions

Manna, and fasting, are not just miracles of sustenance and faith, but also elements of jurisprudence

Adam Kirsch
January 28, 2014
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock)

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

The first seven chapters of Tractate Yoma deal with the holiday of Yom Kippur from the point of view of the high priest, the kohen gadol, whose ritual duties at the Temple in Jerusalem are analyzed in great detail. But of course, there has been no high priest and no Temple for 2,000 years; even at the time the Talmud was being compiled, in the fourth and fifth centuries C.E., these were only distant and obscure memories. Yet Yom Kippur itself continues to stand at the center of the Jewish calendar, and it is only in the eighth and last chapter of Yoma—which Daf Yomi readers began this past week—that the Talmud takes up the aspects of the holiday that are still relevant today.

Six activities, the mishna instructs in Yoma 73b, are forbidden on Yom Kippur: “It is prohibited to engage in eating and in drinking, and in bathing, and in smearing oil on one’s body, and in wearing shoes, and in conjugal relations.” (Smearing oil on one’s body was a common method of getting clean in the ancient world, so it’s analogous to bathing.) When it comes to food and drink, the mishna specifies exactly how much it takes to constitute a violation: “One who eats a large date-bulk … or who drinks a cheekful is liable.” These measurements apply not to each serving of food and drink, but to the amount consumed over the course of the whole day: The whole amount added together is not to exceed these limits.

This short mishna is explicated in a long and engaging passage of Gemara, which extends over the following seven pages of text. It’s always interesting to see what strategies the Amoraim, the rabbis of the Gemara, will use to engage with the mishna; their understanding of what is important in the law is seldom predictable, at least for me. In this passage, for instance, one might expect them to wonder about the precise definition of a date-bulk and a cheekful, and eventually they do.

But the first subject to claim their attention is the seemingly straightforward word “prohibited.” Why, the rabbis ask, does the mishna say that eating on Yom Kippur is prohibited (asur)? Clearly it is one of those transgressions that renders the sinner liable to karet—the harshest form of divine punishment—and in such cases, the usual word used is not “prohibited” but “liable” (chayav). Rabbi Ila proposes that the reason for saying “prohibited” instead of “liable” is related to the amount of food consumed. There is an ambiguity in the law, because while eating at all is ostensibly banned, only eating more than a date-bulk renders one liable to karet. Does this mean, then, that eating less than a date-bulk is perfectly all right? Or is it a sin of a lesser degree, to be avoided if possible? The rabbis are divided on this question: Rabbi Yochanan says that Torah law forbids eating any amount, while Reish Lakish holds that eating less than a date-bulk is prohibited only by rabbinic law, which has lesser authority.

The biblical basis for all the Yom Kippur prohibitions is Leviticus 16:29, which instructs, “You shall afflict your souls, and shall do no manner of work.” But how do we know, the Gemara goes on to ask, that by the general phrase “afflict your souls” the Bible intends abstaining from eating and bathing? In clarifying this matter, the rabbis demonstrate once again that mainstream Judaism is extremely wary of asceticism.

Early Christianity, which was ascendant during the era of the Amoraim, held the monk and hermit in high regard and saw the mortification of the body as a pious act. But the rabbis make clear that Yom Kippur is not to be taken as the excuse for extreme kinds of asceticism: Fasting is the maximum penance for a Jew, not the minimum. Reading Leviticus, the rabbis say, “I might have thought that one should sit in the sun or in the cold,” or inflict other bodily discomforts. But this is false: What the holiday requires is simply “to sit and do nothing.” The rabbis go on to demonstrate this by seizing on other instances of the word “afflict” throughout the Torah to support their case.

In the course of this explanation, the rabbis quote a verse from Deuteronomy: “And he afflicted you and caused you to hunger, and fed you with manna.” This is enough of an excuse for the Gemara to pivot away from Yom Kippur entirely and take up the fascinating subject of manna for the next several pages. According to Exodus, God fed the wandering Israelites in the desert by raining down manna on them every day. This was a whitish substance that fell like dew; it had to be gathered each day, since it would spoil if stored; and exactly enough fell for each individual to have a portion.

Manna is one of the great miracles in the Torah, a sign of God’s providence. Yet the rabbis also detect certain inconsistencies in the way the Bible talks about it. Why, for instance, does Moses say, in Deuteronomy 8:16, that God fed the Israelites manna “in order to afflict you”? Surely manna was the cure for the affliction, rather than the affliction itself? According to Rabbi Ami, what the Torah meant is that the Israelites suffered from anxiety about the manna. Since they had to gather it every day, they were never sure if the next day they would have enough to eat. “There is no comparison,” Rabbi Ami says, “between one who has bread in his basket and one who does not have bread in his basket.”

Rabbi Asi, on the other hand, believes that the “affliction” lay in the fact that manna always looked the same. Even though it could taste like anything, its unvarying appearance made it tiresome to eat: “There is no comparison between one who sees the food and eats it and one who does not see the food and eats it.” Because of this principle, that seeing one’s meal is as important as tasting it, Abaye deduces a general rule about mealtimes: “One who has a meal should eat it only during daytime,” when the food can be seen.

The rabbis go on to speculate about the taste, texture, and appearance of manna. Puzzlingly, Exodus says that manna was “white like coriander seed,” but in fact coriander seed is brown. To the rabbis, of course, this could not simply have been an error, since nothing is in the Torah by accident. Rather, the phrase means that manna was “round like coriander seed but white like a pearl.” Alternatively, it was called coriander because the Hebrew word for that seed, gad, sounds like the word for telling, maggid, and the manna could be used to tell the answers to problems.

Here the rabbis’ speculative powers are on display, as they imagine how manna could be used to resolve various legal dilemmas. Say, for instance, that a woman was widowed and remarried two months later, and then found out that she was pregnant. How could she be sure whether the baby was her old husband’s or her new husband’s, born premature? Manna held the answer. Since each household was divinely guaranteed to gather a ration for each of its members, the Israelites could look and see whether the baby’s ration had been gathered by the household of the dead husband or by the current husband; whichever had the manna could lay claim to the child.

This rule could also resolve disputes over the ownership of slaves: Whichever household collected the slave’s manna was its true owner. And the same principle could even be used, a little more creatively, to decide divorce cases. Say a husband and wife were contesting a divorce, each claiming the other party had sinned—a question that had major financial consequences, since a wife who sinned forfeited her dowry. In such a case, “Moses would say to them: In the morning there will be a judgment. The following day, if her omer of manna was found in her husband’s house, it would be clear that she sinned against him.” Because she was at fault, he would continue to collect her manna, because he had done nothing to forfeit his role as his wife’s legal custodian. If, on the other hand, the manna “was found in her father’s house, it would be clear that he sinned against her,” since she would return to her father’s custody when she left her husband.

It is deeply eloquent of the rabbis’ worldview that manna, for them, is not just a miracle of sustenance, but a miracle of jurisprudence. And the Gemara goes on to offer another virtuoso midrash related to manna. If you attend a Seder regularly, you will probably remember the part of the Haggadah where the rabbis deduce that the 10 plagues were really 50 plagues, or 200, by creatively interpreting the Bible’s reference to God’s fingers and hands.

Something similar happens in Yoma 76a, where Rabbi Elazar HaModai deduces that “the manna that fell for the Jewish people was 60 cubits high”—about 90 feet. At first, Rabbi Tarfon is skeptical, saying, “Modai, how long will you collect words?”—that is, speak meaninglessly. But Elazar HaModai has the figures to support his assertion. When the flood came in Noah’s time, he points out, the waters rose 15 cubits above the earth. Now, the flood happened because “the windows of heaven were opened.” But in the case of the manna, the book of Psalms says that God “opened the doors of Heaven.” And a door, Elazar calculates, is four times the size of a window. Thus the manna should be four times as high as the waters—that is, 60 cubits.

There is, of course, an obvious problem with this equation, which is that Elazar has calculated the height without measuring the width. Fifteen cubits of water over the whole globe is a lot more than 60 cubits of manna in the camp of the Israelites. But literal accuracy is less important here than inspiration. For the rabbis, creativity may have taken the forms of commentary and interpretation, but as Elazar shows, that didn’t mean it was any less creative.


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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.