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Why Did God Choose the Jewish People To Receive the Torah?

Talmudic rabbis debate the paradoxical belief in Jewish chosenness despite the evidence of Jewish powerlessness

Adam Kirsch
April 29, 2014
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Library of Congress)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Library of Congress)

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

Why did God choose the Jewish people to receive the Torah? It’s a question to which the Bible offers no very good answer. In Genesis, God picks Abraham to receive his covenant with no preface or explanation: “Now the Lord said unto Abram: ‘Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto the land that I will show thee.’ ” The decision, if it was a decision, to give the Israelites the Torah flows directly from this initial promise, which seems so arbitrary.

Thus, in Exodus, we see the Jewish people voluntarily agreeing to accept the Torah, saying, “All the words which the Lord hath spoken will we do.” By then, however, they are already God’s chosen, as the Exodus itself demonstrated. Why did God offer it to them in the first place? Why not some much bigger and more powerful people—the Greeks, the Persians, the Romans? In the years of exile and persecution during which the Talmud was compiled, the rabbis must have wondered about this often. Indeed, the belief in Jewish chosenness, despite the evidence of Jewish powerlessness, is a great paradox that has driven Jewish history down to the present day.

One famous midrash tried to come to grips with the problem by imagining that before choosing Israel God actually offered his Torah to all the nations of the Earth. But one by one they rejected it, finding its laws and prohibitions too burdensome; only the Israelites agreed to take it on themselves. This midrash, however, casts the law itself in a rather ambiguous light. It strongly suggests that the Torah is not exactly a boon—that it’s something an ordinary person would flee if possible. This doesn’t really suit the rabbis’ deep love and reverence for the Torah, which they see more as an inexhaustible gift. At the same time, the story puts the Jews themselves in a very flattering light: Only this people was pious and disciplined enough to accept the hard job of living by God’s law.

In this week’s Daf Yomi reading, however, we saw the rabbis offer a very different rationale for why the Jews received the Torah. It came in Beitzah 25b, in the course of chapter 3’s ongoing discussion of what tasks can and can’t be performed on a festival. While pursuing this subject, the rabbis take a brief detour into the rules of etiquette, what they call in Hebrew derekh eretz, “the way of the land.” These are rules of conduct that aren’t exactly obligatory—they’re not commanded by God—but are still incumbent on a well-behaved person—on a gentleman, one might say, keeping in mind that the rabbis were the elite of Jewish society.

The specific item of derekh eretz we learn here is that one should not grab pieces of meat from an animal that is in the process of being slaughtered, but wait until the whole carcass is flayed and butchered. The rationale for this rule is easy to see: It would be greedy, as well as disgusting, to hover over the slaughterer waiting to grab a cut of meat and make off with it.

Equally unappetizing is the prospect of eating raw meat—but here the Talmud, surprisingly, gives its OK, at least in one particular circumstance. Much of chapter 3 is taken up with the question of when and whether it’s permitted to slaughter an animal on a festival. One case the Mishna addresses is when an animal is in danger of dying because of sickness or injury. Jewish dietary law strictly forbids eating an animal that dies on its own without being slaughtered; this means that the owner of a dying animal has a strong incentive to slaughter it before it dies of natural causes, which would mean a total financial loss. If he finds himself with a sick animal on a festival, is it permitted to slaughter it, even though slaughtering is usually forbidden on holidays?

The Talmud is generally quite willing to interpret the law in ways that help Jews avoid financial losses—we saw an example of this in Tractate Shabbat, when it came to authorizing people to fight fires on Shabbat. This is not just out of concern for preserving property but because the rabbis know that the urge to protect property is so strong that it will often override the law anyway. Better a realistic law that people will follow than a strict one they will violate.

In the case of a dying animal, then, the rabbis rule that it is permitted to slaughter it on a festival, provided that the legal fiction can be maintained that it is being slaughtered to be eaten that very day. (A governing principle of Tractate Beitzah is that food-preparation tasks may be performed on the holiday for the holiday, but not for future benefit.) If there is time left on the holiday for the owner to eat even a bite of its cooked meat—an olive-bulk, the Talmud says, using a standard measure—then slaughtering is permitted, even if the remainder of the meat is preserved for later consumption or sale.

The issue of raw meat comes in when Rabbi Akiva offers a still looser rule. It is alright to slaughter on the festival, he says, even if there is only enough time to eat “an olive-bulk of raw meat from the place where the animal is slaughtered”—that is, from the neck. Now, the consumption of animal blood is also strictly prohibited in Jewish dietary law, and the question naturally arises whether it’s permitted to take a piece of raw meat from a just-killed animal and eat it without salting it to remove the blood, the way kosher meat is ordinarily salted. I learned from the ever-invaluable notes to the Koren Talmud that this very question was a subject of controversy between Maimonides and other commentators: Maimonides said that salting was essential even in this case, while his opponents held that it was alright to eat the meat unsalted.

Putting this issue to the side, however, Rami bar Abba raises a point about etiquette, derekh eretz. In the Torah, we read that before an animal could be sacrificed in the Temple as a burnt offering, it had to be flayed and cut into pieces. Nowadays, of course, we can no longer make burnt offerings. But Rami bar Abba says that in this case the Torah can be taken as a guide to good conduct in general: You should not eat meat before the animal has been fully butchered. The Gemara goes on to underscore that this is not actually a Torah prohibition, simply a point of etiquette—but even etiquette is important.

From here the Gemara makes a detour to list some other good dining habits. Do not devour a bulb of garlic or an onion by the roots; instead, peel the leaves and eat them one at a time. Similarly, do not drain your cup of wine in one gulp: That would make you look like a “greedy drinker.” On the other hand, don’t be too dainty, either: If it takes you three sips to drain the glass you will come across as a “haughty spirit,” excessively refined. The correct number of sips per cup, the rabbis say, is two. Furthermore, the rabbis teach, on the Day of Judgment, “the sea squill will cut off the feet of the wicked.” This cryptic admonition is explained, again, by the Koren’s notes: It was customary to plant the boundaries of land with sea squills, a plant whose roots went straight down rather than branching out into a neighboring plot of land. If your feet got tangled in a sea squill, then, it would be because you were trespassing on your neighbor’s land, violating his boundary. “Don’t trespass” is what this point of derekh eretz boils down to.

From here, the Gemara makes another lateral move, bringing up another piece of lore having to do with plants—this time, the lupine. The lupine is a legume that is inedibly bitter raw but when boiled seven times is “eaten as a dessert.” According to Rabbi Elazar, God once complained, “My children did not treat me even like this lupine.” The meaning of this comment isn’t totally clear to me, but it seems to have something to do with impatience: The Jews are patient enough to boil the lupine seven times, but not enough to obey God’s laws. Perhaps there is also an implication here that the laws themselves are bitter until one gets used to them, whereupon they become sweet.

Now at last we come to the question raised at the start of this discussion. “For what reason,” asked the great tanna Rabbi Meir, “was the Torah given to the Jewish people?” The well-known midrash suggests it is because the Jews were especially obedient, but Meir gives exactly the opposite explanation: “It is because they are impudent.” The Jews, on this account, have a hard time obeying laws and showing respect to God; therefore, they needed what the Torah itself calls “a fiery law,” one that was strict and punitive enough to bring them into line. “There are three impudent ones,” Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish would elaborate: “The Jewish people among the nations; the dog among the animals; and the rooster among birds.”

Perhaps this surprisingly critical view of Jewish character was informed by the rabbis’ own experiences trying to get the am ha’aretz, the average man, to follow their rulings. But there is also a certain wistfulness to the rabbis’ view of what the Jews would be like if they were not constrained by the Torah. If only the Torah is what keeps the Jews “fiery” nature in check, imagine what toughness and violence they would be capable of without the law! “Were it not for the fact that the Torah was given to the Jewish people, no nation or tongue could withstand them,” the Talmud says. It is a paradoxically consoling thought—one can understand its appeal to a perpetually powerless people—and it betrays an interesting ambivalence about the whole notion of being chosen. If this is what we’re like with God’s law, it seems to say, imagine what we could do without it.


To read Tablet’s complete archive of Daf Yomi Talmud 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.