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In the Language of Men

‘Daf Yomi:’ How modern Jews misinterpret another key philosophical phrase, and why religious fanatics will find no Talmudic argument in support of their dream of building a Third Temple on the mount

Adam Kirsch
August 07, 2018
Photo: Library of Congress
Photo: Library of Congress
Photo: Library of Congress
Photo: Library of Congress

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

This month marks an anniversary for Daf Yomi readers: It has been six years since we began studying the Talmud. Since the cycle began in August 2012, Daf Yomi readers have explored the laws of Jewish holidays in Seder Moed, the laws of marriage and divorce in Seder Nashim, and civil and criminal law in Seder Nezikin. Now we are embarked on the last major division of the Babylonian Talmud, Seder Kodashim, which deals with the “holy things” of the Temple service. This will be our subject for most of the remaining year and a half of the Daf Yomi cycle, which concludes in January 2020.

Way back in Tractate Gittin, I wrote about how the phrase tikkun olam, which has such a central place in contemporary Jewish life, originated in the Talmud with a very different meaning. Tikkun olam, the repair or improvement of the world, took on a mystic significance in Lurianic Kabbalah, where it referred to the role of the individual Jew in repairing the cosmic brokenness of Creation. Today, it is used by left-leaning Jews to refer to working for social justice, which they consider a central Jewish commitment. But in the Talmud, the phrase refers to something much more modest: innovations that make Jewish law more practical and functional. Thus, in Gittin, tikkun olam refers to the rule that a husband may not revoke a get by means of a court declaration. It is a good example of the way the Talmud came to be read in very different ways than its authors intended.

Another such instance came up in last week’s Daf Yomi reading, in Chapter Thirteen of Tractate Zevachim. In the Gemara on page 108b, we find the phrase “the Torah speaks in the language of men.” For Maimonides, in the Guide of the Perplexed, this phrase was the key to a wholesale reinterpretation of the Torah. “The language of men,” to Maimonides, meant that the Torah employs concepts and images that the average person could understand, rather than the strict accuracy required by the philosophical thinker. When the Torah suggests that God has desires, emotions, or even a physical body, it is using “the language of men”; but in truth, the Guide argues at length, these are all just concessions to the anthropomorphic imagination of the uneducated.

In its original Talmudic context, however, “the Torah speaks in the language of men” has nothing to do with this kind of philosophical interpretation. Rather, it is a technical point raised by the rabbis during a hermeneutic debate. As we have seen many times, the rabbinic method of reading the Torah involves attributing legal significance to every single word, sometimes even to individual letters. In this case, the rabbis are arguing about Leviticus 17:8, which says, “any man … that offers up a burnt offering or sacrifice, and he will not bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, to sacrifice it to the Lord, that man shall be cut off from his people.” The words translated here as “any man” are, in Hebrew, ish ish—literally, “man man.” Why, the rabbis ask, is the word repeated here? What legal conclusion can be drawn from this usage?

According to a baraita, the double word is meant to teach that if two people grasp the limb of a sacrificed animal and offer it up together outside the Temple courtyard, they are both guilty of a sin. This is an important point because, according to the mishna, if the same two people slaughter an animal together outside the Temple courtyard, they are exempt from punishment. It is not immediately clear why this should be true. Why is dual slaughtering all right, but dual offering is not? The reason, according to Rabbi Shimon, comes back to ish ish: the word is doubled to indicate that the prohibition applies to two men working together.

But Rabbi Yosei disagrees with this interpretation. How, then, does he explain the Torah’s use of ish ish? His answer is to deny that it has any special legal significance: “The Torah spoke in the language of men,” he says. Ish ish was simply the way that Hebrew speakers conveyed the meaning “any man,” so the Torah used that phrasing; there was no hidden hermeneutic motive. Of course, even Rabbi Yosei doesn’t think that this is true of the entire Torah. Like all the rabbis, he believes that the Torah must be read closely in order to deduce the laws it means to teach. It is just that, in this particular case, Yosei believes the rabbis are wrong to look for special meaning in ish ish. As with tikkun olam, “the Torah speaks in the language of men” has a specialized meaning in the Talmud, which would eventually be forgotten as the words were used to mean something much broader.

There is no dispute, however, about the basic principle that it is prohibited to offer sacrifices to God anywhere but in the Jerusalem Temple. This idea is driven home many times in the Torah (though the Torah speaks of the Tent of Meeting, which was the prototype and forerunner of the Temple). Modern scholars argue that this point was hammered home so often because the centralization of worship was a key political goal of the kings of Judah at the time the Torah was written.

Accordingly, the mishna in Zevachim 106a says, “One who slaughters an offering outside the Temple courtyard and one who offers it up outside the Temple courtyard is liable for the slaughter and liable for the offering up.” But this introduces a legal question that the Gemara is at pains to answer. Why does the mishna turn the prohibition against extra-Temple sacrifices into two prohibitions—one against the slaughter of a consecrated animal and one against the offering of its blood and flesh? As the Gemara points out, the Torah itself only prohibits offerings outside the Temple; it does not have a separate prohibition on slaughter.

What’s more, there is a logical problem here. If an animal slaughtered outside the Temple is not a valid sacrifice, then offering up its blood and flesh is not a real offering. Why, then, is such an offering considered a sin? Isn’t it just a kind of sham, with no ritual meaning whatsoever? To answer these questions, the rabbis invoke a complex series of Torah examples, analogies, and logical arguments.

Along the way, they raise a question that is still pertinent today. Is the ground on which the Temple stood still consecrated, even after the Temple was destroyed? If it is still holy ground, then it remains the only place in the world where sacrifices can be offered; and so it follows that local sacrifices elsewhere are still prohibited. If it is not holy ground, on the other hand, then we have reverted to the situation before the Temple was built, when it was permitted for Jews to offer sacrifices in other locations—for instance, the altar at Shiloh, which was built after the Israelites entered the land of Canaan.

Reish Lakish argues that the ground is no longer holy: “The initial consecration of the Temple sanctified it for its time but did not sanctify it forever.” It follows that “one who offers up an offering outside the Temple courtyard today” is not liable for committing a sin. But the rabbis disagree, and their opinion forms the basis of Jewish law to this day: The Temple’s grounds are still holy. This is also why no Jew can enter the area where the Temple stood. Of course, the fact that there is now a mosque standing on that site presents another, more worldly kind of barrier. But I wonder how the fanatics who dream of building a Third Temple envision getting around this rabbinic prohibition.


Adam Kirsch embarked on the Daf Yomi cycle of daily Talmud study six years ago today. He has 18 months to go to complete the full reading of the compendium of oral Jewish law. To catch up on the complete archive of his commentary and analysis, click here.

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