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Leave the Jewish People Alone

Rabbis left enforcement of their Talmudic decrees to communal standards and voluntary commitment

Adam Kirsch
March 05, 2013
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock)

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

Reading the Talmud is like taking part in an advanced seminar in law, in which judges from across the centuries debate and explain one another’s rulings. But in any legal system, the intricacies of theory and the reality of behavior are two different things. It’s especially hard to deduce from the Talmud itself just how widely the rabbis expected their laws to be obeyed, or understood. As American Jews living in a secular society, I think we have a guilty tendency to idealize the past as a time of uniform piety, when every Jew was a good Jew. Yet Jews in the first centuries CE lived scattered around the Roman Empire, many of them far from the centers of rabbinic scholarship in Babylonia. The majority of them would have been laborers, with little chance—or, possibly, desire—to master the intricacies of the law.

It’s safe to assume that all Jews in a given community observed Shabbat. (Earlier, we saw how the rabbis tried to imagine a Jew who was ignorant of what Shabbat was, and the only possibility they could think of was a Jew who had been kidnapped by Gentiles as a child.) But did their observance extend to all the matters covered in the 150-plus pages of Tractate Shabbat? And what power did the rabbis have to enforce their obedience? Remember that, in discussing the rules of Shabbat, the rabbis work on the assumption that any infraction must have been involuntary, for which the punishment is bringing a sin-offering; a voluntary infraction is left to God to punish. But did this reflect a taboo so strong that no Jew would think of violating it, or the powerlessness of Jewish courts to enforce obedience on the unwilling?

This week’s Daf Yomi reading, as we approach the end of Tractate Shabbat, offered two contradictory pieces of evidence about the actual practice of Talmud-era Jews. The first comes in Shabbat 147a, during a long discussion of the forbidden labor of squeezing. We saw in this week’s Daf Yomi reading that it is forbidden to squeeze fruits on Shabbat to get their juice, and that the juice of certain produce—especially grapes and olives—can’t be consumed even if it came out on its own and without squeezing. Now the Mishna addresses the question of wringing out a towel. “One who bathes on Shabbat in a ritual bath … and dried himself even with 10 towels may not carry them in his hand,” it rules. The reason is not on account of the prohibition on carrying—that is self-evidently forbidden—but because a man carrying wet towels will be tempted to wring them out, and wringing is forbidden as a variety of squeezing. The hyperbole of 10 towels is meant to suggest that even if each towel is only a little bit wet, there is still a danger that they will be wrung out.

On the other hand, the Mishna goes on, “Ten people may use one towel to dry their faces, hands, and feet and may carry them in their hands.” Aside from the practical question of whether you would want to use a towel that had been on 10 people’s feet, what is the principle at work here? The Gemara explains: “The reason for this is that since they are many people, they remind each other not to wring the towel.” This is a significant statement of faith in both the knowledge and the law-abidingness of the Jewish people. Alone, a person might forget the law and thoughtlessly wring out a towel. But in a group, there will always be someone who knows that wringing is prohibited on Shabbat and will intervene to stop it. In a very concrete sense, law is a communal obligation, and we must help each other to fulfill it.

This principle is further driven home by an anecdote that comes up a little later in the Gemara. Elazar ben Arakh was a rabbinic prodigy who lived around the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. However, he started visiting bathhouses and became addicted to bathing and drinking, “and his learning was forgotten.” Embarrassingly, when he was called to read from the Torah, he had forgotten so much that he mangled the text. The moral can be found in a saying attributed to Elazar ben Arakh: “Exile yourself to a place of Torah and do not say that it will follow you. Your colleagues will establish it in your hands, and do not rely on your understanding alone.” That is, don’t deprive yourself of a Jewish community that can support your effort to live according to the law; trying to be pious all by yourself is too great a burden. Knowing the law is not the same as being able to follow the law.

Yet this optimistic view of Jewish community is followed, just a few pages later, by what sounds like a much more disillusioned one. In Chapter 23, the rabbis are summarizing various activities forbidden on Shabbat, in particular ones having to do with business. Doing business is not itself one of the 39 melachot, but the rabbis reasoned that in practice it inevitably involves some of them, especially writing, so they prohibited it in general. For instance, it is forbidden to ask someone for a loan on Shabbat, lest the loaner be tempted to write down the terms of the loan. On the other hand, it is permitted to say “let me borrow” something on Shabbat. The reasoning here is that “let me borrow” sounds like an informal, short-term loan, which will not tempt anyone to write down the details. This may not sound like much of a distinction, but it allows the rabbis to both safeguard Shabbat and allow necessary borrowing to take place.

In Shabbat 148b, Rava bar Rav Chanan mentions some other things you are not supposed to do on Shabbat: clap your hands, dance, and sit in a doorway. The reasons are not, as we might expect, that these things violate the dignity of Shabbat. Rather, clapping and dancing are forbidden because they might lead you to repair a musical instrument, which is a prohibited labor. Sitting in the doorway is forbidden because, if an object rolls out of the house into a public area, you might be tempted to bring it back, which would involve a forbidden transfer.

However, Rava bar Rav Chanan points out in a rare moment of empirical candor, “We see that people do these things, and we do not say anything to stop them.” Why is it that the rabbis, who have so many decrees to enforce, allow these particular ones to be ignored? Here the rabbis are following a surprising principle: “Leave the Jewish people alone, and do not rebuke them. It is better that they be unwitting in their halakhic violations and that they not be intentional sinners, for if they are told about these prohibitions they may not listen anyway.”

This struck me as a pretty amazing statement. The Talmud, which is nothing but tens of thousands of rules for the Jewish people to follow, now tells us to “leave the Jewish people alone”! Rava bar Rav Chanan’s reasoning is the opposite of the well-known legal principle that “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” On the contrary, he says, it is better for a Jew to be ignorant of the law than to know it, because if he knows it he will violate it willingly, but if he’s ignorant we can at least pretend that his disobedience is due to ignorance. Followed to its logical conclusion, this principle would make nonsense of any legal system: Simply keep the people ignorant of all the laws, and they can do whatever they like.

You might say that that is close to describing the state of American Jewish observance today. And Rava bar Rav Chanan’s dictum raises serious questions about what is expected of Jews. Are we supposed to obey all the laws all the time, or only the ones that are ratified by common practice? But what if our common practice is simply to ignore the law—the way that almost all non-Orthodox Jews drive on Shabbat? Do the rabbis have the authority, or the practical power, to govern a people that has stopped listening to them? Looking around us, the answer would seem to be: of course not. Today Jewish observance is almost entirely a voluntary commitment: Those who want to obey the rabbis, do; those who don’t, don’t. What this means for the Talmud’s insistence that Judaism is a communal faith—that it is impossible to be a Jew on your own—is a question that we still haven’t answered.


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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.