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Of Lice and Men

Study of the Talmud’s second tractate reveals how the rabbis stuck to logic and made it sacred

Adam Kirsch
October 23, 2012
(Collage Tablet Magazine; original engraving Shutterstock)

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

The Torah scholars whose deliberations are recorded in the Talmud disagree on many things, but one thing they never doubt is the sanctity of Torah scholarship. To study the Torah, we learn in Shabbat 10a, ranks considerably higher on the scale of Jewish activities even than prayer. The sages would customarily dress in fine clothing when they prayed: “Rava bar Rav Huna would don fine footwear and pray,” while Rav Kahana would wrap himself in a fine cloak. Both were being mindful of a sentence from the book of Amos—“Prepare to meet your God, O Israel”—which they read as commanding special decorum when entering into God’s presence through prayer.

Yet when Rava once observed Rav Hamnuna “prolonging his prayer,” he was critical: “Does one forsake the eternal life and occupy himself with the transitory life?” What he meant, according to Rashi, is that “the purpose of prayer is to request what one needs in this world, such as health, peace, and a livelihood,” while the study of Torah is what permits us to enter the World to Come. Prayer, like life, is only a means; Torah study is the end, the purpose for which we live. The Talmud, however, is not as stringent as Rava; it gives a hearing to Hamnuna’s excuse for prolonging his prayer, which is that “the time for prayer is separate from the time for Torah.” In other words, they are not in competition.

Reading the first pages of the tractate on Shabbat over the last weeks, I was struck by the way this emphasis on Torah study allows the rabbis to sacralize what is, on its face, often a strictly intellectual, logical, even mathematical kind of thinking. When we communicate with God in prayer, we tend to focus on emotions. We feel elevated by thinking about our love for God and his for us, or we declare our devotion or repentance. All of this is encouraged by the emotive language of the prayer service.

The opening pages of Shabbat, however, could not be more rigorously logical. In Shabbat 2a, the Mishnah presents us with a situation in which a householder is standing inside the boundary of his house, while a poor man is facing him while standing in the street, in the public domain. Say that the men transfer an object from one domain to the other, from the private zone to the public or vice versa—something that is legally prohibited on Shabbat. Which one is culpable for breaking for the law?

The answer, the Mishnah says, can be broken down into eight possible cases. If the poor man (his economic status is irrelevant to the problem—this is simply the text’s way of designating the man who is in the public domain) “extended his hand inside the house and placed an object in the householder’s hand,” he is liable, and the householder is exempt. So too if the poor man reached into the house and took an object from the householder’s hand. And the converse is also true: If the householder reaches out into the street and takes something from the poor man’s hand, or deposits something there, the householder is liable, and the poor man is exempt.

The logic so far is clear enough. Infringing on the law of Shabbat involves both commencing and completing a transfer. The same person must take an object from one side of the boundary and place it on the other side. But what about the other four possibilities—the cases in which, say, the poor man extends his hand inside the house and the householder removes an object from his hand; or the householder extends his hand outside the house and the poor man places an object into his hand; and so on? (It might help to make a grid of the possible permutations, as in a math problem.)

One might expect that in these cases, both parties would be liable to guilt, since both collaborated in the transfer. But in fact the Mishnah holds that both men are exempt from liability, since neither one performed both parts of the prohibited action. In each case, rather, one person initiated a transfer and the other person completed it. The way of thinking about guilt and innocence here seems to clash with what we might call our ethical intuitions: Surely, we think, the point is that a transfer is wrong, and whoever contributes to it is culpable. Indeed, the Gemara raises this very objection, in Shabbat 3a: “Are they both exempt? Why, between the two of them the prohibited labor was accomplished!”

But, the Talmud goes on to explain, what is at stake here is not intention but action. The action of transferring an object between domains is what is forbidden, and so a person is only culpable if he performs the entire action, not just part of it. (The principle is underscored by citation of a verse from the book of Leviticus.) And this analysis leads into a discussion of many other possible factors in a transfer: the height at which an object is transferred, whether it is passed hand to hand or into a container of a certain dimension, whether it goes through a third, neutral zone such as a doorway, and more.

A similar thoroughness characterizes the discussion, in Shabbat 12a-b, about what activities are permitted by lamplight on Shabbat. The concern here is that it is forbidden to tilt the lamp—I assume this is because, with an oil lamp, tilting would be equivalent to relighting it, which is prohibited. For this reason, the rabbis prohibit doing various things by lamplight, including delousing your clothes and reading, because they might lead to the temptation to tilt the lamp. Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, we read, thought he could avoid that temptation by force of will, making a firm promise to read without tilting the lamp. But then he reached out to tilt it by instinct, barely catching himself in time. “How great are the words of the sages,” he reflected, “for they said, ‘One may not read by lamplight.’ ”

According to Rav Yehudah, a man may not use a lamp “even to distinguish between his garment and his wife’s garments.” Apparently this rule struck the rabbis as strange, because Rava offered an explanation for it: It was meant to apply only to the inhabitants of the city of Mechoza, where apparently the men wore garments that looked like women’s clothes. Elsewhere, it was not so hard to tell men’s clothes apart from women’s, and so it was permitted to use lamplight—on the principle that such an easy task would not tempt anyone to tilt the lamp.

Then, in a characteristic lateral move, the rabbis’ mention of delousing clothes leads to a short discussion of the best way to deal with lice—a common problem in the days before regular laundering. You should not pick lice out of your clothes in public, the Talmud instructs, “out of respect for passersby.” On the Sabbath, it’s permitted to pick lice out of your clothes, but not to kill them. Instead, you may roll the lice in your fingers and toss them away. However, not all rabbis were so merciful toward the bugs. “Rabbah would kill them. And Rav Sheishess would kill them. Rava would throw them into a bucket of water.” Toughest of all was Rav Nachman, who “said to his daughters: Kill the lice and let me hear the sound of my enemies as they die!” Finally, as so often, the matter comes down to a disagreement between the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel. Shammai’s school prohibited killing lice on Shabbat, while Hillel’s allowed it—another example of the sympathy for human needs that can go along, in the Talmud, with the most stringent interpretation of the law.


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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.