(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original image Shutterstock)
Navigate to Belief section

Rabbinic Mind Games

Lionizing those who perform feats of memory and logic, who reason strictly from premise to conclusion

Adam Kirsch
January 29, 2013
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original image Shutterstock)

One of the themes that most interests me in the Talmud is how it proposes the Torah scholar as the supreme human type. Scholars, we learn in ways direct and indirect, are at the apex of Jewish society; they deserve authority and deference, in the way that noblemen do in an aristocracy. (Indeed, the rabbis readily describe the warrior-heroes of the Book of Kings as if they were actually Talmudists avant la lettre, interpreting their martial deeds as feats of scholarship.) This assertiveness on their own behalf is one of the more ambiguous qualities of the rabbis. It can seem like patriarchal complacency, and I regularly wonder how these claims to authority were met in reality, especially in the early centuries when the Talmud was being compiled.

Unlike in an aristocracy, however, the Torah sage’s position has to be earned, in two ways—through intellectual acuity in dealing with legal questions, and through a high standard of personal dignity and virtue. Chapter 15 of Tractate Shabbat, in this week’s Daf Yomi reading, emphasized both of these requirements. The chapter begins by addressing another of the melachot, the categories of work that are forbidden on Shabbat—in this case, tying a knot. The Mishnah makes a distinction between permanent knots, which cannot be tied on Shabbat, and temporary ones, which are allowed. Thus the knot of a rope in a camel’s nose, or the knot that attaches an anchor to a ship, cannot be tied on Shabbat; whereas a woman is allowed to tie the straps of a chemise, since they are meant to be untied later.

When it comes to tying shoelaces or sandal straps, the law is more complicated. A knot made by a shoemaker to attach a strap to the body of a shoe is forbidden on Shabbat, since this knot is not supposed to be undone. But what about tying the straps themselves? This the rabbis allow, in the case of a pair of sandals that is regularly worn by more than one person. Since each wearer would have to adjust the straps to his own foot, no knot made in such a pair of sandals would ever remain for very long.

Having established these distinctions, the rabbis then proceed to test them to the breaking point with a thought experiment. We remember from earlier in this tractate the concept of muktzeh, which holds that items not prepared for use on Shabbat may not be touched on Shabbat. One category of muktzeh is broken utensils, since by definition a broken part of a tool could not be prepared in advance. Now the Gemara presents two seemingly contradictory case studies. Once, Rabbi Yirmiyah was walking on Shabbat when a strap of his sandal broke off. He asked Abahu what to do, and Abahu replied that he should take a reed and wind it around his foot in place of the strap. But on another occasion, when Abaye’s sandal strap broke off, Rav Yosef told him that the broken shoe was now muktzeh, and that he shouldn’t move it or repair it until after Shabbat.

Who was right, the Gemara asks, Abahu or Yosef? Is a broken sandal muktzeh or not? To answer the question, the rabbis turn to another area of law, ritual purity. Here the rule is that an item which has become unclean, or tamei, becomes clean again, or tahor, if it is broken. If breaking a utensil changes its purity status, so too should it change the utensil’s muktzeh status: a broken sandal should count as muktzeh. But then what about a third area of shoe-related law, the ceremony of chalitzah? This is a ritual that must be performed when a dead man’s brother refuses to marry his widow; she releases him from his obligation by removing the shoe from his right foot. For chalitzah purposes, the law holds that even if the brother wears his left shoe on his right foot, removing the shoe still completes the ceremony; that is, the ritual status of the shoe does not seem to depend on its use-value.

This is just the beginning of a debate that goes on to involve a number of difficult distinctions. But it’s enough to show that a Talmudic discussion requires mastery of many different areas of law and the ability to synthesize them in order to draw new conclusions. Mention a shoe, and the rabbis immediately think of Shabbat law, and purity law, and chalitzah; and then they put all these rules together in such a way that they all lead to the same conclusion. In this case, the rabbi who finally tied up all the threads of the discussion is Yochanan, and in Shabbat 112b another rabbi, Chizkiyah, declares his amazement at Yochanan’s legal prowess: “This is no mere mortal!”

Here, then, is part of what it takes to be a great Torah scholar: the ability to perform feats of memory and logic, to reason strictly from premise to conclusion. Two things strike me about this sacralization of the intellect. The first is that, for the rabbis, this kind of thinking is not just impressive; it is itself the supreme expression of piety, since Torah study is the highest Jewish obligation. We please God most not by feeling or even praying, but by thinking. The second is how very unusual this value system is, historically speaking. Working in the midst of empires—Rome and Persia—which were built on hierarchies of birth, wealth, and force, the rabbis evolved their own aristocracy of mind. Many things have changed since the Talmud was written, but I think it’s still possible to see the ethical and intellectual legacy of this value system in Jewish life today.

But intellect is only part of what is required from the Torah sage. In addition to being a great thinker, he is also the leader of his community and its public face, which means that his bearing must be dignified and impressive. This theme emerges in Shabbat 113a, where we learn from the Mishnah that on Shabbat “one may fold garments even four or five times.” Rashi explains that this refers to the practice of taking off Shabbat clothes—which would, naturally, be a Jew’s finest—during the course of the day and folding them to keep them neat and clean, so that they could be put on again later. This is permitted, the Gemara goes on to explain, only if you have no other clothes to change into; if you do have another set, it is better to change clothes entirely than to fold them.

The logic behind this rule, the rabbis go on to explain, is that you should honor Shabbat by wearing your best clothes. “Rav Huna said: If one has clothing other than his weekday ones into which to change for the Sabbath, he should change into them; and if he does not have other clothing into which to change, he should let down his weekday clothing.” Rashi, again, explains this last detail: in Talmudic times, poor workers would hitch up their clothing to avoid getting dirty, while rich people, who didn’t mingle with dirt, would wear their robes down to the ground. On Shabbat, in other words, the poor should dress as if they were rich. “But surely this appears like haughtiness?” objects Rav Safra, but the rabbis counter him: “It does not appear like haughtiness,” since it is done only for the honor of Shabbat.

This leads to other examples of the dignity required on Shabbat. “Your walking on Shabbat should not be like your walking on weekdays,” the Gemara holds, and goes on to explain what this means: On Shabbat a man should not leap over a stream; or, alternatively, a man should not take long strides on Shabbat. In fact, the rabbis suggest that you should never take long strides, for medical reasons: “A long stride takes away one-five-hundredth of the light of a person’s eyes,” that is, it impairs the vision. (One wonders what experience drew the rabbis to this conclusion, which seems so odd today.)

Eventually, after a long digression on the Book of Ruth, the Talmud returns to the question of appropriate dress and conduct, this time specifically with regard to Torah scholars. According to Chiya bar Abba, “It is a disgrace for a Torah scholar to go out with patched shoes into the marketplace.” This is fine in principle, but, the Gemara objects, Acha ban Chanina sometimes did wear patched shoes—surely such a sage could not have been infringing the law! Rav Acha clarifies: The disgrace is not just patches, but “patches upon patches.”

There is not just an aesthetic but an economic dimension to this rule. The Torah scholar, as a leader of the community, must be able to afford to keep up appearances. But simple cleanliness is also important, as the Gemara goes on to insist: “Any scholar upon whose garment a grease stain is found is liable to death.” Why such an extreme judgment? Because, according to the Book of Proverbs, all those who hate Torah love death, and a dirty sage causes people to disparage the Torah. Ravina, perhaps feeling that this is a bit hard on the grubby scholar, has a different reading: It is not a grease stain, he holds, but a semen stain that brings death, presumably since this is more disgraceful.

Finally, the discussion ends with another example of the rabbis’ rewriting of the Bible in accordance with their own values. A holy man is supposed to dress well, the rabbis have concluded. But this rule was not known to the prophets, who often wore sackcloth and ashes or went naked in order to shame the Israelites. After all, Yochanan pointed out, doesn’t the book of Isaiah say, “My servant Isaiah has gone naked and barefoot”? Faced with this contradiction between the original text and their own worldview, the rabbis resort to the very useful tool of hermeneutics. “Naked means with worn-out garments,” they conclude, “and barefoot means with patched shoes.” This is as far as they are willing to see Isaiah dress down—an example of the limitations, as well as the power, of the rabbis’ understanding of piety.


Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.

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.