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The Power of Positive Thinking

This week, deduction and analogy propel the Talmud from the mundane to the miraculous

Adam Kirsch
November 27, 2012
(Jonathan S. Igharas/Flickr)
(Jonathan S. Igharas/Flickr)

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

One of the most challenging things about reading the Talmud, I have found over the last several months, is its total lack of interest in arranging topics in what might seem like their logical order. Reading Daf Yomi means starting with what is conventionally called the beginning of the Talmud, with Tractate Berachot. But in fact, there is no real beginning or end to the Talmud; it does not start with basic concepts and move on to more advanced ones, or set out its axioms and then apply them. Rather, reading it is like joining a long-running conversation, in which the participants—the rabbis of the Mishnah and the Gemara—already know the issues at stake and the definitions of important terms. They often refer to subjects that will only be treated in “later” tractates, and they introduce wholly new teachings on the basis of a verbal parallel or a common Tannaitic source. The only way to get up to speed is to keep reading, in the hope that eventually everything will become clear, or clear enough.

A striking example of this disorderly order came in this week’s reading, in chapter four of Tractate Shabbat. The whole subject of the tractate has been the kinds of work prohibited on Shabbat and the application of those prohibitions to ordinary actions like reheating cold food or moving objects around the house. But only now, in Shabbat 49b, does the Talmud get around to explaining where the prohibitions come from in the first place. “Again they sat and pondered: Regarding that which we learned in a Mishnah, ‘The primary categories of work [melachot] are 40 minus one’—to what do they correspond?”

The 39 prohibited melachot, Rabbi Chanina bar Chama explains, “correspond to the labors of the Tabernacle”—the activities involved in building the mishkan as described in the Book of Exodus. The reason for this linkage, Rashi explains, can be found in Exodus chapter 35, which begins with Moses’ instruction regarding the Sabbath: “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh you shall have a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death.” Moses then goes on to detail all the materials and components involved in the building of the Tabernacle: “And let all among you who are skilled come and make all that the Lord has commanded: the Tabernacle, its tent and its covering, its clasps and its planks, its bars, its posts, and its sockets,” and so on at some length. It is a logical deduction, then, that the Tabernacle provides the key to the kinds of work that are prohibited on Shabbat, even though this is not explicitly stated in the Tanakh.

“Go out and intend”: This wonderful phrase shows how much power merely thinking can have in Talmudic law.

This is the basis for the baraita that the rabbis go on to cite: “One is not liable except for a labor the likes of which was performed in the Tabernacle. They planted, and you shall not plant; they reaped, and you shall not reap; they lifted the boards from the ground onto the wagon, and you shall not bring articles in from the public domain to the private domain,” and so on. But that last quoted example suggests that, for the rabbis, the actions involved in building the Tabernacle are not simply forbidden in themselves; they are examples or archetypes of categories of actions. On a narrow reading, one might think that lifting a board onto a wagon was prohibited on Shabbat, but not lifting a bundle of wheat onto a wagon, since the builders of the Tabernacle did not handle wheat. On the contrary, the Talmud teaches, one must deduce from the original actions all the corollaries that are also forbidden.

That process of deduction involves a great deal of intellectual agility and legal creativity—the kind of Torah-based thinking in which the rabbis reveled and that they identified as the most sacred human activity. In chapter four of Shabbat the specific problem at issue has to do with insulating hot food that is prepared on Friday so as to keep it warm on the Sabbath. “With what may one insulate and with what may one not insulate?” asks the opening mishnah. It goes on to give a list of materials that are forbidden—including manure, salt, and sand—and those that are allowed—including wool shearings and “flocking,” a wool product that is used to make felt.

The Gemara, typically, goes on to seek the principle underlying these two lists. What do the forbidden kinds of insulation have in common? The answer, apparently, is that the forbidden items “radiate heat upwards,” and thus effectively re-heat the food on Shabbat. The same principle explains why it is permitted to keep hot water warm on Shabbat by placing a hot kettle on top of another hot kettle, but it is forbidden to place a cold kettle on top of a hot kettle: In the latter case, one is not just preserving heat but actually heating the cold water.

As the discussion proceeds, it returns to the concept of muktzeh, which was treated at length in last week’s reading. Items that are not prepared for use in advance of Shabbat are muktzeh, “set aside,” and may not be used or moved on the holy day. The rabbis’ mention of flocking in connection with insulating a pot raises another question. Say you have a pillow full of flocking, and some of it comes out on Shabbat. Are you allowed to put it back in, or does this violate the rule that you cannot fashion a utensil on Shabbat?

To answer the question, the rabbis use one of their favorite techniques: They find an analogy. A baraita states, “One may untie the neck opening of a garment on Shabbat, but one may not open it up in the first place.” Say, Rashi explains, that you get a shirt back from the laundry with its neck tied shut, as was apparently the custom in Babylonia. You are allowed to untie it; but if you have a piece of fabric with no neck hole in it, you are not allowed to tear one open in order to use it as a shirt. So too, the Gemara explains, with pillows: You can return the pillow to its normal condition by putting its stuffing back in, but you can’t make a new pillow by adding stuffing for the first time. This is a commonsense solution to what would clearly have been a common problem, and it also makes logical sense. Restoring an item to its status quo ante is different from making an item in the first place.

The essence of muktzeh is that an object must have been designated in advance for use on Shabbat. This raises the question of whether you can use a muktzeh item, which would ordinarily be forbidden, for an unanticipated purpose that is not forbidden. In Shabbat 50a, the rabbis consider the case of a man who has a stack of firewood. Clearly, firewood is muktzeh on Shabbat, because lighting a fire is forbidden. But what if the man decides to sit on the firewood? Then he is doing something that is permitted, but using an object that was “set aside.” Is this allowed?

The answer, the rabbis agree, is that something must be done to indicate that the firewood is intended for use as a seat, rather than for burning. Thus Rabbi bar Chanah teaches that the wood must be tied into bundles before Shabbat starts, as a concrete way of showing that it was intended for use as a seat. But Shimon ben Gamliel is more permissive: It is not necessary to tie the wood, he teaches, it is enough if the man intended the wood to be used as a seat.

This kind of reasoning grants to intention an almost magical power: If you think that you are going to use something on the Sabbath, you change its legal status, almost its existential status. You see a dramatic example of this with Rabbi Chanina ben Akiva, who once “went to a certain place and found branches of a date palm that were harvested for the sake of firewood, and he said to his students, ‘Go out and intend, so that we may sit on them tomorrow.’ ” “Go out and intend”: With this wonderful phrase, Chanina shows how much power merely thinking can have in Talmudic law. However, the Talmud goes on to explain, there are limits to such intention. It is only when you do not have time to tie the bundles of wood that it is acceptable merely to “intend” them. That is why Chanina’s “go out and intend” was spoken at “a house of feasting or a house of mourning,” that is, a place where people were too busy with other preparations to actually tie the wood together.

Finally, Shabbat 49a offered a good example of the way a verbal parallel can suddenly launch the Talmud from the mundane into the miraculous. One of the items you are allowed to use for insulation is dove’s feathers; this leads the rabbis to mention a man called “Elisha the Winged One.” “And why was he called the Winged One?” the Gemara asks. “Because it once happened that the wicked Roman government passed an edict against Israel stating that anyone who dons tefillin would have his brain gouged out. Now, Elisha would don them and go out into the marketplace. An officer saw him; Elisha fled and the officer pursued him. As the officer caught up to him, Elisha took the tefillin off his head and held them in his hand. The officer demanded, ‘What is that in your hand?’ Elisha answered, ‘Dove’s wings.’ He opened his hand and, lo, they were found to be dove’s wings. Because of this miracle, they called him Elisha the Winged One.”

But it is not enough simply to retell this miracle tale; the Talmud must draw an inference from it. Why, the Gemara asks, did Elisha’s tefillin turn into the wings of a dove, rather than something else? Because “Just as with a dove, its wings protect it, so too with Israel, the commandments that it performs protect it.” Amazing things happen in the Talmud, but to the rabbis, the existence of the Torah and its mitzvot is always the greatest miracle of all.


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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.