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The Pretenders

In order to understand Sabbath rules, the rabbis show, one must imagine exactly what work the Israelites did

Adam Kirsch
January 15, 2013
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock)

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

After several weeks of difficult and abstract arguments over halakhah, I have been looking forward to some aggadah—the sort of tales and proverbs that are so much easier to follow and that offer more stimulus to the imagination. In this week’s Talmud reading, which made up most of Chapter 11 of Tractate Shabbat, there were flashes of aggadah, but only brief ones. In Shabbat 97a, for instance, we learn a comforting theory about God from Rava: “The beneficent measure meted out by God comes to pass more quickly than the measure of punishment.”

The God of the Talmud surely punishes, sometimes severely; but apparently he takes more pleasure in blessing. How do we know? By consulting Chapter 4 of Exodus, in which God teaches Moses various magic tricks that he can use to impress Pharaoh. One of these involves Moses reaching into his cloak and then withdrawing his hand, to show that it has turned white from leprosy (in Hebrew, tzaraat); then he returns his hand to his bosom and the leprosy disappears.

By parsing the text closely, the rabbis find that Moses contracted leprosy not when he put his hand to his bosom, but a moment later, when he pulled it out of his cloak; whereas he was cured the moment he touched his bosom again. The cure happened more quickly than the affliction; in this way, we see that God performs blessings faster, and presumably with more satisfaction, than he does curses. It’s worth noting, by the way, that the Talmud itself does not cite chapter and verse numbers when quoting the Tanakh; the rabbis simply quote the first few words of a passage, assuming that any reader will immediately be able to place them and know what follows. The degree of biblical literacy the Talmud takes for granted is enormous.

This week’s discussion of halakhah, however, went some way toward challenging the very distinction between law and legend, between the ratiocinative and the imaginative parts of the Talmud. The previous chapters of Tractate Shabbat dealt with the rules for carrying and transferring objects on Shabbat. In Chapter 11, the rabbis turn to a subdivision of the same subject: throwing objects on Shabbat. Is throwing subject to the same restrictions as ordinary transferring? The first mishnah says that it is: “If one throws from a private domain to a public domain, or from a public domain to a private domain, he is liable.”

But that is the easiest case to deal with. What if you throw an object from one private domain to another private domain—which would ordinarily be allowed—but on the way the object passes through a public domain? (The Mishnah gives the example of two balconies facing each other across a street.) Does the object become “public” at the moment it passes through the public domain, so that it is effectively transferred twice—private to public to private—or do only the beginning and end points count? The rabbis disagree on this point: The law holds that such a transfer is permissible, but Rabbi Akiva says it is forbidden.

It is here that the border between law and legend begins to blur. As we have seen earlier, the reason that 39 types of work, or melachot, are banned on Shabbat is that they are the kinds of activity performed by the Israelites when they constructed the Tabernacle in the desert. In order to make sense of Shabbat regulations, then, it’s necessary to reconstruct in the imagination just what kind of work the Israelites did—to transport oneself back to Moses’ time. Usually when we want to travel back in time, we turn to literature; for the rabbis, law collapses history just as effectively. Every time they reason about Shabbat, the whole spectacle of the Israelites building the Tabernacle appears before their eyes.

To explain why throwing across a public domain is permitted, while handing an object across a public domain is not, the rabbis envision the kind of work the Levites did when transporting the boards for the mishkan. The Levites would transport the boards in wagons that traveled two abreast, and they would customarily hand the boards from one wagon to the next; but they would not throw the boards. On Shabbat, we refrain from doing what the Levites did, so we cannot hand things over; but we can throw, since that was not part of the original activity of the mishkan.

The Gemara goes on to speculate in amazing detail about various aspects of the Tabernacle’s construction. How wide were the boards used to build its walls? How many boards made up each wall? Did they taper at the top, or were they pure rectangles? And what about the tapestry that was draped over the walls and ceiling: How long was it, and how much material hung down on each side, and how much of the bottom of the wall was exposed? The rabbis advance various theories about each of these questions, displaying both a clear visual imagination and a talent for mathematics. I found it very difficult to “see” the Tabernacle without diagrams (which the Schottenstein provides), but the rabbis needed no such visual aids. For me, the detail that stuck out was Rabbi Nechemya’s contribution: The goat hair used for the tapestry, he taught, was washed and spun while still on the goats.

Later in the chapter, we learn in a mishnah that even if it is out in the open country, which would ordinarily be a public domain, a rock 10 tefachim high or a pit 10 tefachim deep counts as private. (A tefach is a hand’s breadth, about 3-4 inches, as I learned from the invaluable Halachipedia.) This is a handy and practical way of settling what is really a kind of metaphysical question—what counts as a separate place? But naturally it also gives rise to its own set of questions.

The degree of biblical literacy the Talmud takes for granted is enormous.

Imagine, Rabbi Yochanan asks, that you had a pit nine tefachim deep, and on Shabbat you dug it out deeper so that it was the required 10 tefachim, and then deposited the dirt from the bottom of the pit onto the ground above. In this scenario, “the lifting of the object and the formation of the partition that makes the area a private domain occur simultaneously”: Does this count as a Shabbat violation? And what about the converse situation—if you have a pit 10 tefachim deep and you shovel a tefach’s worth of dirt into it, thus making it too shallow to be a private domain?

What’s fascinating about this kind of Talmudic question is the way it unites the pragmatic and the theoretical. If you consider the pit problem in strictly practical terms, it may seem pointless; how often would a Jew inadvertently shovel just the right quantity of dirt into the right-sized pit on Shabbat? But if you imagine the case study as a problem in logic, a kind of tool to think with, then its appeal becomes clearer. Here it’s possible to see the Talmud’s question as one about the nature of time. Can the pit possess two opposite qualities (being private and being public) at the same time, or do we have to imagine these qualities as succeeding one another at some hypothetical instant? It’s not unlike the problem known to the Greeks as Zeno’s paradox, in which Achilles races a tortoise; both are addressing the question of whether a continuous medium like time is divisible into finite sections.

To answer the question, the Gemara makes a considerable detour. On Shabbat, it is forbidden to carry an object in a public domain further than four amot (an amah is approximately two feet). But the public domain is considered to extend only 10 tefachim from the ground, above which the airspace is automatically exempt from liability. Say, then, that you stand four amot from a wall and throw an object at it. According to the Mishnah, if the object strikes the wall below the 10 tefachim mark, it is considered as if you had thrown it on the ground, and you are liable for a forbidden transfer.

But wait, the Gemara replies. If you threw an object at a wall that was four amot away, it would surely bounce back at you and come to rest between you and the wall—that is, less than four amot from its starting point. Why, then, are you liable for moving it? Here we return to Yochanan, who came up with an ingenious, if bizarre, answer: In this case, he argued, the Mishnah is referring to throwing a sticky object like a fig-cake. If you threw a fig-cake at a wall, it would stick and not bounce back toward you. And yet, other rabbis objected, this is to neglect the width of the fig-cake itself! Even if it sticks to the wall, it would protrude by an inch or so, meaning that it would have traveled an inch less than the forbidden four amot. Why, then, is the thrower liable?

Finally, after still more comparisons and hypothetical situations, the Gemara concludes, teiku: “let it stand,” that is, let it go unresolved. The problem of simultaneity has defeated the rabbis: They are unable to say whether a pit can be 10 and nine tefachim deep at the same time, or whether a fig-cake can go four amot and less than four amot in the same throw. But in pursuing the inquiry to the very edge of logical possibility, they have shown exactly where the paradox lies—an achievement that may not really help us observe Shabbat but that has intellectual value in its own right.


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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.