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The Talmud’s Absolute Value

Through reasoning, the rabbis brought all of natural creation under the rule of law

Adam Kirsch
April 30, 2013
(Collage Tablet Magazine; original image Wikipedia)
(Collage Tablet Magazine; original image Wikipedia)

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

One of the recurring patterns I have noticed in my reading of the Talmud is the way the text puts off explaining its key terms. From the beginning of Tractate Eruvin, for instance, it has been axiomatic that on Shabbat it is permitted to move only within a 2,000-amot techum or boundary. But why is the boundary 2,000 amot in the first place? If the Talmud were a textbook, this would be explained on the first page. But the compilers of the Talmud clearly did not envision it being read the way I, and many others doing Daf Yomi, read it—that is, in isolation.

Rather, the Talmud is a product of and commentary on a living tradition, whose principles have been passed on from generation to generation, in word and action. Presumably, in the fifth century CE, every Jewish child would have known about the 2,000-amot boundary from the time he or she began to walk. It was a rule handed down for centuries—ostensibly, since Moses received the Oral Law on Sinai—and it didn’t need to be explained or justified.

In this week’s reading, however, the rabbis finally did explain where the 2,000-amot figure comes from—and the explanation raises as many questions as it answers. “These 2,000 amot, where are they written?” the Gemara asks on Eruvin 51a. The answer refers us to Exodus 16:29, which is part of the story of the manna in the desert. To feed the Israelites, God sent down manna in the form of dew from heaven (“it was white like coriander seed, and the taste of it was like wafers made of honey”). God’s instructions were that the Israelites should gather their daily ration each morning, but on the sixth day they should gather a double portion, since no manna would descend on Shabbat.

As frequently happens in the Torah, the Israelites ignored this command and went out on Shabbat, expecting to find manna. Instead, they got a reproach from God: “And the Lord said unto Moses: ‘How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My laws? See that the Lord has given you the Sabbath; therefore He gives you on the sixth day the bread of two days; sit, each man, in his place, let no man leave his place on the seventh day.’ ”

These two uses of the word place, the Gemara explains, refer to the two kinds of Shabbat restriction. “Sit each man in his place” refers to the four amot which are allowed to a Jew who has left his techum; this is just enough room for sitting down in. “Let no man leave his place,” on the other hand, refers to the 2,000 amot which are allowed to a Jew inside his techum. Yet this explanation, any reader must notice, does not actually explain where the figure of 2,000 amot comes from.

To establish it, the rabbis engage in a remarkable relay-race of interpretation, using a technique called gezeirah shavah. With this tool, the rabbis can link one instance of a word in the Bible with another use of the same word. In this case, they perform five consecutive linkages. The word “place” (makom) in Exodus 16:29 connects with the word “place” in Exodus 21:13, where it appears near the word “flee.” This instance of “flee” connects with another use of “flee,” in Numbers 35:26—a verse that also contains the word “border.” The following verse in Numbers uses the word “border” near the word “outside.” And this “outside” connects to Numbers 35:5, which reads: “And you shall measure from outside the city on the east side, 2,000 amot.”

At last, then, the figure itself appears—at the end of a long chain of verbal coincidences. To a secular reader, of course, this kind of interpretation will probably appear totally arbitrary, a kind of violence done to the plain meaning of the text. If such random juxtapositions are allowed to dictate the meaning of the Bible, surely anything could be proved—all you would have to do is construct a long enough chain of words.

My watchword in reading Daf Yomi, however, has been to distrust my own impatience—or, rather, to use it as a guide. It is just those moments in the text that seem most alien to me that might help to open up the profoundly different worldview of the rabbis. In this case, I think, it’s crucial to remember two points. The first is that the rabbis are not trying to establish the 2,000-amot rule from first principles. Rather, they are looking for textual support for an already established Jewish practice. In other words, they know what they need the Bible to show; their problem is how to find what must already be there.

And the rabbis know the answer is there because the Torah is unlike every other document in the world, since it alone was authored (or dictated) by God. God is absolute, and he introduces a kind of absoluteness into the text that it would be absurd to expect to find in merely human productions. Humans may use words randomly, picking the ones that come to hand; but God is omniscient, and everything he does has a purpose. Once this idea is accepted, gezeirah shavah becomes not just rational but necessary. Of course God intends the linkages that tradition has identified: To say otherwise would be to say that God writes like a human being.

The totalizing nature of rabbinic interpretation is not limited to texts. As we saw this week, the halakhah about Shabbat boundaries is extended to cover the most basic natural phenomena—even clouds and water molecules. Of course, the law cannot constrain clouds or water from moving more than 2,000 amot on Shabbat. But ownerless objects, we learn from a baraita on Eruvin 45b, do have a techum: Wherever they happen to be at the beginning of Shabbat, they must remain within 2,000 amot of that spot until the end of Shabbat. This applies even to rainwater: Wherever the water lies at the beginning of Shabbat (presumably in a cistern or container) is its residence.

God created the world, but the rabbis’ achievement was to bring that world under the rule of law.

And what if the rain falls on Shabbat or a holiday? In that case, “it is treated like the feet of anyone”—that is, anyone who claims it thereby confers his own techum upon it. But this answer is not enough for the Gemara, which raises an objection based on the water cycle. After all, rainwater originally comes from the ocean—as Rabbi Eliezer states, “The entire world drinks the waters of the ocean”—from which it evaporates to form a cloud. If the rain in a cloud was in fact in the ocean at the start of Shabbat, shouldn’t its Shabbat residence should be calculated from the ocean? But how can we know whether any given raincloud formed on Shabbat or before Shabbat started? And even if the rain was in the cloud at the beginning of Shabbat, why doesn’t it establish its residence in the cloud? Or “should it be concluded that the techum laws do not apply above 10 tefachim”—the same principle we discussed last week, apropos of the coming of the Messiah?

The Gemara offers one possible solution to this problem. As long as water is suspended in cloud form, perhaps it should be considered not yet in existence, so that it would only be “born” when it actually started to fall. But this, the rabbis quickly note, would raise a different legal problem. Remember from Tractate Shabbat that things which are nolad—newly born or created on Shabbat—cannot be used on Shabbat, since they have not been prepared for that purpose in advance. If rainwater was nolad, it could not be handled at all.

Instead, the Gemara opts for a different, and scientifically sounder, theory of the case. “Rather, the water in the clouds is constantly in motion,” and because of this it can’t establish a Shabbat residence until it comes to a halt. The same principle nicely solves the problem of the ocean: In the ocean, too, water is turbulent, and so it can’t be said to establish its residence in any given place. It follows that it is legal to collect rainwater on Shabbat and that it can be moved anywhere within the techum of the person who collects it. The whole issue of the rainwater might be felt to be an unnecessary problem, a problem of the rabbis’ own creation. But to them, there was no reason to cut short the chain of legal reasoning when confronted with natural phenomena. God created the world, but the rabbis’ achievement was to bring that world under the rule of 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.