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Who Can Follow These Rules?

This week’s Talmud reading prompts strikingly contemporary questions about observance and belief

Adam Kirsch
May 21, 2013
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo My name's axel/Flickr)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo My name's axel/Flickr)

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

In reading the Talmud, I have been especially interested in the glimpses it offers of how its complex rules were, or were not, actually observed in real life. It’s hard to imagine the average Jew in fifth-century-C.E. Babylonia—a farmer, soldier, or merchant—mastering the knowledge required to make judgments on every aspect of Jewish law. The question then becomes, did the majority of Jews consult experts frequently, or did they proceed by custom and rule of thumb, or did they simply ignore the law altogether? Was strict observance the exception, as it is among American Jews today, or the rule?

The question came into focus in this week’s Daf Yomi reading, in the course of a discussion of eruvin chatzeirot, the merger of courtyards for Shabbat purposes. From the beginning of Tractate Eruvin, the rabbis have assumed that Jews will live in houses joined by a courtyard (chatzeir); courtyards are in turn are joined by an alleyway (mavoi). In order for residents of adjoining courtyards to carry items on Shabbat in their common alley, they must perform a kind of legal merger called a shituf, which requires that all the participants deposit food together—the example the Talmud gives is wine or vinegar. For residents of adjoining courtyards to carry in one another’s courtyards, however, a more rigorous kind of merger called an eruv is required, and for this purpose only bread can be used.

In Eruvin 67b, the Gemara recounts an episode that raises several legal complications. When a boy was circumcised in Talmudic times, the common practice was to bathe him in hot water before the procedure—a forward-thinking sanitary practice. On Shabbat, as we have seen in Tractate Shabbat, performing circumcisions was a tricky matter, because it was forbidden to carry the necessary implements, including the hot water. Everything had to be prepared in advance.

On one occasion, a Shabbat circumcision was supposed to be performed in a courtyard where two great sages lived, Abaye and Rabbah. Before the boy could be bathed, however, the hot water spilled out, and more needed to be fetched. Rabbah instructed, “Bring hot water from my house”—which would require carrying through the courtyard. Whereupon Abaye objected, “But we did not join in an eruv!” Rabbah replied, “Let us rely on the shituf,” but Abaye reminded him, “But we did not merge in a shituf either!” Finally Rabbah suggested, “Let them tell a non-Jew to bring the hot water.”

The first question this story raises has to do with the propriety of asking a non-Jew to do something that a Jew is prohibited from doing on Shabbat. In Tractate Shabbat, we learned that this is forbidden—a Jew cannot use a non-Jew to circumvent Shabbat laws. I remember that this puzzled me at the time, since the institution of the shabbos goy—a non-Jewish neighbor or employee who does chores for observant Jews—is a standard figure in Eastern European tradition.

Here the Gemara explains that it is only forbidden to ask a non-Jew to do something that is biblically prohibited—for instance, lighting a fire on Shabbat. It is OK, however, to ask a non-Jew to do something that is merely rabbinically prohibited, such as carrying through a courtyard. That is why “the master [Rabbah] did not tell the non-Jew, ‘Go heat some water,’ ” only to bring some water that was already hot. (Later, in Eruvin 68a, we will learn that it is even allowed to ask a non-Jew to heat the water, if it is necessary to preserve the health of the mother.)

But the more pertinent question is raised a bit later on by Rabbah bar Rav Chanin, who said to Abaye: “Is it possible that a mavoi that has in it two men as great as these rabbis did not have in it either an eruv or a shituf?” Why would these Torah sages not have set up a merger in advance of Shabbat, the way the law permits? The answer is quite revealing. Rabbah, we learn, could not go around collecting food for the shituf, because it would be beneath his dignity; and Abaye could not be bothered to do it, because “I am busy with my studies.” There is a great irony here. These same rabbis would never consider themselves too busy or too important to debate the laws of shituf; that would be studying Torah, a mitzvah. But when it comes to the actual implementation, they have better things to do.

And the other residents of the courtyard? “They,” Abaye says, “do not care if there is a shituf in the mavoi.” Now, this answer could be taken in one of two ways. Perhaps the neighbors don’t care if there is a shituf because they have no intention of carrying into the alleyway on Shabbat. But I wonder if there isn’t also the suggestion that they don’t care because they’re not too particular about observing Shabbat laws. This raises an interesting question about the relation of Rabbah and Abaye to the average Jew of their time. Could it be that all the details of shituf and eruv mattered only to a self-selected Jewish elite?

That suspicion deepens in Eruvin 69a, when the rabbis discuss whether it is permitted to make an eruv with Jews who do not accept rabbinic authority. This could mean a Sadducee—that is, a member of a sect that rejects the Oral Law on principle. But it could also be, in the words of a baraita, “a brashly irreligious person.” Rav Huna defined such a person: “Who is considered an irreligious Jew? This is anyone who publicly desecrates Shabbat.” A Shabbat violator, the Gemara goes on to explain, is equivalent to an idolator, since it can be assumed that a Jew who violates one category of laws will violate them all.

The key word here is “publicly.” Thus we learn about “a person who went out publicly on Shabbat wearing a bag of spices. As soon as he saw Rabbi Yehudah Nesiah approaching, he covered it.” Yehudah’s response was that “A person like this may relinquish rights.” In other words, the man was aware that he was violating Shabbat by wearing a bag of spices (because a bag is not a normal adornment, this would be considered a kind of carrying). But since he was sufficiently ashamed to want to hide his infraction from Rabbi Yehudah, he could still be considered Jewish for the purpose of making an eruv. If, on the other hand, the man had been a Sadducee or a “brash” freethinker, who had worn his bag of spices openly and unapologetically, he would not be eligible for participating in an eruv.

What is at stake here is the difference between a sinner and a heretic. A sinner accepts the system of law under which he is condemned. Even if he is a hypocrite, like the man who hid his bag of spices, his very hypocrisy is, as the saying goes, a tribute that vice pays to virtue. But a heretic flatly denies that virtue is virtue; he undermines the entire legal system by rejecting its authority. Thus we learn in Eruvin 69b that “we accept sacrifices from Jewish sinners” but not “from an irreligious Jew, or someone who makes libations of wine to an idol or someone who desecrates the Sabbath publicly.”

At the time the Talmud was written, of course, there was no such word or concept as secularism. But the case of the modern secular Jew seems highly relevant here. Such a Jew rejects the divine authority of the Torah and Talmud and replaces it with the authority of human reason and custom. Like me, the secular Jew might read the Talmud out of respect and intellectual curiosity, even claim it as a part of his Jewish heritage. (For another secular take on Daf Yomi, check out the charming website, which renders each daf as a haiku.) But he does not live by it, and that makes all the difference. He is, in the Talmud’s eyes, an idolator—an idolator of reason. Reading passages like this in the Talmud helps me to understand why there is such distrust between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews and why calls for Jewish unity so often fall on deaf ears.


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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.