Sunday, 31 March 2013

Eiruvin 23a, b

Shorter than most of the dapim of the past week or so, daf 23 continues the rabbi's conversation about courtyards and boundaries.  Today they focus on gardens, shapes of courtyards, and exact measurements that allow for carrying within those public domains on Shabbat.

One note jumped out at me: if one neighbour does not wish to join in the eiruvin for a courtyard belonging to many neighbours, this does not have to wreck the eiruv for everyone.  He (sic) is able to offer up temporary ownership of his part of the courtyard on Shabbat.  The courtyard is then available to everyone else for carrying, but he is not able to use it on Shabbat.  

I wonder about the arguments between neighbours.  How would these be managed?  It seems clear that individuals are allowed to be stringent.  Would anyone admit to preferring leniency?  How would that go over with the neighbours, particularly with regard to creating a shared public domain?

I also was delighted by the mathematical play that the rabbis engaged in as they calculated the exact areas allowed for carrying on Shabbat.  They used paper to represent amounts of area and cut those shapes to create the exact shapes at hand.  A wonderful addition for those rabbis who were drawn to more tactile manipulation of arguments.

Finally, a discussion in 23b focused on the words, "and furthermore".  If a rabbi had said "and furthermore", the rabbis understand that he must have been referring to an immediately unresolved argument.  The last argument discussed was not obviously connected.  So what was being discussed previously in this case?  

I am fascinated by the use of Talmud to discuss process as well as the topic at hand.  We learn about how the rabbis think rather than simply what they think.

Saturday, 30 March 2013

Eiruvin 22a, b

The beginning of Daf 22 analyzes the phrase, "as black as a raven".  We learn that this refers to: "in whom we find the words of Torah:" one who rises early to study Torah, one who learns Torah for the sake of learning, one who "blackens one's face like a raven", or deprives oneself for the sake of Torah study; one who is cruel to members of one's household.  Rava tells us that Rav Adda bar Mattana told his wife to feed the children from  wild growing plants when she asked him how she can find a way to feed the kids as he left to study Torah.  

Two more verses are thrown up for grabs: "And He repays them that hate Him to His face to destroy them" and "(you shall keep these mitzvot) which I commanded you today to do them" (Deut 7:10, 11).  The rabbis discuss G-d's punishments and rewards.

Looking at the verse, "(G-d is...) long-suffering", the rabbis suggest that this was written in a plural form rather than a singular form to remind us that G-d does not punish the wicked immediately nor does G-d reward the righteous right away.  Another lovely albeit self-serving  interpretation. We would all like to know why the wicked have long healthy lives, while others, the righteous, or "us", as most of us would believe, are not rewarded for our actions.

The remainder of 22a looks at cisterns, heads and bodies of cows, dwellings and huts, and carrying on Shabbat in the public domain in Jerusalem.  One interesting note is that Jerusalem's status as public/private domain questioned.  Because people are continually walking through Jerusalem, it is as if it is never truly 'walled'.  However, as we begin 22b, Eretz Yisrael as a legal site for carrying on Shabbat is debated.  In fact, Reish Lakish, Rav Abaye and Rav Dimi among others discuss the use of natural boundaries including the sea and the mountains as potential eiruvim and ultimately as faulty eruvim. 

The notion of boundaries is complex and quite arbitrary, even when great effort goes into defining their limitations.  The concept of space having a beginning and an end, even when we draw a red line in the sand, is amazingly theoretical.  What if one grain of sand is 'off'?  Who gets to decided where the line is drawn?  What if things change and the line loses its meaning; are we allowed to change the line? If so, why can't we change the line at other times?  Practically speaking we need to know which government is representing/taking care of/violating which communities of people.  But that is a difficult concept even from an international perspective.  

In Jewish thought, space is divided into categories and boundaries.  Different rules apply in different places.  But Jewish thought also categorizes in the realm of time, which offers even more challenging, imaginary demarcations.  When did the sun set?  No, really, EXACTLY when?  Why is the time listed on an 'official sunset calendar' more meaningful than my experience of that mark in time, or my friend's perspective?

Organizing social structure by both space and time is a multifaceted, overwhelming enterprise.  Our rabbis discussions in Gemara teach us that it can be done -- for better or for worse.  

Eiruvin 21a, b

I will only note the topics covered in this entry.  It was Shabbat when I finished reading and so I didn't record my thoughts; however, this was a juicier daf...

Daf 21a begins with continued discussions about boards surrounding wells and how people can carry water for animals to drink on Shabbat.  Huts used for watchmen can be used to determine the edge of a town. Laws clearly are based upon sociological realities, as the rabbis tell us about differences in Babylonia, "outside of Eretz Yisrael", and in Israel.  Finally,   we read commentary on meanings of verses from Psalms and Job.  All interpretations look at nature and G-d's creative majesty.

Daf 21b begins with explaining a continuation of that interpretation.  One verse, "and at our doors are all manner of choice fruits" is interpreted so that women's vaginas are thought of as 'passageways'.  One option suggests that women are the fruit, and we tell our husbands about the passageways.  Another suggests that women bind our passageways to save them for only our husbands. All of these interpretations are based on word play.  Further along,  Consequences are compared regarding reading books, following the halacha as decreed by sages (or potentially facing death), and attempting to follow all of the words in the Oral Torah.  Mocking the Torah may be punishable by being sentenced to boiling excrement.  Or perhaps mediating on the Torah is comparable to the experience of eating meat.  In prison, Rabbi Akiva complains about the lack of water for drinking, but uses water for hand washing.  He prefers to die rather than to ignore the teaching of his colleagues.  How much more so should we follow their teachings?!  Verses from the Song of Songs are interpreted.  As we know so well, each verse, so beautifully and articulately crafted about lovers, is interpreted as referring to G-d's love for the Jewish people.  In fact, one famous verse,"Let us go out into the fields" actually refers to G-d showing us the loving, intensive work of Torah scholars as they live in poverty and distress.  Finally, some of King Solomon's word are interpreted as well, this time proving that every the letters, words, and phrases of Torah are beyond counting and beyond our true understanding.  

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Eiruvin 20a, b

Today's daf was a more tedious read for me.  It is really tough to get my head around the arguments without more understanding, more guidance.  And I don't have the time at this point to devote to learning more.  Frustrating.

Some points of mild interest:

Based on the discussions in this daf, people built eiruvim together.  Families shared courtyards.  This makes me imagine life in ancient times, where community mattered in even more poignant ways than it does today.   Why did families choose to share courtyards?  Was it a purely financially motivated decision, or did it have to do with other practicalities?  And how did they cope with the conflicts that would arise when sharing space in this way?

The rabbis debate about rules regarding a body - people or animals - that are partially in the public domain and partially in the private domain.  In this discussion we are introduced to the force feeding of camels and other animals.  Without more comprehensive knowledge, I am left to wonder about when and why animals were force-fed.  I cannot imagine that this would be pleasant for the animal or for the people involved.  But I'm a city-person of the 21st century, lacking in much historical and talmudic knowledge, and my guesses probably don't even touch the truth.

Wednesday, 27 March 2013

Eiruvin 19a

Growing up, I was taught that Jews do not really think about the concept of "hell" very much; we think more about the 'here and now' than what happens after we die.  More recently I have learned that some orthodox communities focus a good amount of energy and thought on the World-to-Come. Not about hell, necessarily, but about 'heaven', or a place of perfection; somehow related to the coming of Moshiach.  

Today's daf begins a conversation about Gehenna, or hell, that is fascinating to me.   Seven different names for Gehenna are explained, citing proofs from a various sources.  In a note, Steinsaltz tells us that each of those names is said to represent a deeper layer of hell.  

Having never studied or seen these ideas before, today's reading was especially interesting.  Almost as interesting was the abrupt return to the rabbi's discussion of posts and boundaries.

Eiruvin 18a, b

Eiruvin 18 moves us solidly into Perek II... and for me, it is quite a shift!

The points that stood out for me include a discussion of the Biblical words describing the creation of woman, and how those might influence our Rabbis' (and our) understanding of gender roles.  As well, we are offered words of wisdom on complementing others, based on the story of Noah.

Rabbi Yirmeya ben Elazar shares his definition of a contested word.  The Gemara moves from that definition to other contributions of Rabbi Yirmeya ben Eleazar, including an argument about Adam and Eve.  He explains that Adam was first created with two (deo) faces, one male and one female.  Using Psalms 139:5 as proof, he notes that "You have formed me from behind and before", and that woman was created from man when G-d took the tzela from him (Genesis 2:22).  Other rabbis suggest that tzela refers to a female face ; that it refers to Adam's tail, or zanav.   Both arguments can use Psalms as proof as the 'face' and the 'tail' might have been taken from 'behind and before'.  The Rabbis discuss what (you have formed me from) "behind" and "before" might mean.

The argument turns back to whether we are looking Eve originates in the back of Adam's face, as a face, or from his 'tail'.  The Rabbis try to understand the two contradictory stories, "Male and female, he created them" and "for in the image of G-d He created him".  G-d's motives are assumed: "At first, the thought entered G-d's mind to create two, and ultimately, only one was actually created" (18A, Koren version).

The rabbis turn to another argument: "... He took one of the sides and He closed up the flesh in its place", and one of at least three rabbis is reported to say that this could have been referring to the 'face' or the 'tail'.  Then they wonder what needed to be built (Genesis 2:22). Rabbi Shimon ben Menasya says the G-d braided or built Eve's hair and then brought her to Adam.  Rav Chisda tells of a baraita teaching that "G-d built Eve like a storehouse: wide on the bottom and narrow on top, to hold produce without collapsing... A woman is wide on the bottom and narrow on top in order to hold the fetus".

A lovely little commentary in 18b tells us that G-d took Eve to Adam, meaning that G-d was Adam's best man.  We should take from this that "a greater man should be a best man for a lesser individual and should not feel that this is beneath his dignity."

The rabbis wonder about who walked in front if Adam's face was on one side of the body and Eve's was on the other.  We are then subject to a list of things about gender politics:
1) a woman should walk behind, even a wife 
2) a man should catch up to a woman on a bridge 
3) a man who walks behind a woman in a river, where she must lift her skirt, has no share in the World-to-Come 
4) A man should not count money in his hand to put into a woman's hand so that he can look at her (from Proverbs 11:21) 
5) "Manoah was an ignoramus, as it is stated: 'And Manoah arose, and went after his wife" (Judges 13:11), although thisis argued by Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak because Samuel's father Elkanawalked after his wife (I Samuel 2:11).  Further, Elisha "arose and followed" a mother (II Kings 4:30).  The rabbis conclude that the verses above mean that these men followed the advice of their wives. But Rav Ashi reminds them that even the basic Bible story tells us that "Rebecca... followed the man" (Genesis 24:61).                                         
6) Better to walk behind a lion than to walk behind a woman 
The rabbis discuss Adam's longevity.  They suggest that following expulsion from the garden, possible punishments included life without Eve and being surrounded by demons (male and female).  How did the deoms come to be?  Through accidental emissions of semen.   In fact, Koren notes the common belief that any amount of semen could result in the creation of creatures that have some resemblance to the person in question.

Finally, Genesis 6:9 teaches us that we should complement a person only when s/he is out of our presence. Away from Noah, G-d describes him as "a righteous man, and perfect in his generations."

So much to chew on...

I find it particularly interesting that we are introduced to the rabbis litany of reasons that men should place themselves 'first'.  Undeniably self-serving. And when these man carry as much influence as they have carried, a system of patriarchy is reflected, established, and systematized.  Two thousand years later, we struggle to argue with the arguments that these rabbis codified in the Talmud.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Eiruvin 16a, b

Another day filled with cleaning and cooking for Pesach; another daf yomi reading that challenges my desire to be perfectly focused.  Today we examined partitions as they affect diversity in crops; how and when crops can be close to each other.  We then looked at horizontal and vertical partitions.  We ended with a discussion about how individuals, couples, and groups of three can use these guidelines to create partitions and thus legally carry on Shabbat.

While reading the beginning of today's daf, I found myself recalling a dilemma that first faced when I was six years old.  Learning about numbers and how they work in relationship, I wondered about the concept of "one".  I understood one apple; that was easy.  But that number line got me thinking.  How do we know where "one" begins and where it ends?  Can we continue to get closer and closer to the edges of "one" to definitively identify the borders of "one"; where "one" can show me that perfect barrier between itself and either "two" or blank space... or something else?

And as I write this, I wonder about how this might be connected with the idea of G-d as "one".  What is one?  By definition is "one" separate and distinct from everything else?  Or might "one" have blurry edges?  Perhaps we are all connected to "one", as there is truly no finite distinction between "one" and "another".

All of the laws of Eiruvin - today's discussion of barriers included - share the foundation of 'how to demonstrate distinction'.  That is, where and how we define barriers between two entities.  Much of Jewish thought is predicated on this concept of separateness.  All of my life I have struggled with the notion that separateness is important.  Deep inside, I feel a connection that defies barriers - even when the connection is between myself and inanimate objects.  A difficult idea to explain, but certainly worth exploring in the context of Eiruvin.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Eiruvin 15a, b

Maybe I have inhaled too much ammonia from cleaning for Pesach, but I couldn't help but think of comedy routines while I read today's daf.

On a tangent regarding the materials that can be used to construct side posts (and the use of live beings - animals and humans - is debated), the rabbis turn to question which materials are 'kosher' as divorce bills.   I paraphrase: 
Because Deuteronomy says that a man writes a scroll of severance and puts it in her hand, we know that only a scroll is valid.  So what tells us that other objects can be written on?  - Because the Torah states "that he write her", meaning that he can write on any surface.  - Well then why does the verse specifically state "scroll"?   To tell us that a bill of divorce must be written on a surface like a scroll.  "Just as a scroll is neither alive nor food, so too, a bill of divorce may be written on any object that is neither alive nor food".
Is it just me, or does that not sound suspiciously like the witch sketch in Monty Python's The Holy Grail?  Logic trumps all.

This is serious stuff, though, and the rabbis go on to debate whether or not conditions can be included in a bill of divorce. They agree that conditions are allowed, as long as the husband is clearly releasing his wife of all of her obligations toward him.  The rabbis disagree about how long conditions can last; some say 30 days and others say a lifetime.  It seems that the personalities of individual husbands and of those on particular bet dins would determine whether this ruling might be used to the advantage of a husband or a wife.

The descriptions of what a husband does to divorce a wife reminds me of Steve Martin's Wild and Crazy Guy's piece about how his country's solution to breaking up: "we say, 'I break with thee, I break with thee, I break with thee', and then we throw dog poop on her shoes.  Then we go to the swinging singles bar, and we look for the girls with the dog poop on their shoes..."

When the Mishna in 15b speaks of how to deal with breaks in partitions when created by a caravan in a field, I begin to glimpse the beginning of my understanding of the modern eiruv.  A relief for me when grappling with concepts that hold little meaning to me given my education and my experience in modern Toronto.  

A final thought: I notice hints of obsessive compulsive disorder in today's daf.  I think about OCD and halacha often at this time of year.  I cannot understand how orthodox people kasher their kitchens.  I try to be strict, but how can I get rid of the hametz cutlery while we are still using them?  How can I kasher the sink to cook pesachdik brisket when the sink is being used to wash hametz dishes? The idea of searching out every little crumb is one that can move anyone further on the OCD spectrum.

When the rabbis discuss whether or not segments of the partition are useful for carrying if they are exactly equal to the size of the break (not bigger and not smaller), I can just see those OCD ancestors of mine, pulling out tools to measure to the millimetre the wood over an alleyway.  Observance is not meant for the easygoing personality.

I think it is clear that I have been cleaning for Pesach for too long today.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Eiruvin 13a, b

Today's daf breaks from the long arguments regarding alleyways and crossbeams.  We are introduced to stories about Rabbi Meir, to concepts about Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai.  For me, much more palatable learning.

Rabbi Meir was a disciple of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yishmael.  We are told the story of Rabbi Meir as scribe, where Rabbi Akiva said nothing when Rabbi Meir put copper sulfate into his ink (which creates a more permanent bond).  However, Rabbi Yishmael chided Rabbi Meir when watching him scribe.  Rabbi Yishmael reminded Rabbi Meir that one error in his work could change the entire world. This is a critical lesson, whether taken literally or figuratively (in my work, I am forever speaking about the potential good that can be done with one smile).  However, the comment seems punitive and harsh, especially when compared with Rabbi Akiva's non-judgemental approach.

12a continues to tell us about the times when permanent ink is important - Torah scrolls - and the times when it is detrimental - sota scrolls.  I will not take this opportunity to discuss Sota, but I'm looking forward to future analysis.

Rabbi Meir is now described in more detail.  He is said to have been brilliant, respected by his entire generation.  Rabbi Meir began to organize the oral Torah and the halachot; that redaction was completed later by Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi.  Rabbi HaNasi tells us that he learned as much as he did because he faced the back of Rabbi Meir; had he faced his front, Rabbi HaNasi would have been that much more learned.

Because Rabbi Meir questioned the leadership of the time, his name was left out of many discussions in the Talmud.  He is said to have been born to Roman parents who converted to Judaism.  Rabbi Meir lost his two sons and his wife, though his he continued to have his daughter.  He was well respected but led a difficult life.

12b ends with a famous story about Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai.  After three years of arguing back and forth about whose opinions represented G-d's intent, a Bat Kol (heavenly voice) replied, "both these and those are the words of the living G-d, but the Halacha aligns with Beit Hillel".  It is noted that Beit Hillel were agreeable and forebearing.  However, both the teachings of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel should be taught.  Though Beit Shammai's teachings were more insightful, Beit Hillel was able to hear Beit Shammai's arguments, and thus halacha ultimately follows their lead.

An extrapolation given to us: anyone who humbles oneself will be exalted by G-d; anyone who exalts oneself will be humbled by G-d (12b). In addition, following a two and a half year argument between these two houses, some said that it would be better had humans not been created than to have been created.  When discussed further, it was understood that now that humans HAVE been created, one should scrutinize one's planned actions (toward mitzvot and away from sin) (12b).

Today's daf offers a number of contrasts between two seemingly polarized ends.  Rabbi Meir's brilliance and fame are contrasted with his tragic family life and his poor treatment in the Sanhedrin.  Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai are contrasted and balanced: compassion and leniency with harshness and stringency.  Human character traits of pride and despair are contrasted with character traits of humility and critical self-reflection and goal-setting.

In this one daf, we are offered a perfect arc.  One character, Rabbi Meir, rises and falls; rises and falls.  Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai are in conflict and then at peace; at conflict again and then again in a place of understanding.  Finally, humans who are interacting with these people alternately boastful and humble; depressed and inspired.  We are left with a message of hope: in keeping our pride in check, we will be able to hear others' views with humility; we then must create thoughtful plans for our self-improvement.

What a treat to come across a daf that is bursting with overt meaning and beauty.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Eiruvin 12a, b

Today the rabbis continue their discussion about crossbeams and side posts.  They debate about which might be a partition and which might be a 'conspicuous marker'.  They look to understand exactly what Rabbi Yehuda meant in his statements, and who agrees with Beit Shammai and who agrees with Beit Hillel regarding these definitions.

Sometimes I want to pull my hair out as I force myself to concentrate.

Why am I giving dedicated time to this practice when I could be raising money for a woman who needs cancer treatment, or speaking with a friend on the phone, or researching something that has immediate and direct application??

I don't have a good answer.  For some reason, I continue to be driven to learn every day.  I know that I am not following the arguments fully.  My ignorance frustrates me, but not enough to inspire more intensive study.  What I am looking for is not the halacha - how many handbreadths are required by width, or whether an alley needs to be 'closed' on both ends.  I am interested in the process of rabbinical thought.  I love looking at how the rabbis spoke with each other rather than what they said (well, when the topic is as numbing to me as this is, I am not particularly interested in what they said).  But every once in a while, there is a detail that pulls me from my frustration.  I am again reminded to take notice, to reevaluate, to put together a puzzle.

And that, again, is exactly what the rabbis were doing in their century-spanning debates.  They were looking to understand what their elders had said and what their elders had meant.  They were looking for 'proof' of some truth.  

Coming from a place of post-relativism (in this context, anyhow), there is no great 'truth' that I will find in my reading.  I continue to encounter many truths, many realities, many patterns and ideas.  Why that keeps me going, I don't know.  And perhaps I won't last the seven and a half years it will take to complete the daf yomi cycle.  Regardless, I am drawn to learn, and so I'll continue to learn, for now, even when the topic at hand makes me wish that I enjoyed a more productive hobby, like knitting or cleaning the house.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Eiruvin 11a, b

Today's daf was tough for me.  Without being able to clearly identify the rabbis in question, following their arguments was almost impossible after a full day of work followed by a board meeting.  Not that I would have had an easier time if I had been wide awake and fully focused, however.  Today's arguments are multifaceted, challenging, and reliant on information that I have not yet accessed in my limited learning.

Here are some of the arguments about permitted carrying on Shabbat that I could not follow today: the height or width of an alleyway's entrance, the height of a doorway or a cournice, the broken entrance or the poles with grapevines stretched over them, the top or side attachment of vines, the height of an archway (regarding placement of a mezuzah), the form of a doorway - including reeds, straw, hinges and loops.  As I read over this list, it does not seem to merit such confusion on my part.  But each argument is a question about another argument made by a rabbi with regard to another rabbi's opinion.  Like walking through a four dimensional maze.

A mishna in 11b tells us that there is a basic disagreement between the house of Hillel and the house of Shammai.  As usual, Beit Shammai are more stringent and insist that a crossbeam and a side post are required when deeming an alleyway fit for carrying on Shabbat.  Beit Hillel, on the other hand, say that only one of those two is required.  A list of rabbis then debate about what these great schools of thinkers really meant.

Much of today's daf describes the rabbis arguing with each other about what was intended by earlier rabbis.  It strikes me that I am continuing that tradition, albeit in an unthinkable way (at that time): alone, in English, on a computer, as a woman.  We are all part of this tradition of struggling with the all-important question, "but what does it MEAN??"  The entire study of Torah is a question mark, where "but what does it MEAN?" often leads the list of questions.

Perhaps that is why I love Judaism.  I am only one in a long, long line of people who have searched for meaning.  The most lauded Jewish personalities in our history are not the richest, or the most perfect, or the best looking.  They are hospitable, and kind, and flawed, and questioning.   Not terrible role models, all told.  

Monday, 18 March 2013

Eiruvin 10a, b

Trying to better understand when it is permitted to carry in an alley on Shabbat, the rabbis delve deeper into questions about one particular scenario: when an alleyway looks from the inside to be opening onto a public domain, but from the outside, the walls of the alley extend into to that public space.  Their arguments include the required length of the alley walls as they protrude, the height of those walls, the width of the crossbeams, the placement of the side posts, and more, and more and more.

When I read these dapim, I seem to cling to the moments that shed light on the actual lives of these men and the society they describe.  What is said - and what is omitted - tells much about an entire world.  One of those moments is offered to us in 9a when Rabbi Yosef is confronted with one of his former rulings. He says that he "did not hear this halacha".  The note in Koren suggests that Rabbi Yosef was ill and did not remember having learned the halacha from his teacher, Rav.

Of course Rabbi Yosef had an amazing memory.  All of the rabbis that we read about had memories that I cannot fathom.  To present Rabbi Yosef's failing memory, therefore, is significant.  We are introduced to the Rabbi as a human being.  His student, Abaye, goes on to remind Rabbi Yosef just what he had taught Abaye in the past.  The end of the ruling concludes that we learn three things from the case in point: 
1) it is prohibited to carry in the area between side posts;
2) an alleyway must be at least four cubits;
3) a side post that can be seen from the alley but from inside the alley seems to extend to the public domain has the legal status of a side post.

What Rabbi Yosef had taught Abaye was important in understanding eiruvin.  It was memorable (to Abaye, at least), informative, authoritative, and longstanding.  When Abaye shares the forgotten halacha, Rabbi Yosef could have taken it as an insult.  However, pointing out the "facts" -- errors in logic or memory -- are commonplace in the Talmud.

In 10b, Abaye and Rav Dimi disagree about what they are disagreeing about.  A good number of sentences relate their attempts to understand exactly what the other is arguing, and whether those arguments are in fact contrary to each other.  

I believe that being compassionate and kind is an important ingredient in productive intellectual debate.  However, I wonder if we have somehow lost the ability to struggle with each other toward a shared understanding of our intentions.  We become defensive - proving that we are 'right' is more important than getting to a larger picture or understanding.  I would not suppose that these Rabbis, as great as they were, could teach us everything we need to know about compassionate debate.  However, today's daf reminds me that I can search for places to experience  open disagreement; argument that clarifies numerous differences for the sake of seeking a shared truth.

Eiruvin 9a,b

We are introduced to the concept of “lavud”,  joining.   With regard to the topic of alleyways and their entrances, lavud suggests that two solid surfaces are considered to be connected if there is a gap of three (or four, depending on the rabbi) handbredths between them, maximum.  We also learn about the principle of “havut”, where an object is thought of as being pressed down from above.   The rabbis argue about how these ideas might help them to understand where and how questionable domains can be used for carrying on Shabbat.

When the rabbis come across a halacha that does not make sense to them, they say that “a permanent resident is down on the ground while a stranger is raised up to heaven” (9a).  The Koren Talmud tells us in a note that this phrase is used when things are not as they should rightly be. This suggests that strangers should not be raised to heaven; only permanent residents, presumably, merit that honour.  I find this particularly disturbing as we are one week from Pesach as I write this note.  

We learn over and over again that we, the Jewish people, were once strangers in a strange land.  We learn that we should treat “the other” as one who is part of the inner circle.  Perhaps the reason that we are taught this lesson over and over again is because in fact we do not live with great compassion for “the other”. Difference can be understood without judgements attached.  However, difference also can be used as a concept that allows us to think of another as less worthy.  Throughout my short time practicing Daf Yomi I have noticed a number of references to the "other" – whether that is a woman, or a minor, or a zav, or "deaf/mute", or a convert, or a stranger – as being thought of as “less than”.  

I like to think of Judaism as a religion that teaches the importance of compassion, respect, and inclusion.  In fact, our writings seem to be contradictory when it comes to the notion of inclusion.  So much of Judaism is about barriers - the distinctions between different groups, concepts, states of being.  In itself, that way of thinking may promote the notion of the 'stranger' as 'other'.  And perhaps as Jews we are charged with working that much harder to understand the connections and indeed the sameness between ourselves and others.


Friday, 15 March 2013

Eiruvin 7a, b

I am quick to admit that I understand little about eiruvim.  I am confused about the differences between courtyards and backyards; between what is prohibited because of laws regarding carrying in a specific domain and what is prohibited because of laws regarding carrying from one domain to another.  I sit with the text and wonder what the rabbis speak of when they say "mi'caan", "from here" --  were they drawing pictures to describe the alleyway in question?  with what? Were they pointing in the air so that their colleagues could picture their explanations?  I find myself wishing that I were studying with a learned rabbi who could share with me the missing pieces in the text.

7a offers a number of fascinating ideas. The "Bat Kol", the Divine Voice, is said to have announced that the halacha was in accordance with Beit Hillel; in fact, that the halacha is always in accordance with Beit Hillel.  Rabbi Yehoshua is said to disregard the Divine Voice: halachic decisions are made of an earth-bound court and do not rely on heavenly intervention.

Judiasm has a long tradition of relying on people, not G-d, to solve human problems.  We do not expect G-d or one of G-d's angels to tell us with G-d's heavenly voice which solution is the 'right' solution.  Judiasm asks us to struggle with the reality that we do NOT know what G-d might say, or think, or advise.  Some streams of Jewish practice do call on G-d in prayer many times every day.  But there is no expectation that G-d will answer those prayers with a "Bat Kol", a divine voice.  We are meant to figure out the appropriate answers ourselves.

The Gemara then focuses upon the tradition of following one Master -- if one follows Beit Hillel, s/he should continue to follow that tradition, whether the rulings are stringent or lenient.  I have heard about this in our modern world as well.  If we are in the position of having to choose our own Rabbi, we must choose one Rabbi and follow her/his decisions, whether or not we like all of them.  Jewish tradition does not encourage us to use one Rabbi for certain issues and another Rabbi for others.

I have mixed feeling about that particular tradition.  There is something sound about the idea of choosing one voice to follow.  If we shop for a new Rabbi whenever we disagree with his or her learned opinion, we undermine rabbinical authority, potentially hurt others' feelings, and create inconsistencies within tightly knit communities.  Then again, if we disagree with our Rabbi's words, why not speak with a Rabbi who might have a different insight?  In this day and age, where confidence in religion at all might be at risk, why not allow for the possibility of inconsistency?  At least we will have a community of people who are consciously choosing our own halachic paths, relying on the expertise of many Rabbis  and not just one fallible, limited human being.

Eruvin 7 is filled with ideas ripe for unpacking.  For me, most of those are sidelined commentary.  In fact, much of what I find most intriguing in my Daf Yomi exploration are the off-side comments.  I have to believe that I am not alone in this!  

Shabbat Shalom

Eiruvin 6a, b

What makes an alleyway? What makes an opening? What is a breach and what is a doorway?  How we answer these questions defines what must be constructed to create legal barriers between realms.  But on a more practical level, the answers to these questions help us know what can be carried where on Shabbat. So the lives of women, men and children who need to visit relatives or neighbours can do so without breaking the law.

The laws of eiruvin seem so arbitrary to me.  They are numerous and complicated.  They define something that I have never consciously followed. These laws do not inspire me to follow them, either. But I am not bored as I read through the rabbis' thoughts and words.  I am drawn into a world where lives were bound by laws defining what is here and what is there, what is in and what is out, what is permitted and what is liable for a sin offering.

If only life were so structured for me.  I do "x" and I'm fine; I do "y" and there is a clear punishment.  My world offers no such black and white certainty; every decision opens the floodgates of questions and confusion.  I have considered taking on Orthodox halacha in an attempt to create this external structure.  However, I have never managed to keep up with the rules.  Sometimes I wish it were different, but mostly I appreciate being able to step in and out, to access and to question.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Eiruvin 5a, b

Today we learn about how we define an alleyway and how we might correct for height, width, and conspicuousness requirements that have not been met.

Reading this confusing, convoluted set of arguments and examples, my mind returns again and again to the architechts who designed these homes and courtyards and alleyways.  Were homes and neighbourhoods constructed with halacha in mind?  Were homes in continual breach of halacha, requiring 'fixes'? Or did those families do without carrying from home to shul on Shabbat?  Were those who could afford these halachic 'repairs' able to enjoy the menucha of Shabbat that much more than those with less?  Did the entire community come together to create a 'kosher' alleyway, or was this formidable work done by the homeowner who would most benefit from the experience of carrying on Shabbat from his 'private domain'?

The Rabbis debate about situations where measurements are varied, changing the equation over and over.  At the end of 5b, they wonder about a situation where different parts of an opening - a breach in the alleyway wall and a standing portion of the wall - are exactly the same length.  Tosafot enter a discussion about whether that sort of precise measurement is even possible to achieve by human beings.  They highlight the larger question of human fallibility.

Of course our Rabbis understand that humans make errors!  But so many of their debates revolve around the notion of halacha as an exact science.  The Rabbis attempt to specify exactly how many handbredths are required to define a given parametre, for example, even though they know that handbredths are not precise measures.  The consequences of errors in halacha can be severe.  Precision is paramount.  And yet there is an inherent understanding that as people we are clumsy, inaccurate, imprecise.

Unlike many of us, the Rabbis embraced an ancient understanding of the reality of G-d.  Even so, they were able to face the challenge of balancing the idealized, G-dlike concept of precision with the predictable inexactitude that is human reality. 

Eiruvin 4b

The Rabbis debate about what is known from Sinai and what is known from the Torah.  We cannot argue with Torah law, halacha -- it is written down, and it was given to us directly from G-d, the Rabbis believe.  All other halachot must have been given to Moses at Mount Sinai as oral law.  If we can understand what is Torah law and what is law given to Moses at Mount Sinai, we can understand how strict the rulings should be regarding the larger question at hand: how to best create a partition in an alleyway to clearly demarcate where one will be permitted to carry out on Shabbat.

I learn again that I will not be held liable for eating less than a date-bulk of food on Yom Kippur, a day of complete fasting.  The Torah does not speak of this exception, and thus it must have been stated to Moses at Sinai.  I learn that one's hair changes the halacha regarding ritual immersion, as Leviticus tells us only to immerse "all of our flesh" -- thus the immersion of our hair, not mentioned in this quote from Leviticus, must have been mentioned to Moses at Sinai.  And, closer to our current discussion, I learn that there is a lack of clarity regarding how many cubits (and the size of those cubits) were measured in building the Mishkan and the Temple.  So how can we know exactly how to build this doorway?

The Rabbis attempt to define, demarcate and measure exactly what is required of us in any given situation.  Ultimately, they are working to name what is not known; to create certainty from imprecision.  We all do that in our own ways.  We stereotype, we research, we compare and analyze.  All of those efforts are critical and part of the beauty of being human.  It seems that we live with the developmental imperative to want to know, to understand, to make sense of.  And in the end we are only acting on our guesses - educated, logical, reasonable guesses, but nothing more than that.

The wisdom of the Rabbis pours from these pages, and I would never deny the brilliance and wisdom that has gone into their work.  However, they were human, too, and pages like Eruvin 4b remind me that they were also simply stating their best guess.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Eiruvin 3a, b

We need to understand how a crossbeam should be placed in an alleyway so that we can determine where one domain begins and where another domain ends.  When the beam is placed correctly, we will know where we are allowed to carry objects on Shabbat.

The rabbis argue about the intentions of different baraitot in Eiruvin 3a and 3b.  They debate about the structure of the sanctuary and how different measures were required in different places - decorative and other finishings included.  The rabbis look at prooftexts including the placement of roofing in our sukkot as commanded in Leviticus.  They question the meaning of strange words in the baraitot to elucidate inferences.  They wonder about what is and what is not a doorframe in the first place.

Part of my study of Talmud feels like literary criticism.  I cannot truly grasp the full meanings intended when I have not read the original works, the baraitot, to which the rabbis refer so frequently.  I can appreciate the effort, the form and the pace of the text; I can pore through the words for consistencies of character and storyline.  I can even grasp onto clauses that speak to something familiar.  But I cannot immerse myself, for I am speaking a different language - literally and figuratively.  Truly I am swimming in an ocean where I have no air tank... nor even a snorkel.

Does it truly matter whether a crossbeam is 10 or 20 or 40 cubits above the alleyway?  To me, not at all.  But it seems that the intellectual exercise of the rabbis is a useful one both in understanding how our halacha has developed, and in understanding how to think.  When I wade through these details that seem so distant and bereft, I often come back to the larger lesson of "how to think".  The rabbis look for proofs: they use the repetition of letters or words, the creative connection of seemingly unrelated texts, anything that they can to add strength to their ideas.  This exercise of building an argument with creative thought - all within a stratified structure - is endlessly fascinating.

Eiruvin 2a, b

Eiruvin begins with an examination of when and how we are to change the dimensions of a doorway. When an entrance is considered a true entrance, know how and when we can carry objects through those doorways and between different domains.

We are told in Exodus that because we have food enough for two days over our Shabbat, we need not leave our place and we should remain in our place.  These are positive and negative commandments, which beg the question: where is our place?  The Sages created the concept of a number of places, or domains, to help us understand where we must remain; where we cannot leave on Shabbat.  One of these is called the private domain, one the public, one the karmelit, which is neither of the above, and one encompassing other areas. 

Because one of the major prohibitions on Shabbat is the act of carrying from one domain to the next, it is important to know the dimensions and limitations of each domain.  One of the ways we move from one domain to another is through a doorway or entrance.  Thus we learn today about the height of an entrance, the width of an entrance, the substance of an entrance.

Three ideas caught my eye today.  The first is Rabbi Yehuda's insistence on lenient interpretations of the law.  The Rabbis trouble themselves to understand how Rabbi Yehuda's can interpret in this way.  The second is the reliance upon Torah text to create and justify interpretations and then Halacha.  We cannot pull a measurement out of the air; instead, we should debate on the source, our primary text.  We are to argue about whether we should be referring to the 10 cubit entrance to the sanctuary or the 20 cubit entrance to the entrance hall.   The third point of interest for me is the disagreement between Rabbis about whether the measurements used to measure an entranceway are taken from the Mishkan or taken from the Temple. 

The Torah describes different measurements for the entrances to these two holy sites, and thus we are left to guess whether we should look to one or the other to help us know how to measure our current - well, current at the beginning of the common era - doorways.

It is fascinating that Jewish tradition helps us to understand ourselves through the lens of ancient writings.  While some of us might choose to understand ourselves and our worlds in this light, others - myself included- are more interested in using other sources to justify our decisions.  When an entire tradition is based on these texts, a degree of faith and belief is assumed that feels uncomfortable for me.  What if the descriptions of these entrance ways were simply descriptions of entrance ways and not blueprints for the measurements of our doorways and thus our freedom of movement while carrying objects on Shabbat?