Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Eiruvin 53a, b

I was daunted when beginning today's daf.  It is the first daf in Koren's Eiruvin Vol.2 and it is longer than usual Eiruvin dapim.  Prepared for a difficult slog through concepts and technicalities that are both vague and complex, I was happily surprised.  Daf 53a & b focus on the linguistics of Mishna and Gemara.  In fact, they touch on social norms and rules as well.  Finally!

Rather than list the numerous examples shared by the rabbis, I will touch on a few themes and points that stood out for me.  One anecdote of note was one of the first: an argument between two rabbis on what was meant by a verse in Exodus that was familiar to me.  For the first time, I was able to understand the text, the context, the arguments and the discussion.  As the rabbis share their reasons for understanding the Torah text differently, they agree that both perspectives are reasonable.

This is a theme throughout the remainder of daf 53.  Rabbis share examples and stories of people using words to play, to direct, to subvert, to hide, to joke -- words carry more than one meaning.  The value placed upon word-play is a lovely, light break from the more challenging technical details of Eiruvin.  And to come to the conclusion that there is more than one truth is significant.  Like earlier in Eiruvin where Hillel and Shammei's words are both considered valid, again we are shown that two or more viewpoints can hold true.  And as in the earlier daf, where Hillel's words are taken as halacha,  we are asked to value the sharing of all opinions (as Hillel did) and behaving with decency (as Hillel did).  The model of respect for different opinions is fortified. 

A number of the stories describe women and children - both boys and girls - getting the better of rabbis through their clever use of words.  Rather than chastise these people of lower status, the rabbis record their praise and respect.  How wise are our people?!  They comment.  I am encouraged by this subversion of the dominant power structure.  If the rabbis could recognize intelligence in women and children, it is easier to believe that they treated these people with respect - even though women and children had few rights.

Monday, 29 April 2013

Eiruvin 52a, b

Daf 52 is the last daf in Koren's version of Eiruvin, book one.  Tomorrow I'll begin to learn from the same masechet - Eiruvin - but from page one of another book.  For some reason, I'm thinking that this is an exciting change.  Kind of ridiculous.  But I suppose that is what happens when I am pusing myself to daily learning about something particularly distant and difficult for me.

Today's conversation focuses on a number of issues.  The rabbis wonder about what is necessary to establish a Shabbat residence in another place.  Is food required? or can this be done by foot?  or perhaps simply by intention?  And in each of these instances, the rabbis wonder about how large the person's Shabbat residence might be. Does it exist at all? is it four by four cubits large?  In addition, the rabbis question one who intends to establish an eiruv but does not establish an eiruv.  Is he a camel driver and a donkey driver?  This refers to pulling and pushing at the same time; this person may not have the benefit of a Shabbat residence at all.

In 52b, we are introduced to the idea of boundaries again.  The rabbis explain: some believe that with one foot outside of the Shabbat boundary, a person is not able to reenter his original Shabbat limit.  However, if he takes two steps out, he is allowed to return.  Three steps -- again, he's stuck where he is.  Other rabbis believe differently: if someone takes one step outside, the bulk of his body is within the limits, and thus he is allowed to return.  Proofs for these ideas are shared and discussed.  The rabbis also begin a conversation about the meaning of darkness with regard to the establishment of an eiruv.

Again I am drawn to the idea of boundaries.  The rabbis tell us that measurements of 2000 cubits are not exact, and thus we should be stringent in our estimation of the 2000 cubit marker.  It is as if our Sages understand that much of these rules are somewhat arbitrary, and yet the adherence to these rules is considered critical.  Breaking Shabbat halacha is serious business.  

How can the rabbis concurrently state that 2000 cubits cannot be measured exactly and at the same time state that breaking the laws of Shabbat will result in terrible consequences?  These are brilliant thinkers.  They must have understood that these two statements suggest the existence of an unjust G-d.  Or, perhaps, that our human interpretations of these laws are greatly flawed and not to be counted upon.

The Judaism that I love is alive and open to these sorts of questions.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Eiruvin 51a, b

The rabbis again focus on the establishment of an eruv through intention and/or statement.  In 51a, the Gemara asks how two thousand cubit came to be understood as the home boundary, the "place" as defined by the Shabbat limit.  The Gemara then explains that two statements in Exodus 16:29 foretell this arrangement.  The Torah says that every person should stay in their place, and that no person should leave their place.  One of these refers to two thousand cubits, and the other refers to four cubits.  Interesting. 

The rabbis go on to explain why 2000 cubits was chosen as the area of one's "place".  Apparently the Levite cities and then the cities of refuge (set aside for those who had committed a crime and were removed from society) were 2000 cubits as defined by Torah law.  Thus the rabbis felt justified in choosing this same area as that of Shabbat's "place".

The rabbis discuss different opinions regarding the 2000 cubit area and the actual distance that one can carry within a four cubit radius.  Rabbis argue that the area is circular and that the area is square.  Mathematical formula are used to demonstrate their ideas.  Some rabbis believe that one can carry a four cubit line from where s/he is situated on Shabbat.  Others believe that s/he can carry on the diagonal line, as if s/he were beginning her/his carrying from the diagonal point in a four cubit square.  All of these opinions are debated and proven.

Finally, 51b focuses on the fact that a wealthy person and a pauper are both allowed to set the eruv by foot.  The rabbis discuss whether this includes the intention to establish a residence, the statement that one is establishing a residence, actually arriving at that 'residence' before the beginning of Shabbat, or having the ability to arrive at that stated residence before the start of Shabbat.  The rabbis discuss reasoning, including whether or not one can afford two meals, whether or not one has bread enough to establish an eruv, and other factors.

When the Torah says something in two different ways, one immediately next to the other, the rabbis argue that there must be meaning behind that word placement.  It could not be a literary device, or a way to accentuate a point.  Instead we are to look for the deeper meaning behind those consecutive sentences.

I have found that Torah study - while very meaningful and emotionally evocative - is not primarily an emotional task.  I do not learn Torah because it makes me feel close to G-d.  To do that, I pray, or meditate, or walk in the woods.  I learn Torah because it is inherently an intellectual exercise while it connects .  Our Sages created rules that help me to stretch my brain and twist words until I can understand them better; feeling connected to my ancestors at the same time.  Daf 51a reminds me that as I learn every day, I am consciously and unconsciously participating in that tradition of reasoning and struggling and questioning. 

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Eiruvin 50a, b

We learn about the concepts of "consecutively" and "simultaneously" in today's daf.  As well, we learn more about how the rabbis value each others' words.

The rabbis assert that no two things can occur at exactly the same moment.  Thus the notion of simultaneity does not exist.  Instead, the question becomes measuring which event occurred first.  If events are said to occur simultaneously, it means that we cannot know which event took place first.

The rabbis discuss the placement of an eiruv at greater length.  They describe the idea of place; when a person declares that a certain place is his (sic) residence, how that place might be determined and measured.  In particular, the rabbis speak about claiming residence beneath a tree.  The exact point of residence can be important in a number of circumstances.  It can allow a person to walk four thousand cubits, or limit a person to four cubits.

A note explains that some believe that Rav had the status of a tanna, and thus he was able to question the words of the baraitot.  Apparently Rav's name was mentioned in three places in the baraitot as "Rav Abba", and thus Rav was actually a tanna himself.  However, Rav is considered to be an amora, likely because Rav Yochanan and Shmuel - not tannaim - disagreed with Rav and the halacha was occasionally in their favour.  In the end, it is noted that the rabbis do not oppose Rav in baraitot.

Again we are presented with the clear structures, hierarchies, and boundaries of ancient Jewish thought.  Logic is used to justify the creation of finite, static differences between one time and another, one place and another, one state of being and another.  These are incredibly useful when building a society; the imposition of social order based on a combination of understood social norms and also the will of either G-d, or those with power (ie. the Sages), or some combination of the two.  Difficulties arise when these same rules are applied over generations.  If we do not believe that there is a clear state of tamei and a clear state of tahor, for example, how can we participate fully in traditional Jewish observance?

I overwhelmed with respect for the work of the rabbis. Simultaneously (or, perhaps, consecutively... but without knowing which feeling came first) I am frustrated by the limitations that are created and then adhered to.  Although these structures organize our worlds, they also potentially limit our worlds.  I'm sitting on this line between the two; fascinated.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Eiruvin 48a, b

An interesting conversation between Rabbi Chiyya and Rabbi Yosei (son of Rabbi Chanina) takes up much of daf 48a.  Rabbi Chiyya teaches a baraita that tells us to build an iron partition to divide a small water hole that "lies between two Shabbat limits" so that people of both towns can draw water on Shabbat.  And Rabbi Yosei laughs.

Much of today's daf is devoted to explaining why Rabbi Yosei would laugh at his colleague's words.  Great effort goes into explaining that this laughter cannot be what it seems: rude behaviour on the part of Rabbi Yosei.  Instead, Rabbi Yosei must be responding to something unusual in the baraita.

As an aside, how fascinating that the emotional, social response of one rabbi toward another is captured and remembered in our text.  That is not 'side information'; it is in the Talmud and just as deserving of thought and debate as any other passage in the Talmud.  The Talmud provides us not only with direction regarding halacha, but with lessons on how we should treat each other.

But back to the narrative of daf 48.  One of the more interesting debates regarding Rabbi Yosei's response to Rabbi Chiyya concerns the four cubits allowed to a person over Shabbat.  If the person is 'in the middle', then s/he would be limited to 2 cubits in any direction.  However, if s/his is on one end of the four cubits, then s/he is either limited to one direction of movement (and back), or s/he actually uses an 8 cubit radius.

In addition, the rabbis question the size of a cubit.  Should a person use the understood measurement of a cubit used for consecrated property, the standard six handbreadths, or should s/he use his/her own forearm (from elbow to tip of index finger) to measure those four cubits?  I love that the standard cubit, the objective measurement, is six handbreadths.  If measures of forearms aren't standard, why would handbreadths be any diferent?

At the end of 48a and throughout 48b, the rabbis liken this debate to that of eiruvin for a grouping of three courtyards where the two on the outside open up on the third in the middle.  The placement of eiruvin is discussed, as is the status of Rav Yehuda in contrast with Rav Sheshet.  

Slowly I am beginning to understand more of the basic concepts of eiruvin.  And only 48 dapim in to the masechet!  To be clear, I am only BEGINNING to understand.  

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Eiruvin 47a, b

Today's daf continues the rabbi's conversation about the principles of halachic decision-making.  We are provided with a number of scenarios.  Each circumstance offers an opportunity for the rabbis to debate the proper ruling, sometimes followed by a declaration: "the halacha is in accordance with Rabbi ___".  We then learn about why that final statement might have been necessary, since we are already supposed to know which rabbi's opinions are followed.

Post-modern thinkers assume the end of 'traditional' rules.  Those rules are understood, and discussed, and referenced in a new, twisted version of themselves.  We think that we are smart, or special, or further ahead -- "post" modern -- because we are so insightful and creative in our thinking.  The past two dapim suggest that the rabbis were "post-" themselves.  They were well aware of the rules as they were creating that system of thought.  They played with those rules and challenged themselves on the validity of their methods.

Of course, the rabbis are not post-modernists.  In antiquity it is a given that G-d exists.  The unchanging socially defined roles of women, children, men, people with disabilities, and people understood as 'slaves' was absolute and determinative.  I would not suggest that we are in the same philosophical location as our Sages.  At the same time, it is possible that we are not as far removed from their systems of thought than we would like to believe.  

We pride ourselves on our communal ability to create a system of justice, for example.  We learn rules and policies very early in our lives, and those ideas of 'how the world works' stick in our minds. Yet we understand that this system is created on a somewhat unsteady foundation.  On occasion, we will bend or break our own rules in order to better reflect the needs of our community.  

The rabbis make similar efforts. These dapim focus on how the structure of authority works and why it works in that way.  To write that exploration into the Talmud would suggest a deep confidence in the process they are creating.  Even now, we think of 'focusing on process rather than just on the product' as forward thinking.  Our rabbis have much to teach us about these ideas... when thinking about this connection, 2000 years seems like very recent history.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Eruvin 46a, b

Today's daf focuses on the principles of halachic decision-making.  This is wonderful for me, as I usually guess at the larger systems of thought surrounding the daily daf.  

We are told that a rabbi has suggested two rulings regarding one issue.  He tells us that rulings on eruvin follow lenient halalcha.  He also tells us that rulings follow the words of one particular rabbi in that situation.  The rabbis understand that we never need superfluous information; one ruling should be enough.  Why do we need both?  

  • The principle of leniency versus stringency is described: in general, Torah law suggests more stringent halacha, and rabbinical law allows for more lenient rulings.
  • Our Sages examine the question of peer influence: when one rabbi puts forward a lenient ruling and a number of authorities disagree, suggesting a stringent ruling, it is acceptable to follow the halacha of the first rabbi.
  • One particular rabbi's opinions might always trump another's.  
  • Eruvin and laws of mourning are rabbinical in origin, and thus are treated with more leniency.

Two examples are shared.  The first describes a ruling regarding an older woman who has not seen menstrual blood for three months.  When she sees blood, she is tamei from that day onward.  If we are speaking about a young woman (who has not yet had children), she is tamei retroactively for 24 hours.  This ruling followed the principles above.

The second example details truncated mourning rituals for a person who learns of a death from a significant proximity away.  Again, the halacha follows the above principles.

Further discussion of these halachic decision-making principles follows in b.

  • One may act in a person's absence if something is to the absentee's advantage
  • One may not be another's agent if the decision is to the absentee's disadvantage
  • The authority of rabbis is as follows:
    • Rabbi Akiva over any individual Sage
    • Rabbi HaNasi over any individual Sage
    • Rabbi Yosei over any group of disputing Sages
    • Rabbi Yehuda over R. Yosei or R. Shimon
    • Rabbi Meir over R. Yehuda
    • No one decided about Rabbi Meir with Rabbi Shimon
  • However, Rav Meharshiya reminds us that these principles are not always followed.
Daf 46 ends by beginning a new example of how these principles might not be useful.

I am tremendously grateful for dapim that explicitly state the rules of the game.  As an outsider in this learning (a woman, a Hebrew-challenged person, a non-Aramaic reader, a non-day-school student, a non-orthodox background, etc.), dapim like Eruvin 46 allow me to enter more fully into the world of our Sages.  

I can understand why some Jews would believe that this material should be kept only for those who learn in context.  I really do appreciate that I am missing so much more than I can even imagine.  But at the same time, I am so eager to claim my tradition, my history.  It belongs to me, too.  So I tread in this sea with great respect, but I also bring my own understandings and critiques to the practice.

Finally, I love the practice of struggling with the text, attempting to understand the intentions of the rabbis.  And then, just when I think that I understand, the argument turns and I'm told that none of what I just learned is relevant.  

Monday, 22 April 2013

Eruvin 45a, b

Our Sages debate about something current in today's daf.  They look at whether or not a person can carry over a Shabbat boundary if he is a soldier carrying a weapon, or a midwife carrying the medical utensils of her trade.  It is clear that saving a life or preventing a likely death is our first priority, and so the rabbis agree that one may cross boundaries and carry weapons in order to prevent death.  In fact, they agree that the laws of Shabbat can be desecrated if a Jewish town is attacked on Shabbat (but not if the attack is about the theft of money) and land is at stake.  It is less clear whether or not we are allowed to breach the laws of Shabbat in a number of other circumstances.  The rabbis call each other out on past decisions to clarify arguments and hold each other to their past declarations.  

In daf 45b, the rabbis consider the notion of an ownerless object; an object that might acquire a residence on Shabbat.  A fascinating conversation ensues regarding rain.  Is rain ownerless?  And because it falls from the sky, does is have a place of residence?  Can it be collected and carried, depending on where it falls in relation to the Jewish residence at hand?  

I think that my preconceived ideas about Talmudic debates might have included the idea of rain as an ownerless object.  Or, perhaps, of rain as a resident of the clouds.  Or even the ocean, as it evaporates from that place.  The fanciful and oh-so-logical arguments of our Sages can be mind-bending in one sentence and then uplifting in the next.  I can easily picture these ancestors sitting around a table, or pointing to the sky, or eating a meal while debating, laughing, thinking.  Today's daf brought me back to the understanding of Talmud study as philosophy, as conversation about the tiny things in our lives that represent such depth and meaning.


Sunday, 21 April 2013

Eiruvin 44a, b

The rabbis want to better understand their thinking regarding a partition related to an eiruv constructed by people.  They look to other rulings about using people or animals as partitions.  A conversation regarding the sukkah ends with a number of guidelines.  These include:
  • restrictions on the use of an animal as a sukkah wall (it must be tied well; it cannot shrink if it dies); 
  • whether the wall in question is the third or fourth wall of the sukkah (designating the wall's status as permanent or temporary - and the partition must be a temporary structure);
  • whether or not one knows that he is part of a partition (one cannot know that s/he is in that role -- to be knowledgeable about being part of a partition would suggest permanency)
Having delved further into the concept of people as partitions, the rabbis use 44b to explore the concept of knowledge of one's participation as a partition.  They cite a number of examples that demonstrate the importance of people not knowing that they are partitions.  

Finally, the rabbis discuss a new Mishnah that allows people to return to their private Shabbat boundary should they have left the boundary to "rescue or heal someone" and then are called back.  Clearly the rabbis want this person to be able to return to his Shabbat boundary.  However, they introduce the notion of a person who establishes his Shabbat residence in a very long cave.  They discuss whether or not - and how - that person might be able to return to his primary dwelling on Shabbat.

The disregard for animals as sentient beings stands out for me in today's daf, though it was a very small part of the day's reading.  As well, the contrast between the desire to make people's lives better and a desire to follow halacha that seems quite empty of human consideration.  For example, the rabbis want to make it easier for a person to return home on Shabbat following healing someone beyond the Shabbat boundary.  At the same time, they have chosen to interpret bareitot and Tanach writings as bereft of emotion or reason, including the need for a particular crossbeam at a particular place to allow people to carry things from one domain to another on Shabbat.  Even the creation of these domains seems somehow removed from the emotional truth of people's lives.  I have not yet found a way to deeply embrace these foundational principals and practices yet.  But who knows where learning daf yomi will bring me...

Eiruvin 43a, b

The rabbis want to know more about movement with regard to Shabbat boundaries.  In 42a and b (which I did not comment on over Shabbat), they discuss  throwing as a form of carrying.  In 43a, they inquire about limits (four cubits? more? or perhaps four cubits in the outdoors is the same as in a permanent residence, which is actually the full residence?) of walking while on a boat.  Those limits could be different depending on whether the boat is moving or stationary.  Then the rabbis discuss the limitations of movement on Shabbat if a person is in the air; above 10 handbreadths.  (As an aside, they make mention of Rav Chisda in Sura and the seven teachings, which concern the halachot of animals who will die within one year).  And we learn about Yosef the demon, who may have been a demon or may have communicated with demons.

I love these 'asides'!  I wish that we could focus more on those fabulous facts.  Demons?  What demons? What are they talking about?  Why did this come up?  But now I digress, too.

In 43b, the rabbis discuss other factors that might help us understand Shabbat boundaries above 10 handbreadths.  What would breach an aerial boundary?  The moshiach, of course!  The rabbis get extremely creative and discuss one who vows to become a nasir  upon the arrival of moshiach.  When would s/he actually have to give up drinking if we know that Elijah will come the day before the moshiach arrives?  We have been told that moshiach will not arrive on Shabbat or a Festival because of the disruption that would ensue.  How does the day of the week change the nasir-to-be's vow?

In the name of understanding better the measurement of an eiruv, we are told of Rabban Gamliel's special tube that can measure 2000 cubits without having to travel that distance.  The rabbis then mention a similar tube that can help to measure the depth of a valley.  Further, they digress and explain how to measure the height of a tall palm without climbing it: by comparing the relative size of the shadows of a palm and a measured reed, the height of the palm can be calculated.

Finally, we learn that Rabbi Nechemya has wandered beyond the Shabbat boundary.  To alleviate his distress, Jews or gentiles can create a "human partition".  Rabbi Nechemya can walk through that permitted partition.

I know there are gaps in my understanding of eiruvin.  I am confused about this human partition and the permanence or transience of any eiruv.  Even the philosophical underpinnings of eiruvin sometimes seem fuzzy to me.  But I do love the opportunities that the rabbis use to explain their thinking - mathematical, logical, nautical (in 43a and b in particular), social, and on and on...

To end today's musings, a question: why would a person vow to become a nasir/a upon arrival of Moshiach? Once moshiach arrives, wouldn't that vow be simple to complete?  And until that time, how would a vow like that affect anything in one's life?  I wonder about the social cache that might come from making such a vow.  Or perhaps it could offer some sort of hope: looking forward to a time when one will be devoted to a spiritual life beyond a physically focused existence.  But if moshiach won't come in that person's lifetime (which, I believe, is pretty much assured), why make a vow like this at all?  Or perhaps I'm missing something here, too...

Thursday, 18 April 2013

Eiruvin 41a, b

The rabbis compare the halacha regarding two-day Festivals; Shabbat followed by a Festival, etc. to the halacha when a fast day is preceded by or followed by Shabbat, etc.  In this comparison, they focus on the fast of the 9th of Av.  A number of interesting conversations arise from this exploration.

The rabbis discuss Rabbi Yehoshua's attempt to change Rabban Gamliel's statement that challenged other established halacha.  In response, the Gemara argues that Rabbi Yosei's rulings hold, and thus Rabban Gamliel's rulings hold.

This has interesting implications.  The great rabbis of our generation create halacha that should also hold in its time.  To that end, decisions to ordain women as rabbis, to celebrate gay marriages, to debate and recreate Jewish practice should be rulings that hold.  These decisions came directly from our most traditional thinkers.  These modern sages learned, questioned, and created new ways of practicing our faith in our time.  Rather than challenge these leaders after their deaths, we can follow our tradition and allow their rulings to hold.

Some of the conversations about fast days and Shabbat/other holidays include personal stories as proof.  Rabbis speak about their own family traditions.  I love this - every Jewish family has its own way of practicing halacha; of living our traditions.  Even when these traditions were being created, people celebrated differently in their own homes.  

Most engaged Jews complain about their synagogue (if they even belong to a synagogue). Either the service is too short or it includes too much; either the rabbi is too verbose or too quiet; either there is too much English or too much Hebrew.  Even when we consciously join together to create a chavurah to pray as we chose, it is never 'perfect' -- perhaps there are not enough Torah readers; perhaps the singing isn't wonderful.  We all think back to our childhood experiences to guide us as to what works and what doesn't.  And always, our experiences are different from each other.  

I suppose I love the idea that there was never a perfect, ritualized prototype for doing halacha.  Well, there was, but it never actually worked.  As human beings we have always created individualized practice rituals.  The pressure to be 'perfect' diminishes.  And thus I am less intimidated by and more interested in the possibility of taking on halacha.

In 41b, the rabbis discuss the possibility that one is taken out of the Shabbat boundary against one's will.  On land, how far is one allowed to walk?  What about on a boat?  And what should one do if a bathroom is not available within the four cubit radius?  

One of the more interesting conversations in 40b is the concept of "against one's will".  One possibility is that a gentile forcibly removes a Jew.  Another is "the depth of extreme poverty".  The third is "an evil spirit", which sounds much like an issue with mental health.  It is easy to understand that people will do things that are against the law when forced to do so by another person.  It is wonderful to note that the rabbis have compassion for people who break the law when faced with the threat  of hunger or homelessness.  However, the "evil spirit's" influence is surprising. Could not a person claim that s/he was overcome by an evil spirit and thus broke the law?  or was this stipulation intended to apply to people who were clearly thinking differently than those around her/him?

In this age of blaming those who are poor, homeless and struggling with mental health, it is quite refreshing to read that the Sages encouraged compassion toward those who were disadvantaged in these ways.

The Gemara tells us that three groups of people will not see the face of gehena: those who are extremely poor, those with intestinal disease, and those chased by creditors.  I suppose that those people are considered to be living in hell already.  Then the rabbis debate whether or not an "evil wife", one who nags all of the time, should be included in that list.  The rabbis note that one could divorce such a woman, and so this is not so bad.  However, the rabbis then argue that one might not be able to divorce due to financial or child care concerns.

Next the rabbis give us a list of three groups of people who might die while in conversation: those with intestinal sickness, those in childbirth, and those with edema.  They tell us that this is important to know for weshould prepare shrouds for them in advance.

Although today's daf is only peripherally related to eiruvin, it provided me with numerous interesting stories and ideas about life in the time of our Sages.  It helped me to feel connected with those who came before me on this path of living in Jewish community.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Eiruvin 40a, b

The focus of today's daf reminds me of Masechet Brachot.  The rabbis debate further about 2-day Festivals and about Rosh HaShana, a 2-day Holy Day. Beginning with the question of whether or not an animal slaughtered by a gentile and intended for one Jew might be permitted to other Jews on the second day of a Festival (as an aside, another interesting tale involving the power of an exilarch and the special status of Torah scholars is shared in 40a).

The rabbis go on to debate about particular prayers and how they might be redundant or permitted on the second day of a Festival, on a Shabbat and Rosh Chodesh, or on other coinciding holidays.  

I have wondered about the halacha of related questions in the past.  How would we light candles for the second night of a festival? Why would we say shechechayanu (or as they name it in Eiruvin 40, the time prayer) on the second night of a chag?  In fact, why would we not say shechechayanu much more often; at any time-bound opportunity?  I have learned most of the halachically based answers to these questions, but I have not had the opportunity to appreciate the thinking behind those laws.

One of the things that I love most about my reading of Talmud is the seemingly arbitrary reasoning used by the rabbis in establishing our rituals and traditions.  They turn to sources, but those references often seem vague to me.  I can come up with sources, too, and so can anyone - particularly those who are steeped in Torah.  So why are the particular reasonings of the rabbis taken as unquestionable law?  Regardless of why it happened, it happened, and these words that I am reading about the very process of creating law are foundational.  Simply incredible, humbling, and inspiring.  But not halachically inspiring - to me.

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Eiruvin 39a, b

Today's daf includes a conversation about something I've observed all of my life without knowing the debate at its source.  In the diaspora, we observe two days of Rosh HaShana and two Festival days rather than the one-day observance that was prescribed by Torah law.  I have always believed that this is because communication of when the actual day started in Jerusalem was unreliable.  Thus we observe two days to ensure that we celebrate over the proper day.

In daf 39 we are introduced another idea.  Some of the rabbis suggest that both days should be treated as one long day of observance, even though the two-day custom is 'only' rabbinical law.  This applies to the conversation at hand: if we place an eiruv by foot or with bread at the start of the two day Festival, the rabbis must determine whether or not we require another eiruv for the second day.

It is amazing to practice the same rituals as these ancient scholars.  Reading Talmud does highlight how ancient the customs are.  I don't usually think twice about observing a second day of Rosh HaShana.  But reading the considerations that brought about that ritual somehow removes the normalcy of the ritual.  So I suddenly feel as though I'm being hypocritical, practicing something that I just can't 'believe'.  However, I do not plan to change my practice of halacha... not right now, anyhow, in either direction.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Eiruvin 38a, b

Although today's daf is quite complex, I am going to share the condensed version.

The rabbis use daf 38a and b to argue about Festivals that fall next to Shabbat.  They pose the question: can an eiruv be placed on one day to represent the need for an eruv for both holidays?  And if not, how do we go about establishing an eiruv twice at the same place over two days?

They touch on acquiring an eiruv with one's feet as opposed to food or drink.  They share information about speech versus silence (and even sleep) in establishing an eiruv.  The rabbis deliberate over when and how one might prepare food on a Festival for Shabbat, or on Shabbat for a Festival.  They also consider how far one might be able to travel in placing an eiruv on one day in one place and then on another day in another place.  

Interestingly, the rabbis themselves seem confused about which former esteemed rabbis held which opinions.  The ease with which they accept their lack of definitive answers is fascinating.  And, as an extension of this idea, it is amazing to me that the rabbis continually speak of amending baraitot.  Baraitot are the learnings that inform the Mishnah from outside of the Talmud altogether.  If the baraitot are used as prooftexts, how can they be so easily amended when the rabbis need a particular prooftext to strengthen their arguments?  Isn't the point of a prooftext the reference to something that is more definitive, not less?

As someone who did not grow up knowing any of the halacha of eruvin, the concept of an eiruv is almost entirely theoretical.  I wonder about the seemingly arbitrary nature of these debates and these halachot... lives can be made incredibly difficult through the use of this text.  And of course I'm sure that lives also are enriched for those who find the halacha useful.  Any action can become "spiritualized" with intention and with systemic support.  At least the laws of eiruvin are not tremendously invasive or potentially traumatizing.  As far as I know, anyhow.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Eiruvin 37a, b

The rabbis continue their conversation regarding retroactive designation.  They are concerned that one might decide after Shabbat that an eiruv is valid/invalid.  They raise related issues, including the first and second tithes.  If one drinks wine, for example, and then retroactively designates tithes after they have finished drinking - leaving enough wine for terumah - is that retroactive designation valid? And what if the flask explodes before the tithing occurs? Additionally, the rabbis touch on leniency regarding rabbinic decrees and stringency regarding Torah law.  Looking at different individuals, the rabbis debate whether expectations should be different for chaverim than for amei ha'aretz.  Further, the rabbis argue about whether or not one must be consistent with these rules - either retroactive designation is valid in every case, or it is never acceptable.  Some rabbis push forward each of these ideas and others argue against their relevance.

The idea of retroactive designation opens up many potential issues.  Retroactive designation focuses us on the importance of intention.  Did we mean to do the right thing and we just forgot?  If that is the case, should we be able to "make good" after the fact?  Perhaps intention should not matter at all.  As long as we "make good", have we done enough?

I am always curious about the rabbi's reasons for arguing different positions.  I believe that they were well aware that they were not simply arguing about theoretical, philosophical ideas.  Rabbis were answering questions, mediating debates, acting as legal authorities, and mending relationships in their communities.  When they chose to argue one position over another in the mishna or gemara, it must have been informed by their experiences with real live human beings.  How did those interactions influence their logical reasoning?

I believe that knowing better the personalities of the different rabbis might be informative.  Eventually I hope to stretch my learning to include those details.  For now, I can only imagine and assume their motivations.

Eiruvin 36a, b

In daf 36a, the rabbis discuss whether an eiruv is prohibited if it "questionable".  The eiruv can be questionable because of the timing of its placement, because of its state of purity, or its consecration.  In 36b, the rabbis speak about placing one eiruv in the west and another in the east.  They debate about how we can justify the validity of placing both eiruvin simultaneously.

The rabbis use the concept of chazakah to discuss these issues.  Chazakah describes the continuation of a given state of being.  The rabbis assume that any person or object maintains its status, or chazakah, unless there is a reason for that status to change.  The second is bereira, which is related to chazakah.  Bereira, retroactive designation, allows the rabbis to justify the placement of an eiruv retroactively.

We also learn about the value placed on a Sage over a primary school teacher.  Interestingly, the rabbis discuss how the eiruv allows Jews to welcome 'important' gentiles or Sages into their communities. At the same time, the eiruv allows Jews to escape from unwelcome gentiles who enter their communities.

I wonder how much the concept of eiruv has been maintained because of halachic stringencies.  Perhaps the eiruv has served other functions including protecting Jews from anti-semitism and creating insular communities for Jews.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Eiruvin 34a, b

The rabbis debate with each other about placing an eiruv on a reed.  Is the eiruv prohibited on Shabbat? on Festivals?  Considerations worthy of debate include the timing of the placement, the softness of the reed, whether or not the reed has been displaced and then reestablished in the ground, the depth or height of the placement... and more.

They also look at placing an eiruv in or on a cupboard.  Depending on the height of the cupboard, whether or not it has a window through which a rope can be placed, whether or not the cupboard can be tilted, and other factors, the eiruv may or may not be prohibited.

The rabbis seem to generate examples to allow better understanding of the nuances of their rulings.  What I glean from this daf alone:
  • Intention is not enough; a deed must be completed to be permissible
  • If a Festival occurs immediately before Shabbat, the eiruv must be established before the Festival because placement should not be thought to be allowed just before Shabbat
  • An eiruv placed in the public domain on a wall below10 handbreadths is valid
  • An eiruv in the same circumstance placed above 10 handbreadths is not a valid eiruv because it is in a public domain while the person's residence is in a private domain
  • An eiruv placed on top of a cupboard in a private domain, above 10 handbreadths, is a valid eiruv
  • An eiruv in the same circumstance placed below 10 handbreadths is not a valid eiruv because the that area is a karmelit and the eruv cannot be transferred to his private domain on Shabbat
  • If the cupboard can be tilted to the right height, the eiruv will be valid
  • If the top of the cupboard projects beyond 4 cubits, ie. beyond the private domain/Shabbat residence, this can still be allowed if carrying happens in increments  within the 4 cubit range (R Yehuda HaNasi)
  • An eiruv is valid when placed in this tall cupboard where the cupboard has a window -- a rope is used to wind through the window to create the eiruv
  • A pit in the private domain can hold a valid eiruv because the private domain extends up to the sky and thus down into the ground
  • To establish one's Shabbat residence, the eiruv must be placed in the same domain as the person's primary residence 
  • A rabbinic decree or a shevut does not apply during twilight
  • One must be able to retrieve one's eiruv during Shabbat (not crossing from one domain to another) 
  • If an eiruv is placed on a reed/pole that becomes detatched from the ground and then stuck back into the ground, the eiruv is valid 
  • At first the rabbis thought that the determining factor for use of reeds was the hardness/softness of the reed
  • Certain species are considered to be food crops in a vineyard and thus prohibited
  • Other species are considered to be types of trees and thus they are not food crops in a vineyard and may be used to hold an eiruv on Shabbat 
This is what I read tonight.
I am sure that I have misread and misunderstood different pieces, and this was a relatively uncomplicated daf.

It continues to boggle my mind when I think about how much I don't know.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Eiruvin 33a, b

Such a short daf!  I was prepared for a quicker than usual read.  But, as often happens when reading Talmud, I became flustered and lost.  I must have reread this daf four times.  

Today we learn about more about establishing an eiruv on a tree.  Depending on the height of the horizontal portion of the trunk, the width and the depth of the trunk, an eiruv may or may not be prohibited.  And we can't forget about timing - whether it is twilight or truly Shabbat makes a difference.  And if the eiruv is in a basket that is attached to the trunk, that will change things as well.  The width of the trunk now changes.  And whether or not the food can be emptied by tilting the basket influences rabbinical decision-making, too.  

The rabbis also touch on the circumstance where a pillar is placed in the public domain.  The height, width and even the common use of the pillar contribute to the ruling on whether or not it will be prohibited to establish an eiruv on that pillar.

I love reading passages where a conventional law is superceded by practicality.  When everyone stops to adjust their packages on the pillar in the middle of the square, that action is allowed, regardless of the height or width of the pillar.  It is clear that people will do this action regardless of the rabbi's decree.

The rabbis understood that a delicate balance exists between stringent prohibitions and a functioning society.  If their interpretations and laws are too demanding, the people will not follow those laws. However, if halacha is too lenient or flexible, dafka the people will not follow those laws, either.  Jewish halacha is a gentle see-saw, always attempting to find the perfect balance, never steady for more than a moment.  Continually revisiting halacha, we recreate this very Jewish act of balance between strict and flexible interpretations and demands.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Eiruvin 32a, b

The rabbis continue their conversation about the agency of a person given to fulfill a specific task.  Other situations provide examples of reliance on agents to complete their religious duties.  These include the agency of priests after women bring offerings following childbirth and zavot bring offerings following 3 days of menstrual flow outside of the regular cycle.  In the same set of examples, the rabbis discuss the agency of homeowners who offer figs to their guests: can they trust people to properly separate figs that has been already tithed (where 1/10 has been put aside for the Levites), food that is tevel (doubtfully tithed) and food that is demai (tithed)?

An interesting note appears regarding amei ha'aretz and chaverim.  All Torah scholars are said to be chaverim: people who are meticulous about fulfilling every small detail regarding mitzvot.  Amei ha'aretz, on the other hand, are the rest of us.  We do our best, but we will mess up once in a while.  For amei ha'aretz, intention is key.  For chaverim, intention is assumed.  Thus we have high expectations that chaverim will fulfill mitzvot.  We count on them to "do the right thing".

Following that note is a description of a chaver who allows an am ha'aretz to transgress in order to keep the mitzvot himself.  A discussion about minor and major transgressions ensues.  However, it would seem to me that the greater transgression would be to allow an am ha'aretz to continue to transgress without sharing any information.

Don't get me wrong; I have no interest in people who are 'holier than thou', literally, to tap me on the shoulder and correct my incorrect attempts at doing mitzvot.  However, in the context of the Talmud, mitzvot are paramount to brownie points.  When a chaver is encouraged to think of his own actions as somehow more important than the actions of another, we are building an ugly society.  According to the study of mussar, I cannot imagine that this practice would fly. 

The daf ends with a debate about placing an eruv in a tree.  If the eruv is above 10 handbredths, it is prohibited.  Interestingly, the eruv is permissable in a pit even 100 cubits deep.  The rabbis speak of the town in question as "filled in".  An interesting concept -- as if sand has been poured onto a town, demonstrating the highest and lowest points in the town. An eruv is like an invisible line that stretches across the town's limits, setting a boundary at the height of the buildings.  However, wherever there is a private residence, the eruv stretches up to the sky.

Again, the rabbis share thoughts about boundaries that amaze me.  They seem to crave these barriers; invisible lines separating one entity from another.  Finding distinctions where there are none.  Creating distance between objects (and often people) that separates us but also helps us to meet with each others at the borders.


Monday, 8 April 2013

Eiruvin 31a, b

The rabbis teach us of some of the nuances involved in "bringing" an eruv.  When we place food enough for two meals, we establish a residence for ourselves in that spot.  The eruv is then established further from the original residence or town, allowing for greater mobility on Shabbat.

Establishing an eruv - whether to create a community through courtyards or to create an outer boundary - is a mitzvah.  Mitzvot should not benefit the person who does the mitzvah.  When establishing an eruv brings about a secondary gain, the rabbis are concerned.  They discuss examples, including real estate changes and food for priests.  Finally they share reasoning about who is able to carry the eruv and who is able to place the eruv.  All of these considerations are founded on previously agreed upon legal guidelines.  

The end of 31b supposes that a trained elephant or monkey bring the eruv. Are they valid agents?  The rabbis agree that if they are watched, and if a person takes and places the eruv upon delivery, elephants and monkeys are legal agents.

Over and over we are presented with the unquestioned rule that minors, people who are deaf-mute, and 'idiots' are not considered competent witnesses, agents, etc.  And let's not forget that women are not included on this list at all (although we are allowed to count as 'people' in occasional circumstances).   A minor can change his [sic] status once reaching the age of 13.  What about someone who is deaf and does not speak - once learning speech, might he be considered competent?  And who decided what an 'idiot' was?  If someone had Down Syndrome, for example, but was extremely high-functioning, would he be able to 'prove' himself not an 'idiot'?

Often it feels like I am reading about a desperate categorization of people, plants, animals, objects, times, etc.  Why was it so important for the rabbis to order the universe?  Perhaps the rabbis were off.  Perhaps we were given the Torah not to inspire legal categories, discrete judgements of 'this' and 'that'.  Is it possible that the Torah was offered to us as a tool to inform a deeper analysis?  

I would love to flesh out a vision of our Jewish world where the rabbis did not develop tools to create strict halacha; rather, they encouraged creative thinking in a larger, more forgiving and compassionate framework.  It is almost impossible to imagine what that might mean, as I am so steeped in 'traditional' analytic tools myself.  And I do not discount the genius of the rabbis.  They contributed to all of Western thinking with their brilliant forms of interpretation.  They were trying to gain understanding and control over what we cannot control - the workings of the universe.  But as a 'competent' woman learning in the 21st century, the categories often seem contrived, self-serving, and unnecessary.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Eiruvin 30a, b

Get ready to grab your Masechet -- 
here's some quick trivia from Eiruvin 30a and b:

On carrying a copse out of a home through a doorway: which doorway should we use? what if the corpse is very large? how might this impart ritual impurity?

On fasting: what counts as nourishing food?  are salt and water 'sustaining' food or 'nourishing' food? 

Something not funny but in the form of a joke: How many raw eggs does it take to make an eiruv?  Two, regardless of the person's size or health.  I warned you that it wasn't funny.

What's up with the sweet fruits of Genosar, the ones that are too big to fit in a three-se'a-basket, where Rabbi Yohanan can eat 300 of them and not be nourished?

What is the difference between an oath, a vow, and naming something as consecrated?

If one establishes an eiruv wearing black, can he (sic) later go out from the eiruv wearing white?
What about someone who establishes the eiruv while wearing white.  If he (sic) forgot his black clothing, can he even go out at all?

If a Sage annuls a vow regarding terumah, can that person's produce become tevel again?

If someone is ill, and eats only a bird's portion of food, can we establish an eiruv based on that person's portions?  What about a glutton - do the same rules apply?

How do we create an eiruv in a beit haperas (a graveyard or area with corpses in unknown places)?  How can priests ensure that they can walk in those places?

And, finally, if one enters Israel in a moving tent - which is not really a tent, according to the rabbis - or in a cupboard, or in a carriage, or in a crate, what do they have in common (other than being terribly uncomfortable, of course)?

These questions and more are discussed with fervour in Eiruvin 30a and b.

A fun daf.

Eiruvin 29a, b

Eiruvin 29a and b furthers the rabbis conversation about which foods and drinks can be used to create an eiruv; how much of these foods and drinks can be used to create an eiruv.

At the start of 29a, we learn about beer and water.  It seems that beer may be simply coloured water, or it may be a different substance from water altogether because of the alcohol content.  A note teaches that water in a mikvah can be considered 'kosher' as long as the colour has not been affected after adding a given amount of another substance (like beer)..  

One note: a "fine cup" refers to "a cup of blessing".
Another note: "...it is common for people to drink a cup of beer in the morning and a cup of beer in the evening, and they rely on them as their meals, as beer is satisfying in such quantities."
And yet another pearl: dates are considered to be superior to dried figs.

To my delight, Rabbi Abaye shares more of his mother's (foster mother or nanny's) wisdom.  Actually written in the Talmud is: "Mother told me: These roasted grains are good for the heart and drive away thoughts [(worries)]".  And immediately after, "Mother told me... one who suffers from weakness of the heart should bring the meat of the right thigh of a ram, and bring the dung of grazing cattle from Nisan [the month], and if there is no cattle dung he should bring willow twigs, and roast and eat and drink afterward diluted wine."

Abruptly, the rabbis continue with an on-topic discussion -- and we learn that Persians ate meat as a main dish!  It seems that the standard meal included eat only as a side dish.  It is always wonderful to be reminded that what we consider "traditional" might be, in fact, a relatively new cultural norm.

So none of what I commented on is the point of the daf.  However, this is the wisdom that captures my imagination.  How awesome to have a window into the daily life; the day-to-day thoughts of great thinkers who are, in fact, distant 'cousins'.  I am reminded that the Talmud is truly a gift - on so many levels.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Eruvin 28a, b

A couple of notes from my reading on erev Shabbat:

The conversation continues about what can serve as markers to establish an eruv.  In 28a and b, the rabbis focus on different kinds of produce.

An interesting conversation arises regarding customs in different places.  Generally speaking, halacha does not follow individual customs in any one locale.  We learn that if a custom is unusual, it is not considered to be halachically important, regardless of the locale.  If the custom is judged as 'reasonable', it is considered to be halachically important only in those places that practice that custom.  However, if a custom is 'proper and worthy' but not practiced because of expense or lack of materials, it is considered to be significant anywhere that it is practiced.

More on this form of seemingly flexible but ultimately restrictive social control in another post.  

Another interesting note arises from a young child's conversation with a Rabbi, where the young child's understanding of the halacha 'wins' the halachic wrestling match.

The rabbis then move into a deeper discussion of foods that are considered to be acceptable as meals to mark the placement of eruvim.  Much of the conversation in 28b focuses on which foods are considered ritually impure or ritually pure.  As well, the rabbis discuss the amounts of food that are required to represent two meals, which is what is required to mark an eruv.

It is difficult to follow some of this conversation when I cannot picture the amounts being discussed.  Rarely do the rabbis talk about cups or quarts or litres (although it does happen).  Instead I am learning about kavs and logs and se'as.

Thursday, 4 April 2013

Eruvin 27a, b

Where to begin?

Today's daf is filled with fascinating ideas and exercises.  I'll do my best to share the basics.

Rabbi Yochanan tells us that "One may not learn from general statements... even in a place where it says 'except'".  The rabbis attempt to explain this statement.

  • this is a caution: we must be careful to recognize that there will ALWAYS be exceptions - and further exceptions - to the rule.
  • the rabbis apply this to tannaim, who are often vague, and not to ammoraim.
  • time-bound, positive commandments (ie. men are obliged; women are exempt) are used as a proof for this idea.
    • women are exempt EXCEPT for mitzvot of eating matza on Pesach, rejoicing on Festivals, assembling at the Temple once every seven years on Sukot after the Sabbatical year.
    • women are obligated EXCEPT for mitzvot of Torah study, be fruitful and multiply, pidion haben (not time bound)
    • Thus we cannot learn from general statements, even with 'exceptions', as there may be further exceptions.
  • another general statement is used as a proof: 
    • "anything that a zav carries is ritually impure EXCEPT for objects humans lie down or sit upon".  
    • But if a zav rides on a saddle, the front of the saddle is impure as well.  
    • Thus we cannot learn from generalized statements, even with 'exceptions', as there may be further exceptions.
  • a final general statement is shared as proof, and this statement gets us back to eruvim:
    • we can establish an eruv via many types of food, but not for water or salt.  
    • However, more exceptions exist: truffles and mushrooms
    • Thus we cannot learn from generalized statements, even with given 'exceptions'.
The rabbis discuss what foods are allowed to be bought with second-tithe money.
They concurrently discuss what foods are allowed to be used in establishing an eruv.

We learn that salt and water mixed together are valid for use with an eruv, but do not become "produce" which is necessary for purchasing with the second tithe. (Oil is commonly added to salt and water for purposes of an eruv).

Ben Bag Bag is a much respected rabbi who appears for the first time in Eruvin 27b.  He likely was a contemporary of Hillel and Shammai.  His statement is used to help us understand the concepts of generalization, detail, amplification and restriction.

Ben Bag Bag tells us that "And you shall bestow the money on all that your heart desires, on oxen on sheep, on wine, on strong drink, on whatever your soul requests" (Deuteronomy 14:26).  After analyzing what is meant by each animal and each object, we move into something more akin to literary criticism than anything else. 

Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yishmael establish general rules to help us understand the writings of the Sages.  Details always limit the scope of generalizations.  Generalizations almost always expand on the example stated.  Amplification and restrictions limit the generalization.  

The order of the presentation of these elements will determine how the phrase is interpreted and applied.  In Bag Bag's analysis of the biblical verse above, we see an amplification (... all that your heart desires), followed by details and restrictions (on oxen, on sheep...), ending with another amplification (whatever your soul requests).  Everything has been amplified, the rabbis explain.  But what has been restricted from inclusion in the detail?  Rabbi Eliezer  tell us: brine.  Because "brine is not at all similar to the items listed in the verse".  Thus Rabbi Yehuda ben Gadish concludes that water and salt are restricted.

Circle back: water and salt cannot be bought with the second tithe.

Finally, 27b introduces us to "produce of produce", which includes things that come from produce - from a calf coming from a cow to a grape coming from a seed.  

We also learn that the details of Bag Bag's interpretation are also the "offspring of the offspring of the earth."  Anything that benefits from the ground is included, possibly including fish, who require the early of the sea floor.

I cannot stop smiling, thinking that Rabbi Yochanan was warning us not to generalize.  We are supposed to be looking for exceptions to the rule.  We are supposed to expect exceptions.  The self-righteous, sure-footedness of extremism is stopped in its tracks.  Rabbi Yochanan understood that we would want to apply his statements to all situations.  He attempted to protect us from ourselves.  What happened??

Eruvin 26b (addendum)

Eruv hatzerot: eruvim that join courtyards to allow carrying on Shabbat between two or more homes

Eruv techumin: eruvim that allow people to walk further from their homes on Shabbat by joining different borders.

Food can be used to extend the eruv.  Food established a place as "home", allowing the eruv to extend 2000 cubits beyond that new 'home base'.

Beit haperas: a field that may have been a burial site in the past, posing difficulties for priests.  Priests who walk over graves will enter a state of niddah.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Eruvin 26a, b

Not only do the rabbis disagree with each others' rulings, they go behind each others' backs to remove an eruv!  After Rav Huna Bar Chinina erected the eruv in the Exilarch's garden, Rav challenged that ruling and Rav's students removed the eruv.  

As an aside, I wonder how old these students might have been. How much they must have believed either in the truth of Rav's interpretation, or how much they would be 'rewarded' in some way for that passion and loyalty.  In the high school where I work, I find it hard to imagine any student standing up to defend the ideas of a teacher, or a parent, or a religious leader.  It would be embarrassing somehow to throw oneself into a grown-up's cause.

After removing the eruv, it is understood that Rav Huna bar Chinina was correct after all.  The Exilarch tells us that "they are wise to do evil, but to do good they have no knowledge" (Jeremiah 4:22).  This Exilarch specifically asked for a ruling that would allow carrying in his garden on Shabbat for a party. The party did not happen.  Trouble...

What would be the social, financial, and other consequences for this kind of halachic error?  As this story is captured in the Talmud, we can be sure that it has taught lessons to rabbis over the ages.  But are the lessons along the lines of  "be careful to make the right decision when you're dealing with a politically powerful person," or "don't chase to enact the rulings of your rabbi until the conversation is complete," or "students can be foolish"?  Or perhaps the intended lesson is something altogether different, such as "it is required to erect an eruv when a garden is less than two bet se'as and even when another partition is present".  Probably the latter.

When Hezikiah took ill, his students established a study hall at the door of the sick rabbi.  One lesson is that yeshivot should be set up at the doors of those who are ill so that the merit of Torah study will help him survive.  However, another lesson taken from this story is that students should NOT establish yeshivot by the rooms of ill rabbis, as Satan might be close at hand, waiting for wrong interpretations to be shared by the rabbis, and somehow encouraging the dissemination of incorrect halacha.

Whenever we feel out-of-control in our lives (which I believe is most of the time, at an existential level), it is helpful to create a system of thought that allows us to feel as though we are in fact in control.  All of religion, on a larger level, can be explained by this theory.  But the idea of Satan's presence when a rabbi is ill; the belief that we might be able to have the ultimate power over life or death because of our studying or our invitations to Satan... well, to me it seems incredibly tough to grasp.

I fear that human development is stuck.  My own, as a human, included.  It is so tempting to believe in something, to feel as though we have control over things that are far beyond our comprehension.  I am drawn to this learning, but I cannot believe that the 'secret to life' is contained in any one book or teaching.  I am fascinated by how we think.  How similar we are to our ancestors, despite the obvious differences.  But none of us know whether it is better to study outside of a sick person's door, or whether it is better to study somewhere else.  We aren't in control of when people die.  And we will do just about anything to believe that we are.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Eruvin 25a, b

Today we delve deeper into the laws around gardens (karpef) and orchards (bustana) - literally.  What counts as a legal eruv in different circumstances?  When a partition wall is destroyed, the wall's width might extend the area of the garden to over 2 beit se'as, prohibiting carrying on Shabbat.  And what would be the remedies for situations where eruvim must be built?  The rabbis describe how they come to the aid of a wealthy community leader ('exilarch', sometimes affiliated with the local governments) who wishes to serve food, ie. allow carrying, in his garden on Shabbat.  Reeds are placed within three handbreadths of each other at appropriate places to create a halachic eruv.  But other rabbis argue that those actions were not  necessary, for there were other circumstances allowing carrying.


A couple of notes that stood out:

If a convert dies and has no heirs, his (sic) land is ownerless and must be claimed.  One way of claiming is by tending to the field - contributing directly and immediately toward the land's production.  Sowing seeds is not enough, as that is a future-based act.
If a Jew dies without heirs, it will always be possible to find an heir by looking at the family tree, even if it takes us back to our ancestor Jacob in our search.  

Wow.  That is truly a tightly knit community.  An automatic community, with all of its benefits and shortfalls.  Now there are Jews on the street whose ancestry could never be traced back to anyone.  Or could it?  Or do we not care about that anymore (again, for better or for worse)?

When Rav Beivai stated that an inner wall could indicate an outer partition and thus the creation of an eruv was not necessary, Rav Pappi called him a "mula'ai".  This likely means some one who is descended of Eli, and thus someone who is either a) from Mumla, b) a hunchback, c) blemished in another way, d) miserable e) 'truncated' or has a short life expectancy -- which is used as an insult, as in someone who has a 'shortened' insight or development of a problem.  Or, finally, f) a mula'ai could refer to someone who is 'great' and states clever or great comments.  In context, we are looking at one of the former, more insulting definitions.

I can't imagine the weight of such insulting commentary and the effect that it could have on a Rabi and his family.  These insults were captured for all to study, to memorize.  And so much was based on physical attributes (ie. one should not be physically different from the norm) or a particular type of brilliance.  Not a game for sissies, this study of the Mishna.