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What If?

You may or may not be eager to delve into the ritual details of the Jewish Day of Atonement, but Adam Kirsh’s latest blog at the Tablet offers an important insight into what the Talmud is all about generally. In “What Happens When the Talmud Asks, ‘What If?’” Kirsh highlights something about how the early rabbis used hypothetical situations to probe the essence of things. He writes,

Throughout the Talmud’s description of the Yom Kippur ceremony—the ongoing subject of Tractate Yoma—the rabbis have displayed what might seem like an excessive concern for what might go wrong. In the whole history of the Temple, for instance, it seems unlikely that a single high priest died during the performance of his duties in the Holy of Holies. But the Talmud worries repeatedly about what to do if this should happen. Such attention to unlikely or purely hypothetical cases is highly characteristic of the Talmud, and it can make the reader impatient: Why did the rabbis bother with such remote, academic speculations?

I’ve found it useful, in the course of reading Daf Yomi, to think of these kinds of questions as the rabbis’ indirect way of asking about definitions and essences. In laying down the Shabbat laws, for instance, one rabbi asks whether transporting saliva in one’s mouth is considered “carrying,” in which case one would have to spit it out every few paces. The point of the question, it seems to me, is not whether a Jew should go around spitting all the time, but exactly how to define a substance: Is matter within the body a separate entity, or part of the body itself? This kind of speculation about substances and their qualities was central to classical and medieval thought, including Jewish thought. Because Jewish law deals with everyday matters, it produces a kind of everyday metaphysics.

It’s a really enlightening read.

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