“Sometimes one learns more from his peers than from his teachers.”
Reading the Talmud each day often requires a certain comfort level with ambiguity. One Rabbi will say something, and another Rabbi will offer a contradictory opinion. The mysterious voice of the Gemara will attempt to explain the differing opinions through an explanation of the intended nuances of the discussion, but sometimes it requests that we just allow the disagreement to stand. This is not a text for those who want to be told the “one way” but rather a text that requires comfort in allowing for contradictory perspectives. We were told in a previous reading that we should pick a Rabbi’s perspective and stay with it, rather than choosing among the differing lenient and stringent points of view that suit us at any given time. This is no easy task with the Rabbis often contradicting themselves (and the Gemara calls them out for this.)
Today’s opening argument concerns the law of ritual impurity. We are reminded of the differences between Torah and Rabbinic law, with the later establishing more stringent rules in order to ensure that the former is not transgressed. We are presented with a series of contradictory opinions. One regards the case of teruma, or first fruit of the harvest that is given to the Kohanim priests, which is used to create an eruv. There is disagreement among the Rabbis on whether if it becomes impure (through the reappearing creeping animal), it is still a valid eruv. We are told that both Rabba and Rav Yosef commented that the disagreement on the validity of the eruv results from two witnesses with different sets of opinion: “Here, we are dealing with two sets of witnesses, one of which says: The teruma became impure while it was still day, before the onset of Shabbat; and one of which says: The teruma became impure only after nightfall.”
The Gemara points to the august Rabbi Meir for the confusion and lays all the difficulties in interpretation at his feet. We are also told that Rabbi Yosei created confusion through contradictory statements where he wavered between stringent and lenient opinions. He has issued stringent opinions in regard to ritual baths but has taken more of a “live and let be” attitude when it comes to eruvs. Rav Huna bar Hinnana defends Rabbi Yosei by saying he is upholding Torah law regarding ritual baths and extended it to some directives of Rabbinic law. The Gemara challenges this and says that since Torah law stipulates prohibitions on Shabbat limits, it would stand to reason that he would also be strict with his interpretation of eruvs.
Rabbi Yosei upholds his position and counters the Gemara’s counter and says that the laws of Shabbat limits are in fact Rabbinic rather than Torah law. The Rabbi has a lot of defenders; we are told that his contradictory statements can be explained because while the stringent ruling is his, the lenient one comes from his teacher. In other words, the finger of blame is now pointed in the direction of Rabbi Yosei’s teachers. Rabbi Yosei defends his position by invoking the words of Avtolemos who testified in the name of five Elders that “an eiruv whose validity is in doubt is valid.” This in essence is a lesson in becoming comfortable with ambiguity.
In order to deal with all this ambiguity, we are provided with further abstruseness concerning our assumptions. When it comes to ritual impurity, we are told that Rabbi Yosei held the opinion that we should presume a state of impurity based on a presumption that the proper immersion did not occur. The Gemara suggests a contrary view that we should presume that the ritual bath was valid. We are told to conclude that the eruv was pure and fit for purpose at the onset of Shabbat, and as a result valid.
We are presented with a puzzle. If there are two loaves of bread that are designated for the creation of an eruv that extends boundaries for carrying on Shabbat, and one is pure and one is impure, is the eruv valid? We are told that both Rabbi Yosei and Rabbi Meir agree that the eruv is not valid due to the fact that there is too much uncertainty on which of the loaves can be eaten and establish a meal prior to the onset of Shabbat. In other words, in this case there is no presumption that the eruv is valid. Rava throws in another winkle to the riddle: what if a loaf of bread destined for an eruv is consecrated before the onset of Shabbat. Is the eruv valid? Rabbi Nahman tells him that it is so. However, if the loaf is then unconsecrated, the eruv is no longer valid.
Reading the Talmud each day provides a lesson in becoming comfortable with ambiguity and at times requires some effort to find meaning in the margins. This lesson cannot be more relevant today, when we live in an upside-down world with so many conflicting opinions. We were originally told back in March not to wear masks because they did not protect us from exposure to COVID-19. A month later in New York City, we were told that everyone must wear masks in public. The medical experts, who originally told us that masks were ineffective, now tell us that they provide major protection from airborne viral particles. We are told that we might have a vaccine by the start of next year, but it might be effective, and it might not. We will need to vaccinate a decent proportion of the world’s population in order to conquer this virus, but there is no evidence that we will be able to accomplish this enormous undertaking with a vaccine that might require two doses to be effective.
We are now being told that we cannot expect to return to normal life until the end of 2021, while some are of the opinion that we should just go out now and live our lives because this whole COVID thing is made up by some factions who want to destroy our democracy through shutting down our economy. The reading of the Talmud coincided with the onset of the pandemic, and if there is any lesson I am learning from the text, it is to live quietly (and safely) in the margins.