Yaakov Jaffe
Rabbi, Maimonides Kehillah; Dean, Maimonides School

The Goat who Studied Talmud

Students of the Mishnah and Talmud are well acquainted with one of the basic rules of Succah  construction: the walls of a Succah must reach close to the ground, but are still Kosher so long as they come within three fists, or approximately nine inches of the ground (Succah 16a).  In general, barriers must reach the ground to be barriers, but if they are close to the ground, we consider it Halachically to be as if they have reached the ground, so long as they are near to it.

Where did the measurement of three firsts or nine inches come from? The Talmud explains (Succah 14b, Eiruvin 14a) that any gap larger than three fists will not prevent a baby goat from passing through the barrier, essentially negating its status as a wall. But a goat will not enter if the barrier is within nine inches of the ground, so Halacha considers the barrier valid despite the gap, and it may serve as a wall of the Succah.

Halachic categories, however, do not always line up with real world phenomena, and we recently tested this Halacha at our school Succah by inviting a goat to see if it would indeed cross a barrier curtain that was a full eight (but still not nine) inches above the ground. The central theme of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik’s Halachic Man is that the student of Talmud experiences the world through the categories and boundaries set by Halacha, but would a goat act the same way?  We would need to see.

We brought the goat to the Succah wall and encouraged it to cross the barrier. Offering food on the other side, making noise, and even a slight pull of the goat in that direction.  But it refused to cross. It did not even budge at all in that direction.  Clearly, this goat had studied the  Talmud and knew that a barrier coming to within 8 inches of the ground was a true barrier and it could not be crossed – it was as if it was a solid wall!

The Succah was clearly Kosher and the students cheered with joy. And clearly the goat had done its homework as well, and maybe even had studied the full Daf Yomi.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Jaffe is the Rabbi of the Maimonides Kehillah, and the Dean of Judaic Studies at the Maimonides School in Brookline, Mass. He is the author of Isaiah and His Contemporaries, now available from Kodesh Press.
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