“One may not learn from general statements, even in a place where it says except, because it is always possible that there are other exceptions to the rule.”
In order to keep up with the daily Daf Yomi readings, I am moving through each section very quickly in order to not fall behind. There was a story in the text the other day about a woman who attempted to claim a property; she was denied rights to the land and threw herself at the mercy of the Rabbis. I wasn’t able to fully take in the tragedy of this story because there was so much text to keep up with. I am just trying to move ahead and make sense of everything coming at me from my secular perspective.
What I have figured out so far is that there are a lot of exceptions to the Rabbinic rules. The Talmud was written at time when there was significant religious fervent and competition for the hearts and minds of the populace. The Rabbis were formulating a code of conduct and they needed to devise a system that was not too onerous. It included a fair number of leniencies and exceptions. In a previous reading there was an acknowledgement that the people will do whatever they want to anyway. The word “except” is an important one in this context. Afterall, the entire concept of an eruv is based on a workaround to rules that prohibit carrying in public spaces on Shabbat. Without such a construct life would be severely restricted and perhaps intolerable to the broader population on Shabbat.
The voice of the Gemara tells us that one may not rely on general statements as a form of truth and that exceptions matter. This is true even if a statement includes the word “all.” Rabbi Yoḥanan said that “one may not learn from general statements.” We are told that such statements are not to be understood to be “all-inclusive.” I have learned this lesson the hard way in my adult life. I can never promise that anything is “all inclusive” and avoid the words “all” and “ensure” because there are always exceptions and I do not know what I do not know.
An example is provided that was first introduced in the Berakhot Tractate which I found troubling at the time (and still do): Women are exempt from performing time-bound mitzvot that must be performed at a certain time of the day or on certain days of the year. But they are not exempt from positive mitzvot that are not time-bound. I am still troubled by the lower expectations for women and wonder if it is because they were be too busy holding a household together to be able to step away at a certain time to fulfil a mitzvot. We are told that there is a myriad of exceptions to this rule and women are in fact obligated to partake in certain festivals and rituals at certain times of the year. And conversely, there are examples of positive commandments that are not time-bound that women are exempt from. So, we learn that there are always exceptions. But still, it is troubling that the expectations for women who want to lead a religious life are diminished when compared with what is expected of men.
We are introduced to Rabbi Ben Bag Bag in today’s portion. The reading is worthwhile if alone for no other reason alone than to be able to repeat his name out loud: Ben Bag Bag. He was a disciple of Rabbi Hillel and well known for the quote “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it. Reflect on it and grow old and gray with it. Don’t turn from it, for nothing is better than it.” This quote is a reminder to keep turning the cube in order to find the deeper meaning in the Torah, and do not rely on the face value of general statements. The Rabbi weighs in on what can be purchased with funds from a second tithe and what he would allow is rather generous when he says that one “shall bestow that money on all that your heart desires, on oxen, on sheep, on wine, on strong drink, on whatever your soul requests.” In other words, despite all the restrictions on how a religious person should live his life, the hardships should be balanced with strong drink and some earthly pleasures.
The warning about learning from general statements is relevant to today’s political climate where opinions are sharply divided along ideological lines and there is little room for ambiguity. I have my own set of beliefs that rarely waver when I am challenged, and like many I just dig in deeper into the world order that I know. But it is important to turn the cube and listen to other perspectives and to try to understand. I have friends who have very different belief systems from me, and I always listen intently to their perspective. I listen and “turn it and turn it” in a sincere effort to gain insight into how people have ended up so divided and with such different perspectives at a time when the world needs everyone’s collective energy and intelligence to save it.