Talmudic Interpretations of the Mishnah — Puzzling, Odd, and Strange
The first mishnah in Tractate Shabbat details the obligations of taking out and bringing in on the Sabbath, one of the 39 forbidden labors: “If the poor man stretches his hand without [in the public domain] and places [inside the house, in a private domain an article] into the hand of the house-dweller…the poor man is liable [to bring a sin offering].” On page 4a the Gemara asks: “But removal and depositing must be from [and into] a place four [handbreadths] square, which is absent here?” — that is, in order to be liable he must place it on a significant surface, whose area is four handbreadths, while a hand is only one handbreadth large — so why does the Mishnah say the poor man is liable?
See the Gemara’s answer, see how it deforms and distorts what is written in the Mishnah and turns it into something mad, as Ibn Ezra wrote on Daniel 1:1: “How is it possible in a human language that a man would speak one word and mean another? One who supposes so would be considered a madman…It would be better were he to say I do not know rather than change the words of the living G-d.”
This is the answer of the Amoraim (sages who lived after the period of the Mishnah, from approximately the second half of the third century) in Shabbat 5a: “R’ Abba said: Our mishnah means that he removes it from a basket and places it in a basket [so that there is depositing into an area of four handbreadths]…This presented a difficulty to R’ Abbahu: Is then ‘a basket in his hand’ taught? Surely ‘his hand’ [only] is taught! Rather, said R’ Abbahu, it means that he lowered his hand to within three handbreadths [of the ground, so that it is considered as placed on the ground] and accepted it. — But ‘he stands’ is taught! — It refers to one who bends down. Alternatively, [he is standing] in a pit. Another alternative: this refers to a dwarf [whose hand is less than 30 cm above the ground, in which case the object is considered as placed on the ground]. Rava demurred: Does the Tanna trouble to inform us of all these? Rather, said Rava, a man’s hand is accounted to him as [an area of] four by four.”
Take a look at the interpretations of R’ Abba and R’ Abbahu. The mishnah says “places into the hand” and R’ Abba interprets that as being into a basket. The mishnah says “a poor man” and R’ Abbahu interprets it as meaning a man whose hand is less than 30 cm above the ground.
Think about it. If your learning mate, your chevruta, would interpret the mishnah that way, wouldn’t you say he was crazy?
Another example. According to Reish Lakish (Bava Kama 22a), if a man who loaded flax onto his camel and led him in the street, and due to the man’s negligence the flax caught fire from some flames or a candle which was inside a store and this led to the burning of a house, the owner of the camel is exempt from paying reparations to the house owner, for according to Reish Lakish the fire is not a possession of the camel owner but of the store owner (a very odd opinion). The gemara (Bava Kama 22a) brought a question from Bava Kama, chapter six, mishnah six: “A camel laden with flax was walking in a public domain; the flax entered a store, caught fire from the store owner’s lamp, and burned the building — the camel’s owner is liable. If the store owner left his candle outside, the store owner is liable.” he Gemara answers: “The case is, the camel brushed the burning flax against the entire building,” not that the fire spread on its own.
See how far this absurdity goes. The Gemara continues and asks why, if we are speaking of a situation in which the camel walks around the building and burns it, is the store owner liable if he leaves a candle outside? The camel owner should have taken care that his camel, with the flax, did not keep on burning up the other man’s building. The Gemara answered that in this case the camel was standing and urinating and was loaded with so much flax that it burnt the whole house without the fire spreading on its own. “Rav Huna barManoach said in the name of Rav Ika: Of which case does this speak? When the camel stopped to urinate.”
Another example is how our sages the Amoraim interpreted what is written is the verse Exodus 22:4: “If a man shall cause a field or vineyard to be eaten, and shall put in his beast, and shall feed in another man’s field, of the best of his own field and of the best of his own vineyard shall he make restitution.”
The Scripture states explicitly that if a person’s animals eat in his neighbor’s field, he must make restitution, and the Mishnah rules this way clearly and explicitly (Bava Kama, chapter two, mishnah two): “How is damage done by eating? It eats what is appropriate for it: animals eat fruits and vegetables…” And in mishnah three it is written: “A dog which took a cinder [of bread, still suitable for eating] and took it to a stack of grain and the stack caught fire from the cinder — he makes full restitution.” From the plain meaning of the mishnah and common sense the law would be the same even if the dog took the cinder from the injured party’s domain and went elsewhere — into the public domain, for example — the dog’s owner would still have to pay. But the ways of our sages the Amoraim were odd and strange, and they exempted the dog’s owner from payment if the dog ate in the public domain. In Bava Kama 23a it is written: “Where did the dog eat? If by a stack of grain that did not belong to the owner of the cinder — this is not ‘in another man’s field’!”
Thus also ruled the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat, 391:7): “The owner of the damaging animal does not have to make full restitution unless [the item damaged] was eaten in the domain of the injured party. But if [the animal] took it away from [the injured party’s] yard and ate it in the public domain or in another’s yard, [the animal’s owner] is exempt from paying more than worth of the benefit gained [by his animal].”
The Tosafot, who sensed something odd here, wrote on Bava Kama 23a, s.v. tifshot: “…From here we learn that [for the owner to be liable, his animal] must take and eat [the damaged item] in the [injured party’s] yard. Even though there is no reason for this law — why it must be eaten — this is what the Scripture demands.” There is no better way to soften all absurdities written by our rabbis than a Scriptural demand. We do not understand, however, where this Scriptural demand is found. The text we brought above does not even hint at it.
Come see how far things go. Since the damaged item must be eaten in the injured party’s domain, our rabbis the Amoraim discussed whether the insides of a cow’s mouth count as the domain of the injuring party or of the injured party. Bava Kama 23b: “They asked: Is the cow’s mouth like the domain of the injured party or of the injurer?” And the Gemara was puzzled, for if the cow’s mouth is the domain of the injuring party, there is no way to make him liable for what his cow eats even in another’s field. The answer was that, to this view, the kind of damage in question may be done if a cow scratches a wall with an art work on it for its own pleasure: “The son of Rav Kahana said: When is one liable for the damage caused by an animal? When the animal scratched against a wall for pleasure or dirtied fruits for pleasure.” So, according to the Amoraic interpreters of the Mishnah, the verse, “If a man shall cause a field or vineyard to be eaten, and shall put in his beast, and shall feed in another man’s field, of the best of his own field and of the best of his own vineyard shall he make restitution” (Exodus 22:4), does not speak of actual eating, but of dirtying fruits for pleasure.
These words by our rabbis caused the commentators of the Talmud to spill quite a lot of ink to explain the oddities in the words of our rabbis. (See what the Tosafot were pushed to in s.v. tifshot.)
Here it is important to note that we have always wondered about this strange, odd interpretation. We could have accepted or understood the deformation and distortion of the Scriptures for the sake of a reasonable conclusion — like Chazal’s interpretation of “an eye for an eye” or “cut off her hand” as monetary punishment.
But in this case the rabbis committed two offenses. They distorted the Scriptures and reached an unreasonable conclusion.
In light of our criticism, we have always wondered about our rabbis — the Achronim and the Rishonim alike — who shouted against those of their era who did not learn according to their common sense, yet did not dare critique the rabbis of the Talmud. R’ Isaac bar Sheshet Perfet wrote in his Responsa, paragraph 271: “We have seen with our own eyes not a few rabbis, learned and experienced in Talmudic discourse, who aspire with their casuistry to push an elephant through the eye of a needle, raising heaps of questions on every jot and building stacks of answers on every tittle. But unfortunately, they do not understand what the Halachic conclusion should be from the issues they deal with — so they say the forbidden is permitted and the permitted is forbidden.”
And R’ Obadiah Yossef wrote in the responsa Yabiya Omer (part one, Orach Chaim, section one): “It is also regrettable that we see some of the best Jewish students spending all their time on nonsensical casuistry without checking their words against the Halacha and common sense. What a pity about their talents, which could have been used to understand and clarify Halacha and topical problems. Instead they invest all their energy in empty casuistry which gives only a temporary sharpness to the soul. About them it can be well said that they leave the eternal life in favor of temporal life.”
Yet, the Gemara itself critiqued the sages of its period. In Tractate Eiruvin 53a: “R’ Jochanan said: the hearts of the early ones were like the [wide] entrance to the outer hall of the Temple, and of the later ones like the [narrower] entrance to the middle hall of the Temple, while our hearts are like the size of a sewing needle’s eye. The early ones — Rabbi Akiva. The later ones — R’ Eleazar the son of Shamua. Others say: the early ones — R’ Eleazar the son of Shamua; the later ones — R’ Oshaya Baribi. Ours are like the size of a sewing needle’s eye — Abaye said: When it comes to understanding the Torah that we hear, we are like a peg [which does not enter easily] in a small hole in the wall. Rava said: When it comes to analyzing the Torah that we learn, we are like a finger [which one is trying to stick] in hard wax. R’ Ashi said: When it comes to forgetting the Torah that we learn, we are like a finger [which one is trying to stick] in a well.” You see that the sages were aware of their weaknesses.
See what they said about the sages of Pumbedita (a city in Babylonia which was a center of Torah life from the mid-third century until the year 476; see the Encyclopedia Hebraica, entry Pumbedita), when they found that a certain sage had misinterpreted something: “Are you from Pumbedita that you push an elephant through the eye of a needle?” (Bava Metzia 38b).
Since we are speaking of Pumbedita, let us quote a saying which illustrates the Sages’ outlook on spiritual matters. Tractate Eiruvin 43a: “Seven Halachic laws were said on Sabbath morning in front of Rav Chasda in Sura, and in the afternoon they were said before Rava in Pumbedita. Who said these laws? Was it not Elijah the prophet? This would make us to conclude that there are no domain boundaries over ten [handbreadths] high [so Elijah the prophet could travel by air from Sura to Pumbedita on Sabbath]. – No, Joseph the demon said these [laws; demons don’t observe the Sabbath, so he could travel regardless of Sabbath domain boundaries].” (See what we have written in the essay Body of G-d, that our rabbis attributed physical nature to the Almighty, just as they attribute it here to Elijah the prophet.)
To realize that the sages of Pumbedita were not expert in factual reality, see Tracate Yevamot 75b: “There was a case in Pumbedita of a man who had a blockage in the tube which carries semen. So the semen came out the tube through which urine travels.” They concluded that there are two tubes, one for semen and one for urine — see what we have written on the portion of Ki Tetze, that this is nonsense.
We have brought these things to show you that one must critique even the rabbis of the Talmud without favoritism, both about their interpretations of the Mishnah and about the factual knowledge they possessed. Thus will you be a thinking person; remember the words of R’ Abraham the son of Maimonides that we have quoted in Pamphlet 3: “Know, for you must know it: anyone who wants to support some opinion, to favor the one who said it and accept his judgment without scrutiny and analysis [intended] to see if the matter is true or not — such one [is guided by] bad ideas, which are forbidden by the ways of Torah and the ways of intellect…”
Words of True Knowledge