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Literary critic Adam Kirsch on intention versus action in Bavli Shabbat

January 8th, 2013

This week’s reflections on Daf Ha-Yomi by literary critic Adam Kirsch in Tablet focus on the subject of intention versus action. From the article’s conclusion:

It is at this point that the Talmud makes its most amazing, and yet somehow most characteristic, gesture. After laying out these intricate logic problems—so intricate that I’m not totally confident I’ve grasped every nuance of them—the rabbis conclude, “Let it stand”: that is, the question remains open. We are not even given the satisfaction of a resolution to Rava’s problems! This is frustrating and casts further doubt on the practical application of everything that’s gone before: If the rabbis are willing to leave these questions unanswered, they couldn’t be very relevant to actual Jewish practice.

However, the Talmud is also sending a powerful implicit message. The act of thinking about law, of reasoning out its most distant ramifications, is itself sacred and pleasurable to the rabbis, regardless of its practical application. To read the Talmud at all, I’m finding, it’s necessary to be able to share at least their pleasure, if not their sense of sanctity.

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