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Adam Kirsch on the distinction between law and legend in Bavli Shabbat

January 15th, 2013

This week’s reflections on Daf Yomi by literary critic Adam Kirsch in Tablet takes up, among other subjects, the “distinction between law and legend” in talmudic literature. An excerpt:

In order to make sense of Shabbat regulations … it’s necessary to reconstruct in the imagination just what kind of work the Israelites did—to transport oneself back to Moses’ time. Usually when we want to travel back in time, we turn to literature; for the rabbis, law collapses history just as effectively. Every time they reason about Shabbat, the whole spectacle of the Israelites building the Tabernacle appears before their eyes.To explain why throwing across a public domain is permitted, while handing an object across a public domain is not, the rabbis envision the kind of work the Levites did when transporting the boards for the mishkan. The Levites would transport the boards in wagons that traveled two abreast, and they would customarily hand the boards from one wagon to the next; but they would not throw the boards. On Shabbat, we refrain from doing what the Levites did, so we cannot hand things over; but we can throw, since that was not part of the original activity of the mishkan.

The Gemara goes on to speculate in amazing detail about various aspects of the Tabernacle’s construction. How wide were the boards used to build its walls? How many boards made up each wall? Did they taper at the top, or were they pure rectangles? And what about the tapestry that was draped over the walls and ceiling: How long was it, and how much material hung down on each side, and how much of the bottom of the wall was exposed? The rabbis advance various theories about each of these questions, displaying both a clear visual imagination and a talent for mathematics. I found it very difficult to “see” the Tabernacle without diagrams (which the Schottenstein provides), but the rabbis needed no such visual aids. For me, the detail that stuck out was Rabbi Nechemya’s contribution: The goat hair used for the tapestry, he taught, was washed and spun while still on the goats.

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