Today’s daf addresses a fundamental and timeless question: Where does Jewish law come from? Most people would answer that question with a combination of Torah, Talmud, or the rabbis. But what if the rabbis themselves don’t know?
The mishnah at the top of today’s daf addresses this matter.
The laws of the dissolution of vows fly in the air and have nothing to support them. The laws of Shabbat, festival peace offerings, and misuse of consecrated property are like mountains suspended by a hair, as they have little written about them in the Torah, and yet the details of their halakhot are numerous.
The Talmud is a core text of what is known as the Oral Torah. The traditional understanding is that the laws and customs contained in the Oral Torah were given at Mount Sinai at the same time as the Written Torah but were transmitted orally from generation to generation until finally being committed to writing after the destruction of the Second Temple. In fact, some might consider our Daily Dose of Talmud as yet another entry in this chain of tradition.
An important component of keeping that chain intact is demonstrating the source for each law, which explains the keen interest among the rabbis of the Talmud in identifying the source texts for various laws. So what are we to make of the fact that the very rabbis who are perhaps the most critical links in this chain saying, in effect, that these laws hang on practically nothing?
The Gemara jumps in immediately with a beraita (early rabbinic text) quoting Rabbi Eliezer disagreeing with the mishnah:
Rabbi Eliezer said: The halakhot of the dissolution of vows have something to support them, as it is stated: “When a man shall clearly utter a vow.” (Leviticus 27:2) And: “When either man or woman shall clearly utter a vow.” (Numbers 6:2) One clear utterance is for prohibition and one clear utterance is for dissolution.
As we’ve seen countless times already, the rabbis seek to ground Jewish law in biblical sources. In this case, Rabbi Eliezer notes that the word “utter” appears twice in the Bible with respect to vows. One time, he says, refers to the intention to establish a vow. The other refers to intent to dissolve the vow. Other rabbis then jump in with their own examples of biblical sources that hint at the nullification of vows, further negating the view of the mishnah that such laws hang in the air with nothing to support them.
A similar discussion follows concerning the second category of laws mentioned in the mishnah — the laws of Shabbat, festival peace offerings, and misuse of consecrated property — which are described as “mountains suspended by a hair.” Presumably, these laws stand on flimsy ground, but ground nonetheless. The Gemara proceeds again to explain how the many laws in this category were developed, even if they seem — in today’s vernacular — to hang by a thread.
The fact that the rabbis derive the law from the text of the Torah and the oral tradition isn’t exactly news; the process of hermeneutics is so ingrained in the study of Jewish text that we recite these principles as part of the daily morning service. If that’s the case, why does the mishnah suggest that this entire enterprise is baseless?
I think the conversation on today’s daf contains an important message: The text only gets us so far. Even today, there are laws we follow whose connection to biblical sources are far from obvious. Take Shabbat: Our customs — everything from lighting Shabbat candles to covering the challah to the order we conduct the meal — stem almost entirely from extra-biblical sources. With the exception of the text of the kiddush, very little is found in the Torah itself. But that doesn’t make them any less meaningful.
So do our laws hover in the air or do they have real scriptural support? And does it matter?
This tension underpins the entire enterprise of Jewish law and tradition. And we are part of that tradition, too.
Read all of Chagigah 10 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 19th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.