Chagigah 11

Forbidden subjects.

For the rabbis, there is seemingly no higher value than learning. But is all learning encouraged? The famous mishnah on today’s page that opens the second chapter of Chagigah warns against the study of certain subjects:

One may not study (dorshin) forbidden sexual relations with three nor the act of creation with two individuals, nor the chariot with one person unless he is wise and understands things on his own.

Dorshin, rendered above as study,can either mean to learn or to teach. If it is to learn, then it means that one should do so with an expert in limited company. If it means to teach, then it must be done in a very small tutorial where students get lots of attention.

Why must the study of these three subjects — forbidden sexual relationships (e.g. parent and child or brother and sister), the divine act of creation, and God’s heavenly chariot (a term, deriving from Ezekiel’s vision of God’s heavenly chariot, that the rabbis use for mystical speculation) — be so tightly controlled? What makes them so dangerous?

In a few days we will come to the famous talmudic story of four rabbis who entered the Pardes — by which we understand that they delved head-first into some of these subjects. Only one, Rabbi Akiva, emerged unscathed. The story was made famous to many 20th century Jews through Rabbi Milton Steinberg’s novel-length treatment of it, As a Driven Leaf. Steinberg speculated that the danger of these subjects was the allure of rationalistic, scientific inquiry which could potentially disprove Judaism.

But another interpretation is that these three subjects open the door to the admission of Greek values. For example: What is the problem with studying forbidden sexual relations? Perhaps just talking about the details of sexual unions is dangerous because it might lead students to want to experiment themselves. And given the permissive Greek attitude towards sexuality, the rabbis feared it might lead young people away from religious discipline.

Our mishnah continues with more warnings:

Whoever looks (mistakel) at four matters, it would have been better if that person had not been born: what is above and what is below, what was, and what will be. 

And anyone who has no concern for the honor of his maker, should not have been born.

The term mistakel means to look but it has more intensity than the typical verb used for looking, ro’eh. Mistakel can also mean to consider, to philosophize. And this is a hint about what is meant — these are areas of philosophical and mystical endeavor, questions about what is above in the heavens, and deep below the earth, in the underworld, as well as questions of what came long ago before creation, and questions about seeing into the future.

Perhaps, too, the rabbis were concerned that too much abstract speculation would lead to frustration. Scripture tells us that King Solomon said: “The more you know, the more your frustration.” (Ecclesiastes 1:18) Maybe there’s a limit to what we can know about what has happened before the world was created and what’s going to happen in the future. It’s a question of emphasis and the rabbis wanted us to focus on thinking about and living in the present as a moral person.

The Gemara will go on to talk about the source for this mishnah. The rabbis find a verse from the Torah that proves that the study of these subjects should be tightly controlled. But they are unable, and conclude that it is a matter of logic. It’s just common sense, they decide, that teaching people dangerous subjects should be done in small tutorials with select students, not giant lecture halls that are open to all. And some things are best not studied.

And one final footnote: When the rabbis say that it would have been better if someone had not been born, this is not likely meant to be understood literally. Instead, think of it as a hyperbolic way of saying that such a person is not fulfilling his or her human potential in making the present a priority. These alluring and dangerous subjects can pull us away and make it a struggle to stay rooted in our own time and place.

Read all of Chagigah 11 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on February 20th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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