Eruvin 60

Nothing but prophecy.

What is the most legitimate form of wisdom? Is it the capacity to recite a tradition from memory or to use inferential reasoning to arrive at truth? We encounter a clear preference for the latter position on today’s daf.

The context is a discussion about the mishnah we encountered yesterday, in which we learned that a city that loses some of its population cannot be entirely encircled by an eruv — some area must be left outside. The rabbis disagree about how large that area must be, with Rabbi Yitzhak claiming on today’s daf that it can be as small as a single house and a courtyard.

Abaye wants to know whether Rabbi Yitzhak’s position is based on tradition or logic. And when another sage asks him why it matters, Abaye scoffs:

When you study Talmud is it merely a song?

According to Abaye, repeating a tradition without understanding it is like singing a song without knowing what the words mean. Abaye would rather see an opinion based on logical deduction than the parroting of an oral tradition. For him, as for the other scholars of his time, logic is the better way to judge the merits of an argument than a song passed down without understanding.

Rabbi Idi makes a similar point later on the daf when he attacks a position he doesn’t find reasonable, saying:

These rulings are nothing but prophecy!

In talmudic culture, accusing someone of prophecy is a serious insult. The best arguments are based in logic and debate. Passing on a tradition without explanation violates the implicit rules of the game. Rabbi Idi is basically saying that to pass on a teaching without logical reasoning is to rely on an obsolete method of deciding laws. In commenting on this line from Rabbi Idi, Tosafot quotes a classic rabbinic line from Tractate Bava Batra: “A sage is greater than a prophet.”

Remember, the rabbis of the Talmud were building a Judaism based in thinking and learning after the destruction of the Temple. They were moving the people away from the priesthood towards an entirely different basis of authority, one rooted in a more process-oriented approach to religious life. It should come as no surprise then that they regarded the ideal leader as one who could use deductive reasoning to make the law. A scholar is preferable to a prophet.

One could argue that the entire rabbinic enterprise is a critique of prophecy. For the rabbis, a new form of Jewish leadership and a new model of legitimate wisdom had arrived. The age of prophecy was over.

Read all of Eruvin 60 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on October 8th, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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