When we think of eminent sites of learning and lawmaking, we probably think of marble flooring, high ceilings, stained wood and chambers large enough to get lost in — features that convey a sense of the majesty that (we hope) flow from these places. On today’s daf, we get a bit of Torah that emerges from a far less impressive room: the attic of someone’s house. And not just any bit of Torah, but one of the most frequently referenced passages in the Talmud:
Rabbi Tarfon and the elders were reclining in the loft of the house of Nit’za in Lod, when this question was asked of them: Is study greater or is action greater?
Rabbi Tarfon answered and said: Action is greater. Rabbi Akiva answered and said: Study is greater. Everyone answered and said: Study is greater, as study leads to action.
This is truly a beautiful teaching. While it’s sometimes read as elevating study over action, we can see that the rabbis didn’t see these elements in isolation. They treasured learning as an essential contributor to action, rather than simply an end in and of itself. And lest we think this is uncontroversial, let’s note that other rabbis over the centuries have sided with Rabbi Tarfon, making this issue far less clear-cut than what we find here and ensuring that the debate on the relative importance of study and action continues to the present day.
While reams of commentary have been written on this topic, I want to focus on something a little less examined: the location where the discussion takes place. This isn’t the only appearance of the loft of the house of Nit’za in the Talmud. In Tractate Sanhedrin, we find the rabbis gathered there concluding that there are three exceptions to the general rule that any law of the Torah can be suspended when a life is at stake: idol worship, murder and sexual immorality. This the source of Judaism’s so-called three cardinal sins and an immensely significant piece of rabbinic jurisprudence. And Nit’za’s loft figures in a discussion we saw back in Tractate Shabbat, in which the rabbis consider the permissibility of using an improvised lamp on Shabbat.
There are several meanings we can take away from the loft as the rabbis’ meeting place. In contrast to beautifully architectured university libraries or Greek revival courthouses, the loft is both humble and private. One could read into the former a comment on the broader significance of humility in Jewish tradition. Jewish national narratives tell how we’re descended from enslaved people and a wandering Aramean, as opposed to many other peoples whose origin stories elevate kings and deities as progenitors. Similarly, Jewish legal authorities didn’t require grand surroundings to function and promulgate new teachings.
One could read the latter (a private setting) as a reminder that during the talmudic era, the political situation of the Jews was precarious, with most Jews living under empires that ranged from indifferent to antagonistic. Private homes provided more safety than a more public and visible beit midrash. The memory of gatherings in Nit’za’s loft makes the rabbis out to be more Dead Poets Society than Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
While much of our exploration of the Talmud rightly concerns the content of what the rabbis discussed, today’s daf draws our attention to the place where they did so, in the process reminding us that awe-inspiring surroundings aren’t the only places conducive to the cultivation of law and learning. Indeed, some of the most amazing things in our tradition can, and did, happen in ordinary ones.
Read all of Kiddushin 40 on Sefaria.