In 1963, preeminent Jewish historian Salo Baron famously railed against what he called the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history.” Baron warned against the tendency to distill Jewish history into a series of persecutions and other miseries. Jews are so much more, he asserted, than their suffering.
Scholars took up Baron’s call. Many late 20th and early 21st century historians of the Jews have kept their focus on Jewish experience and achievements — things Jews did, rather than things that were done to them. At the same time, especially in the wake of the Holocaust, the specter of persecution always seems to hover in the background of nearly any discussion of Jewish historical experience, even if it isn’t the main subject.
The Talmud is an interesting text to consider in this context. It came into existence because the Romans destroyed the Temple and ended Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel, leaving the people and their tradition to rapidly adapt or go extinct. The rabbinic tradition, of which the Talmud is the apex, is part of the improbably successful transformation that set the groundwork for the Jewish people to thrive and flexibly adapt to new circumstances for centuries afterward.
Although violence against the Jewish people is in the background of the entire Talmud, much of the text itself is unselfconsciously invested in internal Jewish concerns — without reference to external persecution. On today’s page, however, that persecution leaps from background to foreground.
Today we find ourselves in the midst of a technical debate about roofing (again). In broad strokes, the rabbis teach that wooden planks at least four handbreadths wide, like those used to roof ordinary houses, are not acceptable roofing for a sukkah, though narrower planks are permitted. At least, this is the rule under ordinary circumstances. But not all times are ordinary:
Rabbi Yehuda said: There was an incident during a time of danger, at which point we brought boards that were four handbreadths in width, and we roofed the porch, and we sat beneath them.
Rabbi Yehuda alludes to a period of persecution when Jewish practice was outlawed, and Jews were not permitted to build sukkahs. During this time, they apparently placed wide planks, which ordinarily would not be permitted as sukkah roofing, over their porches and sat there. Since the wide planks looked like ordinary roofing, it did not attract the attention of the authorities.
Just as quickly as this remark is made, the discussion melts back into technical debate. We’re once again assiduously defining kosher roofing, now considering the question of whether a wide board, turned on its narrow side, can be considered a narrow board. The specter of persecution is gone as suddenly as it was raised, and the work of building and defining Jewish practice continues.
Read all of Sukkah 14 on Sefaria.