Taanit 10

The rules of the road.

Today’s page takes us through interesting and varied material, from a debate about the water cycle (with the conclusion that the rain is evaporated ocean water that has been “sweetened” in the clouds) to a discussion of when different communities begin to pray for rain (many weeks later in Babylonia , which is located in that magic fertile crescent, so lusciously verdant it needs little rain to produce abundant crops) to laying out the procedures for fasting in the event that the rains are delayed and a drought seems imminent. 

Any one of these topics would be worth exploring, but today we’re going to focus on a little discussion about travel and Torah study.

As an aside, the Gemara expounds on a verse from Genesis. Joseph, having just revealed himself to his long lost brothers in Egypt, sends them back to Jacob in Canaan with the good news that he is alive. Joseph sees the brothers off with the following parting words: “See that you do not fall out on the way.” (Genesis 45:24 ) It’s an understandable warning — these brothers were not legendary for their ability to get along. Nonetheless, the rabbis wonder why they, or anyone, might quarrel on a journey.

Rabbi Elazar said that Joseph said to his brothers: Do not become occupied in a matter of halakhah, lest you fall out on the way.

Rabbi Elazar imagines that Joseph warned his brothers not to discuss Jewish law because this would cause them to fight with one another on the way home. In a family literally riven by sibling conflict, the brunt of which was borne by Joseph himself, he wanted to take no risks.

It should be noted that the word for “fall out” is tirgzu, which in biblical Hebrew means anything from “fight” to “become agitated” to “quiver with excitement.” Later commentators suggest alternative understandings of Rabbi Elazar’s comment. While Rabbeinu Gershom sticks with the idea that halakhic discussion can quickly become heated — either with excitement or genuine frustration (as we see many times in the Talmud), Rashi says he is simply worried the brothers will become so absorbed in their conversation they lose their way.

As delightful as it is to suppose that halakhah (a word which literally means “way”) can be so absorbing we might lose track of the actual physical path beneath our feet — or so urgent we might start brawling over a fine point of law — it is still hard to imagine the rabbis recommending that we not study Torah. Indeed, the next opinion in our Gemara counters:

Is that so? But didn’t Rabbi Elai bar Berekhya say: Two Torah scholars who are walking along the road and there are no Torah matters discussed between them, they are worthy of being burned.

Well, that is not subtle. But it also sounds more like the rabbis — always in favor of Torah discussion and learning. Rabbi Elai bar Berekhya clarifies the strong language here, explaining that it comes from scripture: When Elijah and Elisha were walking and encountered the divine chariot of fire, they were not burned because they were engaged in words of Torah. (2 Kings 2:11)

The Gemara resolves these two opinions by suggesting that the first, that one should not study on the road, refers to studying halakhah by rote — meaning reviewing established positions and making sure they are placed firmly in memory. The second refers to in-depth examination of halakhot — likely the kind of back and forth that the rabbis themselves use throughout the Talmud to establish a deeper understanding of the law.

Interestingly, there is a resolution to these two conflicting sources that strikes me as much simpler than this one offered by the Gemara: Rabbi bar Elai specifically mentions Torah scholars, while Rabbi Elazar does not. The rabbis could have concluded that only Torah scholars are obligated to discuss halakhah on their journeys, while ordinary people should keep their minds on other things. But instead, the Gemara sidesteps this easier resolution in favor of one that gives all people the opportunity to engage in words of Torah on the way. At least, as long as it is a higher order halakhic debate. Leave the flashcards for another time.

Read all of Taanit 10 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on November 22nd, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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