You can learn a lot about a community from what they swear by. Shakespeare’s characters often use the term “Zounds!” which is a contraction of “God’s wounds.” Comic book heroes and villains sometimes exclaim “Gadzooks!” a contraction of the expression “God’s hooks.” Both terms refer to how Christians understand the crucifixion of Jesus and remind us that, in the Western world, Christian theology is all around us, in our literature, language and entertainment.
The rabbis of the Talmud also swore by things that were important to them. In Eruvin 17a, Rabbi Giddel swears that a particular teaching is that of Rav “by the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings” — the three major divisions of the Hebrew Bible. Just two weeks ago, in Yevamot 16a, we saw Rabbi Dosa declare, “I call as witnesses before me the heavens and the earth,” to affirm that what he is saying is true. Certain rabbis invoke creative oaths to demonstrate their reliability and the truth of their positions.
Today’s daf introduces us to a new talmudic expression of sincerity, “I swear by the Temple service!”
The rabbis are trying to figure out what Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi said about double-counting prohibitions. Did he think that if you violated two prohibitions at the same time, you were liable for both? Or were you liable only for whichever had the highest penalty?
The Gemara describes three scenarios of double violation: an Israelite who falsely serves as a priest in the Temple on Shabbat, a priest with a blemish who serves in the Temple while impure, and an Israelite who eats a bird killed sacrificially (birds were killed differently in Temple sacrifices than for regular consumption, so here he is eating priestly food when not a priest and he’s eating a bird that has not been correctly slaughtered for regular consumption.)
After each scenario, we have the same reactions:
Rabbi Hiyya jumped up and swore: By the Temple service, this I heard from Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi: He is liable on two counts.
Bar Kappara jumped up and swore: By the Temple service, this I heard from Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi: He is liable on one.
The discussion is going to continue on to tomorrow’s daf where, since the rabbis cannot rely on tradition to know Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi’s ruling, they tease out the answers with logic. For now, though, let’s stop and think about the kinds of things the rabbis swore by: the Torah, the world that God created and the Temple service, which had been an important part of the Jewish past and which they hoped would be part of their future. Linguists note that our language shapes our cultures and communities; the rabbis use even their oaths as part of this project.
In an early 20th-century responsa, the Romanian rabbi Betzalel Zev Shafran (the Ravaz) writes, “and it is marvelous in our eyes, how our holy sages, may their memories be for a blessing, used many different phrases for oaths!” He does, however, insist that we — who are not at the level of holiness and wisdom of the rabbis — are not permitted to make such oaths, lest we come to violate the biblical prohibition against making a false oath.
The daf affirms that you can learn a lot about a community from what they swear by. And Rabbi Shafran reminds us that we can also learn a lot about a community by when they choose not to swear at all.