Eruvin 37

Today’s daf (Eruvin 37) is tricky to follow. Having previously been taught in the Mishna (Eruvin 3:5, 36b) about the concept of ברירה (literally, ‘selection’, but referring to the retroactive designation of an Eruv in response to events that have yet to occur eg. ‘if this thing happens, then this Eruv shall be valid’), the Gemara (36b) informs us that Rabbi Yitzchak taught a Beraita (a teaching originating from the Mishnaic period but not incorporated in the Mishna) containing rulings that conflict with the Mishna. However, the Gemara then finds a way to resolve these inconsistences.

Then, towards the end of 36b, reference is made to a further Beraita taught by Ayo which, in contrast to the Mishna where Rabbi Yehuda broadly agrees with the concept of ברירה, states that Rabbi Yehuda rejects ברירה absolutely. In today’s daf (37a), Ulla explains why the Beraita taught by Ayo contains irreconcilable inconsistencies with the Mishna and, given this, must therefore be a Beraita which has, in some way, become compromised.

Significantly, during the Gemara’s discussion, reference is made to the Tosefta (Demai 8:5 which is itself explaining Mishna Demai 7:4) which suggests that Rabbi Yossi rejects the concept of ברירה. Given this, the Gemara cites a further Mishna (Kinnim 1:4) implying that Rabbi Yossi does, in fact, accept the principle of ברירה. Rabbah then explains how the view of Rabbi Yossi in Mishna Kinnim is, on closer inspection, still consistent with Rabbi Yossi’s view in Tosefta Demai. However, the Gemara then refers to two different Beraitot which suggest that Rabbi Yossi does, in fact, accept the concept of ברירה. To this, the Gemara states that both these Beraitot contain irreconcilable inconsistencies with the Mishna and must therefore have become compromised in some way and why, rather than adopting the view of the Beraita, it chose to follow the view of the Mishna.

As mentioned, for many people this kind of back-and-forth is challenging to understand and tricky to follow. However, to my mind, this daf is a perfect example of what so much of the Gemara is all about. As Rabbi Yosef Reinman once put it, ‘the key feature of talmudic scholarship… is not analysis, not originality, not creativity, but consistency. The quest for consistency is the overriding imperative of the Talmud itself and of all the rabbinic commentaries that develop its concepts. This quest mandates that all superficial inconsistencies must be resolved and thereby gives rise to a great surge of analysis, logic, original thought, and sheet genius that characterize Talmudic scholarship… No opinion is valid unless it is consistent with every area of Talmudic law, no matter how remotely related. This is what makes Talmudic scholarship so vital and exciting. Everything has to fit.’ (One People, Two Worlds p. 208).

To my mind, this Talmudic endeavour of attempting to reconcile different teachings provides us with a life lesson that we should do all we can to reconcile our differences with others; while the fact that this is not always possible in the Gemara also reminds us that while we should do all we can to reconcile, this is not always achievable.

At the same time, I should like to add a further remark – not about reconciliation, but instead, about consistency – and the fact that while the Gemara looks for consistency in the teachings that it cites, the ‘vital and exciting’ conversation in the Gemara emerges from the fact that the Gemara often cites a range of teachings that are often inconsistent.  

On this point, I would like to mention a teaching (see Yerushalmi Shabbat 1:3, Shulchan Aruch OC 603:1) that it is customary to adopt personal strictures during the Asseret Yemei Teshuvah (the Ten Days of Repentance starting from Rosh Hashanah and ending on Yom Kippur).

Significantly, when some people consider the notion of being halachically and ethically stricter for a short period of time, they view it to be religiously inconsistent and seemingly pointless. But as Mark Twain once remarked, ‘there are those who would misteach us that to stick in a rut is consistency and a virtue; and that to climb out of the rut is inconsistency and a vice’. Given this, as I once explained in an essay on the subject (see https://bit.ly/2Rq08Kb), ‘we need to comprehend that spiritual growth often arises out of inconsistency, and that central to our religious practice during the Asseret Yemei Teshuvah is to pursue a lifestyle that is inconsistent with the rest of the year and be the best person we can be without concern for whether we can maintain this in the future. As a result of this, our actions during this period will serve as a catalyst for the rest of the year; they will leave the correct spiritual footprint during this period, and that will ‘encourage’ G-d to judge us beyond the letter of the law.’

What we learn from all this is that we should do all we can to reconcile with others, and that – especially in this period of the Yamim Noraim – we should be prepared to be inconsistent and thereby spiritually ‘upgrade’ ourselves, even if it is for just a short period of time.