Friday, March 11, 2011

Siyyum for ‘Eruvin

An eruv surrounding a community in JerusalemImage of part of an ‘eruv, the focal topic of ‘Eruvin, via Wikipedia

Jewish date:  5 ’Adhar Sheni 5771 (Parashath Wayyiqra’).

Today’s holidays:  Great Lent (Christianity), Lent (Christianity), Bahá’í Month of Fasting (Bahá’í Faith), Friday after Ash Wednesday (Roman Catholicism), Feast Day of St. Bela Lugosi (Church of the SubGenius).

I started work recently, and I am trying to fit things, including blogging, into my new schedule.  One of the other things I am also struggling to find a right time slot for is the study of the Babylonian Talmudh.  I recently completed study of the tractate ‘Eruvin, and this Shabbath afternoon I should be having a siyyum, which is a festive meal in celebration of the completion of a tractate.  (We Jews are a rather academic people and like to celebrate Torah study.)  Often at a siyyum the person who has completed the tractate gives a speech on it, but I will not be giving such a speech then because 1) I will not have the time for it and 2) my Hebrew speaking abilities are probably not equal to the task (yet).  However, this is my blog, and I can write anything here I want with impunity, so I am going to write here a little bit on ‘Eruvin.

‘Eruvin ends discussing cases which many today cannot relate to easily, things like what one can or cannot do if a string breaks on a lyre in the Temple on Shabbath or whether or not a wart discovered on a kohen (priest) can be removed on Shabbath so he can perform the Temple service.  In such cases there are technical matters of whether fixing the string or removing the wart count as mela’khah (actions prohibited on Shabbath from the Torah) and if they do, whether or not the requirement that the Temple service be performed overrides the prohibition.  These technical questions will not be discussed here.  Instead, I will discuss another matter which is not discussed in the Talmudh or its standard commentaries of Rashi and Tosafoth.

One could easily ask, “Why do these cases matter?  The Temple is not some tiny rinky-dink institution.  They had lots of lyres and lots of kohanim.  If a string breaks on a lyre, so what?  They can just put the instrument aside, use a different one, and fix the broken string tomorrow.  And if a kohen has a wart, they can give him the day off and have a doctor remove it tomorrow.  What’s so important about this lyre and this kohen that they need them this particular day?”  Indeed, if a lyre had a broken string or a kohen had a wart on Shabbath, they probably did just take the day off.

Nevertheless, asking such questions does have a point.  Strings break periodically on string instruments, and it is statistically inevitable that given enough time, one Shabbath every single lyre on the Temple Mount will have a broken string.  If the chances of every lyre in the Temple having a broken string on any given Shabbath, is one in 1,000,000, over 10,000 years there is about a 40 percent chance that this problem will actually occur, and during 90,000 years, the chances that it will happen top 99 percent.  Considering the Temple service is supposed to resume and last indefinitely, perhaps till the end of our universe, even highly unlikely events are likely to happen at some point.

And should anyone think this discussion is purely hypothetical, consider this:  As a graduate student, I studied rare diseases.  Childhood acute lymphoblastic leukemia has an incidence measured in terms of per hundred thousand.  This is a rate so low that one does not need to worry about one’s children getting this disease—and this is the most common childhood cancer.  A cancer which one’s chances of getting are one in 1,000,000 may be nothing for an individual to worry about, but given that there are about 7,000,000,000 humans on this planet, that means there are about 7,000 people getting this disease, suffering from it, dealing with its consequences, seeking treatment for it, and perhaps dying from it.  One in 1,000,000 may be trivial for an individual, but given enough individuals, even something so unlikely becomes something that happens to someone.  Rare events not only happen, but given enough opportunities to happen, they become practically inevitable.  It is thus no wonder that the Babylonian Talmudh discusses cases which at any instant are improbable:  it is simply a matter of being prepared for when they inevitably happen.

Peace and Shabbath shalom.

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