Talmud and Tech


How do we respond to changes in technology that call into question how we understand and practice our faith? Perhaps the example of the rabbinic sages can offer a clue.

Daf Yomi is the practice of reading a page of the Babylonian Talmud every day in seven and half year cycles. (There are 2,711 pages.) With everyone reading the same page each day, people can discuss and learn the text in groups, something like Bible study or the breviary for Christians.

The Talmud is rich with debates over interpretations of the law and how best to observe it, and offer a mind-boggling array of questions answered with more questions and multiple answers to each problem. The debate, rather than the answer, was the heart of the process. Christians expecting Thomistic binary questions with set answers will come away sorely disappointed by the open-ended nature of most discussions.

The current cycle of daf yomi began in 2005, and is now on Tractate Shabbos. This week focuses on sections about shabbat observance in the light of new (for the time) technologies introduced to Jews by their encounter with the Romans.

Strict observance requires abstaining from any kind of labor on shabbat, which, for modern orthodox, means a prohibition on driving cars and operating elevators. Thus, many heavily Jewish areas (and all new construction in Israel) contain a shabbat elevator that runs automatically all day, saving Jews from the potential shabbat violation of pushing an elevator button.

Obviously, strict shabbat observance is not our concern as as Christians, but understanding how the Jews responded to new tech provides a fascinating window into how our “fathers in the faith” coped with new developments in the light of the law.

Adam Kirsch of The Tablet (not to be confused with dissenting UK Catholic newspaper of the same name) has a great column about the issues raised in these daf yomi readings. His main point is that understanding of the law had to develop along with technology. Here’s Kirsch on a debate found in this week’s daf yomi readings:

Much of the Talmudic discussion was focused on a kind of oven called a kirah, and dealt with the question of whether it was permissible to take advantage of a kirah’s heat on Shabbat—a matter on which several rabbis gave conflicting rulings. In Shabbat 38b, however, we learn that—just like today, with inventions like the Shabbat elevator—the prohibition on one kind of technology gave rise to clever work-arounds. If it is forbidden to cook an egg on Shabbat, the Mishnah asks, is it all right to place an egg next to a hot kettle in order to roast it slightly? What about leaving cloths in the sun to get hot and then using that heat to fry an egg, or burying the egg in hot sand?

All these methods take advantage of the distinction the rabbis draw between cooking with fire, which is prohibited on Shabbat, and cooking using the heat of the sun, which is permitted. Even so, the Mishnah rules that these techniques are prohibited, and the Gemara supplies the reasons. Cooking with a hot cloth might lead observers to think that one had used fire to heat the cloth and thus encourage them to violate the Sabbath. (This kind of reasoning, where an action is judged by its potential to mislead, is common in Talmudic discussions.) Cooking with hot sand, Rabbah similarly argues, might lead an onlooker to think that one is cooking with hot ash from a fire.

He continues with a discussion of the debate about using the aqueduct (very new tech for Jews of the 1st century). Some cold water pipes (build by Tiberias) ran through a hot spring, thus heating the water for their bath. However, other people heated their water with fire, and then lied about it by saying the water came from the canal pipe. The rabbis attempted to ban bathing in any warm water on shabbat, but the regulation couldn’t be sustained. Here’s the relevant passage from the Talmud (emphasis added):

What does the expression “transgressing” mean? As R. Simeon b. Pazi in the name of R. Joshua b. Levi, quoting bar Qapara, said: In former times the people were accustomed to bathe (on the Sabbath) in water that was warmed on Friday. The bath-keepers then began to warm the water on the Sabbath, and to tell the people that it had been warmed on Friday. Hereupon they prohibited bathing in warm water, but still they placed no restriction upon taking a sweating (in the bath-room). The people then would come and bathe, but pretend to merely take a sweating. Then sweating was also prohibited, but washing in the hot spring water of Tiberias was still allowed. The people, however, would come and wash themselves in water that was warmed by the fire and say that they washed in the hot spring water. Subsequently warm water was prohibited for bathing altogether, but bathing in cold water was allowed. Seeing that people could not stand the last prohibition, it was therefore revoked, and bathing in the hot spring water of Tiberias was allowed. The prohibition of the sweating bath, however, remained. The rabbis taught: One may warm himself by a hearth-fire and afterwards rinse himself with cold water, but not bathe first in cold water and then warm himself by a hearth-fire, because he warms the water that is on him.

 Kirsch makes an interesting observation (emphasis added):

The change came about, a Baraita explains, because “sinners proliferated.” But one might also say that this was an example of popular sovereignty in action. The rabbis function as judges and legislators for the Jewish people, but when a particular edict is rejected by the whole body of the people, their veto must stand. Is this so different from Conservative Jews insisting on driving to synagogue on Shabbat—another case when “sinners” proliferated so much that the sin became a new norm?

There’s an echo in that last line of our own struggles with artificial contraception, but unlike the Hebrew sages, the magistarium opted to resist what essentially would have been a heckler’s veto.

Obviously, the fundamental issues of life itself, marriage, sex, and God’s plan is a quite a bit more central to the human condition than using a hot spring to heat your bath water. But the two issues spring from a common issue: how does the faith understand itself in the light of new technology?

I accept the wisdom and logic of the prohibition on artificial contraception without being particularly enamored of the decision. I also accept that this reaction reflects my own limitations, not any flaws in Humanae Vitae. It’s a settled issue. As technology progress, however, similar conundrums will present themselves, and as we examine them and their solutions in the light of natural law and scripture, it may be wise to keep the example of the rabbis in mind.

Kirsch’s piece concludes with an interesting observation about the distinction between the holiness expected of a rabbinical elite, and the holiness expected of the average Jew. It’s great stuff, so read it all, but he wonders (as did the sages) if there is a hierarchy of piety, with an elite expected to keep the law perfectly, but the common man expected to keep it merely to the best of his ability.

Christians would reject this hierarchy of piety. Didn’t Jesus tell us to be “perfect, as our Father in heaven is perfect”?

Jesus was quite aware that such a thing was not possible for people under the yoke of original sin, but he urged perfection on us nonetheless. Fallible humans will compromise their values quickly enough if they have a sense that compromise is allowed. By urging us to keep our eyes on the ideal–and knowing full well that sin will cause us to fall short of those ideals–he expressed a father’s confidence in the ability of his children to achieve greatness. As C.S. Lewis said,  “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.”