Eruvin 26-27    Talmudic logic, rules, and אין לומדין מן הכללות

One of the axioms drilled into every Ben-Torah from a young age is that every word in the Torah is precise- nothing is superfluous.

This same principle is applied to the words of Chazal, particularly to the words of the Mishna, which forms the basis of the תורה שבעל פה.

One of the main functions of the Gemara is to highlight the precision of the Mishnayos and make sure that apparent contradictions between mishnayos are either resolved. or attributed to different Tannaim (see for example Rashi/Bava Metzia 33a), but simply saying that the Mishna was not accurate is not usually an option.

Logical thought and deduction are one of the main methods used to interpret both the written and oral Torah, to the point that Talmud study is often thought to be one of the greatest examples of the study and application of logic.

Yet on our daf, we have a principle which seems to drive a wedge into all of this!

The opening Mishna of the new perek introduces us to the laws of עירוב חצירות , the second essential stage of making an Eruv, once valid partitions are in place.

Even though the partitions have allowed the houses and shared courtyard (or the courtyards and shared alley in the case of שתופי מבואות ) to be considered a רשות היחיד  on a Torah level, Chazal forbade transferring things from one person’s house to another’s, or to the shared courtyard or vice versa, without a symbolic action that shows that they all consider the entire area to be “like” one domain shared by everyone.

The symbolic action required is that the members of each house make available some  food which is placed in one of the houses, hence defining the entire area as “shared” in a certain way.

People attribute great importance to the place where their food is, and putting shared food in one of the houses thus has the effect of making this “shared area” into a shared place of dwelling, symbolic of the entire courtyard’s  quasi-shared nature.

Our Mishna tells us that anything can be used for this Eruv, except for water and salt.

Rashi explains that this is  because water and salt are not foods that contain sustenance (nourishment) and  thus do not contribute the required significance to the shared place.

Our natural thought would be that as usual, the Mishna’s words are very precise, and if the Mishna says that one can using anything for an Eruv other than water or salt, this must indeed be the case, and all foodstuffs other than water and salt are acceptable (The fact that ערוב חצירות  has its own rules and might require bread specifically leads many Rishonim to question Rashi’s view that the Mishna is talking about this kind of Eruv, but this is a different discussion.)

What, however, would be the case with other foodstuffs that seem to share the same limitations of water and salt?

Do we say that the Mishna’s list of exceptions is exhaustive, and that anything else is permitted, despite their apparent conceptual similarity, or do we say that the Mishna is simply giving us examples of what is to be excluded from the rule, but that other things to which the same logical arguments seems to apply might also be included?

What, for example, would be the case with certain other flavorings that have no nutritional value but are also used to enhance the flavor of other food?

Our Gemara opens with a bombshell dropped by Rabbi Yochanan: אין לומדין מן הכללות ואפילו במקום שנאמר בהם חוץ- We do not learn from “rules” even where a list of exceptions is given.

Rabbi Yochanan seems to be making the incredible claim that when Chazal state a rule without mentioning any exceptions, there could still be exceptions to that rule.

Not only that, even when Chazal list some exceptions, that list is still not necessarily exhaustive!

As such, it is possible that there are other things that may not used for an Eruv, and that water and salt were just examples.

The Rambam (Pirush haMishnayos on our mishna) states explicitly that the word “בכל”  is to be viewed as a גוזמא  (exaggeration!)  [even if it was interpreted more literally, it could clearly not mean absolutely everything, but only everything that in some way has the properties of food- a cellphone would not do the trick!]

Besides for seeming to fly in the face of our childhood education regarding the precision of every word in the Torah and Chazal, this bizarre sounding statement casts questions on the very need for such rules- after all, if rules are meant to be broken, what is the point of having them?

Our Gemara points out that this statement of Rabbi Yochanan was not made initially in reference to our Mishna, but was first said  (Kiddushin 34b) in relation to another Mishna (Kiddushin 29a), which states inter alia  that woman are exempt from all positive commandments caused by time, and obligated in all positive commandments not caused by time.

The Gemara there questions this rule, based on the fact that we know of various time-caused mitzvos, such as matza, and הקהל (the gathering at the end of the shemita year,) that woman are obligated to keep, and various mitzvos not caused by time, such as learning Torah and having children, which are not obligatory for them.

In that context, Rabbi Yochanan states his principle that one does not rely entirely on rules, and that there could be exceptions not mentioned by the Mishna.

He then uses our Mishna as a proof for the second part of his statement, that this applies even where Chazal have listed specific exceptions, which could make us think that their list of exceptions is exhaustive.

Having seen examples of this principle’s application both where no exceptions were listed by Chazal and where some exceptions are listed, let us now try and examine whether  this principle does indeed contradict those basic axioms of every word in the Torah and Chazal being measured, as well as what the role of these kind of rules are, if they cannot be relied on and we still need to consider that there might be other exceptions.

Perhaps we can answer this question buy reconsidering what the role of the rules and exceptions that Chazal choose to reveal to us indeed is.

Should their role be to spoon-feed us with precise rules and lists that are to be blindly followed without examining possibly contradictory texts or logical principles, then indeed, it is hard to explain what purpose remains once Rabbi Yochanan’s principle has effectively rendered this role null and void.

However, if the purpose of Chazal’s categorizations is to create logical groupings which we are then expected to apply to other conceptually similar cases, and also test against other authoritative texts and traditions, then the lists of exceptions has indeed performed its task well- Chazal were indeed precise with their words, the precision just does not lie in the exhaustive nature of their lists but rather in the message they are giving us from their precise choose of rules and exceptions.

The scope of Rabbi Yochanan’s principle can and must be researched further, and various Rishonim do indeed place certain limitations on it.

 It does seem to make clear that one of the major methodologies required for the study of תורה שבעל פה at least, is applying one’s own intellect and Torah database to examining the scope of all or many of the principles that Chazal teach us, and not just applying them robotically- Torah logic has its own G-d given system, based on  intelligent application by Torah scholars (and only Torah scholars) and not just the kind of Boolean logic used to program computers!

Much more to discuss on this, and other examples to bring and analyze, but that is it for today.

These posts are intended to raise issues and stimulate further research and discussion on contemporary topics related to the daf. They are not intended as psak halacha.

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