Shabbos 90 General knowledge


I was never great at the school general knowledge quiz.

That was not due to a lack of love for trivia, but more because I am one who tends to obsess over subjects that interest me and pretty much disengage from those that do not.

In a general knowledge quiz, knowledge of sports and modern music trends ( which really did not interest me much) is as important as knowledge of geography and religion ( which did )

As I grew older, my interests broadened, and I even managed to appreciate  poetry at least enough to get through matriculation in South Africa .

I still have a particularly hard time with many technical sugyas- for example, as much as I try ( which admittedly is not enough), I have not succeeded in understanding the weaving process enough to begin to understand the melachos that are based on this most ancient of skills. 

One of the incredible things that constantly strikes me about Chazal, is how they were required to have the most broad general knowledge of pretty much everything that was known at the time, in order to learn, teach, and interpret Torah correctly. 

The Amora Rav relates (Sanhedrin 5b) that he spent 3 years of his youth on a cattle farm, learning how to distinguish between different types of blemishes. 

We saw earlier in the masechta how important knowledge of Astronomy is for our calendar and thus all mitzvos that relate to specific dates .

Mathematical knowledge was an essential requirement for the many measurements that make up so much of halacha .

And an understanding of politics , culture ,and current affairs was a given for the complex interactions required with our various hosts , colonizers, and oppressors, not to mention the laws of derech eretz which were clearly impacted by and adapted to, the culture of the times .

Although there are countless examples, let us not forget that the members of the supreme Sanhedrin had to know 70 different languages – is there anyone alive today who can claim that feat?

On this daf, the Amoraim work hard to try and understand the meaning of various items mentioned in the Mishna, things which were clearly well known during the Mishna period, but were clearly  not  well known in the  Sassanian Babylonia of the Talmud Bavli. 

They appear to have successfully done enough research to identify all of these, for example בורית is identified as a type of  אהלא, after some give and take , and אשלג is identified as שונאנה, only after consulting with a regular overseas traveler-it seems us frequent travelers can come in pretty handy too!

Of course, just because the Amoraim were able to identify these things, doesn’t mean we are able to- if you feel a little frustrated and perhaps disillusioned by the ancient vocabulary required to understand sugyas like this, be slightly comforted by the fact that even the father of the mefarshim (commentators), Rashi himself ,admitted, in his usual honest way, that he did not  know what שלוף דוץ was!

The identity of the חלזון,  required for making the tcheiles  (arguably blueish dye used for tzitzis and certain items in the mishkan) has evaded our greatest authorities for centuries, generating much debate, but absolutely no consensus. 

As we quoted in that earlier article, our greatest leaders from the Rambam to the Vilna Gaon taught us how an understanding of all forms of wisdom is essential for a proper understanding of the Torah- we can only look up in awe to the great bearers of our Masora ( tradition) who were able to familiarize themselves with a treasury of general knowledge anyone today could barely dream of, together with mastery of the entire Torah itself.

As my high school Rebbe and shul Rav in my youth , haGaon Rav Eliezer Chrysler שליט”א told one of us at our Barmitzva, in his Gateshead English style  – “you might not be able to be Rav Moshe Feinstein zt’l, but you jolly well can try.”

I guess that being on the future Sanhedrin is not even a dream for most of us, but we better “jolly well try”!