Shass Syum

Author: Esther Ehrman, Heshvan 5776/October 2015

Your kosher cruise has been shipwrecked. You are now on a desert island; with your family and a couple of other Jewish families. You all have children, young teen agers mostly. You managed to salvage a complete Shass, and now you need to take on the education of your children. How will they fare?

Your primary concern, naturally, is Jewish education and here, of course, the Shass will serve you well. The whole Shass is required; you might think that Seder Zeraim is about the sanctity of the produce you grow - but then what is Messechet Berakhot doing there? You might think that Seder Neziqin is about the laws of property, but then it has the essentially ethical Messechet Avot etc. After one round of seven plus years of a daf a day, the children are obviously not going to master the details of complex halachic discussions. What will they have learnt?

The youngsters will certainly come away with a fascinating awareness of their ancestors’ lives focussed on the Beit haMiqdash and the corollary concepts of kedusha and chol, tuma and tahara, which somehow find their way into every Messechet The question arises, is such knowledge just the material of history, a cultural, social history? Of course not. It is of great historical interest, but that is secondary.

Knowledge of the relationship of the Jewish people to the Beit haMiqdash provides the groundwork for our relationship to H’. An awareness of kedusha and tahara, tuma and chol, define our Jewish life, whether in contracting marriages, kashrut,having children, building a Sukka, keeping Shabbat, Jewish agriculture with its emphasis on ethics, or doing business (try selling a Shul building..) Your children will come away with all the essentials of Judaism and its values.

Will the youngsters get a secular education from the Shass? They say that there is no such thing as Jewish physics. Perhaps. But there is such a thing as learning everything in a Jewish context. We have already mentioned Jewish history and social history. Clearly, there is Jewish legal thinking, a structuring of courts of law and their conduct (Sanhedrin, Makkot). Jewish agriculture, as already said. Some (Jewish?) maths will be required if, like R.Yochanan, you need to fit 24 people into a round Sukka - a notion of Pi is required here, as it is in the measurements in Eruvin. Geography? Not that much (those people in the Galil come up periodically, with their different practices...). Literature? Well, aggadeta are legion. Since that is my field, I’d like to remind you of one, short sample, on Qiddushin 31a:

‘They asked Rabbi Eliezer: how far does one take ‘honour [your] father and mother’? He said to them: Come, see what was done by a Gentile in Ashkelon. His name was Dama ben Netinah. The Sages asked him for jewels for the Ephod [of the Cohen Gadol], worth sixty thousand - according to Rav Kahana Mattenei, worth eighty thousand. Now, the key [to the box of jewels] was lying under his father’s head. He did not disturb him. In another year H’ rewarded him and a red heifer was born in his flock. Israel’s Sages (elders) came to his house. He said to them: I know that if I ask for all the money in the world, you will give it to me, but I shall only ask you for the amount that I lost on account of ‘honour [your] father’ (the original sum). Suspense, characterisation, the - Jewish - message are all there.

One should not, of course, forget about linguistics, endless words are analysed, logic, how to present arguments and more.

Clearly, with just one round of seven and a half years of learning Talmud, your children seem to be equipped to contribute to society. You can now build a boat and return to the mainland.