This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Tong of Tongs*

The rabbis of the Mishnah compiled various lists of items that they claimed were created "at twilight on the eve of the first Sabbath." Most of those items are associated with spectacular biblical miracles, such as the mannah, Balaam's talking donkey, and the fissure that opened to swallow up Korach and his rebellious congregation.

Maimonides argued plausibly that the lesson underlying this tradition is that God's true greatness is manifested in the unchanging laws of nature, and not in the ability to arbitrarily suspend or abrogate those laws. Accordingly, even wondrous events that appear to us as contraventions of the natural order were in reality programmed into the structure of the universe at the time of its creation.

The Maharal of Prague explained that the concept of "twilight" is to be grasped as a metaphor for the subtle metaphysical dimension in which miracles originate. Just as the visible twilight is no more than an indefinable moment in the subtle transition from day to night, so are we to understand that the creation of miracles occurred in a realm that is outside of time, in the infinitesimal present moment that is forever sandwiched between the past and the future. Within this moment lies a dynamic potentiality for change and improvement in response to constantly changing circumstances.

At any rate, not all the phenomena that the rabbis portrayed as having been created on that first Friday evening relate to high-profile miracles. According to Rabbi Judah bar Ilai, the list should also include… the first pair of blacksmith's tongs.

Among the ancients, the ability to fashion metal into tools and weapons was often enveloped in an aura of mystery, or even fear. In primitive cultures, blacksmiths were perceived as masters of occult lore, and pagan mythologies sang of divine smiths who forged weapons for the gods.

However, as the Talmud explains it, Rabbi Judah's reasoning was based on much more prosaic and rational considerations. When a blacksmith fashions a pair of tongs in the forge, the only way he can handle the red-hot metal is with tongs. Since we are speaking of the manufacture of the first pair of tongs, this possibility did not exist. Ergo, the first pair must have been provided directly by the Creator himself.

Indeed, the argument sounds irrefutable.

In its modest and whimsical way, Rabbi Judah was employing the same method of proof that was adopted by the great philosophers in order to speculate about such weighty questions as the origins of the universe or the existence of God. For each observable phenomenon, these thinkers would persist in asking what was its cause or what set it into motion. Eventually, as it was no longer possible to keep posing such questions ad infinitum, they were forced to posit the existence of an Unmoved Mover, an Uncaused Cause, or a similar hypothesis, in order to account for the existence of the world.

Nevertheless, there were sages in the Talmud who challenged the cogency Rabbi Judah's reasoning. It was possible, they argued, that the person who made the first tongs did so simply by first making a tong-shaped mold, and then filling it with molten iron.

For the Maharal, the significance of placing the tongs at the end of the Mishnah's catlogue of prefabricated miracles lies precisely in the fact that they are the least supernatural item in the list The mention of the creation of the first tongs alongside the more dazzling wonders of the biblical past serves to underscore the lesson that God's concern for human needs does not always manifest itself in the spectacular pyrotechnics of split seas or burning bushes.

A similar approach was advocated by the 17th-18th century author Rabbi Jacob Culi whose Judeo-Spanish compendium Me'am Lo'ez is one of the most beloved commentaries among Sepharadic Jews.

From the rabbinic discussion about the origins of the tongs, Rabbi Culi derives a profound moral insight into the divine plan for creation.

He argues that people should not be disheartened by the fact that they were created with imperfections and moral shortcomings. On the contrary, the example of the tongs teaches us that the Almighty will always furnish us with any articles that are truly necessary to correct the deficiencies of the human situation.

If this is true with respect to the material advantages inherent in a simple blacksmith's tongs, how much more does it apply to the religious realm; so that we can be confident that the Almighty will always equip us with powerful spiritual resources that will allow us to overcome our temptations and limitations.

This article and many others are now included in the book

A Meeting-Place for the Wise
A Meeting-Place for the Wise

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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca


[1]
  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free PressJune 20 2002, p. 6.