This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Rabbi, Watch Out for That Beam!*

Since the days of ancient Greece and Rome, carpenters and other craftsmen have provided us with a dependable reservoir of physical comedy, as a result of the mischievous potential contained in the tools of their trade.

The presence of this low kind of humour in the Talmud might not be immediately apparent to the uninitiated; however veteran students quickly acquire a taste for the kinds of bizarre situations that are discussed in those forbidding-looking volumes.

The midrashic preachers occasionally read such scenes into Bible stories, such as in their entertaining accounts of how the builders of the Tower of Babel ended up mauling one another, after God confused their languages while they were wielding tools.

Our sages were often discussing matters of law, which included issues of civil litigation. And the situations that lead people to lawsuits tend to appearhumorous to those of us who are not directly involved. As that celebrated Jewish philosopher Mel Brooks put it, "Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die."

Talmudic legal texts are "casuistic" by nature; that is to say, they are presented to us not in the form of abstract theoretical principles, but as lists of specific cases. Historians suspect that much of this literature was generated from real-life incidents that were brought for adjudication before the ancient rabbinic courts.

The best-known opportunities for slapstick are those where tradesman stumble over each and their while carrying their respective wares.

The Torah stipulated the legal responsibility that attaches to a person who digs or uncovers a pit in a public place. The Mishnah extends this principle by methodically examining every permutation of this situation, beginning with the simple one where individual carelessly leaves a jar in the middle of the road so that a passerby can trip on it. In that case, the sages must deal not only about the liability of the jar’s owner for injury to the victim, but also about a possible counter-suit for damage to the jar ("Why didn’t you watch where you were going?!").

Matters become more picturesque when the offending jar spills out its contents, leading the hapless pedestrian to slip on the resulting mud, doubtless in the head-over-heels back-flip that accompanies such misadventures in cartoons. This eventuality is also analyzed by the Talmudic jurists, as is the more graphic variation when a person shovels slippery manure into a public thoroughfare.

One of my favourite passages in Jewish legal literature is the following:

If two potters were walking, one behind the other, and the second stumbled over the first–the first is liable for damages caused to the second.

If one was carrying a pot and the other a beam, and the pot was shattered by the beam–the bearer of the beam is exempt, since each had a right to be walking there.

If the one with the beam was in front and the pot behind, and the pot was smashed by the beam, then the person carrying the beam is exempt. But if the one with the beam stopped suddenly, then he is liable…

If two people were passing through a public road, one of them running and the other walking, or if they were both running–then they are both exempt for damages they inflict."

Though the unfortunate incidents are discussed only as hypothetical possibilities, I cannot help imagining them all acted in sequence out on the stage by the same pair of actors, probably clothed in baggy overalls and oversized shoes, getting up time after time to complete their itinerary, only to end up stumbling over yet another pot or puddle, or be struck in the head by a wooden beam.

There is also something quintessentially vaudevillian about the following scenario from the Talmud: Five people are seated peacefully on a bench [I imagine them all reading newspapers, and perhaps pulling out sandwiches from their lunch-boxes] until they are joined by that fatal sixth, under whose added weight the bench collapses. The Talmud even goes on to specify that we are dealing with a person "like Pappa bar Abba" who was apparently known among his contemporaries for his expansive girth. In fact, the rabbis contemplate the possibility of whether the last arrival prevented the others from standing because he was leaning on them.

As we peruse the words of the commentators, expounding at such great length upon the weighty (ouch!) questions of who should be held responsible for the damages to the bench, they seem to be devoting too much energy over an example that is clearly no more than an contrived theoretical construct.

However, unlikely as it may sound, a case precisely like it did occur in twelfth-century France, and became a topic of some controversy, embroiling the famous Rabbi Jacob Tam, Rashi’s eminent grandson, in a dispute with a certain Rabbi Azriel over the correct decision in the case. To add to the pathos, the bench was reported to belong to a poor widow!

Is it just my own impish irreverence, or are all Talmud students motivated by the hope that the next folio will bring them a fateful new encounter between a rabbi and a banana peel?

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University of Calgary Press

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, June 18 1998, pp. 9-10.