The development of a Talmudic sugya at times resembles, to my mind, the development of our conception of the cosmos. I found this to be the case today in a sugya I was learning in the first chapter of Masechet Sukkah, which deals with the particular laws governing the structure of the sukkah. How tall may a sukkah be? How wide? Must the walls reach all the way up to the top? The rabbis say a sukkah may be no taller than 20 amot; Rabbi Yehuda sets no maximum height. Various later sages suggest that actually, Rabbi Yehuda disagrees with the rabbis only in the case of a very particular sukkah – one whose walls do not reach up to the top, or one which is as small as the minimum area requirement for a house; or one which is only large enough to contain a person, the majority of his body, and his table.
To delimit the exact disagreement between Rabbi Yehuda and the rabbis, the Talmud cites an early text about Heleni, a queen who ruled in a small kingdom in what is now Syria over a generation before the destruction of the second Temple. Heleni converted to Judaism and became an important patron of the Temple. In the first chapter of Sukkah, we are told that she sat in a particular kind of sukkah that, although perhaps of questionable halachic status, nonetheless did not arouse the suspicion of the rabbis:
A story is told of Heleni the Queen whose sukkah was taller than 20 amot, and the sages would pass in and out of it, and they did not tell her anything [i.e. they did not rebuke her for having an unkosher sukkah].
Apparently, this story serves as evidence for Rabbi Yehuda’s claim that a sukkah has no maximum height. Yet, as the rabbis question in this very passage:
You call that proof? She was a woman, and women are not obligated to sit in the sukkah.
Rabbi Yehuda then defends himself on the grounds that Heleni had seven sons, who were surely obligated to sit in the sukkah. And if you should say that perhaps her sons were too young to be obligated in the commandment to sit in the sukkah, keep in mind that she had seven – surely at least one was old enough to be obligated to at least begin learning to sit in the sukkah! And yes, it is true that the commandment to educate boys about the sukkah is only a rabbinic one, and not a Biblical one; but still, Heleni (who was, after all, a convert) lived in accordance with rabbinic Judaism as well as Biblical Judaism, the Talmud goes on to assert.
Is this proof for the sage who says that Rabbi Yehuda only disagrees with the rabbis in the case of a very small sukkah? After all, it is hard to imagine that Heleni was sitting in a tiny sukkah – she was a queen! Ah, perhaps she was sitting in sukkah made up of many tiny little chambers. But would a queen sit in a sukkah of tiny little chambers? Unlikely. Perhaps she was in one tiny room within a large sukkah, and her sons were sitting in the big proper sukkah. But weren’t her sons with her? Well, perhaps she was in the small room within the sukkah with a table was protruding out, and her sons, each tiny enough to fit in a space of seven tfachim by seven tfachim, were all stacked up there on the table, such that technically they were beside their mother while still sitting in a proper sukkah.
At this point, my imagination runs haywire as I continue to adjust my picture of Heleni and her sons in the sukkah in accordance with the rabbis ever more bizarre and far-fetched propositions. I am reminded of Ptolemy, the second-century Hellenistic astronomer who tried to make Aristotle’s earth-centered model of the universe conform to the reality of the observational data of his time. According to Aristotle, the earth lay at the center of the universe, with the sun and all the planets revolving around it in uniform circular motion. Yet by Ptolemy’s time, this model was deeply problematic. It did not explain, for instance, the retrograde motions of the planets. In order to account for irregular planetary motion, Ptolemy developed a deeply complex system involving complicated mathematical principles including epicycles, or small circles in which the planets move while tracing a larger circle. The epicycle model was powerful, but its inability to account for certain planetary motions demanded the creation of another model, the epicycle-on-deferent model, which in turn was followed by the equant model – each ever more mathematically complex than its predecessor. The Ptolemaic universe may have remained true to the concept of uniform circular motion, but at the expense of simplicity and elegance.
The addition of epicycles and equants in attempt to render the geocentric model consistent with observed phenomena reminds me of the successive attempts to refine the story of Heleni and her sukkah in order to explain the basis of the disagreement between the rabbis and Rabbi Yehuda. Several successive “epicycles” are added to further complicate the story:
1. It wasn’t just Heleni – she had seven sons!
2. Heleni, though she lived several generations before the sages of the Mishnah, followed the laws of rabbinic Judaism!
3. Heleni wasn’t sitting in an ordinary sukkah, but a multi-chambered one!
4. There weren’t a series of equal-area chambers, but a few small chambers within the larger big sukkah!
5. Her sons were not in the chamber with her, but they were nonetheless beside her, all stacked on the table!
The final image of these seven babies stacked up in the very small space of a table (which distresses Rashi as well) reminds me of the bend-over-backwards acrobatics that Ptolemy had to engage in to preserve the geocentric model of the universe. The only difference is that in the Talmud, there is no Copernicus to do away with the hopeless commitment to the earth at the center, and no Kepler to replace circles with ellipses and develop new laws of planetary motion. Where are the sixteenth-century astronomers when you need them?
It would be a fitting role for Elijah, who seems to be the Talmud’s choice deus-ex-machina. I can imagine Elijah busting in on the scene with his own De Revolutionibus and presenting a more simple and elegant model for Heleni’s sukkah, thereby freeing this poor queen from her tiny chamber and restoring to their proper size her seven dwarves. May it happen speedily in our day!