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Pirke Avot chapter three, verse 23

A. R. Eleazar Hisma says, “The laws of bird offerings and the beginning of a woman’s menstrual period—they are indeed the essentials of the Torah.
B. “Calculations of the equinoxes and reckoning of the numerical value of letters are the savories of wisdom.

This is Jacob Neusner’s translation. Actually, this is an incredibly difficult verse to translate, without actually being a difficult verse to understand. Let me see if I can muddy things a bit.

First of all, there are at least three or four different explanations for Rabbi Eleazar being called Hisma. I’m not going to go into them, as I don’t think they are relevant to this verse, but I will tell one quick story about him, or at least a story that mentions him. When Rabban Gamliel was talking to Rabbi Yehoshua, he expressed wonder that Yehoshua had to travel in trade, since he was so knowledgeable. He replied to Rabban Gamliel, “Don’t worry about me, you have two disciples back home who can calculate the number of drops in the ocean, and they have neither food nor clothes.” One of those two was Rabbi Eleazar Hisma. There is no footnote explaining how one would know if that estimate were correct, but the point is that Eleazar Hisma is known for his skills at natural philosophy, and of course his poverty. So this verse isn’t coming from a scholar of Torah who spurned secular pursuits, rather from a polyglot, albeit one who eventually made a living as a religious official, rather than in secular work. OK, now the two things that are important are kineen and p’tuchay niddah. The words are the titles of sections of the Law. The word kineen means a bird’s nest, evidently, and the nest we are talking about in this case is an offering in the Temple. The laws concerning offerings are extremely complicated, and I know nothing about them (thank the Divine), but I understand that one of the situations in which a bird offering is appropriate (in case you are wondering, there are different circumstances for the offering of birds, goats, oxen, wheat, fruit, etc, etc, and different combinations thereof, with differences for thank-offerings, sin-offerings, free-offerings, offerings associated with holidays, etc, etc) is when a woman has survived childbirth. And we have seen niddah before, as it is the law concerning ritual purity and menstruation, more complicated than it sounds (and perhaps less misogynist than it sounds, although that depends on time and place and the hedge around the Torah).

These are a metonymy, presumably, but for what? Are kineen and niddah representing the complications of the Law? Or are the representing the laws concerning reproduction? Or the laws concerning women? Or, by virtue of their being the last sections of their tractates, do they represent completion?

As for the less important, the word is revolutions, meant as heavenly revolutions and so the equinoxes. This is sometimes translated as astronomy, generally, as nowadays the equinoxes are well-trained and come when people expect them. At the time, presumably, the prediction of the equinox, or of midsummer and midwinter days, would have been a matter of some difficulty, particularly for those using a lunar calendar. Or would it? Anyway, we are talking about the study of the stars, in some manner or other. And then gematria, which is a sort of numerology, could also be a Hebrew transliteration of geometry. Or it could mean the study of numbers more generally, either in connection with their mystical meanings and associations or in matters such as, oh, estimating the number of drops in the ocean, or the number of cuts in a knife.

Finally, there is some dispute over what the relation is between these less important matters and wisdom: they are the pripriyot of wisdom, which could be the dainties or side-dishes to wisdom’s entree, or they could be the circumference or outer edge or fringe of wisdom’s center. Or they could be the support or confirmation of wisdom, which would imply that the study of secular matters should not be neglected as they tend to support the Law, rather than detract from it. This word (along with, perhaps, his surname) seems to be a sort of hobson-jobson, a borrowing of Greek into Hebrew that changes the pronunciation to the point that it is difficult to go back to the original language. Which is not a problem for words that become commonly used (as somebody attempting to figure out what pundits are wouldn’t need to try to find his answer in Sanskrit. But when we don’t have a lot of other examples of the time, it gets tricky.

Ah, well. Despite all the confusion, the concept is actually pretty clear: Rabbi Eleazar Hisma is saying that the Law takes precedence over secular studies, while making it clear that secular studies are a good thing, too. While I generally agree with him, I think it’s worth noting during that agreement the difficulty of understanding this verse yields itself somewhat to the benefits of secular studies of philology. Isn’t the circumference as important a part of the circle as the center? Isn’t the side-dish the thing that brings out the quality of the entree?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.