Why We Learn Gemara

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At the 1994 annual awards dinner given by the American Association for Forensic Science, AAFS president, Don Harper Mills, astounded his audience in San Diego with the legal complications of a bizarre death.

Here’s the story:

On March 23, 1994, a medical examiner viewed the body of Ronald Opus and concluded that he died from a shotgun wound to the head. The decedent had jumped from the top of a ten-story building intending to commit suicide (he left a note indicating his despondency). As he fell past the ninth floor, his life was interrupted by a shotgun blast through a window, which killed him instantly. Neither the shooter nor the decedent was aware that a safety net had been erected at the eighth floor level to protect some window washers, and that Opus would not have been able to complete his suicide in any case because of this.

Ordinarily, Dr. Mills continued, a person who sets out to commit suicide ultimately succeeds, even though the mechanism might not be what he intended. That Opus was shot on the way to certain death nine stories below probably would not have changed his mode of death from suicide to homicide. But the fact that his suicidal intent would not have been successful due to the safety net, caused the medical examiner to feel that he had a homicide on his hands. The room on the ninth floor from whence the shotgun blast emanated was occupied by an elderly man and his wife. At the time of the event, they were arguing, and he was threatening her with the shotgun. He was so upset that, when he pulled the trigger, he completely missed his wife and pellets went through the window striking Opus. When one intends to kill subject A, but kills subject B in the attempt, one is guilty of the murder of subject B. Thus the investigation turned to the old man as the killer of Ronald Opus.

When confronted with this charge, the old man and his wife were both adamant that neither knew that the shotgun was loaded. The old man said that it was his long standing habit to threaten his wife with the unloaded shotgun. He had no intention to murder her – therefore, the killing of Opus appeared to be an accident. That is, the gun had been accidentally loaded.

The continuing investigation turned up a witness who saw the old couple’s son loading the shotgun approximately six weeks prior to the fatal incident. It transpired that the old lady had cut off her son’s financial support and the son, knowing the propensity of his father to use the shotgun threateningly, loaded the gun with the expectation that his father would shoot his mother. The case now becomes one of murder on the part of the son for the death of Ronald Opus.

There was an exquisite twist. Further investigation revealed that the son, one Ronald Opus, had become increasingly despondent over the failure of his attempt to engineer his mother’s murder. This led him to jump off the ten- story building on March 23, only to be killed by a shotgun blast through a ninth story window.

The medical examiner closed the case as a suicide.

I first read about this case back in the late nineties, somewhere online, and couldn’t believe it! I printed it, folded up, carried it with me everywhere, and constantly took it out and read it to people, who were as astounded as I. Recently, while reading something entirely unrelated, I remembered this story. I researched it on the net and found out that the story never happened. (Look at me – I bring you to the pinnacle of amazement, and then bring you crashing down, without as much as a thought about your ability to handle the extremes in rapid succession. Who taught me manners?)

The truth is that the story was told by Dr. Mills at the dinner, not as a true story, but as a hypothetical one. The purpose was to take people to the extreme reaches of possibility (way past the realms of probability), in order to flesh out the truest parameters of the law. Regular cases don’t test the boundaries because they can be defined too easily. Only when going to the extreme can we discern the essence of each law, and where it begins and ends. With this knowledge, a person gets a feel for what underlies the law, and what the lawmaker really wanted to achieve. So while the average Joe doesn’t need to know these cases, the American Association for Forensic Science, a group of people intensely interested in the inner workings of the law, have a strong desire to study this type of case.

Why am I telling you all this? Because this story explains the way in which hundreds of thousands of frum people occupy themselves for hours every day. They study Gemara. People often have a difficulty understanding why Jews devote so much time to tomes full of scenarios that are never going to come their way. Besides all the laws involving livestock, Temple sacrifices, and ritual purity, which don’t seem relevant to us in our day and age, there are also cases which seem so far fetched as to border on impossibility. Such as the case of a weasel climbing into a cow’s womb, swallowing a fetus, coming out, going back in, and regurgitating the fetus. The question the Gemara was grappling with in that scenario was whether or not the animal was considered born. Or the case of a person who knew he had a rock on his lap, then forgot and got up, and the rock rolled off and killed someone.

The Gemara even openly tells us that certain things discussed never happened and never will, such as the Ben Sorer U’moreh (a rebellious son; there are plenty of rebellious sons, but to qualify for this title, you need to be between 13 and 13.5, steal money from your parents, and buy and consume huge amounts of wine and meat in a short time, after having been warned not to do so in court) or the Ir Hanidachat (a town that must be destroyed- along with every living soul in it- because all the residents have turned to idolatry).

So why are our husbands, children, and brothers devoting thousands of hours a year to studying these things? Because Jews, like the American Association for Forensic Science, have an intense desire to understand the Lawmaker’s desire, and to comprehend the principles that lie beneath all the laws of the Torah. Studying only pertinent laws such as the laws of Kashrut, Tzitzit, and Shabbat, wouldn’t necessarily allow them to plumb the depths of Torah understanding, or the boundaries of its wisdom. To get to the greatest understanding of the Torah and its Writer, we need to go to the furthest reaches, and analyze things at the edge!

Leiby Burnham, LMSW, is a rabbi, psychotherapist, and writer. He lives in Detroit with his wife, an ICU nurse, who is on strict orders to “leave her patients at work” and their two daughters, Orah and Shifra. Rabbi Burnham works for the Jean and Theodore Weiss Partners in Torah program of Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, where he does community outreach, and runs a Jewish educational programs at University of Michigan, Wayne State, and Oakland University. He taught learning-disabled high school students for eight years in NYC, while receiving Rabbinical training at Shor Yoshuv Institute, and obtaining his Masters in Social Work from Yeshiva University.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.