“Something extraordinary happened in class today.” I moved a stack of books aside to make room for the Gemara we were working on.
Pixel immediately climbed up on top of the books and began licking a paw. “You going to tell me what the extraordinary thing was?” she asked.
“I’ll wait until you’ve finished your ablutions.”
She went back to grooming, spending several minutes on her ears, the fur on her shoulders, the tufts of hair on her elbows… When she settled in to work on her tail I gave up. She could spend the rest of the day at it.
“So it was like this: we were learning the sugya in Bava Batra on property law, where it talks about three years’ uncontested residency conferring a presumption of ownership of a piece of real estate.”
Pixel put a paw on her tail to mark her spot and looked up at me. “Where they argue over where the ‘three years’ business comes from?”
“Yes, that’s the one. So we’re working in pairs, going along at a fairly good pace, one finger on the Gemara and the other in Rashi’s commentary, with a glance here and there at the Tosfot. Rava tries to explain the significance of three years by saying that if a squatter occupied one’s land for that amount of time, one would protest. Abaye is having none of it: if it were just about protesting then it becomes subjective—some people would protest trespassers sooner than others. So why three years? Is it about time or about something else?
“Well, we got stuck on that disagreement between Rava and Abaye, and went back to look more closely at the Rashi on page 29a….”
I stopped and thought for a moment.
“You know, I knew it must be in there somewhere. After all, to make a commentary on the whole Gemara is a huge undertaking. It’s not like it could easily be completed in a single life-time. Not without help. But still….
“So it happened that as I ran my finger down the page, I eventually came to a single phrase, ‘kan met Rashi’. Black on white: ‘Here Rashi died.’ I had been reading aloud and just stopped there. My havruta looked at me, and then down at the Gemara. At about the same time, you could hear the moment when the other pairs of students reached that point. Conversation just stopped. There was a moment when you could have heard a pin drop. A room full of people learning Talmud and suddenly it all went silent!”
“But Rashi lived…a long time ago.” Time meant nothing to Pixel. “Surely everyone was aware of that!”
“Well yes. Rashi died in 1105. But you might say, the news hadn’t really reached us until now. It’s one thing to know a thing, it’s another thing to be there when it happened. And in a way, that’s what it was like. We were engaged in a page of Talmud…”
“Outside of time.”
“Exactly. Everyone in the conversation was in the same timeless realm: Rava and Abaye and Rashi. We’re all sitting around the 800-year long table, throwing ideas back and forth, when suddenly, in mid-sentence, Rashi goes silent; his grandson breaks the news to us. It begins to sink in: from this point on, Rashi won’t be part of our discussion. His grandson, Rabbeinu Shmuel the son of Meir, the RaShBam, will step in instead. For a moment we were jerked out of the realm of no-time, back into our usual time frame. We became aware of time passing, of time having passed. It was a moment of awareness of our mortality. Does that make sense?”
Pixel looked at me oddly, her head tilted as if listening for something just out of range. “It does, though I can only understand it intellectually?”
“What do you mean?”
She stared off into space, and I began to think she wasn’t going to answer. Finally, she said, “You see, I never leave that timeless realm. For me, it is the awareness of time passing that is the anomaly. And as for mortality… We didn’t eat of that Tree. We know vaguely, but…well I can’t say that I understand it beyond that.”
I felt strangely moved. After a moment Pixel climbed down from her stack of books and curled up on my lap, purring softly. As she fell asleep, I wondered if she visited Chade in her dreams.