Ask, but don’t ask about this.

In Judaism, are there certain questions we cannot ask?

One of the things that attracts many people to Judaism is the willingness, or even the demand, to ask questions.

It is core to the Jewish soul. To interrogate, question, inspect, and be curious about an idea or an assumption. When studying the Torah commentary of Rashi, the 11th-century French Jewish commentator par excellence, we ask, “What’s bothering Rashi?”

Not only do we ask questions, we ask questions about the folks who asked the questions before us!

This makes it that much more surprising when we read this in ​Masechet Hagigah​. Our sugiyah (unit of Talmud) begins with a limitation: we are to limit our discussions about the metaphysics of Creation. The text reads:

From where do we know that we must limit our study of Creation? As the sages taught in a verse, “For ask (sha’al) now of the first days which were before you.” (Deuteronomy 4:32) Since this is in the singular, we learn an individual asks about creation, and two may not ask.

One might have thought that a person could ask what preceded the creation of the universe, but Scripture tells us, “since the day that god created humans on the earth,” but not earlier.

One might have thought that a person could not ask about the six days of creation, but Scripture tells us, “for ask now of the first days which were before you.” that the days of creation are permitted.

One might have thought that a person could ask what is above, what is below, what is before, and what is after, but Scripture tells us, “From one end of the heavens to the other.” From one end of the heavens to the other, you may ask, but you may not ask what is above, what is below, what is before, and what is after.

In this short bit, amidst a longer discussion, we are told we are not allowed to ask certain questions.

We are not permitted to ask about what is above or below us, which in the rabbinic conception would be something along the lines of the heavens and an underworld. We are not permitted to ask what preceded creation or what happens after the end of time/our death.

These, on some level, are humans’ most fundamental questions about existence!

We have a singular verse in Deuteronomy from which all of this is derived, but what is the essential truth here? We are not permitted to ask questions about what is unknowable.

What is unknowable? What part of us, as humans, will be satisfied with “We will never know?” None. We humans are not satisfied at all by this kind of thing.

I think the rabbis recognized that we could get lost in asking questions about the unknowable (though the Kabbalistic tradition leans into these questions and is very much rooted in Hagigah). There is a risk in spending so much time in the in-between parts of reality. We can certainly ask, but we should know that our answers will be tentative, personal, and reflect more about us than the answer itself.

But, if you read closely above, you will notice that one set of questions was permitted. We can ask about creation itself and everything that comes after (to a point). Why did the rabbis permit this specific question?

It is because we are encouraged to ask questions about our existence, our assumptions, and our present challenges. We are prodded to ask about nature, our humanity, and our universe.

These questions root us to the world and in reality.

When we are grounded like this, we can ask real questions about our behavior and the consequences of our choices. If we are untethered, we may treat other people as if they were mere figments of our imagination.

Thank you for reading! In my With Torah and Love newsletter, I write about Torah, Talmud, self-awareness, and becoming our best selves as students of life and Judaism.

About the Author

Rabbi Jeremy Markiz is a teacher and consultant. He teaches the Torah rooted in personal growth, kindness, intentionality, and bettering the world. He writes the With Torah and Love newsletter.

He helps clergy, congregations, and Jewish organizations grow and communicate clearly in the digital world, develop effective strategies, and solve problems with his consulting firm, Next Level Rabbinics.