What is Talmud Tweets?

What is Talmud Tweets? A short, personal take on a page of Talmud - every day!

For several years now, I have been following the tradition of "Daf Yomi" - reading a set page of Talmud daily. With the start of a new 7 1/2 year cycle, I thought I would share a taste of what the Talmud offers, with a bit of personal commentary included. The idea is not to give a scholarly explanation. Rather, it is for those new to Talmud to give a little taste - a tweet, as it were - of the richness of this text and dialogue it contains. The Talmud is a window into a style of thinking as well as the world as it changed over the centuries of its compilation.

These are not literal "tweets" - I don't limit myself to 140 characters. Rather, these are intended to be short, quick takes - focusing in on one part of a much richer discussion. Hopefully, I will pique your interest. As Hillel says: "Go and study it!" (Shabbat 31a)

Friday, November 30, 2012

Shabbat 58 – Signed, Sealed – Delivered?

Among the things listed that a woman cannot “go out” with – that is forbidden to wear in the public sphere during Shabbat for fear of carrying – is a Kabul. What is a Kabul? Glad you asked. So did Rabbi Jannai:

R. Jannai said: I do not know what is this [Kabul]: whether we learnt of a slave's chain, but a wool hair-net is permitted; or perhaps we learnt of a wool hair-net and how much more so a slave's neckchain?

The word can mean both a hairnet and a slave’s chain. So what is a “slave’s chain”? Evidently a mark of his or her status worn in public.

But Samuel maintained: We learnt of a slave's neck-chain. Now, did Samuel say thus? Surely Samuel said: A slave may go out with a seal round his neck, but not with a seal on his garments?

What is the difference? The concern is that if this attachable mark or seal is pinned onto a garment, it may fall off. If it does, and the slave discovers this fact, he may take off his cloak and fold it over and carry it to hide that it is missing. This would constitute illegal carrying on Shabbat!

But not just slaves – it seems that these marks were also used by scholars to indicate their position, or perhaps their affiliation with a particular school. They (or at least one school was) were also forbidden to go out with a seal on their cloak.

Scholars and women and slaves. Interesting connections!

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Shabbat 58 – With Ribbons in Her Hair

A new chapter of Mishnah begins with a discussion of women’s fashion:


This, of course, means on Shabbat. That is, what in women’s clothing is considered ornamental and therefore can moved from the private to the public sphere on Shabbat verses those items which would be considered “carrying” rather than “wearing” and therefore forbidden.

This being men talking about women’s fashion, virtually everything is a mystery.

Several words are mentioned in the Mishnah (totafot, sarbitin, kabul) which are totally unclear to the rabbis in the context of clothing. Some time is spent on figure them out.

But there is an interesting digression – a mention that she cannot wear certain ribbons (wool or linen) or fillets . . .


Well, it is right to ask (as the rabbis do!) what does mikve have to do with it?! And so they (“the Sages”) answer:

And since she may not perform ritual immersion on weekdays while wearing them, she may not go out [with them] on the Sabbath, lest she happen to need immersion by ritual law (having completed menstruation) and she untie them, and so come to carry them four cubits in the street.

So the issue is what is not wearable in the mikve (because it causes an imposition between the woman and the water) is not wearable in the public sphere on Shabbat because she might carry them.

No “Scarlet Ribbons (for her Hair).” Harry Belafonte will be sad.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Shabbat 56 – Laying the Seeds of Destruction

Concluding the debate over the rehabilitation of biblical figures – did they sin, or not? On this page the rabbis discuss King David and King Solomon. Their sins, according to the rabbis, would have dire consequences; not for themselves, but for the nation:

Rab Judah said in Rab's name:

Had not David paid heed to slander, the kingdom of the House of David would not have been divided

Had Israel not engaged in idolatry, and we would not have been exiled from our country.

There are several attempts to interpret away the sins of the kings – David and Bathsheba, Solomon and his idol worshiping wives. But still the national consequences of their actions are noted, as in this tale:

Rab Judah said in Samuel's name: When Solomon married Pharaoh's daughter, Gabriel descended and planted a reed in the sea, and it gathered a bank around it, on which the great city of Rome was built.

The seeds of Israel’s future destruction are sown: as Solomon unites Israel with Egypt, Rome, its future oppressor, is founded.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Shabbat 55 – Troubling Philosophy

A digression into philosophy – although the rabbis would not have seen it as such. It begins with this powerful statement of communal responsibility (actually at the end of the previous page):

Whoever can prevent his household [from committing a sin] but does not, is punished for [the sins of] his household; [if he can prevent] his fellow citizens, he is seized for [the sins of] his fellow citizens; if the whole world, he is seized for [the sins of] the whole world.

There follows a moving example of one:

Rab Judah was sitting before Samuel [when] a woman came and cried before him, but he ignored her. Said he to him, Does not the Master agree [that] ‘whoso stoppeth his ears to the cry of the poor, he also shall cry himself, but shall not be heard’? (Prov. 21:13)

All the powerful social justice texts we love to quote. But Samuel rejects Rab Judah’s rebuke, noting that there was a higher court than his – and it would be they who would be punished, not him!

What follows is a discussion of the premise articulated by R. Ammi:

There is no death without sin, and there is no suffering without iniquity.

In other words, suffering and death are always, in this theory, the result of one’s own sins.

This rather troubling concept – what we would today call “blame the victim” is batted about among the rabbis. From Adam (“I gave him an easy command, yet he violated it.”) to Moses and Aaron (“Because you did not trust Me [enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people].”) And yet, the counter argument is made: the punishment for Moses and Aaron was that they did not get enter the Promised Land. So their deaths were not punishment for sin – otherwise they would have been punished twice!

This counter argument continues, lengthily, through many Biblical characters who were thought to have sinned, but are actually - through interpretation - redeemed. Ok, some of these refutations are a bit tortured (Reuben did not actually sleep with his father’s concubine, he just switched her bed for his mother’s). But the ongoing attempt is to refute the assumption that pain and suffering are always the result of someone’s own sins – perhaps hidden sins.

Life, and philosophy, are more complicated than that.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Shabbat 54 – Mixed Messages

The Mishnah contains a bit of a strange statement:


Now what is the problem with tying camels together? After all, isn’t that the way we always picture them in caravans? R. Ashi says “Because it looks as if he is going to a fair” – not something you would do on Shabbat!

But, he continues, this may have nothing to do with Shabbat at all! “[BUT HE MAY TAKE THE CORDS IN HIS HAND. . .] was taught only in respect to Kil’ayim.”

Kil’ayim? What’s that?

This refers back to the Torah laws forbidding certain mixed things: “You shall not plow with an ox and an ass together. You shall not wear a garment of different sorts, like woollen and linen together.” (Deut. 22:10-11) (The word kil’ayim refers to “mixed seeds” also forbidden in verse 9. But all such mixtures are group under the same term).

But what is the “mix”? We are only talking about camels here! Not camels and some other species (which would be forbidden.) It can’t be the man and the camel – pulling along with an animal is permitted (again, we’re not talking about Shabbat here). So perhaps it is the mixing of different chords? Maybe the rein from one camel is wool and the other flax – if it is “twined” together in his hand, it is as if he is “wearing” them. Again, R. Ashi says a simple holding or twining of chords around the hand is not an illegal mixture – this text teaches that they are kil’ayim only if they are twined and knotted.

Samuel disagrees with the whole premise and argues that it must be about Shabbat and the issue is that the chord can’t be too long between the man and the camel, or have too much length from the hand to the loose end – because then it looks like he is just carrying a chord!

Ah, what a knotted chord this text!

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Shabbat 53 – Creature Comfort

Continuing the question of what is permissible for an animal to “wear” on Shabbat:

R. Hiyya b. Ashi said in Rab's name:
A fodder-bag may be hung around [the neck of] an animal on the Sabbath, and how much more so [may] a cushion [be placed on its back). . .

Of course, these serve two different purposes. The fodder bag allows an animal easy access to food (which makes it happy). The cushion, it is assumed, is to keep it warm.

. . .for if it [the fodder bag]  is permitted there for [the animal's] pleasures how much more so here, that it [the cushion] is [to save the animal] suffering!

The fodder bag is actually debated. But the cushion/blanket is not.

An animal's pleasure does not rank against the laws of the Sabbath. But keeping an animal from suffering is a high priority.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Shabbat 52 – You Can Lead a Horse - or a Red Heifer!

What exactly is the issue with chord or rein on an animal in public during Shabbat? It seems there are two concerns:

One is that it could be considered unnecessary as in an ornament or a muzzle (the question being if a muzzle is necessary or not). A nose-ring on a camel, for example: some say “Whether as an ornament or a guard, it is forbidden” others “as an ornament it is forbidden, as a guard it is permitted.”

The second concern is that if the rein or chain slipped off the animal, the person holding it would then be left carrying an object on Shabbat!


But what is the difference between “going out” and “being led” ? Why does the Mishnah list both?

R. Huna suggests that these animals can “go out” wearing a chain which is loosely wrapped around them, ready to be used if necessary – or with someone holding the chain and leading them. Samuel disagrees saying they cannot wear the chain unless someone is holding it. Huna seems to win.

But the interesting side reference is to a “red heifer.”  (Always interesting when the red heifer is mentioned.) How does it relate? It seems that this it is permitted to lead it or tie it with a chord. But the specific biblical command is it must be an animal “upon which never came a yoke” (Num. 19:2). So a cord or lead is not considered a “burden” making it permissible.

Tell that to the animal!

Friday, November 23, 2012

Shabbat 51 – Sabbath of Beasts

The Mishnah begins a new discussion on animals and Shabbat. Beasts of burden are mentioned first. Remember that the Torah explicitly indicates that the Shabbat laws apply to animals. See Ex. 20:8, for example.

The question is if beasts of burden can go out in public wearing the standard control devices (bits, nose rings, halters and chains). The Mishnah gives specific examples – a camel with bit, dromedary with nose ring, “Lybian ass with halter” (the Babylonian rabbis have to translate what is meant) and horse with chain. Then goes on to include all animals which wear chains.

This is interesting because of humans (that is Jewish humans) cannot carry in public on Shabbat. Is a control chain on a horse considered “carrying?” The Mishnah says no – it is allowed.

The rabbis in their commentary expand the discussion to include muzzles. Hananiah permits them. Others question it. Does a cat, for example, need a muzzle when a chord is enough? (And did they really walk their cats with a leash?). Hananiah says: “whatever is an additional guard is not considered a (forbidden) ‘burden.’” The law follows Hananiah.

A charming story is told:

Levi son of R. Huna b. Hiyya and Rabbah b. R. Huna were travelling on a road, when Levi's ass went ahead of Rabbah’s. Rabbah felt insulted (thinking that Levi did this on purpose and acting disrespectfully to his elder).

 Said he [Levi], I will say something to him, so that his mind may be appeased. Said he: “An ass of evil habits, such as this one: may it go forth wearing a halter on Shabbat?” “Thus did your father say in Samuel’s name,” [Rabbah] answered “The law is as Hananiah said.”

I love that the student, sensitive to the feelings of his elder, shows respect not by making excuses or acting defensively, but by asking a question and allowing his teacher to teach. 

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Shabbat 50 – Beautifying!

There is a difference between cleaning something (or someone) and polishing, which changes the object. Certain powders, for example, do more than clean – they polish by reshaping the surface, an action not permitted on the Sabbath.

A certain material is mentioned and considered: “Barda.”
What is Barda, you may ask? Glad you asked, because the recipe is given!
“A third aloes, a third myrtle, and a third violets.” But not too much aloes, because that can remove hair!
But some view it as impermissible even on a weekday! Why? Because it’s use was not to clean but to “beautify.” Perhaps this was an admonishment to the men, not to become “feminized.” But that strict reading was rejected by the majority – who instructed that one must wash his face, hands and feet daily “in his Maker’s honor.” The proof? “The Lord hath made every thing for His own purpose.” (Prov.  16:4).
So “beautifying” is honoring G-d’s creation. A sure source of relief to the cosmetics industry!

Shabbat 49 – Counting Categories

It will not be until much later (page 73a) that we will read the Mishnah about the categories of labor. But we have an early mention here – and a discussion of their source.

The Torah, of course, forbids “work” on Shabbat but does not define the term. The Mishnah (Shabbat 7:2) lists 39 categories (“forty less one” is the classic designation) which are considered “work.”

Our page asks the question – where did this number come from?

Two theories are advanced:
The first is that these 39 represent actions required to build the Tabernacle. This connection comes from the juxtaposition of two commands in the Torah: Exodus 35: 1-3 has Moses give the law of Shabbat. This is immediately followed by the commandments to build the tabernacle (verse 4 and further) in some detail. The idea is that it begins with the restriction of Shabbat so you should know what not to do, then the work of the Tabernacle which has the added function of defining “work” ! Clever.
The second theory as to why specifically 39 categories, is that the word “work” in various forms occurs 39 times in the Torah. But is than an accurate count?

They did not stir thence until they brought a Scroll of the Torah and counted them.”
An argument then ensues about whether specific examples count or not.

The Tabernacle argument wins and is the traditional explanation. But I like having a contentious second option – one that involves looking and counting words, long before there was a concordance or a search engine. Score one for research!

Shabbat 48 – What is Separate and What is Whole

It is not always easy to tell what is part of an object and makes the object whole. For example, can a pillow be stuffed on Shabbat? Or is that part of “making” ? Not if it is new – but if stuffing falls out it can be replaced.

“Whatever is joined to an article is counted as the article itself.”
The handle of an ax, the parts of a stove, a bundle of clothes stitched together – even a group of keys on a ring. They are treated as one object and can be dealt with as such on the Sabbath.
I'm interested in the way we think about objects: how we move from a collection of individual parts into a new "whole" which we treat differently. Don't we do the same with groups of people (political parties? religious communities?)

Monday, November 19, 2012

Shabbat 47 - For the Wealthy, For the Poor

Secondary effects. Can a pan, which is considered to be a utensil be moved on Shabbat when it contains something like ashes which are not permissible to be moved (because they might accidentally be put to use)?

One comparison is raised: "A man may pick up his son while he is holding a stone" - the stone is not permissible, but it comes with the boy!

Another comparison deals with the question if the object contained within the vessel is considered valuable. But is "valuable" a useful term?

"surely it was taught: ‘The garments of the poor for the poor, and the garments of the wealthy for the wealthy’."

The reference is to garments which are liable to defilement. For the wealthy anything less than 3 handbreaths square is to small to be considered and is thrown away. The poor hold on to it, and their limitation is 3 fingerbreaths square.

"Valuable" is a subjective reference - not so useful in making these determinations. Law has to be objective with more universal standards.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Shabbat 46 – Unintended Rut

It has been said before but bears repeating: “whatever is unintentional is permitted.”

For it was taught, R. Simeon said: One may drag a bed, seat, or bench (on Shabbat in a private domain), providing that he does not intend to make a rut!
But with some more detail:

Wherever there is a Scriptural interdict if it is intentional, R. Simeon forbids it by Rabbinical law even if unintentional; but wherever there is [only] a Rabbinical interdict even if it is intentional, R. Simeon permits it at the outset if unintentional.
Again, this is the tension in instances where there is clear Torah law (not making a rut) and subsequent rabbinic laws established to protect the Torah law from accidental violation. Here we see that intention is key. “Dragging” is permissible, even if it accidently makes a rut in a soft floor, so long as there is no intention to make the groove.

Think before you act!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Shabbat 45 - Fire Worshipers!

"Surely Rab was asked: Is it permitted to move the Hanukkah lamp on account of the Guebres on the Sabbath? And he answered them, It is well."

This is according to the English translation. The Aramaic is more oblique -which is not unusual when dealing with other faiths, especially those which threated the community.

So who are these "Guebres"? This was a group of Fire-worshipers in ancient Persia. Part of the Zoroastrian tradition, for them Fire was a representation of the deity of light/good, the opposite of darkness/evil. The term "Guebres" is actually a much later term of insult, meaning "infidel" applied by the Islamic majority after their defeat. Following these persecutions, the majority emigrated to India where they were known as Parsees.


However, in our Talmud page, these fire-worshipers clearly did not like having the Jewish population display their Hanukah menorah's in public. Perhaps this was a time when Hannukah would overlap with their own festival, and the Jewish action might be seen as blasphemous. In this time of danger, the Hanukkiah could be moved on Shabbat, after the lights had burned down. But only such a time of danger.

One of the things I love about reading Talmud is this window into the life of a different age. Here a view of the oppressions, perhaps violence, of marauding enforcers of the Fire-Worshipers' tradition. It makes me think of the Taliban.

How little things change. Despite the shifting details, we see the eternal danger of religious fanaticism and enforcing of uniform religious observance, or intolerance of diversity. We Jews have been victims of its effects - we dare not repeat it on our own people!

Friday, November 16, 2012

Shabbat 44 - Money Bed

"Rab Judah said in Rab's name: If a bed is designated for money, it may not be moved."

Wait, what?

It seems that money might be laid out for counting on a bed. Since currency cannot be handled on Shabbat, the bed cannot be handled, i.e. moved, on Shabbat (normally allowed so long as it is within a private domain). The discussion continues about whether there actually has to be money or if the restriction applies if the bed had only been designated for the purpose.

But it does make me think of the practice of stashing cash in the mattress. Is that what is going on here? In a pre-banking era, it seems likely, maybe common. So the idea of treating such a bed differently makes sense.

Not sure what the modern equivilent would be for non-mattresses stuffers. Keep your debit card far away on Shabbat? Good plan. It's a Money Bed!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Shabbat 43 - Care of the Dead for the Living

A corpse cannot be moved on the Sabbath. It can't even have a shade constructed for it on a hot day, or be rescued from a fire. However a living but disabled person can have all of these. Some legal fictions allow the privileges according to the living to be granted to the dead.

For example, if a corpse is found outdoors on a hot day (one assumes that happened more ordinarily in the ancient world than thankfully it does today) it would be common for others to sit beside it as a guard. Shade could be constructed for them and even if they "slip away" the corpse will be protected.

Similarly a corpse cannot be moved on the sabbath, even to escape a fire. But if a small child can be found who could sit on it, the body could be moved for the child's sake.

Legal fictions ease restrictions!

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Shabbat 42 - Unintended Consequence

Disagreements about mixing hot and cold water on Shabbat.

The School of Shammai says that one can pour hot water in to cold water, but not cold into hot. Hillel says either way is permitted - in a cup, but that Shammai's rule holds for a bath. Others forbid both for a bath.

Perhaps the issue is that a bath needs to be kept warm for washing (unlike drinking). If one cools it down, one may be tempted to heat it up!

Similar to the end of the last page which states that water cannot be pourend into a hot but empty pot on Shabbat, because it tempers (hardens) the metal.

Got to watch out for those uninteded consequences!

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Shabbat 41 - Torah in the Baths

A sweet story is told. Rabbi Zera is avoiding His teacher Rab Judah, because he wants to leave Babylonia and his master in order to emigrate to Israel. But he decides to seek out one last lesson. Zera finds his master, Rab Judah, in the baths giving order in Hebrew to his attendant:

"Bring me natron (a kind of soap) and a comb, open your mouths and expel the heat, and drink of the water of the baths."

From this, Rabbi Zera is satisfied. He learns that

1. Secular matters can be discussed in Hebrew

2. The heat of the bath which causes perpetration is healthy

3. In the bath one should heat the inside (by drinking warm water) as well as the outside.

This too is Torah!

Now if this surprises you - you are wondering - where's the great spiritual insight - it's important to remember that for the Rabbis, "Torah" encompasses all of life. Taking care of the body, a gift from G-d, is as important as taking care of the soul.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Shabbat 40 - Loopholes

A regression is reported: laws becoming more restrictive because of abuse.

"At first people used to wash in pit water heated on the eve of the Sabbath; then bath attendants began to heat the water on the Sabbath, maintaining that it was done on the eve of the Sabbath. So [the use of] hot water was forbidden, but sweating was permitted. Yet still they used to bathe in hot water and maintain, We were perspiring. So sweating was forbidden, yet the thermal springs of Tiberias were permitted (since they used no fire). Yet they bathed in water heated by fire and maintained, We bathed in the thermal springs of Tiberias. So they forbade the hot springs of Tiberias but permitted cold water. But when they saw that this [series of restriction] could not stand, they permitted the hot springs of Tiberias, whilst sweating remained in forbidden."

That will teach you to exploit loopholes! Or maybe not - if you live in Tiberias!

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Shabbat 39 - Solar Power!

"A [warm] dish may be placed in a pit [on the Sabbath]. . . to be cooled, or cold water in the sun, for it to be heated."

"Said R. Nahman: In the sun, all agree that it is permitted; in a fire-heated object all agree that it is forbidden"

"An egg may be rolled [roasted] on a hot roof"

This is something I had not really thought or read about - the use of solar power on Shabbat. Remarkable, in a way, because in an earlier Mishnah, the Rabbis forbade the people of Tiberias from using the heat of sulphur springs to cook on Shabbat. After all, the prohibition is against using fire. So what's the problem? As it turns out, the Rabbis rescinded that prohibition when they realized it was an entirely natural process which did not involve fire. (Of course, by then the Tiberians had already abandoned their novel and natural process!)

Here, however, there is no prohibition against using solar power for cooking (at least directly. It would probably be a different matter to use solar generated electricity to heat a burner).

Something we should be thinking about. Solar power is environmentally and Shabbat friendly!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Shabbat 38 – Loophole Closed

We read:

R. Hiyya b. Abba was asked:  What if one forgot a pot on the stove and [thus] cooked it on the Sabbath? He was silent and said nothing to them [his questioners]. The next day he went out and lectured to them: “If one cooks [food] on the Sabbath unwittingly, he may eat [it]; if deliberately, he may not eat [it]; and there is no difference.”
The intention of the person matters. We have learned that you cannot cook or even leave a dish on a hot wood or charcoal fed stove. But what if a pot is accidently left on after the Sabbath begins, must the food be forbidden? Seemingly not – if there is no intention to break the law, it is reasonable to allow it.

But things don’t always stay that way.

R. Judah b. Samuel said in the name of R. Abba in the name of R. Kahana in Rab's name: At first it was ruled: One who cooks [food] on the Sabbath unwittingly, may eat it, if deliberately, he may not eat. The same applies to one who forgets. 
But when those who intentionally left [it there] grew numerous, and they pleaded, "We had forgotten [it on the stove]," they [the Sages] retraced their steps and penalized him who forgot.
It seems once a loophole is found, it will be exploited. So the law becomes ever more restrictive. 

Sound familiar?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Shabbat 37 - Hot Fence


The issue is discussed at great length - with many contricdictory statements. The questions revolves around the concern that one may thoughtlessly stir up the coals, which is forbidden on Shabbat. That makes sense if you are actually cooking (I.e. needing to bring water to a boil. But if the dish being prepared is just being kept warm and actually deteriorates with heat, stirring up coals is unlikely.

This is a law known to the Rabbis as a "fence around the Torah" - forbidding something not because it is a problem of itself, but as a way to prevent something worse.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Shabbat 36 - Trumpet and Shofar

The public blast sounded to announce the beginning of Shabbat is discussed. The problem is the person who blows the 6 sounds (the Hazzan) now has to go home with the shofar. But it is forbidden to carry a shofar on Shabbat! Or is it?

Perhaps it is a "chotzotzrah" (trumpet) which is forbidden to be carried rather than a "shofar" (ram's horn). Or the other way around. The shofar might be permitted because it can serve a dual purpose - one can fill it with water and drink from it!

There are competing texts as to which may or may not be carried on Shabbat. R. Hisda resolves the conflict by saying that several words switched their meaning after the destruction of the Temple! So a trumpet might be called a shofar and a shofar a trumpet. But the Rosh Hashana calls must be done on a ram's horn.

A trumpet by any other name would sound as sweet!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Shabbat 35 - Twilight

Continuing the attempt to define "twilight." R. Nehemiah defines it as the time it takes to walk half a mil from sunset.

An illustration which brings me to memories of the natural beauty n Israel:

"One who wishes to know R. Nehemiah's period should leave the sun on the top of the Carmel, descend, dip in the sea, and reascend, and this is R. Nehemiah's period."

Or a simpler definition:

"Rab Judah said in Samuel's name: When [only] one star [is visible], it is day; when two [appear], it is twilight; three, it is night."

(Medium-sized stars are meant. Well, all actual stars are the same apparent size [pinpoints], so this must mean medium brightness - and not a planet!)

Also on the page - a description of the 6 shofar blasts which were blown to indicate the commencing of Shabbat. This has found a modern revival in Jerusalem when the city's sirens are blown every Friday to indicate Shabbat.

All this brings me to fond memories for life in Israel. Hearing the sirens always gave me a sense of peace.

Anyone else have that memory?

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Shabbat 34 - Shalom Bayit: A Houshold at Peace

A long discussion about the exact time and length of twilight. Important as the designation, intermediary time which begins Shabbat.

The Mishnah has the man of the household ask questions at this moment to insure that Shabbat preparations are completed and then orders the Shabbat candles to be lit.

Sexist, yes. No surprise there.

But this is: Rabbah son of R. Huna said: "they must be said with sweet reasonableness, so that they may be accepted from him."

Shabbat should enter with joy. Much preparation to insure that there is a freedom to celebrate. But not just physical preparation but emotional as well. there should be an ease, sweetness, between a couple. How do we know?

"And thou shalt know that thy tent is in peace" (Job 5:24)

Monday, November 5, 2012

Shabbat 33 – Super Powers!

Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai  famous for having insulted the Romans in private conversation, hiding in a cave for 13 years and emerging with supernatural powers of deduction and destruction. The story is told on this page.

R. Simeon bar Yochai was sitting with his colleagues R. Judah and R. Jose in Yabne one day. R. Judah notes that the Romans have done many good things during their occupation – building streets, bridges and bath. R. Jose sat silently. But R. Simeon responded in anger that all the Romans built, they built only for themselves or as ways of assigning new taxes on the Judeans. Someone overhears their conversation and it is reported to the Roman authorities who decree that R. Simeon would be put to death for his words. (R. Jose was exiled for being silent and R. Judah who praised the Romans was made the “first speaker” of the yeshiva.)

R. Simeon bar Yochai ran away and, along with his son hid a cave for 12 years. There they were fed miraculously by a carob-tree and a spring of water.

After those 12 years, Elijah came to tell them that the emperor was dead and they were free to leave. But when they emerged R. Simeon grew enraged at the people who were living ordinary lives. Anything they glared at spontaneously burnt to a crisp (I told you, super powers!).

A heavenly voice commanded that they return to the cave for an additional year in punishment.
When they emerged the second time, they were able to return to the world. During all that time, though, father and son did nothing but study – and R. Simeon bar Yochai came out far more knowledgeable. Using his powers for good (except for when he burns up the guy who ratted him out to the Romans! Ouch.)
Jewish tradition (but not scholarship) attributes the writing of the Kabbalistic book “The Zohar” to Simeon bar Yochai – that during his time hidden in the cave, the mysteries were revealed to him.

Another Talmudic story has him exorcising the demon of the emperor’s daughter. But that’s a story for another page!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Shabbat 32 - Risk and Punishment


Such a painful Mishnah to read, and the commentary that follows is no better. Traditionally women were only responsible for three commandments: separation during menstration, separation of a small amount of challah dough before baking, and separation of the week into Shabbat. The idea that the lack of observance leads to death in childbirth of course gets turned backwards into blame - a tragedy means the person must have sinned. That kind of automatic reward and punishment model cannot stand.

The model is not limited to women, as the commentary continues. It just is less guaranteed. The idea is that dangerous times/places, like childbirth, is where punishment is meted. For men, according to the commentary, it can be going over bridges! (A dangerous prospect in the ancient world, perhaps because of poor maintainence and brigands).

One should also be careful not to take undue risks - even if one feels under Divine protection:

"A man should never stand in a place of danger and say that a miracle will be wrought for him, lest it is not."

So far, good practical advice. But, it continues:

"And if a miracle is wrought for him, it is deducted from his merits."

It seems like a bank account of good deeds which get translated into miracles. Don't spend it all in one place!

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Shabbat 31 – Lessons

This page is so filled with great stories! It’s a shame the whole thing gets ruined by one of the most unfortunate Mishnaot at the end – “reasons” women die in childbirth. But maybe we’ll look at that one – and it’s aftermath – tomorrow.

But staying with the early parts of the page: the famous story of Hillel – “standing on one foot.” You remember – the person who comes to both Shammai and Hillel with the proposition that he will convert to Judaism if the rabbi will teach him all of Torah while he performs the short-lived childish feat. Shammai beats him with a stick, Hillel teaches him the “Golden Rule” and tells him that the rest of commentary – “go and learn it.”

But, this is just one of – count ‘em – four “mocking proselytes vs. Hillel and Shammai.” In the first a heathens make a bet that they can make Hillel angry. He asks a series of absurd and even offensive (what we would call racist) questions. Hillel maintains his cool and the questioner loses the bet. But we gain a picture of equanimity.

In the second story the heathen in given a lesson in trust. Refusing to believe in the concept of the “Oral Torah” Hillel teaches him the “aleph-bet” in order. The next day he teaches him the “aleph-bet” in reverse order. “But yesterday you taught it to me the other way!” he complained. “Does this mean you have to rely on me?” Hillel answered “then you have to rely on me about the Oral Torah as well.”

Lessons learned!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Shabbat 30 - For the Sake of Our Ancestors

A legal question is asked of RabbI Tanhum of Neway: Is it allowed What to extinguish a burning lamp for a sick man on the Sabbath?

Instead of giving a simple yes or no answer, a full sermon (technically a "Midrash Halacha") is reproduced on this page! It is actually quite wonderful to see.

I won't try to summarize the whole thing. Like all in this genre he begins with a text which has noting to do with the question, and the fun is to see how he weaves it around and ends up exactly where he wanted to be.

I will quote one part in the middle, though. R. Tanhum wants to show how the dead are venerated before G-d. He notes that when Solomon wanted to bring the Ark of the Covenant into his newly constructed Temple in Jerusalem, the gates refused to open of him. He sang 24 songs of praise. . . Nothing happend. He called out "Lift up your heads, oh gates!" (Which we sometimes sing today when our ark is opened).

Still nothing.

But as soon as he said "remember the good deeds of your servant, David" the gates opened. This shows that it is not for our own actions but on praise of those who came before that we receive honor. Which is why we start our Amidah prayer with a mention of our Patriarchs (and more recently our Matriarchs).

Oh, and the 24 songs of Solomon are referred to here as "Rina-note." Happy Birthday today to my sister Rina! Named for the song.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Shabbat 29 - Rags to . . . Wicks

The Mishnah (28b) relates to rages which are repurposed into wicks for Shabbat lights, i.e. in oil lamps. The concern is that garments can be subject to uncleanness (if, for example, the person wearing them had an emission) and would be inappropriate for a Shabbat light. What defines a "garment" vs a "rag"? Value and intention.

"If [material] less than three [handbreadths] square is set aside for stopping a bath, pouring from a pot, or cleaning a mill . . . it is (potentially) unclean: that is R. Eliezer's view"


"All admit that if it was thrown away on the refuse heap . . .it is clean; if one placed it in a chest, all agree that it is unclean."

That is, if it was thrown away and recovered, it is not a "garment." But if it had been put away (as in a chest) it must have had some value to the owner and is therefore not a "rag."

Intention matters, even in the smallest of things.