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)

Monday, December 31, 2012

Shabbat 89 - Isaac the Jewish Stereotype Hero!

More of these wonderful midrashim about G-d giving the Torah to the Israelites through Moses - including a fun scene of Moses arguing with the angels - who had been arguing with G-d that the Torah should remain in Heaven rather than be wasted on humans. Oh, and a guest appearance of Satan, who horrified at the Torah's disappearance from Heaven and goes searching for it - only to have Moses outwit him.

Come on, you know you love this.

But I'll share this Midrash in some detail - because it is too much fun. It is based on an interpretation (via R. Samuel b. Nahmani who recounts in the name of R. Jonathan) of the verse:

"For Thou art our Father; for Abraham knoweth us not, and Israel doth not acknowledge us"; (Isaiah 63:16)

The story is told that when the Israelites sinned through the Golden calf, G-d goes looking for someone to plead their defense. G-d goes to Abraham, who after all defended Sodom and Gomorra, and complains: ‘Thy children have sinned against Me.’ Abraham responds, ‘Let them be wiped out for the sanctification of Thy Name.’

Thanks, Abe.

Then G-d goes to Jacob (Israel) with the same statement. After all, Jacob had some rebellious children! But Jacob answers 'Let them be wiped out for the sanctification of Thy Name.’

Knew we could count on you, Jake!

So, G-d goes to Isaac and says: ‘Thy children have sinned against me.’

At first Isaac responds like an insulted spouse: when they are good they are your children. Now when they sin it's suddenly 'thy children'?

But then Isaac continues - with math!

"How many are the years of man? Seventy. Subtract twenty, for which Thou dost not punish,"

Sorry for the interruption, but that needs explanation - according to Num. 14:29, at the incident of the spies, G-d did not punish the Israelite children under 20 years old.

Ok, back to our story:

"Subtract twenty, for which Thou dost not punish, [and] there remain fifty. Subtract twenty-five which comprise the nights, (they don't sin while they are sleeping!) [and] there remain twenty-five. Subtract twelve and a half of prayer, eating, and Nature's calls (!), [and] there remain twelve and a half."

"If Thou wilt bear all, ‘tis well; if not, half be upon me and half upon Thee."

Nice way to share the burden.

And just in case that doesn't work, Isaac has his trump card:

"And shouldst Thou say, they must all be upon me, lo! I offered myself up before Thee [as a sacrifice]!’ "

I love this - redemption through argumentation, math, and Jewish guilt! Comedy's Jewish stereotype, in our Patriarch!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Shabbat 88 – Under the Mountain

Some favorite midrashim (rabbinic stories) around Revelation at Sinai. Among the best known is an interpretation of Exodus 19:17 - And Moses brought forth the people out of the camp to meet with G-d; and they stood at the lower part of the mount.

“lower part” or “foot of the mountain” - b’tachtit ha-har - means literally “under the mountain.” Thus the midrash that as they gathered there, G-d lifted up the entire mountain and held it over the Israelites'  heads saying “If you accept the Torah, all well and good. If not, this is where you will be buried.”

Nice midrash.

Of course, as the rabbis note, this set up a problem: as R. Aha b. Jacob notes “This furnishes a strong protest against the Torah” – that acceptance was coerced.

Raba answers:
Yet even so, they re-accepted it in the days of Ahasuerus, for it is written, [the Jews] confirmed, and took upon them [etc.]: (Esther 9:27)

[that is] they confirmed what they had accepted long before.

Nice answer. Made even more powerful when we look at more of the sentence:
The Jews confirmed, and took upon them, and upon their seed, and upon all who joined themselves to them. . .

It is an agreement binding on future generations – and explicitly includes converts! Clearly speaking to the realities of their time.

And I love that it is the story of Purim, that fairy-tale of the Diaspora with its grave dangers and unlikely opportunities, which ultimately confirms the agreement of the people to the covenantal relationship. G-d saves us from genocide and the response is a voluntary recommitment to that divine relationship throughout the generations. 

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Shabbat 87 – Moses the Story-teller

Moses gives the law to the people and they respond: All that the Lord has spoken we will do. . .

Great answer! Dutifully, he communicates their response in the conclusion of the same verse:

. . .and Moses reported the words of the people unto the Lord (Ex. 19:8)

But wait, there is a problem. Because after G-d then replies by explaining to Moses that G-d will appear in a thick cloud before the people so that they will believe him forever, the next verse concludes

. . .and Moses told the words of the people unto the Lord (Ex. 19:9)

Virtually the same as in the verse before!

So, the rabbis here ask:

Now, what did the Holy One, Blessed be He, say unto Moses, what did Moses say unto Israel, what did Israel say to Moses, and what did Moses report before the Omnipotent?

That is to say, what happened between these two verses that Moses had to report to G-d twice?!

It seems that even though they initially responded positively, there was some hesitation. And maybe, it was Moses’ fault for the way he communicated:

Rabbi said: At first he explained the penalties [for non-observance], for it is written, 'And Moses reported [va-yashev]', [which implies] things which repel [meshabbebin] one's mind.

Rashi says this means they were threatened with the penalties for disobedience. Evidently this didn't go over so well.

But subsequently he explained its reward, for it is said, 'And Moses told [va-yagged]', [which means,] words which draw one's heart like a story [aggadah].

So there are two lessons of pedagogy:

1.       threats are not effective in getting buy-in,
2.       narrative stories are!

Friday, December 28, 2012

Shabbat 86 – Revelation: Its a Shabbat Thing

Fixing the day and date of the Revelation at Sinai. There is some disagreement about whether it took place on the sixth or seventh of the Hebrew month Sivan. However, the day of the week is known:

all agree that the Torah was given to Israel on the Sabbath.

Now this is not just wishful thinking – it is determined by a textual analysis:

[For] here it is written [in the Ten Commandments given at Sinai], Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy (Ex. 20:8) and elsewhere it is written, And Moses said unto the people, Remember this day (Ex. 13:3).

Comparing the similarity of the phrase: zachor et yom haShabbat and zachor et hayom haze

Just as there (the second phrase relating to Exodus), [G-d spoke] on that very day, so here too (the first phrase relating to Shabbat) was on that very day.

Therefore – the law of Shabbat (along with all the others) was given on Shabbat!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Shabbat 85 – Illustrations

From reading Torah text, we are accustomed to long prose passages describing physical items – forcing the reading to create a mental image. For example the texts on construction of the Tabernacle in the wilderness.
The Talmud also contains descriptions such as the this one delineating the construction of seed-beds contained a variety of plants and how to keep them separate (so as not to defy the law of “mixed seeds” – see previous post):

R. Assi said: The internal area of the seed-bed must be six [handbreadths square], apart from its borders. It was taught likewise: The internal area of the seed-bed must be six [handbreadths square]. How much must its borders be?
R. Kahana said in R. Johanan's name: If one desires to fill his whole garden with vegetables, he can divide it into bed[s] six [handbreadths] square, describe in each a circle five [handbreadths in diameter], and fill its corners with whatever he pleases.

Interestingly, the commentary contains several diagrams – illustrations of various layouts of seed beds, six handbreaths square. Here is an image of page 85a with the illustrating diagrams:


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Shabbat 84 – Garden Plot

The Torah contains a prohibition against planting diverse seeds in the same plot (Deut. 22:9). The Mishnah tries to define a minimum size which would be considered a “mixture” (kil’ayim) by imagining this scenario:


Imagine a square only six handbreaths long on each side with a row of plantings on each length, but not reaching the corners (so there is no mixing) and not reaching the middle. Each side of the square has a different species planted on its length and a fifth one planted in the middle. Again, making sure no species touches another.

How do we know that this kind of arrangement (or something like it) is permissible?


This “proof text” while not specific in its image, implies that there must be a way to sow multiple kinds of plants in one “garden.” The rabbis then try to figure out how.

The prohibition is clear. But a solution can be found. That's rabbinic imagination.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Shabbat 83 – Always Study

The page contains extended discussion on the analogies of idol worship. For example, what is the minimum size of an idol which contaminates? Evidently there was a fly-sized idol of the Phoenicians, Baal Ekron (or Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron (II Kings 1:2) which was commonly carried about. A reptile (sherez) which contaminates is the size of a lentil. But a corpse which contaminates is the size of an olive (we are talking, of course, about parts – not the whole). The more lenient ruling applies.

The Mishnah also explains that ships are not subject to being ritually unclean. The gemara contrasts it to a sack which can be carried both full and empty – but a ship cannot be carried, it carries! Fine but what about a canoe which can be carried both full and empty? Ah… there is a digression:

Rab Judah said in Rab's name: One should never abstain from [attendance at] the Beth Hamidrash even for a single hour, for lo! how many years was this Mishnah learnt in the Beth Hamidrash without its reason being revealed, until R. Hanina b. Akiba came and elucidated it.

The answer is less important than the lesson: one never knows when an opportunity for learning, for enlightenment, may arise. This is learned from the text:

This is the Torah, when a man dies in a tent . . .(Num. 19:14).
[That is to say,] even in the hour of death one should be engaged in [the study of] the Torah.

This was a rabbinic ideal – there is always an opportunity to learn. And learning is valuable for its own sake.

Keep studying!

Monday, December 24, 2012

Shabbat 82 – Secular Studies

There is more about bathroom etiquette on this page – again, no details gentle reader. Except to remind us that when nature calls, don’t wait!

Also some discussion about the similarities between idols and a menstruating woman. Again, we will spare details – plenty to talk about both subjects in other Talmudic tractates (Avodah Zara and Niddah respectively.)

But the page opens with this rather interesting dialogue between a father and son:

R. Huna said to his son Rabbah, ‘Why are you not to be found before R. Hisda, whose dicta are [so] keen?’ ‘What should I go to him for,’ answered he, ‘seeing that when I go to him he treats me to secular discourses!’ (mili d’alma)

What then follows in an example of R. Hisda’s bathroom-oriented teaching. I edit for your delicate disposition.

R. Huna then responds to his son:

 ‘He is busy with matters of life and health,’ he exclaimed, ‘and you call them secular discourses! All the more reason for going to him!’

Talmudic study is about more than Jewish law. Life and health and the full range of human experience.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Shabbat 81 – The Rabbis and the Witch

Much of the page discusses bathroom etiquette, mostly involving stones which are carried to be used for “sanitary” purposes. I will not go into details (although the Talmud does! Including 10 foods and actions which lead to hemorrhoids.)

However, I point out that the privy was considered a place where one was susceptible to demons and witchcraft. The second point is illustrated by a wonderful story told on this page:

R. Hisda and Rabbah son of R. Huna were travelling in a boat, when a certain [non-Jewish] matron (matronita) said to them, ‘Seat me near you,’ but they did not seat her. Thereupon she uttered something [a charm] and bound the boat; they uttered something [a counter-charm?], and freed it.

Said she to them, ‘What can I do to you, seeing that you do not cleanse yourselves with a shard (in the privy), nor kill vermin on your garments, and you do not pull out and eat a vegetable from a bunch which the gardener has tied together’ (but untie the bunch first)?

The story is told to indicate things which expose one to witchcraft. Uncommented upon is the fact that the rabbis knew the magical words to counteract the witch’s incantation. 

You go, rabbis!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Shabbat 80 – Cosmetic Consequences

The Mishnah we are still discussing (from page 78b) lists minimum amounts which constitute illegal “carrying” on Shabbat.

Two items are among those discussed on this page:

Kachol – (enough) to paint one eye
Lime – (enough) to smear the smallest of girls

Kachol is an eye makeup. Perhaps Stibium (the mineral Antimony [Sb if you must know]) which was used as mascara in the ancient world. And yet, it is curious that the minimum should be sufficient to paint only one eye? Don’t most women have two? And the minimums which have been presented have had to do with usefulness. What use is mascara for only one eye?

Ah, says R. Huna: “Because modest women paint [only] one eye.” That is, they are usually veiled with only one eye revealed. And made up.

Or another solution – perhaps it was used for medicinal purposes, in which case one eye would be a reasonable minimum. And if as makeup, the minimum would be sufficient for two eyes.

Or yet another explanation:

Hillel son of R. Samuel b. Nahmani explained it: This was taught in reference to villagers.

Presumably women living in the small towns were safer from prowling men and could afford to have both eyes revealed. (!)

As to Lime (CaO if you must know) – it was used as a depilatory. But best to let the rabbis speak for themselves:

Rab Judah said in Rab's name: When maidens of Israel attain puberty before the proper age: poor maidens plaster it [the unwanted hair] with lime; rich maidens plaster it with fine flour; whilst royal princesses plaster it with oil of myrrh, as it is said, “six months with oil of myrrh.” (Esth. 2:12)

After a tragic story about the dangerous overuse of such materials, the text continues:

As for R. Bibi who drank strong liquor, his daughter required pasting over; [but] as for us, who do not drink strong liquor, our daughters do not require such treatment.

So. . .don’t drink too much, or you will have hairy daughters! But if you do, their's always cosmetics.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Shabbat 79 - Higher Sanctity

"When tefillin or a Torah Scroll wear out, a mezuzah may not be made of them, because we may not debase [anything] from a weighty sanctity (higher) to a lighter sanctity (lower)."

The holiness (kadosh) of objects like a Torah scroll or the text inside the teffillin cannot be lessened even for the purpose of making a holy object like the text inside the mezuzah. There is honor in maintaining sacredness.

We sometimes try to make calculations or excuse certain behaviors "for a good cause." But sacred means to be set aside - maintained. Don't debase the sacredness within yourself or others.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Shabbat 78 - Common and Uncommon Use

"Abaye said, Consider: Whatever has a common use and an uncommon use, the Rabbis followed the common use, [even] in the direction of leniency"

For example wine. Most often wine is used for drinking. On occasion a much smaller amount might be applied externally as a remedy. But the "minimum" standard (that is the amount which is considered illegal carrying on Shabbat) follows the more common use - which is a greater amount.


"where it has two common uses, the Rabbis followed the common use [which leads to] stringency."

So, for example, honey - which was commonly eaten and also commonly applied as a remedy. The amount which constitutes "eating" is generally the size of a dried fig, so you might think this would be the amount set as a minimum. However, based on the above principle, the Mishnah chooses the more stringent amount: HONEY, SUFFICIENT TO PLACE ON A SCAB.

So, the Shabbat laws vary depending on how things are used. What happens when their usage changes? Does anyone use honey for healing a scab? Do most people?

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Shabbat 77 - Natural History

Although the primary discussion is on the minimum amount of certain liquids which constitutes illegal carrying on Shabbat (a swallow of milk, the amount of wine mixed with water - as was done in those days), there is a sweet digression into a kind of "Natural History." It includes a series of "just so" tales: why do goats go in herds before sheep? The dark herd is followed by the light one, just like the beginning of creation. Why do camels have short tails? Because they eat thorns and a long tail would get caught in the brambles, etc.

But it begins with the ways that animals are used for cures - particularly for the stings and bites of other animals:

"Rab Judah said in Rab's name: Of all that the Holy One, blessed be He, created in His world, He did not create a single thing without purpose."

What follows is a series of folk remedies - like a crushed spider for a scorpion sting.

That is to say, G-d sends the disease, and the cure! Both in the forms of nature.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Shabbat 76 - Animal Feedstock

The Mishnah describes a minimum amount of animal feed which if carried outside on Shabbat constitutes a violation of the Shabbat laws:


What is interesting is that the amount is specific to the animal - what is considered a "mouthful" varies with the species. Rather than just specifying a universal standard (say a bale of hay), the rabbis require one to be thoughtful of the specific needs of the animal.

Not, of course that the animals are to go hungry on Shabbat! To the contrary, the Torah requires that one's livestock rest on Shabbat as well. Their needs have to be met before Shabbat with enough food to last the day.

Take care of your charges. And give them a Shabbat.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Shabbat 75 -Sorcerers and Scientists

"R. Zutra b. Tobiah said in Rab's name: He. . . who learns a single thing from a Magian is worthy of death"

The Magi (yes, the same ones from the New Testament) or Magians were Zorastrian priests of Persia and beyond. They were particularly hostile to the Jews and there are several references in the Tractate Sanhedrian which equate them with sorcerers - one of the categories of magic practitioners which the Hebrew Bible explicitly forbids.

In English, we call them Magicians.

Magians (Hebrew: Magush) practiced divination by signs in the sky: Astrology. However, R. Sutra goes on:

"and he who is able to calculate the cycles and planetary courses but does not, one may hold no conversation with him."

Observation and calculation were necessary to maintain the calendar. Since the Hebrew calendar is a modified lunar (as opposed to the strict lunar of Muslims) calculation of the date and the appropriate modifications to keep the holidays in their appropriate season were necessary. This complicated system required experts - and for one to deny that expertise to society was a waste of ability.

In other words, using the observation of the stars and planets for magical manipulation is forbidden. Using it for calculation for the good of the community is required.

Magic vs Science. Forbidden vs Venerated.

For Jews it is the Gift of the Scientist, not the Gift of the Magi.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Shabbat 74 - Potter Works

The 39 categories of "labor" found on the previous page (73) are considered primary categories, which were used the the building of the Tabernacle (as explained on 49b). There might be several secondary labors within each of those - for example multiple kinds of "kneading" or "tying." The multiple subcategories are subsumed under the primary. That is, only one sin-offering was brought for multiple violations within the same category.

However, each violation across primary categories necessitated a separate sacrifice.

An example is given of a potter. Making an earthenware vessel on Shabbat would make one culpable for 7 sin offerings!

The violations are understood to be:

1. GRINDING - the earth to make powder for clay

2. SELECTING - pulling out the bits which do not grind

3. SIFTING - the resultant powder

4. KNEADING - the powder with water

5. SMOOTHING - the clay when shaping it into a vessel

6. KINDLING - fire in the kiln

7. BOILING - which is the hardening of the vessel in the kiln.

Seven categories, seven violations, seven sacrifices of sin-offerings (back when this was possible!)

All these 39 Primary labors or categories are listed and defined by work needed to build the Tabernacle (49b).

The Torah tells us to rest on Shabbat. The Talmud tells us how.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Shabbat 73 - Here's the Pitch

The Mishnah enumerating the 39 Primary categories of labor ("Forty less One") is found on this page and will be discussed in subsequent pages.

But first, a word about baseball.

Ok, not really baseball - but it does involve tossing something.

There is a boundary of four cubits in length. If one throws an object (baseball?) four cubits or beyond on Shabbat, it is a violation of the Shabbat laws. Less than that - is not.

But what about someone who intends to throw only 2 cubits (on Shabbat) but winds up throwing 4? Besides being signed up for the Major Leagues, is he liable?

Raba says he is not culpable since the intention was not there.

Abaye says he is. Why? Because he intended throwing.

It was stated: If one intends to throw [an object] two [cubits], but throws it four,4 Raba said: He is not culpable; Abaye ruled: He is culpable.5 Raba said: He is not culpable, since he had no intention of a four [cubits’] throw. Abaye ruled, He is culpable, since he intended throwing in general. If he thinks it private ground but it is learnt to be public ground, Raba ruled: He is not culpable; Abaye said: He is culpable. Raba ruled, He is not culpable, since he had no intention of a forbidden throw. While Abaye ruled that he is culpable, since he intended throwing in general.

And, since his intention was to throw 2 cubits distance, he fulfilled that intention - and then went beyond! The 2 additional cubits was a new (unintentional) intention. Which makes him liable.

Maybe he needs to learn his own strength!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Shabbat 72 – No Loopholes

There are different kinds of sin-offerings related to the commitment of an offense:

      1. If one is unaware or in doubt if a sin was committed, or
      2. if one has been informed after (or between) the commission of acts – so that the act was definitely committed but in ignorance.

Ulla confronts the view that a “certain guilt offering” does not require previous knowledge:

if a man cohabits five times with a ‘betrothed bondmaid’ (forbidden in Lev. 19:21 – the assumption being he did not know she was engaged) he is liable to one [guilt-offering] only.

But, R. Hamnuna suggests a loophole:

If so, if one cohabits, sets aside a sacrifice (which is the first act of atonement), and states ‘Wait for me until I cohabit again’ – can he be liable for only one sacrifice?

Nice try, but no. The multiple guilt offering is only when there is a lack of knowledge or uncertainty. Once you know that the act is a sin, atonement is required for each act.

Let's be careful out there!

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Shabbat 71 - Unaware

Dedicated to the proposition that performing two labors in one state of unawareness on Shabbat makes a person liable for only one sin offering.

Or – based on the example of one who accidently eats of forbidden sacrificial meat (heleb), maybe not. If one is informed and then eats a second piece, but didn’t understand that the second was also proscribed – one sacrifice is sufficient for the two. But NOT if a third piece is taken.

There are limits!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Shabbat 70 – Add it Up!

Commenting on the Mishnah:


We are reminded of the 39 categories of labor (first seen on page 6a). Again, the question of how did we get to 39? R. Nathan derives it from this verse:

And Moses assembled all the congregation of the children of Israel, and said unto them, These are the words which the Lord hath commanded . . . Six days shall work be done (but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a sabbath of rest to the Lord. . .) (Ex. 35:1-2)

“These are the words” - ohÜ!r7c08v v3¦2t (eleh ha-d’varim)

                D'varim – ‘Words’ – is plural, thereby indicating 2

                Ha-D'varim – ‘The Words’ – marks an extension of the 2, making: 3

                Eleh – ‘These’ – is made up of the letters, Alef, Lamed, Hey – which have the numeric equivalents of 1 + 30 + 5 respectively; making the numerical equivalent the word: 36

                Eleh HaD'varim therefore adds up to 36 + 3 = 39

That is 39 categories of labor which cannot be done on the Sabbath.

Hurray for Gematria!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Shabbat 69 - Personal vs Communal Shabbat

Continuing the discussion of ignorance vs willful disregard of the laws of Shabbat - the penalty for the first being a sin-offering sacrifice (in the days when it was possible to bring sacrifices) the latter being excommunication.

How is it possible to ignorant of a particular Shabbat? The case of a traveller who gets lost and loses track of time. If he cannot figure out which day is Shabbat, what should he do?

According to Rabbi Huna, he should "count six days and observe one."

According to Hiyya b. Rab, he should "observe one and count six."

Now that's a big difference! How do they reason?

"One Master holds that it is as the world's Creation; the other Master holds that it is like Adam."

In other words Huna models after G-d: six days of work, followed by a day of rest. Hiyya says the traveller thinks of himself as Adam: the day after his creation (i.e. the day he realizes he's lost track of time) is Shabbat!

Shabbat, in this sense, is not an existential reality - it is defined by human experience. In perfection it is a shared communal experience, but in isolation (and desperation) it is defined by the experience of the individual.

But then is he liable for a sacrifice when he returns to the community (and realizes his Shabbat) differs from everyone else's? Ignorance vs willful defiance.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Shabbat 68 – A Great Principle Was Stated There

The rabbis discuss the opening of a new Mishnah chapter :


This principle: a person who forgets the fundamental laws of Shabbat is liable for only one sin-offering no matter how many violations.

The corollary: a person who knows the fundamental laws of Shabbat is liable for each a sin-offering for each Shabbat violated. A person who knows the specific Shabbat is Shabbat is liable for a sin-offering for each category of work violated.

Before getting to the specifics, though, the discussion is on the idea of a “great principle.” This is a term rarely used in the Mishnah. Other examples include tithes and 7th year produce.

But who is really the exemplar of the "great principle" here begins? Someone who never learned the laws of Shabbat – such as a child taken captive and brought up among Gentiles. In other words, the rabbis change the mishnah text from “one who forgets” to “one who never knew.”

Unlike the great principle of our civil society: Ignorance of the law is an excuse.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Shabbat 67 – Magic!

For those interested in the tradition of Jewish magic, as I am, this page of Talmud is just. . .well, wonderful!

It is filled with recipes and incantations, examples of sympathetic magic and bibliomancy as well as talismans to ward of illness and demons.

Doesn’t sound very Jewish, does it?

The Torah is very clearly against this:
. . . you shall not learn to do after the abominations of those nations. There shall not be found among you any one who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, or who uses divination, or a soothsayer, or an enchanter, or a witch,  Or a charmer, or a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all that do these things are an abomination to the Lord; (Deut. 18: 9-12)

Still, even with this injunction, there is a great tension in our texts between the rational and the common. The rabbis could not escape the fact that many of these remedies were popular and were seen, in a pre-scientific world, as efficacious. However, this had to be balanced with strong biblical injunctions against the use of magic – it being seen as “the way of the Amorite” (based on the injunction in Lev. 18:3 not to “walk in their ways).

How to allow some forms of magical healing without embracing the practice of idolaters?

The Mishnah allows certain magical items to be used “as a prophylactic” according to Rabbi Meir – but:


So the rabbis suggest a distinction similar to what we saw earlier (Shabbat 53b) about amulets:

Abaye and Raba both maintain: Whatever is used as a remedy is not [forbidden] on account of ‘the ways of the Amorite.’

That is to say – if it works it stays!

As a counter-point, though, an example is raised of a common cure. If a fruit tree drops it’s fruits one paints it with a red dye and hands stones on it. Now the stones are logical – they are intended to strengthen the tree on the theory that it is simply not strong enough to keep its fruit. But what does the red paint do?

                That is in order that people may see and pray for it.

Magic becomes logic!

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Shabbat 66 – Wooden Legs and Wooden Shoes


There is some confusion of who permits and who forbids the wearing of artificial limbs in public on Shabbat. But it is an interesting addition about wearing them in the Temple court. Shoes were not allowed there. So is the wooden leg and leather support a “shoe”?

Another text is found in which a wooden shoe is shown to be acceptable for halitzah – the ceremony in which a widow takes the shoe off her deceased husband’s brother to show she does not accept him as a new husband (Deut. 25:5-9).

The law is reversed about wearing wooden legs in the Temple court. They are forbidden.

Besides the practical (how does this person ever go up to the Temple mount without his wooden legs?) it is interesting to see the law reversed in this way.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Shabbat 65 – Lesbian Sexuality

A general thesis about wearing something decorative in public on Shabbat:

“Abaye said: Rabbi, R. Eliezer, and R. Simeon b. Eleazar all hold that whatever detracts from a person[‘s appearance], one will not come to display it.”

That is to say, the removal of it would detract and therefore is unlikely to be removed. The example is a gold tooth. There is little fear that someone would take out her tooth to show it off, and therefore be guilty of “carrying” on Shabbat.

But let’s leave that for the more interesting aside having to do with female homosexuality:

“R. Huna said: Women who commit lewdness with one another are unfit for the priesthood.”

That is to say, they are not eligible to marry a priest (there were, of course, no female priests.)
Now this is a fascinating statement. While male homosexual behavior is condemned biblically (a serious problem, but one that has been overcome in textual analysis), the Torah is silent on lesbian sexuality. So this Talmud statement is important. Its significance is that this is a very minor rebuke. Any non-virgin, especially a divorcee, is disqualified from marrying a priest – and the priesthood was only symbolic by Huna’s day anyway! So there is an acknowledgement that homosexuality ends virginity, but little more. Huna’s statement is repeated and then made even more clear with a subsequent reflection in Yevamot 76a:

“And even according to R. Eleazar, who stated that an unmarried man who cohabited with an unmarried woman with no matrimonial intention renders her thereby a harlot, this disqualification ensues only in the case of a man; but when it is that of a woman the action is regarded as mere obscenity.”

In other words lesbian sexuality, while labeled as “promiscuous,” is seen by the ancient rabbis as less of a “sin” than the greater problem of pre-marital heterosexual behavior. Maybe those who condemn should think a bit more about their own history.

Of course, by this logic the answer would be marriage! A fine idea.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Shabbat 64 – Lust and the Wandering Eye

The majority of this page is taken up with technical arguments about when or if a woven good is liable to being defiled (by a reptile or by being in the presence of a corpse).

But there is an aside which deals with a verse from Numbers having to do with certain kinds of jewelry:
And we have brought the Lord's oblation, what every man hath gotten, of jewels of gold, ankle chains, and bracelets, signet-rings, ear-rings (‘agil), and armlets (kumaz) to make an atonement for our souls before the Lord. (Num. 31:50)

This is the booty from the war with Midian. Now, the rabbis ask, what is that the Israelites had to make atonement for? After all Moses was instructed by G-d to Avenge the people of Israel of the Midianites (31:1).

Of course, it has to do with sex.

The rabbis translate the word ‘agil as “a cast of female breasts” and kumaz as “a cast of the womb.” They were innocent of taking sexual advantage of the Midianite women during and after the war, but – according to this midrash, the soldiers say:

‘Though we escaped from sin, we did not escape from meditating upon sin.’

Just looking at these castings of female body parts (armor? Or a metaphor for seeing naked prisoners?)  constituted a sin worthy of atonement.

The School of R. Ishmael taught: Why were the Israelites of that generation in need of atonement? Because they gratified their eyes with lewdness.

And then – the famous lesson:

Whoever looks upon a woman's little finger is as though he gazed upon her genitals.

And THAT is perhaps why signet rings are not allowed on women in public on Shabbat! If men stare at the ring on her finger, who KNOWS where they will stare next!

As is often seen, even today – women are restricted in their clothing because of men’s inability to avoid leering.

This imposition of modesty, so prevalent in the Traditional world of many societies, reminds me of the old story about Golda Meir:

When the (Israeli) Cabinet was trying to deal with a series of assaults on women, a minister suggested barring women from the streets after dark. The Minister of Labor (Golda Meir) protested: "Men are attacking women, not the other way around. If there is going to be a curfew, let the men be locked up, not the women." (NY Times Obituary, Dec. 9, 1978).

Go, Golda!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Shabbat 63 – Battle Garb

This page is so full of wonderful things it is hard to choose. I’ll just note that there is a description of how much G-d loves rhetorical arguments, the idea that Torah study and financial reward go together, an insulting statement to left-handed people, and the idea that it is better to lend money to a poor person than to give charity (presumably because it preserves dignity and the donor is likely to give more under that circumstance). Oh, and an injunction not to keep or breed angry dogs.


But, let’s just focus on the beginning:

The Mishnah states that is forbidden for a man to go out in public on Shabbat wearing implements of war (sword, bow, shield, lance or spear). Now these many be considered “ornaments” (which would be permissible) but they are not allowed because they are “shameful.”

Why are they “shameful”? Because Shabbat is considered a foretaste of the messianic era, which the prophet describes in the famous vision: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” (Isaiah 2:4) So wearing items of war – even ornamental ones – on Shabbat is an insult to that vision.

But what if they are considered beautiful? Abaye says “It may be compared to a candle at noon.” I love that – while a candle looks beautiful at night, at midday it is irrelevant. Context matters!

Notice that neither the Mishnah nor Gemora say anything here about self-defense. It is just assumed that no one would want or need to be armed on Shabbat. The peacefulness of the day is like the sun shining at noon.

So for gun supporters – a least let’s have one day of rest!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Shabbat 62 – Men and Women: Rings and Straps

On the list of things that a woman cannot wear in public on Shabbat is a ring with a signet. The exact opposite is true for men – rings without signets are forbidden to be worn in pubic on Shabbat. They are not “ornaments” which would are allowed – they are, technically, “burdens.” We read it most clearly back a few pages:

“if it has a signet, it is a man's ornament; if it has no signet, it is a woman's ornament” (Shabbat 60a)

There is a practical side here. Signet rings were items of official identity used for business purposes. Official documents would be sealed with wax and impressed by an identifying signet. So it would be normal for a man to wear one, and unusual in those days for a woman to.

The Gemara commentary does grant an interesting exception to a woman who is a “charity overseer” – evidently someone who needs an official signet to approve charitable disbursements. Interesting to see that this was a position where it was not unusual for find a woman in charge.

More commonly, though, is the clear division between women and men in these texts. For example on our page:

Thus we see that ‘Ulla holds that whatever is fit for a man is not fit for a woman, and whatever is fit for a woman is not fit for a man.

In fact, Ulla seems to hold woman as “a separate people.”

Interestingly, though, there seems to be room for women to do something which had long been considered (even today) only the purvey of men – wearing tefillin.

R. Meir holds that night is a time for tefillin, and the Sabbath [too] is a time for tefillin: thus it is a positive precept not limited by time, and all such are incumbent upon women.

Yes, Rabbi Meir’s view did not hold – either on the times when tefillin worn or on women’s wearing them. But it is interesting that this opening is given.

Strict divisions – and sometimes not so strict.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Shabbat 61 - Defining Effective Treatments - Amulets and their Writers


So there are amulets and there are amulets. What's the difference? Professional standards!

Amulets were magical items; lockets, which were worn as protection. Sometimes they contained written text, sometimes special herbs. But in all cases they served a purpose health or protection.

Of course, to save a life or protect health - the laws of Shabbat may be suspended. So it makes sense that an amulet should be permitted to be worn in public when other items are not - so long as it works!

So how do you decide if you have a working amulet or not?

"Our Rabbis taught: What is an approved amulet? One that has healed [once], a second time and a third time"

So the amulet (either the actual amulet or one exactly like it) must have a proven track record.

But what about the amulet writer? How can you trust his work? Glad you asked:

"R. Papa said: Do not think that both the man [issuing it] and the amulet must be approved; but as long as the man is approved, even if the amulet is not approved."

According to Rabbi Papa there are 3 tests for an approved amulet and/or writer:

A. If 3 amulets are successful for 3 people and each works 3 times: the amulets and the amulet-writer are approved.

B. if 3 amulets are successful for 3 people and each works 1 time: the amulet-writer is approved, but not the amulets.

C. If 1 amulet is successful for 3 people: the amulet is approved but not the amulet-writer.

So there is an evidence-based standard for approving a particular amulet or for assuming the efficacy of a professional's work.

If only our modern medical system, which often pays for new medicines and therapies even if their effectiveness is unproven, worked the same way!

Shabbat 60 - No-Nail Sandals


On the face of it - an odd restriction. Would the nails be considered removable ornaments so that there would be a fear of carrying? No, that doesn't seem reasonable. Any nails in a sandal would either be integrated (part of its construction or a reinforcement) or decoration. So what's the problem? And why only sandals, why not other kinds of shoes?

There's a story:

It was a time of persecution and some solders were hidden in a cave. One solder dropped a sandal near the enterance to the cave facing outwards. When the others saw it, they assumed a comrade had left the cave and been seen by the enemy who would attack them at any moment. So they pressed tightly further into the cave. In their panic "they killed of each other more than their enemies slew of them."

(two similar versions of the story are also recounted.)

How did the rabbis respond to the tragedy?

"In that hour it was enacted: A man must not go out with a nail-studded sandal."

This reminds me of the Biblacal story of Jacob who while wrestling with the angel has his hip pulled from his socket - in rememberance of which Jews don't eat the sciatic nerve of an animal. Particular (and pecular) restrictions expalined as mnemonics of significant events.

Perhaps these are folk etymologies but they speak to the way we honor the past.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Shabbat 59 - Horseshoes and Brooches

One way of deciding what is unfit to be worn as an separate item in pubiic on Shabbat (as opposed to something woven in or sown on to clothing) is determining if the object is succeptable to defilement should it comes in contact with someone ritually unclean. Which brings us to an interesting historical factoid: what horseshoes used to look like.

           "For we learnt: an animal's shoe, [if] of metal, is (subject to be) unclean. For what is it fit? — Rab said: It is fit for drinking water from in battle."

Now that's interesting! These battle horseshoes were not the open hoops we know. They had volume - fitting around and enclosing the horse's hooves, even serving as improvised drinking cups. And they might have had another dual use:

       "R. Johanan said: When one is fleeing from the field of battle, he places this [shoe] on his [own] feet and runs over briars and thorns."

The other basic principle of deciding what it forbidden to wear is value and removability. This is shown in the case of a "Golden City" presumably a brooch with an engraved image of Jerusalem:

         "R. Eliezer ruled: A woman may go out with a golden city at the very outset. . .the Rabbis hold that it is an ornament, [and it is forbidden only] lest she remove it to show [to a friend], and thus come to carry it [in the street]."

Interesting that this was apparently common enough that it needed its own ruling. Also interesting that it does not seem to violate the (historically flexible) rule against graven images. A city is not an animal or human which could be confused with a deity!

And you can't play horseshoes with a drinking cup!