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)

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Shabbat 148 – A Borrower Be – but Say it Right


Wait, borrow – but don’t ask? That doesn’t sound right.

The Gemara makes a distinction between two ways of asking for a loan:

Raba son of R. Hanan asked Abaye: Wherein does halveni differ from hash'ileni?

Both mean the same thing. Hash’ileni, it though, is a more informal term. Halveni, denotes a kind of contract – an advance promise to pay. The concern is that the one who loans will come to write down the terms. Keeping things informal – or at least in the abnormal form of a transaction – lessens that chance.
And abnormal is what it’s all about. Or better: special.

The Rabbis said, 'Regarding all actions on [Shabbat and] Festivals, as far as it is possible to vary, we vary them

Even in the words we use.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Shabbat 147 – Don’t Panic and Carry a Towel

Bathing on Shabbat is permissible, but it a world without indoor plumbing there is a fair amount of planning involved. The problem discussed here is towels.

Two issues: one is that the temptation will exist to wring out a wet towel after use:


One person alone cannot carry towels, even if he uses many which are each not very wet, because he will be tempted to wring it. But many if even they use few towels and thus it will be very wet, will remind each other not to!

And issue two is carrying towels in a public area on Shabbat.

R. Simeon said: One may dry himself with one towel and bring it home.

Rab Judah said in Samuel's name: A person may dry himself with a towel and carry it home [wrapped round] his hand

That is, the towel needs to be worn like a garment, not carried as a burden. And just to be clear:

R. Hiyya b. Abba said in R. Johanan's name: The bath attendants may bring women's bathing clothes to the baths, providing that they cover their heads and the greater part of their bodies in them

There is a related ruling regarding the responsibility of billeting foreign soldiers – which often involved doing menial labor for them – even on Shabbat:

Raba said to the citizens of Mahoza: When you carry the apparel of the [billeted] troops, let them drop below your shoulders.

That is, wear them, don’t carry them. And Don't Panic.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Shabbat 146 – Lust and Control

Let’s let the rabbis speak:

Why are idolaters (ovdei kochavim) lustful? Because they did not stand at Mount Sinai. For when the serpent came upon Eve he injected a lust into her: [as for] the Israelites who stood at Mount Sinai, their lustfulness departed; the idolaters, who did not stand at Mount Sinai, their lustfulness did not depart.

Both lust and control are creations of G-d, and we humans live in balance. Torah, according to rabbinic understand, is the tool of counterbalance to our lustful natures – the laws teach us self-control.

R. Aha son of Raba asked R. Ashi. What about proselytes?

Though they were not present, their guiding stars (mazleyhu or “their mazal”) were present, as it is written, [Neither with you only do I make this covenant and this oath], but with him that standeth here with us this day before the Lord our God, and also with him that is not here with us this day. (Deut. 29:14)

Torah is freely available to all (they were there and Sinai as well!) and the ability to modify our behavior over against our more base desires is G-d's gift. 

And a different understanding of “Mazel Tov” !

Monday, February 25, 2013

Shabbat 145 – Know Your Source!

Continuing this discussion of what foods can be squeezed out on Shabbat

R. Zera said in R. Hiyya b. Ashi's name in Rab's name: A man may squeeze a bunch of grapes into a pot [of food], but not into a plate; but [one may squeeze] a fish for its brine even into a plate.

Well and good. But then an argument breaks out about sources:

Now, R. Dimi sat and stated this ruling. Said Abaye to R. Dimi, You recite it in Rab's name, hence it presents no difficulty to you; [but] we recite it in Samuel's name, so it presents a difficulty to us

It does so because Samuel seems to give a contradictory opinion in another source.

R. Dimi responds in a most unusual way:

By God! (Haelohim!) replied he, 'Mine eyes have beheld, and not a stranger': (Job 19:27) I heard it from R. Jeremiah's mouth, and R. Jeremiah from R. Zera, and R. Zera from R. Hiyya b. Ashi, and R. Hiyya b. Ashi from Rab.

Coming close to using G-d’s name in vain (!) – Dimi proclaims the lineage of the ruling.  The source matters.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Shabbat 144 – Fruit Juice: Who Decides?

The Mishnah (on the previous page) makes a distinction on squeezing fruit for juice. This forbidden as form of “threshing.” However, Rabbi Judah allows it if the juice flows naturally, so long as the fruit is edible by itself – i.e. dates which are eaten, the juice is incidental. However, if they are used as a fruit juice, i.e. dates which are used as honey, the naturally flowing juices are excluded.

The rabbis discuss which fruits fall into which category. Among the fruits discussed are pomegranates. Now since they are primarily eaten, it would seem that according to Rabbi Judah their juice which came out naturally on Shabbat should be allowed. However the text notes that:

the household of Menasia b. Menahem used to express pomegranates.

R. Nahman said: The halachah is in accordance with the household of Menasia b. Menahem.

This sets up an interesting problem. How does this one example get to set up a law? Raba asks sarcastically:

Was then Menasia b. Menahem a Rabbinic sage (tanna)?

Does Menasia b. Menahem represent the majority of people?

Well, no. Yes, actually. Reasons are for found for following this practice and excluding pomegranates. But it is interesting to see the tension – one example should not be used as majority precedent. 

Who decides matters in terms of how the practice unfolds. And is accepted.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Shabbat 143 – Act Different

The 39 categories of Forbidden Labor enumerated on page 73 are specific. But there are other actions which are not but are forbidden because doing them may lead inadvertently to one of these 39. For example:


Now on its face, there is nothing wrong with sponging. But the concern is that one may naturally wind up wringing the sponge out which is forbidden.

Ultimately the ideal is not just to stay within certain parameters – it is to note in everyday actions that Shabbat is not everyday.

A Tanna taught: One must not sponge up wine nor dab up oil, so that he should not act as he does during the week.

And even more:

Our Rabbis taught: If one's produce is scattered in his courtyard, he may collect a little at a time . . . but not into a basket or a tub, so that he should not act as he does during the week.

It is easy for the ordinary to intrude on the extraordinary. It is only through conscious effort that we break habit and make the day feel different, special and holy.

What can you do to insure that even the mundane is different on Shabbat?

Friday, February 22, 2013

Shabbat 142 – Permitted over Forbidden

It is not usual for general principles to be given. Rabbinic writing is filled with specifics. For example:

IF A STONE IS ON THE MOUTH OF A CASK [OF WINE], (and one wishes to take out wine on Shabbat) ONE TILTS [THE CASK] ON A SIDE AND [THE STONE] FALLS OFF. IF [THE CASK] IS [STANDING] AMONG [OTHER] CASKS (and damage would be caused from the falling stone), HE LIFTS [THE CASK] OUT, TILTS IT ON A SIDE, AND [THE STONE] FALLS OFF.

Ok, that is a lot of “if’s” – although a pretty practical ruling. Wine was stored in these kinds of barrels and it would not be surprising to have a stone on top holding the lid down. But lifting the stone off would be one of the forbidden labors – even though (ironically) the entire cask can be lifted out of the group so that the stone falls without creating damage (also forbidden).

However, from this a general rule is noted:

wherever there is something permitted and something forbidden, one must occupy oneself with what is permitted, not with what is forbidden

That is, you have two things here – the forbidden stone and the permitted wine cask. The stone is incidental. The attention is on the permitted, not on the forbidden.

Actually, a good way to look at things. Looking at the array of task forbidden on Shabbat can be daunting, and perhaps discouraging. The proper attitude is to pay attention to what is permitted. And enjoy it.

Not a bad way to live life, actually. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Shabbat 141 – New Shoes!

We are getting into some small particulars on the Shabbat laws – including not scraping clay off of ones shoes directly onto a wall, because it can look like you a “building” it. Really.

The discussion of shoes continues: 

Our Rabbis taught: A small[-footed] man must not go out (in public on Shabbat) with the shoe of a large[-footed] man, but he may go out with [too] large a shirt.

The reason being that wearing too-large shoes, one might be tempted to carry shoes that fall off - but not a shirt. The carrying is the forbidden part. The size is a preventative measure. 

A woman must not go out with a gaping (floppy) shoe

For the same reason – or, Rashi suggests, because she might become embarrassed and take it off. The look, not just the fit, matters.

And one must not go out with a new shoe: 
of what shoe did they rule this? 
Of a woman's shoe.

Since, again – if the fit is not right, she might be tempted to carry them (and he wouldn’t?!) Now this is only about “new shoes”, that is having never been worn at all.

So, by all means get those shoes you’ve been looking at. But be sure to wear them at least once before Shabbat!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Shabbat 140 – Taking Care of Animals Who Rest on Shabbat

The Torah makes clear that not only humans but the animals in their care must rest on Shabbat. None-the-less, their needs must be taken care of. Not only must animals be fed, but their stalls must be maintained – even on Shabbat. The Mishanah on this page states:


This is to keep the stall clean and the separate dung from food. The rabbis note the sages’ reluctance here, but explain that this refers to a stall which is built on the ground – out of fear that one will inadvertently fill in holes. But a self-contained manger (which is like a vessel) may be swept.


Now there are two contradictory baraitot (texts which did not make it into the redacted Mishnah, but are still considered important).

One [Baraitha] taught: One may take [fodder] from before an animal that is fastidious and place [it] before an animal that is not fastidious; while another taught: One may take [fodder] from before an animal that is not fastidious and place [it] before an animal that is fastidious.

We’re talking here species, not individuals.

Abaye observed: Both [Baraithas hold] that one may take from an ass [to put] before an ox, but not from an ox [and place it] before an ass.

Humans may rest on Shabbat, but they still have responsibilities to the animals in their care. They work for us all week – even on Shabbat we don’t forget to work for them.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Shabbat 139 – Corruption and Redemption

The rabbis blame the ills of Israel on the corruption of judges and their staff.

R. Jose b. Elisha said: If you see a generation overwhelmed by many troubles, go forth and examine the judges of Israel, for all retribution that comes to the world comes only on account of the Judges of Israel.

Perversion of justice, the buying off of litigants and witnesses, does deeply corrupt. But there is hope:

'Ulla said: Jerusalem shall be redeemed only by righteousness, as it is written, Zion shall be redeemed with judgment, and her converts with righteousness.(Isa. 1:27)

And it affects even those outside the land –even those who are under the oppression of the Persian Magi (as the Jewish community of Babylonia was):

R. Papa said: When the haughty cease to exist [in Israel], the magi shall cease [among the Persians]. . . as it is written, And I will surely purge away thy haughty ones.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Shabbat 138 – Fears of the Future

The destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70 CE represented a tremendous danger to the future of Judaism. It was the brilliance and courage of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai who managed to obtain permission from the Romans to found an academy of Jewish study; which reinvented and saved the future of the Jewish people. This academy at Yavne managed the move from Priestly to Rabbinic Judaism; from the sacrificial cult to the study and practice of Jewish law.

On this page, the rabbis express the fear – perhaps during a later time of repression – that all of their work will be forgotten, leaving the future of Judaism once again in doubt:

Our Rabbis taught: When our Masters entered the vineyard at Yavne, they said, “The Torah is destined to be forgotten in Israel, as it is said:

Behold, the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. And it is said, And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east; they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it.” (Amos 8:11-12)

“The word of the Lord” they understood to mean the halacha – Jewish law. But:

R. Simeon b. Yohai said: 'Heaven forfend that the Torah be forgotten in Israel, for it is said, for it shall not be forgotten out of the mouths of their seed.' (Deut. 31:21)

The reinterpretation and engagement of Jewish study keeps the Jewish people alive.

In every generation, it seems, there is a cry that the future of Judaism is at risk. And in every generation it seems there is kind of reinvention which keeps Judaism alive. Today it is coming in the form of blogs, social media, on-line study, local and international "days of study." It is happening in synagogues and in informal gatherings. The renaissance we are seeing in Jewish learning, in creating new ways of connecting our Jewish past and future is a continuation of that trend and counter to the talmudic rabbis' fears. They could not have imagined it - but perhaps they would have recognized it.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Shabbat 137 – Slaves and Proselytes

We have been discussing the fact that circumcision is required on the 8th day of a male infant’s life – and that even the laws of Shabbat a set aside in favor of fulfilling this commandment. There is, however, one essential exception. As the Mishnah on this page state:


Everything is suspended based on the health and safety of the child. The rabbis continue:

Samuel said: When his temperature subsides [to normal], we allow him full seven days for his [complete] recovery.

Not only is circumcision suspended during the time of illness, but we delay a full week just to be sure.
It is also worthwhile to note that the rabbis over a powerful benediction for the circumcision of slaves and for conversion:

'… Who hast sanctified us with Thy commandments and hast commanded us (to circumcise proselytes and) to cause the drops of the blood of the covenant to flow from them, since but for the blood of the covenant the ordinances of heaven and earth would not endure, as it is said, If not my covenant by day and by night, I had not appointed the ordinances of heaven and earth (Jer. 33:25).

The cosmic consequence of bringing others into the covenantal relationship is celebrated here. Although Jews do not proselytize, we do welcome those who seek. (The slave, of course, does not necessarily seek – but as noted in an earlier post, circumcision represents obligation towards him).

Without their participation the universe would literally not endure! Far from those who think that converts are not “real” Jews, this benediction gives even greater honor than to one who is a born Jew.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Shabbat 136 – Infant Mortality

A newborn who is deemed to be non-viable – do we circumcise him if the eighth day falls on Shabbat?

Said R. Adda b. Ahabah: We circumcise him in either case: if he is viable, he is rightly circumcised; if not, one [merely] cuts flesh (which is permissible on Shabbat).

However, this does get to the issue of a non-viable infant. According to tradition any child who lives more than 30 days is considered “viable.” Mourning customs are not done for one who dies earlier. And yet:

A child was born to the son of R. Dimi b. Joseph, [and] it died within thirty days. [Thereupon] he sat and mourned for it.

The same happened with R. Kahana. Both are visited by others who tell them the law and reprimand them for mourning. They both come up with answers for why they are mourning anyway.

The law may be what it is – but it hard to interfere with human emotion. And that is a good thing.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Shabbat 135 – Master and Slave

And he that is eight days old shall be circumcised among you, every man child in your generations, he that is born in the house, or bought with money of any stranger, which is not of thy seed. He that is born in thy house, and he that is bought with thy money, must needs be circumcised: and my covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. (Gen. 17: 12-13)

The Talmud discusses the circumcision of slaves who are born into or brought into the household. The Torah text makes clear that they are circumcised as a part of the Israelite family’s household.

there is [a slave] bought with money who is circumcised on the first [day], and there is [a slave] bought with money who is circumcised on the eighth day

That is – for a female slave who is purchased while pregnant and then gives birth to a male, the child is circumcised on the 8th day. But if a female slave is purchased with an infant male that child is circumcised on the first day of purchase.

But the text also describes a different case:

There is [a slave] born in his [master's] house who is circumcised on the first [day], and there is one born in his [master's] house who is circumcised on the eighth [day];

This one is much less clear. That a male born to a slave would be circumcised on the 8th day makes sense (according to the biblical text). But under what circumstance would he be circumcised on the first day?

If she gives birth and then has a ritual bath,(thereby becoming liable to all the responsibilities of a Jewish woman)  that is [a slave] born in his [master's] house who is circumcised on the first day

There is controversy as the whether this is the agreed on circumstance. For example:

Said R. Mesharsheya: [It is possible] where one buys a female slave on condition that he will not subject her to a ritual bath.

Thus there is no claim on the mother, but the child is circumcised and the 8th day is not critical.

Of course, we are today very uncomfortable with the immoral institution of slavery – although we have to recognize that it was the reality of the ancient (and not so ancient!) world. It is interesting to note, though, that the slave of Jewish owners were ritually brought into the household. Circumcision and ritual bath (t’vilah) were indicators of being part of the Jewish family, while (ironically to our eyes) still being held as property. I do not think this was thought of as “conversion” in the sense that we mean it today. But it was indication of responsibility: on the part of the slave to Jewish law, and on the part of the slave-owner to treat the slave as one also bound by Jewish law. Philosophically, Master and Slave both had a higher Master in G-d.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Shabbat 134 – Infant Healing, A Mother's Advice

Continuing the discussion of circumcision on Shabbat we see a very interesting set of home remedies for newborns:

Abaye also said: Mother told me, If an infant cannot suck, his lips are cold. What is the remedy? A vessel of burning coals should be brought and held near his nostrils, so as to heat it; then he will suck.
Abaye also said: Mother told me, If an infant does not breathe, he should be fanned with a fan, and he will breathe.

Abaye also said: Mother told me, If an infant cannot breathe easily,  his mother's after-birth should be brought and rubbed over him, [and] he will breathe easily.

Abaye also said: Mother told me, If an infant is too thin, his mother's after-birth should be brought and rubbed over him from its narrow end to its wide end;  if he is too fat, [it should be rubbed] from the wide to the narrow end.

 What a good son, giving credit for his healing knowledge to his mother!

(Abaye is quoted several times in the Talmud with that phrase “Mother told me.” According to Kiddushin 31b she was actually his foster mother. Clearly she was a healer.)

R. Nathan describes several healing advice he gave for newborns – by postponing circumcision. The boys whose lives were saved wind up being named after him!

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Shabbat 133 – Exalt G-d – with Beauty and Emulation

A complete, but elegant, aside from the main text (about circumcision).

This is my G-d, and I will exalt him (Ex. 15:2) – from Song of the Sea:

exalt yourself before Him in [the fulfillment of] precepts. [Thus:] make a beautiful sukkah before Him, a beautiful lulav, a beautiful shofar, beautiful fringes, and a beautiful Scroll of the Law,

and write [the scroll] with fine ink, a fine reed [-pen], and a skilled penman, and wrap it with beautiful silks.

Thus we have the idea of “hiddur mitzvah” to beautify a required act shows praise to G-d.

Reading the text slightly differently – to mean not “exalt”(anveyhu) but “emulate” (ani v’hu – lit. “me and Him”):
Abba Saul interpreted . . . be like Him: just as G-d is gracious and compassionate, so you be gracious and compassionate.

We exalt (others read "adorn") G-d by creating beauty and by beautiful and compassionate actions.

(note: sorry for the male pronoun – it’s the only way to make Abba Saul’s pun work).

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Shabbat 132 – Supersession

As we have seen, circumcision supersedes Shabbat (the laws of Shabbat are suspended in order to fulfill this mitzvah). This page continues to analyze how this is known and where else we find this kind of layering.
  • Circumcision of an eight day old boy supersedes Shabbat, but not of an adult or a child older than eight days.

  • Public sacrifice (when the Temple stood) supersedes Shabbat but no other sacrifice does
  • The cutting away of a leprous spot does NOT supersede Shabbat – but if one appears on the foreskin of an eight day old boy, the foreskin may be cut on Shabbat – because circumcision supersedes.

And – as another example of where a positive command supersedes a negative one: 
  • the placing of fringes on a tallit supersedes the injunction against “mixed cloths” (kil’ayim - Deut. 22:11f) – that is woolen tzitzit may be placed on a linen tallit.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Shabbat 131 – Preparing for Mitzvah

As we learned on the previous page’s Mishnah, Rabbi Eliezer finds that not only may circumcision be performed on Shabbat, but all the preliminaries – like carrying a knife in public – may be performed on Shabbat as well. This is a bit surprising.

Our page discusses if this is a general principle or not: yes, performance of a time bound mitzvah overrides the Shabbat – but do the preliminaries (that is, the preparations needed) supersede in all cases as well?

R. Hiyya b. Abba said in R. Johanan's name: Not in respect of everything did R. Eliezer rule that the preliminary preparations of a precept supersede the Sabbath. . .

What follows is a long examination of a series of mitzvot which do take precedence over the Shabbat laws:
  1. The two loaves offered on Shavuot (Lev. 23:17) – note: only in Temple times
  2. Lulav on Sukkot (Lev. 23:40) which may be carried in public
  3. Sukkah (Lev. 23:42)
  4. Matzah on Passover
  5. Shofar on Rosh Hashanah (Lev. 23:24)
All these are found to include not only the performance of the mitzvah, but the preparations as well. So why doesn’t R. Eliezer make it a general principle?

Said R. Adda b. Ahabah: It is to exclude (inserting) fringes for one's garment and (affixing) mezuzah for one's door

Why are these particular mitzvoth excluded? R. Joseph says because there is no fixed time for them. Abaye counters that this is not a very good argument - since there is no fixed time, any time (including, presumably Shabbat) is appropriate!

Rather said R. Nahman b. Isaac others state, R. Huna son of R. Joshua: Because it is in one's power to renounce their (tallit, mezzuah’s) ownership.

General principle or no, preparation for mitzvah is part of mitzvah.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Shabbat 130 – Defiance in Times of Oppression

Rabbi Eliezer states in our Mishnah that if the circumcision knife had not been brought before Shabbat one carries it openly (normally something forbidden on Shabbat). In times of danger, he continues, the knife can be hidden so long as there are witnesses to testify that it was carried.

The question arises – why should it be carried openly? It is “out of love for the precept” – that is to make clear that fulfilling the laws of circumcision override the laws of Shabbat.

And the “times of danger” were real – when circumcision was outlawed as one of the means to destroy the Jewish people (i.e. before the Maccabean revolt and in the Hadriatic persecution). Even in those times, circumcision continued – but surreptitiously and at danger.

These acts of defiance are noted and celebrated. For example, this story is told about someone who was called “Elisha-the-man-of-the-wings”

And why is he called 'the man-of-the-wings'? Because the wicked State(Rome) once proclaimed a decree against Israel that whoever donned tefillin should have his brains pierced through; yet Elisha put them on and went out into the streets. A quaestor (Roman officer) saw him: he fled before him, and the latter gave pursuit. As he overtook him, he [Elisha] removed (the tefillin) from his head and held them in his hand, 'What is that in your hand?' he demanded, 'The wings of a dove,' was his reply. He stretched out his hand and the wings of a dove were found therein. Hence he is called 'Elisha-the-man-of-the-wings.'
And why did he tell him the wings of a dove rather than that of other birds? Because the Congregation of Israel is likened to a dove, as it is said, as the wings of a dove covered with silver, and her pinions with yellow gold (Ps. 68:14) just as a dove is protected by its wings, so with the Israelites, their precepts protect them.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Shabbat 129 – Birth and the Woman’s Voice

Not surprisingly, a child may be delivered on Shabbat (like there is a choice?) However, anything necessary for the birth may also be acquired. The Mishnah (on the previous page) is specific:


(as an aside, the Mishnah also specifies that everything needed for a circumcision may be done on Shabbat. It must be the 8th day – even if that day is Shabbat).

Now, although these allowances are fairly clear. After all childbirth cannot wait, nor can the procedures necessary. And bringing in a midwife, even if she must desecrate the Sabbath to do so, seems to fit in. But the rabbis go further:

Rab Judah said in Samuel's name: If a woman is in confinement, as long as the uterus is open, whether she states, 'I need it,' or 'I do not need it,' we must desecrate the Sabbath on her account.

Now it is no longer a “we may” but “we must.” And the woman’s opinion is not relevant so long as the medical professional declares her in active labor.

But beyond this is where there is disagreement:

If the uterus is closed, whether she says, 'I need it' or 'I do not need it,' we may not desecrate the Sabbath for her:  that is how R. Ashi recited it.

Mar Zutra recited it thus: Rab Judah said in Samuel's name: . . .
If the uterus is closed, if she says, 'I need it,' we desecrate the Sabbath for her; if she does not say, 'I need it,' we do not desecrate the Sabbath for her.

Here, according to R. Ashi the woman’s opinion still does not matter. However in Mar Zurtra’s reading, when not in active labor, the woman’s opinion and request is the only criterion.

So which is it?

Rabina asked Meremar: Mar Zutra recited it in the direction of leniency, [while] R. Ashi recited it in the direction of stringency; which is the law? — The law is as Mar Zutra, replied [Meremar]: where [a matter of] life is in doubt we are lenient.

The potential saving of a life outweighs the law of Shabbat. And the woman’s voice decides.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Shabbat 128 – Cruelty to Animals

As we had seen earlier (Shabbat 117b) if an animal falls into a pit on Shabbat, one carries food for it and throws it down in the pit, so that the animal does not starve to death. This clearly not an issue just of economic loss, but motivated by the commandment of tzar baali chayyim – (concern for) the suffering of animals.

Our text here goes further:

Rab Judah said in Rab's name: If an animal falls into a dyke, one brings pillows and bedding and places [them] under it, and if it ascends it ascends.

That is, in instances where it is not possible to bring food, we construct an ad hoc ramp out of pillows and bedding. But this presents another problem – since the bedding materials cannot then be pulled out until after the Shabbat ends, they are deprived of their use which is also forbidden on Shabbat!

But, the text continues:

[The avoidance of] suffering of dumb animals is a Biblical [law] (d’orita), so the Biblical law comes and supersedes the [interdict] of the Rabbis

This is quite remarkable, actually. Tzar baali chayyim is implied, but not expressed outright in the Torah. Yet the rabbis set it as a higher value than their own enactments.

At a time when the prevention of cruelty to animals was likely quite an uncommon consideration, the rabbis set it as a Divine command!

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Shabbat 127 – Judge Others As You Would Be Judged

The mitzvah of hachnasat orchim welcoming strangers (guests/wayfarers) is commended as a high honor and responsibility, based on this well known text:

Rab Judah said in Rab's name: Hospitality to wayfarers is greater than welcoming the presence of the Shechinah, for it is written, And he said, My lord, if now I have found favor in thy sight, pass not away, etc. (Gen. 18: 3)

Abraham leaves off communing with G-d’s holy presence (Shechina) when he spies three strangers wandering past. The play on words is noted: He leaves his Lord and addresses the wayfarers as “my lord.”

This leads to a list of righteous acts:

R. Judah b. Shila said in R. Assi's name in R. Johanan's name: There are six things, the fruit of which man eats in this world, while the principal remains for him for the world to come, viz.: Hospitality to wayfarers, visiting the sick, meditation in prayer, early attendance at the study hall, rearing one's sons (!) to the study of the Torah, and judging one's neighbor in the scale of merit.

(Note that this runs counter to the better-known list from Mishnah Pe’ah which is in the daily prayers. But we’ll leave that for now.)

The text then focuses on the last item on the list and comments:

Our Rabbis taught: He who judges his neighbor in the scale of merit is himself judged favorably
In other words, one should judge another person’s motivations in the best possible light – the way we would want our own actions judged. A series of stories is told of individuals whose actions appear to imply immorality, but are in fact innocent or even based in higher values. For example an employer who appeared to be withholding wages when in fact he was upholding a vow, a righteous man who appeared to taking advantage of a young woman who he had rescued when in fact he was protecting her virtue.
In my experience, this is one of the hardest ethical ideals to uphold. We rush to judge others in the harshest light, while complaining that others judge us unfairly. We assign ourselves the purist of motivations while assuming the worst in others.

Judge others, the rabbis implore, the way you would wish to be judged.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Shabbat 126 - Bolt

We learned that a skylight can be propped open on Shabbat with a stick which had been set aside or fastened by a rope for that purpose – so long as this was done before Shabbat.

This leads to a discussion of door bolts. One in particular is interesting – a “dragging bolt” (neger hanagar) – that is attached to a door but with an arm which drags against the ground.

With a dragging bolt, one may lock [the door] in the Temple, but not in the country;

“The country” here is any location outside the Ancient Temple in Jerusalem. The bolt is allowed there, but nowhere else.

but one that is laid apart [on the ground] is forbidden in both places.

A non-attached bolt – one which is simply put in place through a door socket into the ground – is not allowed.

But there is controversy:

R. Judah said: That which is laid apart [is permitted] in the Temple; and that which is dragged, in the country.

Now it was taught: Which is a dragging bolt wherewith we may close [a door] in the Temple but not in the country? That which is fastened [to the door] and suspended — one end reaching the ground.

R. Judah said: Such is permitted even in the country. But which is forbidden in the country? That which is neither fastened nor suspended — but which one removes and places in a corner.

Interesting that the exception would even exist for the Temple doors exclusively. Also the attention to detail of the kind of bolt (attached or loose) used. Advance preparation (fastening - like the skylight prop) helps.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Shabbat 125 – Prepare for Shabbat

The story is told by R. Dimi (who visits the academy in Babylonia from Palestine) that Rabbi once went to certain place during the week and found a field of stones. He planned to meet there on Shabbat. So told his students to “Go out and intend [them]” – that is to express an intention to use them – so that they can be used on Shabbat. Now, is the declared intention enough, or did they have to do some act of labor to indicate that intention (and, to prevent an accidental labor on Shabbat)? For example, they might have been told to arrange the stones in some order, or to scrape them free of mortar, so that they would be more amenable for sitting.

Some argue that an act of labor is required for the Shabbat items to be indicated as such, other not. But the idea of really thinking ahead and preparing for Shabbat appeals to me. 

Monday, February 4, 2013

Shabbat 124 – Table the Argument

To give a sense of how these arguments go – I provide a handy-dandy set of tables based on this Mishnah:



So, the rabbis ask:  what is meant by “required” or “not required”?

According to Rabbah, “required” means an article whose function is permitted and it’s movement is needed, and “not required” means that same article with a permitted function but which needs to be moved because something else needs to be moved into its space. However an article whose function is forbidden can only be moved if it is going to be used for a permitted function but not if its space is needed


Function Permitted
Can be moved if it is needed
Can be moved if its space is need
Function not permitted
Can be moved if being used for a permitted function
Can NOT be moved if its space is needed

Whereupon R. Nehemiah comes to say that even an article whose function is for a permitted purpose [may be handled] only when required itself, but not when its place [alone] is required.


Function Permitted
Can be moved if it is needed
Can NOT be moved if its space is need
Function not permitted
Can be moved if being used for a permitted function
Can NOT be moved if its space is needed

Said Raba to him: If its place is required — do you call it: NOT REQUIRED! Rather said Raba:
REQUIRED: an article whose function is for a permitted purpose [may be handled] whether required itself or its place is required:

NOT REQUIRED [means] even from the sun to the shade; whilst an article whose function is for a forbidden purpose [may be moved] only when required itself or its place is required but not from the sun to the shade.

Rabbah Counters

Function Permitted
Can be moved if it is needed - Can be moved if its space is need
Even from sun to shade
Function not permitted
Can be moved if being used for a permitted function - Can NOT be moved if its space is needed
NOT from sun to shade

Whereupon R. Nehemiah comes to say that even an article whose function is for a permitted purpose [may be moved] only when required itself or its place is required — but not from the sun to the shade.

Nehemiah counters back

Function Permitted
Can be moved if it is needed - Can be moved if its space is need
NOT from sun to shade
Function not permitted
Can be moved if being used for a permitted function - Can NOT be moved if its space is needed
NOT from sun to shade

This is just one paragraph, people!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Shabbat 123 – The Right Tool for the Job

The use of certain tools on Shabbat is discussed. The Mishnah, for example permitted several, for example:


Now, the Rabbis argue that what is being referred to is a specific tool:

Rab Judah said: [This means,] a nut hammer to split nuts therewith, but not a smith's [hammer]
Because, he argues, a smith’s hammer has a function which is forbidden on Shabbat – therefore it cannot be used even for something permitted. Others argue that it is the function, not the tool, which is forbidden, therefore a tool normally used for a forbidden function can be used for a permitted one.

The next Mishnah is far more general:


What’s going on? Couldn’t that have been stated before?

Our Rabbis taught: At first they [the Sages] ruled, Three utensils may be handled on the Sabbath. . .Then they permitted [other articles], and they permitted again [still more], and they permitted still further, until they ruled: All utensils may be handled on the Sabbath except a large saw and the pin of a plough.

There seems to be some evolution in the text. The Rabbis explain it this way:

R. Hanina said: This Mishnah [permitting only three specific utensils] was taught in the days of Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah, for it is written (Neh 13:15), In those days I saw in Judah some treading winepresses on the Sabbath, and bringing in sheaves.

In other words, in a time when people were lax about the laws, the rabbis enacted more restrictions. They were eventually loosened.

This counters those who think that the law is and always was. Jewish law is, in fact, responsive to its time. It is intended as the tool for the job at hand.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Shabbat 122 – For His Own Use – Others Benefit

The Mishnah states that if a non-Jew lights a lamp or lantern on Shabbat for his or her own use, an Israelite can make use of it. But not if the non-Jew lights it exclusively for the Israelite. Similarly an Israelite can make use of a ship’s gangway built on Shabbat, so long as the non-Jew didn’t build it exclusively for the Israelite.

Why is this permissible? Because “a lamp for one is a lamp for a hundred” – that is, nothing is diminished by the Israelite’s use of a lamp already lit.

The rabbis investigate this concept further:

Come and hear: If a city inhabited by Israelites and Gentiles contains baths where there is bathing on the Sabbath, if the majority are Gentiles, [an Israelite] may bathe there immediately;

if the majority are Israelites, one must wait until [after the Sabbath when] hot water could be heated

Water heated for the benefit of a Gentile majority may be enjoyed by Israelites. But not if it is heated for the sake of the Israelites.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Shabbat 121 – Implied for Reward

With all the potential saving of goods one may do if a fire breaks out on Shabbat, the one thing you cannot do is put the fire out. However, the Mishnah states that if a non-Jew comes to put out the fire, a Jew is not to say “extinguish it” or “do not extinguish it” – because he is not obligated to rest on Shabbat and we are not obligated to make a non-Jew rest.

However, the rabbis allow an implication:

R. Ammi said: In the case of a conflagration they [the Rabbis] permitted one to announce, 'Whoever extinguishes [it] will not lose [thereby].'

Suggesting, but not stating, that a reward will be forthcoming after the Shabbat (of course, one DOES have to fulfill the implied reward!)

A story illustrates:

Our Rabbis taught: It once happened that a fire broke out in the courtyard of Joseph b. Simai in Shihin, and the men of the garrison at Sepphoris came to extinguish it, because he was a steward of the king. But he did not permit them, in honour of the Sabbath, and a miracle happened on his behalf, rain descended and extinguished [it].

In the evening he sent two sela' to each of them, and fifty to their captain.

Now, according to our Mishana, he did not have to tell them not to extinguish it – he could have remained silent. But he is rewarded by heaven for piety. And the soldiers are rewarded Joseph b. Simai for dedication.