There’s a discussion between Rava and Abaye today which caught my eye. Abaye is suggesting that one might need to take precautions to ensure that one doesn’t accidentally carry from a ‘karmelit’, an enclosed space which is neither private nor public, into a different domain. Rava rebuffs him with the following statement of principle:
That prohibition is itself merely a protective Rabbinic decree, are you suggesting that we need to go ahead and establish further protection around this protective decree? (venigzor g’zeirah li’gzeirah?)
The Talmud seems to accept this principle, and the Ritva explains that even Abaye himself upheld it.
It is, quite literally, a vital principle, a principle which keeps the halakha grounded in life.
And we could understand it in two ways. At a basic level, it could just be practical: if we just kept establishing protective laws around protective laws, the process could go on ad infinitum. So although there could be merit in it, we don’t go that way, even if we maybe think we’d like to.
The alternative reading of the statement is that it represents a different ideal, that we need to understand the concept of protection differently.
We may love Shabbat, and we may wish to ensure that we do not accidentally stray from its spirit. And in that spirit, a spirit of positivity and connection, we might take a couple of precautionary steps to help keep the boundary firm.
But we are not living in fear of breaking Shabbat, we are not petrified of prohibition, our souls are not frozen by the thought of transgression. A little protection is ok, but to get obsessed with that protection, to get carried away with it, this would be to lose something, to miss something.
It would be to reveal that one’s religious existence is not rooted in a trusting love of Divine wisdom, but in an anxious concern about Divine retribution.
We later see that Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha ignored the warning against reading by the light of an oil lamp, lest one come to adjust it. When he realised that he’d unconsciously adjusted the lamp and thus violated a fairly serious prohibition, his response was not to berate himself and to quake at the punishment that would befall him. Rather, in a spirit of love and admiration, he notes the wisdom in the Rabbi’s teaching; he is newly impressed with their perceptiveness, with their attunement to the unconscious.
This is a lesson in how to understand the protective decree, the g’zeira. It was given out of love, and it should be embraced out of love. We gravely misinterpret it if we think that it is erecting a persecutory framework, if we think the Mishnaic Rabbis were as anxious about their religiosity as some of our people today.
The image springs to mind of Rav Soloveitchik, who cried inconsolably when, in his last years and ill health, he forgot it was Shabbat and switched on a light. This was not a reaction of fear, but a reaction of love, a sensitivity to losing something of the spirit of Shabbat that he cherished so deeply.
I think this understanding also allows us to read the original language of the Mishna somewhat differently.
‘lo yetze hachayat…lo yefaleh et keila ve’lo yikra le’or ha’ner’
Soncino translates these negative injunctions as ‘must not’, Steinsalz as ‘may not’ and I’m sure many would simply read ‘it is forbidden to’. But I hear it differently, it is not the stern voice of authority speaking, it is the loving voice of wisdom, the feminine aspect of Torah. I hear it as ‘it might not be a good idea to…’ or ‘perhaps one might not want to…’. The ‘lo’ need not be so harsh, it’s all about the tone and music that communicate it.
I think Julia Kristeva writes about the music of the mother’s voice, of her language, as the thing that has the biggest impact on shaping a child’s world. Here too, the way we hear the music of halakha is what shapes and sculpts our religious life. I believe we can hear it gently, tenderly, we do not need to read it as the stern voice of patriarchal authority.
I do see that slightly later this reading gets stretched, ‘lo’ is followed by ‘patur aval asur’ or ‘chayav chatat’. But that just makes me ponder it more, makes me reflect on the layering of the language of the Mishna, whether already in its composition there wasn’t a move to bolster up the gentle words of tradition with a harsher voice of authority. The culture was under threat, and a being under threat reacts defensively, aggressively, and with good reason. But when the culture is no longer under threat, it needs to breathe again, it needs to rediscover its warmth and confidence.
I also like to read Rav Yosef’s famous statement in this light. Responding to Rabbi Chanina’s suggestion that one must check one’s clothes before Shabbat lest one come to carry inadvertently, he says the following:
‘hilkhta rabata l’shabata’
Most translate this as ‘this is a great law of Shabbat’, perhaps echoing Rabbi Yishmael’s admiration for these decrees. I hear it as ‘there are many, many laws to Shabbat’, with perhaps a sigh in his tone, a concern that we are losing something under the weight of all these protective layers.
Ultimately we are told not to get caught up in the spirit of protection, but to engage with Shabbat lovingly, tenderly. And this should extend to the rest of our religious life, we should not be basing it upon foundations of fear, be they fear of punishment or fear of the inner chaos that might be unleashed without strict boundaries. Rather, it should be built upon appreciation, wisdom and love, keeping faith with the words of Proverbs:
It is a tree of life for those who embrace it, and all who uphold it are happy. Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.