The pages are so rich at the moment, and I just don’t have the time to do them all justice. Quite frankly, it’s frustrating as hell. I’m going to try to talk briefly about each daf, with just a gesture towards of some of what’s going on there.
The Mishna (end of 27b) teaches that:
You may not light the Shabbat lamp with anything that comes from a tree, except for flax; and whatever comes forth from a tree cannot be defiled with the uncleanness of tents, except flax.
I think the thematic linkage here between Shabbat and Death – as embodied by the ‘uncleanness of tents’ – is significant and profound. Shabbat is connected to mortality, it is rooted in our limits.
It commemorates the completion of creation, and the end of the God’s intimate involvement in that. From then on, he plays a smaller role, a less obvious role.
I wrote a little something on this a few years ago:
Let it remind you of the tragedy inherent in creation, that there is no longer a Godly hand guiding it but that we alone are responsible for its development and wellbeing. Do not be overwhelmed by this, but do not shirk from the magnitude of the task. The world will change and unfold, we can try to influence this or we can hide from it and prepare ourselves for the worst. To reject this pessimism is the core of all faith.
To rest is to accept that we have limits. This is not always an easy thing to admit, perhaps because it reminds us that we must die, that we are mortal.
And yet our mortality, the transient uniqueness of it all, is what allows for meaning in life, for precious and delectable moments. We must try to make peace with our mortality, to see it as framing our life, as a reminder that life is a precious and fragile gift.
Davar she’aino mitkaven – If an action performed on Shabbat results in a unintended prohibited action, it is permitted. The only limiting factor is that the prohibited action must not be guaranteed to come about as a result of the action.
The example given is of dragging a small bench along a muddy surface – any ‘digging’ or ‘ploughing’ that might come about is neither desired nor guaranteed.
Indeed, doing ‘work’ on Shabbat, creating a proper violation, requires each of the following conditions to be fulfilled:
(1) You are aware that you are doing the action
(2) You intend for the action to take place
(3) You are doing the action because you want the logical result to follow
(4) The action is constructive, not destructive
(5) The action has a permanent, rather than a temporary, effect
(6) You do the action in the normal way it is done
(7) Your efforts directly cause the action to take place
(8) You do the action using only those people necessary
(For more detail and further examples, have a look at the overview by Alan Goldman, from whom I’ve borrowed this listing.)
This is all important to know for its own sake, but it’s also important for an appreciation of how difficult it is to actually break Shabbat.
This is nice philosophically, Shabbat is a strong container, a rigid structure, we don’t need to be too fragile with her, she can hold us.
The practical ramifications are significant too – people seem to sometimes dream up ways in which a given action might be breaking Shabbat, and can thus generate a significant amount of anxiety. The list seems to be telling us that it’s not that easy, that you needn’t worry about unintended actions, that keeping Shabbat should not become a new form of hysteria.
Shabbat is about peace, its observance should not makes us paranoid and fearful.
There is a crazy but beautiful piece of Aggadic Midrash here, which simply must be read, ideally with the Hebrew, to be appreciated. The upshot, which has much more impact if you’ve read the whole thing (it utterly defies summarizing), is the following:
A lamp is called ‘ner’ and a person’s soul is also called ‘ner’; it is preferable to extinguish the ‘ner’ of flesh and blood [i.e. a candle] to the ‘ner’ of the Holy One Blessed be He [the life of a human being].
We learn from here that you may extinguish a light or carry out other prohibited actions to save a life on Shabbat.
In Yoma 85b we have the more literal reasoning of ‘va’chay bahem’ – ‘you should live by them’ – but believe me, it’s not a patch on this piece of Aggada, and I’m much the happier to have encountered this poetic piece of reasoning.
We also have the attempts to supress Mishlei (Proverbs) and Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), and some fascinating expositions to prevent that.
And, having established Hillel as deeply humanitarian, as an embodiment of a Torah of Love, we can here spend a moment on his proto-Wittgensteinian insights into the limits of textual authority.
He was confronted with potential convert who only wished to learn the written Torah, not the oral Torah. His response was as follows:
On the first day he taught him the alef bet [Hebrew alphabet]. On the second day he changed the letters and taught him the alef bet differently.
‘But yesterday you didn’t teach me this way!’ protested the convert.
‘And weren’t you then completely reliant on me, as you are now? Rely on me regarding the Oral Law too, without it you are nowhere’.
A text has no meaning without a tradition of interpretation, without a responsible reader, without a subject sufficiently attuned to its spirit.
Hillel is showing, with a very 20th century proof, that every text requires a teacher, that every tradition requires mediation.
It seems to be utterly apt that we move straight from here to:
That which is hateful to you do not do to another; that is the entire Torah, the rest is interpretation.
There is text, there is tradition, and there is the guiding spirit. We need all three of these, without any one of them we are lost, we are betraying what is Divine in the Torah.
Hillel embodied this, he was a man of patience, of peace. The stories suggest he was virtually implacable.
Shammai by contrast was hot tempered, ill at ease in the world, never far from anger.
We learn from Hillel, we learn how to be, how to live. We simply cannot learn these things from Shammai, such a character has not yet found its own way in the world, has not yet found a restful dwelling.
We have here the appalling and horrendous Mishna suggesting that women die in childbirth due to lapses in various observances.
One must ruefully note that in the continuation of the text men and children also have their moments of reckoning, that it is not just women who are the recipients of Divine Retribution.
I can only suggest that these explanations are offered in a spirit of love and compassion, in an attempt to bring meaning to forms of death that were much more common at that point in time than we could nowadays bear to imagine.
We’ve touched on this in the past, how some form of explanation, however gruesome, might be better than the abject nihilism which might be the alternative.
And ‘better’ does not mean ‘more true’, ‘more honest’, and certainly not ‘more beautiful’. But the mind is a funny thing, and the idea that there might be some grain of meaning, hope or love behind things may hold, for some people, more appeal than the alternative.
Let us not presume to know until we have been in that place.
Let us put to rest our philosophical pretensions and righteousness and proceed with cautious humility before the horrors with which real people live.
We are warned here that one who speaks with vulgarity, without consideration, with flippancy has hell deepened for them, for:
The mouth that speaks perversity is a deep pit.
Thoughtlessness comes from emptiness, from a person living with a deep inner void, lacking a genuine connection to life.
It may take some faith, but it feels better to believe that these pages are not coming from such a place.
And so to Rav Shimon bar Yochai, a tale of zeal and fury.
(Again, read it; I can’t possibly do it justice here.)
On hearing the Romans being praised for building markets, he responds:
‘They only established marketplaces so that they could put prostitutes in them’.
Thinking psychoanalytically, this is a powerful statement. Prostitutes are clearly quite close to the surface of his mind, he perhaps finds them to be an agonising and tormenting source of temptation. He may not even be conscious of this, and it would be much easier to allay this threat to the personality by projecting it onto the Romans. His susceptibility is vanquished, all perversion lies with the Romans, they are the source of corruption.
Unsurprisingly, the Romans didn’t take kindly to this remark, and were after him.
He fled, famously, to the cave with a carob plant outside where he hid for twelve years, learning Torah with his son.
When they came out, believing the threat to have abated, their furious zeal threatened to destroy the world – everything they looked at was consumed by the fire of their anger.
Rebuked by a heavenly voice, they returned to their cave, where they studied for another twelve months.
On leaving this time, his son still has a destructive streak, but Rav Shimon has mellowed somewhat, and is able to heal what the son damages.
We don’t know what changed them, but we are given a symbol of what helped cement the transformation.
Watching an old man gathering myrtle branches in honour of Shabbat, they asked him why he needed two bundles, why one would not suffice. On hearing his explanation – one for Zachor (rememberance), one for Shamor (honouring) – Rav Shimon said the following:
‘You see, my son, how beloved the mitzvot are to Israel.’
With this their minds found peace.
After years and years of rage, of an anger he was perhaps not even aware of, of a righteousness driven by fury, by discomfort, by a fear of his own demons, he finally learnt to love.
He saw that the Torah is founded upon love, that there is something miraculous and Divine in the way it is observed with love.
Love was what he had struggled to see, and once his eyes beheld it, their capacity for destruction diminished.
It’s easy to talk tritely about these subjects, and yet, I do believe, with what can only be called faith, that we are only ever able to grasp a small fraction of the power of love, of the difference it makes in the heart of man.
We think we know ourselves, yet it is sometimes only after years of living with the darkness of anger and hatred that we realise how little love was in our heart; love for the world, love for the other, love for our self.
May the Divine wisdom and light help pierce the darkness, may the Divine Love enlighten our eyes and enable us to ‘live by them’.
Let us be like Hillel, implacably patient and boundlessly compassionate, and in that way let us live up to our calling as the lamp of the Divine, as something worthy of protection and grace.