Looking for Illumination

Dapim 83-89 (Shabbas 20a-26b)


There are times when the Talmud appears to be no more than a scrapbook of teachings strung together by free association with no didactic strategy. I am always reluctant to accept that this appearance is proof that the Talmud is a random or careless compilation, even as I cannot accept the insistence of voices within the Talmud that Scripture “proves” laws it never explicitly discusses by “deliberately” repeating a word in an otherwise terse verse.

The Talmud I wish to redeem through this endless and arcane exercise is the literary creation that emerged in the time of profound brokenness experienced by a people whose most holy Temple had been destroyed and were exiled from their land.

I have attempted to write daily commentary on the arc of the text through the discipline of reading a daf a day, but there are occasional stretches where apparent digressions in the text have no immediately clear connection to the ostensible subject of the tractate. The transition from a discussion of unfit fuels to contaminated fabrics (daf 89) is such a moment.

And it is most especially frustrating that the tractate has mostly explored the logistics of observing the Sabbath and hardly touched on the spiritual rewards of regularly setting aside a fixed period of time for contemplation and renewal. The themes that are in play here are the methods of creating and using illumination. The purposes of the Sabbath lamp and the Chanukah lamp could not be more different– one is to sanctify, one is to publicize; one carries the authority of Scripture, the other is of rabbinic origin. A less volatile oil must be used for the former than for the latter. This is a rather slight insight to glean from a week’s worth of reading!


Daf 83 (Shabbas 20a-20b). Gemara. The gemara reviews the restrictions the mishnah places on foods that continue to cook after the beginning of Shabbas and fires that are ignited on the eve of Shabbas.

Perek 2. Mishnah. Here are the rules concerning kindling lights for Shabbas. “The purpose of these criteria is to ensure a steady flame.”

Gemara. The gemara seeks to identify the kindling substances and oils referred to in the mishnah.

Daf 84 (Shabbas 21a-21b). Rabbah says, “The wicks concerning which the Sages said that we may not kindle with them on the Sabbath are unacceptable because the flame flickers on them.” The gemara seeks to determine if the inferior, forbidden materials may be used if augmented with permitted oils (that will eliminate the flickering). This leads to a discussion of the laws of Chanukah. There is a dispute regarding whether inferior materials may be used as wicks for the Chanukah lights. If it is permitted, it would be on the grounds that there is no obligation to rekindle the flame and it is not permitted for illumination.

Shammai lights eight lights the first night and one less on each subsequent night. Hillel starts with one light and lights one more on each subsequent night. The gemara discusses where to place the lights– so that they may be seen by passersby, except “in times of danger he should place the light on his table and that is sufficient.”

The law holding a shopkeeper liable for damage caused by his lamp is suspended in the case of Chanukah lamps.

Daf 85 (Shabbas 22a-22b). The gemara discusses the placement of the Chanukah lamp in relation to the doorway. Rav Acha says on the right side. Rav Shmuel says on the left side. The law follows Rav Shmuel.

Rav Shmuel asserts the light may be used for illumination. Rav Yosef disagrees, arguing that to do so would demonstrate disrespect.

The protocol for kindling is considered. One variable is whether the mitzvah is primarily the kindling or the placement that fulfills the commandment. The ultimate goal is “publicizing” the mitzvah.

Daf 86 (Shabbas 23a-23b). It is determined that kindling fulfills the Chanukah mitzvah. Guests are obligated to kindle Chanukah lamps. The gemara discusses who must recite the Chanukah blessings and which blessings must be recited. The gemara asks, “What blessing does one utter when he performs the mitzvah? He blesses: Blessed are You, Hashem our God, King of the Universe, Who has sanctified us with His commandments and has commanded us to kindle the Chanukah light. But where in the Torah did He so command us?! The mitzvah of the Chanukah lights is only of Rabbinic origin!” Where, if anywhere is a Biblical connection? The gemara considers (and rejects) that there is Biblical justification for reciting a blessing over all Rabinically ordained mitzvot.

Rava suggests that a poor person who cannot afford to purchase oil for both a Shabbas lamp and a Chanukah lamp should purchase Shabbas oil “on account of the peace it brings to his house.” But if it is a choice between buying wine for Shabbas kiddush or oil for a Chanukah lamp, buy the oil “since its purpose is publicizing the miracle.”

Daf 87 (Shabbas 24a-24b). The gemara asks if Chanukah must be mentioned in the Birchat. Answer: Since it is a rabbinically enacted holiday, mentioning it is optional. Rav Huna and Rav Yehudah question whether Chanukah should be mentioned during Mussaf. Rav Nachman and R’Yochanan insist that it should be mentioned. The rabbis extended the Friday night service “because of danger.” (ArtScroll: “The Rabbis were concerned about those who would come late . . . These individuals were in especial danger of being harmed by demons, who gravitated toward human habitations on Tuesday and Friday nights. The rabbis therefore extended the Friday night Maariv service so that even the latecomers would finish their prayers in the protection of the company of the congregation.”)

Mishnah. Here is further discussion of which oils may be used for Shabbas lights.

Gemara. From study of the prohibition for using fuel for the Shabbas lamp that has been disqualified for sacred offerings, a distinction emerges that one must perform a circumcision at its designated time, even on Shabbas.

Daf 88 (Shabbas 25a-25b). One may derive benefit from burning terumah oil that is tamei. One should not kindle the Shabbas light with a foul-smelling oil; it could result in one being forced to move to another room and eating in the dark.

Daf 89 (Shabbas 26a-26b). The volatility of balsam oil makes it an unfit fuel for the Shabbas light. Other invalid fuels are enumerated. Then, the susceptibility of fabrics to contracting impurities is discussed, including the suggestion that different standards might be applied to the poor.

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