Gratuitous Hatred and Other Storms

Dapim 90-95 (Shabbas 27a-32b)


Talmud study continued through the devastation and recovery from Hurricane Sandy. Two marathons that have not been cancelled: restoring the grid and studying Talmud. I am typing these notes from a public terminal in a university library since my home still does not have internet, cable TV, or phone service.

The dapim of the six days encompassing the storm and its aftermath so far provide an ironic counterpoint to the world we find ourselves navigating. Those who doubt that God has a sense of humor have the debate on 30a-30b on how to employ jokes to engage students in learning. They may still have their doubts, but they will derive some sense that they are not the first to have such doubts!

I sat in the dark and studied a debate on which wicks are permissible to light lamps. I read of the punishments for gratuitous hatred on the day a normally pious Facebook “friend” cursed all of us who campaigned to cancel the NYC Marathon, leaving him with no race to run after a year of training for it. Should we have remained as silent as R’Yehudah’s colleagues were when an improvised oil lamp was set up for Shabbes in the face of the improvised marathon while the city struggled to recover? Fistfights erupted at gas stations and someone crossing a major highway before traffic lights were restored called me an unprintable name because he was nearly hit by my car when he unexpectedly crossed its path. Gratuitous hatred is contagious.

But the remedy for darkness is light, and in 30b we learn that, “In the Hebrew language, a candle is called a candle and a person’s soul is also called a candle.” In other words, we must provide the light!

On 32a-32b we see “R’Zeira, on days that had severe south winds, would not go out and walk between the palm trees.” This seemed an eerily timely reference.

Finally, these dapim encourage the following question: Are we receiving just punishment for our shortcomings or are we innocent victims of a natural disaster? In attempting an answer, I dare to go beyond the scope of the Tractate: If our shortcomings include an unwillingness to pay the taxes necessary to construct a power grid and levees, we are not as innocent as we may like to think. None of us can muster the composure with which Hillel stood up to impudence and sarcasm on 31a, but we can surely do better than we have this past week.

Daf 90 (Shabbas 27a-27b)

The discussion continues on the susceptibility of various fabrics to become contaminated by impurities.

Mishnah. Products derived from a tree may not be used as wicks to light a Shabbes lamp except for flax. Products derived from a tree– except for flax– may be used as a “roof over a corpse.”

Gemara. The gemara wonders why the mishnah classifies flax as a tree product. It is traced to a reference in Scripture to trees of flax (Joshua 2:6).

Daf 91 (Shabbas 28a-28b)

A baraita seems to suggest that the hide of a non-kosher animal may serve as a “roof” over a corpse. The question is debated extensively. The answer may depend on if it is determined that non-kosher animal skins were used in the Mishkan. The gemara seriously considers if the baraita they are examining applies to constructing tefillin boxes rather than “roofs,” and concludes that the laws of tefillin boxes are “oral law taught to Moses at Sinai.”

Mishnah. There is a disagreement over whether a wick made of folded cloth may be used as a wick to light a Shabbes lamp. R’Eliezer says not; R’Akiva says one may use it.

Gemara. Perhaps the disputants are not speaking of cloths of similar sizes. Perhaps the disputants disagree on whether the folded cloth has become a wick or is still regarded as a garment.

Daf 92 (Shabbas 29a-29b)

Perhaps the reference in the mishnah to the size of the folded cloth refers to the minimum size of a cloth that is susceptible to contamination from a corpse.

The concept of nolad is introduced in the case of broken utensils, date pits, and peanut shells thrown into a fire. The value of a rag that has been stored or hung on a door, rather than thrown in a pile of rags, is debated.

Mishnah. Here is a rule regarding removing oil from a lamp on Shabbes.

Gemara. R’Yehudah’s colleagues were silent when an improvised oil lamp was set up for Shabbes. This leads to the introduction of various anecdotes where such silence led to undesired consequences. “R’Yitzchak ben Elazar . . . said . . . ‘If I am silent to you as his colleagues were to R’Yehudah, a destruction will ensue from the silence’.”

Mishnah. “One who extinguishes a lamp on the Sabbath because he fears idolaters or bandits, or because of melancholia, or he extinguishes it so that a sick person may fall asleep, in all these cases he is exempt.” R’Yose exempts additional cases.

Daf 93 (Shabbas 30a-30b)

Gemara. R’Yehudah declares that labor for any purpose is prohibited on Shabbes. R’Shimon only prohibits labor done for certain defined purposes (linked to the construction of the Mishkan). The gemara seeks to determine whether the mishnah reflects R’Yehudah’s perspective or R’Shimon’s.

R’Tanchum, who is asked if it is permitted to extinguish a Shabbes lamp for the benefit of a seriously ill person launches into a lecture on the relative position of the living versus the dead. He tells how David unsuccessfully bargained with God to have the day of his death moved to before or after the Sabbath. Following this tale he finally responds to the question: “In the Hebrew language, a candle is called a candle and a person’s soul is also called a candle.” Thus, when one candle must be extinguished so that the other candle may survive, it is better to allow the candle fashioned by flesh and blood to be extinguished before the candle fashioned by the Holy One, Blessed is He.”

The rabbis considered hiding the Book of Ecclesiastes and the Book of Proverbs because of the contradictions they contained. For example, after extolling the benefits of joy, the gemara reflects, “But did Rav Gidal not say in the name of Rav: Any Torah scholar who sits before his teacher and his lips do not drip with bitter dread is destined to be singed in the fires of Gehinnom?” How to reconcile the contradiction? We are told that Rabbah would begin his lesson by saying something humorous but “afterwards he would sit in an atmosphere of trepidation and begin his teachings.”

Daf 94 (Shabbas 31a-31b)

After considering the verse There is never anything new under the sun, the rabbis look at instances when the Sages were confronted with sarcasm or rude questions. There is the instance on the eve of Shabbes when two men made a bet that whichever one of them could make Hillel lose his temper would gain from the other the sum of 400 zuz. The prize goes unclaimed. This leads to examples of Hillel’s humility moving others to be more pious, and then to a discussion of a verse in Ecclesiastes that extols fear of God. Rabbah says, “The wicked are aware that their destiny is death, but they have fat on their loins.”

The gemara returns to the question of whether it is permitted to extinguish a lamp on Shabbes “to spare the lamp or the oil.”

Mishnah. There are three transgressions that cause a woman to die in childbirth: (1) violating the prohibition against relations during menstruation, (2) failing to set aside the Kohen’s portion when baking, and (3) improperly kindling Shabbes candles. (ArtScroll: “A woman in childbirth is in peril and requires special kindness from God to survive this dangerous time.”)

Gemara. The gemara seeks to understand why these three transgressions carry this weight.

Daf 95 (Shabbas 32a-32b)

Regarding the punishment for improperly kindling the Shabbes light “a certain Galilean” interprets Proverbs 20:7 (The soul that I have placed before you is called a candle) standing before Rav Chisda: “I have cautioned you concerning matters of candles (i.e. kindling the Sabbath lights). If you fulfill these responsibilities, all is well; but if you do not, I will take back your souls.”

The gemara accepts that women are most accountable at childbirth and wonders when men are most accountable. Reish Lakish replies, “At the moment they are crossing a bridge.” The gemara adds, “and in all comparable moments of danger.” There are several examples of rabbis taking precautions before crossing bodies of water. “R’Zeira, on days that had severe south winds, would not go out and walk between the palm trees.”

The gemara traces the death of children to the failure of parents to fulfill their vows. R’Yehudah attributes the death to the parents’ neglect of Torah study. The gemara lists the consequences of various other transgressions. For example, “For the sin of gratuitous hatred toward others, quarrels proliferate within a man’s household, his wife gives birth to stillborn children, and a man’s sons and daughters die in their youth.”

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