No Comity Tonight

Daf 110-116 (Shabbas 47a-53b)


The discussion of muktzeh continues and the dilemma of the individual Shabbes observer becomes apparent: Muktzeh status relates to the primary use of an object. For example, a pencil is muktzeh for writing on Shabbes but perhaps permitted for scratching one’s back if one has an itch and would get pleasure from scratching it. However, the individual must be sure that the scratching is for the pleasure and not to cure the itch, since relieving discomfort on Shabbes is a grey area. Moreover, there is a perceived danger in taking hold of a pencil on Shabbes, even for a permitted activity, since one might absentmindedly begin doodling with it. It would be better to own a dedicated back scratcher and not pick up the pencil in the first place. Confidence in our self-control and in the conclusions we may derive from our study are often in short supply in these dapim.

Rebbi was confident, or at least he seemed confident, when he declared that it was not permitted to insulate food to keep it cool on Shabbes. But then he heard that R’Yose permitted it and he reversed himself out of respect for R’Yose. It was not reason that moved him, but rather a sense of comity– a sense not shared by Shmuel (see 53a).

Flash forward hundreds and hundreds of years to this Shabbes, when I encountered a modern text that illustrated the limits of comity in a post-enlightenment, multi-denominational Jewish universe. I was in the Library Minyan and my eyes wandered over the bookshelves. I happened to be in the section  where the responsa were shelved and I settled on a volume of responsa by Louis Ginzberg.

Thumbing through the pages I came upon his notes on the question of mixed seating in synagogues. It was noted that Ginzberg had not written definitively on the subject but that it was his practice to attend a shul where mixed seating was not permitted. As we often see in the gemara, the redactor of this more modern text indicated that this seemingly definitive note was not all there was to the story. There was a man who said that Ginzberg was known to go to a shul more proximate to his home when the weather was inclement– to a shul that permitted mixed seating. When Ginzberg’s son was asked to verify the man’s story he professed to know of no such man but acknowledged that the man’s account was plausible. This is perhaps another example of rabbinic comity.

But the same volume offered another example of the limits of rabbinic comity– Rabbi Ginzberg’s response to the excommunication of Mordechai Kaplan, which was marked by the public burning of copies of the siddur that Kaplan published. Ginzberg loathed the siddur as much as his colleagues and reluctantly supported the excommunication, but he deplored the burning of the books in public, which he saw as too reminiscent of the then recent large-scale book burnings of the Nazis. (Note: He did not object to the burning of Kaplan’s siddur, but to the effect of publicly burning it. This is like the Talmud’s objection to the performance of otherwise permitted acts lest they lead an observer to an erroneous conclusion as to comparable acts that are indeed prohibited.)

Ginzberg seemed to sincerely want to create a text that would accomplish Kaplan’s goal (i.e., a text that the next generation would be able to reconcile with their sense of modernity), but he could not forgive Kaplan for his shortcomings as a Torah scholar (characterizing some of Kaplan’s revisions as infuriating and others as ridiculous). I may be oversimplifying the conflict, but I think it is fair to say that I share Ginzberg’s conviction that creating more opportunities to study Torah is a stronger path to sustaining Judaism than dumbing down the prayer book, but that we part company on the qualifications one must have to attempt to annotate a siddur. Surely, the siddurim I tend to use would be, in Ginzberg’s eyes, even more heretical than Kaplan’s!

But here we are, fifty or sixty years later, and Kaplan’s reconstruction has evolved in the hands of others to something Kaplan himself might not recognize; and it has been as many years since an excommunication or a public book burning on the scale of Kaplan’s has been aimed at our creative and imaginative renewers and reconstructors. On the one hand, this is comity advanced to an unprecedented ecumenism (if such a word may be used in this context), but on the other hand, it takes place in a community where the choices lay members make are more rooted in ignorance and lack of curiosity, or no sense of connection or obligation to tradition. The speed and direction of this trajectory does not bode well for where we may find ourselves in another fifty or sixty years.

Ironically, the Talmudic texts and associated commentaries have never been more accessible to lay people such as myself, but who is reading them? I cannot even begin to explain why I am reading them, though I will try. It certainly isn’t piety. I dare say that what I am seeking in this ancient text is the roots of our temperament; of how we wrestle with the pieces of the world that we don’t understand; of how we try time and time again to order chaos. Here is a text that is not afraid of nuance; that allows for uncertainty; that uncovers loopholes even as it formulates seemingly rigid rules; that is concerned that appearances may lead observers astray but that sometimes it is a risk that must be worth taking.

Daf 110 (Shabbas 47a-47b)

A censer full of ashes may be moved on Shabbes. The gemara debates whether it is because it contains remnants of incense (which provides pleasure), because its presence causes discomfort, or because the ashes are needed for a permitted purpose.

The gemara considers the rules regarding reassembling a bed on Shabbes. Some say it is allowed so long as one does not nail the parts to each other.

Mishnah. A vessel may be placed under a lamp to catch sparks, but the vessel may not contain water, lest it extinguish the sparks on Shabbes.

Gemara. The gemara wonders why this is permitted, since even in the absence of water, the vessel indirectly is responsible for extinguishing the sparks.

Perek 4. Mishnah. Insulation that adds heat may not be applied to pots before Shabbes.

Gemara. The gemara attempts to determine which materials must be avoided.

Daf 111 (Shabbas 48a-48b)

The value of the insulating material is a factor in determining whether it is permissible to move the vessel. (Materials that have a primary function other than insulation are muktzeh.)

A barrel may be opened on Shabbes, but an opening in a garment may not be made. (The barrel consists of pieces but the garment is bonded and thus opening it creates something new.)

Daf 112 (Shabbas 49a-49b)

Mishnah. Clothing, produce, dove’s feathers, sawdust, and fine flax are permitted to be used as insulation; Rav Yehudah says coarse flax, not fine flax.

Gemara. Tales of dove’s feathers are related; Israel is compared to a dove, and the commandments to a dove’s feathers.

Mishnah. A pot insulated with animal hides may be moved; a pot insulated with wool shearings may not be moved.

Gemara. The gemara seeks to understand if any animal hides are not permitted to be used as insulation. Then it looks at the use of the word work in the Torah, where it is generally assumed that it is mentioned as many times as there are actions prohibited on Shabbes, less one. Then it turns to the question of how to get at food insulated by wool shearings– “he removes the lid and they fall.”

Daf 113 (Shabbas 50a-50b)

The muktzeh status of wool shearings is nullified if the wool shearings are permanently designated as insulation for pots by the householder. The gemara seeks to identify other muktzeh articles that become permitted when dedicated to permissible uses. The gemara questions whether the dedication of the article must be deliberate and premeditated.

The text considers whether various soaps are permitted on Shabbes, paying special attention to those that are abrasive.

Daf 114 (Shabbas 51a-51b)

Mishnah. If one fails to cover a pot with insulation on the eve of Shabbes, one may not cover it once Shabbes has commenced. However, if one did cover it and the cover slipped, one may restore it.

Gemara. It is also permitted to insulate food to keep it chilled. Rebbi had once ruled otherwise until he heard that R’Yose had decreed that it was permitted and he reversed himself.

Perek 5. Mishnah. The restrictions on animals related to Shabbes: “All animals that normally wear a collar may go out with a collar.”

Gemara. Rebbi is asked, “If the restraint of one type of animal is put on another type of animal, what is the law?” Answer: If an excessive restraint would constitute a burden, it is not permitted. On the other hand, when an animal is difficult to control, excessive restraint is not considered to be a burden.

Daf 115 (Shabbas 52a-52b)

The gemara seeks to identify the rabbi who decreed that a strap affixed to an animal is permitted if it is to restrain the animal but forbidden if it is for decoration. (Others hold that it is forbidden regardless of its purpose.)

Can animal rings become ritually contaminated? Are all human rings susceptible to contamination or only those made of metal? What about needles and pins?

Mishnah. Here are the rules for allowing donkeys, rams, ewes, and goats to go out on Shabbes.

Daf 116 (Shabbas 53a-53b)

Gemara. May a donkey go out on Shabbes with a saddle cloth tied on? According to Shmuel, only if the cloth was tied on before the onset of Shabbes. This does not apply to a saddle, however: a saddle cloth is clothing; a saddle is a burden. The rabbis disagree on the question of whether it is permitted to attach a feed bag to the donkey. Shmuel says no.

When Shmuel is told that Rav permits a feed bag, he replied. “If that is what Abba said, he does not know anything at all about the laws of the Sabbath!”

A pouch may be attached to a goat’s udder for the purpose of preventing milk from dripping but not for the purpose of collecting the milk (which would make the pouch a burden for the goat). This discussion leads the rabbis to consider a story:

“It happened with a certain person that his wife died leaving a son to nurse, and he did not have enough money to pay the fee of a wet nurse. A miracle was performed for him– his breasts were opened like the two breasts of a woman, and he nursed his son.” The rabbis debate whether this miracle elevated or degraded the man.

Another story is offered: “It happened with a certain man that he married a woman whose hands had been cut off, and he did not perceive that her hand was missing until the day of her death.” The rabbis debate whether the lack of awareness was the result of the wife’s modesty or the husband’s modesty.

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