Extending the Middle Finger

Daf 154-158 (Shabbat 91a-95b)


The mishnah notes that Biblical law only penalizes for carrying on Shabbes “in a normal manner.” The gemara rejects the suggestion that modes of carrying that are customary for a particular village but would be regarded as unusual elsewhere may be considered “normal” even in the village where they are the customary practice. This leaves the liability of the hypothetical villagers unresolved, mirroring a case reported recently in the NY Times.

According to the Times, John Swartz of St. Johnsville, NY, while a passenger in a car, gave the finger to a police officer who he observed with a radar gun, manning a speed trap. Swartz was stopped by the officer, who claimed that he interpreted the middle finger as a distress signal. Swartz was surrounded by police cars and arrested for disorderly conduct. Swartz is now suing the officer.

The gesture, disrespectful to the officer, has no liability attached to it. If the officer allowed that he properly understood the gesture, he would have had no justification for detaining Swartz. (A New York City Police spokesman is quoted in the NY Times saying “if its officers ‘locked up everyone who gave the middle-finger salute, traffic would grind to a halt’.”) So, instead, the St. Johnsville officer made the novel argument that the gesture carried a different meaning in his village.

The judge, echoing the gemara, albeit with no knowledge of the Talmud, ruled that “the act of ‘giving the finger’ dated back centuries. He cited, for example, sources that trace the use of the gesture to ancient Greece, when it was used by Strepsiades to insult Aristotle and by Diogenes to insult Demosthenes.”

The law under which Swartz was detained was the prohibition against distracting an officer from his duty by falsely reporting distress. In order to make the charge stick, the officer would have needed to establish that the middle finger gesture is a customary sign of distress in his village. The gemara wisely suggests that this would not make Swartz liable even if it was true, since the vast majority of the world interprets the gesture differently.

All the dapim this week are seeking to distinguish between Scriptural and rabbinic restrictions on Sabbath activity. For the Sages, this distinction is crucial, since any rabbinic restriction may be suspended whenever observing it would compromise human dignity. By this singular exception we are reminded that rabbinic restrictions on Sabbath activity are generally instituted to eliminate any activity that might inadvertently lead to a transgression of a Biblical prohibition. Yet the rabbis evade responsibility for any potential misreading of Scripture that may lead another astray– at least according to R’Shimon, who declares here that  “an individual who committed a misdeed as a result of his following the teaching of the High Court is in fact liable for the act.”

The ruling that Biblical law only penalizes for carrying on Shabbes “in a normal manner” appears to be a curious exception to the rabbinic tendency to eliminate any activity that might inadvertently lead to a transgression of a Biblical prohibition, but one follows it at one’s own peril.


Daf 154 (Shabbat 91a-91b)

“One who accords importance to a minute quantity of things will, based on that intent, become liable for transferring those things to another domain.” The gemara inquires whether liability holds if the object is moved by another person other than the one who accords importance to it; or if liability holds even if the one who took it out only accorded it importance after he picked it up and before he put it down.

Mishnah. There is no liability for transferring from one domain to another on Shabbes if the action is not completed.

Gemara. The gemara seeks to clarify the nature of the interruption– e.g., if an object is put down on a threshold, the status of the threshold is a determining factor, and the nature of the material– whether it straddles both domains or consists of a basket of particles, some of which reside in one domain and some in the other– is another factor unless the basket has the status of a “bond.”

Daf 155 (Shabbat 92a-92b)

Whether the basket functions as a “bond” continues to be disputed. First, it appears that Rava says it is a bond and Abaye says it is not; then they each reverse their positions.

Mishnah. Biblical law only imposes a penalty for carrying between domains “in a normal manner.”

Gemara. The gemara cites examples of communities whose “normal” manner is unusual. Are they liable or not? Answer: “let that person’s thoughts be negated in view of the overwhelming consensus of all the other people in the world . . . Since the vast majority . . . do not use this method . . . the practice should be deemed categorically unusual.”

Mishnah. Here are the consequences of performing a prohibited act in an unintended manner.

Gemara. The gemara asks how the accidental modification of the action would be responsible for a change in the status of the act. Summarizing the dispute, R’Yehuda says, “I stated one point to support my view, and in response, they stated one point to support their view. I have not found a rejoinder against their point, and they have not found a rejoinder against my point.”

Mishnah. One may not carry a loaf of bread from a private domain to a public domain on Shabbes. Two may carry it (unless neither could have carried it without the assistance of the other).

Gemara. The mishnah’s ruling is shown to be disputed by some.

Daf 156 (Shabbat 93a-93b)

The gemara seeks to determine the circumstances in which a forbidden act performed by two people on Shabbes is exempt from a penalty. (Does “aiding” have significance?) R’Shimon says, “an individual who committed a misdeed as a result of his following the teaching of the High Court is in fact liable for the act.”

Mishnah. Here are the rules for carrying out accessories to other objects on Shabbes.

Daf 157 (Shabbat 94a-94b)

When do two transgressions in the same lapse of awareness incur two penalities? Rav Ashi says it is when “one sin became known to him at one time, and the other sin became known to him later.”

The gemara determines that transporting a corpse on Shabbes from a private domain to a karmelis (an enclosed area that is not privately owned) is permitted because “human dignity is so great that it suspends . . . decrees of the Sages.”

Mishnah. R’Eliezer holds people Scripturally liable for various acts of grooming that the Sages regarded as prohibited solely by rabbinic decree.

Gemara. The gemara seeks the source of this dispute. It notes in passing R’Eliezer’s teaching that forbids a man on Shabbes to pull out from his own scalp white hairs from among dark hairs, suggesting that this rule applies even on weekdays because “a man shall not wear a woman’s garment”– i.e., a man is forbidden to perform a “cosmetic act” such as a woman would perform (it is the equivalent of “dressing like a woman”).

Daf 158 (Shabbat 95a-95b)

The gemara considers several activities that are Scripturally limited on Shabbes.

Mishnah. Here are the rules for handling potted plants on Shabbes.

Gemara. Is there a distinction as to what is permitted depending on whether or not the pot is perforated? If so, it may be because, in the case of a perforated pot, it is possible that the root of the plant might attach itself to the ground.

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