Why do we need so many details in commandments

When someone who is not familiar with the Torah commandments looks at one who performs them, many questions arise.

The most common one is – why to go and be so anal about tiny nuances? If you seriously study Kabbalah, I’m sure that by now you know that 613 commandments are divided into 365 prohibitive and 248 positive commandments that correspond to certain parts of human body.

Each commandment has the power to draw Divine Light into this world as well as to affect spiritual worlds. For example, when someone puts Tefilin and Talit, he draws various lights from the spiritual worlds as explained in the writings of ARI and brought out by Ben Ish Chai:

* By putting Talles – connect to Yetzira

* By reciting blessing over Talles – attract light of Yetzira

* By putting Tefilin of hand – connect to Beriya

* By reciting blessing on Tefilin of Hand – attract light of Beriya

* By putting Tefilin of head – connect to of Atzilut

* By reciting blessing for Tefilin of head – attract light of Atzilut

There is dispute among sages whether we have the power to attract the light of Atzilut. Ashkenaz follows tradition that we can attract the light of Atzilut and therefore recite the blessing over the head tefilin, while sefardim accept the tradition that light of Atzilut isn’t attracted from below but comes from above and therefore don’t recite blessing on head teffilin.

When a person performs a commandment in corporeal world it has immediate affect throughout the whole five spiritual worlds, however if a tiny detail is left out the effect might not be the one that we’re interested in achieving. A rabbi forwarded me this interesting correspondence that I believe answers in a very simple way, why people focus so much attention in performing the commandments.

Question of the Week:
Dear Rabbi,
Why does the Jewish religion seems to obsess over insignificant details?
How much matza do we have to eat, which spoon did I use for milk and which
for meat, what is the right way to tie my shoelaces?
It seems to me that this misses the bigger picture by focusing on minutiae.
Is this nitpicking what Jews call spirituality?
(I actually already sent you this question over a week ago and didn’t
receive a reply. Could it be that you have finally been asked a question
that you can’t answer?!)
Rob

========================================
Answer:
Dear Rob,
I never claimed to have all the answers. There are many questions that are
beyond me. But it happens to be that I did answer your question, and you did
get the answer.
I sent a reply immediately. The fact that you didn’t receive it is itself
the answer to your question. You see, I sent you a reply, but I wrote your
email address leaving out the “dot” before the “com”.
I figured that you should still receive the email, because after all, it is
only one little dot missing. I mean come on; it’s not as if I wrote the
wrong name or something drastic like that! Would anyone be so nitpicky as to
differentiate between “yahoocom” and “yahoo.com”? Isn’t it a bit ridiculous
that you didn’t get my email just because of a little dot? No, it’s not
ridiculous. Because the dot is not just a dot. It represents something. That
dot has meaning far beyond the pixels on the screen that form it. To me it
may seem insignificant, but that is simply due to my ignorance of the ways
of the web. All I know is that with the dot, the message gets to the right
destination; without it, the message is lost to oblivion.
Jewish practices have infinite depth. Each nuance and detail contains a
world of symbolism. And every dot counts. When they are performed with
precision, a spiritual vibration is emailed throughout the universe, all the
way to G-d’s inbox. If you want to understand the symbolism of the dot,
study I.T. If you want to understand the symbolism of Judaism, study it.

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87 Responses to Why do we need so many details in commandments

  1. Berakhot 58a-b – Blessings recited on people

    There are occasions when simply seeing a group of people – or even a single individual – is reason enough to express thanks to God by means of reciting a blessing. Some examples that appear on today’s daf (=page) include:

    The Sages taught: One who sees the Sages of Israel recites:
    Blessed… Who has shared of His wisdom with those who revere Him.
    One who sees Sages of the nations of the world recites:
    Blessed… Who has given of His wisdom to flesh and blood.

    The formula of the blessing for non-Jews in standard editions of the Talmud is livriyotav, “to His creations,” rather than levasar vadam, “to flesh and blood.” The censor made this change to soften the contrast between: “Those who revere him,” which is the formula of the blessing recited for Jews, emphasizing their connection with God, and: “Flesh and blood,” which indicates no such connection. The formula: “To His creations,” indicates that non-Jews have a connection with God as well.

    Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: One who sees his friend after thirty days have passed since last seeing him recites: Blessed…Who has given us life, sustained us and brought us to this time. One who sees his friend after twelve months recites: Blessed…Who revives the dead.

    Tosafot and the Rosh both write that a blessing on seeing his friend after thirty days applies only to one who is especially close to the person he meets and he is not merely an acquaintance. In a responsum, the Rashba notes that there is no difference between men and women; in either case, this halakhah applies.

    The Maharsha explains that the obligation to recite a blessing upon seeing a friend after twelve months is the fact that on every Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur all mankind is judged. If a full year has passed since the last time these two individuals met, obviously, each has been tried and lived. An appropriate reaction to meeting someone who has survived that ordeal is to recite: Blessed…Who revives the dead.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  2. Berakhot 59a-b – The source of an earthquake

    The Mishnah taught that over zeva’ot one recites the blessing: “Whose strength and power fill the world.” The Gemara asks: What are zeva’ot? Rav Ketina said: An earthquake.

    The Gemara relates:
    Rav Ketina was once walking along the road when he came to the entrance of the house of a necromancer and an earthquake rumbled.
    He said: Does this necromancer know what is this earthquake?
    The necromancer raised his voice and said: Ketina, Ketina, why would I not know? Certainly this earthquake occurred because when the Holy One, Blessed be He, remembers His children who are suffering among the nations of the world, He sheds two tears into the great sea. The sound of their reverberation is heard from one end of the earth to the other. And that is an earthquake.

    Rav Ketina said: The necromancer is a liar and his statements are lies. If so, it would necessitate an earthquake followed by another earthquake, one for each tear. The Gemara comments: That is not so, as it indeed causes an earthquake followed by another earthquake; and the fact that Rav Ketina did not admit that the necromancer wascorrect was so that everyone would not mistakenly follow him.

    According to Rav Nissim Gaon, it is essential to underscore that, unquestionably, there is no room for comparison between God and a human being. He neither laughs, nor cries, nor sighs, nor sheds tears. Rather, the aggadic portions of the Talmud must be understood as metaphors and must not be taken literally. The explanations offered by Rav Ketina and the other Sages should be understood as statements that point to the unique connection that exists between God and the Jewish people. Due to the significance of the Jewish people in His eyes, the different natural phenomena should be viewed as signs to inform the Jewish people that God is anxious and concerned about their fate in exile.

    All early talmudic commentaries – Rav Hai Gaon, Rav Nissim Gaon and Rabbeinu Ĥananel – hold that these explanations of how earthquakes develop are to be understood as symbolism and esoterica. Essentially, this underscores that the relationship between God and Israel is at the basis of all phenomena in the world, and therefore natural phenomena in the world always have some connection to that relationship. An earthquake is an expression of God’s pain over the destruction of the Temple.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  3. Berakhot 60a-b – Of bathhouses and bloodletting

    On today’s daf (=page) the Gemara teaches that everyday activities such as going to the bathhouse or engaging in bloodletting (see above, daf 57) were also reason to recite prayers and blessings.

    The Sages taught: One who enters a Roman bathhouse, where a fire burns beneath the pool of water used for bathing, and where there is the risk of collapse, says:
    “May it be Your will, O Lord my God, that you save me from this and similar matters, and do not let ruin or iniquity befall me, and if ruin or iniquity does befall me, let my death be atonement for all of my transgressions.”

    Abayye said: One should not say: If ruin befalls me, so as not to open his mouth to Satan and provoke him. As Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said and as it was taught in a baraita in the name of Rabbi Yosei: One should never open his mouth to Satan by raising, at his own initiative, the possibility of mishap or death.

    The Roman bathhouses during the time of the Mishnah consisted of several component parts, including a pool of boiling hot water that was under the floor of the bathhouse, which kept the building warm. The collapse of one of the bathhouse walls was liable to cause boiling water or extremely hot air to be released, endangering the lives of those in the bathhouse.

    Regarding bloodletting, the Gemara relates:

    Rav Aĥa said: One who enters to let blood says: “May it be Your will, O Lord my God, that this enterprise be for healing and that You should heal me. As You are a faithful God of healing and Your healing is truth. Because it is not the way of people to heal, but they have become accustomed.”
    Abayye responded and said: One should not say this, as it was taught in the school of Rabbi Yishmael that from the verse, “And shall cause him to be thoroughly healed” (Shmot 21:19), from here we derive that permission is granted to a doctor to heal.

    In the time of the Mishnah, heretical groups maintained that one is prohibited from interfering in matters that are in God’s purview by engaging in healing. Some explained that a specific Torah source is necessary to permit one to heal illnesses that are not caused by man, as in so doing he acts contrary to God’s will. Others explained that the emphasis of this verse is that doctors are permitted to heal and to accept payment for their services. One might have thought that since he is engaged in the mitzvah of saving lives, he may not accept payment. The verse teaches that he may.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  4. Berakhot 61a-b – Creating Man…and Woman

    Because of an additional letter that appears in the Torah in the Creation story, the Gemara offers a variety of explanations – one of them suggesting that in the original creation of Man the creation was androgynous.

    Rabbi Yirmeya ben Elazar said: The Holy One, Blessed be He, created two faces on Adam the first man; he was created both male and female in a single body, as it is stated: “You have formed me [tzartani] behind and before” (Tehillim 139:5); tzartani is derived from the word tzura [face]. God formed two faces on a single creation, back and front.

    In the Gemara in Ketubot (daf, or page 8a), in the context of seeking to explain a dispute, the possibility is raised that there is a disagreement whether there was a single creation of Man or if there was a second Creation, as well. Most commentaries tie that dispute to the question in our Gemara, whether man was created with one face and the woman was subsequently an independent creation, or whether he was created with two faces and the creation of Eve was merely the separation the two faces from each other, i.e., not a creation at all. Another possible explanation of the dispute is based on the opinion in our Gemara: At first, the thought entered His mind to create two, but ultimately only one was created. On that basis, the dispute can be explained as a disagreement: Which is the determining factor, thought or action?

    Our Gemara continues discussing the creation of Man

    It is stated: “And the tzelah which the Lord, God, had taken from the man, He made a woman, and brought her unto the man” (Bereshit 2:22). Rav and Shmuel disagree over the meaning of the word tzelah: One said: It means face. Eve was originally one face or side of Adam. And one said: It means tail, which he explains to mean that the tzelah was an appendage, i.e., one of the ribs in Adam’s chest.

    The Arukh explains that the word tail, here and in several other places in the Talmud, refers to an appendage that is unlike the object to which it is attached in appearance or size. The Rashba explains “tail” in this context as a limb of secondary importance, as a tail is to a body.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  5. Berakhot 62a-b – Learning from a mentor

    Today’s daf (=page) opens with a number of stories where the Talmudic Sages would follow their teachers into the bathroom in order to observe their behavior and learn the proper way to act in those situations. They then shared this information with their peers. When questioned about the appropriateness of following them into a private place and observing them there, the response that is given is “It is Torah, and I must learn.”

    The lessons gleaned in the bathroom all related to issues of modesty, and the Gemara continues with stories about the importance of modesty even in the privacy of the bathroom and even at night when it is dark.

    An even more surprising story is told about Rav Kahana:
    The Gemara relates that Rav Kahana entered and lay beneath Rav’s bed. He heard Rav chatting and laughing with his wife, and seeing to his needs, i.e., having relations with her. Rav Kahana said to Rav: The mouth of Abba, Rav, is like one whom has never eaten a cooked dish, i.e., his behavior was lustful.
    Rav said to him: Kahana, you are here? Leave, as this is an undesirable mode of behavior.
    Rav Kahana said to him: It is Torah, and I must learn.

    The Maharsha asks why, in all of these cases, did the disciple not simply ask his teacher as to the proper way to conduct himself in these situations? He explains that the students wanted a practical rather than a theoretical answer, and they thought that the ideal manner to learn the practical halakhah is to watch their mentor in action. The essence of the matter is that Torah encompasses all facets of life. Even in areas considered personal and private, a great person must conduct himself in accordance with the Torah, recognizing that, as a role model, others may learn from him.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  6. Berakhot 63a-b – Learning alone

    The Gemara on today’s daf (=page) describes a gathering of the Sages in Kerem B’Yavneh – “The vineyard of Yavneh” – which served as the seat of the Sanhedrin. On this occasion, a number of different Sages offered homilies in honor of the Torah.

    One of the ideas that was shared was that Torah study “is only acquired through study in a group.” Furthermore, based on a passage in Sefer Yirmiyahu (50:6), the Gemara concludes that a curse was placed on scholars who sit alone and study Torah who ultimately grow foolish because of their solitary study.

    In his Ein Ayah, Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook explains that the Holy Torah is a Torah of life. It does not guide its followers towards a life of asceticism or a rejection of the wholesome pleasures of the world that can raise the spirits of an individual. Therefore, the Torah anticipates that those who walk in its path will be members of a community, whose support and encouragement will help facilitate their spiritual growth and development. Moreover, an essential aspect of a Torah scholar is the role that he plays in improving the world around him. To accomplish this, the scholar must develop an appreciation for opinions that are at variance with his own, both in the realm of halakhah and in the realm of ethics. That kind of openness comes about only by means of group study, in the course of which one becomes accustomed to hearing opinions that are different from his own. When one chooses to limit debate and to remain secluded within his own closed community, he is unable to learn the ideas and thoughts of his peers and will consequently be unwilling to accept dissenting positions. Isolation inevitably leads to intractable disagreements and, ultimately, to bitter fights and arguments.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  7. Berakhot 64a – Questions about Torah leadership

    The closing daf (=page) in Massekhet Berakhot tells of the succession of leadership in the yeshiva in Pumbedita.

    Rabba and Rav Yosef: Rav Yosef was “Sinai,” extremely erudite, and Rabba was “oker harim” – one who uproots mountains, i.e., extremely sharp. The moment arrived when they were needed; one of them was to be chosen as head of the yeshiva.
    They sent the following question there, to the Sages of Eretz Yisrael: Which takes precedence, Sinai or one who uproots mountains?
    They sent to them in response: Sinai takes precedence, for everyone needs the owner of the wheat, one who is expert in the sources.
    Nevertheless, Rav Yosef did not accept the appointment, as the Chaldean astrologers told him: You will preside as head of the yeshiva for two years.
    Rabba presided as head of the yeshiva for twenty-two years. After he died, Rav Yosef presided for two and a half years.

    When Rav Yehuda, who was the head of the yeshiva in Pumbedita, died, there were two qualified candidates to replace him: Rabba and Rav Yosef. Rabba, who was younger than Rav Yosef, was renowned for his sharp intellect, while Rav Yosef was renowned for his encyclopedic knowledge. Since there was uncertainty with regard to which of them should be chosen, they posed a fundamental question to the Sages of Eretz Yisrael: Which takes precedence, “Sinai” or one who uproots mountains? The answer that was received was that Sinai takes precedence. However, Rav Yosef, for reasons described in the Gemara, deferred, and during the twenty-two years that Rabba served as head of the yeshiva, Rav Yosef did not assume even the slightest air of authority. Only after Rabba’s death, Rav Yosef assumed the position at the head of the yeshiva.

    Regarding the Chaldean astrologers, it is apparent from several places in the Talmud that the Chaldeans, or, as they are known in the Book of Daniel (2:4), Kasdim, were sorcerers and magicians with whom the Torah prohibits consulting. However, the Chaldeans were the scientists of that era and their primary area of expertise was astrology, i.e., foretelling a person’s future based on the stars. Although not everyone approved of consulting the Chaldeans (see Tosafot, Shabbat 156b), there is no real transgression in doing so, and it was not uncommon for Jewish men and women to seek their advice.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  8. MASSEKHET SHABBAT

    Massekhet Shabbat – An Introduction to the Tractate

    And God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it because on it He rested from all His work that God in creating had made.
    (Genesis 2:3)
    Six days shall you labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is Shabbat unto the Lord your God; you shall not do any manner of work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Shabbat day and hallowed it.
    (Exodus 20:9-11)
    Therefore, you shall keep the Shabbat, for it is holy unto you; every one that profanes it shall surely be put to death, for whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.
    (Exodus 31:14)
    If you turn away your foot because of the Shabbat, from pursuing your business on My holy day, and call the Shabbat a delight, the holy of the Lord honorable; and shall honor it, not doing your wonted ways, nor pursuing your business, nor speaking thereof. Then shall you delight yourself in the Lord, and I will make you to ride upon the high places of the earth, and I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.
    (Isaiah 58:13-14)
    Thus said the Lord: Take heed for the sake of your souls, and bear no burden on the Shabbat day, nor bring it into the gates of Jerusalem.
    (Jeremiah 17:21)
    And if the peoples of the land bring ware or any food on the Shabbat day to sell, we would not buy from them on the Shabbat or on a holy day.
    (Nehemiah 10:32)

    Tractate Shabbat is the first and the largest tractate in the order of Moed. It deals with the halakhot of the most sacred day of all, Shabbat.

    Numerous halakhot, veritable mountains of halakhot, are found among the mitzvot of Shabbat, both positive mitzvot and prohibitions. Included in these are mitzvot of biblical origin, those established by the Prophets, and many rabbinic decrees and ordinances. Shabbat has even been adorned with the aura of legend; it is a day of rest and sanctity, God’s gift to a treasured nation.

    There are numerous facets to Shabbat in halakhah and aggada. However, one aspect is fundamental and central: Abstention from creative labor. The only way to achieve a proper grasp of Shabbat and its halakhot, ranging from Torah statutes to rabbinic ordinances and decrees issued throughout the generations, is by means of gaining an understanding of this fundamental principle.

    The mitzvah to abstain from labor and the prohibition to perform labor on Shabbat are both closely tied to the biblical depiction of the creation of the world and God’s own abstention from work on the seventh day. The Shabbat of the Jewish people is, in a sense, an extension and emulation of the Shabbat of the Holy One, Blessed be He, from which our Shabbat draws its spiritual foundations. On the seventh day, God abstained “from all His work that God in creating had made.” In the Torah, the Jewish people were explicitly commanded to abstain from engaging in the construction of the Tabernacle on Shabbat.

    There are two equally fundamental aspects to these activities that are essential to the comprehension of the concept of labor prohibited on Shabbat: They are both creative acts of tangible labor and work done with prior intent. These two fundamental principles are captured in the following halakhic terminology: Planned, thoughtful, creative labor was prohibited by the Torah, and: For all destructive acts, one is exempt. The exceptions to the latter principle are those actions that are destructive in the short term, but in the long term are actually preparations for constructive acts that will follow.

    Labor on Shabbat is defined in this manner because of the aforementioned comparison between our Shabbat and God’s Shabbat at the end of the creation of the universe. The degree of physical exertion expended to perform a particular action is not taken into consideration, nor does it matter whether or not the action produces results or brings profit to the worker, or whether it serves as the means of one’s livelihood. It is for this reason that even activities in which the amount of energy expended is minimal and which serve only for enjoyment, e.g., writing or kindling a fire, are prohibited by the Torah and constitute labor, i.e., creating a tangible result with prior intent.

    Most of the halakhot of Shabbat, which are comprised of thirty-nine primary categories of prohibited labor and their subcategories, are the elaboration and detailed enumeration of these major principles in the definition of the various types of creative labor and the establishment of their parameters and limits. The ordinances and safeguards instituted by the Sages of blessed memory merely strengthen and reinforce the proper observance of the Shabbat in practical terms. They determine how to refrain from prohibited labor and from any action that could potentially lead to performance of a prohibited labor.

    Among the thirty-nine primary categories of labor enumerated with regard to Shabbat, there is only one that is anomalous, and its explication occupies a most significant place in the tractate of Shabbat: Carrying out an object from one domain to another. According to Torah law, it is prohibited to carry any object on Shabbat from the domain in which it is located to another domain. There is no element of physical exertion or toil involved in this labor, as one is liable even for carrying out minuscule objects. On the other hand, carrying out cannot be included in the category of truly creative labors either. In truth, this labor is in a category of its own, a distinct Torah law that underscores the nature of rest on Shabbat.

    The term shabbaton means cessation of the creative activities that characterize the six active days of the week. Shabbaton also means silence, rest, cessation of the motility and hustle-bustle of the weekdays, cessation of the connection between the private domain of the individual and the public domain, and the transformation of the public domain into an environment of quiescence and tranquility. So that the tranquility of Shabbat will be complete, the parameters of these realms are delineated in a manner unique to Shabbat, unlike the definition of public and private domains in other areas of halakhah, i.e., property law and the halakhot of ritual impurity. It is both prohibited to carry objects from one domain to another and to carry objects within the confines of the public domain.

    The subcategories and complex details of the prohibited labor of carrying out on Shabbat, along with the ordinances and decrees issued by the Sages to foster its observance, constitute a significant portion of the halakhot contained in tractate Shabbat.

    Although the essence of Shabbat lies in the observance of its restfulness, which is manifested in the prohibitions against creative labor and carrying out from one domain to another, there are also positive commandments involved in the observance of Shabbat, beyond the mitzvah to sacrifice additional offerings in the Temple. These positive commandments are alluded to in the verse: “Remember the day of Shabbat to keep it holy.” The practical fulfillment of this mitzvah is multifaceted. It begins with the essential commandment of kiddush, sanctification of Shabbat over a cup of wine, along with the special liturgy and customs unique to Shabbat; and it extends to the reference to each weekday in terms of its relative distance from Shabbat. This mitzvah also includes the ordinance of taking delight in Shabbat, consistent with the words of the prophet Isaiah. This is accomplished by the enjoyment that is added to the Shabbat meal, the kindling of the Shabbat lights, and all means of celebration that do not conflict with the basic tenets of Shabbat observance.

    According to the oral tradition transmitted through the generations, an entire framework of ordinances and safeguards, categorized under the rubric of shevut, was instituted in the days of the earliest Prophets to ensure proper Shabbat observance. Included in this framework is the decree against engaging in commerce on Shabbat, already mentioned in the Bible. The institution of additional Shabbat domains originated long ago, along with the designation of additional areas in which the movement and transfer of objects is prohibited. The details of these ordinances are specified in the tractate Eruvin.

    Among the activities that fall into the category of shevut are both those prohibited due to their similarity to the prohibited acts of creative labor and those prohibited due to the concern that they might lead to the performance of a prohibited labor. The halakhot of “set-aside” [muktze], which prohibit the use of materials or utensils typically utilized in the performance of creative labor, fall into the category of shevut as well. The Sages also prohibited typical weekday activities, as it is inappropriate to engage in them on this sacred day. Therefore, tractate Shabbat is distinctive in its terminology. It distinguishes between liability and exemption by Torah law, between actions for whose performance one is exempt by Torah law but whose performance is prohibited by the Prophets and Sages, and actions that are expressly permitted.

    The halakhot of Shabbat in general, their fundamental principles and their details, and the elucidation of those halakhot that deviate from those principles, e.g., matters of life and death or circumcision on Shabbat, are all explained in the twenty-four chapters of tractate Shabbat. These twenty-four chapters are not arranged systematically by subject matter, but rather are ordered based on association between similar matters and the chronology of the activities performed on Shabbat eve leading up to Shabbat and those performed on Shabbat.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  9. Shabbat 2a-b – The prohibition of carrying on Shabbat

    Massekhet Shabbat opens with a discussion of the biblical prohibition of carrying out on Shabbat, a topic that is somewhat unexpected, in order to pique the interest of the reader. In terms of the overall framework of the tractate, it would have been more appropriate to begin with later mishnayot.

    The prohibited labor to carry out a burden on Shabbat is alluded to in the Torah and explicitly stated in the Prophets. Although it appears in the list of prohibited labors in the Mishnah, it constitutes its own discrete unit, and its parameters are significantly different from those of the other prohibited labors. There are two fundamental aspects to the prohibited labor of carrying out. The most significant of these is the prohibition to carry an object from one domain to another, e.g., from the private to the public domain. The definitions of these domains with regard to Shabbat are distinctive, and their parameters are by no means identical to the definitions of domains in other aspects of halakhah, neither in terms of their ownership nor in terms of their use.

    One only violates the Torah prohibition to carry out on Shabbat if he lifts the object from one place and places it in another place. As is the case with regard to the other prohibited labors, one who performs this action intentionally is liable for the punishment of karet. If he does so unwittingly, he is liable to bring a sin-offering.

    Several reasons have been suggested to explain why the tractate opens specifically with the prohibited labor of carrying out from domain to domain. Some explain (e.g. Rabbeinu Tam, the Ran and the Rashba) that the reason is because the tractate, in general, is ordered chronologically and begins with a discussion of matters prohibited immediately when Shabbat begins. One of the matters that requires immediate attention is the prohibition of carrying out, and therefore it was necessary to cite this halakhah first. According to the Penei Yehoshua, since the matter of carrying out is derived from the verse, “A man should not go out of his place” (Shmot 16:29), which is mentioned in the Torah prior to the rest of the prohibited labors of Shabbat, the Sages introduced it earlier in the Mishnah.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  10. Shabbat 3a-b – Biblical prohibitions vs. Rabbinic ordinances

    Two different expressions are used in the Mishnah to indicate that a given activity is not forbidden on Shabbat. The Gemara on today’s daf (=page) explains that with regard to the laws of Shabbat, the word mutar means that an action is permitted, while the word patur means that an action is forbidden by the Sages, but it will not incur punishment, since there is no biblical prohibition involved.

    What if there is a conflict between a Rabbinic ordinance and a biblical prohibition? The Gemara presents the following quandary:

    Rav Beivai bar Abayye raised the dilemma: One who unwittingly stuck bread in the ovenon Shabbat, as bread was baked by sticking the dough to the sides of a heated oven, did they permit him to override a rabbinic prohibition and remove it from the oven before it bakes, i.e., before he incurs liability to bring a sin-offering for baking bread on Shabbat, or did they not permit him to do so? Removing the bread is also prohibited on Shabbat. However, its prohibition is only by rabbinic law.

    The fundamental dilemma is: May one violate a rabbinical prohibition in order to avoid violating a Torah prohibition or not?

    This dilemma presented by Rav Beivai bar Abayye was considered to be one that remained unresolved. The Gemara attempts to reach a conclusion about this question based on a similar teaching that apparently prohibited someone whose hand was stretched from a private domain into a karmelit (an area that was considered “public” only on a rabbinic level) from pulling his hand back into the private domain. Ultimately this position is rejected by the Gemara, which concludes that the rabbinic ordinance can be violated by an individual in order to save himself from a biblical prohibition.

    The ovens in those days were made of earthenware. The oven was ignited from below. Through a special opening, dough would be stuck to the sides of the oven for baking. Removing the bread from the oven was performed in a unique manner which, while not considered an actual prohibited labor, was viewed as a unique skill that was prohibited by the Sages.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  11. Shabbat 4a-b – Is it forbidden to throw on Shabbat?

    We have already learned in the Mishnah that transferring an object from a public domain to a private domain is one of the forbidden activities on Shabbat. It is clear that carrying within a private domain is permitted. What if an object remains in a private domain and merely travels through a public domain? That question is dealt with on today’s daf (=page). The Gemara teaches:

    One who throws an object from the private domain to the other private domain and there is the public domain in the middle, Rabbi Akiva deems him liable for carrying out into the public domain, and the Rabbis deem him exempt because the object merely passed through the public domain and did not come to rest in it.

    In explanation of Rabbi Akiva’s position, the Gemara introduces the idea of kelutah me-mi she-hunhah damiah – that an object in airspace is considered at rest.

    It is possible to identify two fundamental approaches in clarifying the essence of the halakhic principle that an object in airspace is considered at rest. According to Rashi and Rabbeinu Ĥananel, an object passing through airspace of a certain domain is considered as if it were placed on the ground of that domain. In the Jerusalem Talmud, on the other hand, this phrase was understood to mean that all the airspace in a certain domain is considered as if it were solid matter upon which the objects rest. The principle was formulated: The air within the partitions is like its substance, i.e., it is viewed as being like the ground beneath it.

    According to Rabbi Akiva’s opinion, an object that passed, even briefly, through the airspace of the public domain is considered as if it came to rest in that domain. Therefore, one who threw the object has, for all intents and purposes, lifted the object from the private domain and placed it in the public domain, and he is liable.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  12. Shabbat 5a-b – Reading scrolls on the porch

    There are four categories of “domain” with regard to carrying out on Shabbat:
    A private domain is an area larger than 4 by 4 handbreadths, divided from the surrounding area by a fence at least 10 handbreadths high. One is permitted to carry within the private domain, which is considered to extend upwards to the sky.
    The public domain is a place at least 16 cubits wide, through which many people (some authorities say 600,000) pass daily. The public domain is considered to extend 10 handbreadths upwards. On Shabbat one is prohibited to carry objects a distance of more than 4 cubits in the public domain. One is also prohibited to transfer objects to or from the public domain.
    The third type of domain is an exempt place, which is an area less than 4 by 4 handbreadths that is separate from the surrounding area.
    The Sages added a fourth domain, called a karmelit – an intermediate category of domain between a private domain and a public domain.

    Some of these laws are exhibited in the following case that appears on today’s daf (=page).

    One who was reading a sacred book in scroll form on Shabbat on an elevated, wide threshold and the book rolled from his hand outside and into the public domain, he may roll it back to himself, since one of its ends is still in his hand. However, if he was reading on top the roof, which is a full-fledged private domain, and the book rolled from his hand, as long as the edge of the book did not reach ten handbreadths above the public domain, the book is still in its own area, and he may roll it back to himself. However, once the book has reached within ten handbreadths above the public domain, he is prohibited to roll it back to himself. In that case, he may only turn it over onto the side with writing, so that the writing of the book should face down and should not be exposed and degraded.

    In the case of a person on a threshold who was reading a sacred text written on a scroll and that scroll unrolled and landed on a karmelit (Mishna Berura), if one end of the scroll remained in his hand, he may roll it back to him. That is the ruling even if the threshold was a private domain, i.e., four by four handbreadths and ten handbreadths high, and the scroll unrolled into a public domain. This was permitted in order to prevent disrespect for the sacred text. However, if the book fell from his hand completely, he is permitted to roll it back only if it rolled into a karmelit.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  13. Shabbat 6a-b – Punishments for transferring objects from one domain to another

    While discussing the four Shabbat domains (public, private, exempt and the Rabbinic karmelit, see yesterday’s daf, or page), the Gemara quotes a baraita that teaches

    If he carried out an object on Shabbat from the private domain to the public domain or vice versa, if he carried in, if he did so unwittingly, he is liable to bring a sin-offering. If he did so intentionally and there were no witnesses to his act and he was not forewarned, he is punishable from the hand of Heaven with the punishment of karet. If he was forewarned and there were witnesses to his transgression, he is punished by the court and stoned.

    In response to this teaching, the Gemara asks why there is a need to emphasize the punishments that are meted out. Surely we are aware that someone who performed a prohibited act on Shabbat will be punished with karet or stoning! The Gemara answers: This came to teach us in accordance with the statement of Rav, as Rav said: I found a hidden scroll in the house of Rabbi Ĥiyya in which matters of Oral Torah were briefly summarized, and in it was written: Isi ben Yehuda says: The primary categories of prohibited labor on Shabbat are forty-less-one, and he is liable only for one.

    This obscure statement is explained by the Gemara to mean that there is one of the 39 prohibited activities on Shabbat that is not punishable by stoning; it remains a simple negative commandment. The baraita is emphasizing that the prohibition of transferring an object from one domain to another is not that activity – it is punishable by stoning.

    Regarding the “hidden scroll” that was found by Rav: For many generations, it was prohibited to write the contents of the Oral Torah. Due to the exigencies of the time, it was decided to redact the Mishnah and write it down. Nevertheless, even when it was prohibited, Sages would summarize important matters in brief notes to help them remember. These scrolls were not published and were, therefore, referred to as hidden scrolls. According to the ge’onim, these scrolls were known as hidden because they were anthologies of halakhot that were not universally known, even though they were not concealed intentionally.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  14. Shabbat 7a-b – Shrubs and thorns in the public domain

    On today’s daf (=page) the Gemara discusses whether a specific place located in a public domain retains the status of that domain if it is not commonly used by people in that place. The three possible exceptions discussed by the Gemara are a brick, thorns and shrubs (hizmei ve-higi) and excrement.

    The Gemara cites the halakhah that Rabbah bar Sheila said that Rav Ĥisda said: If an upright brick was placed in the public domain and one threw an object from a distance of four cubits and he stuck the object to its side, he is liable for throwing in the public domain. But if the object landed atop the brick, he is not liable. Because the multitudes do not step on the brick, it is not a full-fledged public domain.
    It was Abayye and Rava, who both said: And that is specifically when that brick is at least three handbreadths high, as then the multitudes do not step on it, and, therefore, even though the brick is standing in the public domain, it is considered an independent domain. However, thorns and shrubs, (hizmei ve-higi) even though they are not three handbreadths high, are not considered part of the public domain. Since people do not walk on thorns, those areas cannot be considered part of the public domain. And Ĥiyya bar Rav said: Even the place where there are thorns and shrubs in the public domain, if they were low, the place is considered part of the public domain. However, a place in the public domain where there are fecesis not considered part of the public domain, as people do not walk there. And Rav Ashi said: Even a place in the public domain where there are feces is considered part of the public domain, since ultimately people who are rushing to work do not take care to avoid it and will step on it.

    Hizmei can be identified as the thorny bush Ononis antiquorum L. from the Papilionaceae family. It is a small thorny bush whose height is 25–70 cm and is commonly found in fields and riverbeds. The leaves of the plant are usually clover-shaped, and its side branches are thorny and tend to branch out.

    Higi is the common shrub in the Papilionaceae family, Alhagi maurorum Medik, which is a thorny bush with smooth non-serrated leaves. It usually grows to a height of approximately 30 cm and can grow to a height of 1 m. It is commonly found in fields and salt marshes.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  15. Shabbat 8a-b – Transferring from a mysterious threshold

    We learned above (daf, or page 5) that there are four domains regarding the laws of Shabbat – public, private, exempt and the Rabbinic karmelit. The Gemara on today’s daf presents a case and tries to determine which of the four domains is being discussed –

    The Master said: A person standing on the threshold may take an object from the homeowner standing in the private domain and may give an object to him. Similarly, while standing there, he may take an object from a poor person standing in the public domain and may give an object to him.

    This ruling appears difficult to the Gemara.

    If the threshold under discussion is in a public domain how can he take an object from the homeowner? Isn’t he carrying out from the private domain to the public domain?

    If, however, the threshold is in a private domain, how can he take an object from a poor person? Isn’t he carrying in from the public domain to the private domain?

    Even if the threshold is a karmelit, how can he take and give an object ab initio? There still should be a rabbinic prohibition!

    The Gemara concludes that the case is referring to a threshold that is merely an exempt domain, and therefore there is no prohibition at all. Such a case can be found where the threshold does not have an area of four by four handbreadths, and it is therefore not considered a domain with regard to liability on Shabbat. The Gemara compares this to a teaching presented by Rav Dimi:

    And that halakhah is similar to that statement made when Rav Dimi came from Eretz Yisrael to Babylonia and he said that Rabbi Yoĥanan said: A place that does not have an area of four by four handbreadths and is set apart, it is permissible for both the people of the private domain and for the people of the public domain to adjust the burden on their shoulders upon it on Shabbat, as long as they do not exchange objects between them from one domain to the other domain.

    Rav Dimi was one of the Sages who descended, or who would often travel from Eretz Yisrael to Babylonia, primarily to transmit the Torah of Eretz Yisrael to the Torah centers of the Diaspora, although occasionally, he traveled on business, as well. Consequently, many questions, particularly those concerning the Torah of Eretz Yisrael, remained unresolved, until the messenger from Zion would arrive and elucidate the halakhah, the novel expression, or the unique circumstances pertaining to a particular statement that required clarification.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  16. Shabbat 9a-b – A threshold serving two domains

    On yesterday’s daf (=page) we learned a baraita that discussed the unique status of a threshold. In the continuation of that baraita that is discussed on today’s daf, we learn –
    A threshold serves two domains: When the entrance is open, the threshold is subsumed within the house and it is considered to be a private domain like the inside of the house. And when the entrance is locked, the threshold is not subsumed within the house, and it is considered to be a public domain like the outside.

    Several explanations are offered to clarify this case. For example –
    Rav Yehuda said that Rav said: Here we are dealing with the threshold of an alleyway open to the public domain on only one side. Although, by Torah law, it is considered a private domain, the Sages required him to establish a fourth symbolic partition on the side open to the public domain. This alleyway was covered, and this covering extended to part of the threshold in a manner that half of it is covered and half of it is not covered, and the covering is over the part of the threshold toward the inside. In that case, if the entrance is open, its legal status is like that of the inside, as it is considered as if there were a partition extending from the edge of the roofing above to below, based on the halakhic principle: Lower the partition. The opening of the alleyway is thereby sealed, rendering it a private domain. However, when the entrance is locked, it is no longer possible to consider the covering as a partition, and therefore the part of the threshold that is beyond the locked door of the alleyway is considered like the outside, i.e., like a public domain.

    The halakhot of Shabbat and many other halakhot are dependent upon the existence of partitions. A solid, high partition that seals a certain opening is a definite boundary.
    However, in reality, boundaries of that kind are not present in every case. Thus, the question arises: What constitutes a full-fledged boundary and what constitutes a symbolic boundary? The determining principles in this matter are complex, detailed halakhot transmitted to Moses from Sinai. The principle of lavud establishes that a space less than three handbreadths wide is considered sealed. The principle of gode, which means extend, states that certain boundaries are considered to be extended and lowered or extended and raised. Another principle that applies here is: The edge of the roof descends and seals, which states that the outer edge of the roof over a house or an alleyway is considered as if it descends and creates a partition that reaches the ground. However, the principle is relevant only when the roof has an edge of some sort, and when its area is more than four by four handbreadths.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  17. Shabbat 10a-b – Practical suggestions from Rava bar Meĥasseya

    In a segue from another statement quoted in his name, the Gemara brings a number of practical teachings in the name of Rava bar Meĥasseya quoting Rav Ĥama bar Gurya in the name of Rav. Thus we learn –

    Rava bar Meĥasseya said that Rav Ĥama bar Gurya said that Rav said: A person should never distinguish one of his sons from among the other sons by giving him preferential treatment. As, due to the weight of two sela of fine wool that Jacob gave to Joseph, beyond what he gave the rest of his sons, in making him the striped coat, his brothers became jealous of him and the matter unfolded and our forefathers descended to Egypt.

    Similarly,
    Rava bar Meĥasseya said that Rav Ĥama bar Gurya said Rav said: A person should always seek and dwell in a city whose settling took place in the recent past, meaning that it was recently established, as due to the fact that its settling is recent its sins are few, as its residents have not yet had the opportunity to commit many sins there. As it is stated that Lot said to the angel: “Behold, here is this city that is close to run away to and it is small” (Bereshit 19:20).

    In addition,
    Rava bar Meĥasseya said that Rav Ĥama bar Gurya said that Rav said: One who gives a gift to another must inform him that he is giving it to him.

    The reason that one giving a gift must inform the recipient is explained in various ways. First, the commentaries emphasize that this applies only to a case where the recipient is wealthy and he gave it to him as a gift. However, one who gives a charitable gift must be certain to give it anonymously (Rosh). Others explain that the reason that he must inform him is because otherwise the recipient will wonder who gave it to him (Rashi).

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  18. Shabbat 11a-b – Fasting in response to a bad dream

    As a continuation from the discussion on yesterday’s daf (=page) the Gemara quotes more practical teachings in the name of Rava bar Meĥasseya.

    And Rava bar Meĥasseya said that Rav Ĥama bar Gurya said that Rav said: A fast is effective to neutralize a bad dream like fire burns chaff . Rav Ĥisda said: And a fast is effective specifically on that day that he dreamed. And Rav Yosef said: One suffering from a bad dream that he dreamed is permitted to fast even on Shabbat.

    Rav Yehudah quotes Rav as teaching that an individual who accepts upon himself to fast for personal reasons (as opposed to communal fast days determined by the bet din) can “borrow against the fast and pay back later” – i.e. he can choose to eat today and substitute another day of fasting instead.

    Many of the commentators interpret this to apply only in a case where the person did not commit himself to fast on a specific day (e.g. where he planned to fast on a certain number of days during the year). Nevertheless, many of the rishonim (the Ra’avad, Rashba, Re’ah, Ritva and others) argue that the Gemara makes no such distinction and that a person can even switch his fast from one day to the next. These rishonim understand that this is Shmuel’s intent when he compares a personal fast day to a person who takes an oath. Someone who takes an oath to give charity, for example, can switch one coin for another, so long as they have the same value; similarly, fasting on one day is the equivalent of fasting on another.

    There is one personal fast that must take place on a specific day – a ta’anit halom. A fast that is the result of a disturbing dream must be done immediately after the dream takes place. This rule is so severe that Rav Yosef teaches that someone who is disturbed by their dream must fast even on Shabbat, concluding that he will have to fast a second time as repentance for having “desecrated” the holiness of Shabbat by fasting.

    Given Shmuel’s ruling that dreams are not to be seen as carrying with them any significance, the Ritva explains that the underlying idea of fasting because of a dream is that a very disturbing dream should be seen as a heavenly call to examine one’s actions. Thus, it is essential to act while the feeling of dread is still fresh. But how can one fast on Shabbat? Here the Ritva explains that eating on Shabbat is the fulfillment of the mitzvah of oneg Shabbat – making Shabbat pleasurable. Under such circumstances, a festive meal would not be enjoyable, and fasting is a more appropriate expression of oneg Shabbat.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  19. Shabbat 12a-b – Praying for the sick

    On today’s daf (=page) we find a discussion about praying on behalf of a sick individual –

    Rabba bar bar Ĥana said: When we would follow Rabbi Elazar to inquire about the health of a sick person; sometimes he would say in Hebrew: May the Omnipresent remember you for peace, and sometimes he would say to him in Aramaic: May the all-Merciful remember you for peace. He would say it in Aramaic when the sick person did not understand Hebrew (Rav Elazar Moshe Horovitz). The Gemara asks: How did he do this, pray in Aramaic? Didn’t Rav Yehuda say: A person should never request that his needs be met in the Aramaic language? And, similarly, Rabbi Yoĥanan said: Anyone who requests that his needs be met in the Aramaic language, the ministering angels do not attend to him to bring his prayer before God, as the ministering angels are not familiar with the Aramaic language, but only with the sacred tongue, Hebrew, exclusively. The Gemara responds: A sick person is different. He does not need the angels to bring his prayer before God because the Divine Presence is with him.

    Many explanations are offered for the Gemara’s assertion that angels do not understand Aramaic. Tosafot question whether this is true, arguing that angels have the ability to know people’s thoughts, so they certainly can understand a person’s statement, no matter what language he says it in. This question leads Tosafot to offer a different interpretation of Rabbi Yohanan’s comment. Rather than stating that the angels do not “understand” Aramaic, they suggest that he is saying that they do not have a high opinion of that language. Thus Rabbi Yohanan is understood to be saying that the angels will reject prayers offered in Aramaic because they see them as being of little value.

    Many commentaries disagree with Tosafot’s line of reasoning. The Sefat Emet, for example, argues with Tosafot’s basic premise, and teaches that the Zohar clearly does not believe that angels know the thoughts of men unless they are specifically granted access to that information.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  20. Shabbat 13a-b – A disturbing early death

    While discussing the rules and regulations that relate to sensitivity in matters of a sexual nature, the Gemara relates the following story:

    The Sage in the school of Eliyahu taught a baraita that deals with this halakhah: There was an incident involving one student who studied much Mishnah and read much Bible, and served Torah scholars extensively, studying Torah from them, and, nevertheless, died at half his days, half his life expectancy. His wife in her bitterness would take his phylacteries and go around with them to synagogues and study halls, and she said to the Sages: It is written in the Torah: “For it is your life and the length of your days” (Devarim 30:20). If so, my husband who studied much Mishnah, and read much Bible, and served Torah scholars extensively, why did he die at half his days? Where is the length of days promised him in the verse? No one would respond to her at all.
    Eliyahu said: One time I was a guest in her house, and she was relating that entire event with regard to the death of her husband. And I said to her: My daughter, during the period of your menstruation, how did he act toward you? She said to me: Heaven forbid, he did not touch me even with his little finger. And I asked her: In the days of your white garments, after the menstrual flow ended, and you were just counting clean days, how did he act toward you then? She said to me: He ate with me, and drank with me, and slept with me with bodily contact and, however, it did not enter his mind about something else, i.e., conjugal relations. And I said to her: Blessed is the Omnipresent who killed him for this sin, as your husband did not show respect to the Torah. The Torah said: “And to a woman in the separation of her impurity you should not approach” (Vayikra 18:19), even mere affectionate contact is prohibited.

    The early commentaries wondered how that student, who was a Torah scholar, could treat Torah matters with such disdain. By Torah law, a menstruating woman is impure until she immerses herself in a ritual bath. They explain that his custom or the prevailing custom (Tosafot) was that a woman would immerse herself at the end of the days of her menstrual flow, when her period of impurity ended by Torah law. As a result, during those extra days added due to the stringency that Jewish women imposed upon themselves (see the discussion of this stringency in Massekhet Niddah, daf, or page 66), he did not conduct himself with the same stringency (Ramban; Rashba).

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  21. Shabbat 14a-b – Establishing decrees in the home of Ĥananya ben Ĥizkiya

    Decisions of the Sages were usually reached in a meeting place where the most prominent Sages would gather; the halakhah would be determined according to a majority vote. The Mishnah on yesterday’s daf (=page) describes an unofficial gathering of Sages in the home of Ĥananya ben Ĥizkiya. In a departure from routine, the majority ruled in favor of Bet Shammai. Many reactions to this incident were noted, among them the expression: “And that day was as difficult for Israel as the day the Golden Calf was made.”

    Apparently, the dispute between the parties was very intense, and Bet Shammai’s majority was an unexpected development. The arguments with regard to assessment of these decrees continued during the subsequent generations. Nevertheless, due to the intensity of the arguments, the Sages decided not to abrogate the decrees.

    Although the Mishnah offers no details about the 18 decrees that were decided on that day, the Gemara on today’s daf discusses a number of them. For example, it was decided that washing in ordinary water following ritual immersion would deem the individual ritually impure, since a misimpression developed where people thought that it was the shower that purified, rather than the immersion. This led to a second decree that anyone showering would be rendered ritually impure, since people would not distinguish between a person who was pure from the start and one who was just purified upon emerging from immersion.

    Somewhat surprisingly, a Torah scroll was deemed to be impure. The Gemara explains this decree –
    Rav Mesharshiya said: Since at first, ignorant priests would conceal terumah foods alongside the Torah scroll, and they said in explaining that method of storage: This is sacred and that is sacred, and it is appropriate that they be stored together. Since the Sages saw that they were coming to ruin, as the mice, which were attracted to the terumah foods would also gnaw at the Torah scrolls, the Sages decreed impurity upon it. Once they issued the decree of impurity on the Torah scroll, the priests no longer placed terumah near it.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  22. Shabbat 15a-b – Establishing rabbinic decrees

    On today’s daf (=page) the Gemara discusses a rabbinic ordinance established by Yosei ben Yo’ezer of Tzereida and Yosei ben Yoĥanan of Jerusalem who decreed impurity upon the land of the nations. The Sages decreed that anything – person or vessel – that comes in contact with or carries that soil becomes impure for seven days, like the impurity of one who comes into contact with a corpse.

    The impurity of the land of the nations is already alluded to in the Prophets: “On impure land you will die” (Amos 7:17). However, in the Mishnah, this impurity is listed as one of the cases of uncertain impurity due to the concern that a dead person may be buried there. Since graves were not always marked and since cemeteries for burial were not clearly set aside everywhere, there was concern that any clod of dirt could be from a decaying corpse or could have come in contact with the flesh of a corpse.

    The question raised in the Gemara is that it appears that this decree was established not by Yosei ben Yo’ezer of Tzereida and Yosei ben Yoĥanan of Jerusalem, but by other groups of Sages. Specifically, the Gemara suggests that this is recorded as one of the ordinances of Usha. Ultimately, the Gemara explains that there were different stages so that over time the decree expanded to include not only the soil but the air as well.

    The town of Usha in the Galilee was, for a time, the seat of the Sanhedrin. Many ordinances were instituted there relating to various areas of halakhah, including halakhot of ritual purity and impurity and monetary laws. The Sages disagreed with regard to the exact date of the Usha regulations, since the Sanhedrin’s stay there was interrupted. Nevertheless, apparently these ordinances were instituted after the failure of the Bar Kokhba rebellion, approximately seventy years after the destruction of the Temple.

    According to Rosh HaShanah (31a), during the period of the destruction of the second Temple God began to withdraw His Divine Presence from the Temple. In parallel, the Sanhedrin removed itself as well, first within the city of Jerusalem, and ultimately to the Galilee. It was first transplanted to Yavne, from there to Usha, Shefaram, Beit She’arim, Tzippori, and Tiberias.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  23. Shabbat 16a-b – Impurity of metal vessels

    The Gemara on today’s daf (=page) discusses a teaching quoted in the name of Shimon ben Shatah that decreed impurity on metal vessels. This teaching is odd because it is clear that the laws of impurity regarding metal vessels are Biblical laws (Bamidbar 31:22-23). The Gemara explains that this refers to a very specific case.

    This ordinance of Shimon ben Shataĥ with regard to the impurity of metal vessels in general was only needed with regard to previous impurity reassumed by metal vessels after they are recast. As Rav Yehudah said that Rav said: There was an incident involving Shimon ben Shataĥ’s sister, Shel Tziyyon the queen,who made a wedding feast for her son. All of her vessels became impure, and she broke them and gave them to the smith, and he welded the broken vessels together and made new vessels. And the Sages said: What she did was ineffective, as all the vessels will reassume their previous impurity.

    Shel Tziyyon the queen was a queen of the Hasmonean dynasty, the wife of King Alexander Yannai, and the sister of Shimon ben Shataĥ. Shel Tziyyon, or Shlomtziyyon, and in some sources Shalminon or Shlomit, was originally the wife of the Hasmonean king Aristobolos. After his death, his brother Yannai performed an act of levirate marriage with her. Although the Hasmonean kings, and specifically Alexander Yannai, had Sadducee tendencies, Queen Shlomtziyyon followed the Pharisees, and even during her husband’s reign she labored to achieve unity. After the death of Alexander Yannai, she continued to rule over Israel for nine years. Those years, in which she served as the political leader, and her brother Shimon ben Shataĥ guided daily life and religious life, were considered the happiest years for the people of Israel during the Second Temple period.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  24. Shabbat 17a-b – Must objects rest on Shabbat?

    In the Mishnah on today’s daf (=page) we find a fundamental disagreement between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai regarding the following question: Must one begin refraining from actions prohibited on Shabbat on Shabbat eve or may one initiate an action prior to Shabbat, even if he knows that it will continue on its own on Shabbat itself? The source of this dispute is the Biblical passage that prohibits creative activity on Shabbat not only for household members, but also for animals that belong to a Jewish person (see Shmot 20:9, Devarim 5:13). Beit Shammai extrapolate this idea to obligate a person in shevitat kelim – that a person’s objects must “rest” on Shabbat, that is, he cannot derive benefit from work performed by objects and implements belonging to him on Shabbat – a concept rejected by Beit Hillel.

    The Mishnah teaches: Beit Shammai say: One may only soak dry ink in water and dry plants, which produce dyes, in water and vetch for animal food to soften them in water on Shabbat eve, adjacent to Shabbat, if there is clearly sufficient time for them to soak for their designated purpose while it is still day, before Shabbat begins, and their continued soaking on Shabbat will have no effect. And Beit Hillel permit doing so. Beit Shammai say: One may only place bundles of combed flax inside the oven on Shabbat eve if there is sufficient time so that they will be heated while it is still day. And one may only place wool into the dyer’s kettle if there is sufficient time for the wool to absorb the dye while it is still day. And Beit Hillel permit doing so.
    Beit Shammai say: One may spread traps for an animal and birds and fish only if there is sufficient time remaining in the day for them to be trapped in them while it is still day, and Beit Hillel permit doing so even if there is not sufficient time remaining in the day.

    Beit Shammai say: One may not give skins to a gentile tanner, nor clothes to a gentile launderer, unless there is sufficient time for work on them to be completed while it is still day, before Shabbat begins. And in all of them Beit Hillel permit doing so with the sun, i.e., as long as the sun is shining on Friday.

    The halakhah follows the opinion of Beit Hillel, so on Shabbat eve, while it is still day, it is permissible for a Jew to give an item to a gentile so that the gentile will perform one of the labors prohibited on Shabbat on his behalf. However, the Jew may not insist that he perform the labor specifically on Shabbat. In addition, if the gentile is a regular employee of the Jew it is prohibited (Rambam Sefer Zemanim, Hilkhot Shabbat 6:19; Shulĥan Arukh, Oraĥ Ĥayyim 244:1).

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  25. Shabbat 18a-b – Work performed by inanimate objects on Shabbat

    As we learned on yesterday’s daf (=page) Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai disagree whether a person’s objects can perform work on his behalf on Shabbat. The halakhah follows the opinion of Beit Hillel who permit beginning an action on Friday afternoon that is prohibited on Shabbat, even if will continue into Shabbat itself. The Gemara on today’s daf continues the discussion of this type of activity.

    The Sages taught in a Tosefta: One may open a canal that passes adjacent to a garden on Shabbat eve at nightfall, so that water will flow into a garden and the garden continuously fills with water all day long on Shabbat. Similarly, one may place incense, perfumed herbs placed on coals to produce a fragrance, on coals beneath the clothes on Shabbat eve and the clothes may be continuously perfumed all day long. And, similarly, one may place sulfur beneath the silver vessels on Shabbat eve at nightfall for the purpose of coloring the vessels, and they may be continuously exposed to sulfur all day long.

    Throughout the generations, sulfur was used to beautify silver vessels. Since silver is a light hue and engravings are not easily visible, one manner to accentuate the inscriptions was by means of sulfur. The silver vessels were exposed to sulfur fumes and oxidized sulfur, creating a thin layer of black silver sulfate on the vessel. After the vessel was treated with sulfur, it was thoroughly cleaned, restoring all of the surfaces to their original silver sheen while the recesses and sunken areas remained black. In modern times, similar methods are employed.

    The ruling that follows Beit Hillel notwithstanding, the Tosefta forbids placing wheat kernels into a water mill unless he does so in a way so that they will be ground while it is still dayon Friday and not on Shabbat. Rabbah explains that the source for this prohibition is rabbinic prohibition – since the mill makes noise and people will hear the noisy mill working on Shabbat. (The reason that the Gemara spoke specifically of a water mill is because a mill powered by an animal is certainly prohibited on Shabbat, due to the mitzvah explicitly stated in the Torah to rest one’s animal.)

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  26. Shabbat 19a-b – Heating the Temple

    The Mishnah on today’s daf (page) enumerates actions that may only be performed on Shabbat eve if the prohibited labor will be totally or mostly completed while it is still day.

    One may only roast meat, an onion, or an egg if there remains sufficient time so that they could be roasted while it is still day. One may only place dough to bake into bread in the oven on Shabbat eve at nightfall, and may only place a cake on the coals, if there is time enough that the surface of this cake or bread will form a crust while it is still day. Rabbi Eliezer says: Enough time so that its bottom crust should harden, which takes less time. However in a case that is an exception, one may, ab initio, lower the Paschal lamb into the oven on Shabbat eve at nightfall, so that its roasting is completed on Shabbat if Passover eve coincides with Shabbat eve. And one may, ab initio, kindle the fire in the bonfire of the Chamber of the Hearth in the Temple on Shabbat eve, adjacent to the start of Shabbat, and allow the fire to spread afterward throughout all the wood in the bonfire.

    The Chamber of the Hearth was a large room along the northern wall of the Temple courtyard. Half of it was in the courtyard and half was considered to be outside the Temple. The Chamber of the Hearth was built with a dome and had a great bonfire for the purpose of warming the priests returning from service or emerging from immersion.

    Since the priests worked barefoot, wore light clothing, no additional layers of clothing could be added, and the Temple was mostly without a roof, leaving them exposed to rain and wind, the priests would avail themselves of this chamber to warm themselves. Although this was not part of the Temple service, it was part of the arrangements for the benefit of the priests. At the same time, there is the principle that rabbinic decrees were not implemented in the Temple, and the Temple area was governed exclusively by Torah law, without additional rabbinic restrictions and fences.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  27. Shabbat 20a-b – Shabbat candle lighting

    Delighting in Shabbat is not a mitzvah by Torah law, but is first mentioned in the book of Sefer Yeshayahu (58:13). However, many of the halakhot and customs of Shabbat are based upon this mitzvah. Kindling the Shabbat lights in deference to Shabbat is based on the mitzvah of delighting in Shabbat, as there can be no delight or enjoyment, even in a festive meal, in a house that is dark and bereft of illumination. With the lighting of the Shabbat lights, there is thus an element of delight, as well as deference to Shabbat day. Nevertheless, since there is a strict prohibition against kindling fire or extinguishing it on the Shabbat day, special care must be taken to ensure that the kindling of the lights on Shabbat eve will not lead to kindling or extinguishing fire once Shabbat begins. Therefore, the Sages instituted safeguards and precautions with regard to the various substances that may be used in kindling the Shabbat lights as well as with regard to the manner in which their light may be utilized on Shabbat eve and on Shabbat day.

    The primary focus of the second perek (=chapter) of Massekhet Shabbat, which begins on today’s daf (=page), is the elucidation of the parameters of the prohibited labors of kindling and extinguishing, along with a discussion of precautionary measures enacted to enable use of the light of an oil lamp on Shabbat.

    The first Mishnah cites a list of fuels and wicks that one may not use in kindling the Shabbat lights, either because their use might induce one to perform a prohibited labor on Shabbat or because they are not in keeping with the deference due Shabbat. The Mishnah begins by listing the materials that one may not use as wicks; this is followed by a list of the substances that one may not use as fuel.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  28. Shabbat 21a-b – The miracle of Hanukkah

    As we learned on yesterday’s daf (=page) the second perek (=chapter) of Massekhet Shabbat focuses on Shabbat candle lighting. This discussion leads the Gemara to turn its attention to another set of laws regarding candle lighting, specifically the rabbinic enactment requiring that candles be lit throughout the holiday of Hanukkah.

    The holiday of Hanukkah was instituted primarily to commemorate the rededication of the altar in the Temple. The Baĥ explains that the Sages instituted kindling lights as the mitzvah of Hanukkah to underscore that the Maccabees went to war to preserve the sanctity of the nation and the sanctity of the Temple, not to defend their lives.

    The Gemara teaches that the year following the miraculous victory over the Greeks the Sages instituted an eight day holiday of lights. Some point out that since there was sufficient oil to burn for one day, the miracle lasted only seven days. Why, then, is Hanukkah celebrated for eight days? Many answers to this question have been suggested.

    Rabbi Yosef Karo maintained that only one eighth of the oil burned on the first day, so it was immediately clear that a miracle had been performed. Others explained that, from the outset, the priests placed only one-eighth of the oil from the cruse in the candelabrum, and it miraculously burned all day (Me’iri). Yet others suggested that Hanukkah commemorates two miracles; first, the discovery of the cruse of pure oil on the first day, and second, the fact that it lasted seven additional days (She’erit Kenesset HaGedola). There is also an opinion that the eight days commemorate the reinstitution of the mitzvah of circumcision, banned by the Greeks, which is performed on the eighth day after birth (Sefer HaItim).

    Another question was raised regarding the need for an eight day holiday. Why couldn’t a supply of pure oil have been procured sooner? The Ge’onim suggest that the pure oil came from Tekoa in the tribal territory of Asher in the upper Galilee, and the round trip from Jerusalem took eight days. Others say that all the Jews were ritually impure from contact with corpses, and therefore they were required to wait seven days to complete the purification process (Rabbi Eliyahu Mizraĥi).

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  29. Shabbat 22a-b – The sanctity of Hanukkah candles

    The Gemara on today’s daf (=page) continues the discussion of the laws of lighting Hanukkah candles.

    Rav Yehudah said that Rav Asi said that Rav said: It is prohibited to count money opposite a Hanukkah light. Rav Yehudah relates: When I said this halakhah before Shmuel, he said to me: Does the Hanukkah light have sanctity that would prohibit one from using its light? Rav Yosef strongly objected to this question: What kind of question is that; does the blood of a slaughtered undomesticated animal or fowl have sanctity? As it was taught in a baraita that the Sages interpreted the verse: “He shall spill its blood and cover it with dust” (Vayikra 17:13): With that which he spilled, he shall cover. Just as a person spills the blood of a slaughtered animal with his hand, so too, he is obligated to cover the blood with this hand and not cover it with his foot. The reason is so that mitzvot will not be contemptible to him. Here too, one should treat the Hanukkah lights as if they were sacred and refrain from utilizing them for other purposes, so that mitzvot will not be contemptible to him.

    In principle, we must distinguish between tashmishei kedushah – items that have inherent sanctity – like the vessels used in the Temple, a Torah scroll, phylacteries, and the like, and tashmishei mitzvah – those items that are used simply to perform a mitzvah. The principle is as follows: Sanctified items no longer in use maintain their sanctity and must be buried. However, items used to perform a mitzvah may be discarded. The Ramban explains that on that basis, Shmuel expressed surprise when the Gemara insists that Hanukkah lights be treated with the level of respect usually reserved for sacred items. Rav Yosef answered that while a mitzvah is still being fulfilled, one must treat the items used for the mitzvah with added deference, despite the fact that they do not retain their sanctity after the fulfillment of the mitzvah.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  30. Shabbat 23a-b – Blessings on Hanukkah candles

    The Gemara on today’s daf (=page) teaches:
    Rav Ĥiyya bar Ashi said that Rav said: One who lights a Hanukkah light must recite a blessing. And Rabbi Yirmeya said: One who sees a burning Hanukkah light must recite a blessing because the mitzvah is not only to kindle the light but to see the light as well.

    Ultimately, the Gemara concludes that two blessings are recited on every night of Hanukkah, with an additional blessing recited on the first night. In delineating the different blessings, the Gemara says that one of the everyday blessings that is recited is:
    Who has made us holy through His commandments and has commanded us to light the Hanukkah light.

    To which the Gemara asks: And where did He command us?

    The mitzvah of Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Torah, so how isit possible to say that it was commanded to us by God?

    This question is often asked with regard to blessings recited over mitzvot of rabbinic origin. Two answers are offered by the Gemara:

    Rav Avya said: The obligation to recite this blessing is derived from the verse: “You shall not turn aside from the sentence which they shall declare unto you, to the right, nor to the left” (Devarim 17:11). From this verse, the mitzvah incumbent upon all of Israel to heed the statements and decrees of the Sages is derived. Therefore, one who fulfills their directives fulfills a divine commandment.
    Rav Neĥemya said that the mitzvah to heed the voice of the Elders of Israel is derived from the verse: “Ask your father, and he will declare unto you, your Elders, and they will tell you”(Devarim 32:7).

    Here, the Gemara cites two sources. The first, “You shall not turn aside,” which is both simple and accepted halakhah, was sufficient. The Gemara preferred a source from a positive rather than a negative mitzvah and therefore cited the verse: “Ask your father” (Rabbi Elazar Moshe Horowitz).

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  31. Shabbat 24a-b – Appropriate oils for Shabbat candles

    With regard to lighting Shabbat lamps, the Mishnah on today’s daf (=page) continues with a discussion of different types of oil, some of which were prohibited for use by some of the Sages. The Mishnah teaches:

    Rabbi Yishmael says that one may not light with tar [itran] in deference to Shabbat because tar smells bad and disturbs those in the house. And the Rabbis permit lighting with all oils for lamps as long as they burn properly; with sesame oil, with nut oil, with turnip oil, with fish oil, with gourd oil, with tar, and even with naphtha [neft ]. Rabbi Tarfon says: One may light only with olive oil in deference to Shabbat, as it is the choicest and most pleasant of the oils.

    Naphtha, or neft, is crude oil extracted from the ground, and was a common fuel in several countries in the ancient world. During the Middle Ages it was not used and it was virtually unknown in Europe (see, for example, Rashi on the Mishnah that simply defines it as “a type of oil with a bad smell”). It is apparent from the description in the Gemara that not only did they use crude oil that burst from the ground, like the people of Cappadocia that have nothing but naphtha, as described further on in the Gemara; they even successfully refined it.

    The Gemara is apparently the first historical source that describes the production of white naphtha, which is one of the products of refining crude oil. Since white naphtha was refined, it would vaporize and burn more quickly, as the Gemara said: White naphtha is volatile. The techniques of refining crude oil first appear in other sources approximately five hundred years after the talmudic era.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  32. Shabbat 25a-b – Mnemonic devices in the Talmudic

    We all grew up learning the colors of the spectrum by remembering “Roy G. Biv.” Mnemonic devices are a time-honored method to assist memory, and we find a number of examples on today’s daf (=page). For example, while discussing stringencies that apply to consecrated items, those stringencies are listed based on the mnemonic “pancakes” (or “pink ox”), as follows:

    Their Hebrew acronym is peh, nun, kuf, ayin, kaf, samekh, which is a mnemonic for the following terms.
    Piggul: With regard to an offering, if, during one of the services involved in its sacrifice, i.e., slaughter, receiving the blood, bringing it to the altar, sprinkling it on the altar, the priest or the one bringing the offering entertains the thought of eating the sacrifice at a time that is unfit for eating, it is thereby invalidated.
    Notar: Meat of a sacrifice that remained beyond its allotted time may not be eaten and must be burned.
    Korban me’ila: One who unwittingly derives benefit from consecrated items is required to bring a guilt-offering for misuse of consecrated items.
    Karet: The punishment of one who eats consecrated items while ritually impure is karet.
    Asur le’onen: An acute mourner, i.e., one whose relative died that same day and has not yet been buried, is prohibited to eat consecrated items.

    Acronyms like these are used throughout the Talmud as mnemonic devices. In general, the acronyms assist the Sages in remembering discussions in which numerous opinions are cited consecutively, potentially leading to confusion between the names of the speakers or their opinions. Acronyms were also composed as summaries of halakhot, as in the case of yod, ayin, lamed, kuf, gimmel and mem that represent the disputes between Abayye and Rava where, anomalously, the halakhah is in accordance with the opinion of Abayye (see http://www.steinsaltz.org/learning.php?pg=Daf_Yomi&articleId=1313).

    Not all mnemonics are identical. Most are acronyms, although they do not always consist of the first letter of each word. The mnemonic that appears later on today’s daf – mem, tet, kuf, samekh – is a mnemonic of the Sages who addressed the issue at hand: Meir, Tarfon, Akiva, and Yosei.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  33. Shabbat 26a-b – Standing in the study hall

    While discussing the limitations on the different types of oil that may be used for lighting Shabbat candles, the Gemara repeats the restrictive ruling in the Mishnah (see above, daf, or page 24): Rabbi Tarfon says: One may only light with olive oil alone.

    In response to this teaching the Gemara relates the following incident:
    Rabbi Yoĥanan ben Nuri stood on his feet and, contrary to this statement, said: And what shall the people of Babylonia, who have only sesame oil, do? And what shall the people of Medea, who have only nut oil, do? And what shall the people of Alexandria, who have only radish oil, do? And what shall the people of Cappadocia, who have neither this nor that but only naphtha, do? Rather, you have a prohibition only with regard to those substances with regard to which the Sages said: One may not light with them. All other oils are permitted.

    Generally speaking, all of the Sages sat in the study hall and voiced their opinions on different topics while seated. Since certain Sages wanted to rule stringently with regard to enhancement of the mitzvah, Rabbi Yoĥanan ben Nuri stood up in order to emphasize his objection to these stringencies. He asserted that the restrictions would eventually become too burdensome and would ultimately prevent people from fulfilling the mitzvah of kindling the Shabbat lights.

    Aside from naphtha that was discussed above (see daf 24), most of the other oils are of plant origin.

    Radish oil is produced from radish seeds, probably from the radish species Raphunus sativus, whose seeds contain a high concentration of oil. Ancient writers indicate that radish oil was prevalent in Egypt during the talmudic period.

    Regarding gourd oil, the gourds mentioned in the Bible and the Mishnah have been identified with the plant known as the bitter apple, the Citrullus colocynthis L. of the gourd family. This plant is similar to a watermelon and is found along the coastal plain and the other sandy regions of Israel. The plant has finger-like leaves that are somewhat similar to grape leaves and round fruits that are approximately 10 cm in diameter with a thick rind. The fruit is spongy, filled with seeds, and has a bitter taste.
    It is possible to extract oil from the seeds, generally as much as 15 percent of the weight of the seeds. The oil can be used for food or light.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  34. Shabbat 27a-b – The uniqueness of flax

    Following a discussion of oils that are appropriate for use in lighting Shabbat candles, the Mishnah on today’s daf (=page) turns its attention to the wicks that are used. Common wicks such as cotton are made from seeds; the Mishnah discusses the fact that most substances derived from actual trees would not be appropriate for use as wicks.

    Of all substances that emerge from the tree, one may light only with flax on Shabbat because the other substances do not burn well (Tosafot). And of all substances that emerge from the tree, the only substance that becomes ritually impure with impurity transmitted by tents over a corpse is flax. If there is a dead body inside a house or a tent that is made from any materials that originate from a tree, everything in the house becomes ritually impure. However, only in the case of flax does the tent itself become impure.

    Cultivated flax, Linum usitatissimum, is an annual plant that grows erect to a height of 40–120 cm. Its flowers are blue or white. Its stiff stalks contain flax fibers, and oil is extracted from its seeds. After the plant is cut, the stalks are soaked in water, called mei mishra in the language of the Sages, for several days. Various bacteria cause the materials that attach the fibers to the stalks to decompose. Afterward the shell is beaten and opened and the fibers are extracted to be used in weaving linen, bad or shesh in the language of the Torah. The flax plant has been cultivated since ancient times, especially in ancient Egypt.

    With regard to the secondary halakhah that is presented in the Mishnah, the only material made from plant fibers that is suspended over a dead body that becomes ritually impure is linen. Some commentaries say that this law applies specifically to a permanent tent (Rambam Sefer Tahara, Hilkhot Tumat Met 5:12).

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  35. Shabbat 28a-b – The unique taĥash of the desert

    The discussion of tent impurity and the materials that can become ritually defiled when suspended over a dead body (see yesterday’s daf, or page), leads the Gemara to discuss another famous biblical tent – the Tabernacle of the desert. The Tabernacle was made up of several layers of different types of materials, one of which was made from an animal called a taĥash. In investigating the identity of this animal the Gemara on today’s daf asks:

    What is the halakhic conclusion reached about this matter of the taĥash that existed in the days of Moses? Rabbi Ela said that Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said that Rabbi Meir used to say: The taĥash that existed in the days of Moses was a creature unto itself, and the Sages did not determine whether it was a type of undomesticated animal or a type of domesticated animal. And it had a single horn on its forehead, and this taĥash happened to come to Moses for the moment while the Tabernacle was being built, and he made the covering for the Tabernacle from it. And from then on the taĥash was suppressed and is no longer found.

    The identity of the taĥash is a matter of great controversy and was never resolved. Some authorities explain that the taĥash is a monodon or narwhal, a species of whale. Narwhals travel in small groups, especially in northern ocean waters. It can grow to 6 meters in length. Its primary color is light yellow and it is spotted with numerous dark spots, the only cetacean with spots. A twisted tooth, up to 3 m long, grows out of one side of its mouth, to the extent that for many years it was thought to be the horn of the unicorn. It is possible that a group of these creatures approached the Red Sea and were thrown onto the shore or trapped there.

    The narwhal’s appearance closely parallels the descriptions here: It is spotted, it has a single horn on its forehead and the Sages were unable to determine its precise nature: domesticated or nondomesticated; kosher or non-kosher.

    Prof. Yehuda Feliks, one of the foremost scholars in the field of nature in the Bible, suggests that the taĥash may have been a giraffe, which has many of the characteristics mentioned by Rabbi Meir: A multicolored hide, a horn-like protrusion on its forehead, and some of the signs that determine that an animal is kosher.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger

  36. Shabbat 29a-b – Complicated lamps on Shabbat

    While lighting Shabbat candles is a rabbinic obligation, the Sages remained concerned lest the proximity to a burning candle might lead to prohibited actions of kindling or extinguishing the flame. The fundamental dispute in the Mishnah on today’s daf (=page) is with regard to the determination whether or not indirect acts of kindling and extinguishing fall within the parameters of the prohibition on Shabbat. The Mishnah teaches:

    A person may not pierce a hole in an eggshell and fill it with oil, and place it over the mouth of a lamp so that the egg will drip additional oil into the lamp and thereby extend the time that it burns. And this is the ruling even if it is not an actual egg but an earthenware vessel. And Rabbi Yehuda permits doing so. However, if the craftsman, who crafts ceramic vessels, attached the egg to the lamp from the outset, one is permitted to fill it with oil because it constitutes a single, large vessel. The Rabbis decreed that a person may not fill a bowl with oil, and place it beside the lamp, and place the unlit head of the wick into the bowl so that it draws additional oil from the bowl and thereby extend the time that the lamp burns. And Rabbi Yehuda permits doing so.

    In the Babylonian Talmud, the rationale for this halakhah is the concern lest one come to use the additional oil. However, in the Jerusalem Talmud, the Sages questioned this reason and offer a different one in its place. Only in the case of an oil lamp with a wick can one claim that the burning of each and every drop of oil began before Shabbat and is merely continuing on Shabbat. However, oil added from an eggshell or from an additional vessel will only reach the wick on Shabbat itself. It will only begin burning then, which is tantamount to having been lit on Shabbat.

    This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim of Rabbi Steinsaltz, as published in the English version of the Koren Talmud Bavli with Commentary by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and edited and adapted by Rabbi Shalom Berger.

  37. TO BE CONTINUED AS SEPARATE POSTS FOR EACH MASHEKHET.

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