Thursday, May 12, 2005

Shabbos: Beginning of the New Order

Master of Your Semi-Private Domain

I started the practice of reading the daf several years ago in midcycle, so I have had the experience of reading many tractates that are concerned with processes that are no longer in effect. However, I have never been as directly challenged to reconcile the doctrines described in the text with my own practice as I am with Tractate Shabbos, because here, for the first time, I must deal with practices that are not dependent on the existence of the nonexistent Temple.

It is one thing to read as an academic exercise about practices that one would not follow when no one is called to follow these practices. It is an imaginative leap to read such a text as a literary product. But when the text reflects practices that remain part of the baseline of traditional observance, such a reading will likely appear to be blasphemous to some, and the reader himself may become self-conscious or even feel threatened by the alienation of his own practice from the practice that the text mandates. As a true am haaretz, this is the dilemma I now face, and the reason why my first post on this tractate has been so many days overdue.

Discussing this with Mike, I found myself agreeing with his basic (and unorthodox) reading: Rabbinic Judaism surely begins here. Most of the Shabbos restrictions are Rabbinic constructs.

Even so, there are distinct differences to our readings and I hope that he will post a response to this entry that expands on his notion that the eruv is the Rabbinic mechanism for releasing the people from a set of restrictions in exchange for their acceptance of the Rabbi's authority to create the restrictions in the first place. It is an interesting thesis, suggesting yet another reason for Jewish families to live clustered around common courtyards (as if a reason were needed, given the frequent manifestations of hostility in the diaspora from locally dominent cultures) .

My touchstone to the Rabbinic stamp on Shabbas, however, is not the eruv, but the karmelis-- the Rabbinic invention that ArtScroll calls "a semi-public domain." This "gray area" that has no Biblical foundation is too public to be private but only in the sense that it is sufficiently visible that the acts that might be permitted there are prohibited Rabbinically lest someone in a public domain see them and mistakenly conclude that these acts are permitted in public.

The restrictions built up to make Shabbas at least appear to be a day of rest are exhausting to observe. With no Biblical prohibitions against commercial transactions in a walled city, ArtScroll concedes that "people, prohibited from many other activities, would find the Sabbath a convenient day to shop." But when you add all the Rabbinic restrictions that have accrued to this "day of rest," rest may become a straightjacket.

For example, how do I rest when I know that a poor man needs nourishment and I am "forbidden" to carry it to him?

This is a very lengthy tractate, so I don't doubt we will have ample opportunity to unpack this and many similar questions. God only knows where this will lead!


Anonymous Reed Chopper said...

Your feeling that most of the laws of Shabbat are Rabbinic constructs is mirrored by the Rabbis' own assertion in the Mishnah:

Chagigah 10a

However, there are laws with no scriptural basis which have the halakhic status of "Torahitic" anyway.

2:45 PM  
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