Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Shabbos: Dead on Arrival

As I mentioned in the previous entry, I've been attending a professional conference and unable to blog, but I have been keeping up with the daf, and it has had an influence on my responses in the "secular" world.

I was on a panel discussing strategies for reprinting scholarly texts and I was asked, regarding out-of-print books, whether I put a new cover on a book if I brought it back into print. I replied, "When we revive the dead, we expect them to emerge from their graves in the suits they were buried in." (No doubt I was thinking of the discussion on 43b concerning permissible methods of removing a corpse from the sun on Shabbos.)

But these pages aren't engaging me. There are so many rules enacted to prevent people from initiating permissible activities on a continuum with unpermissible activities, lest people claim they crossed the boundary unawares or forgot they deliberately placed something only permissible if left inadvertently.

And every area is saturated with ambiguity: R'Chiya bar Abba permits what a decree prohibits because he is unaware of the decree, which was only enacted because too many people were "claiming" that their practice conformed to what the decree prohibited (38a). The Sages prohibit steambathing when "sinners proliferated," but permitted a man to stroll through the steambath "without concern that people will suspect him of steambathing" (40a). They permit thinking of Torah anywhere but in a bathhouse or a lavatory but equivocate on whether one can speak of secular matters in the "holy tongue" or speak of Torah in these profane places to prevent someone from committing a transgression (40b).

And then there are whiffs of the burlesque house. There is the tall-tale telling rabbi who warns "Whoever holds his male member while urinating is considered as if he is bringing a flood onto the world" (41a). And the dispute of when "work" is actually work and when it is a euphemism for cohabitation (49b). (This latter dispute may be especially critical to those who need encouragement to cohabit on Shabbos --raise your hands!) And the vaudeville turn of Elisha, whose death-defying refusal to obey a Roman edict that promises to gouge out the brain of anyone who dons Tefillin ends with his triumphant and magical transformation of his tefillin into dove's wings.

I'm struggling to find any continuity or underlying meaning in these folios. And I'm not finding it. Not in this tractate.


Anonymous kaspit said...

I'm wondering if there isn't continuity in trying to bring the rabbinic/halakhic mindset into the mundane (secular, profane, etc). So spatial domains, ordinary objects (potential muktzeh), routine rituals (candelighting), the kitchen and more liminal spaces take on a different hue. Also, professional conferences tend to leave me cynical, so maybe the daf or tractate seems more atomized there.

LOL at your comment from NYT.
Kol tuv,

10:49 AM  
Blogger NeilLitt said...

Of course, you are absolutely right . . . including the part about professional conferences! My own relaxed Shabbas practice is probably also a factor in why this material leaves me cold: for me the priority is to restore myself after a week of work, and sometimes that means picking up a pen and jotting down a thought or carrying a plate from a private domain to a public domain for a pot luck, or taking medicine, all of which this tractate prohibits.

But I feel like I turned a corner reading today's daf and I'll post an extended comment on it over the weekend.

11:25 AM  

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