Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Shabbos: It's Over

A discussion on which animals may be fed on Shabbos and by what means is interrupted on 155b: "R' Yonah expounded at the entrance to the Exilarch's palace: 'What is the meaning of that which is written: The Righteous One knows the suffering of the poor?" Is the location of the teaching of political significance-- i.e., is R'Yonah playing Cindy Sheehan to the Exilarch's George Bush?

The Exilarch will return as the Tractate concludes, but first we learn that "no one listened" to Rebbi's prohibition of kneading "because of the lenient ruling of R'Yose the son of R'Yehudah" (156a). Is this bad? So much of this tractate is concerned with building higher fences. Yet this breach in the fence will ensure that animals will not go hungry. I repeat, is this bad?

Then, abrubtly, the focus changes and several teachings suggest that astrology influences fate (156a). They are not exactly refuted; rather, the text insists that "celestial signs hold no sway over Israel" (156b); over others, however, the hold is firm. Israel averts its celestial destiny by performing mitzvot (e.g., feeding the hungry on Shabbos). The text does not so much connect the dots as put them all out in a cluster for the reader to connect.

Finally, in the last scene of this tractate the Exilarch is found in his bathtub, where he is measuring the water on Shabbas. It's not a problem, we learn, because he was merely "busying" himself-- "not measuring for any purpose" (157b).

I'll leave it to Reed Chopper to defend the Exilarch, if he indeed needs defending. It does seem that his role in these proceedings demands some explication.


Anonymous Reed Chopper said...

Congratulations! Your Siyyum exempts you from fasting on Tzom Gedaliah.

Parenthetically, in case you have not heard the old joke, and since today is Tzom Gedaliah: There are three reasons I don't fast on Tzom Gedaliah: 1. It gives me a headache; 2. If I had been assasinated, would Gedaliah have fasted for me? So I don't fast for him, either; and 3. From a Kal Vachomer (a fortiori argument): On Yom Kippur I don't fast, so on Tzom Gedaliah I'm gonna fast?

The relationship to Astrology is complicated. The official bottom line is that Astrology, whatever it may be, doesn't apply to Jews. However, the Babylonian Jews were a pretty superstitious lot, and couldn't quite shake off entirely the belief in magic, demons, amulets etc. all of which were not significant concerns for the Jews in Israel. Even Maimonides, six centuries after the Talmud, and a hyper-rationlist, who says explicitly that magic is all bunk and illusion, records (for some reason) the exact day, hour and minute of his own birth. Evidence of an interest in Astrology?

Finally, the Exilarch needs no defense from me, since he was generally good at defending himself, mostly from the Gaon.

9:20 AM  
Blogger NeilLitt said...

Was not the Gaon himself an Exilarch?

10:55 AM  
Anonymous Reed Chopper said...

No. The Head of the Academy was the Gaon, and the Exilarach was a Persian government official. Also, the Gaonate was a meritocracy, but the Exilarchate was hereditary (allegedly descendant from the male Davidic line, which made them feel superior to the Nasi-ate in Israel which was Davidic, but from a female line). Roughly, the Gaon and the Exilarch were the religious and secular authorities, respectively. The relationship between them was often stormy, especially at times when the appointment of a new Gaon required the consent of the incumbent Exilarch and vice-versa.

10:56 AM  

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