Thursday, May 19, 2005

Shabbos: Tales from the Upper Chamber

It's a hard blog to hew as the tractate takes some wild turns. I'm just barely hanging in there as the Rabbis wrestle with the eighteen measures. I'm posting less frequently and trying to get a long view on what's unfolding. I have my theories, but I know I'm out on a limb.

The Mishnah on 11a reviews several ordinances that ArtScroll characterizes as "precautionary laws to prevent inadvertent violation of the Sabbath." On 11b, no less a Sage than Rava cries out (presumably) in exasperation, "Are we to arise and legislate another Rabbinic decree to protect this Rabbinic decree?" Indeed, it does seem that they are putting fences around fences.

Then the questions start flying. Does a fellow with gonnorheal secretions violate the Sabbath if he wears (carries) a protective pouch? (12a). How do various Amoraim deal with lice on the Sabbath? Can a menstruating woman sleep in the same bed with her husband if they both remain clothed? (13a).

Of all the questions asked, the only one I consider worthy of reflection is whether a sick person may pray in Aramaic (i.e. in a language that he understands). (12b). Here, finally, the Rabbis allow a tiny loosening of the straightjacket out of compassion for the suffering of the afflicted.

But the stringent philosophy appears to prevail. Hillel's victory on the question of whether one can kill a louse on Shabbos (Hillel permits it) is merely a pretext to review many matters on which Hillel and Shammai disagree, including eighteen measures where Shammai's opinion prevails. However, it is a most difficult text. Is Shammai's victory simply due to the failure of Hillel's students to show up and vote? Is the disagreement only between the students, and not at all between Hillel and Shammai themselves? Is it even clear which eighteen measures were resolved that evening?

The critical question may be whether one can touch a Torah Scroll with one's bare hand(14b). Its importance may even be underlined by the Gemara's suggestion that the point was not settled by Hillel and Shammai at all, but goes all the way back to King Solomon! Is this attribution, which is extended to the institution of the Eruv as well, a disclaimer meant to augment the Rabbinical foundation of these ordinances?

It is intriguing that even as the Rabbi's attribute rulings to Solomon, they also attribute one to weavers "from the dung gate of Jerusalem" (15a), suggesting that Kings and commoners alike can settle these matters. Is it modesty or caution that motivates the Rabbis to spread the credit for rules that may seem burdensome and offputting?