Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Shabbos: The Care and Feeding of Gentiles

They stuck a sword in the house of study and they said: whoever wants to enter may enter but whoever wants to leave may not leave. And on that day Hillel was submissive and he sat before Shammai like one of his disciples. And that day was as grievous to Israel as the day on which the golden calf was made. And Shammai and Hillel passed a decree on the matter but the populace did not accept it from them.
Is all the attention to the few triumphs of Shammai a warning to all future Rabbis to be mindful that stringent rulings will discourage the people from maintaining a connection to Jewish practice?

The chapter ends with some apparant leniencies. When I began reading this tractate, I despaired that one would be permitted to feed the poor on the Sabbath, but here (19a1) it is taught that "we may place food before a gentile in the courtyard on the Sabbath [and] if he takes it and goes out of the yard, we need not involve ourselves with it." So, while we may not bring the food out to him, it is incumbent upon us to invite him in! (Even the gentile!)

In like manner, some restrictions are waived (20a) when groups are presumed to be conscientious. One such group are Pesach celebrants putting meat up to roast just before Shabbos. (Perhaps this presumption should be revisited in light of the tragic fire that occurred this year!)

Chapter 2 is ostensibly about the wicks and fuels that may be used for Shabbos lamps, but launches into a lengthy digression on the makeup and use of Hanukah candles. As I mentioned in the previous post, this shift from Rabbinic enactments related to a Biblically mandated holiday to a discourse on a holiday that is purely Rabbinic is itself worth noting. The ultimate conclusion is that the goal of the observance is to publicize what is being commemorated. Was Hanukah a celebration of a victory over the assimilationists from its very birth? How unlike the Rabbis to encourage a fuss in the public squares of our exile!

Monday, May 23, 2005

Shabbos: Defying the Text

Rabbi Jim Diamond recommended a text by David Halivni called Revelation Restored: Divine Writ and Critical Responses. In the Foreword by Peter Ochs, Halivni's Holocaust memoir, The Book and the Sword: A Life of Learning in the Shadow of Destruction, is quoted. Within that quote, a particular passage begins, "Once I wrote . . ." How like and unlike the Talmud this is: while Talmud teachings are most certainly embedded within embedments, here it is Halivni quoted in Halivni quoting Halivni! In the context of studying the sly Rabbinic shift from a chapter of Rabbinic enactments about something Biblically mandated (Shabbos) to a chapter with an extended digression about a holiday that has no basis but Rabbinic decree (Hanukah), Halivni's embedded quote is most welcome:
How is one to explain the blatant contradiction between counting and upholding every word, every letter of the text, and at the same time boldly pronouncing, 'Chasora machasra vehacha ketanti' -- 'There is a lacuna in the text, and it should be read differently'?
Then Halivni expands on embedded Halivni:
The Rabbis had to lend divine power to the text to lend power to their defiance of it. A lacuna in a human text is of no religious significance. A lacuna in a divine text? That already smacks of heresy. The Rabbis of the Talmud tampered with the Biblical text, frequently offered interpretations that ran counter to the integrity of it, and openly said: There is a lacuna in the Mishnah . . .

This is heady stuff.