Monday, August 08, 2005

Shabbos: Some Reeds

Last week I was teaching the Talmud and its modern echoes in the works of Kafka, Levinas, Abbott & Costello, the Three Stooges, Jerry Seinfeld, and Lenny Bruce at the National Havurah Institute in Rindge, NH. But I did not miss my daf a day, and I have a few notes from Tractate Shabbos to share now that I'm finally back home.

One of the contributors to this blog signs himself "Reed Chopper," so I cannot ignore that last week's reading has the source of his nickname. On 95a, the rabbis seek to explain why one would be liable for milking an animal on Shabbos and Rav Nachman bar Gurya's explanation is dismissed by the others with the words, "Your teacher was a reed cutter in a swamp!" Rashi interprets this to mean that the teacher did not know how to explain a Baraisa. Thus, those of us who call ourselves Reed Chopper and Am Haaretz anticipate what the rabbis would say about us if they heard our explanations of this text.

And we are not alone! In my class we read Levinas, who precedes his Talmudic teaching with this advisory: "It is true that there are many in my audience that are excellent commentators themselves . . . I am relying on their help in a task I pursue only as an amateur. In any case, they will soon notice that in presenting myself as an amateur, I am not indulging in a display of false modesty." None of us are and all of us are.

Just so, I will call today's observations reeds.


While we were away, the house was painted. When we returned, we noticed that the painter had thoughtfully removed the mezuzah before painting the jamb . . . and then he re-hung it upside-down. In the very tractate we are currently studying, "R. Huna said: He who habitually practises [the lighting of] the lamp will possess scholarly sons; he who is observant of [the precept of] mezuzah will merit a beautiful dwelling" (23b), but it seems to me that this situation is more like those I taught last week, where the modern echoes of the Talmud offer a vivid extension of the text.

Lenny Bruce taught, "Christians are lucky because your God, the Christian God, is all over. He saves you. He's been in three films. The Jewish God -- where is the Jewish God? He's on a little box nailed to the doorjamb. In a mezuzah. I told my super, 'Don't paint God.' "


Perhaps the media is no longer concerned with the Rove leak, but it still comes up for me when I witness the ancient struggle to identify the source of critical information: "Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav, and some say, Abaye was the one who said it; and still others say it was taught in a Baraisa . . ." (92b). And yet others say that Novak got the name from Who's Who.

And 93a brings up additional reflections on this topic: "If . . . two people were holding heavier objects . . . If neither one was able to carry the thing himself, and the two took it out together, then they are both liable . . ." Because journalists need two sources to confirm a story (as Sanhedrin insists on two witnesses), the facts that Novak printed could not be carried by (for example) either Rove or Libby alone, and needed both to take it out, thus both are liable.

R'Yehudah does not hold them liable by this exclusion: he reserves this exclusion for "an individual who committed [a misdeed] as a result of his following the teaching of the High Court." By his measure, however, these sources would be held liable for seeking to be called innocent by embracing a legal technicality.


Technicalities abound. Poor Mar Kashisha was choking on the dust on Shabbos because he failed to remember that it is permissible to bring a basin of water and wash "his face in this corner, his hands in this corner, his feet in this corner, and it emerges that the house has its dust laid automatically" (95a). Alternatively, "the wife or daughter of a Torah scholar can lay the dust in her house on the Sabbath by rinsing out the dishes in one corner, the cups in another, etc."


Did Akiva reveal something intentionally hidden or perhaps malign an innocent man? This question comes out on both 96 and 97, first when he names the man who was stoned for carrying wood on Shabbos, and then when he suggests that Aaron was afflicted with tzaraas just as Miriam was. The stakes are high here, since no less a Sage than Reish Lakish warns that one who suspects an innocent will also be stricken! Just as Miriam was stricken for wrongfully speaking against Moses, Akiva himself could be stricken for wrongfully suspecting Aaron and/or Tzelophchad (the "gatherer").

Of course, the association of the Biblical story of wrongful speech with the story of a teacher who's speech may be wrong is most certainly a premeditated attempt to force us to stand up and take note. It would hardly be the first time Akiva has been asked to take a fall for the greater glory of Torah.

On the other hand, at least in the case of Tzelophchad, Rav stands up for Akiva and says, "I found a hidden scroll in the academy of R'Chiya." And if you were in my class last week, this will surely remind you of Lenny Bruce's confession as to who killed Christ: "You and I know what a Jew is: one who killed our Lord. Yes, I will clear the air. We did it. I did it. My family. I found a note in the basement. It's now on exhibit at Smithsonian. It says, 'We killed him. Shloyen.' " Those hidden scrolls have a way of turning up just when you need one!