Friday, August 26, 2005

Shabbos: A Snake of the Rabbis

When Rav encounters Shmuel and Karna, even though they clearly know that he is ill, they pester him with questions (because they are hungry for knowledge) and they deny him the use of the latrine (though this is clearly because they believe that it will contribute to his cure). (108a). Rav curses them both and it is fatal for them because, as ArtScroll attests in footnote 48, "The curse of a Sage, even if it was uttered in error, inevitably comes to be."

And the misplaced curse of the Sage inevitably leads to a discussion of folk remedies for various ailments, including snake bites (109b). After all, even if the curse of a rabbi is the one ailment that cannot be cured in this world, those who are powerful enough to fling such bad medicine must have some powerful good mojo, too!

Amidst the cures offered for snake bite, there is the odd story of Rav Shimi bar Ashi, who in fact is reported to have swallowed a snake! This is a literal enactment of what is referred to on 110a as "a snake of the Rabbis." And it mirrors the curse of a Sage, as well. The snake of the Rabbis is the Rabbi who can bite a snake. And Rabbis can cure snake bite, but not snake-of-the-Rabbi bites.

Oh, yes! We have entered the Freudian Talmud! Clearly, a snake is not simply a snake. And we are soon asked to ponder how a woman should deal with a snake who's mind gets "centered" on the woman: "She should cohabit with her husband in front of it." Which brings us back to the ostensible focus of Tractate Shabbos: what we are permitted to do on Shabbos. First and foremost, we are permitted to cohabit with our partners, and no snake, even if it is a Rabbi, should deter us from this mitzvah!

On 112a we consider knots, including the knot on the opening of a woman's chemise, which may be tied and untied all day long (on Shabbos). Then, on 114, we are told that "Any Torah scholar upon whose garment a grease stain is found is liable to death at the hand of Heaven" according to R'Chiya bar Abba, who taught it in the name of R'Yochanan. However, Ravina says "It . . . was stated about a stain of semen." Keep your hands on the text at all times; wandering fingers could lead to deadly transgressions! And keep your eyes off those knots . . . and don't even think of the treasures that are concealed just beyond the chemise. Except on Shabbas! Then you should take that tunic off and put the semen where it belongs!

But the snake of the Rabbi takes many forms. On 115a, Rabbah fabricates a ruling in the name of R'Yochanan to build a higher fence around the Torah. It does not surprise me that he does it, but it astonishes me that it is recorded in the text. Is the Oral Torah so "maculate" that a Rabbi can freely make it more stringent through fabricating a teaching that was never taught?

The Mishnah next takes up the question of which books may be rescued from a burning library on Shabbos. The Sages attitude toward translations would be worthy of a treatise all by itself (and I am in fact in the middle of writing an extended paper on how translation contributes and/or detracts from our relationship to the text). Here I will simply note that the Rabbis clearly were more afraid of Jews like me than idolaters. They had to ultimately concede defeat on translation, for which the mere existence of the ArtScroll translation is sufficient evidence, but which the ArtScroll also explicitly acknowledges in fn2 on 115b: "due to a general decline in the level of scholarship . . . the Rabbis subsequently permitted writing Scriptures in other languages." But despite this concession, the threat of the Am Haaretz was so great that the Rabbi says that "Even if a person was pursuing him to kill him, or a snake was running after him to bite him"-- again with the snakes!!!-- "he would enter a gentile house of idolatry to save himself, but he would not enter the house of these Jewish sectarians, because these Jewish sectarians are aware of God yet deny him."