At the siyum for Tractate Shabbat yesterday I spoke about an intriguing aspect of the laws and practice of Shabbat.
A few years ago I heard a shiur from a musmach of YU whose subject was Women’s learning. He quoted the oft repeated idea that women should indeed learn Torah but only the halachot relevant to their practice as observant Jews. For example if they keep Shabbat they should learn the laws of Shabbat. However, this came with a very big and, at the time, surprising caveat. He suggested that one cannot really know how to ‘keep’ shabbat just by reading/learning the laws of Shabbat but that to truly understand Shabbat one has to learn the Talmud. I dont think that I really understood what he was saying at the time.
After that shiur I spent about two and half years learning the laws of Shabbat. Something unexpected came out of that learning. Much of the laws of shabbat has a subjective side. One particular area was Muktzeh (set-aside) items, where many of the laws depend on the subjective nature of a particular persons ‘relationship’ with an object. How very strange. Surely something is either allowed or prohibited on Shabbat, we might imagine it is all black and white. It most certainly is not.
The final piece of Talmud found in Tractate Shabbat quotes the last Mishnah and ends in a bizarre way.
ומדבריהם למדנו שפוקקין ומודדין וקושרין בשבת. עולא איקלע לבי ריש גלותא. חזייה לרבה בר רב הונא דיתיב באוונא דמיא, וקא משח ליה. אמר ליה: אימר דאמרי רבנן מדידה דמצוה, דלאו מצוה מי אמור? – אמר ליה: מתעסק בעלמא אנא.
הדרן עלך מי שהחשיך
וסליקא לה מסכת שבת
[The mishna concludes:] And from their statements [and their actions,] we derived that one may seal [a window], and measure, and tie [a knot] on Shabbat. [The Gemara relates:] Ulla happened [to come] to the house of the Exilarch. He saw Rabba bar Rav Huna sitting in a tub [avna] of water and measuring it. [He] said to [Rabba bar Rav Huna:] Say that the Sages said [that it is permitted to measure on Shabbat only] a measurement for a Mitzvah. [However, with regards to a measurement like this one,] which is not for a Mitzvah, did they say [that it is permitted? Rabba bar Rav Huna] said to him: I am merely acting unawares] and am not at all interested in the measurements. Therefore, it is not prohibited].
How curious. Measurement is prohibited, he was measuring but because he did not care about the outcome it was permitted.
In answer to this I would like to quote from Abraham Heschel’s monumental book ‘The Sabbath’. A truly beautiful insight into the true understanding of Shabbat
The Sabbath pp50-2
At the beginning time was one, eternal. But time undivided, time eternal, would be unrelated to the world of space. So time was divided into seven days and entered into an intimate relationship with the world of space. With every single day, another realm of things came into being, except on the seventh day. The Sabbath was a lonely day. It may be compared to a king who has seven sons. To six of them he gave his wealth, and the youngest one he endowed with nobility, with the prerogative of royalty. The six older sons who were commoners found their mates, but the noble one remained without a mate.
Says Rabbi Shimeon ben Yohai:
After the work of creation was completed, the Seventh Day pleaded: Master of the universe, all that Thous hast created is in couples; to every day of the week Thous hast given a mate; only I was left alone. And God answered: The Community of Israel will be your mate.
That promise was not forgotten, “When the people of Israel stood before the mountain of Sinai, the Lord said to them: “Remember that I said to the Sabbath: The Community of Israel is your mate.’ Hence: Remember the Sabbat day to sanctify it” (Exodus 20:8). The Hebrew Le’Kadesh, to sanctify, means, in the language of the Talmud, to consecrate a woman, to betroth. Thus the meaning of the word on Sinai was to impress upon Israel the fact that their destiny is to be the groom of the sacred day, the commandment to espouse the seventh day. (Genesis Rabba 11,8.)
With all its grandeur, the Sabbath is not sufficient unto itself. Its spiritual reality calls for companionship of man. There is a great longing in the world. The six days stand in need of space: the seventh day stands in need of man. It is not good that the spirit should be alone, so Israel was destined to be a helpmeet for the Sabbath.
Heschel tells us that without man, Shabbat is nothing. Therefore we can now see that a subjective approach, a personal approach to the practice of the Sabbath is key to achieving the deep spirituality of the day!
And so we start Tractate Eruvin 🙂