In order to understand Sabbath rules, the rabbis show, one must imagine exactly what work the Israelites did
After several weeks of difficult and abstract arguments over halakhah, I have been looking forward to some aggadah—the sort of tales and proverbs that are so much easier to follow and that offer more stimulus to the imagination. In this week’s Talmud reading, which made up most of Chapter 11 of Tractate Shabbat, there were flashes of aggadah, but only brief ones. In Shabbat 97a, for instance, we learn a comforting theory about God from Rava: “The beneficent measure meted out by God comes to pass more quickly than the measure of punishment.”
The God of the Talmud surely punishes, sometimes severely; but apparently he takes more pleasure in blessing. How do we know? By consulting Chapter 4 of Exodus, in which God teaches Moses various magic tricks that he can use to impress Pharaoh. One of these involves Moses reaching into his cloak and then withdrawing his hand, to show that it has turned white from leprosy (in Hebrew, tzaraat); then he returns his hand to his bosom and the leprosy disappears.
By parsing the text closely, the rabbis find that Moses contracted leprosy not when he put his hand to his bosom, but a moment later, when he pulled it out of his cloak; whereas he was cured the moment he touched his bosom again. The cure happened more quickly than the affliction; in this way, we see that God performs blessings faster, and presumably with more satisfaction, than he does curses. It’s worth noting, by the way, that the Talmud itself does not cite chapter and verse numbers when quoting the Tanakh; the rabbis simply quote the first few words of a passage, assuming that any reader will immediately be able to place them and know what follows. The degree of biblical literacy the Talmud takes for granted is enormous.
This week’s discussion of halakhah, however, went some way toward challenging the very distinction between law and legend, between the ratiocinative and the imaginative parts of the Talmud. The previous chapters of Tractate Shabbat dealt with the rules for carrying and transferring objects on Shabbat. In Chapter 11, the rabbis turn to a subdivision of the same subject: throwing objects on Shabbat. Is throwing subject to the same restrictions as ordinary transferring? The first mishnah says that it is: “If one throws from a private domain to a public domain, or from a public domain to a private domain, he is liable.”
But that is the easiest case to deal with. What if you throw an object from one private domain to another private domain—which would ordinarily be allowed—but on the way the object passes through a public domain? (The Mishnah gives the example of two balconies facing each other across a street.) Does the object become “public” at the moment it passes through the public domain, so that it is effectively transferred twice—private to public to private—or do only the beginning and end points count? The rabbis disagree on this point: The law holds that such a transfer is permissible, but Rabbi Akiva says it is forbidden.
It is here that the border between law and legend begins to blur. As we have seen earlier, the reason that 39 types of work, or melachot, are banned on Shabbat is that they are the kinds of activity performed by the Israelites when they constructed the Tabernacle in the desert. In order to make sense of Shabbat regulations, then, it’s necessary to reconstruct in the imagination just what kind of work the Israelites did—to transport oneself back to Moses’ time. Usually when we want to travel back in time, we turn to literature; for the rabbis, law collapses history just as effectively. Every time they reason about Shabbat, the whole spectacle of the Israelites building the Tabernacle appears before their eyes.
To explain why throwing across a public domain is permitted, while handing an object across a public domain is not, the rabbis envision the kind of work the Levites did when transporting the boards for the mishkan. The Levites would transport the boards in wagons that traveled two abreast, and they would customarily hand the boards from one wagon to the next; but they would not throw the boards. On Shabbat, we refrain from doing what the Levites did, so we cannot hand things over; but we can throw, since that was not part of the original activity of the mishkan.
The Gemara goes on to speculate in amazing detail about various aspects of the Tabernacle’s construction. How wide were the boards used to build its walls? How many boards made up each wall? Did they taper at the top, or were they pure rectangles? And what about the tapestry that was draped over the walls and ceiling: How long was it, and how much material hung down on each side, and how much of the bottom of the wall was exposed? The rabbis advance various theories about each of these questions, displaying both a clear visual imagination and a talent for mathematics. I found it very difficult to “see” the Tabernacle without diagrams (which the Schottenstein provides), but the rabbis needed no such visual aids. For me, the detail that stuck out was Rabbi Nechemya’s contribution: The goat hair used for the tapestry, he taught, was washed and spun while still on the goats.
Later in the chapter, we learn in a mishnah that even if it is out in the open country, which would ordinarily be a public domain, a rock 10 tefachim high or a pit 10 tefachim deep counts as private. (A tefach is a hand’s breadth, about 3-4 inches, as I learned from the invaluable Halachipedia.) This is a handy and practical way of settling what is really a kind of metaphysical question—what counts as a separate place? But naturally it also gives rise to its own set of questions.
Imagine, Rabbi Yochanan asks, that you had a pit nine tefachim deep, and on Shabbat you dug it out deeper so that it was the required 10 tefachim, and then deposited the dirt from the bottom of the pit onto the ground above. In this scenario, “the lifting of the object and the formation of the partition that makes the area a private domain occur simultaneously”: Does this count as a Shabbat violation? And what about the converse situation—if you have a pit 10 tefachim deep and you shovel a tefach’s worth of dirt into it, thus making it too shallow to be a private domain?
A former rabbi-teacher of mine has been accused of molesting students. So, why can’t I stop thinking of the good he did?