Rabbinic Mind Games
Lionizing those who perform feats of memory and logic, who reason strictly from premise to conclusion
This leads to other examples of the dignity required on Shabbat. “Your walking on Shabbat should not be like your walking on weekdays,” the Gemara holds, and goes on to explain what this means: On Shabbat a man should not leap over a stream; or, alternatively, a man should not take long strides on Shabbat. In fact, the rabbis suggest that you should never take long strides, for medical reasons: “A long stride takes away one-five-hundredth of the light of a person’s eyes,” that is, it impairs the vision. (One wonders what experience drew the rabbis to this conclusion, which seems so odd today.)
Eventually, after a long digression on the Book of Ruth, the Talmud returns to the question of appropriate dress and conduct, this time specifically with regard to Torah scholars. According to Chiya bar Abba, “It is a disgrace for a Torah scholar to go out with patched shoes into the marketplace.” This is fine in principle, but, the Gemara objects, Acha ban Chanina sometimes did wear patched shoes—surely such a sage could not have been infringing the law! Rav Acha clarifies: The disgrace is not just patches, but “patches upon patches.”
There is not just an aesthetic but an economic dimension to this rule. The Torah scholar, as a leader of the community, must be able to afford to keep up appearances. But simple cleanliness is also important, as the Gemara goes on to insist: “Any scholar upon whose garment a grease stain is found is liable to death.” Why such an extreme judgment? Because, according to the Book of Proverbs, all those who hate Torah love death, and a dirty sage causes people to disparage the Torah. Ravina, perhaps feeling that this is a bit hard on the grubby scholar, has a different reading: It is not a grease stain, he holds, but a semen stain that brings death, presumably since this is more disgraceful.
Finally, the discussion ends with another example of the rabbis’ rewriting of the Bible in accordance with their own values. A holy man is supposed to dress well, the rabbis have concluded. But this rule was not known to the prophets, who often wore sackcloth and ashes or went naked in order to shame the Israelites. After all, Yochanan pointed out, doesn’t the book of Isaiah say, “My servant Isaiah has gone naked and barefoot”? Faced with this contradiction between the original text and their own worldview, the rabbis resort to the very useful tool of hermeneutics. “Naked means with worn-out garments,” they conclude, “and barefoot means with patched shoes.” This is as far as they are willing to see Isaiah dress down—an example of the limitations, as well as the power, of the rabbis’ understanding of piety.
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