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Rabbinic Mind Games

Lionizing those who perform feats of memory and logic, who reason strictly from premise to conclusion

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(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original image Shutterstock)

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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Jonathan Dresner says:

I’m reminded of Confucianism in China: scholarship as the foundation of moral and ethical behavior; the expectation that intellectual and political leaders would not only follow, but embody virtue; the ongoing scholarship which parsed new situations through the lenses and metaphors of the classical texts.

gwhepner says:


Mention shoes to rabbis and they’ll think

of purity and Sabbath and the levir.

By means of halakhah the rabbis link

what’s humdrum and banal the forever

they find in laws which they believe that God

gave Moses, as, when both of them first met,

He ordered that he make himself unshod,

baring his two feet before he got them wet,

anticipating, as it were, a time

when how to wear one’s shoes would be a topic

the Talmud would discuss, a paradigm

for analyses quite microscopic.

Halakhic man’s obsession with his shoes

goes back to God’s command to Moses whose

removal of them indicates to Jews

how footnotes seem to validate God’s views.

Gershon Hepner

Since when is nitpicking an intellectual exercise?

9Athena says:

Well, if thinking is the epitome of scholarship, I would think about thinking. For instance if a rabbi wore patched shoes on the Sabbath I would think ‘why does he wear patched shoes on the Sabbath? Is he poor? Is he absent minded and no-one reminded him it was Sabbath? Or is he so preoccupied that he neglected to dress for the Sabbath? I would then think of all the various circumstances leading to each of these propositions and the various solutions to each circumstance. So you see, there’s thinking and then there’s heavy thinking (like myself). In thinking how I would approach the same subjects as the learned rabbis, I can only conclude my thinking is on a much higher level and I would certainly deserve more than a footnote (per gwhepner) in the annals of incisive and extraordinary Jewish scholarship.

So, then by extension might one might conclude that the reason for being forbidden to marry on Shabbos is that marriage, according to Jewish Law, is viewed as a permanent state of being despite the numerous regulations regarding divorce; since it too is considered tying a knot?


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Rabbinic Mind Games

Lionizing those who perform feats of memory and logic, who reason strictly from premise to conclusion

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