Can’t Touch This
Talmudic rabbis debate the reach of permissions and prohibitions, and Jews are rewarded for virtuous behavior
This rabbinic confidence seems to justify a maxim that the sages state in Chapter 18, when they are discussing the reward people can expect for possessing various virtues. Most kinds of good behavior are rewarded in the world to come, the rabbis hold, but for “six matters a person enjoys the profits in this world”: hospitality to guests, visiting the sick, praying thoughtfully, going early to the study hall, raising sons to engage in Torah study, and judging another person favorably—that is, giving him the benefit of the doubt, as the rabbis gave the people the benefit of the doubt about Shabbat.
The Talmud goes on to tell some memorable stories about people who were given the benefit of the doubt, even when their conduct seemed questionable. There was, for example, the time when Rabbi Yehoshua went to visit a Roman matron whose help he needed. (As the Koren notes, it was not uncommon for upper-class Romans, especially women, to be interested in Judaism; presumably Yehoshua needed this woman’s help in dealing with the imperial authorities.) His students watched as Yehoshua took off his tefillin, entered the woman’s house, and locked the door behind him. When he emerged, he went straight to the ritual bath to purify himself.
Since this is what men have to do after having a seminal emission, it would have been natural to conclude that Yehoshua had just been intimate with the matron. But when he quizzed his students, they denied having any such suspicion. “When I locked the door, of what did you suspect me?” he asked, and they replied, “We said: Perhaps there is a royal matter that must be discussed between him and her.” “When I descended and immersed, of what did you suspect me?” “We said: Perhaps a bit of spittle sprayed from her mouth onto the rabbi’s clothes.” By judging Yehoshua so leniently, not suspecting him of committing crimes, the students earned his blessing: “Just as you judged favorably, may God judge you favorably.”
Finally, near the end of Chapter 18, we reach the Talmud’s discussion of when it is permitted to violate Shabbat in order to help a sick person. Actually, the rabbis first address the question of animals: What can you do, Rav asks, if an animal falls into an aqueduct on Shabbat? You are not allowed to actually pick it up and carry it, which would be a direct biblical violation. But you are allowed to take cushions and blankets and put them beneath the animal, so that it can walk out of the water on its own. The Gemara points out that by putting cushions in the water, you are rendering them unfit for their usual purpose, and that this could fall under the forbidden melachah of dismantling. Rav has an answer ready: “Negating a vessel’s preparedness is forbidden by rabbinic law. Causing a living creature to suffer is a Torah prohibition. And a matter prohibited by Torah law comes and overrides a matter prohibited by rabbinic law.”
When it comes to a human being, the rabbis are even more permissive. “One may desecrate Shabbat for a woman giving birth,” the Mishnah instructs, since she is considered to be a person with a life-threatening illness. The Gemara expands on what this “desecration” includes: You can light a lamp, summon a midwife, and bring the pregnant woman oil. However, if possible, the rabbis advise that these things should be done in an atypical manner, as a gesture to Shabbat. Thus they advise that, if a woman is bringing her pregnant friend oil on Shabbat, she should “carry it in her hair.” The rabbis disagree, however, about whether this means immersing her hair in oil and then wringing it out—which seems odd, not to say unsanitary—or simply tying a container of oil to her hair.
It is permitted to violate Shabbat for a woman in childbirth, the rabbis rule, even if the patient herself doesn’t ask you to. According to Shmuel, “With regard to a woman in childbirth, as long as the womb is open, whether she said: I need Shabbat to be desecrated, or whether she did not say: I need Shabbat to be desecrated, one desecrates Shabbat for her.” It is even permissible to break Shabbat just to give the woman peace of mind. The rabbis consider the case of a blind woman in labor: Can one light a lamp for her, even though she doesn’t derive any benefit from the light? They answer that this is permitted, since the woman will take comfort from knowing that the people attending her will be able to see better. The case of the blind woman is a good example of the kind of hyperbole the rabbis often resort to when proving a point. Surely this particular situation didn’t arise often—a blind woman giving birth on Shabbat—but the rabbis invented it in order to demonstrate a principle: in this case, the principle that alleviating pain and suffering is even more sacred than Shabbat itself.
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