Written in the Stars (Or Not)
To overcome fated lives, the Talmud’s rabbis argued, perform virtuous acts according to Torah
Most often, when Jews use the phrase mazel tov, they simply mean “congratulations”—it’s the kind of thing you say when you hear about someone getting married or having a baby. Literally, however, mazel tov means “good fortune,” as in “may you have good fortune.” Still more literally, I learned in this week’s Daf Yomi reading, mazal means a constellation, and wishing someone a good mazal means hoping that the stars will be in their favor. In other words, mazel tov is a relic of astrology, the belief that the orientation of the stars can affect human destiny. As such, it seems to pose a significant challenge to the basic Jewish idea that God and God alone rules the universe. Should Jews believe in mazal?
This issue came up as part of a long digression in the final chapter of Tractate Shabbat. Chapter 24 begins by discussing several aspects of Shabbat law having to do with animals. We know that it is forbidden for a Jew to do work on Shabbat; but is it permitted for him to use an animal to do work for him? Say, for instance, that you are traveling on Friday evening and Shabbat begins. What should you do about your money pouch, which you are not allowed to carry? The best option, the Mishna tells us in Shabbat 153a, is to give it to a Gentile to carry. But this seems to contradict a ruling made earlier in the tractate, that it is forbidden for a Jew to ask a Gentile to break Shabbat laws on his behalf. “What is the reason the Sages permitted him to give his pouch to a Gentile?” asks the Gemara.
The answer displays the same kind of psychological realism we saw in last week’s discussion. “A person does not restrain himself with money,” the Sages observe. If the law required a Jew to simply abandon his money pouch on the road, the odds are he would not obey the law, since any person’s strong instinct is to guard his money closely. It’s better, the rabbis reason, to allow a Jew to entrust his money to a Gentile than to tempt him to flout the law altogether.
And what if you happen to be traveling alone? Then, the Mishna instructs, you should place your money pouch on your donkey, to avoid carrying it on Shabbat. Here too, however, there are legal complications. As the Gemara points out, Exodus 20:10 seems to forbid loading an animal on Shabbat: “And the seventh day is Shabbat for the Lord your God, you shall not perform any manner of labor, neither you, nor your son … nor your animal.” Doesn’t the Mishna’s ruling contradict the Torah?
This question gives rise to an extended discussion, in which various sages take different positions. Rav Adda bar Ahava suggests that loading an animal that is already walking does not constitute full-fledged loading, so that the donkey is not really performing a forbidden labor. Rami bar Chama takes a stricter view, holding that using a donkey to violate Shabbat is just as bad as violating it yourself and deserves the same punishment—that is, death by stoning. Yochanan, however, believes that such an act deserves no punishment at all, since a Jew is only liable for infringements he performs in person.
From here, the Talmudic discussion moves to another animal-related question. Earlier in Tractate Shabbat, there were extended debates about what kind of food preparation is permitted on Shabbat. But all of that had to do with preparing food for human consumption. What are the rules about working on Shabbat to prepare food for animals to eat? On this issue, the rabbis fall into two camps. According to Rav Huna, it’s allowed to set out food that is already edible: Thus it is permitted to untie a bundle of grain and spread it out before an animal. But Huna forbids doing any work to render food edible in the first place. Thus he forbids the untying of bundles of cedar branches, since a bundle of cedar branches cannot be eaten, though individual branches can be.
Rav Yehuda, however, takes just the opposite view. For him, it is all right to make food edible, but not to “exert oneself on Shabbat with food that is already in an edible state.” Thus Yehuda would not allow a Jew to crush hay for a horse to eat, since hay can already be eaten uncrushed. On the other hand, he would permit chopping up an animal carcass on Shabbat, in order to feed it to dogs. But wait, the Gemara objects: Isn’t an animal carcass already soft enough for dogs to eat? The answer is one of those brilliantly impractical suppositions that the Talmud often resorts to. What Yehuda must have had in mind, the rabbis conclude, is “elephant flesh”! Surely the Jews of Babylonia were not in the habit of feeding their dogs elephant meat. But the Gemara must find a way of making sense of Rav Yehuda’s ruling, and even the most empirically far-fetched solution is better than suggesting that Yehuda was simply wrong. As always, the prime value for the Talmud is to justify its authorities, to make some kind of sense of their rulings, even if that sense seems nonsensical to us.
Later in this discussion, several rabbinic opinions are cited as being “from the notebook” of this or that sage. This formal device allows the Gemara to introduce an unrelated group of sayings from the notebook of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, having to do with the character traits associated with being born on each day of the week. Even today, some people still believe that being an Aquarius or a Libra means having a certain kind of personality. Yehoshua believed the same thing, but about Mondays and Tuesdays and so forth.
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