(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Library of Congress.)
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Queen for a Day

The rabbis who reasoned about the day of rest also celebrated it. Plus: The Talmud on iPad and in translation.

Adam Kirsch
February 05, 2013
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Library of Congress.)

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

Much is made in Jewish liturgy and folktale about the beauty of Shabbat, which is traditionally compared to a queen; I’ve always liked the romantic welcoming of the “bride” by singing Lekha Dodi. So far in Tractate Shabbat, there has been little of this kind of emotion: The purpose of the Talmud is not to eulogize Shabbat but to establish laws and regulations, to explain the principles of carrying and transferring, building and tying knots. In this week’s reading, however, the Talmud at last gave some attention to the spirit of Shabbat, showing that the rabbis who reasoned about it so meticulously also celebrated it with great love.

That praise of Shabbat, typically, comes in the course of a technical discussion about a new area of Shabbat law. What kinds of things can be saved from a fire on Shabbat? This is the main subject of Chapter 16, which proceeds on the assumption—never explicitly stated—that it is forbidden to extinguish a fire on Shabbat, since that is one of the 39 melachot. Presumably the law makes an exception for saving human life, always a chief Talmudic value, but the issue doesn’t come up directly. Instead, the chapter begins with a mishnah about something almost as crucial: Is it permitted to put out a fire in order to save “sacred writings”?

The Mishnah says that it is and that this includes translations of such writings into foreign languages. It also includes the Ketuvim, the section of the Tanakh known in English as “Writings”; even though these books are not as sacred as the Torah and Prophets, they can still be saved on Shabbat. The Gemara goes on to ask some questions about the status of sacred writings, explaining what kinds of ink can be used to write Torah scrolls (black only, no red paint or yellow arsenic-based ink), and establishing a rule for how small a portion of text a parchment must contain before it is considered sacred. (There must be 85 letters, whether the words are continuous or not. The benchmark is Numbers 10:35-36, a section that is traditionally set off in brackets in the Torah scroll and that some rabbis consider to be actually a separate book.)

The discussion then moves on to more mundane objects. If a fire breaks out where food is kept, you are allowed to rescue only enough food for the three meals you need to eat on Shabbat. The rabbis differ about whether you should subtract the meals already eaten—i.e., if the fire occurs on Saturday afternoon, with only dinner left to eat, ought you to rescue only one meal’s worth of food? The consensus is that you should rescue the minimum, though Rabbi Yose says that even in the afternoon it is alright to rescue three meals. The reason for rationing the amount that can be saved is to discourage people from making every effort to fight a fire on Shabbat, which could easily lead to simply putting it out. The rabbis recognize that this is a strong human impulse: “Rava said: Since a person is agitated about his property, if you permit him to move more, he will come to extinguish the fire.”

It is this discussion about how many meals to eat on Shabbat that leads, in Shabbat 118a, to a series of rabbinic aphorisms about how Shabbat should be celebrated. According to Bar Kappara, “Anyone who fulfills the obligation to eat three meals on Shabbat is rescued from three punishments: from the pangs of the Messiah, from the judgment of Gehenna, and from the war of Gog and Magog.” According to Rabbi Yose, “Anyone who delights in Shabbat, God gives him a boundless portion.” Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak says, “One who delights in Shabbat is rescued from the oppression of exile.” And Shimon ben Yochai delivers a kind of prophecy: “If only the Jewish people would keep two Shabbatot in accordance with the law, they would be immediately redeemed.” This is both a beautiful tribute to Shabbat, which becomes a foretaste of the Messianic age, and a melancholy indictment of the Jews, who are unable to do something as simple as keeping the day properly.

The Gemara goes on to describe the way some great sages celebrated Shabbat. Rabbi Chanina would go out at dusk “to greet Shabbat the queen”; Rabba bar Rav Nachman and Rabbi Abba prepared special delicacies for their guests; Rabbi Abbahu would sit on an ivory chair. As we have seen earlier in the Talmud, the rabbis were not just learned men but community leaders, with a patriarchal dignity; many of the most famous were also very rich. It is all the more notable, then, that they would lower themselves to perform manual labor to prepare for Shabbat: Rav Safra cooked, Rabba chopped wood, Huna lit the lamps. Their humility was a way of showing the high status of their visitor, Queen Shabbat: “If Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi happened to visit me,” said Nachman bar Yitzhak, “would I not load objects on my shoulder before them?” All the more so should he be willing to carry loads to prepare for Shabbat.

The rabbis then tell a story about a man called Yosef, who loved Shabbat so much that he was known as “Yosef who cherishes Shabbat.” One day, a certain non-Jew was crossing a river by ferryboat when he dropped a valuable pearl in the water. The pearl was swallowed by a fish, and the fish was purchased by Yosef, who always wanted to serve the finest food on Shabbat. When he opened the fish, he found the pearl and sold it for 13 jars full of gold coins. This is a variation on a classic folk tale, the fish who swallows a jewel, which is found in just about every culture. What is noteworthy is that, in this Jewish version, it becomes a parable about the rewards of celebrating Shabbat.

Perhaps the best thing about Shabbat, though, is that it is a Jewish possession, which the powerful of the world can’t confiscate. In an anecdote that is all the more significant for being obviously fictional, it is said that “Caesar”—the emperor of Rome, under whom the Jews of Palestine lived—asked Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chanania why the dishes the Jews prepared for Shabbat smelled so good. “We have a certain spice called dill,” Yehoshua explained, “which we place in the cooked dishes and its fragrance diffuses.” The emperor, in his imperious way, demanded to be given some of it. But Yehoshua had the last word: “For anyone who observes Shabbat,” he replied, “the spice is effective, and for one who does not observe Shabbat, it is not effective.” The emperor of Rome could have anything in the world, and it was Caesar who destroyed the Temple and expelled the Jews; but Caesar could not know the joy of Shabbat the way the rabbis did.


Finally, a textual note. This week, I tried something new in my Daf Yomi study. Until now, I have been reading the Talmud in the Schottenstein Edition, published by Artscroll, through an app on my iPad. I’ve gotten used to this 21st-century way of reading the ancient text, and I find several features of the Artscroll Digital Library especially useful: I like the way I can scroll through the text and have the appropriate footnotes pop up along the bottom of the screen and the ease of switching from page to page through a drop-down menu. The dimensions of the iPad, too, are easier to manage than the oversize folios of most printed editions.

As for the text itself, I’ve gotten used to the Schottenstein Edition’s way of interpolating the Hebrew/Aramaic original with the English translation phrase by phrase. This has enabled me to get to know some of the key phrases and vocabulary of the original, and it serves as a reminder that the English version is in fact a translation, a substitute. And I find that the Schottenstein strikes a good balance between direct translation, which appears in bold type; paraphrase and expansion, which appears in the main text but in roman type; and longer explanations of concepts and cross-references, which are in the footnotes.

This week, I turned to a newer translation of the Talmud in an older medium: the print edition of the Koren Talmud Bavli. Immediately I realized how much I miss the sense-experience of the printed page; and this is an especially beautiful page, with clean type, a good amount of white space, and color illustrations in the footnotes. (For instance, when the Gemara mentions dill in the story about Caesar, there is an illustration of the plant. This isn’t indispensable, but it adds to the pleasure of the book.) The Koren Talmud, too, uses bold type for direct translation and roman type for expansion and paraphrase. But my impression so far is that it uses paraphrase more often than the Schottenstein; that is, more explanation is worked directly into the text, so that the footnotes are much sparser. The commentary, by the great scholar Adin Steinsaltz, is less detailed than in the Schottenstein, but generally clearer and pithier.

Finally, the Koren Talmud separates out the English, which runs down the center of the page, from the Hebrew/Aramaic, which runs in a parallel column in the margin. This separation, plus the way the Koren breaks up the English text into paragraphs, makes it considerably easier to read—at the price of making it easy to simply forget about the Aramaic. Overall, the Koren feels like a more open, accessible text—which part of me mistrusts, since I want to respect the Talmud’s foreignness. But I am enjoying reading it and hope to use the two editions in tandem as I go forward.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.