In 1651, the Puritans in New England expressed their aversion toward materialism by legislating Sumptuary Laws “against excess in apparel, both of men and of women.” These regulations, directed mostly at inferior classes of society, prohibited men from the “wearing of gold or silver lace or buttons, or points at their knees, to walk in great boots; or women of the same rank to wear tiffany hoods or scarves.” These laws, which attempted to directly control people’s dress, were unenforceable and eventually went out of style. Instead, governments tend to have better success by incentivizing for and against various behaviors through more indirect means, for example, by embedding values into the tax code. Luxury taxes on furs, tobacco tariffs, and child tax credits do not primarily aim to fund the government but rather to seek to curb unhealthy behavior and encourage a lifestyle that benefits families and society.The rabbis of the Talmud did not hesitate to directly admonish their followers against materialistic, unhealthy, and unethical behavior. However, they, too, recognized that indirect incentives are often more effective in making a real impact on people’s habits. With this in mind, we can appreciate how, sometimes, what looks like minutiae of Talmudic legal nitpicking turns out upon further analysis to encode essential values and societal goals. Here are a few examples from the detailed regulations of Shabbat laws about carrying.Tractate Shabbat devotes more space to the law against carrying in public domain than to any other category of prohibited work. This prohibition, derived originally from transporting merchandise out to the marketplace, applies to carrying any item between private and public domains or within a public thoroughfare. Wearing clothing is of course permitted, but other types of ornaments and jewelry enter a gray area between wearing and carrying.Mishnah Shabbat prohibits women from going out wearing a frontlet, garlands, a city of gold tiara, a choker necklace, nose rings, finger rings, and flasks of perfumed oil. Although these items are worn like clothing and therefore should be permitted, the Talmud explains that we fear women will remove these ornaments to show them off to friends and end up carrying them in the street. Closer analysis, however, indicates that the main concern of the rabbis was to limit extravagance and immodesty. Thus, the Talmud embeds within this legal discussion several homiletic teachings about the dangers of provocative behavior:Raba son of R. Ilai lectured: What is meant by, The Lord says, because the daughters of Zion are high (Isaiah 3:16)? That means that they walked with a haughty stature. And walk with outstretched necks (ibid.)—they walked heel to toe. With wanton eyes (ibid.)—they filled their eyes with blue eye shadow and winked. Walking and mincing (ibid.)—a tall woman would walk alongside a short one [to stand out more]. Making a tinkling with their feet (ibid.)—Rabbi Isaac of the school of Rabbi Ammi said: This teaches that they placed myrrh and balsam in their shoes and walked through the marketplaces of Jerusalem, and on coming near the young men of Israel, they kicked their feet and spurted it on them, thus instilling them with passionate desire like serpent's poison.This detailed description of the seductive behavior of the women of Jerusalem is placed in the midst of the Shabbat-carrying regulations, which suggests that the goal of these laws is not simply to prevent carrying. The rabbis feared women using perfume not just as deodorant but to lure men. They similarly sought to limit gaudy crowns and rings that they would to show off to their friends and attract admirers, which explains why Rav rules that “whatever the sages prohibited from carrying in public domain, one may also not carry in a courtyard” where carrying is permitted but where opulent accessories will still attract the attention of neighbors.The above rules place the responsibility for modesty upon women; but the rabbis on the same page of Talmud also direct their rebuke against men who objectify women and “gratify their eyes with lewdness.” The sages teach that “anyone who gazes upon a woman’s little finger is considered as if he gazes upon the place of indecency.” That is, a man is guilty for looking with sexual intent even upon a woman’s ringed finger, further indicating that the rabbis saw these ornaments as more than a Shabbat problem. If women could not wear such jewelry out on Shabbat when they could change out of their work clothing, then perhaps they would refrain from buying them altogether. While the rabbis also directly taught norms of modest dress and behavior, weaving these regulations into the exacting stringencies of Shabbat laws provided a better guarantee of compliance.Moving on to men’s dress, here, too, we find values from other spheres underlying Shabbat laws. While a man may wear regular clothing outside, what about carrying weapons as ornaments for military uniform? Mishnah Shabbat 6:4 turns this technical question into a philosophical debate about the glorification of warfare:A man may not go out carrying a sword, bow, shield, lance, or spear. If he does go out, then he incurs a sin-offering.Rabbi Eliezer says, “They are ornaments for him!”But the sages say, “They are nothing but reprehensible, as Scripture teaches, They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, nation will not raise sword against nation, neither will they learn war anymore (Isaiah 2:4).Rabbi Eliezer permits carrying weapons as ornaments that lend their bearer authority and honor befitting a Roman gladiator or centurion. The sages, however, perhaps driven by an antipathy toward Roman power, look idealistically toward Messianic days of peace and therefore denigrate weapons as detestable burdens. This Mishnah presents a Sabbath law that explicitly hinges upon a political and ethical debate. Other examples, however, are more subtle.Mishnah Shabbat 6:2 teaches: “A man may not go outside wearing a nail-studded sandal.” Why should this ancient form of cleats be considered carrying; after all, the man wears them as shoes? One possibility is that the nails are deemed extraneous to the shoe and therefore a burden. However, the Talmud concedes a deeper historical basis for this prohibition that is not related to Sabbath laws themselves. During a period of Roman persecution, Jews were either hiding in a cave or, according to another version, congregating in a synagogue. They heard the footsteps from a studded sandal, assumed it was a Roman soldier coming to attack, and in their panicked attempt to flee ended up killing more of their own than any Roman forces would have. Ostensibly, this law aims to prevent false alarms from a Jew wearing Roman-style army cleats and throwing a congregation, which generally gathered on Shabbat, into a panicked stampede.However, an intriguing possibility emerges from an archaeological discovery of a studded sandal in a cave near Jericho where Bar Kokhba rebels hid from Roman forces. It turns out that the Jewish revolutionaries donned the same shoes as their Roman persecutors. Since most people could afford only one pair of shoes, forbidding cleats on Shabbat would effectively eradicate them from the wardrobes of the rabbis’ adherents. The rabbis had no mechanism to outlaw rebel meetings, but they could ban their footwear and thereby dampen the rebels’ influence. Remembering the great loss of two failed insurrections, the rabbis sought to avoid any further military zeal through the roundabout but effective strategy of piggybacking their goals for peace onto Shabbat carrying laws.As with the example of Sumptuary laws in colonial America, direct legislation of personal behavior rarely works. Commanding yourself to reach 10,000 steps a day will get you nowhere; but building in two walking meetings to your daily schedule just might! The rabbis similarly knew how to apply the power and authority of the structure of Halacha to important areas of concern and thereby incentivize their adherents toward self-improvement. This insight can help readers of the Talmud seek out deeper meaning within yet other examples of seemingly inane dialectical dissection. This strategy can also make us more attuned to times when modern legislatures drive one agenda within the details of other unrelated regulations. Wondering what’s hidden in the endless small print of the IRS tax code, or of your iPhone user agreement? Try some Talmudic analysis on it.