(Original illustration via Nikol Lohr/Flickr)
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Things Broken and Repaired

In this week’s page of Talmud, the rabbis show their skill at making distinctions between obligation and acting out

Adam Kirsch
January 23, 2013
(Original illustration via Nikol Lohr/Flickr)

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

For the last several chapters, Tractate Shabbat has been focused on just a few of the 39 categories of forbidden labor—above all, various issues of transferring and carrying. The rabbis seem drawn to problems involving this kind of work precisely because it is so abstract and allows so many elaborations and case studies. In this week’s Daf Yomi reading, however, the Talmud turns, in a series of short, pithy chapters, to some of the other forbidden melachot, including building, writing, and trapping an animal.

In earlier discussions, we learned that there is a minimum quantity that you must carry before you are liable for carrying on Shabbat—in the case of food, the amount is equal to the volume of a dried fig. Chapter 12 opens by asking a similar question about the forbidden melachah of building. Is there a minimum degree of building that has to take place before it is considered a Shabbat violation, for which the offender must bring a sin offering?

The Mishnah tells us that there is no such minimum: “One who builds any amount, and one who chisels, or strikes the final blow with a hammer or a sledgehammer, or drills any amount, is liable.” The logic here, the Mishnah explains, is that any kind of constructive labor is forbidden: “Anyone who performs labor, and his labor endures, on the Sabbath he is liable.” The Gemara goes on to explain what kinds of seemingly trivial kinds of building the Mishnah has in mind. Digging a small hole, the way a pauper does to hide his money, is one such forbidden activity. Since we know that all forbidden labors are ones that were performed during the building of the Tabernacle, the rabbis explain that the Israelites too had occasion to dig small holes: “for indeed, those who sewed the curtains for the mishkan would dig a hole to store their needles in it.”

Abaye, however, takes issue with this example, on the commonsensical grounds that no one would store needles in a hole in the ground: “Since they would rust, the craftsmen would not do this!” Instead, he gives another example of trivial labor: a pauper who builds a small stove for his small pot of food. This, too, has a Tabernacle precedent, since the Israelites would cook herbs to make the dye for the curtains, and when they needed only a small amount of dye they would use a pauper-sized pot.

But Rav Acha bar Yaakov is not happy with this explanation either, for an interesting reason: He holds that to speak of paupers at all in connection with the mishkan is an insult to its dignity. As Rashi explains, it’s offensive to think that the builders of the mishkan fussed with such tiny amounts of dye. Rather, they made huge batches from the beginning, and so never had to deal with pauper-sized pots. Once again, a discussion of legal technicalities has brought the rabbis to imagine the splendor of the Tabernacle.

The Mishnah bans any kind of constructive or positive activity on Shabbat; but this raises a question to which the Talmud will return in the following chapter, in Shabbat 105b. What if you perform an action that involves some real expense of energy but its effect is purely destructive? The Mishnah gives the example of “one who tears in his anger or for his dead.” This is a kind of work; but tearing falls under the category of “all who act destructively,” and so it is exempt from punishment. On the other hand, if you tear a garment deliberately in order to sew it together again, the way a tailor would, you are liable, since in this case the destructive act takes place as part of a constructive process.

Here, as often before in Tractate Shabbat, the Talmud is trying to define the problem of intent. Are certain actions forbidden on Shabbat in and of themselves, or does the intent behind them count? Earlier we saw how the rabbis puzzled out this question in the case of carrying, by performing thought experiments in which the size of a burden changed in mid-journey. In this case, too, the Gemara finds grounds for extensive debate. The Mishnah allows “tearing for his dead,” presumably on the grounds that this is a purely negative action. But isn’t it the case, the Gemara asks, that tearing your clothes in mourning is actually an obligation? How can it then be considered a destructive act?

To solve the problem, the rabbis do what they do best—they make a distinction. The obligation to tear your clothes applies only in the case of the death of a relative; to tear your clothes for that reason would indeed violate Shabbat, because it would be carrying out a positive obligation. What the Mishnah has in mind is tearing your clothes over a non-relative, which is not obligatory and is therefore strictly destructive. It is a seemingly inverted logic: On Shabbat, you are not allowed to do what you are supposed to do, and you are allowed to do what you are not supposed to do.

But the Gemara is not done turning over this question. You are usually not obliged to rend your garments in the case of a non-relative who dies; but what if the dead man is a Torah sage? Yes, the rabbis grant, you are obliged to mourn for a Torah sage. And what if the dead man was not a sage but just an upright person? Yes, you have to mourn for an upright person a well. And what if the dead man was neither a sage nor especially upright, but you simply happened to see him die—don’t you have an obligation to tear your clothes then? In this way, the rabbis narrow down the field of mourning: The only purely destructive act is to tear your clothes for a non-relative who was not a sage or a righteous man and who you did not actually see die. Only in this case is the mourning gratuitous and therefore, by the logic of Shabbat, permitted.

So far, the discussion has taken for granted that tearing your clothes is a destructive act. But now Rabbi Avin introduces a new dimension to the problem, a psychological one. Couldn’t it be said that, by tearing his clothes in his grief, a man is actually “satisfying his evil inclination”—as we might say, letting off steam, cooling his temper? In this sense, even a gratuitous rending has some emotional purpose, and so it could be considered “constructive.” This is a moment of striking empathy and even feels modern somehow, in its recognition of the perverse economy of emotion.

But the Talmud cannot finally sanction this kind of emotional venting. The rabbis’ views on what we might call “acting out” are made clear in a baraita: “If one tears his garments in his anger, breaks his utensils in his anger, or scatters his money in his anger, he should be in your eyes as one who is performing idolatry.” Thus far, the rabbis seem to be recommending a kind of Stoicism, and their emphasis on dignity and self-control has a strongly Roman flavor.

However, they go on to give a distinctively Jewish account of the need for dignity: “For thus is the craft of the evil inclination: Today it tells him, ‘do this’; and the next day it tells him, ‘do this’; until it tells him, ‘perform idolatry,’ and he goes and performs it.” Now the language is no longer that of self-control, but of resistance to temptation. I am reminded of the idea, expressed early in Tractate Berachot, that everyone is constantly surrounded by thousands of invisible demons, who are just waiting for us to slip up. Here, too, the rabbis see any act of self-indulgence as a kind of gateway drug, which will lead ultimately to the worst vice of all, idolatry. It is fascinating to see how the rabbis associate worshiping idols with losing one’s temper—it is as though idol-worship, too, is a kind of natural tendency that must be resisted at all costs. For Jews living in Roman Palestine or Parthian Babylonia, it must often have felt like worshiping false gods was indeed the normal thing for humans to do and that Jewish monotheism was a prolonged fight against fallen human nature.

In this way, the rabbis conclude that tearing your garments out of grief is not, in fact, a constructive act, but a purely negative one. For this reason, you are not liable for a sin offering if you do it on Shabbat, though presumably you have transgressed by doing it in the first place. There is, however, one further wrinkle, another way that losing your temper could be considered a positive act. This is when a man “does it to strike fear upon the members of his house”—that is, his wife, children, and servants. To lose your temper in this demonstrative way is figuratively to repair something—in this case, the behavior of your inferiors—and therefore it is forbidden on Shabbat, just as all repairs are.

This little detail speaks volumes about the class and family structure of the rabbis’ world and about the patriarchal authority they exercised. Indeed, the Talmud shows that the rabbis at home were sometimes violent and tyrannical figures: “Rav Acha bar Yaakov broke utensils; Rav Sheishet threw brine at the head of his maidservant; Abba broke a lid of a pitcher.” Perhaps they did not get the kind of deference from their families that they regularly demand in the Talmud.


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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.