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Shabbat for Grown-Ups

What the Talmud’s longest tractate teaches us about being adults

Dovid Bashevkin
August 12, 2020
MISHNA: The acts of carrying out from a public domain into a private domain or vice versa, which are prohibited on Shabbat, are primarily two basic actions that comprise four cases from the perspective of a person inside a private domain, and two basic actions that comprise four cases from the perspective of a person outside, in a public domain.

What is Shabbat really about? As a child, the day was magical. “There is a realm of time,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel mused in the opening page of his seminal work, The Sabbath, “where the goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue, but accord.” His poetic style gave lyrics to the palace in time I watched my parents and grandparents construct each week. Adding to the mysticism was my grandfather, the rabbi, who would dress up in his Shabbos suit and sit at the dining room table, just waiting for the holy day to begin. And so, it was with a great deal of excitement that I awaited the Daf Yomi cycle to begin Tractate Shabbos, the Talmud’s longest, expecting to find there a deep and cleansing dive into the heart of Jewish spirituality.

I opened the first page. Two dozen words in and I was already lost.

“There are two basic actions that comprise four cases,” the tractate begins. Huh? The Talmud clarifies, “Similarly, with oaths there are two that comprise four.” I was getting lightheaded. Slowly, I felt my palace in time erode under the complex minutiae and different case studies presented in the tractate’s opening. My childhood memories of Shabbos were peaceful; learning Tractate Shabbat was stressful.

I am not the only one who noticed the strange Talmudic hazing process of Tractate Shabbos. The first Tosafos, the collection of medieval Talmudic commentaries on the page of the standard Vilna Talmud, begins the tractate with the same question. “Rabbi Yitzchak ben Asher Halevi asks,” the first Tosafos in Tractate Shabbat recalls, “the laws of carrying should have been taught later in the Tractate along with the other major categories of prohibited work (avot melachot).” Instead, asks the 11th-century Talmudic commentator, the tractate should have begun with the preparations needed on Friday, erev Shabbos. And, as if the inverted introduction to Tractate Shabbat was not confusing enough, the laws of carrying are both confusing and burdensome. This is not how to introduce someone to Shabbos. Maimonides, in fact, when explaining why there is no similar prohibition of carrying in the public domain during the festivals, describes the prohibition of carrying as a killjoy that makes the entire day feel as though your hands are bound. Why does the Talmud begin Shabbat here?

Diving deeper into the tractate delivered no answers. As I waded further and further into the grueling Daf Yomi regimen, I longed even more for the simple memories of the ghosts of Shabbat past. A cholent recipe would have been a welcome respite—instead I was reading about dense and often inscrutable Talmudic laws.

As the sun was setting on Shabbat eve, they saw an elderly man who was holding two bundles of myrtle branches and running at twilight. They said to him: Why do you have these? He said to them: In honor of Shabbat. They said to him: And let one suffice. He answered them: One is corresponding to: “Remember the Shabbat day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8), and one is corresponding to: “Observe the Shabbat day, to keep it holy” (Deuteronomy 5:12). Rabbi Shimon said to his son: See how beloved the mitzvot are to Israel. Their minds were put at ease and they were no longer as upset that people were not engaged in Torah study.

And then came Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

In a very welcome narrative tangent, the Talmud presents the story of the famous rabbi fleeing into a cave with his son to hide from the Roman army. The two lived a monastic and mystical life, studying together for 12 years without once setting foot outside. When they finally emerged, they were disgusted by the plebeian work that occupied everyone’s time. “These people,” Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai angrily observes, “abandon the eternal life of Torah to engage in the temporal life.” So great is the rabbi’s wrath, the Talmud tells us, that fire literally shoots from his eyes, burning the world outside and forcing the two men to retreat back to their cavernous hideout.

After another year in the cave, father and son are ready to reengage with the world. This time, they see an old, poor man walking down the road, carrying two bundles of myrtle branches. What are those for, they wonder? They are to honor the Sabbath, the man said—one represents Sabbath’s remembrance, the other Sabbath’s observance.

The old man’s answer makes the rabbis smile. There is no law to carry myrtles to welcome the Shabbat, but in this simple man’s simple gesture, Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai recognized the instinctive capacity of the Jewish people to create sanctity. When they first exited the cave, temporal activities were the impediment for divine focus. This second time around, however, they learned to appreciate the intuitive sense for holiness and ritual even the Talmudically illiterate can comprehend. They realized, in other words, that while the laws of Shabbat were difficult, the love of Shabbat is inherent.

“And my soul is removed far off from peace, I forgot prosperity” (Lamentations 3:17). What is: And my soul is removed far off from peace? Rabbi Abbahu said: That is the lack of opportunity to engage in kindling the Shabbat lights, which a refugee is unable to do.
—Tractate Shabbat 25b

Still, feeling the love is sometimes easier said than done. The serene Shabbos of my youth, all magic and sanctity, changed drastically once I began a family of my own. As a kid, my parents made Shabbos for me. As an adult, I suddenly had to learn how to make Shabbos for myself. And here’s the part Heschel never told me: Making Shabbos is super stressful. If you want to learn the emotional history of a newly married couple, watch what they remind one another on erev Shabbos. Don’t forget the hot water urn, pick up the dry cleaning, is the stroller still in the car, buy a fruit platter, set up the hot plate. Every reminder is something someone once forgot. Shabbos didn’t feel like entering a palace—it felt like fleeing a war zone.

It took a few more readings of Tractate Shabbat to get its point, to fully understand why the Talmud thrusts its readers into a world of intense legalistic reasoning from the very outset rather than soothe them with talk of candle lighting and holiness. It’s because Shabbos, like anything else truly worth setting apart and sanctifying, requires both toil and transcendence. It’s hard work to make it just right, but when you do—and only when you do—you’ll be elevated into a world of meaning that exists, in large part, because you paid attention to it and made it special.

There are few rituals associated with Shabbos that have been as widely embraced like the lighting of Shabbos candles. In the year 2000, The New York Times published a mock front page for Friday Jan. 1, 2100. Tucked in the corner of the imagined front page were the lighting times for Shabbos candles. Even the Times could not imagine a future without Shabbos candle lighting. Memories of my mother, covering her eyes and solemnly praying next to the Shabbos candles will forever remain a formative part of my religious identity. When I talk among my siblings, we all agree that any success we have found in life are likely, in some form, a product of those prayers. But the common image of women praying, with their eyes, covered at the Shabbos candles has a curious history of its own. In fact, as professor Israel Ta-Shma, points out in his article tracing the evolution of the custom of covering eyes during the lighting of Shabbos candles no such custom is recorded in the Talmud, the Shulkhan Arukh, or any later day commentaries. Some discuss covering the light of the candles, but no one until fairly modern times discuss covering the eyes. Like the myrtle branches, covering our eyes as we enter Shabbos has become our collective folk custom. And I think it represents the Shabbos I discovered as an adult. As a kid Shabbos seemed perfect—someone else made it for me. Shabbos as an adult is different. I forget preparations, I run late, I miss spots shaving. Sure, this is stressful, but on Shabbos we condition ourselves differently. We cover our eyes. We stop looking and embrace the imperfections. My childhood was Heschel’s perfect Shabbos, adults learn the grit and commitment needed for Tractate Shabbat.

Lecha Dodi Likras Kallah—Shabbos is our bride. Six days a week it’s like a long date: making reservations, provide our passive-aggressive feedback to one another to see if we’re really compatible for the long term. Shabbos is the wedding. Like a bride under the wedding canopy covered in a veil, we inaugurate Shabbos by stopping to look at what we can change and instead focus on what we should accept. And perhaps therein lies the significance of beginning the tractate with the laws of carrying from one domain to another. Shabbos begins with a reorientation of sorts. We stop looking at where we need to go, what can still be done, and instead our focus turns inward. We cover our eyes to all of life’s imperfections and develop our interiority. The palace in time of Shabbos is tedious to build and daunting to enter. But as difficult, discouraging, and imperfect that process may be, once you’re inside, it’s perfect.

הדרך עלך מסכת שבת והדרן עלן

We shall return to you, Tractate Shabbat, and you shall return to us.

Dovid Bashevkin is the Director of Education at NCSY and author of Sin·a·gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought. He is the founder of 18Forty, a media site exploring big Jewish questions. His Twitter feed is @DBashIdeas.