June 19, 2020

Shabbat 13


We previously studied the Mishna (see Shabbat 11a) listing a variety of acivities that should not be done on Erev Shabbat. For example, we are told that a tailor should not go out with his needle nor a scribe with his quill on Erev Shabbat, ‘in case they forget [that they are carrying these items] and thereby transgress the prohibition of carrying on Shabbat’.

To understand this law it is important to note that it was the norm for each of these tradesmen to constantly carry these tools of their trade – often doing so by attaching them to their clothing. Given this, Erev Shabbat brought about the need for them to radically change their behaviour by removing these items that ordinarily are on their person. The Mishna then ends by informing us of a law unrelated to Shabbat, that a ‘zav’* and a ‘zavah’* may not eat together, since this may lead to sin.

In our daf (Shabbat 13a) we explore the meaning of this final statement of the Mishna and the concept of social distancing. As the Gemara explains, social distancing is necessary between two people who have affectionate feelings towards one another but are forbidden to each other, because the very act of sharing a meal can bring people physically closer which should be avoided when physical closeness is forbidden. This is why, when a man and woman are forbidden to be sexually intimate as they are in a state of Niddah, something unusual should be placed on the table when they share a meal together to serve as a reminder of their need to maintain their physical distance. Similarly, we are also taught that when two people who are used to sharing their meal with each other sit together to eat different foods, with one eating meaty food and the other dairy food, they too place something unusual on the table to serve as a reminder of their need to maintain their physical distance and avoid mixing meat and milk.

Like the case of the tailor and the scribe, it is the norm for a wife and husband to show physical affection, as it is the norm for close friends to share food together. However, as Shlomo HaMelech has written, ‘there is a time for every matter under the heaven’ (Kohelet 3:1), and he then proceeds to list a variety of examples including ‘a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing’ (3:5). What this means is that sometimes we are called upon to separate from the things and people we love for the sake of a greater good.

It may be true that sharing food with our close friends and physical closeness with our partners are expressive of love for them. But it is also true that there may be times in life when the need to socially distance is equally expressive of our love for them. In the cases described in our daf, this is so that they, or we, not come to transgress. And in our time, so that they, or we, not come to harm. May we all stay safe and use our time to pray for a time, very soon, when we can physically come back together.

*Zav and Zavah are states of ritual impurity in Judaism arising from abnormal genital discharge (i.e. not semen or menstrual blood). For men the state is termed zav, and for women it is termed zavah.

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