August 9, 2020

Shabbat 153

Having already spent much of the past few pages presenting various philosophical teachings relating to the preciousness of life and how to lead a good life based on the wisdom of Kohelet and Mishlei, today’s daf (Shabbat 153a), which contains the final lines of Chapter 23 of Massechet Shabbat, are dedicated to exploring the meaning of one further verse from Kohelet.
The specific verse – Kohelet 9:8 – states: בְּכָל עֵת יִהְיוּ בְגָדֶיךָ לְבָנִים וְשֶׁמֶן עַל רֹאשְׁךָ אַל יֶחְסָר – “Let your garments be always white; and let your head lack no oil”, and as Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai explains through a parable (as explained by Rashi), this verse alludes to our need to perpetually remain spiritually stain-free – because just like a king will prioritise inviting those servants with clean clothes to sit and eat at his banquet, so too, God will give greater rewards in the next world to those who have taken greater care to avoid sin or those who have repented from having sinned.
However, while this imagery and this message is very powerful, the question of how to live a spiritually stain-free life is not fully answered by Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai. But then, some years ago, I read a lovely insight on this verse which was quoted by (R’ Yerachmiel Yisroel Yitzchok Dancyger (1853–1910) in his ‘Yismach Yisrael’ (see Shekalim 8) which, notwithstanding its simplicity, offers us much wisdom relating to how to live a spiritually stain-free life.
As Rabbi Dancyger explains, a person should always imagine that they are wearing clean white clothes and that they have oil on their head – such that if they turn their head sharply one way or another, the oil will fall onto their clean white clothes and spoil them. ‘So too’, writes Rabbi Dancyger, ‘this is how a person always has to behave, to walk according to the median path and not to turn towards either extreme. In doing so, they will save themselves from spiritual dirt and stains’.
Naturally when reading these words I was reminded of the Rambam (Deot 1:4-5) who emphasises the spiritual benefit of living according to the דרך הממוצע (the median path) and the spiritual dangers of extremism, while I was also reminded of the past practice of training women and men to walk with poise by balancing a book on their head – which teaches almost the same message on a physical level as this explanation does on a spiritual level.
Today, few people speak about poise in this way, and the concept of ‘finishing school’ is very much a thing of the past. But while it is no longer socially acceptable for others to teach us how they think we should walk and act, it is incumbent on each of us to consider how we can find ways to walk a spiritual path according to the דרך הממוצע, how to avoid extreme behaviour, and how to live in a way that avoids unnecessary spiritual stains.
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