June 19, 2020

Shabbat 20


Today’s daf (Shabbat 20b) concludes the end of the first chapter of Massechet Shabbat and begins our study of the second chapter with the Mishna of במה מדליקין which is read on Friday night in Jewish communities around the world.

However, it is of note that the Mishna opens with a curious format. It first asks: ‘With what [types of wick] may we kindle [the Shabbat candles]?’, it then asks, ‘and with what [types of wick] may we not kindle [the Shabbat candles]?’, and it then proceeds to list those types of wicks that cannot be used. The question is as follows: If the Mishna wished to detail those which cannot be used first, why does it begin by asking ‘With what [types of wick] may we kindle?’, and if it did seek to address those types of wicks that can be used, why did it not begin by addressing this question? Beyond this, we must consider the factors that led to the (near) universal custom for this Mishna to be read on Friday night in Jewish communities around the world.

In order to answer some background is necessary. The Karaites are a group who follow Judaism solely on the basis of the Written Torah (Torah SheBichtav) and not on the basis of the Oral Torah (Torah SheB’al Peh), and since the Torah teaches us that “you shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the Sabbath day” (Shemot 35:3), the Karaites would sit in darkness on Shabbat. Given this, our Sages decreed that this Mishna be read on Friday night (when Jews, on returning home from synagogue, would notice of the dark Karaite homes) to oppose this view and to stress that Judaism allows, and requires, that we light candles before the onset of Shabbat so that our houses are filled with light and our Shabbat is a positive experience. Thus the Mishna begins by telling us what can be done to challenge those who claim that it can’t. At the same time, much of Mishna Shabbat concerns the Shabbat prohibitions, and therefore it would be irresponsible to suggest that everything is permitted on Shabbat. Consequently, as a further expression of the spirit of the Oral tradition, we are immediately given a list of limitations. What this means is that the Mishna of במה מדליקין does not just seek to teach Torah SheB’al Peh (Oral Torah); it seeks to represent it too and to inform us that while there are many things that are permissible on Shabbat, there are also some things that are not.

But this lesson goes beyond the laws of Shabbat and, as R’ Yehuda Leib Ginzberg explains in his ‘Mussar HaMishna’, it applies to rabbinic leaders as well. The Gemara (Brachot 28b) informs us that when R’ Yochanan Ben Zakai was on his deathbed his students referred to him as נר ישראל – ‘the light of Israel’, and as R’ Ginzberg explains, just like there are certain wicks that can or cannot be used for Shabbat, there are certain qualities that are needed for a religious leader to be a נר ישראל.

A good religious leader needs to be warm towards others, and bring illumination through their teachings and rulings. Consequently, similar to a candle whose poor quality wick shouldn’t be used, we shouldn’t turn to religious leaders who do not have good middot. Moreover, just like a candle whose poor quality light shouldn’t be used, we shouldn’t turn to those religious leaders whose teachings and rulings aren’t clear and coherent. However, if a leader both has the qualities of a good wick (ie. their middot) and a good light (ie. their teaching), then they have the possibility of being a נר ישראל.

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