June 19, 2020

Shabbat 26


Today’s daf (Shabbat 26a) continues the discussion of the Mishna (see Shabbat 24b) listing the fuels that may not be used to kindle the Shabbat lights, and among those listed by the Mishna is נפט (naphtha) – a flammable liquid hydrocarbon mixture – which we are told should not be used מפני שהוא עף – because its vapours can float up [and set the house ablaze]. This is clearly an incredibly important rule, and lest a person think that such dangers are rare, today’s daf also includes a story of a young woman who – as a result of the deceptive malice of her mother-in-law who encouraged her to annoint herself with a flamable oil – was burnt to death!

However, while learning the daf I noticed something curious, because together with mention of the naphtha rule, we are taught in a Beraita that the Shabbat lights may not be kindled with Tevel – the derivatives of untithed produce.

Upon reading this Beraita I was somewhat confused, because aside from the fact that both are fuels that may not be used to kindle the lights either during the week or on Shabbat, they seem to be utterly unrelated. The Naphtha rule is all about physical danger, while the rule about Tevel concerns items that are physically safe for fuel use but are, in their current state, spiritually blemished.

But then I looked at the biblical prooftext that is cited on our daf to support the Tevel law and there I noticed something fascinating. The verse states: “And God spoke to Aharon: ‘I hereby am giving you the duty of safeguarding My terumah-gifts’” (Bemidbar 18:8) – from which our Rabbis derive that just as terumah must be safeguarded and eaten by the right people at the right time, tevel must be safeguarded and may not be used until it is tithed.

And then, as they say, ‘the penny dropped’! Because it seems that what we are being taught here is a crucial lesson. For those who understand physical dangers, they are being taught to treat Tevel with the same level of caution and not to use its derivatives to kindle lights – either during the weekday or on Shabbat. And for those who understand how careful we must be in avoiding spiritual dangers, this Beraita comes to emphasise how they must also be exceedingly careful about endangering themselves or others.

And just in case the lesson is not clear, our Gemara includes the tragic story of the young woman who was burnt to death, in order to bring home the message that those who are callous in their regard for safety rules are as murderous as the woman who killed her daughter-in-law.

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