June 19, 2020

Shabbat 27


Having previously made reference to liquids that are susceptible to spiritual contamination (tum’ah), today’s daf (Shabbat 27a-b) begins by discussing different fabrics that are also susceptible to spiritual contamination, and this then leads us to an unexpected practical discussion concerning tzitzit related laws.

Within its discussion the Gemara addresses the question of when the mitzvah of tzitzit applies, and in its reply it makes reference to the verse in Bemidbar 15:39 stating that ‘when you see [the tzitzit] you shall remember all of God’s commandments so as to keep them’. Given this stipulation that the mitzvah of tzitzit is related to the ability to see, the Gemara considers whether tzitzit must be worn at night, to which the answer is no, and also whether a person is exempt from the duty of attaching tzitzit to a fourcornered night garment, to which the answer is yes.

However, what is not crystal clear is the underpinning of this rule. Do the words of ‘when you see them’ teach us that there is an exemption for tzitzit at night, or there is an exemption for tzitzit when you can’t see them? And the reason why this distinction is important is because today, with electric lighting which enables us to see clearly at night, it is possible that this rule might be different.

R’ Moshe Sternbuch addresses this question on a theoretical level in two of his responsa (Teshuvot V’Hanhagot 2:9 and 4:3), and while space does not allow for a full summary of his reasoning, I would like to share two of his arguments which are based on the story of the Exodus which we will soon be telling at Seder night.

During the plague of darkness we are told that ‘the Israelites had light in the areas where they lived’ (Shemot 10:23), on which Targum Yonatan explains that ‘among all Bnei Yisrael there was light so that the wicked among them who died might be buried and also so that the righteous might be occupied with the mitzvot in their dwellings’. According to a commentary to Targum Yonatan cited by R’ Sternbuch, Targum Yonatan is referring to the numerous mitzvot that require light such as tzitzit, tefillin and reciting the morning Shema, and based on this source he argues that the words of ‘when you see them’ do not teach us about a day/night rule, but instead, it teaches us a rule that is rooted in the ability to see. Based on this source it is possible to argue that if visibility is possible at nighttime, then the mitzvah of tzitzit would apply.

A second Exodus related source cited by R’ Sternbuch refers to the the fact that Moshe circumcised the men of Bnei Yisrael on the night of the 15th of Nissan. However, as he points out, circumcision is generally not performed at night. In response, R’ Sternbuch cites the Zohar that on that night the sun shone as if it were day. Here too he explains that notwithstanding our general understanding of the laws of circumcision, it is not a day/night rule but rather a rule purely rooted in the ability to see.

It is important to note that these are not the only sources cited by R’ Sternbuch and that he also provides a more classic analysis based on halachic literature. Moreover, as mentioned, it seems that his discussion is in the realm of halachic musings rather than halachic rulings. Still, this is a great example of the way in which technology can affect halacha, and I hope, also a refreshing discussion relating to today’s daf.

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