June 19, 2020

Shabbat 29

Shavua Tov! In today’s daf (Shabbat 29b) we continue the discussion concerning which lamps, wicks and oils may or may not be used for the Shabbat lights, and specifically, whether a particular type of oil lamp with an additional oil-feeder may be used on Shabbat given the possibility that some people might draw oil from this additional container. Though the Sages rule in the Mishna that this may not be done, Rabbi Yehuda disagrees and argues that it may be.

In general, halachic debates such as these are purely based on halachic reasoning. However, what makes our daf particularly fascinating is the proof cited by Rabbi Yehuda for his contrary view.

He relates how he, along with Rabbi Tarfon and some other scholars, once spent a Shabbat in the attic of Nitza’s house in Lod where such a lamp was used, and since those present did not object to this, he claimed that its use must be permitted. The Sages responded that an argument from silence is not an argument. To this, Rabbi Yehuda replied that those who would gather in this attic were renowned for their piety and therefore surely this was sufficient proof. However, the Sages seem to dismiss such reasoning. Still, we must consider a simple question: Why were a group of sages gathered together in an attic in Lod?

A hint to help us answer this question is found in Gemara Sanhedrin 74a where we are informed that this same attic was the setting where the Sages discussed the difficult question of when should a Jew transgress a Torah law when their life is threatened, and which Torah laws are so morally severe that it is preferrable in such a situation to give up one’s life.

Interestingly, we find a further reference to this same attic elsewhere (Kiddushin 40b) where we are again told that Rabbi Tarfon, Rabbi Akiva and some other sages (nb. the Sifrei Ekev also lists Rabbi Yossi HaGalili) debated whether, in their situation, they should prioritise Torah study or the performance of mitzvot. What we learn from all is that this attic in Lod was where the Sages secretly gathered in the decades following the destruction of the Second Temple to discuss matters of religious public policy during this period of violent persecution by the Romans.

Of course, when thinking about this type of gathering we may be reminded of the passage that we will be reading in the Haggadah in a few days time which recounts how Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarfon gathered together in Bnei Brak. However, as the Tosefta (Pesachim 10:8) informs us, there is a parallel – and according to numerous scholars, more accurate – version of this story which relates how ‘it happened that Rabban Gamliel and the elders were reclining in the house of Beitos ben Zunin in Lod where they were involved with the laws of Pesach the whole night until the call of the rooster. Their students raised the covering of the window from in front of them, and they then convened and went to the house of study’. Here too it seems clear that Lod was the city where the Sages secretly gathered in the decades following the destruction of the Second Temple to discuss matters of religious public policy, with clear evidence of this being derived from the fact that material was used to cover the windows while this meeting was taking place.

Returning back to our daf let us now consider why the usage of this particular type of lamp by the sages in Lod was dismissed by our Sages, and though a number of answers might be offered in answer to this question, I would like to suggest my own answer which I think is also relevant to our current situation.

As mentioned, the period when this meeting took place was one of grave danger and violent persecution, and the meeting of this group of sages was clearly one of great national importance reflecting the emergency situation in which they were living. But such meetings are hard to plan; they often take place at great risk to all those present, and the primary concern of all those present would have been matters of life and death. Simply put, those present would not have had the time or focus to address whether or not to use the particular Shabbat lamp that was illuminating the dark attic where they were sitting.

From here we learn an important lesson which is that even when something is done in an emergency situation, this should not be regarded as setting a precedent for non-emergency situations.
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