June 19, 2020

Shabbat 30


In today’s wide-ranging daf (Shabbat 30a-b) Rav Tanchum from the town of Navi poses the question whether a candle may be extinguished on Shabbat to help someone who is gravely unwell who cannot sleep or who is disturbed by the light in their room.

Having raised this question, Rabbi Tanchum seemingly turns to other matters and he delivers a stirring speech while making reference to some of the best known verses penned by David HaMelech in Tehillim and those of his son Shlomo in Kohelet and Mishlei. He then refers to the halachic solution that was employed to move the body of David who died on Shabbat (thereby showing that halachic leniences can be employed for the sake of human dignity) and then, while employing the exquisite language of Shlomo who wrote in Mishlei (20:27) that ‘the candle of God is the soul of mankind’, Rabbi Tanchum answers his question by stating: ‘A candle is called a candle, and a person’s soul is called a candle. It is better to allow the physical candle to be extinguished than to allow the candle of the Holy One, Blessed be He [to be extinguished]’.

It is clear from his answer that Rabbi Tanchum was a wise and creative Torah scholar. However, as Rashi points out, it is also clear that while Rabbi Tanchum answered the question he posed, he did so poetically rather than legally. Rather than analysing the primary biblical prooftext for the law of ‘Pikuach Nefesh’ with his audience (וחי בהם – Vayikra 18:5), he explained the principle of ‘Pikuach Nefesh’ by using the beautiful metaphor of ‘the candle of God is the soul of mankind’. As Rashi explains, this is because there are people who only come to hear Torah talks that stir their heart, and consequently, Torah teachers must deliver their message in a manner that does not simply communicate technical facts, but also, inspire and engage their audience.

Of course, there are those of us who may prefer dry facts over poetic metaphors. However, we are told that this Rabbi Tanchum was from a town called Navi which, as Ben-Zion Rosenfeld points out in a fascinating hebrew essay (downloadable from https://bit.ly/2JDTPPr), is likely the town also known as ‘Naveh’ which was to the east of the Golan. This region was distant from all other Jewish towns, and while there were periods when it was renowned for its Torah scholarship, its population waned over time.

I believe that when Rabbi Tanchum was the religious leader in Navi it was during the time when the population had reduced and many of its remaining members were less learned. In fact, I think that evidence for this conjecture may be derived from the fact that the question that Rabbi Tanchum addresses was not posed by members of his community, but by himself. However, notwithstanding the level of religious knowledge of his community, Rabbi Tanchum clearly felt that there was a need to review the laws of Pikuach Nefesh, and as a result of this, he chose a teaching style that made sure that all of his audience understood his message.

As we know, our current situation has also demanded a review of the laws of Pikuach Nefesh, but what is fascinating about these challenging times is how religious leaders have harnessed technology to reach community members who may not have ordinarily been regular shul-goers, while also delivering online Torah lectures whose audience has been different to those who ordinarily would have attended their lectures. All this has required Torah teachers to adapt their content and style of delivery to ensure that while the most important messages are covered, this is done in a manner that all of their audience understands.

Given this, I would like to take this opportunity to thank and praise many of the unsung heroes of the past few weeks – the community Rabbis, Rebbetzen’s and other Torah teachers – who, in various creative ways, have done what Rabbi Tanchum did, namely teach crucial Torah values in a time of need and in a way that does not simply communicate technical facts, but also, inspire their audience too.

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