June 21, 2020

Shabbat 34

Moadim LeSimcha! Today’s daf (Shabbat 34a) continues its discussion about Shabbat eve preparations and it reviews the checklist provided in the Mishna of three things that should be verified on Erev Shabbat (Did we tithe? Did we arrange an Eruv? Did we kindle the lights?). However, the Gemara then asks what is meant here by ‘Erev Shabbat’ and whether specifically the Eruv can be arranged during ‘bein hashmashot’ (the time between sunset and nightfall)? To this, the Gemara cites the opinion of R’ Abba in the name of R’ Chiya Bar Ashi in the name of Rav that the Mishna distinguishes between two types of Eruvin: (i) Eruv Techumin (allowing walking within 2,000 of one’s home), and, (ii) Eruv Chatzeirot (allowing carrying in a common courtyard), such that while the former must be arranged before bein hashmashot, the latter may be arranged even during bein hashmashot.

Yet what is fascinating is that just before this explanation is offered, the Gemara interrupts the flow of its detailed halachic discussion to offer a ‘siman’ – a mnemonic – to help learners remember all the teachings in Massechet Shabbat of R’ Abba in the name of R’ Chiya Bar Ashi in the name of Rav. In doing so we are reminded that while we are used to the Gemara in its printed form, its precious teachings were preserved orally for generations, and it is only through the endeavours of those who learnt and and found ways to remember these teachings that we have them today.

The idea of creating memory aids for learning and remembering Torah ideas is mentioned in a number of places in Rabbinic literature. For example, when Moshe Rabbeinu instructs each generation to learn and teach Torah, he uses the phrase ‘sima befihem – place them in their mouths’ (Devarim 31:19) on which Rav Chisda (Eiruvin 54b) teaches that the Torah is best remembered by creating ‘simanim’ – memory aids. Similarly, while explaining the deep meaning of the order of the hebrew alef-bet, the Gemara (Shabbat 104a) teaches us that the juxtaposition of the letters ‘Samech’ and ‘Ayin’ is meant to emphasise the value of ‘Siman Aseh’ (‘make simanim’ to help remember Torah ideas).

Interestingly, one of the most ardent advocates of ordering Torah ideas and making simanim was Rabbi Yehuda. In the Sifri on Parshat Ha’azinu we find him teaching that a person should always try and order the Torah that they learn into an organised structure, and in Gemara Menachot 96a we find him ordering ideas about the sacred bread made in the Beit HaMikdash for his benefit and that of his students. But perhaps his most famous mnemonic is the one we read last night at the Seder where he shortens the Ten Plagues to three words: Detzach, Adash, B’Achab.

There are those who offer rich explanations why Rabbi Yehuda does this. However, sometimes the simplest reason is the most correct which, as R’ Baruch Halevi Epstein asserts in his commentary on the Haggadah, was to demonstrate how memory aids should be used to aid Torah study. And I think this is why the Haggadah introduces his statement by informing us that Rabbi Yehuda ‘Haya Noten BaHem Simanim – would give memory aids for them’, to inform us that ‘Detzach, Adash, B’Achab’ was just one of the many different ‘simanim’ that Rabbi Yehuda created to help aid Torah teaching and learning.

And given the value and importance of remembering our learning, and given the value and importance that Chazal placed on ‘simanim’, this is why – in the midst of our discussion about the laws of Erev Shabbat – our Gemara interrupts the flow of its detailed halachic discussion with a ‘siman’ to teach us that we should always be thinking of ways to help remember whatever we are learning.


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