June 21, 2020

Shabbat 48

Towards the end of yesterday’s daf (Shabbat 47b) we started our study of Chapter 4 with the question: ‘With what may we insulate (במה טומנין) [hot food for Shabbat] and with what may we not insulate (ובמה אין טומנין) [hot food]?’, which was then followed by a list of those items that we may not use to insulate hot food on Shabbat.

Significantly, we previously encountered this same format at the beginning of Chapter 2 (Shabbat 20b) which began by asking ‘with what [types of wick] may we kindle (במה מדליקין) [the Shabbat candles] and with what [types of wick] may we not kindle (ובמה אין מדליקין) [the Shabbat candles]?’, which was then followed by a list those types of wicks that cannot be used. As I wrote there, the Mishna began by stating that lights should be kindled on the eve of Shabbat because our Mishna sought to challenge the Karaites who sat in unlit houses and ate only cold food on Shabbat, and it is of note that the Rema (on OC 257:8), citing the Ba’al HaMaor, writes that ‘it is a mitzvah to insulate for Shabbat so that you can have hot food on Shabat which is an expression of our honouring and enjoyment of Shabbat, and whoever does not have faith in the words of the sages as expressed by the fact that they forbid the eating of hot food on Shabbat is suspected of possibly being a heretic’. At the same time, as I also explained, ‘much of Mishna Shabbat concerns the Shabbat prohibitions, and therefore it would be irresponsible to suggest that everything is permitted on Shabbat. Consequently, as a further expression of the spirit of the Oral tradition, we are immediately given a list of limitations. What this means is that the Mishna does not just seek to teach Torah SheB’al Peh (Oral Torah); it seeks to represent it too’.

Today’s daf (Shabbat 48a) continues the discussion about הטמנה (insulation) and begins with a story where Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira visited the house of the Reish Galuta (Exilarch) and saw that one of the servants placed a jug of water on top of a hot kettle of water. Immediately, Rabbah criticized him harshly for his actions. Soon after this same servant was observed by Rabbah wrapping a cloth on top of the opening of the jug and putting a ladle on top, and here too Rabbah criticized him harshly.

It is important to note that while the Gemara often records various incidents and conversations, there are likely details that, for whatever reason, do not get recorded. But presuming that these events were as recorded I think they are problematic. And why? Because while Rabbah was quick to tell the servant that what they were doing was wrong, he does not teach the servant the right way of doing things. So while the Mishna first talks about במה טומנין, then ובמה אין טומנין, and only once it has done so does it list what shouldn’t be done, Rabbah seems to omit this critical first stage.
Of course, a reasonable response to such an observation would be that this particular servant was already known as someone who, either intentionally or unintentionally, repeatedly transgressed the laws of Shabbat which is why Rabbah was so harsh with him, and this may be so. But my experience is that even those who intentionally break laws often do so not because they hate the laws but because the spirit and tone of how those laws were once taught to them did not sit well with their heart.

Just as warm food is central to the celebration of Shabbat, so too warmth is an essential ingredient for the teaching of all Torah laws and especially for the laws of Shabbat – as Rav Soloveitchik once remarked, ‘Torah cannot be taught at a low temperature!’ (Blessings and Thanksgiving p. 59). And in terms of classroom education what this means is that we need to teach what can be done, then teach what cannot, and while doing both making sure that the spirit and tone of how these laws are taught sit well in the hearts of those learning them.

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