June 19, 2020

Shabbat 7

Today’s daf (Shabbat 7b) involves a discussion, based on a later Mishna (Shabbat 11:3 – see Shabbat 100a), about the halachic liability of someone who throws a sticky object the distance of four amot (ie. around 6 feet) in a Reshut HaRabim (public area) which then sticks to the side of a wall. As the Mishna explains, if the item becomes stuck above the height of ten tefachim (ie. above around 80cm which is classified as a M’Kom P’tur) then they are exempt, while if the item becomes stuck lower than the height of ten tefachim, then it is still considered to be within the Reshut HaRabim and they are liable.

Significantly, the hebrew word for ‘attaching’ – which the Rambam (Shabbat 14:18) uses when formulating this law- is נדבק, while the hebrew phrase from infectious diseases is מחלות מדבקות. Given this, and since the spread of the Corona virus is on all our minds, I believe that the laws stated in this Mishna can be understood as communicating some wider principles that may be applicable to our challenging times.

Undoubtedly, all actions that lead to the spread of this מחלה מדבקת should be avoided, and it is significant that the CDC state that ideally a distance of around 6 feet (ie. four amot) should be maintained between people. Moreover, just like throwing the object in the regular airspace is renders a person liable, so too this would apply to someone with a מחלה מדבקת which is why we should all follow the guidelines of our respective national health ministries.

But what is the significance of the M’Kom P’tur – the location higher up – in this analogy? As we know, we often refer to God with the term ‘HaMakom’, and especially when facing troubling times, we often invoke the imagery of King David who spoke of us raising up our eyes (see Tehillim 121:1) and praying to God for salvation. Beyond this, we should not forget that a central mitzvah is for us to ‘attach’ ourselves to God (see Devarim 10:20) and this is why, just prior to the reading of the Torah, we cite the verse from Devarim 4:4 of וְאַתֶּם הַדְּבֵקִים בַּה’ אֱלֹהֵיכֶם חַיִּים כֻּלְּכֶם הַיּוֹם – “and you, who attach yourselves to the Lord your God, you are all alive today”.

May we stay far away from all מחלות מדבקות and find comfort at these challenging times in the grace of the מקומו של עולם and in the words of Torah to which we should all cleave. And in doing so, may we be blessed with חַיִּים – in this world and beyond.
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