June 25, 2020

Shabbat 83-85

Unfortunately, due to a variety of work pressures as well as the need to prepare a number of shiurim I did not have the time to learn the daf from Erev Shavuot (Shabbat 83), and yesterday, having delivered four different talks/shiurim throughout the night I was fairly tired and was unable to get to the daf of that day (Shabbat 84). Given this, I took some time today to learn all three dapim (Shabbat 83-85) while considering whether any particular theme runs through these pages that I may wish to share.

In terms of Shabbat 83b, the daf concludes with two ethical lessons drawn from the halachic verse of Bemidbar 19:14 (“when a person dies in a tent”) which refers to the laws of Tum’at HaMet. According to Rabbi Yonatan, this verse can be used to support the teaching that ‘a person should never absent themselves fom the Beit Midrash or from studying the words of Torah even at the moment of death!’ while, according to Reish Lakish, this verse can be used to support the teaching that the words of Torah are only retained by someone who is prepared to kill themselves over them.

Shabbat 84b includes the Mishna (Shabbat 9:2) which cites the poetic verse of Yeshayahu 61:11 (“for like the earth gives forth its plant, and like a garden causes its seeds to sprout [so will the Lord cause righteousness and praise to sprout in the presence of all the nations]”) to teach the halacha that a small garden patch (of six tefachim square) may be sown with five different types of seeds.

Finally, Shabbat 85a begins with a teaching from Rabbi Chiya Bar Abba who cites the halachic verse of Devarim 19:14 prohibiting the moving of territorial boundaries in the land of Israel (“Do not move the boudary of your neighbour [which the early ones marked out]”) to teach that the halachot established by our great Sages about the appropriate distance to be maintained between different types of seeds should be adhered to.

There are many lessons that we can deduce from these three teachings, but what I see in each is the majesty, beauty and creativity of our rabbinic tradition that enables and empowers us to interpret Torah verses in such varied and thoughtful ways. From halachic verses we can derive ethical lessons, and from poetic verses we can derive halachic teachings, and from each verse, there is so much we can learn. As our Rabbis say, ‘there are 70 faces of the Torah’ (Midrash Bemidbar Rabba 13:15). To my mind, this is a particularly powerful lesson having just celebrated Shavuot and Matan Torah!

However, I would like to add a postscript. One of the most beautiful rabbinic sayings that has remained close to my heart since I first heard it perhaps 20 years ago is the teaching of Reish Lakish (‘“When a person dies in a tent” – this teaches that the words of Torah are only retained by someone who is prepared to kill themselves over them’). Until today I knew that this teaching is found in Brachot 63b and one of the shiurim that I prepared on Erev Shavuot and that I delivered on Tikkun Leil Shavuot cited this Gemara while discussing the level of self-sacrifice that exists among Torah teachers. Then, today, I opened the Gemara to catch up and, having seen that this same teaching is found in Shabbat 83b, I smiled because – unknowingly – it worked out that despite my busyness, Hashem had made sure that I studied at least one idea of the daf on Erev Shavuot.

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