June 25, 2020

Shabbat 91

Today’s daf (Shabbat 91b) contains a fascinating philosophical discussion about the extent to which individual items remain distinct within, or coalesce into, a large whole when held together in a singular unit.

The specific question being discussed in our daf concerns the Shabbat transgression incurred when carrying a basket from a private domain onto the threshhold (i.e. doorstep) of a private property which separates between the private property and a public domain. Such an area is known as a ‘karmelit’, and according to the Mishna (Shabbat 10:2, 91b), someone who performs such a transfer is פטור (exempt) – which is code for saying that such an action is biblically permitted but rabbinically prohibited – and they are only liable if they transfer from a private domain to a public domain or vice versa without interruption.

Yet what is of particular interest is the Mishna’s rule that this is the halacha even if, notwithstanding the fact that the basket has been placed on the doorstep, most of the basket is overhanging into the public domain. This suggests that the basket determines the halachic location of all its contents.

However, the Gemara then raises a question: While such a person may be פטור because only parts of the fruits and vegetables in the basket are overhanging into the public domain, what would be the law if the basket contained thousands of mustard seeds. On this basis surely many of the individual mustard seeds are, ultimately, in the public domain?!

According to the Gemara, the answer to this question is rooted in a wider philosophical debate: האם אגד כלי שמיה אגד – is a gathering together of many discrete items into an individual container considered to be a singular unified unit by virtue of being gathered in that individual container? And according to the Gemara, Chizkiya rules that this is not the case and thus, were the basket to be full of mustard seeds, the person who had moved the basket would be חייב (liable), while Rabbi Yochanan rules that אגד כלי שמיה אגד and thus the person would be פטור. Significantly, the law is in accordance with Rabbi Yochanan.

To my mind, there are many applications of the principle of אגד כלי שמיה אגד, but here I shall consider just one concerning the relationship between the Jewish communties in Israel and the diaspora.

As we know, there is a profound relationship between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. The Torah speaks repeatedly about the land, and the people have prayed constantly towards the land and about their dream to return. Undoubtedly, one of the greatest modern day miracles was the establishment of the State of Israel after 2,000 years of Jewish exile, and the transformation that has taken place in Israel over the past 72 years.

But especially in recent years, questions have been raised about the strength of bonds between Jews in Israel and the diaspora. Of course, there are many diaspora Jews who are extraordinarily committed to Israel and her people, and of course there are many Israelis who are equally committed to the Jewish communities in the diaspora. Still, strains in this relationship have been felt for a variety of reasons and on a variety of occasions.

For some, this is all about place. If you live ‘here’ then you are part of ‘this’ community, and if you live ‘there’ then you are part of ‘that’ community. However, I believe that the concept of אגד כלי שמיה אגד communicates a profound idea that it is possible for much of a people to physically be in a particular location and yet still be considered rooted in and bound to a different location. And how is this possible? Through identifying with the individual container holding all those people together.

This Shabbat, whether you live in the diaspora where Parshat Nasso will be read, or in Israel where Parshat Beha’alotecha will be read, reference is made to the ארון – the holy ark that accompanied the Jewish people as journeyed in the wilderness and that took pride of place in the Temple that was eventually built in Jerusalem.

Like many before me, I truly believe that the Torah, represented by the ארון, is the כלי that holds the Jewish people together, and that the Land of Israel, like the karmelit mentioned in the Mishna, is the location where the ‘basket’ of the Jewish people has been destined and commanded to be placed – even if many members of those people are not currently in that space. And what this means is that by acknowledging being in the כלי, and by recognising that the כלי is intended to reside in that place, then אגד כלי שמיה אגד.
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