The Coming Week's Daf Yomi by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
This essay is based upon the insights and chidushim (original ideas) of Talmudic scholar Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, as published in the Hebrew version of the Steinsaltz Edition of the Talmud.
Shabbat 23a-b - Blessings on Hanukkah candles
The Gemara on today's daf (=page) teaches:
Rav Ĥiyya bar Ashi said that Rav said: One who lights a Hanukkah light must recite a blessing. And Rabbi Yirmeya said: One who sees a burning Hanukkah light must recite a blessing because the mitzvah is not only to kindle the light but to see the light as well.
Ultimately, the Gemara concludes that two blessings are recited on every night of Hanukkah, with an additional blessing recited on the first night. In delineating the different blessings, the Gemara says that one of the everyday blessings that is recited is:
Who has made us holy through His commandments and has commanded us to light the Hanukkah light.
To which the Gemara asks: And where did He command us?
The mitzvah of Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Torah, so how is it possible to say that it was commanded to us by God?
This question is often asked with regard to blessings recited over mitzvot of rabbinic origin. Two answers are offered by the Gemara:
Rav Avya said: The obligation to recite this blessing is derived from the verse: “You shall not turn aside from the sentence which they shall declare unto you, to the right, nor to the left” (Devarim 17:11). From this verse, the mitzvah incumbent upon all of Israel to heed the statements and decrees of the Sages is derived. Therefore, one who fulfills their directives fulfills a divine commandment.
Rav Neĥemya said that the mitzvah to heed the voice of the Elders of Israel is derived from the verse: “Ask your father, and he will declare unto you, your Elders, and they will tell you” (Devarim 32:7).
Here, the Gemara cites two sources. The first, “You shall not turn aside,” which is both simple and accepted halakhah, was sufficient. The Gemara preferred a source from a positive rather than a negative mitzvah and therefore cited the verse: “Ask your father” (Rabbi Elazar Moshe Horowitz).
Shabbat 24a-b - Appropriate oils for Shabbat candles
With regard to lighting Shabbat lamps, the Mishnah on today's daf (=page) continues with a discussion of different types of oil, some of which were prohibited for use by some of the Sages. The Mishnah teaches:
Rabbi Yishmael says that one may not light with tar [itran] in deference to Shabbat because tar smells bad and disturbs those in the house. And the Rabbis permit lighting with all oils for lamps as long as they burn properly; with sesame oil, with nut oil, with turnip oil, with fish oil, with gourd oil, with tar, and even with naphtha [neft ]. Rabbi Tarfon says: One may light only with olive oil in deference to Shabbat, as it is the choicest and most pleasant of the oils.
Naphtha, or neft, is crude oil extracted from the ground, and was a common fuel in several countries in the ancient world. During the Middle Ages it was not used and it was virtually unknown in Europe (see, for example, Rashi on the Mishnah that simply defines it as "a type of oil with a bad smell"). It is apparent from the description in the Gemara that not only did they use crude oil that burst from the ground, like the people of Cappadocia that have nothing but naphtha, as described further on in the Gemara; they even successfully refined it.
The Gemara is apparently the first historical source that describes the production of white naphtha, which is one of the products of refining crude oil. Since white naphtha was refined, it would vaporize and burn more quickly, as the Gemara said: White naphtha is volatile. The techniques of refining crude oil first appear in other sources approximately five hundred years after the talmudic era.
Shabbat 25a-b - Mnemonic devices in the Talmudic
We all grew up learning the colors of the spectrum by remembering "Roy G. Biv." Mnemonic devices are a time-honored method to assist memory, and we find a number of examples on today's daf (=page). For example, while discussing stringencies that apply to consecrated items, those stringencies are listed based on the mnemonic "pancakes" (or "pink ox"), as follows:
Their Hebrew acronym is peh, nun, kuf, ayin, kaf, samekh, which is a mnemonic for the following terms.
Piggul: With regard to an offering, if, during one of the services involved in its sacrifice, i.e., slaughter, receiving the blood, bringing it to the altar, sprinkling it on the altar, the priest or the one bringing the offering entertains the thought of eating the sacrifice at a time that is unfit for eating, it is thereby invalidated.
Notar: Meat of a sacrifice that remained beyond its allotted time may not be eaten and must be burned.
Korban me’ila: One who unwittingly derives benefit from consecrated items is required to bring a guilt-offering for misuse of consecrated items.
Karet: The punishment of one who eats consecrated items while ritually impure is karet.
Asur le’onen: An acute mourner, i.e., one whose relative died that same day and has not yet been buried, is prohibited to eat consecrated items.
Acronyms like these are used throughout the Talmud as mnemonic devices. In general, the acronyms assist the Sages in remembering discussions in which numerous opinions are cited consecutively, potentially leading to confusion between the names of the speakers or their opinions. Acronyms were also composed as summaries of
halakhot, as in the case of yod, ayin, lamed, kuf, gimmel and mem that represent the disputes between Abayye and Rava where, anomalously, the halakhah is in accordance with the opinion of Abayye (see http://www.steinsaltz.org/learning.php?pg=Daf_Yomi&articleId=1313).
Not all mnemonics are identical. Most are acronyms, although they do not always consist of the first letter of each word. The mnemonic that appears later on today's daf - mem, tet, kuf, samekh - is a mnemonic of the Sages who addressed the issue at hand:
Meir, Tarfon, Akiva, and Yosei.
Shabbat 26a-b - Standing in the study hall
While discussing the limitations on the different types of oil that may be used for lighting Shabbat candles, the Gemara repeats the restrictive ruling in the Mishnah (see above, daf, or page 24): Rabbi Tarfon says: One may only light with olive oil alone.
In response to this teaching the Gemara relates the following incident:
Rabbi Yoĥanan ben Nuri stood on his feet and, contrary to this statement, said: And what shall the people of Babylonia, who have only sesame oil, do? And what shall the people of Medea, who have only nut oil, do? And what shall the people of Alexandria, who have only radish oil, do? And what shall the people of Cappadocia, who have neither this nor that but only naphtha, do? Rather, you have a prohibition only with regard to those substances with regard to which the Sages said: One may not light with them. All other oils are permitted.
Generally speaking, all of the Sages sat in the study hall and voiced their opinions on different topics while seated. Since certain Sages wanted to rule stringently with regard to enhancement of the mitzvah, Rabbi Yoĥanan ben Nuri stood up in order to emphasize his objection to these stringencies. He asserted that the restrictions would eventually become too burdensome and would ultimately prevent people from fulfilling the mitzvah of kindling the Shabbat lights.
Aside from naphtha that was discussed above (see daf 24), most of the other oils are of plant origin.
Radish oil is produced from radish seeds, probably from the radish species Raphunus sativus, whose seeds contain a high concentration of oil. Ancient writers indicate that radish oil was prevalent in Egypt during the talmudic period.
Regarding gourd oil, the gourds mentioned in the Bible and the Mishnah have been identified with the plant known as the bitter apple, the Citrullus colocynthis L. of the gourd family. This plant is similar to a watermelon and is found along the coastal plain and the other sandy regions of Israel. The plant has finger-like leaves that are somewhat similar to grape leaves and round fruits that are approximately 10 cm in diameter with a thick rind. The fruit is spongy, filled with seeds, and has a bitter taste.
It is possible to extract oil from the seeds, generally as much as 15 percent of the weight of the seeds. The oil can be used for food or light.
Shabbat 27a-b - The uniqueness of flax
Following a discussion of oils that are appropriate for use in lighting Shabbat candles, the Mishnah on today's daf (=page) turns its attention to the wicks that are used. Common wicks such as cotton are made from seeds; the Mishnah discusses the fact that most substances derived from actual trees would not be appropriate for use as wicks.
Of all substances that emerge from the tree, one may light only with flax on Shabbat because the other substances do not burn well (Tosafot). And of all substances that emerge from the tree, the only substance that becomes ritually impure with impurity transmitted by tents over a corpse is flax. If there is a dead body inside a house or a tent that is made from any materials that originate from a tree, everything in the house becomes ritually impure. However, only in the case of flax does the tent itself become impure.
Cultivated flax, Linum usitatissimum, is an annual plant that grows erect to a height of 40–120 cm. Its flowers are blue or white. Its stiff stalks contain flax fibers, and oil is extracted from its seeds. After the plant is cut, the stalks are soaked in water, called
mei mishra in the language of the Sages, for several days. Various bacteria cause the materials that attach the fibers to the stalks to decompose. Afterward the shell is beaten and opened and the fibers are extracted to be used in weaving linen, bad or shesh in the language of the Torah. The flax plant has been cultivated since ancient times, especially in ancient Egypt.
With regard to the secondary halakhah that is presented in the Mishnah, the only material made from plant fibers that is suspended over a dead body that becomes ritually impure is linen. Some commentaries say that this law applies specifically to a permanent tent (Rambam Sefer Tahara, Hilkhot Tumat Met 5:12).
Shabbat 28a-b - The unique taĥash of the desert
The discussion of tent impurity and the materials that can become ritually defiled when suspended over a dead body (see yesterday's daf, or page), leads the Gemara to discuss another famous biblical tent - the Tabernacle of the desert. The Tabernacle was made up of several layers of different types of materials, one of which was made from an animal called a taĥash. In investigating the identity of this animal the Gemara on today's daf asks:
What is the halakhic conclusion reached about this matter of the taĥash that existed in the days of Moses? Rabbi Ela said that Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said that Rabbi Meir used to say: The taĥash that existed in the days of Moses was a creature unto itself, and the Sages did not determine whether it was a type of undomesticated animal or a type of domesticated animal. And it had a single horn on its forehead, and this taĥash happened to come to Moses for the moment while the Tabernacle was being built, and he made the covering for the Tabernacle from it. And from then on the taĥash was suppressed and is no longer found.
The identity of the taĥash is a matter of great controversy and was never resolved. Some authorities explain that the taĥash is a monodon or narwhal, a species of whale. Narwhals travel in small groups, especially in northern ocean waters. It can grow to 6 meters in length. Its primary color is light yellow and it is spotted with numerous dark spots, the only cetacean with spots. A twisted tooth, up to 3 m long, grows out of one side of its mouth, to the extent that for many years it was thought to be the horn of the unicorn. It is possible that a group of these creatures approached the Red Sea and were thrown onto the shore or trapped there.
The narwhal’s appearance closely parallels the descriptions here: It is spotted, it has a
single horn on its forehead and the Sages were unable to determine its precise nature: domesticated or nondomesticated; kosher or non-kosher.
Prof. Yehuda Feliks, one of the foremost scholars in the field of nature in the Bible, suggests that the taĥash may have been a giraffe, which has many of the characteristics mentioned by Rabbi Meir: A multicolored hide, a horn-like protrusion on its forehead, and some of the signs that determine that an animal is kosher.
Shabbat 29a-b - Complicated lamps on Shabbat
While lighting Shabbat candles is a rabbinic obligation, the Sages remained concerned lest the proximity to a burning candle might lead to prohibited actions of kindling or extinguishing the flame. The fundamental dispute in the Mishnah on today's daf (=page) is with regard to the determination whether or not indirect acts of kindling and extinguishing fall within the parameters of the prohibition on Shabbat. The Mishnah teaches:
A person may not pierce a hole in an eggshell and fill it with oil, and place it over the mouth of a lamp so that the egg will drip additional oil into the lamp and thereby extend the time that it burns. And this is the ruling even if it is not an actual egg but an earthenware vessel. And Rabbi Yehuda permits doing so. However, if the craftsman, who crafts ceramic vessels, attached the egg to the lamp from the outset, one is permitted to fill it with oil because it constitutes a single, large vessel. The Rabbis decreed that a person may not fill a bowl with oil, and place it beside the lamp, and place the unlit head of the wick into the bowl so that it draws additional oil from the bowl and thereby extend the time that the lamp burns. And Rabbi Yehuda permits doing so.
In the Babylonian Talmud, the rationale for this halakhah is the concern lest one come to use the additional oil. However, in the Jerusalem Talmud, the Sages questioned this reason and offer a different one in its place. Only in the case of an oil lamp with a wick can one claim that the burning of each and every drop of oil began before Shabbat and is merely continuing on Shabbat. However, oil added from an eggshell or from an additional vessel will only reach the wick on Shabbat itself. It will only begin burning then, which is tantamount to having been lit on Shabbat.
In addition to his monumental translation and commentary on the Talmud, Rabbi Steinsaltz has authored dozens of books and hundreds of articles on a variety of topics, both Jewish and secular. For more information about Rabbi Steinsaltz's groundbreaking work in Jewish education, visit www.steinsaltz.org or contact the Aleph Society at 212-840-1166.