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 128a-b – Giving birth on Shabbat
The Mishnah on today's daf (=page) teaches that a woman who is giving birth has the status of an ill person for whom Sabbath desecration is permitted. The Mishnah teaches:
And one may birth a woman even on Shabbat, and call a midwife for her to travel from place to place, even when the midwife’s travel involves the desecration of Shabbat. And one may desecrate Shabbat for a woman giving birth. And one may tie the umbilical cord of a child born on Shabbat. Rabbi Yosei says: One may even cut the umbilical cord.
The Gemara clarifies this ruling further:
Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: With regard to a woman in childbirth, as long as the womb is open, whether she said: I need Shabbat to be desecrated, or whether she did not say: I need Shabbat to be desecrated, one desecrates Shabbat for her. Generally, a woman in childbirth is in danger, and prohibited labors may be performed in life-threatening circumstances. Once the womb closed after birth, whether the woman who gave birth said: I need Shabbat to be desecrated, or whether she did not say: I need Shabbat to be desecrated, one does not desecrate Shabbat for her.
Regarding the latter case, the Ramban writes that this discussion is referring to a situation in which there is no doctor present. However, if a doctor is present, and he determines that the woman requires care that involves desecrating Shabbat, then her protestations to the contrary are ignored. Perhaps her ability to make a rational decision is compromised due to her pain and suffering. Halakhic rulings are always lenient in cases of uncertainty with regard to a life-threatening situation.
It is interesting to note that the Gemara uses the word kever (=grave) as a euphemism for the womb. Although the Talmud does not shy away from discussing any issue, as all aspects of life require talmudic study, the Sages consistently employ euphemisms. In this case, the word kever, literally grave, is a euphemism for the womb. This particular euphemism was influenced by the verse in which these two items are listed together among things that are never satisfied: “The grave and the barren womb” (Mishlei 30:16 ).
Shabbat 129a-b – The importance and danger of bloodletting
The Gemara on today's daf (=page) discusses medicinal bloodletting.
Bloodletting involves spilling small quantities of blood. It was used both as a cure and as a general preventive therapy that was believed to keep a person healthy. Bloodletting was based on an ancient system of medicine in which blood and other bodily fluid were considered to be humors, the proper balance of which was believed to maintain health. It was the most common medical practice performed by doctors on both humans and animals from antiquity through the late 19th century, a period of almost two millennia. Today it is well established that bloodletting is not effective for most diseases. The only remaining condition for which it is used is Polycythemia vera, a disease in which the body produces too many red blood cells.
Even in Talmudic times the Sages recognized the potential danger involved in bloodletting, and there were several methods undertaken to reinforce the body afterward. Eating meat in general, and eating organs from the circulatory system in particular, e.g., the spleen, is useful in restoring lost blood and replenishing hemoglobin after bloodletting. Wine accelerates circulation, as does warming oneself by a fire. Based on this the Gemara relates the following about bloodletting and drinking wine.
Shmuel, on the day on which he would perform the practice of bloodletting, they would prepare for him a dish of cooked spleen. Rabbi Yohananwould drink wine after bloodletting until the odor emerged from his ears. And Rav Nahmanwould drink until his spleen floated in wine. Rav Yosef would drink until the wine would emerge from the bloodletting incision. Rava would search for wine that was sufficiently aged such that three leaves had already grown over three years on the vine from which the grapes were picked.
Rav Nahman bar Yitzhak said to the Sages: I beg of you, on the day that you undergo bloodletting, tell your households, your wives: Nahman bar Yitzhak happened to come to visit us. Due to the visit of the important guest, the women will prepare a large meal. The husbands will eat well, recover from the lost blood, and avoid endangering themselves.
Shabbat 130a-b - Circumcision
The nineteenth perek (=chapter) of Massekhet Shabbat, which begins on today's daf (=page) focuses in its entirety on the laws of berit milah – circumcision – generally and on its performance on Shabbat specifically.
The Sages received an oral tradition that the mitzvah of circumcision overrides Shabbat when it is performed at its proper time, on the eighth day after birth. Although all the Sages accepted this tradition, they disputed many details of its application. Such details include the handling of borderline cases, the precise definitions of the act of circumcision, and the actions necessary for its performance.
Several issues arise with regard to circumcision on Shabbat. The first question pertains to situations in which it is not entirely clear whether there is a mitzvah to circumcise the child or whether the proper time for circumcision has arrived. Some Sages are of the opinion that circumcision overrides Shabbat only if there is absolutely no doubt as to its obligation. Others hold that in some circumstances an uncertain obligation to circumcise does override Shabbat, and these Sages debate which conditions are required.
Another issue is whether the preparations for circumcision override Shabbat. The medical attention the baby will require immediately after the circumcision does override Shabbat, as his life could be endangered if he does not receive it. The Sages consider whether actions to prepare for the circumcision, such as bringing the knife and preparing it for use, also override Shabbat, and if so, which preparations are considered essential in this regard.
Another essential issue pertains to how broadly circumcision overrides Shabbat. Does circumcision override Shabbat at every stage of the operation no matter how it is performed, and is anyone involved in circumcision exempt from Shabbat prohibitions? Or perhaps circumcision overrides Shabbat only when one completes the mitzvah properly and in its entirety? To address these questions it becomes necessary to clarify the scope of the mitzvah and to identify its obligatory components.
Shabbat 131a-b – Overriding Shabbat to perform a mitzvah
As we learned on yesterday's daf (=page), when a child must be circumcised on Shabbat, the Shabbat prohibitions can be overridden by the mitzvah to perform the berit milah. On today's daf we learn that Rabbi Eliezer believes that this is not a halakhah that is unique to circumcision; in fact there are many commandments that override the laws of Shabbat. For example, the Gemara teaches that such mitzvot as lulav, sukkah, matzah and shofar will all take precedence over Shabbat, if necessary. Rabbi Yohanan teaches, however, that -
Rabbi Eliezer did not say with regard to all mitzvot that actions that facilitate performance of a mitzvah override Shabbat.
This is not a fixed principle with regard to preparations for all mitzvot. Rather, each case must be considered on its own merits, and proof must be cited that this principle applies to a specific mitzvah.
Which mitzvot do not override Shabbat even according to Rabbi Eliezer?
Rav Adda bar Ahava said: The statement of Rabbi Yohanan comes to exclude attaching ritual fringes to his garment and affixing a mezuza to the doorway, which do not override Shabbat. The Gemara notes that that was also taught in a baraita: And they, Rabbi Eliezer and the Rabbis, agree that if one attached ritual fringes to his garment on Shabbat, and similarly, if one affixed a mezuza to his doorway on Shabbat, that he is liable.
The Gemara explains this as follows:
Rav Nahman said that Rav Yitzhak said, and some say that he said that Rav Huna, son of Rav Yehoshua, said: The actions that facilitate the performance of these mitzvot do not override Shabbat, since one can render the relevant objects ownerless.
One is only required to perform these mitzvot if the objects, i.e., the garment and the house, belong to him. If he renders them ownerless, he is no longer obligated to perform these mitzvot.
According to Rashi, who is of the opinion that there is an obligation to affix ritual fringes even to a garment not currently in use, rendering one’s garment ownerless is the only way to exempt oneself from the mitzvah to affix ritual fringes to its corners. According to other authorities, who rule that a garment which is not being worn is exempt from ritual fringes, either the Gemara chose one rationale from a number of possible explanations (Rashba), or this reason was chosen because it applies to both ritual fringes and mezuzah (Ramban).
Shabbat 132a-b – When a positive mitzvah overrides a negative one
As we have learned, the mitzvah to perform circumcision overrides the prohibitions of Shabbat. This rule does not fit into the usual rubric of aseh doheh lo ta'aseh – that a positive mitzvah overrides a negative one – since Shabbat is not simply a negative commandment; it is a positive commandment, as well. For this reason the Gemara on today's daf (=page) brings a number of different opinions offering different sources for this law. The Gemara also discusses other cases where positive and negative commandments stand in contradiction and rulings must be made based on setting priorities. For example, the mitzvah of circumcision will be performed even if it involves cutting off a leprous sign on the child's foreskin, but someone suffering from leprosy may not perform the Temple service even though it is a mitzvah. The Gemara explains:
Rather, Rav Ashi said that this is the reason that leprosy does not override the Temple service: Where do we say that a positive mitzvah overrides a negative mitzvah? It is in cases like circumcision in a case of leprosy, or alternatively, tzitzit (ritual fringes) and kilayim (diverse kinds of wool and linen), as at the time the negative mitzvah is uprooted, the positive mitzvah is fulfilled in the very same action, e.g., when the ritual fringes are woolen and will be attached to a linen garment, a prohibited mixture is created. However, here, in the case of a person afflicted with pure symptoms of leprosy cutting off his symptoms to enable his involvement in the Temple service, it is different, at the time the negative mitzvah is uprooted, the positive mitzvah is not yet fulfilled, as cutting off the symptoms is only a preliminary action that enables him to serve. In that case, the positive mitzvah does not override the negative one.
The cases of ritual fringes and diverse kinds cited here are not classic examples of positive mitzvot overriding negative mitzvot, because both cases mentioned here are derived from a particular source. The halakhahin the case of leprosy and circumcision is derived from an a fortiori inference, and the halakhah in the case of ritual fringes and diverse kinds is based on a juxtaposition of verses. Nevertheless, the following principle learned from these cases applies to other laws: The positive commandment overrides the negative commandment only when the fulfillment of the positive commandment is simultaneous with the violation of the negative commandment (Ramban; see Me’iri).
Shabbat 133a-b – Placing the showbread on the table in the Temple
As a segue from the ongoing discussion about circumcision, the Gemara turns its attention to the showbread in the Temple.
Four priests would enter the Sanctuary every Shabbat to arrange the showbread, two of whom had two orders of six loaves each in their hands, and two had two bowls of frankincense in their hands. And four priests would precede them; two came to take the two orders of bread left on the table from the previous week, and two came to take the two bowls of frankincense. Next, those bringing the loaves and bowls into the Sanctuary would stand in the north of the Sanctuary, facing south, while those carrying the loaves and bowls out would stand in the south of the Sanctuary, facing north. These slide the old bread along the table, and these place the new bread on the table, and as a result, the handbreadth of this one would be alongside the handbreadth of that one, so that the requisite amount of bread would always be present on the table, as it is stated: “And you shall place on the table showbread before Me continuously” (Shemot 25:30).
Rabbi Yosei said: Even if these priests were first to take the old bread off the table entirely, and only afterward were these priests to place the new ones on the table, this too would fulfill the requirement that the showbread be on the table continuously. It is unnecessary to ensure the uninterrupted presence of the showbread on the table.
The showbread, which was placed on the sacred table in the Sanctuary (Shemot 25:23–30), was comprised of twelve loaves arranged on wooden slats in two stacks of six loaves each. Atop each stack or, according to another opinion, between them, were two bowls of frankincense. The showbread remained on the table from one Shabbat to the next. Every Shabbat the priests would remove the old bread and replace it with new bread. The old bread was divided among the priests and eaten. The dispute between Rabbi Yosei and the Sages is with regard to the proper interpretation of the word “always” (Shemot 25:30) with regard to the transition from the old loaves to the new ones.
Shabbat 134a-b - Circumcising a red or pale child
If a baby displays signs of possible illness, and the circumcision might be dangerous, the baby is not circumcised at the appointed time. As an example of this, the Gemara relates a number of stories about Rabbi Natan's ruling in such cases:
Rabbi Natan said: On one occasion, I went to the coastal cities, and one woman came before me who circumcised her first son and he died, and she circumcised her second son and he died, and since she feared circumcising the third due to concern that he might die as well, she brought him before me. I saw that he was red. I said to her: Wait until his blood is absorbed into him. She waited until his blood was absorbed into him and then circumcised him, and he lived. And they would call him Natan the Babylonian after my name.
Rabbi Natan further related: On another occasion I went to the state of Cappadocia, and a woman came before me who circumcised her first son and he died, and she circumcised her second son and he died. Since she feared circumcising the third due to concern that he might die as well, she brought him before me. I saw that he was pale. I looked at him and I could not see in him the blood of the covenant, i.e., he had a blood deficiency. I said to her: Wait until blood enters him. And she waited and then circumcised him, and he lived. And they would call his name Natan the Babylonian after my name.
Several medical explanations were proposed to identify the diseases from which the babies seen by Rabbi Natan were suffering. With regard to the child who was red, some presume that the children of that family suffered from a rare hereditary blood disease known as purple disease, purpura hemorrhagica. The child who was pale was probably sick with hemolytic jaundice of the newborn, which is also hereditary.
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.