Parshat Nitzavim -
27 Elul 5765 / September 30-October 1, 2005
The Coming Week's Daf Yomi by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz
Shabbat 150a – 157b
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.
One of the oldest and most established Rabbinic ordinances regarding Shabbat observance is the decree forbidding business transactions. Generally speaking, this decree is explained as deriving from a fear that engaging in business will lead to writing figures, receipts, etc. In truth, while participation in business activities is not expressly forbidden by the Torah, it can, without question, lead to a wide variety of activities that are prohibited on Shabbat, including the transfer from one domain to another, building or fixing utensils, etc.
In Perek Sho’el, the Gemara tries to clarify what activities fall under the general category of business, for not only is buying and selling forbidden, but a host of similar activities are forbidden as well, i.e. lending and accepting loans, hiring workers, planning business activities, and developing business relationships. In fact, according to the Gemara, not only are these activities forbidden, but even discussing them and speaking of them is restricted. Nevertheless, because these activities are forbidden only by Rabbinic legislation, the rules only apply when the business activity or conversation focuses on individual, personal needs. When carried out for reasons of a mitzvah, however, such activities are not considered a desecration of the holiness of Shabbat and are thus permitted.
The latter part of the chapter deals specifically with how the community is to deal with a dead body on Shabbat. Generally speaking, the Halakhah shows great concern for Kavod HaMet – respect for the dead – so on Shabbat, when the body can neither be moved not directly cared for, the Rabbis permit a number of activities to ensure that the body is not left in a disrespectful state. It goes without saying that to actually bury the corpse – or even to move it – remains forbidden on Shabbat, for the respect that must be shown to the living who still are fulfilling Mitzvot is even greater than that shown to the dead.
The 24th and final chapter of Masechet Shabbat – Perek Mi She-hihshikh – focuses on restrictions that exist when interacting with animals on Shabbat. While the fifth chapter of the Masechta – Perek Bameh Beheimah – addressed the issue of animals carrying on Shabbat, this chapter deals with mehamer – whether someone who directs a loaded animal has committed a full-fledged transgression of Shabbat (Deuteronomy 5:14 appears to obligate a Jewish person to ensure that his animals rest on Shabbat) or, perhaps, such activity is simply a Rabbinic ordinance that forbids use of animals on Shabbat.
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Appearing at the end of Masechet Shabbat is a discussion of astrology (156a) and the question of whether Mazal affects the Jewish people (156b).
Astrology was considered a serious science in the ancient world and was well developed in Babylonia. Nevertheless, it is a subject that is, relatively speaking, discussed infrequently by the Talmud and it is not presently beyond simplistic popular maxims. The position most likely taken by the majority of the Sages – that Jews are not affected (or, at any rate, are not terminally affected) by the constellations – limited the effort that the Rabbis were willing to devote to this “science.”
The Gemara (156a) quotes a number of Amoraim who discuss whether birth on a given day of the week or under a specific star affects the newborn child. For example, R. Hanina says, “The influence of the constellations gives wisdom, the influence of the constellations gives wealth, and Israel is affected by the constellations.” R. Yohanan maintains that Israel is immune from planetary influence.
The Geonim explain that even R. Hanina does not believe that the constellations seal a man’s fate, but rather that these influences can direct a person in one particular path. Given the proper effort, a person can free himself of these influences.
The Amora Shmuel is presented (156b) as one of the Sages who believed that “Ein Mazal Le-Yisrael” – that Jews are not affected by the constellations. The story is told of a conversation between Shmuel and Ablait. (Ablait was a non-Jewish scholar whose dialogue with the Jewish Sages is recorded in both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud. It appears that Ablait was familiar with Jewish thought and philosophy and held the Talmudic Sages in high regard.) Ablait pointed to an individual whom he could tell was destined to die of a snake bite. Shmuel responded that, had he been Jewish, this “destiny” would not have been fulfilled. When the man returned, Ablait checked his backpack and found a snake inside that had – apparently by accident – been cut in half. Shmuel questioned the man and found that he had done an act of kindness that saved his life.
Similar stories are told about the predictions of the Kalda’ai. (The Kalda’ai were not magicians or fortune-tellers, for listening to them would have been Biblically prohibited. Rather, they were considered the scientists of their day, knowledgeable in astrology and the movements of the heavenly bodies. Jewish people occasionally turned to them for advice and direction – a position not accepted by all, as pointed out by Tosafot.) For example, R. Nahman bar Yitzhak’s mother was told by a Kalda’ai that her son – Nahman – would be a thief. In the hope of protecting him from this fate, she insisted that Nahman always cover his head to serve as a concrete reminder that the fear of heaven should be upon him and to remind him to pray. One day, when little Nahman was studying under a palm tree, his head covering fell off and he proceeded to climb the tree and steal a bunch of dates. Clearly the young man had the capacity to steal, which was kept under control by constant educational vigilance and prayer.
From this – and many other stories related in the Gemara – it appears that a head covering was not the universal identifying mark of a religious Jew. The Sages of the Talmud, in fact, covered their heads, but only after they were married. Children, it would seem, never kept their heads covered, which made it out-of-the-ordinary for R. Nahman bar Yitzhak to cover his head as a child. Today head covering for religious Jews is the accepted norm in most communities. The idea – as is clear from the text of our Gemara – is that keeping oneself fully dressed leads to a greater sense of seriousness of purpose and limits the sense of total freedom of behavior.
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.