“One is liable for killing any creature that procreates.”
Today’s Daf Yomi is a litany of horribles: draining fluid from an abscess, using a needle to remove a thorn and creepy crawly animals and insects – lice, snakes, weasels, mice, lizards, geckos, crocodile and skink (a lizard-like reptile). There is a discussion of wounding an animal or creeping reptile on Shabbat, which is prohibited. What is especially disturbing is the reference to the Cushite people and their skin color. All of this is offered to us in the Talmud’s discursive way of delineating prohibited acts on Shabbat.
What I have found troubling about this entire Tractate is that things that should be prohibited always, such as wounding animals and trapping of birds, are discussed only in the context of what is prohibited on Shabbat. There is a higher moral order that is not present in many of these discussions of labors.
Here is what one cannot do on Shabbat: drain an abscess so that it creates a permanent opening in the skin, trap a snake for medicinal purposes, trapping one of eight creeping animals, or wounding a domestic animal in one’s household (hopefully never). We are told that one must not kill any living creature on Shabbat that procreates. The text makes an odd juxtaposition between lice and camels: “One who kills lice on Shabbat is akin to one who kills a camel on Shabbat.”
Rav Yosef, demonstrates a lack of knowledge of biology, when he disputes the killing of lice on the grounds that they do not procreate. Abaye questions this and points to lice eggs. Rav Yosef, who is in too deeply committed to his argument to turn back, answers Abaye: “There is a species of insect that is called lice eggs, but lice themselves do not actually lay eggs.” He seems determined to continue with his argument no matter what. Perhaps he has personal experience with the killing of lice, and once they become a nuisance, it would be a long 24-hours if one has to wait to exterminate them until after Shabbat.
The Talmud plunges into a deeply troubling passage that one cannot read without reference to current events and asks: “Can a Cushite change his skin, or a leopard its spots?” This passage is as troubling as the ones in Berakhot that compare women to chattering “white geese” and disparages “perfumed men.” The Talmud is clearly sexist and homophobic in many passages, but is it racist? The Talmud in its continued dialogue and statements and counter-statements is never so easy to characterize. In addition to the sexist passages is the story of strident Yalta. We learned earlier that Moses was married to a Cushite woman and his sister Miriam and brother Aaron were punished with an onset of leprosy for speaking ill of her.
It is easy to dismiss the Talmud as a treatise of its time. But that would not be in the spirit of the Talmud itself which is a never-ending dialog of contradictory opinions. I believe each of us who are on this Daf Yomi journey need to question what we read in light of the lives we live today and our Jewish values of equality and social justice. It is especially important to do so right now in light of the events of depravity we have recently witnessed against our African-American fellow citizens.