Daf Yomi 73: Finding Poetry in the Talmud

“One who shears wool, and one who whitens it, and one who combs the fleece and straightens it…”

After days of reading about sin-offerings and guilt-offerings, it was wonderful to find so much poetry in today’s Daf Yomi text.  In the recitation of the type of labors that are prohibited on Shabbat, is a view into an entire world that existed the other six days of the week. I found the roots of some of the American poetry that I love in the recitation of labor in today’s text, with its cadence of everyday labors and the music of how people lived their lives.

We are told by Rabbi Yohanan that the tally of labor was created so that one who is so industriousness and skilled that he performed all labors in the course of a single lapse of awareness “is liable for each and every one.”  The categorization of labors is critical in the determination of offerings, because we are told that if transgressions occur within a single category, the perpetrator is liable for just one offering, rather than for all.

Rabbi Aḥa quotes Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Ashi who quotes Rabbi Ami on the type of labors that are prohibited on Shabbat: “one who prunes is liable for the labor of planting. And one who plants, and one who bends, and one who grafts is liable for the labor of sowing.”  

We learn that there are forty-less-one primary categories of labor. The categories are grouped by function: “One who sows, and one who plows, and one who reaps, and one who gathers sheaves into a pile, and one who threshes, removing the kernel from the husk, and one who winnows threshed grain in the wind, and one who selects the inedible waste from the edible, and one who grinds, and one who sifts the flour in a sieve, and one who kneads dough, and one who bakes.”  The additional categories are likewise lyrical in their connection with everyday existence: One who shears wool, and one who whitens it, and one who combs the fleece and straightens it, and one who dyes it, and one who spins the wool….”

I hear the poetry of Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg in the recitation of labors. Their poetry encompasses the cadence of everyday life, although their lives could not be more different. Whitman catalogs the sounds of America’s workers in “I Hear America Singing”: the songs of the mechanic, carpenter, mason, boatman, shoemaker, wood-cutter, ploughboy, the mother, young wife, girl sewing or washing. Allen Ginsberg listed the pain and suffering he witnessed in his youth in his great poem “Howl” through his depiction of “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night.” His subject-matter is different, but the cadence and dark celebration of the life he experienced as a young man were heavily influenced by Whitman.

I lived in the East Village when I was a poetry graduate student at NYU during the 1980s. Allen Ginsberg lived down the street from me. I would see him eating at the Kiev restaurant on Second Avenue where I would go for pierogis, borscht and blintzes. This was a time before the East Village was gentrified and there was a Starbucks on every corner. I lived in a railroad flat apartment that was managed by two brothers who regularly made the Village Voice’s list of the worst slum landlords in the city, with a musician roommate who played guitar at CBGBs. There was a wonderful mix of East European and hipster culture, with some vestiges left of the world of Yiddish Theater on Second Avenue. It was a dangerous time, with too many drugs being sold on the streets, an upsurge in violent crimes, vermin infested apartments and the first hints of an emergence of a mysterious viral disease infecting primarily gay men. But there was Allen Ginsberg walking the streets and so much poetry and art!


About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at https://brokentabletsfrompennycagan.me
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