“Your burden is upon me and my burden, my fever, is upon you.”
Every day I try to find one thing in the Daf Yomi that provides an opening into the text. Today, it was the mention of mothers and fathers. The references seemed quite fitting for the day after Mother’s Day, when so many of us could not visit our mothers due to continued sheltering in place restrictions. Today’s text is dense with longing for parents and illness and healing and it is difficult not to find references to the immense pain and suffering associated with COVID-19.
Today’s Daf Yomi introduced a Rabbi’s mother for the first time that I remember since starting this journey in early January. It is difficult to imagine these Rabbis as small boys with doting mothers. Abaye was an orphan who was raised by his uncle. He refers to his foster mother (presumably his aunt) in several places of today’s text. He quotes his foster mother’s use of the healing properties of the madder plant: “Three garlands maintain the illness at its present state and prevent it from worsening, five garlands heal the illness, and seven are effective even against sorcery.”
Abaye offers more advice from his mother. If one is running a fever, she advised that he take a newly minted dinar (not an old rusty coin) and bind it with salt from the salt pools and place it around one’s neck with thread made of hair. And if this remedy is not effective to bring down a fever, then we are offered an odd alternative therapy: one should sit at a crossroads until a large ant crosses his path, at which point he should capture it in a jar, seal it with sixty seals, shake it, lift it up and chant: “your burden is upon me and my burden, my fever, is upon you.” He should be careful that he has not captured an ant that was already used to remedy someone else’s illness and could be infectious. Rav Aha offers an altered incantation in order to protect against community spread: “My burden and your burden are upon you.”
Abaye was left an orphan like many children in the wake of the current pandemic and we are presented with a longing for what is lost. Today’s text includes the description of little boys who miss their fathers so much that they tie a strap from their right shoe onto their arm as a “talisman.” The text suggests that these knots tied around a young boy’s arms are a reference to their fathers’ phylacteries. It is a reminder of how vulnerable children are when they lose their parents at a young age.
The Rabbis are quite harsh in their prohibition of allowing someone with prosthetic limbs from going out in public on Shabbat. How could a pious person who relies on these devices go to synagogue with this prohibition in place? They must have felt isolated on Shabbat. The rules appear unfair and capricious at times.
This must be an especially anxiety-ridden time for pregnant women. It must be frightening to enter a medical establishment. They need to keep up with their medical appointments while risking catching COVID-19. We are told in today’s reading that if they are so inclined, they can go out in public on Shabbat with a “preservation stone” which is a type of amulet designed to prevent miscarriages.
There is so much broken-heartedness and illness in today’s Daf Yomi, as there is today when children lose parents to COVID-19, or to diseases that are going uncared for because people are terrified to go to hospitals for treatment of other life-threatening illnesses. The internet is replete with folk remedies that offer promise of protection from the virus or fast cures. Unfortunately, all we really have in the face of this virus is hope that our scientific community can rapidly develop treatments and vaccines while we sit isolated in our homes waiting for life to return to what we once knew. If there is any comfort at all, it is that we are in this together as a global community and “your burden is upon me and my burden, my fever, is upon you.”