Follow the science (Daf Yomi Shabbos 116)

Shabbos116: A donkey kicked the lamp.”

We are introduced to the house of Abidan in today’s Daf Yomi, which is a salon where intellectuals of the day gathered in its wide courtyard to discuss philosophy, medicine, literature and most likely religion, including the new-comer, Christianity. Most Rabbis stayed away from the salon, but Shmuel, the man of science, was a regular visitor who I imagine went to hear the latest thinking on medicine and astronomy.

The discussion from the previous day on what type of sacred books can be rescued from a fire on Shabbat continues with a reference to the House of Abidan. The question is asked if there is a fire in the house, would its Jewish texts be saved from the flames. We are told that Rabbi Abbahu gave an answer that it typical of the Talmud: “yes and no.”

Unlike Shmuel who was addicted to the debates that occurred at the House of Abidan, his pal Rav refused to go, along with Rava. The non-Jewish scholars badgered Rava on why he stayed away from the house which had become a hotbed of intellectual debate. Rava, not wanting to insult the scholars, made up excuse after excuse for why he stayed away. He pointed to a huge Palm tree that blocked his path to the house and then the dangerous pit in the ground that was left behind when it was uprooted. We are told his friend Mar bar Yosef visited the salon occasionally until he endangered his life. This tale serves as a warning by the Rabbis to stay away from secular heretics.

We are presented with another tale with an embedded warning to not stray from the Jewish text. The sister of Rabbi Gamliel with the beautiful name of Imma Shalom went on a mission to prove that a Christian philosopher who boasted that he did not accept bribes could in fact be bought off. She gifted the philosopher with a beautiful golden lamp and asked his advice on seeking an inheritance from her father’s estate. He tells her that the Christian text allows an estate to be divided equally between a son and daughter. Her brother, the esteemed scholar, counters that according to the Torah when there is a son, a daughter cannot inherent anything from her father.

The next day Imma and her brother return to visit the philosopher. Gamliel hands him a gift of an exuberant Libyan donkey and asks if a daughter can inherent her father’s estate. This time the philosopher responds that he read to the end of the gospel and in fact it says that only the son can inherent his father’s estate. Imma says to the philosopher “May your light shine like a lamp,” alluding to the lamp she had given him. Rabban Gamliel said to him: “The donkey came and kicked the lamp, thereby revealing the entire episode.” So there you have it – a donkey kicked the lamp and women are disenfranchised by two religions.

I have learned that this ancient text is sometimes about the Rabbis attempt to try to place boundaries around what is permissible in order to safeguard a religion that had lost its great home with the destruction of the temple. They must have also felt pressure to protect their turf at a time when there was competition from a newer religion that placed less restrictions on people than Rabbinic Judaism. It was probably not a time when they would have been comfortable engaging in discussions with an eclectic mix of religious men, scholars and philosophers.  (I doubt there were many Yaltas among them.) Shmuel was an extraordinary man who would engage with the world and those who were different from him in order to advance his scientific knowledge. I imagine him adding into his endless debates with Rav snippets of knowledge he picked up at the Abidan salon. There are men who follow the science in their understanding of the world and those can not see beyond their own rhetoric.

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
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