Looking the other way (Daf Yomi Shabbos 148)

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Leave the Jewish people alone, and do not rebuke them.”

What has been interesting about this journey through the Talmud is that I feel like I am right there with the Rabbis as they argue and discuss what is permissible and what is prohibited. They were constructing rules that were designed to build a fence around Torah prohibitions and they constructed a circumference that at times was wider than was needed in order to be secure in their boundaries. They were also trying to steer the Jewish people into a practice of observation, and in the back and forth dialogs you can see how they struggled to get the balance right. They had competition from other emerging religions, and if they created guidelines that were too restrictive, they might have risked losing some of their flock. I imagine it might have been like the “religious fervent” period in Seneca County in New York State, when there were competing Christian religions conducting revivals in the early 19th Century.

Sometimes the Rabbis just looked the other way when people transgressed Shabbat restrictions. This becomes apparent in today’s text when Rava bar Rav Ḥanan said to Abaye: “Did we not learn in a mishna that one may not clap hands, or clap one’s hand against one’s body, or dance on a Festival? And we see, however, that people do these things, and we do not say anything to stop them.” Abaye responded that although there are many restrictions, one can be tolerant of transgressions. He provides the example of the prohibition againt resting in the entrance of a private passage that delineates boundaries on Shabbat; most people look the other way when women put down their heavy jugs in the restricted spot and enjoy a moment’s rest. We are told: “Leave the Jewish people alone, and do not rebuke them.” It is better to let these weary souls be “unintentional sinners” than to make them into “intentional sinners” because “if they are told about these prohibitions they may not listen anyway.”

The implication is to let the small things go and especially ones that are Rabbinic rather than Torah prohibitions. However, the Talmud being the Talmud, there is no one way and multiple voices and multiple opinions.  Despite all the distinctions we learned in earlier passages between Torah and Rabbinic prohibitions, today we are told that there can be no difference, although I am sure this will be contradicted in a future reading. In both cases, we are told that one does not reprimand someone for unwittingly violating Shabbat. This even includes those that eat and drink on Yom Kippur eve after sundown. We are told that despite the required fasting, it is best to say nothing when one observes such behavior. There is a sense of proportionality that is present in today’s text.

I am a rule follower by nature, and sometimes am perturbed by those who act like the rules don’t apply to them. If you tell me to wear a mask when outside my home for the public good, I will wear a mask. We were required several months ago in New York City to wear a mask in public, maintain social distancing and wash our hands often. We were asked to do these simple things in order to combat the spread of the coronavirus. The city has recovered remarkably from the worse of the pandemic, although I fear another wave may come our way. Most, but not all, New Yorkers wear masks when they are out and about, and they are required everywhere.

So, who are the small percentage of people walking around New York City without masks? Why do the rules not apply to them? I know its inconvenient to breathe through fabric and have your glasses become foggy from your breath mixed with summer humidity, but we have been told to do this for the good of all in order to stop the spread of the disease. Isn’t that enough reason to wear a mask?  I hold myself back from saying something to those without masks, because this being New York, you never know what encounter you might be walking into with a crackpot. I give them the “New York stare” that says “are you kidding me?” Unlike sitting in the alleyway that is described in today’s Daf Yomi, it is not a small thing to shrug off a public health requirement. Some of the people walking on the street seem proud to show off their act of defiance, while others just seem oblivious to the world around them. Nothing would probably be accomplished by saying something and they will likely do whatever they want anyway. So, I remain silent, but the silence troubles me.


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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