Murky waters (Daf Yomi Shabbos 109)

“All seas purify like a ritual bath.”

What a world the Rabbis lived in 1,500 years ago when intention mattered, except when it didn’t. Today’s Daf Yomi is focused on forms of healing that are prohibited on Shabbat. The theme is that appearance rather than intention matters. Herbs, soaking in wine and vinegar, or bathing in hot springs are all assessed based on if they are remedies that a healthy person might undertake. If that is the case, one would not be suspected of applying a therapy for the purpose of healing. Perhaps in the reverse logic of trying to hide a pill in a cat’s treat in order to help the squirmy feline feel better, one could hide a medicinal treatment in a portion of meat in order to avoid the appearance of treating an ailment, since it is the appearance rather than intention that matters.

Sometimes I feel as though the Rabbis of years ago are looking down on us wondering when we will figure out that they really just made some of this stuff up. For instance, can we really believe that the remedy for liver worms if everything else failed was to scrape sawdust from the shell of a thorn bush, but only after it is scraped from top to bottom so that worms do not fall out. The scrapings are then boiled overnight in beer and swallowed in the morning. And then – here is the kicker – after consuming this strange mixture one should relieve himself on the trunk of a palm tree.

The portrayed medicines truly are strange by today’s standards and if they worked at all it must have been through the placebo effect. We are told that one can cure an injured hand or foot by soaking it in wine, which seems an awful way of wasting a good bottle. According to a spa I visited a few years ago in Sonoma, California that specialized in vinotherapy,where I soaked in a wine bath and had a wine-infused massage, wine can heal in ways beyond just consuming a glass in order to blunt a difficult day. One is prohibited from treating a wound on Shabbat with vinegar, because it is used for medicinal purposes only, but can soak a foot or hand in vino any day of the week.

We are also told that one can bathe in any water on Shabbat that a healthy person would enter, but must not enter therapeutic waters, like hot springs that contain flax or perhaps sulfur which are solely medicinal. We are told that a body of water that is “polluted” or murky is prohibited on Shabbat because most would only enter it for therapy.

I visited the Dead Sea last October when I took my first trip to Israel. It was a transformative trip overall, but to be honest, the visit to the Dead Sea was a bit of a disappointment. I thought if I could walk straight out in the middle of the murky, salty waters, I would have some sort of revelation, like the one the Pfefferman family had in the Amazon series “Transparent.” Instead, I never made it very far from the edge of the shore because I kept falling on slippery rocks and accidentally swallowing the briny water. I was never able to steady myself to go out far enough to float.

The spa that provided entrance to the Dead Sea reminded me of what a beach facility would be like in 1970s Odessa, Russia. It featured a sulphur pool which I imagine is of the kind the Rabbis said would only be entered for purposes of healing, and we were taken out to the sea on the back of a tractor. I did not attempt to lather myself with the mud that was said to cure all kinds of ills, because frankly it just seemed like backyard mud. I sat at the edge of the sulphur pool debating if I would enter it, but it seemed too opaque and ominous and I decided not to attempt it, although I am sure it was not disease-ridden because it smelled like a bottle of clorox bleach. It wasn’t exactly the life-altering experience I had hoped for, but now I know the true purpose of the visit. It was to help me understand today’s reading, which was brought more alive by the recollected smell of the murky sulphur pool.

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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