“In all our days we have never seen that type of conduct.”
Yesterday we were told in the daily Daf Yomi reading that if one traveled on Passover eve where the custom differed from their hometown on whether work is permissible on the day, he should follow the most stringent guidance. Today, the discussion on following local practices extends to bathing, eating, and even the type of stool that one can rest on upon the conclusion of a long journey.
We are provided with a series of examples where local customs may vary from town to town. Rabbi Gamliel’s sons, Yehuda and Hillel, are travelers who may not be cognizant of local customs. Their visit to Kabul resulted in outrage by the entire city because they bathed together. The Gemara tells us that “two brothers may bathe together, and there is no concern that doing so is immodest or will lead to sinful thoughts.” However, the practice is different in Kabul where the two brothers scandalized the town’s citizens by their actions. We are told that in deference to the town, Hillel did not tell them that such behavior is permissible among brothers because “he preferred to obey the city residents rather than rule it permitted for two brothers to bathe together.”
The traveling brothers, Yehuda and Hillel, also visited the city of Birei on Shabbat while wearing wide shoes, Again, they caused quite a scandal when the city residents denounced them and said: “in all our days we have never seen that type of conduct.” Yehuda and Hillel showed similar deference to the citizens of the city and removed their wide shoes. They did not correct the residents and insist that it is permissible to wear comfortable wide shoes any day of the week in order to respect their local practice.
Rabbi Gamliel traveled to the city of Akko on Shabbat and was so tired that he rested on a stool belonging to a non-Jewish shopkeeper who used it for displaying merchandise. Like his sons, he created quite the kerfuffle in the town with his actions, which declared that “in all our days we have never seen that type of conduct.” The Rabbi graciously stood away from the stool rather than correct the residents that the act is permitted.
The voice of the Gemara explains why the local customs exist in each city and town. It is feared that if someone sits on a stool used to display merchandise by a non-Jew who conducts commerce on the Sabbath it might appear as he is doing so as well. Wearing wide shoes, however comfortable, may give the impression that they would fall off and need to be carried on Shabbat. We have seen before in the Talmud that appearances matter, and even if someone is not violating a prohibition, he should not be seen as potentially doing so.
The case of the two brothers bathing together is more complicated. It is permitted for a person to bathe with anyone except his father, father-in-law and the husbands of his mother and sister. If two brothers bathe together, the residents of the town of Kabul feared that it might be seen as too similar to bathing with the husband of one’s sister. In an aside, Rabbi Yehuda said that it is entirely permitted to assist one’s father or mother’s husband or even teacher with bathing if asked to do so.
One of the major joys of traveling is the introduction to new foods. We are told that Rabba bar bar Hana traveled from Israel to Babylonia and consumed a meal of the fat that is found “over the straight part of an animal’s stomach.” Eating the inner portion of the fat that surrounded an animal’s stomach is prohibited in Babylonia but considered a delicacy in Israel. The local residents were disturbed by the sight of the Rabbi who had traveled from Israel eating this meal. We are told that he would have been expected to observe the local custom if he had come from anywhere except Israel.
The residents of Babylonia would be expected to follow local customs when they traveled to Israel, but it did not apply the other way around. Rav Ashi clarified that if one travels from Israel to Babylonia, he is expected to follow local customs if his intent is not to return to his hometown. In other words, if he is taking up residency in Babylonia, he should follow the local practice. We are told that Rabba bar bar Hana’s intent was to return to Israel and as are result he was able to eat his fatty meal. Still dare I say that the Israeli sage might seem a bit arrogant by insisting on eating food from his hometown when there are a plethora of local foods he could have enjoyed.
The message overall in today’s Daf Yomi portion is to respect local practices when you travel. If you have traveled widely in the world, you know how fraught this can be when you are trying really hard to be respectful of the local culture. The sights and sounds and smells and tastes of a new culture can be overwhelming; as hard as you try to just let them flow through you, there is a sense that you are an outsider. You may talk louder or softer than the residents, you may look different, wear different clothes, you may appear a bit too wide-eyed or cautious to the residents and it is obvious to everyone that you are a visitor.
I am living for the moment I can start traveling again, because as difficult as it can be to understand different cultures, it feels vital to my life to continue engaging in new experiences. The last few days of Daf Yomi readings have provided good advice to a traveler: assume the more stringent position. In other words, think before you undertake action in a new place on how it will be perceived. Become a quiet observer before you act. There is a lot to be learned by listening.