Shabbat 12b: Reading by Candlelight

G-d willing, when we emerge from this, there will be much to research about the impact on social isolation on our lives, health and well-being, and yes, I know about zoom and facebook streaming, even live, and skype and look, you can video-chat on Whatsapp! Yes, that’s all great, but what about the optimal measure of human touch, presence, caring and? Someone who can see past your screen and off hours, and notice a need, a smile, a question in your eyes? Or alternatively, how much togetherness is too much and how much too little? It seems like right now, there is a crazy imbalance between the two.

Corona in the days of Masechet (Tractate) Shabbat. Or vice-versa.

Is there any meaning to all of this? Or do we find it, come what may?

There’s a Rashi on Leviticus 26:32-35, describing what will happen if the people don’t listen and are removed from their land. He calculates exactly how the 70 years of 1st Temple Destruction and Exile are making up for 70 Sh’mita (land sabbatical) years that were not kept properly while in the Land. Is that why we are now keeping so many world-wide extra Shabbatot? Maybe. Maybe just a coincidence.

Back to the Gemara, After a lengthy discussion, which isn’t over, about domains and going in and out, we have, sort of, begun looking at Shabbat preparations, and from there, some rules. Here’s one, in all three languages, Aramaic, Hebrew and English:וְלֹא יִקְרָא לְאוֹר הַנֵּר. אָמַר רַבָּה: אֲפִילּוּ גָּבוֹהַּ שְׁתֵּי קוֹמוֹת, וַאֲפִילּוּ שְׁתֵּי מַרְדָּעוֹת, וַאֲפִילּוּ עֲשָׂרָה בָּתִּים זֶה עַל גַּב זֶה. חַד הוּא דְּלָא לִיקְרֵי, הָא תְּרֵי — שַׁפִּיר דָּמֵי. וְהָתַנְיָא לֹא אֶחָד וְלֹא שְׁנַיִם! אָמַר רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר, לָא קַשְׁיָא: כָּאן בְּעִנְיָן אֶחָד, כָּאן בִּשְׁנֵי עִנְיָנִים.

שנינו במשנה שלא יקרא אדם בספר לאור הנר בשבת. אמר רבה: ולא חשוב אם הנר קרוב אליו מספיק בכדי שיוכל להטות אותו ממש, אלא אותו איסור שייך אפילו היה הנר גבוה שתי קומות אדם, ואפילו גבוה כשתי מרדעות שהם מוטות ארוכים המשמשים לנהוג את הבהמה, ואפילו היה גבוה עשרה בתים זו על גב זו.

ומדייקים: מכיון שנאמר “לא יקרא אדם” הכוונה היא לחד [אחד] הוא שלא ליקרי [יקרא], הא תרי [הרי אם הם שנים] — שפיר דמי [יפה נחשבו ואין בכך שום איסור, והתניא [והרי שנינו בברייתא במקום אחר] שלא יקרא לאור הנר לא אחד ולא שנים! אמר ר’ אלעזר: לא קשיא [אין זה קשה], שאפשר לחלק ולומר כי במקרה כאן שהתירו לשניים, הרי זה כשעוסקים בענין אחד ויזכירו זה לזה. וכאן, שאסרו בשניים, הרי זה כשעוסקים הם בשני ענינים שונים.

We learned in the mishna that one may not read a book by candlelight on Shabbat. Rabba said: It does not matter whether the lamp was near enough to him to enable him to adjust the wick. The prohibition applies even if the lamp was two statures of a person high, and even as high as two plow handles, and even if it was as high as ten houses one atop the other. We learned in the mishna that one may not read, and the Gemara infers: One may not read, but for two, apparently he may well do so. The Gemara asks: Wasn’t it taught in a baraita elsewhere that neither one nor two are permitted to read by the light of the lamp? Rabbi Elazar said: This (seeming contradiction) is not difficult, as there is room to distinguish between them and say that here, where two were permitted to read by candlelight, it is referring to a case where they are both engaged in one matterThere, where two were prohibited to read by candlelight it is referring to a case where they are engaged in two different matters.

So we get it: don’t read near a candle you can tilt, because if you can, you might, and you shouldn’t. This is something called “s’yag” or “fence”, the need to protect one law with another. Therefore, one should not do something, not because it in itself is not allowed, but simply because it might (might) lead to something else. And so well does the Gemara knows us, that it says, even if the candle is high up beyond our hands’ reach, but reachable with a special stick, don’t read by its light, because you might get so involved in your reading and so aggravated when you lose its light, that you’ll figure out how to get to it, to add oil, just a little bit, to move it, ever so slightly… It’s nice the Gemara knows our nature and that it hasn’t changed in hundreds of years-); how much we are attracted to light, with all its meanings, and how determined we are when we’re doing something we think is important, to us.

But then, all this goes away when there are two; not just any two who pass each other mindlessly, averting their gaze lest they see into the pain and loneliness of another human, but two who are doing something together, something meaningful, like reading, learning, sharing, enriching, maybe debating a certain paragraph, laughing over a crazy situation. Then it is not a problem to do so by candlelight, and why? Not because lighting a fire on Shabbat is suddenly ok, but because we, the Gemara, that is, thinks of it like this: when there are two human beings, each reading to him or herself, they are considered two separate units, two “doses”, if you will, of “an individual”, each preoccupied with a different “thing”, and therefore, not mindful of the other’s actions on Shabbat. But, if they read together, they are now considered one unit with 2 minds, 2 hearts, 4 ears and 4 eyes.

In this kind of “unit”, there are two different elements that are able to care for each other, to notice when one reaches out a hand, even unintentionally, towards the wick or the oil to fill it up; when one needs to recharge; when one forgets to wash his hands after being outside, or wear her mask, or not get closer than 6 feet from another or just to remember to eat and shower and dress and breath, and continue to feel human.

Maybe this is because the Torah thinks that to be fully human is to be a full half, not a full-whole, full of ourselves to no end. This was expressed last week in the giving of the half shekel and elsewhere; that we need another, and we need it to match correctly, not cover us completely. And maybe this is why this time promises to be so hard on us. Here’s in hopes that you are not feeling too jammed and not totally alone, even if your other “full half” is your beautiful self in the mirror.

Shabbat Shalom – שבת שלום

About the Author
Currently a "teshevet chozeret" to Israel, Michal Kohane is a 4th year student at Yeshivat Maharat and scholar in residence in Israel and abroad. She holds several degrees in Jewish / Israel studies and psychology, and has been a leader and education for over 25 years. Michal’s first novel, Hachug ("Extracurricular") was published in Israel by Steimatzky, and her weekly, mostly Torah, blog can be found at
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