Sorting through truth and illusion (Daf Yomi Shabbos 134)

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“Although there is no absolute proof for this matter, there is an allusion to this matter.”

Today’s Daf Yomi continues with a protracted discussion on circumcision, and I must confess, I am as queasy as they come on the topic of cutting of any kind. The last few days have been a journey though bloodletting, cutting of the foreskin and the white spots of leprosy. There has been some horrible blood-sucking along the way. The discussion today – and it is quite a long one – turns to whether one can wash a baby who has just been circumcised on Shabbat and preferably with heated water. Rabbinic careers have been won and lost on answering this question and there is an acknowledgement that one should respect the opinions of his colleagues, even if they differ from his own.

The reading today also introduces a teaching style that is characterizes as “how.” Rav Yehuda and Rabba bar Avuh employed the style, in which a latter clause clarifies the former. The issue of washing a baby is used to demonstrate the style: One may wash the baby both before circumcision and after circumcision. How may one wash him? One sprinkles water on him by hand, but not with a vessel.”

I can create “hows” all day along, in the spirit of a young child who is just investigating the world and wants an answer to everything. Here is a “how” that I have been contemplating: “I read a portion of the Talmud each day not matter what and even when I am tired from work and uneasy with all the discussion of circumcision. How does one read the Talmud each day? Quietly, steadfastly and with intention.”

The disembodied voice of the Gemara inquires about the meaning of the following statement: “And although there is no absolute proof for this matter, there is an allusion to this matter?” Does this suggest that what we think we know is illusion, and after all the discussion and analysis and disagreements, the answers we are given in this text are illusions? The discourse is considered in the context of whether a baby feels pain like an adult. There is a suggestion that it is not the case, but we know from the wailing cry of a little baby after the circumcision is completed that there is pain in those deep cries.

We are provided with remedies that could be argued to fit the category of illusion. We are told that if a baby refuses to nurse that a warm cup filled with coal should be placed perilously close to him because he requires warmth. If the little one does not urinate, we are advised to shake him in an act that sounds disturbingly close to shaken baby syndrome. We are told a tale of a woman who circumcised her first and second born sons herself, who then both died. She appealed to Rabbi Natan who told her to wait until her third born son, who was red in his cheeks, absorbed his blood (or perhaps just wait until the redness disappears) before performing the circumcision. This mother waited and her son lived and was named after Rabbi Natan. There is no medical reason to wait until the redness in a baby’s cheeks dissipates before the circumcision rite is performed, and it is mostly a leap of faith in an illusion of medical advice.

There has never been a time when believing in something has been more important. I sit here alone in my one bedroom apartment like the Lady of Shallot (“She knows not what the curse may be,/ And so she weaveth steadily,/ And little other care hath she/ The Lady of Shalott”), waiting for the world to open up again and the virus to pass, like a storm that hovers over the dark sky for days on end as the clouds take on larger and more dramatic formations. The waiting is for the virus to dissipate so that I walk through the world without fear that the next item I touch will be the one that infects me. And the waiting is for a vaccine that will pass through medical trials this year and will provide absolute truth, not illusion, but proof, that medical science can save us all.

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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