The writing on the wall (Daf Yomi Shabbos 149)

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“We should actually explain that the writing was on a wall.”

Today’s Daf Yomi reading in many ways has parallels to the blended life that I have been living since the start of the pandemic shut down. The boundaries between life and work have become even more porous than before. My personal and work email are on the same device and alerts from both appear often at the same time across my screen.

We learn in today’s reading that when one plans a dinner party, he may not write down the names of his guests or the menu on Shabbat lest he be tempted to cross out a guest or an item from the list. Abaye adds – and here is where the challenge of a blended life comes in – that “it is a decree lest one read regular business documents.”  It is tempting when I check the latest news on my iPhone on a day off to also have a peak at my work email in order to monitor what is going on. It is difficult with these devices to ever fully detach from work or the deeply depressing news of the spread of the coronavirus which keeps marching through community after community in the United States.

There is often a work-around in the Talmud because people had to live their lives, even on Shabbat. The voice of the Gemara tells us that it is acceptable to keep a list of dinner guests and the evening’s menu if it is kept high on a wall where it cannot be easily reached and edited. But of course, the matter is not settled, because one could still read business documents. Finally, the determination is made that “a wall will not be confused with a document, and reading from the wall will not cause one to then read business documents.”

Another option is offered as a “practical” solution – one can engrave the list or menu on a tablet or board. In this case, there is no possibility of erasing the text, because it is more or less permanent, but one would have to serve the same guests the same menu each week. We are told that “since the writing is not in ink, there is no concern that he will erase it.”  This also seems to solve the problem with reading business documents because one would not confuse such paperwork with a tablet or board.

If one needs to keep track of how many guests will sit inside and outside and what portion each will receive, he will need to memorize the information on Shabbat because it is prohibited to write it down. We are told that when it comes to the size of portions, one must not draw lots to determine what size will be served to each guest because it is a form of prohibited gambling. However, one may draw lots with one’s children in order to teach them the value of the food they eat and “how difficult it is to prepay a loan with interest.”  For this reason, it is acceptable to charge a child interest on a loan in order to teach them the value of money.

These days, life during the pandemic in New York City means that there is no counting of indoor guests, because dining is restricted to outdoors. The streets of New York City are filled with canopies covering tables spaced six feet apart and elaborate plantings marking each restaurant’s boundaries. The menus are either paper and disposable, or available by scanning a code with your phone’s camera. There is something about it that reminds me of the outdoor restaurants by the sea in Nice, except there is the drone of traffic in the background rather than the sound of waves against the shore. But sometimes I can see seagulls up above and feel a soft breeze that carries with it the essence of the Hudson River. When the weather is not too brutally hot and humid, it is wonderful to be outside in the City’s open air after so many months in isolation.

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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