“They permitted, and then they permitted again, and then they permitted again.”
Today’s Daf Yomi reading provides us with insight into how Rabbinic laws can become more lenient over time in response to the everyday needs of people. It is as if we are on the journey with the Rabbis as they determine how to best modify their laws in order to make them a little more tolerable. This is not unlike how today our legal system is modified over time in order to keep abreast with the challenges of modern life.
People still need to do things on Shabbat like cracking nuts, eating cake and drinking wine. We are told that the Rabbis permitted one small leniency and then another and then another. This also partially explains some of the contradictions in the Talmud over prohibitions. It is not easy to live by the strict Rabbinic codes, and the Rabbis out of practicality devised many work arounds.
We learn today that it is prohibited to use an object on Shabbat for its primary purpose, but a creative person can find another use for the object which is permissible. We are provided with the example of a goldsmith’s hammer that can be used for the non-typical purpose of cracking a nut. However, there is a practical concern as Rabbi Ḥiyya bar Abba reminds us: a goldsmith would not want to ruin his expensive hammer on a nut. Rabbi Abba addresses this concern by saying it is really the hammer of a spice merchant that can be used to crack nuts (although that scenario is coming close to an object’s intended purpose.)
We are provided with examples of how objects can be moved in atypical ways on Shabbat. This includes the odd example of planting a radish upside down. Removing this radish is permissible on Shabbat, while removing a right-side up one is prohibited. Rav Nahman does have second thoughts about disturbing an upside-down radish from the earth on Shabbat.
We are provided with insight into how Jewish law evolved and are told that “over the generations, when the Rabbis saw that Jewish people were vigilant in observing the prohibitions of Shabbat, they permitted, and then they permitted again, and then they permitted again.”
Rava summarizes the walkthrough of permissiveness: initially the Rabbis only permitted moving an object whose primary function is a permitted use. Then they permitted moving the object from the sun to the shade. Once that guidance was accepted, they allowed utensils that can be carried by one person to be moved. Then they said it was alright for utensils to be moved that can be carried by two people. From there it was a slippery slope to permitting all utensils to be moved on Shabbat.
The Rabbis of 1,500 years ago imposed stricter rules than what was found in the Torah in order to construct a ring of safety around Jewish laws. We learned in previous readings that there were Torah laws and Rabbinic laws and violating the later was much less an offense than the former, because in essence you might be violating the guardrails of the laws, rather than the laws themselves. This provided the Rabbis with some latitude with how they enforced Rabbinic laws. And let’s face it – in terms of religion they were not the only game in town. There must have been competition from other religions which imposed much less restrictions on its disciples.
A few days ago, I wondered if Lin-Manuel Miranda would ever consider creating a Broadway show from the stories in the Talmud. I suggested that the first song should be “If the fire is extinguished, it is extinguished.” Today, I would like to suggest that the second song should be titled “They permitted, and then they permitted again, and then they permitted again.”