“Who said those teachings, and delivered them from one place to the other?”
Today’s Daf Yomi reading takes us around the world and back on a magic carpet or perhaps through the Talmud’s version of the internet cloud. The journey is not exactly through the entire world, but between two towns in ancient Babylonia in an impossible passage of time. We learn that the consequences of staying in one place or becoming mired in shallow, swampy water can result in a more stringent Rabbinic ruling than if one is moving through the open sea. There is a lesson in the continued saga of the boat on Shabbat, that suggests life is more expansive if one keeps moving forward.
The voice of the Gemara tells us that a group of Rabbis agree (Rabbis Zeira, Yehoshua and Akiva) that if one is on a boat moving through the open sea, he is permitted to walk its entire length and width on Shabbat. This is a lenient extension of the ruling that one can only move through a personal space of four cubits. This is not the case, however, if the boat is still or if it is cutting through shallow waters.
We are told a tale of a group of Rabbis who traveled together on a boat that took them out beyond their allowable Shabbat limits. Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Elazar ben Azarya felt free enough to stroll through the entire boat, while Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Akiva took a more stringent stance and did not move beyond the allowable four cubits. The two Rabbis agreed that it is allowable to move about the boat freely, but out of an abundance of caution they decided to stay within their four cubits allowable space in case the boat came to a standstill. In other words, they decided to button up the hatches and stay within their confined space, rather than venturing outwards.
We are presented with a mystery in today’s reading. We are told that that someone presented a long lecture of “seven teachings” on Shabbat morning before Rav Hisda in the town of Sura and repeated the same lecture before Rava on the same day in the town of Pumbedita. The distance between the two towns was more than a hundred kilometers, which would be impossible to travel in a single day. Pumbedita and Sura were two great centers of learning in Ancient Babylonia.
The mystery revolves around who delivered the lecture in two places that were so far apart on the same day. There is conjecture that perhaps it was Elijah himself “by way of a miraculous leap through air above ten handbreadths from the ground.” This scenario is used as evidence for a determination that travel above ten handbreadths is not restricted on Shabbat because Elijah, who was someone who followed the letter of the law to the extent that he would often be brought in to make final determinations when there were disputes on such matters “would not have transgressed this prohibition.”
There is another explanation for the mystery of the lecture that was given in two far-away cities on the same day. Yosef the devil appeared in the two academies to give the lecture and because he was not observant of Shabbat, he was not concerned about transgressing its restrictions. The text does not consider why the devil would appear in the academy to give the lecture in the first place. I will leave the Rabbis to debate whether the mysterious lecturer was the devil, Elijah or someone else. I would like to think it was Elijah, whose wisdom and ability to sort through the facts and arrive at a solution is needed now more than ever.
We are living in a time when some of our leaders (and the term is used loosely), think that if they just say things we will follow along without regard for the objectivity of science. These are difficult times when it feels like the seven plagues have descended upon us – including the darkness of the sky on California (darkness), flies and locusts (the lanternfly infestation in Pennsylvania), hail (the hurricanes in Florida that grey out the sky), livestock pestilence and killing (the pandemic). Despite the burning of the western United States and Australia, the hottest summer on record in parts of the world, hurricanes that are bringing soaking days of rain that are beyond levels previously experienced in such a short time, and a global death rate from the COVID-19 that is approaching one million, we have leaders who deny the severity of all this.
If Elijah, the angel and prophet, is floating out there somewhere, we need to summon him to appear before the court of common sense and prudence and help us comprehend the pure, unadulterated facts. We need Elijah now more than ever.