The Royal Free Hospital in London has a room that is a lifeline to many observant Jewish patients and their families. The Shabbat Room is constantly stocked by volunteers from the Ezra Umarpeh charity. You can find provisions for Shabbat and kosher snacks during the week, as well as facilities for keeping food warm on Shabbat. There are even Jewish magazines and spare talleisim!
I was recently at the hospital and went down to the Shabbat Room, where I encountered a young man who was davening. Given the tragic times in which we find ourselves, I enquired, sympathetically, how his loved ones were doing. Beaming, he responded, ‘Wonderfully, Baruch Hashem. My wife just gave birth to a baby girl!’ I wished him, ‘Mazal tov!’ and offered our services to name the baby at our virtual minyan. He thanked me but said that he was intending to find an “underground minyan”. . .
תַּנְיָא רַבִּי שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן אֶלְעָזָר אוֹמֵר: אֵין מַדְלִיקִין בִּצְרִי. מַאי טַעְמָא? — אָמַר רַבָּה: מִתּוֹךְ שֶׁרֵיחוֹ נוֹדֵף גְּזֵרָה שֶׁמָּא יִסְתַּפֵּק מִמֶּנּוּ. אֲמַר לֵיהּ אַבָּיֵי לֵימָא מָר: מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהוּא עָף. חֲדָא וְעוֹד קָאָמַר: חֲדָא — מִפְּנֵי שֶׁהוּא עָף. וְעוֹד — גְּזֵירָה שֶׁמָּא יִסְתַּפֵּק מִמֶּנּוּ. הַהִיא חֲמָתָא דַּהֲוָת סָנְיָא לַהּ לְכַלְּתַהּ, אֲמַרָה לַהּ: זִיל אִיקַּשַּׁיט בְּמִשְׁחָא דַּאֲפַרְסְמָא. אֲזַלָא אִיקַּשַּׁיט. כִּי אֲתָת אֲמַרָה לַהּ: זִיל אִיתְלַי שְׁרָגָא. אֲזַלָא אַתְלָא שְׁרָגָא. אִינְּפַח בַּהּ נוּרָא וַאֲכַלְתַּהּ. ״וּמִדַּלַּת הָאָרֶץ הִשְׁאִיר נְבוּזַרְאֲדָן רַב טַבָּחִים לְכוֹרְמִים וּלְיוֹגְבִים״. ״כּוֹרְמִים״ — תָּנֵי רַב יוֹסֵף אֵלּוּ מְלַקְּטֵי אֲפַרְסְמוֹן מֵעֵין גֶּדִי וְעַד רָמְתָא. ״יוֹגְבִים״ — אֵלּוּ צַיָּידֵי חִלָּזוֹן מִסּוּלָּמוֹת שֶׁל צוּר וְעַד חֵיפָה
Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says: One may not light on Shabbat with balsam oil. What is the reason? Rabba said: Since its pleasant smell diffuses, the Sages were concerned lest one forget and come to remove from the lamp (to use as perfume). Abaye said to him: Let the Master say a different reason: Because balsam is extremely flammable (and dangerous). The Gemara answers: He stated one reason and another: First, because it is flammable; and, second, due to the decree lest one take from it. A mother-in-law who hated her daughter-in-law once said to her: Go adorn yourself with balsam oil. She went and adorned herself. When she came, her mother-in-law said to her: Go light the lamp. She went and lit the lamp. She caught fire and was burned. The verse (Jeremiah 52:16) states, “But Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard left of the poorest of the land to be vinedressers and husbandmen.” With regard to vinedressers, Rav Yosef taught: These were the balsam collectors from Ein Gedi to the Heights. And the husbandmen, these are the hilazon catchers between the Heights of Tyre to Ḥaifa.
While the story of the terrible mother-in-law is disconcerting, to say the least, it’s important to read it in context. The Gemara was originally transmitted completely orally. So often we find mnemonics – ways to help us remember certain facts and ideas. The pattern of this piece is a law that says that one may not use balsam to light, for two reasons. First, and foremost, it is very flammable and therefore dangerous. Second, it has a pleasant aroma, and we are concerned lest someone be tempted to remove a spoonful to apply as perfume. Doing so is not only physically dangerous, it is also problematic on Shabbos. A derivative of the prohibition of extinguishing a flame on Shabbos is the injunction against removing oil from a lamp, because it will eventually cause the flame to go out sooner than it would have otherwise done.
The Gemara tells the story of the young lady who applies balsam as perfume and gets too close to the fire with tragic consequences. The purpose of the story is to serve as a stark reminder of the potency of balsam. When you hear that story, you will never forget the prohibition against using balsam in an oil lamp. It might produce a sweet-smelling aroma, but it’s too dangerous. The Rashba explains that, in fact, the Gemara is demonstrating that it is dangerous, and therefore forbidden, to put balsam in an oil lamp any day of the week. That’s why the Gemara clarifies that a. it’s dangerous, and b. it’s also halachically problematic.
But if it’s dangerous, then what difference does it make that it’s also halachically problematic? The answer is that some people will only understand when you tell it to them in legal terms. Drug-taking is dangerous. Most people comprehend that, period, full-stop, no further discussion necessary. Other people, you need to tell them that if they are caught in possession of drugs, they will be prosecuted and go to jail. Likewise, that’s how religious law works for many. Tell them it’s dangerous and they’ll still be willing to take the risk. Tell them it’s legally proscribed, and now they’re listening.
A recent example of this sad phenomenon was the fiasco around rogue minyanim. With all the shuls closed, certain religious zealots insisted on forming minyanim on the street outside their shuls or in their homes or backyards. Somehow they knew better than the government, all the medical professionals, and even the most senior rabbis! Everyone had told them that they were engaging in reckless behaviour, but that wasn’t about to deter them. They were on a mission from God. Hence, the underground minyan that the new dad was able to attend to name his daughter. It wasn’t until the rabbis declared that such minyanim were halachically forbidden that these zealots (for the most part) finally stopped endangering themselves and others by gathering together to pray.
The truth is, they’d lost the plot about why we daven together in the first place. Why do we daven with a minyan? Our Sages offer various ideas demonstrating the importance of praying with the congregation. One idea is that, instead of examining my merit as an individual, Hashem hears the group as a whole and answers their prayers. Thus, even if I am not personally worthy of having my prayers answered, Hashem will include me in the collective and grant my requests. The word for congregation is tzibur, which may be viewed as an acronym for tzadikim, beinonim, reshaim – righteous people, average folk, and wicked individuals. The message is that a community consists of all types. Nobody is rejected, because the purpose of community is to include everyone.
But that message underscores the true purpose of davening with a minyan. Davening together ensures community cohesiveness. Once the minyan can no longer accomplish that end, there’s no longer any reason to daven as a group. Davening at a socially-distanced minyan misses that fundamental purpose of communal prayer. In fact, strictly speaking, girls don’t need a minyan or a Torah reading for their baby-naming. It’s not like a bris, which has a formal ritual associated with it. Nevertheless, the Rabbis instituted that baby-girl naming should also be a public celebration, as we welcome this new member into our community. But when the community is no longer present, it’s silly to go looking underground to find someone to name your baby. It would have been so much more meaningful and valuable for this young couple to name their baby at a virtual service, surrounded by grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends, and community members.
That was their mistake during the time of the Holy Temple. They got so excited about the balsam they would burn, and forgot that the incense was merely ancillary to the true service of Heaven. And so once the Temple was destroyed, there were poor souls still going out gathering balsam. When we think that the main thing is the incense-burning, we’ve lost the plot. Rav Yosef says they would gather balsam from Ein Gedi to the Heights. During Temple times, Ein Gedi was known as Arugas HaBosem – the Scented Flowerbed. Rav Yosef is demonstrating that the people still thought that it was the sweet aroma that brought them to spiritual heights, when its purpose was merely to accompany and sweeten the scent of the real service of God.
The current crisis is a terrible tragedy. But, hopefully, it’s given people an opportunity to stop for a moment and think about the purpose of many communal customs and practices. They’re not an end unto themselves, we pray and celebrate together in order to promote communal cohesiveness. May we continue to find ways to keep our community together even amidst the present challenges and may we merit very soon to pray and party together like never before!