Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Now about all of those rules and regulations…

I am almost finished learning Masechet Shabbat in my Gemara learning adventure. For many pages now, I have been carefully trying to absorb all of the various and particularistic details of a concept called MUKTZEH, that is items that we are not to touch or move on Shabbat or Yom Tov (Holidays) due to their status as not serving a need for that day and its own rhythm. What strikes me as so very interesting is that there are various categories and reasons that are constantly interfaced in the discussion of the Gemara and for those of us who engage in this intellectual exercise, the more time I spend in the pages of the Talmud, the more I appreciate the free flow from topic to topic as these other points are made and reinforced.

Years ago, I spent some time at the Barnes Foundation ( a very well known personal collection of art) before it was moved from its home location in Lower Merion (Pennsylvania) to Philadelphia. One of the signature aspects of the rooms of so much art, which were put together by Dr. Albert C. Barnes, was his understanding of the composition of art. While the characteristic art enthusiast might look for the Picasso Room or the Abstract Art Collection, Dr. Barnes, worked with size, form and symmetry as his guiding principles of composition of collections within the collection. Artists’ works were placed according to this criteria, and once the observer understood this, going through the collections was a more comprehensible and enjoyable journey.

I feel like this understanding of the foundational structuring principles is critical to study of Gemara. I have said it in the past to my students, I have heard many espouse this thinking, and yet have not fully appreciated it until this past year, during which I have spent an average of two hours daily learning and appreciating the text and the structure of Gemara.

So, time and place are everything in the Gemara. TIME determines usefulness and what is permitted and not permitted and PLACE is definitive in terms of what is allowed. For us in our modern day world, we want to do what we want to do when we want to do it and where we want to do it as well as how we want to do it. One could even make the point that if not explicitly, this could implicitly be a governing principle of how one defines their Jewish Practice.

By adhering to Jewish practice as determined in the legalistic and developmental pages of our important text of Talmud, one must remember that permitted or unpermitted use of an object in a defined time frame such as Shabbat is connected to the general uses of that object, the time frame of Shabbat and the spaces in which that use takes place. This is a completely different thought process than that with which we may be familiar within the context of contemporary living (i.e. what I want Shabbat to mean to me). Further, within the framework of these seemingly legalistic concerns, fundamental values must not be sacrificed.

As an example, consider that someone has belongings that they need to transport as Shabbat approaches Friday night. Do they carry these articles to their intended destination? Well that depends on what these items are used for, how are they transported, and what different categories of space (private property, public property, adjoining areas, etc.) they are going through, as well as other related factors. In this discussion that continues for pages and pages, the issue is presented regarding whether or not they can place their packages on their animal. So, here we are reminded of the principle of kindness to and compassion for animals (Tza’ar Ba’alei Chayim) as well as the degree to which we are commanded to insure that our animals rest on the Shabbat as we do. Well, what about handing the belongings over to a non-Jew? Not so simple either, in terms of what can or cannot be asked in different spaces. What are the implications of ownership of the spaces through which the items are carried? And on and on the discussion goes….

Here is the point, I think! This is all about intentionality of action and insuring that our actions respect the space we are in, the time during which we act, other categories of people and living things in our environs, and the ramifications of what we do…. and ONLY THEN do we consider what we want to do, how, when and where we want to do it.

This may seem laborious and excessive to others, but I rather think that this imposed intentional planning is NOT a bad thing. Even in considering just transporting our belongings from one place to another…

Now, if we can think about the donkey’s need to rest, the regard we should have for the non-Jew who is not Shabbat-observant and the elements of place and space, think how much more all of this should lead us to consider the ramifications of our actions regarding others. And this will be the topic of the next posted discussion.

1 comment:

  1. This is a very clear and approachable explanation. What particularly resonated with me was your comment about intentionality. So much of how we approach Shabbat can change based on this concept. Thank you for sharing!