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Shabbat 89b: Yitzchak to the Rescue

Abraham is the founding father of Judaism, Yaakov is the founding father of the Jewish people, and Yitzchak is the link between them. His role was that of consolidator, enabling Abraham’s’ revolutionary ideas to survive to the next generation. He is the quiet link, allowing others to shine in the spotlight. Yet, in a fascinating passage, the Talmud (89b) describes how Yitzchak was the one who came to the rescue of the Jewish people.

Shabbat 89a: Sinai and Sin'ah

Years ago, I heard Dennis Prager note that, while the Talmud spends six double-sided folio pages discussing the permissibility of eating an egg laid on Yom Tov, the Talmudic discussion of anti-Semitism consists of about three lines. Our great sages were concerned about how Jews are meant to live their lives, not what our enemies think of us. For the Talmud, the answer to the age-old question of anti-Semitism was as simple as it was profound. “What is [the reason for the name] Har Sinai? That hatred descended to the idolaters on it” (Shabbat 89a).

Shabbat 63: Battle Clothes

The sixth chapter of Shabbat begins with the issue of what ornaments a woman—and to a lesser extent, a man—may or may not wear on Shabbat in a place with no eiruv. The Sages feared that, upon meeting people in the street, one might take off the ornament in order to show it to one’s friend, and inadvertently violate the prohibition of carrying on Shabbat. Thus, for example, the Mishnah forbids a woman to wear a “City of Gold”, a beautiful piece of gold jewelry that was given by Rabbi Akiva to his wife. Of course, the Bible forbids the wearing of that which is not clothing.

Shabbat 56: Rabbinic Cover-Up

Interpreting Scripture is no easy feat. One of the difficulties in understanding biblical literature is to figure out what parts are to be taken at face value and which are to be understood in a more symbolic fashion. While we take it for granted that physical descriptions of G-d are anthropomorphisms, such was not the case before the Rambam eradicated the notion of a physical G-d from our conception of the Divine.

Shabbat 54b: Minding Others' Business

“The cow of Rav Elazar ben Azaria used to go out on Shabbat with a strap between its horns, against the will of the rabbis”. Shabbat is the day of rest, both for ourselves and for our animals; and we must not allow our animals to carry that which we ourselves may not carry. There is much discussion about what constitutes animal “clothing” (which is allowed), and what is considered a burden (and hence forbidden). The rabbis, in apparent disagreement with Rav Elazar, felt that a strap crosses that line and, hence, is forbidden.

Shabbat 46a: Going Barefoot

One of the inspiring things we see in the many stories found in the Talmud is the realistic portrayal of our great sages. We see not only much greatness, but also the occasional lapses. Our sages were not averse to displaying their feelings, and were unafraid to both heap praise and scorn upon their colleagues. “Rav Avia visited Rava's home. His feet were full of mud, [yet] he sat down on a bed before Rava. Rava was annoyed and wanted to bother him” (Shabbat 46a).

Shabbat 49a: The Wrong Reason

The Talmud teaches that everything is dependent on mazal, “even the Sefer Torah in the ark”. Some sifrei Torah are used week in and week out, while others only see the light of day on Simchat Torah. So, too, certain mitzvoth “get lucky” and are widely observed, whereas others are somehow neglected. And mitzvoth that enjoy widespread observance in one generation may be less fortunate in another.

Shabbat 31b: One-Foot Judaism

One of the most famous Talmudic stories is that of the potential convert who conditioned his conversion on whether or not he could be taught the Torah while standing on one foot. Shammai, bothered by the chutzpah of this non-Jew (imagine going to a nuclear physicist and asking to learn all of physics while standing on one foot!), “pushed him with the construction board in his hand”. Hillel, non-plussed by this ludicrous request, simply answered, “What is hateful to you, do not do to others; all the rest is commentary. Go and learn”.

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