Long before our current concern with the environmental ravages of climate change, unexpected rainfall — particularly during the harvest season — could result in lasting damage to produce and property. This was even more concerning when, as we’ll see on today’s daf, one’s largest storage area was likely to be on the roof.
Most roofs in biblical and talmudic times were flat. The Torah (Deuteronomy 22:8) sets out the requirement for a parapet — a fence around the roof — to prevent people from falling off. We’ll see more about parapet rules and regulations in Tractates Bava Kamma and Bava Batra, about two years from now, including creative ways of extending these rules to prevent other forms of harm. Flat roofs also feature in several biblical accounts, one of which provides a useful example for our discussion today.
In the second chapter of the Book of Joshua, we learn about the spies sent by Joshua to scout out the land of Israel following the death of Moses. A woman named Rahab, who was either an innkeeper or a prostitute (or maybe both), hid the spies on the roof of her inn, which was set into the city wall of Jericho, in exchange for protection for herself and her family during the upcoming military incursion. In Joshua 2:6, we read about how Rahab put her flax on the roof to dry, and there was enough of it to provide cover to hide two grown men from their pursuers.
Keep this image in mind as you read the mishnah on today’s daf:
One may lower produce, (which had been laid out on a roof to dry, into the house) through a skylight on a festival (in order to prevent it from becoming ruined in the rain. Although it is a strenuous activity, it is permitted to do so on a festival in order to prevent a financial loss). However, one may not do so on Shabbat.
According to the mishnah, it’s acceptable to save produce from destruction by moving it from a roof into a house through a window on a festival. In the Gemara, the rabbis want to know how much produce can be lowered and still stay within the boundaries of strenuous activity on a holiday. The concern with financial loss is curious, though. After all, that’s not a reason to be lenient with halakhah — or is it?
With regard to the first question, the Gemara compares this scenario with a ruling we have seen before, on Shabbat 126b, about the permissibility of moving four or five sacks of hay or grain to clear space for more people to fit in the study hall on Shabbat. Just as only a few sacks were allowed to be moved to make more room, only a comparable amount of produce should be permitted to be lowered.
We then hear a threefold challenge to this comparison. First, the Gemara suggests that in the case of the study hall, there’s a mitzvah opportunity that the items prevent: allowing more people to study Torah. As a result, maybe fewer than four or five sacks of produce should be permitted to be moved to prevent water damage.
Second, the Gemara says that because people are typically more careful about Shabbat observance than festivals, allowing one leniency on a festival may lead to other prohibited activities. This kind of thinking — that we disallow one act in order to forestall others — is referred to as building a fence (maybe a parapet?) around the Torah. In this case, the fence is limiting the amount of produce that can be saved from rainfall.
And third, the Gemara suggests that four or five sacks could be moved on Shabbat to make room for students because there was no monetary loss involved. But here, where there is monetary loss if the produce is not moved, one may carry an even larger amount than four or five sacks.
Ultimately, the Gemara does not reach a resolution on this matter. The dilemma stands unresolved — teyku, in the language of the Talmud. In modern Hebrew, that word can mean a draw, as in a sporting match that ends in a tie. Which will just have to suffice … as long as nobody falls off the roof.
Read all of Beitzah 35 on Sefaria.