Several decades ago, I read my young daughter the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. In several of them, Sabbath for this 19th century American pioneering family was described as a day on which laughing or playing or even speaking loudly was prohibited, a day on which silence reigned in the home.
You might dismiss this as merely the puritanical habit of an American frontier family, but it actually echoes an impulse explored on today’s daf.
The mishnah on today’s page teaches us that, in the days when the Temple stood, it was permissible to use a water wheel to draw water from cisterns on Shabbat in the Temple precincts. But a water wheel is a large and presumably noisy device. In the Gemara, this gives rise to a vignette illustrating the rabbis’ concern about noise on Shabbat:
The rabbinic sage Ulla happened to come to the house of Rav Menashe when a certain man came and knocked on the door. Ulla said: “Who is that?!” And then he added a curse: “May his body be desecrated, for he has desecrated Shabbat!”
Rashi explains why: Ulla believed that it was forbidden to make any kind of noise on Shabbat.
Is it really the case that making any kind of noise — even knocking on a door — is prohibited on Shabbat? Rabbah (or, in some texts, Rava) limits the prohibition: Only kol shel shir (a musical sound) is prohibited on Shabbat.
Well, which is it? Is all noise prohibited, or just musical sounds? Abaye puts forth the view that producing just about any sound, with rare exceptions (for example, sounds produced in caring for an ill person), is prohibited.
The Talmud dismisses Abaye’s proof, but offers another one based on an earlier teaching: People guarding produce from birds can’t clap or slap their hands against their bodies, or dance — as people do on weekdays. Presumably, this is because all three of these activities are noisy — and therefore we learn that noise is prohibited on Shabbat.
But again the Talmud dismisses the argument. It claims (somewhat implausibly, by my lights) that if one were to clap, slap one’s hands and dance to scare away birds as one does on weekdays, one might be tempted to pick up a pebble to throw at the birds, which is prohibited for other reasons.
There’s more: The Talmud brings yet another example of a forbidden activity on Shabbat, playing a game of “marbles” with nuts. Isn’t this because noise (the clicking sound of the nuts hitting one another) is prohibited? No, the Talmud responds, it is prohibited because people might be led to dig holes in the ground and fill them in again — which again is independently prohibited.
Where does this leave us? As we’ve seen, the Talmud goes to great lengths to reject the notion that producing noise is prohibited. All that is left is Rabbah’s view that specifically musical sounds are prohibited.
The details — why musical sounds are prohibited and which in particular — are not provided here. This is one of the aspects of Talmudic study that can be frustrating. It’s an associative work, so topics may arise on different pages, and rarely is any single conversation comprehensive. Also, perhaps surprisingly, the Talmud doesn’t always see clarifying current practice as its primary goal.
In subsequent generations, scholars composed codes of Jewish law to do just that. But in the meantime, the Talmud leaves us wondering.