Ketubot 6

Stuff a cork in it.

The Talmud is a composite text. At the most basic level, this is obvious: Mishnah + Gemara. But the Gemara itself also has layers that can be detected. For instance, earlier teachings are given in the names of rabbis, while anonymous statements in the Gemara, teachings that have no name attached, come later and generally “glue” together the entire conversation. Today, we’ll tease out a few historical layers of conversation, both within the Talmud and beyond.

Our discussion of marriage led the rabbis to debate the intentionality of seeing blood during a couple’s first intercourse on Shabbat. The discussion then shifts to intentionality of actions on Shabbat in a broader context:

Rav Shimi bar Hizkiyya said in the name of Rav: In the case of this cloth stopper of a barrel, it is prohibited to insert it tightly on a festival.

You may recall that wringing out liquid is one of the labors prohibited on Shabbat and festivals. In this case, the dilemma is that tightly stuffing a cloth into the opening of a barrel in order to seal in its contents will inevitably lead to some liquid soaking the cloth and, in the course of the vigorous stuffing action, some liquid subsequently being squeezed back out. So what does one prioritize? Properly sealing the barrel (the primary intent)? Or preventing liquid from being wrung from the cloth (a likely — even unavoidable — and unfortunate consequence of the sealing procedure)? To frame it more broadly: How much do we need to worry about an unintentional but likely consequence of our actions?

The debate, it turns out, is older than Rav, who lived in the third century CE. A century earlier, Rabbi Shimon ruled that davar she’eino mitkavein (an unintentional act) is permitted, while Rabbi Yehudah, who lived at the same time, ruled the opposite. 

Rav, who forbids barrel stuffing, seems to rule like Rabbi Yehudah, that unintentional acts are forbidden. This comes as a surprise, however, because the Gemara had been arguing that Rav ruled like Rabbi Shimon, and so logically should permit one to put a cloth stopper in a barrel. The Stamma d’Gemara (the late anonymous voice of the Gemara, approximately sixth century CE) responds that in this specific case even Rabbi Shimon would agree with Rabbi Yehudah and forbid the barrel stuffing, because:

Rabbi Shimon concedes in a case of “If you cut off its head, will it not die!?”

In other words, there are unintended consequences that we ought to foresee, and, because of their inextricable occurrence with the intended act, these consequences could and should be avoided. Even if we excuse unintended consequences that are unlikely, we shouldn’t excuse those that are utterly predictable. Case in point: If a person argues that they simply want the head of a chicken and don’t care whether the animal dies or not, this argument does not exonerate them from slaughtering the chicken (on Shabbat, when this is forbidden). (We also encountered this evocative phrase back on Shabbat 75.)

What is interesting about this debate is the way the Gemara uses language to shift the decision. (Here I must acknowledge my teachers, Rabbis Ethan Tucker, Elisha Ancselovits and Micha’el Rosenberg, for this understanding.) Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Yehudah, the earliest authorities cited in this debate about unintended consequences, simply choose opposite sides and do not offer more nuance. Rabbi Shimon thinks the goal is primary, while Rabbi Yehudah thinks the act one does to achieve the goal is primary. The Gemara elsewhere decides in favor of Rabbi Shimon on this point, saving us (in general) from being held accountable for unintended consequences. However, a later anonymous authority was uncomfortable with this conclusion. This later authority wanted to rule like Rabbi Yehudah, but the halakhah had already been decided against him. So, in order to shift the decision toward making as many unintended actions forbidden as possible, that authority said something like:

Of course we rule like Rabbi Shimon, but even in these particular cases, Rabbi Shimon would rule like Rabbi Yehudah. It is impossible that an action that so obviously results in a violation of Shabbat could have been permitted according to him! 

I am not arguing that this authority is doing this in an underhanded way, as a form of trickery. I would argue that it is so obvious to this person that such acts are problematic for how one observes Shabbat that he couldn’t possibly imagine anyone permitting such a thing. 

This debate — and the consequent shift in language — continues beyond the Talmud into the early decisors known as the Rishonim and continues in the halakhic literature through today. Not only do we see a fundamental question about our responsibility for the unintended consequences of our actions play out in the laws of Shabbat and festivals, we also see an approach to answering these questions that takes both sides of a debate into consideration and finds ways to reopen apparently closed discussions and introduce more nuance. 

In an age in which public debate can be brutally invalidating of other opinions and our actions are not always judged with charity, the questions this particular debate raises — both the particulars of intentionality and also the way in which neither opinion is utterly silenced — become even more relevant to our lives and the way we interact with others.

Read all of Ketubot 6 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 12th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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