We all know and love a good Shabbat dinner. But does it count as Shabbat dinner if the party starts before sundown?
Pesachim 100 relates this precise dispute: can a meal that begins on Friday afternoon continue into Shabbat and be counted as the first of the three Shabbat meals?
According to Rabbi Yosei, the answer is yes: a Friday afternoon meal may continue even after nightfall and be considered a Shabbat meal. The trick is simply to recite Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals which, for the rabbis, was done over a cup of wine) followed immediately by Kiddush.
According to Rabbi Yehuda, however, the Friday afternoon meal cannot be extended after dark and “count” as the Shabbat meal. Someone who started a meal on Friday afternoon must cease eating at nightfall, recite Birkat Hamazon and then start a new meal in honor of Shabbat.
The Gemara tells a story of rabbis who found themselves in this exact situation — dining late on Friday afternoon. What’s worse, Rabbi Yosei (who ruled “yes”) and Rabbi Yehuda (who ruled “no”) were both in attendance! Night fell and things got tense:
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said to Rabbi Yosei: Berabbi (a title of respect) is it your will that we should interrupt (the meal) and be concerned for the statements of our colleague Yehuda?
This, of course, was awkward. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, who clearly knew that Rabbi Yosei was happy to extend the Friday meal into the evening and count it as a Shabbat meal, asked him point blank if the group should end the meal out of respect for the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda that one cannot. And, of course, Rabbi Yehuda was sitting right there!
He (Rabbi Yosei) said to him (Rabban Gamliel): Each and every day you cherish my statements before those of Rabbi Yehuda, and rule in accordance with my opinion, and now you cherish the statement of Rabbi Yehuda before me?
Clearly, Rabbi Yosei is a little hurt. Instead of kindly acquiescing to his more stringent colleague (who is still sitting there silently!) he sulks, and complains that Rabban Gamliel usually rules in his favor. He underlines his complaint with a stinging verse from the Book of Esther:
“Will he even ravish the queen before me in my own house?” (Esther 7:8)
Recall that this is the moment in the Book of Esther when, at the second banquet with King Ahasueros, Queen Esther finally reveals herself to be a Jew and tells the king of Haman’s plot to kill her people. Ahasueros is so upset he goes outside to pace and cool off. Meanwhile, Haman throws himself on Queen Esther and begs for mercy. When the king returns, it looks like the prostrate Haman, clinging to Esther’s skirts, is trying something else and he cries out: Will he (Haman) even ravish the queen before me in my own house?
Why does Rabbi Yosei invoke such harsh words that compare his colleagues Rabban Gamliel and Rabbi Yehuda to that genocidal maniac, Haman? And, in this scenario, who or what is the queen being ravished?
Rabbi Yitzchak Guetta (1777–1857) explains in his Sadeh Yitzchak commentary that the “queen” refers to the divine presence (the Shekhina, which is gendered female) which had previously led Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel to consistently rule in accordance with Rabbi Yosei. On this read, Rabbi Yosei was defending the honor of Heaven since all prior disagreements had been ruled in his favor. A somewhat self-important move, perhaps worthy of the pompous King Ahasueros, the original speaker of this line.
Another explanation, suggested by an English commentator in the 12th or 13th century, is that Rabbi Yosei’s outburst pertains precisely to the question at hand. Shabbat is often compared to a queen, most famously in the Lecha Dodi prayer recited on Friday evening. In this reading, Rabbi Yosei was defending Shabbat, whose honor he felt would be diminished by following the position of Rabbi Yehuda.
Either way, one imagines the rest of the meal was … uncomfortable. May your Shabbat be more restful!