Yesterday’s mishnah stated as follows:
In a place where the people were accustomed to perform labor on Passover eve until midday, one may do so. In a place where the people were accustomed not to perform labor, one may not do so … the sages impose upon him the stringencies of both the place from which he left and the stringencies of the place to which he went … And a person may not deviate from the local custom, due to potential dispute.
One of the joys of traveling is that it brings us out of the routine into the unfamiliar. Encountering a different culture inevitably raises the question: what does it mean to be a respectful guest?
The Gemara shares the story of Rabba bar bar Hana who travels from the Land of Israel to Babylonia where he enjoys what I’d like us to imagine is his favorite childhood delicacy: fat from the straight part of an animal’s stomach. Yum! Perhaps its smell and texture conjures the warm memory of home and family. Who hasn’t traveled and craved a taste of the familiar?
Yet, while this treat is eaten in the Land of Israel, in Babylonia it is not. Rabba bar bar Hanna engages in a culinary familiarity but violates a local custom. So the Gemara wonders if he knows our mishnah, that one accepts the stringencies of the place he left and the place he goes and does not deviate from local custom?
Abaye explains Rabba bar bar Hana’s behavior: Our mishnah applies when one travels from one place in Babylonia to another place in Babylonia, or from one place in the Land of Israel to another place in the Land of Israel, or even from Babylonia to Land of Israel. However, it does not apply to one who travels from the Land of Israel to Babylonia. In Abaye’s view, the residents of Babylonia are subordinate to those of the Land of Israel in terms of halakhah, so a resident of the Land of Israel is not required to follow the Babylonian custom when they visit. Hence, Rabba bar bar Hana is free to nosh away at his beloved fat from the straight part of an animal’s stomach!
Rav Ashi offers an alternative justification for Rabba bar bar Hana’s behavior:
Rav Ashi said: Even if you say that when one travels from the Land of Israel to Babylonia he is required to act stringently in accordance with the local custom this applies only when his intent is not to return.
For Rav Ashi, it is not an issue of the superiority of one place or another, but a matter of the traveler’s individual intention. If the traveler aims to return home, he maintains his own practices. But if he seeks to transform from a traveler to dweller, he must respectfully do as the locals do.
Eating can be a private thing. What about when the practice happens in the public sphere? Now we return to the mishnah’s discussion of labor on Passover eve: what happens if your tradition says work is acceptable, but in the place you go it is forbidden?
For the rabbis, it is now a matter of creating a disruption: you should desist from working out of fear that it might cause dispute. And if your tradition forbids you from you working, you should maintain that practice as it too ensures that there will not be a dispute.
Travel allows us to see ourselves from a new perspective — and the Gemara encourages us to see the world, but always with respect to both who we are and how others live.