Shabbat 104

The power of two.

As we discussed yesterday, the minimum number of letters that can create meaning — and therefore the minimum number that, when written, constitute a violation of Shabbat — is two. The reason given yesterday, by Rabbi Yosei, was that two marks were used to indicate pairs of beams in the tabernacle (which was helpful for reassembly).

We might suppose, then, that a letter alone would be insignificant — just a random shape. However, for the rabbis, every letter in the Torah contains meaning and significance. Rabbi Akiva, especially, was famous for deriving midrashic meaning out of every letter, and even “each and every thorn of the crowns on the letters.

Illustrating this point, today’s daf offers a playful series of midrashim that imbue meaning to the shapes of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet. Here’s how they start:

The sages said to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi: Young students came today to the study hall and said things the likes of which were not said even in the days of Joshua bin NunAlef beit (א ב) means learn (elaf) the wisdom (bina) of the Torah. Gimmel dalet (ג ד) means give to the poor (gemol dalim). Why is the leg of the gimmel extended toward the dalet? Because it is the manner of one who bestows loving-kindness to pursue the poor. And why is the leg of the dalet extended toward the gimmel? It is so that a poor person will make himself available to him who wants to give him charity. And why does the dalet face away from the gimmel? It is to teach that one should give charity discreetly so that the poor person will not be embarrassed by him.

This midrash makes use of the names of the letters, the sounds they make and the shapes of their written forms to create visual midrash. The opening may suggest that only school children could be this imaginative, but truth be told many rabbinic midrashim are this creative. The midrash runs through the entire alphabet, and at times even compares the children’s midrash to adult rabbinic interpretation.

Let’s look at the example quoted above. When looking at the letters gimel and dalet (ג ד), the kids see two people engaged in giving and receiving charity. The one giving (gomel) reaches a foot out to go in search of people in need. The poor people (dalim), while available, may choose to face away so they can preserve their pride when receiving charity. How clever!

Set amidst a long discussion of Shabbat violations, this set of midrashim appears to be an aggadic digression, not a halachic proof pertaining to the two letter rule of the mishnah. However, there are highly suggestive links to the previous discussion. All of the midrashim in the list are structured around two letter pairs. While the sound and the shape of each letter is part of its meaning, the “sentence” or visual story that creates meaning stems from its relationship to the letter next to it in the alphabet.

This text could serve as an argument in favor of the two letter minimum for writing on Shabbat. Or it may be a proof that one needs to make meaning to call it writing, and the number of letters is less important. Either way, it is a testament to the power of writing and the limitlessness of human aptitude (and appetite) for interpretation.

Read all of Shabbat 104 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 18, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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