Rabbinic texts, which are a product of their time and do not always conform to our contemporary norms, can make us uncomfortable. Today’s page does this in multiple ways.
Let’s start with the easier stuff: insects. Continuing yesterday’s discussion of trapping on Shabbat, today’s daf is primarily focused on bugs, slugs and lizards. The mishnah holds that one may trap these squiggly “abominations” on Shabbat as long as it was not for one’s benefit, but the Gemara understands that one is not to kill them. There is, however, a disagreement about lice — at least one rabbi thought these particular critters can be killed on Shabbat because he thought they do not procreate. (Perhaps the rabbis understood them to spontaneously generate?) Don’t have much stomach for creepy-crawly subject matter? This is the easy stuff.
The next conversation, which will carry on for several days, begins with a mishnah on sewing needles. Generally, one would not be permitted to use or even hold a sewing needle on Shabbat because it is muktzeh, a tool ordinarily used for forbidden work. However, the mishnah grants an exception for a needle that is used to remove a thorn from one’s skin. This opens a lengthy discussion about tending to wounds on Shabbat, which is a complicated subject because, as we will see over the next few days, the rabbis do not permit some kinds of healing on Shabbat.
Though the sewing needle can be used to remove a thorn on Shabbat, a concern is raised that one should not use it to create or enlarge a wound. In particular, the rabbis want to avoid creating an “irreversible wound” — one that leaves a permanent mark. As is so often the case, they look to the Bible for language to explain this idea:
Levi raised a dilemma before Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi: From where is it derived that a wound is defined as something irreversible? He answered him that it is derived as it is written: Can a Cushite change his skin, or a leopard its spots (havarburotav)? (Jeremiah 13:23). The Gemara explains: What does havarburotav mean? … havarburotav means wounds, and they are similar to the skin of a Cushite: just like the skin of a Cushite will not change its color to white, so too a wound is something that does not reverse.
Those familiar with the Hebrew Bible probably already know that Cushites, from Ethiopia, were known for their dark complexions. In explaining an “irreversible wound,” Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi compares the inevitable scar to the spots of a leopard or the skin of a darker-toned person — because these too are permanent pigments.
This passage is not an easy one. The biblical Cushites, thought to be descended from Noah’s son Ham, were viewed in complicated terms (one of their early ancestors was the evil king Nimrod). We recently discussed Miriam and Aaron’s objection to Moses’ Cushite wife, Tzipporah, though it is worth noting that Miriam was punished for this complaint and Tzipporah herself is portrayed positively in the biblical text. Nonetheless, the assumption that fair is the “default” skin color and the implied comparison between dark skin and a wound are both stomach-turning. Sometimes, the best thing we can do with these texts is not to explain them away, but to face them as part of rabbinic culture, and wrestle with the legacy they bequeath.
The discussion of irreversible wounds on today’s page is reminiscent of a Jewish folk story about the ills of lashon harah, malicious gossip. It goes like this: a child regularly returns from school in tears because her peers insult and tease her daily. Her parents suggest channeling that pain by hammering one nail into her wall for every cutting remark. For a while, this helps, but one day the child is again in tears because her wall is now full and there is no more space to hammer the therapeutic nails. Her parents suggest a new course of action that will refocus the girl’s attention: any time someone says something nice, she should remove a nail. This also works for a time, but again, one day the child comes home upset — the nails are gone but her wall is full of holes.
Words are like wounds — they too leave a permanent mark. On Shabbat, and every day, we should always be cognizant of this reality. Many wounds, including the gaping wounds of racism, leave a mark that cannot be erased.