Shabbat 11

If all the seas were ink.

A digression on today’s page sees the rabbis speaking in particularly raw terms about the various empires under which Jews lived in late antiquity:

And Rava bar Mehasseya said that Rav Hama bar Gurya said that Rav said: It is preferable to be under the yoke of Ishmael and not under the yoke of a stranger (Rome); under a stranger and not under a Habar (Persian Zoroastrian fire priest).

Living under foreign rule is not easy. A few days ago, we learned about the two major rabbinic communities in the Galilee (under the Roman empire) and Babylonia (under the Sasanian empire), and the nahotei, rabbinic travelers who kept these communities of learning in touch with one another. Here, we see the rabbis comparing notes about which empire is more difficult; no doubt a daring thing to commit to writing.

And then, somewhat unexpectedly, we wind up with a meditation that reads as pure poetry, again from Rava bar Mehasseya in the name of Rav Hama bar Gurya in the name of Rav:

Even if all the seas were ink, and the reeds that grow near swamps were quills, and the heavens were parchment, and all the people were scribes; all of these are insufficient…

Stop here for a moment. What could be so difficult to capture in language, something so vast and wondrous, perhaps even so terrible, that to express it requires such extravagant metaphors?

Rav’s teaching continues:

All of these are insufficient to write the unquantifiable space of authority.

Well, that bit doesn’t sound quite so poetic. What could this phrase, “space of authority,” possibly mean?

Rashi, the medieval French commentator, explains that Rav is teaching us that a ruler must have “depth of heart.” In other words, as the modern commentator Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz explains, the “authority” we’re talking about here is governmental authority.

Rav’s incredible image helps us wrap our minds around the bogglingly large power of government (or, in the case of the rabbis, a single sovereign). In the space of a day, a ruler or government might make decisions on things as varied and weighty as levying taxes, going to war, and enacting laws. Words simply fail to express both the sheer power of the ruling authority as well as the accompanying responsibility that comes with this power. It is a power so large that ordinary words, ink and parchment cannot contain it.

In this cryptic and ultimately very brave passage, the rabbis remind themselves and us that governmental authority, however accustomed to it we may be, is incomprehensibly vast. So too is the government’s responsibility toward its citizens (as Rashi puts it, rulers must have “depth of heart.”) In a modern democracy, it is my prayer that we elect leaders with the depth of heart needed to make decisions of real consequence, as they hold lives in their hands every day.

Read all of Shabbat 11 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 17, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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