Shabbat 117

What is enough?

In today’s daf, the rabbis are involved in what seems like a rather odd discussion about how much food one can rescue from a fire on Shabbat. (This whole chapter is in fact about rescuing items from fire on Shabbat. On page 115 we started with sacred books.) The mishnah states that if a fire ignites on Friday night before the Shabbat meal, one can rescue up to three meals’ worth of food from the fire, corresponding to the three meals to be eaten over the course of Shabbat. If the fire began on Saturday morning, since the Friday night meal was already eaten, one can only rescue up to two meals from the fire.

The rabbis of the Gemara immediately raise a question: if the person is permitted to save enough food for the three Shabbat meals from the fire, why not allow them to save all the food from the fire?

Now, since he is already exerting himself to move permitted objects, let him rescue more! Rava said: Since a person is worried about his property, if you permit him to move more, he will extinguish the fire.

As the Gemara points out, there is nothing about removing food from a fire that inherently violates Shabbat — so why limit the amount of food a person can save? Rava answers that if one tries to save all the food from the fire, in his agitation over the loss of his property he might come to violate Shabbat by simply putting out the flames.

The rabbis’ ruling here seems excessively strict. Aren’t there enough proscriptions against activity on Shabbat without making permissible actions forbidden as well? And allowing food to be destroyed simply because we won’t need it during the 25 hours of Shabbat seems wasteful.

Perhaps there is a greater message that emerges from the rabbis’ ruling: the lesson of remembering our limitations. One of the most potent messages of Shabbat is that ultimately we are not in control — God is. By restricting what we can save from the fire, the rabbis remind us to loosen our grip on the world around us, over which we never had complete control anyway. It is important to recognize what is enough, and not grasp for excessively more than we need.

Food was often scarce in the ancient world. Today, when many of us can acquire food in abundance — in some cases simply by clicking a button to summon groceries to our doorsteps — it is easy to forget that we are not all-powerful. And in a materialistic world in which bigger houses and cars, more elaborate bar and bat mitzvahs and weddings, and more trendy clothing are relentlessly touted as better, it is easy to forget the difference between want and need. The pursuit of more can be so beguiling it can cause us to forget to seek a reasonable line. By forbidding the taking of excess on Shabbat, the rabbis remind us to seek out healthy limits in our own lives.

Read all of Shabbat 117 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on July 1, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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