Rabba bar Rav Huna happened to come to the house of Rabba bar Rav Nahman. They brought before him three se’a (several gallons) of oiled biscuits.
He said to them: Did you know I was coming?
They said to him: Are you more important to us than Shabbat?
Ouch. Taking for granted his status as honored guest, Rabba bar Rav Huna assumes that his hosts had made special biscuits for him. They quickly let him know that his assumption is erroneous: the biscuits were prepared in honor of Shabbat. And no small amount of them, either!
Rabba bar Rav Nahman wasn’t the only one who made significant (and delicious) preparations for Shabbat. Pausing from its ongoing analysis of the 39 prohibited labors, the Gemara shares some other examples of rabbinic Shabbat preparation:
Rav Safra would roast the head of an animal. Rava salted a shibuta fish. Rav Huna kindled the lamps. Rav Pappa spun the wicks. Rav Hisda cut the beets. Rabba and Rav Yosef cut wood. Rabbi Zeira prepared thin sticks for kindling.
We might imagine that the rabbis were constantly engaged in learning. This text shows them setting aside the study of Torah to take on household chores in preparation for Shabbat. Furthermore, for these rabbis, it wasn’t only about completing physical chores, it also involves taking time for a spiritual process:
Rabbi Hanina would wrap himself in his garment and stand at nightfall on Shabbat eve, and say: Come and we will go out to greet Shabbat the queen. Rabbi Yannai put on his garment on Shabbat eve and said: Enter, O bride. Enter, O bride.
In fact, we learn on today’s page that the rabbis were so successful in creating an atmospheric Shabbat, their preparations drew the envious attention of none other than the Roman emperor himself:
The Roman emperor said to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Hananya: Why does the fragrance of a cooked Shabbat dish diffuse?
He said to him: We have a certain spice called dill (shevet, שבת), which we place in the cooked dishes and its fragrance diffuses.
The emperor said to him: Give us some of it.
He said to him: For anyone who observes Shabbat, the spice is effective, and for one who does not observe Shabbat, it is not effective.
Even the emperor wants some of the special spice that makes the end of the week so sweet and fragrant for the Jews, and demands to know what it is. Rabbi Yehoshua, utilizing his wit, offers a clever response in the form of a pun: the incredible spice is dill (shevet) — shin, bet, tav — a spelling identical to the word “Shabbat.” The true secret ingredient that makes the aroma so wonderful is, of course, Shabbat herself. Unfortunately for the emperor, the only way to experience it is from the inside.
There is a reason that freshly baked challah, warmed in the oven, tastes better on Friday evening at a dinner table full of family and friends. It’s not about which challah recipe you choose — it’s that proverbial pinch of Shabbat spice you add to the mix.
And by the way, dill really is a wonderfully fragrant addition to chicken soup.