Shabbat 12

Joy or kindness?

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar would also say in the name of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel: One may not betroth children on Shabbat, and one may not enter into an agreement to take the child and teach him to read a sacred book or to teach him a trade, and one may not comfort mourners, and one may not visit the sick on Shabbat — this is the statement of Beit Shammai. And Beit Hillel permit performing all of these activities on Shabbat.

Today’s daf offers us a powerful insight into what it means to keep Shabbat as a day of joy and rest, a taste of the World to Come. The school of Shammai forbids a whole range of activities on Shabbat — from betrothing a child to visiting the sick — because they are all actions that one associates with weekday behaviors and therefore they pull us out of the elevated atmosphere of Shabbat. The school of Hillel, on the other hand, permits a person to perform these actions because they contain some aspect of the performance of a mitzvah, a commandment.

It’s striking that two of the activities Beit Shammai forbids on Shabbat, comforting mourners and visiting the sick, embody acts of hesed, or kindness. Hesed is so central to Jewish practice that in Psalm 89:3, the psalmist declares, “The world is built on hesed,” and in Pirkei Avot 1:2, we read, “The world stands on three things: on Torah, on the service of God, and upon acts of hesed.” If hesed is both the foundation of the world and that which sustains it, how could it be that Beit Shammai forbid a person from performing two core activities of hesed: visiting the sick and comforting the mourners?

Rashi explains Shammai’s reasoning: when a person comforts one who is sad, the comforter too is saddened. Beit Shammai, wanting to keep Shabbat as a day of joy, forbids these difficult activities.

Beit Hillel, on the other hand, permits people to visit the sick and comfort mourners, teaching us something crucial about what it means to be a Jew: we put people first even at the cost of our own joy on Shabbat. While it would be nice to live in a world in which sadness never intersected with Shabbat, and while we try to experience Shabbat as a taste of such a world, a dose of reality is also needed. This is not the world we live in. Pain and sorrow, sickness and death do not stop for Shabbat. What it means to be a religious Jew is to recognize that sometimes we have to set aside Shabbat in order to be present for those who suffer.

May we dream of Shabbatot that are filled with nothing but joy and may we have the compassion to recognize when it is time to relinquish our own joy for the sake of comforting others.

Read all of Shabbat 12 on Sefaria.

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

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