I usually begin any teaching of rabbinic text — its history, theology, and structure — with the very first mishnah, tracing the development of rabbinic ideology and worldview. I teach it because I am fascinated, and impressed, by the self-awareness that the rabbis show. They are conscious of the world they are trying to create, and the role they are trying to occupy.
While this chapter, on its surface and even in its details, is focused on items set aside for Shabbat — and the provisions by which we can or cannot move, use, or handle them — there is an even more fascinating discussion happening at 30,000 feet.
Citing an earlier mishnah, our Gemara makes the following statement:
With regard to a bolt that is dragged, which is not a part of the door itself but is attached to it and is dragged on the ground, one locks with it in the Temple on Shabbat, because the rabbinic decrees are not in effect in the Temple, but not in the rest of the country outside the Temple. And a bolt that is placed alongside the door and not attached, here, in the Temple, and there, outside the Temple, it is prohibited to lock with it on Shabbat. Rabbi Yehuda says: One that was placed is permitted in the Temple and one that is dragged is permitted even in the rest of the country.
The subtext, of course, is that the rules in the Temple — which at this point are mostly mythic memory — could be laxer. Because the priests were so vigilant in their observance of the mitzvot, they were largely exempt from rabbinic prohibitions on Shabbat. Here, we see this distinction made, but layered with a fascinating cultural commentary. Scholars of biblical and rabbinic history note that the laws and discussions around Shabbat, and particularly around the halachot of items set aside for Shabbat, are particularly stringent — the rabbis did not trust the people. And, over the course of the centuries — and within the text itself — the people proved themselves. The questions, the anecdotes, and the answers shifted as the rabbis saw that the people took Shabbat seriously.
I have seen a lot of social media of late talking about the strength and courage it takes to change one’s mind, to see things through a new lens or with new information. I am moved by the concept that it is actually a courageous act, and a brave step — and I am bolstered by our Sages’ ability to do it throughout the text, in lively debate and thoughtful dialogue.