How far should a host go to accommodate more guests? How far should a teacher go to welcome more students? This is the question of today’s daf.
We know that it is prohibited to move things on Shabbat that aren’t designated for Shabbat (muktzeh). Nonetheless, yesterday we read a mishnah which said that one is allowed to move four or five bundles of straw on Shabbat to make more space for guests, or to make more room for students. But one cannot simply move these bundles for other convenient purposes, like to clear out more room in the storehouse.
Today, the Gemara asks about this leniency: is the number “four or five” an absolute limit, or does it expand according to the number of guests or students? In other words, is there unlimited permission to move otherwise muktzeh material, or is it capped?
As part of the exploration of the answer, we hear an amazing story:
Rabba said that Rav Hiyya said: Once Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi went to a certain place and saw that the place was too crowded for the students. And he went to the field and found a field full of bundles of grain. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi cleared the bundles from the whole field in its entirety.
This story indicates that the number “four or five” is just an example, but really the number of bundles one can move depends on the number of students one is trying to accommodate — which may be significantly more!
In clarifying this point of law, the Talmud paints quite a scene. Imagine: the leader of his generation, the editor of the Mishnah, laboriously clearing a field to allow students to sit down. What a moment of modeling! The “custodial” work of moving bales is not too great for Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi; he rolls up his sleeves and gets to the business of making everyone comfortable, even if it is an activity that borders on a Shabbat violation.
This modeling is so effective that, the Talmud reports, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s student, Rabbi Hiyya (who reported this original story), does the same thing in his own generation: he clears the whole field to welcome more students on Shabbat.
Imagine the president of a university setting up additional chairs for overflow students, or the leader of a country unfolding an extra table at a state dinner. It sends a clear message: everyone, at all levels, must be considerate of guests and students. No one is above setting up chairs.
This radical hospitality is almost too much for the Talmud to take. Indeed, in considering the story, the Talmud asks:
Did Rebbe (Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi) really do this all by himself? Rather, it must be that he told other people to clear the field.
But note: this is not the wording of the original story, in which Rebbe himself did clear the bundles!
Here we have two values in tension. Sometimes, it is critical for the leader to jump in and make room for others. And sometimes it is inappropriate for the leader to dive into the nitty gritty. In these cases, it is important for the leader to empower others to make space for themselves.