The Gemara’s unique brand of logic often leads to farfetched interpretations that might cause us to shake our heads indulgently or, worse, dismiss it altogether. But that is a mistake because it’s at these moments that we get to see what the talmudic process is really all about. There is a great example on today’s daf.
Today we encounter a mishnah that makes clear the needs of a woman in labor take precedence over Shabbat, and the Gemara offers a fairly off-the-wall reading of it. As we step through it together, please note that while the Gemara’s analysis has been simplified a bit in the discussion below, its essence has been preserved. Let’s start with the mishnah:
One may assist a laboring woman on Shabbat and call a midwife for her from place to place (even if the midwife must travel in a way that desecrates Shabbat). And, one may desecrate Shabbat for a woman giving birth. And, one may tie the umbilical cord (of a child born on Shabbat). Rabbi Yosei says: One may even cut the umbilical cord.
As we have seen before, the Gemara’s working assumption is that there is no superfluous language in the Mishnah. This always engenders a cascade of arguments when the Mishnah, as it does in this case, gives a specific example followed by a general rule. If we have the general rule, why do we need the specific example? Or if the specific examples cover enough bases, why do we need the general rule?
In this case, the phrase, one may desecrate Shabbat for a woman giving birth, seems unnecessary. Since the Gemara’s working assumption is that there is no extra language in the Mishnah it asks, what action not already listed does this phrase come to include?
The Gemara answers its own question, suggesting that the phrase comes to include a matter taught elsewhere: If a woman giving birth were to need a lamp, her friend lights the lamp for her on Shabbat.
But this first answer is rejected. “P’shita (that’s obvious)!” exclaims the Gemara. Of course we are allowed to light a lamp for a woman giving birth — this can’t be what the phrase in the mishnah is coming to teach.
Yes it is, rebuts the Gemara, but not in the way it was presented above. It is necessary to have this phrase about violating Shabbat for a laboring woman in the mishnah to include an instance when a blind woman is giving birth.
To clarify: if, while giving birth, a blind woman asks for a lamp on Shabbat, one might refrain from lighting it for her because she is unable to make use of the light herself. However, the Gemara teaches, at such a moment we should be concerned that the blind woman may be asking for a lamp because she wants to ensure that her attendants will have enough light to perform all of the tasks that they may be called upon to perform during the birthing process. Lighting the lamp fulfills an emotional need for her, if not a physical one.
Can this possibly be what the mishnah has in mind? To permit the kindling of a lamp on Shabbat for a woman giving birth, even if she is blind? Highly unlikely. But the Gemara is not offering an interpretation of what the mishnah meant to those that wrote it; rather, in creating this elaborate scenario, it is presenting its understanding of how this mishnah should be put into practice.
In the end, the Gemara’s bizarre reading of the mishnah sends an important message: bringing a new life into the world is more important than keeping Shabbat and when a child is being born we should do what we can to make the mother both physically and emotionally comfortable. The Gemara may have a funny way of getting there, but its conclusion is one that I am happy to embrace.