In Jewish tradition, a brit milah, the ritual circumcision of a baby boy on his eighth day of life, takes precedence over Shabbat and should be performed on the day of rest, albeit with certain accommodations. For instance, the implements needed to perform the circumcision should be prepared ahead of time so that they need not be carried through the public domain on Shabbat.
At least, that’s the predominant rabbinic view. But not the only one. On yesterday’s page, we learned in a mishnah that Rabbi Eliezer held that the circumcision knife may in fact be carried through the public domain on Shabbat for the sake of performing the mitzvah of brit milah. The Gemara further informs us that where Rabbi Eliezer lived this was in fact the local custom — though most Jews who lived elsewhere did not follow it.
Circumcision wasn’t the only mitzvah for which Rabbi Eliezer ruled that Jews may perform certain preparatory actions on Shabbat that would otherwise be Shabbat violations. He also declared that one may do what is needed to shake a lulav, sit in a sukkah, eat matzah, or blow the shofar on Shabbat. In fact, he was so famous for this viewpoint that there was speculation Rabbi Eliezer would allow Jews to do anything that prepared them to perform a mitzvah on Shabbat. But this was not the case.
Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba said that Rabbi Yohanan said: Rabbi Eliezer did not say with regard to all mitzvot that actions that facilitate performance of a mitzvah override Shabbat.
Rabbi Eliezer’s principle of permitting mitzvah preparations on Shabbat had limits. For instance, he held that one may not perform an action that would prepare one to tie tzitzit or affix a mezuzah on Shabbat. Why? Because these particular commandments are not time-bound. Whereas blowing a shofar or shaking a lulav or circumcising a little boy must be performed on a particular day and therefore, in his view, might necessitate preparation on Shabbat, affixing tzitzit and mezuzahs can take place on any day.
Much of the page is devoted to recording Rabbi Eliezer’s meticulous arguments for permitting preparations for time-bound mitzvot on Shabbat. He didn’t just offer up a list and a blanket principle, he defended each ruling with a careful interpretation of scripture.
Rabbi Eliezer is remembered in rabbinic literature for his brilliance — he was said to forget nothing he ever learned. He was also known for his severe and overbearing personality. And though he was usually correct, his imperious treatment of students and colleagues got him into trouble — ultimately leading to his excommunication at the hands of his fellow rabbis in one of the Talmud’s most famous stories, the Oven of Aknai.
In this case, Rabbi Eliezer’s rulings are not accepted by the other rabbis. But although his rulings were not accepted, and he himself became persona non grata among his colleagues in his own day, today’s page devotes ample ink to recording his positions and arguments. These too, it reminds us, are worth learning.