Continuing an ongoing discussion of circumcision, today’s page turns to the question of various remedies one may use to treat a circumcision wound on Shabbat. In the course of these halachic arguments we are offered, as sometimes happens in the Talmud, a litany of medical information. But if you’re feeling squeamish, don’t worry — that won’t be our focus today. Instead, we’re going to bring to the fore two stories from today’s page, both superficially about medical treatments on Shabbat — but also about a great deal more.
From the first, we learn that most rabbis hold that mixing wine with oil to use as a remedy on Shabbat is forbidden (as, we have learned, many medicines are). But Rabbi Meir actually held that this remedy was permitted.
Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said: On one occasion, Rabbi Meir had intestinal pain on Shabbat, and we sought to mix wine and oil for him as treatment and he did not let us do so.
We said to him: Will your statement be negated in your lifetime?
He said to us: Even though I say this and my colleagues say that, in all my days I have never been so presumptuous as to violate the statements of my colleagues.
He was stringent with regard to himself, but for everyone else he permitted it.
Rabbi Meir was one of the greatest minds of his generation, so brilliant that sometimes his rulings were not accepted simply because his colleagues couldn’t follow his dizzyingly acrobatic arguments. But he was also kind and generous and willing to learn from others, as we saw in his exchange in tractate Berakhot with his equally brilliant wife Beruriah. Here, although Rabbi Meir held, contra his colleagues, that oil mixed with wine could be used as a remedy on Shabbat, he refused the treatment for himself when illness struck on the day of rest. He prioritized communicating respect for his colleagues over his own physical comfort — though not that of others.
Later on the page, the sages debate when one may wash a baby after circumcision. Most hold that by the third day after circumcision, the baby may be washed, even if it is Shabbat. But Rava is more lenient, holding that one may wash the baby even on the first day after circumcision, should that day happen to be Shabbat:
A certain person came before Rava to ask a question about washing a baby after circumcision.
Rava ruled in accordance with his own halachic ruling.
Afterward, Rava became ill.
He said: Why did I involve myself in the opinions of the elders?
In this case, Rava did not defer to his colleagues, but ruled in accordance with his own opinion. Like the opinion of Rabbi Meir above, Rava’s opinion is more lenient than that of his colleagues. But unlike Rabbi Meir, his own comfort is not at stake in this situation. Rabbi Meir might have made the same choice he did (remember: he permitted others to use the wine/oil remedy on Shabbat). Nevertheless, Rava is shortly afterward struck with illness, which he interprets as divine punishment for acting against the rulings of his own colleagues.
Both stories reinforce the idea that rabbis, however brilliant their legal positions and derivations, should defer to their colleagues. In the case of Rabbi Meir, that deference was voluntary, and given at his own physical expense. In Rava’s case, it was the failure to do so that caused his discomfort.