My rabbi is a great teacher of Torah. He is also a connoisseur of mustard. Many summers he would travel to Madison, Wisconsin to visit the National Mustard Museum, just to see all the different preparations and pick up whatever new varieties had a hechsher. And just this week I received a food catalog from the famous Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan promoting two new mustards: one ground with walnut seeds and the other, called moutarde au violette, made by pressing red grape juice with coarsely ground mustard seeds.
Turns out, Jews have loved mustard, in a variety of smooth and coarse preparations, for a long time — long before pastrami on rye was a recognized Jewish favorite. Back in antiquity, of course, mustard didn’t come in a jar or squeeze bottle; it had to be prepared at home by dissolving pounded mustard seeds into some other medium: vinegar, wine, water, etc. On today’s daf, the rabbis ask whether doing so is permissible on Shabbat.
Rav said: One may dissolve it in wine or water with a vessel, but not with his hand.
Shmuel said to him: Why may he not dissolve it with his hand? Is that to say that he dissolves it with his hand every day? But if it is prepared in that manner, it is donkey food! Rather, Shmuel said the opposite: He may dissolve it with his hand as a divergence from the typical method of preparation, but he may not dissolve it in the usual manner, with a vessel.
These Babylonian rabbis agree that one may prepare mustard on Shabbat as long as the method of preparation differs from that used during the week — but they don’t agree on whether it is usually dissolved with a vessel or by hand.
The debate continues in the land of Israel. At first Rabbi Elazar decrees, stringently, that both preparations (vessel and hand) are forbidden while Rabbi Yohanan permits them both. Subsequently, however — and it is always of note to watch as the rabbis’ ideas evolve and change — Rabbi Yohanan adopts the position of Rabbi Elazar while Rabbi Elazar adopts the position of Shmuel (in Babylonia), allowing only the preparation of mustard by hand.
Keeping score? Now we get stories of rabbis who refused to eat mustard prepared on Shabbat. So, we learn that Abaye’s foster mother makes mustard for him and he refuses to eat it. Rabbi Zeira’s wife makes it for Rav Hiyya bar Ashi, Rabbi Zeira’s student, and he will not eat it. Insulted, she acerbically remarks: I made this for your rabbi and he ate it, yet you do not eat it?
And then there are the tantalizing clues about recipes. Rav discussed dissolving mustard in water or wine, but Rava bar Shabbat tells of Ravina’s love of stirred mustard with garlic. Mar Zutra dissolved it in honey.
In all this, there is a typically thoughtful conversation about the nuances of preparing food on Shabbat. Behind the halachic debate, there seems to be an overriding concern about which actions really reflect the essence of Shabbat. Like many of the issues that fill these pages in our tractate, intentionality in movement matters in creating an atmosphere of rest and spiritual reflection. Like the things we carry or clothes we wear, our hands make the difference in elevating a week of labor into a work of creativity and rest.