There is a famous Jewish joke that goes something like this: One Shabbat morning during morning prayers at synagogue, Yankel whispers to his friend Mendel, “Nisht shabbes geret (not to speak of it on Shabbat, but) I’m selling my car.” Mendel asks, “Nisht shabbes geret, how much?” Yankel responds, “Nisht shabbes geret, $3000.” Mendel whispers back, “Nisht shabbes geret, let me think about it.” Later on, the men meet again at mincha (afternoon) services. Mendel nudges Yankel and whispers, “Nisht shabbes geret, I thought about it, and I’ll take the car.” Yankel shakes his head, “Nisht shabbes geret, I sold it at kiddush!”
This joke tickles our funny bone because Yankel and Mendel clearly know they are doing something wrong by discussing business on Shabbat, but they decide that if they add the “magical” caveat “nisht shabbes geret,” it is as if they aren’t actually transgressing Shabbat.
The prohibition against discussing business that Yankel and Mendel are seeking to subvert is part of the conversation on today’s daf. The rabbis are engaged in a debate about what is permissible to discuss on Shabbat. The mishnah begins:
A person may not hire workers on Shabbat to work for him after Shabbat because even speaking about weekday matters is prohibited on Shabbat.
Since talking about any regular business is prohibited on Shabbat, this mishnah is saying, one cannot hire workers on Shabbat even if they will not begin their work until after Shabbat is over.
In the Gemara, the rabbis explore the parameters of transgressing the prohibition against hiring a worker on Shabbat. Rav Ashi states:
One may not say to another explicitly on Shabbat: Hire workers for me, but one may say to another: Does it seem that you will join me this evening? This is permitted even though both of them understand that the questioner intends to hire the other person to work for him.
In Rav Ashi’s opinion, it is the specificity of one’s language that makes the difference between transgressing Shabbat and not. Even if one isn’t hiring workers on Shabbat for oneself, but rather is asking another person to do the hiring, such speech is still prohibited on Shabbat. However, if one uses more vague language — even if the subtext is clear — it does not violate Shabbat.
But the rabbis have more to teach us here than simply how to emulate Yankel and Mendel’s artful dodging of the laws of Shabbat. They are pointing out an important lesson: our speech has the ability to influence our mindset. The more specific we get in discussing business on Shabbat, the more our minds may actually become occupied with that business, causing us to lose our focus on the holiness of Shabbat. Paying attention to our language can help us remain in a special moment, appreciating the here and now rather than allowing our focus to wander elsewhere.