Shabbat 26

Lighting with perfume?

Today we continue discussing fuels that may be used in a Shabbat lamp, a discussion that began with the mishnah several pages back. Much of today’s page is devoted to a special case: balsam sap.

Balsam was a special commodity in the ancient Middle East. It has a distinctive fragrance and was a favorite component of both medicinal and cosmetic compounds. The merchants who bring the biblical Joseph down to Egypt as a slave are carrying it to trade (Genesis 37:25). Later in the same story, Judah brings the same substance to Egypt to try to appease Joseph (now Pharaoh’s second in command) to release his younger brother Benjamin (Genesis 43:11). These and other biblical stories that mention it suggest it was rare and valuable. (Remember when we learned that Rabbi Tarfon lit with olive oil and his colleagues thought that was luxurious? Balsam could well have been a more luxurious choice.)

One might suppose then that balsam is an ideal fuel for the Sabbath lamp — a wonderful way to practice hiddur mitzvah, beautifying the commandment of lighting. But the question on today’s page is not whether one should light with balsam, but whether one even may. The discussion starts on the bottom of page 25 with a tannaitic teaching forbidding the use of balsam as fuel for a Sabbath lamp.

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says: One may not light on Shabbat with sap from balsam trees.

The rabbis of the Gemara ask why such a luxurious and fragrant item should not be used to celebrate Shabbat. Rabba thinks that the reason is that it smells so wonderful a person will be tempted to dip into the pot of oil and remove some for another use (this would be prohibited on Shabbat). Abaye thinks that the problem is that it is volatile, and therefore dangerous. While wonderful in cosmetics and medicines, it is just too flammable to be safe. We are left with a ghoulish story that drives home this point:

A mother-in-law who hated her daughter-in-law said to her: Go adorn yourself with balsam oil. She went and adorned herself. When she came, her mother-in-law said to her: Go light the lamp. She went and lit the lamp. She caught fire and was burned.

Ouch! This story is probably enough to deter anyone who is tempted to fill their Sabbath lamp with balsam — and also proves that the trope of the odious mother-in-law is alive and well in the Talmud, too.

Read all of Shabbat 26 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 1, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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