Shabbat 32

Making sense of untimely death.

On today’s daf, the rabbis wade into dark territory, asking why some people die young. Untimely death was not a rare occurrence in talmudic times, and the rabbinic worldview, predicated on the belief in an all-powerful God, could not abide the possibility that it was subject to chance. A series of rabbinic teachings on today’s page seek answers.

The inspiration for this line of inquiry lies in a mishnah at the very bottom of the previous daf:

For three transgressions women are punished and die during childbirth: For not being careful to observe the laws of a menstruating woman (niddah), for not separating challah from dough (challah is a small portion of dough offered up to God—this and not the braided loaves served at Shabbat dinner is the original challah), and for not lighting the Shabbat lamp.

All three obligations mentioned in this famous mishnah are traditionally associated with women. The obligation to abstain from physical intimacy during menstruation and for a week thereafter is obvious — it is the woman who must immerse in a ritual bath before intimate relations can be resumed. Lighting Shabbat candles, we learn in a midrash, is a symbolic rectification for Eve’s sin in the Garden of Eden. And taking challah, while incumbent upon anyone who bakes bread, was also traditionally the domain of women, the primary bakers in talmudic times.

But why would transgressing these three laws lead to death? Menstruation, once again, seems obvious enough. A woman’s cycle is innately connected to childbirth, so it’s not hard to see why the punishment for that might be too. But why challah and Shabbat lights? The rabbis want to know, and they employ their standard toolkit to figure it out.

To explain challah, they quote a verse from Jeremiah 2:3 that describes Israel as the “first fruits of [God’s] harvest.” In ancient times, the first fruits were brought as offerings in the Temple, and the verse in Jeremiah goes on to say that disaster befell anyone who ate from them. The rabbis link that language with Numbers 15:20 describing the obligation to take challah as the “first yield of your baking.” Since disaster befell anyone who ate from the first fruits, the rabbis conclude that disaster will also befall anyone who doesn’t offer the first yield of baking.

To explain the Shabbat lights, the rabbis quote Proverbs 20:27: “The soul of man is the lamp of the Lord.” In other words, failure to kindle the lamp of Shabbat leads God to reclaim the soul.

Looking beyond women who die in childbirth, rabbis go on to share a range of other examples of early death — and proffer explanations. Rabbi Yishmael ben Elazar tells us that ignoramuses die because they fail to refer to the Holy Ark and the synagogue by their proper names. Rabbi Natan says that making a vow and failing to fulfill it causes a person’s wife to die. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi disagrees — it’s children who die when a vow is unfulfilled. Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba and Rabbi Yosei say it’s actually the failure to affix a mezuzah to the doorpost that results in the death of one’s children. And on it goes, with the rabbis reading allusions for all these teachings into various biblical verses.

It’s hard not to read all this as an effort to impose some theological order on a world in which the deaths of children and spouses and ignoramuses and women in labor were far more common, but no less tragic, than they are today. Surely some found it reassuring to believe that close adherence to religious law could serve as a bulwark against life’s capriciousness. And in the face of losses that, then as now, must have felt meaningless in their abject tragedy, it was perhaps comforting to think there was some attributable cause.

Read all of Shabbat 32 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 7, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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