As we have seen elsewhere, the rabbis are not reluctant to discuss deeply visceral topics — either those that are emotionally charged or, by our standards, physically grotesque. But sometimes one encounters a bit of Talmud that might lead one to wonder if the rabbis are more than just willing — if they are perhaps eager to delve into these taboo subjects. Or maybe these fraught case studies push boundaries in a way the rabbis find illuminating or spiritually instructive. You decide.
On today’s page, the rabbis are back to the subject of muktzeh — objects that may not be moved on Shabbat. After a series of more mundane examples that range from dripping oil to freshly-laid eggs to beehives, they abruptly turn to a more uncomfortable one: a corpse.
With regard to a corpse that was laid out in the sun, Rav Yehuda said that Shmuel said: One turns it over from bed to bed until it reaches the shade.
Rav Hanina bar Shelamiyya said in the name of Rav: One places a loaf of bread or an infant on the corpse and moves it. The corpse becomes a base for an object that one is permitted to move on Shabbat and, consequently, one may move the corpse due to the permitted object.
Ordinarily, one should not move a corpse on Shabbat, but rabbinic law grants several exceptions to this. In cases where the position of the corpse is disrespectful to the recently deceased, or if it will be burned by fire (and thereby desecrated), or if it will begin to putrify or be damaged by the sun, it’s permitted to move the body on Shabbat.
For this last concern, Shmuel recommends moving the corpse by rolling it from one gurney to another until it reaches a shady destination. The principle here is that one does not simply pick the corpse up and move it in the normal fashion, but chooses a more cumbersome method as an acknowledgement of the Sabbath.
Rav gives us a different solution that leaves us an indelible image: Place either a loaf of bread or a baby — neither of which are muktzeh — on top of the corpse and then consider the body a kind of base for moving them. This legal fiction that one is moving the bread or baby with the help of a corpse (?!) makes it possible to move the body on Shabbat.
There are many things that are not muktzeh. But of all these, Rav chose two that are not only easy to carry on their own, but that might sit especially uncomfortably on top of a dead body. Intriguingly, Rav’s more surreal solution is preferred:
In a case where there is a loaf or an infant, everyone agrees that it is permitted to use that method to move the corpse. Where they argue is in a case where he does not have a loaf or an infant.
It is difficult to let go of the image of placing a tiny child on a recently deceased person and then using that person as a kind of platform to carry the infant around — all in the name of removing the body from the harsh rays of the sun. Surely there is a less bizarre solution? And yet, one wonders if that’s entirely the point.