Shabbat 48

Look and see.

Recently, we’ve spent a great deal of time talking about muktzeh — the prohibition on moving or touching certain objects on Shabbat, but today’s discussion is animated by a different melacha (forbidden labor): wringing water out of a cloth. (Squeezing, like many of the forbidden labors of Shabbat, has its origins in actions associated with building the tabernacle. Squeezing is prohibited because it’s connected to the wringing required to make the beautiful dyes that colored the materials of the tabernacle.)

In today’s daf, we encounter 4th-century rabbis Rabba and Rabbi Zeira paying a Shabbat visit to the home of the exilarch, the leader of the Jewish community in Babylonia.  While enjoying their visit, the particularly watchful Rabba observes the exilarch’s servant spreading a handkerchief over a vat of water and then placing a cup on the handkerchief to draw water from the vat through the handkerchief. Then this happens:

Rabba rebuked him for having acted improperly.

Rabbi Zeira said to him: Why did you rebuke him?

Rabba said to him: Now, see what will happen.

From Rabbi Zeira’s perspective, the servant has done nothing wrong; it’s perfectly acceptable to spread a cloth over a vat on Shabbat. But Rabba says, look and see. Sure enough, the servant comes to squeeze the handkerchief which had absorbed water, and in so doing, violates one of the core prohibited labor on Shabbat — wringing liquid.

Rabba’s answer to Rabbi Zeira’s question is striking: look and see. The servant hadn’t yet done anything wrong and yet Rabba anticipated the outcome. If someone places a towel over a vat of liquid, it will inevitably come to absorb the liquid, and then it will be damp, and then they’ll come to wring it out.

On previous pages, we’ve explored how intention matters to the rabbis. Certain acts on Shabbat are forbidden only if the intention at the outset is to violate Shabbat — otherwise, they are permitted. Here, we see something of the inverse: an act is forbidden because even if there is no conscious intention to violate the Sabbath, that outcome is still likely.

On Tamid 32a, Alexander the Great asks the rabbis, “Who is wise?”  And, they answer: “One who anticipates the outcome of an action.”  Just like Rabba. Wisdom includes the ability to look at a situation, to see a few steps down the line, and to anticipate the outcome. When I see my two children ecstatically roughhousing, I know that they are happy in that moment, but experience has taught me that inevitably, in just a few moments, one of them will be in tears.

I wish for us all the ability to look at any situation and have the wisdom to see where it might lead us, and the insight to adjust our actions accordingly.

Read all of Shabbat 48 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 23, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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