Shabbat 55

Ink and blood.

Yesterday we discussed whether various devices can be worn by animals in the public domain on Shabbat; today we are suddenly in the midst of a heated discussion about whether one who witnesses injustice is required to speak up (spoiler: yes). And then whether death is caused by sin. Such is the Talmud.

These theological digressions occasion an incredible story based on the ninth chapter of Ezekiel. The scene is Jerusalem, overrun with wickedness, and God is very angry:

The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to the angel Gabriel: Go and inscribe a tav of ink on the foreheads of the righteous as a sign so that the angels of destruction will not have dominion over them. And inscribe a tav of blood on the foreheads of the wicked as a sign so that the angels of destruction will have dominion over them.

Here we are reminded of the final plague in the Book of Exodus, when God tells the Israelites to mark their doors with blood so that the Angel of Death will pass over them. In this case, it is not the people but the angel Gabriel posting signs, marking the righteous in ink and the wicked in blood. Curiously, everyone — wicked or just — gets the same letter, tav, the final letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

Next, in a scene reminiscent of the Book of Job, in which Satan challenges God to prove that Job is indeed righteous, the attribute of justice (personified) argues that perhaps the good people who have been marked in ink are not so good — after all, they did not protest the evil behavior of the wicked. But God has an answer for this argument:

The attribute of justice said before the Holy One, Blessed be He: Master of the Universe, how are these different from those? 

He said to that attribute: These are full-fledged righteous people and those are full-fledged wicked people. 

The attribute of justice said to Him: Master of the Universe, it was in the hands of the righteous to protest the conduct of the wicked, and they did not protest.

God said to the attribute: It is revealed and known before Me that even had they protested the conduct of the wicked, they would not have accepted the reprimand from them. They would have continued in their wicked ways. 

Reprimanding the wicked would not have worked, God argues, so why punish the righteous for not doing it? But the attribute of justice is not done:

The attribute of justice said: Master of the Universe, if it is revealed before You that their reprimand would have been ineffective, is it revealed to them? 

God may have known the wicked would not listen to the righteous and repent, but the righteous did not know that. And yet they didn’t even try.

In the end, God accepts the damning argument of the attribute of justice and decides to destroy the entire city. As the Gemara later notes, the letter tav is the first letter of both the word tichiyeh (“you shall live”) and tamut (“you shall die”). In the end, ink or blood, everyone was marked with the same fate.

The story is not a simplistic fable, promising that calling out injustice will make the world a better place. In fact, it acknowledges that reprimanding the wicked is often ineffectual. But it does not excuse us from trying.

Read all of Shabbat 55 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 30, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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