True story: When I was in high school, a few students started sneaking vodka into the building in clear plastic water bottles and getting drunk during class. When the principal caught wind of it, he banned clear plastic water bottles — and only clear ones. As if it were not possible to pour vodka, or any other kind of illicit drink, into an opaque bottle. Sometimes rules — especially rules that don’t seem to make a whole lot of sense — arise in response to very specific incidents and concerns.
The mishnah presented toward the middle of today’s page tells us that a person may not go out with a spiked sandal on Shabbat. This seems odd — what rule would that person be violating? Immediately, the Gemara launches into an origin story for the rule:
Shmuel said: Some who were eluding decrees of religious persecution were hiding in a cave. They said: One who enters the cave may enter, but one who seeks to leave the cave may not leave.
The Steinsaltz commentary explains that someone who leaves the cave cannot know whether the enemy is lurking near the entrance, and therefore risks tipping off the enemy and exposing the people hiding in the cave. The story continues:
It happened that the sandal of one was on backward. The people in the cave thought that one of them left [because of the backward sandal, when this person entered the cave, they made footprints that appeared to recede from the mouth of the cave] and feared that their enemies saw him and were now coming upon them to attack. In their panic, they pushed one another and killed one another in greater numbers than their enemies had killed among them.
This tragic story verges on comic. A backward sandal leaving misleading footprints leads the residents of the cave to believe they have been betrayed and, in a panic, they slaughter one another — wreaking more carnage than even their enemies might have. The Gemara concludes that it is in commemoration of this tragedy that spiked sandals (presumably the sort worn by the person who entered the cave) are forbidden on Shabbat.
But why Shabbat? And why forbid spiked sandals in cases when one is not hiding from enemies in a cave? Or simply require people to fasten them on correctly? The Gemara has tepid answers for these. But like banning only clear water bottles, this too is ultimately an illogical rule.
Unlike my high school administration, however, the rabbis seem completely aware of this fact, and even tell another story about a time when a rule was created in response to a very specific circumstance. (In that case it had to do with an unfortunate accident transporting red heifer ashes across the Jordan River, which ultimately led to a ban on transporting red heifer ashes across the Jordan River.) There is another difference, too. My high school principal invented a rule to deal with a situation. In this case, the rabbis received a rule that made little sense and had to explain it. Sometimes that proves hard.