Shabbat 68

Forgetting what you never knew.

Today’s daf begins a new chapter which deals with how we respond when someone violates Shabbat. The rabbis use this as a jumping-off point to explore human psychology: what does it mean to do something “accidentally”? What does it mean to perform an action intentionally? To forget something, must we have really known about it in the first place?

In the mishnah, the rabbis distinguish between someone who knows about the basic concept of Shabbat, but still violates its rules and someone who has forgotten the entire concept of Shabbat altogether. In the Gemara, though, the rabbis express some confusion about who actually falls into the category of someone who forgets the “concept” of Shabbat.

Rav and Shmuel both said: Our mishnah is referring (when it talks about someone who forgot the concept of Shabbat) to a child who was kidnapped, and to a convert who converted while living around only non-Jews. 

Though they usually appear in the Talmud as argumentative adversaries, here Rav and Shmuel give powerful voice to the centrality of Shabbat in Jewish life and communities: for them, the only way someone could “forget” about the general idea of Shabbat is if they never experienced life in a Jewish community.

At the same time though, the rabbis also recognize that this is a strange use of the term “forgotten”: someone in the situations Rav and Shmuel describe hasn’t really “forgotten” Shabbat — they never really knew about it in the first place. So the Gemara responds to Rav and Shmuel by reminding us that the mishnah specifically teaches about someone who “forgot the concept of Shabbat,” and usually we can’t forget something without having known it in the first place. But, the Gemara eventually rejects this position as well, reading the words of the mishnah more creatively: a person who “forgot the concept of Shabbat” is someone “from whom the concept of Shabbat was forgotten.” The forgetting is not something the person does, but something that is done to them.

Though this reading might seem like a stretch at first, it also offers a novel way of understanding our relationship to ideas or practices in Judaism that might feel foreign to us — even though they may feel strange, awkward or confusing, they are actually just things that we once knew, in some deeper sense, but that the twists and turns of history, sociology, and personal life have “forgotten” from us.

This reading also puts the burden of “remembering” and “forgetting” Shabbat on communities as well as individuals. While it might seem that only an individual can be responsible for what her individual mind forgets or remembers, the Gemara’s creative reading allows something to be “forgotten from someone” by outside factors. Without a communal model of how to “remember” Shabbat, it becomes “forgotten from us,” even if we ourselves are motivated to try to understand and keep it.

Read all of Shabbat 68 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 13, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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