Shabbat 69

Losing track of time on the road.

Today’s page is one half legal thought experiment and one half adventure story. Continuing their discussion of what happens when someone violates Shabbat by mistake, the rabbis consider the following case in which a traveler loses track of the Jewish calendar:

Rav Huna said: If someone was walking on the road, or in the desert, and he does not know when Shabbat is, he counts six days, and then keeps Shabbat for one day. Hiya the son of Rav said: He keeps one day, and counts six. What is this dispute really about? One bases his opinion on the creation of the world, and one bases his opinion on Adam. 

These two opinions offer two interestingly different understandings of Shabbat’s significance: Rav Huna treats Shabbat from the divine perspective, as the conclusion of the six days of creation. On this view, Shabbat is a feature of the cosmic reality, built into the structure of the world, even without human intervention. In contrast, Hiya the son of Rav treats Shabbat as deeply grounded in human reality: the first human beings were created on Erev Shabbat, and their first full day was Shabbat.

In practice, we have inherited aspects of both Rav Huna and Hiya son of Rav’s positions. On the one hand, Shabbat’s structure is dictated by cosmic realities: it begins when the sun sets, whether we have prepared fully, or if you’re anything like me, always when you have just one more thing left to do. At the same time though, Shabbat only reaches its full potential when it is integrated into a human community. In a very literal sense, we are responsible for “making Shabbat.”

When the traveler described in the Gemara finds themselves on the road or in the desert without the human, social rhythms of Shabbat, both Rav Huna and Hiya son of Rav authorize him to create Shabbat on his own, and strikingly, either opinion could lead the traveler to keep Shabbat on the wrong day. So, even if we think that Shabbat is something that is written in the cosmos, it relies on some human input to make it into a recognizably different and special period of time.

These days, even when practically the whole world follows the same weekly calendar, there can be times when we feel like we walking alone in the desert. The simple act of counting six days, and making the seventh one a bit more holy can reshape time, making space for both ourselves and God to rest.

Read all of Shabbat 69 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 14, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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