Shabbat 80

Dangerous teaching.

Once again, we find ourselves discussing how much volume of a specific substance can be carried into the public domain on Shabbat before one has committed a violation. Today, that substance is lime. Not the citrus fruit, but a chalk-like material, rich in calcium, that had multiple uses in the ancient world from construction to cosmetics.

Apparently, among its many uses, lime was an effective depilator. The mishnah mentions that lime was used for removing hair from one’s andifa. But, as we have seen several times before, the Gemara does not know this word. What exactly is this andifa that benefits from cosmetic hair removal?

To figure out the meaning of andifa, the rabbis relate a wild story that uses the same word:

What is andifa? It is the forehead. 

And proof for that is cited from a certain Galilean who happened to come to Babylonia, to whom they said: Stand and teach us the esoteric Merkavah mysticism (ma’aseh merkava). 

He said to them: I will teach it to you as Rabbi Nehemya taught it to his colleague. 

And a hornet emerged from the wall and stung him on his forehead (andifi) and he died. 

This story is the stuff of nightmares. (And apparently, murder hornets have been around for a long time.) But why did he die?

The Galilean who came to Babylonia agreed to publicly teach ma’aseh merkava — a term that refers both to the first chapter of the book of Ezekiel in which the prophet witnesses God’s own chariot in the heavens, and also to one of the earliest branches of Jewish mysticism, which began sometime during the second century. These days, nearly all learning is seen as good. But for the ancients, Merkava mysticism was considered an extremely esoteric and dangerous collection of teachings that should not be shared frivolously. Rather, it was believed that this learning should be made available only to scholars who can handle the dangerous revelations and power it offered, and that it should never be taught in a public setting — only by private tutorial. (Notice that in our story Rabbi Nehemya teaches it responsibly to a single colleague.) In offering to teach it publicly, the Galilean put his would-be pupils in danger. We will learn more about Merkava mysticism and its immense power when we get to tractate Chagigah, which includes stories of people who tried to learn these teachings and died.

It is interesting that this story apparently absolves the students of responsibility in this deadly mistake. They asked the Galilean to teach these esoteric mystical secrets, but he is the one who paid with his life — perhaps because it is the teacher, who knew both these teachings and their power, who should have exercised better judgment. It was on him to not let his arrogance get the better of him, and to protect the students. And for that mistake, he received a fitting punishment — a deadly sting delivered straight to the forehead.

Read all of Shabbat 80 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 25, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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