Shabbat 81

There must be a good reason.

One of the lessons of the Talmud is that opinions must be considered carefully – even if we don’t agree with them, or even understand them. If a sage expressed an opinion, there must be value to that opinion. The Talmud works hard to test these opinions, and sometimes reformulates them. But it rarely abandons them.

On today’s daf, we see an explicit expression of this core Talmudic value. It comes in the context of a discussion that, typically Talmudic, covers ground not often discussed in polite company: what is the material you are allowed to wipe yourself with on Shabbat?

Rabbi Yochanan said: It is prohibited to wipe with an earthenware shard on Shabbat.

The Talmud then tries to understand the reason for this prohibition. First it suggests that one might injure oneself with the sharpness of the shard. But then it rejects this: if so, one should never wipe with clay shards, even on weekdays!

Then the Talmud proposes another reason: witchcraft (a reason explained on tomorrow’s daf). But again, this is rejected because this it is also a concern even on weekdays.

The Talmud then proposes a third reason for Rabbi Yochanan’s position: one might come to remove hairs when wiping with a shard. But this is also rejected: removing the hairs would ultimately be unintentional, and therefore not forbidden on Shabbat.

It seems like Rabbi Yochanan’s opinion cannot be redeemed. But then Rabbi Natan bar Oshaya says something profound:

A great man has said something, let us say a reason for it.

In other words, there must be something to this opinion. All we have to do is work a bit harder to understand it!

Indeed, the solution is complex: on a weekday, one could use a shard or a stone. But on Shabbat, stones are muktzeh (set-aside), and not available. So we might have thought a shard would be preferable; Rabbi Yochanan teaches us it is not. (In the ancient world, there were many other wiping options beyond stones and clay shards, including leaves, moss, shells, sponges, wool, corn cobs, and even one’s left hand.)

Rabbi Natan bar Oshaya, who made aliyah and learned there from Rabbi Yochanan, comes to the rescue of his teacher. He knows there must be wisdom in his statement, and he works hard to figure it out. This is the principle that operates throughout so much of the Talmud: We respect the rabbi who made this statement, so even if its meaning is not initially clear, we work to figure it out.

Read all of Shabbat 81 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 26, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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