Today’s daf features the second mishnah of tractate Shabbat. After spending more than eight pages discussing the laws of carrying objects between public and private areas on Shabbat, the rabbis turn now to discussing activities that may not be performed on the eve of Shabbat.
The mishnah teaches:
A person may not sit before the barber adjacent to the time of the afternoon prayer until he recites the afternoon prayer. And a person may not enter the bathhouse and may not enter to work in a tannery. And he may neither begin to eat a meal nor to sit in judgment until he prays. And however, if they already began engaging in those activities, they need not stop.
As we saw in tractate Berakhot, there’s a relatively small window in which you can say the afternoon prayer, or mincha — about six hours or so. If you miss that window, you’ve missed your chance.
The mishnah knows how easy it is to lose track of time, particularly on the eve of Shabbat. (And it’s probably no accident that the specific cases mentioned in the mishnah — hair cuts, bathing — are the very things many of us rush to complete on Friday afternoons.) Inevitably, things we put off until later wind up being forgotten. Knowing human nature, the rabbis tell us that a person may not visit a barber or tuck into a good meal when it’s time to pray. Better to pray first and tend to your own needs later. Otherwise you’re liable to be distracted and wind up missing a chance to pray.
The rabbis go on to debate the particulars of these restrictions. Are we talking about all bathhouse activities or just washing? Does the restriction apply to all meals or just large ones? And does it refer to all haircuts, or just the complicated one that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s son-in-law Elasa used to get? (Elsewhere in the Talmud we learn that Elasa was a wealthy man and would get an expensive haircut that resembled the unique hairstyle that the High Priest used to wear in the ancient Temple.)
But regardless of the details, the bottom line is this: Don’t wait. If you care about doing something, do it now. If you put it off, who knows what circumstances may intervene to prevent you from completing your task.