Talmud pages

Yevamot 6

Spiritual tools.

The Hebrew writer and philosopher Ahad Ha’am is known for coining the phrase, “More than Jews have kept Shabbat; Shabbat has kept the Jews.” The line points to the way Shabbat is not only a central Jewish ritual, but an institution that has been key to preserving Jewish identity and culture. On today’s daf, we learn about a different way Shabbat supports us by reminding us to keep our spiritual selves focused in the right direction. 

A beraita on today’s daf enumerates the ways we show reverence for the Temple in Jerusalem and, by extension, for other sacred spaces:

In deference to the Temple, a person may not enter the Temple Mount with his staff, his shoes, his money belt or even the dust on his feet. One may not make the Temple a shortcut to pass through it, and all the more so one may not spit.

This source, and others like it, tell us how the rabbis defined respectful behavior and the expectations they had for those who entered sacred space. In our day, this might mean that we ought to refrain from bringing wallets and cell phones into a synagogue, or that we should hang our coats in the coatroom rather than on the back of our chairs.

Setting such clear guidelines not only supported a particular kind of decorum, it also protected the sanctity of the space, which was important to the rabbis. But so was limiting overzealousness that might divert people’s spiritual attention from where it was meant to be directed. Being too respectful of the Temple is also a problem. 

One might have thought that a person should be in reverence of the Temple (and turn the Temple itself into an object of worship). Therefore, the verse states: “You shall keep My Shabbatot, and revere My Sanctuary.” (Leviticus 19:30)

The term “keep” is stated with regard to Shabbat, and the term “revere” is stated with regard to the Temple. Just as in the case of keeping with regard to Shabbat, you do not revere Shabbat itself, as reverence is not mentioned in this context, but rather, one reveres God who warned about the observance of Shabbat, so too, the same applies to the reverence stated with regard to the Temple: You do not revere the Temple itself but He Who warned about the Temple.

The rabbis infer from a verse in Leviticus that seems to establish a parallel between keeping Shabbat and revering the Temple. The conclusion is that just as keeping Shabbat is really about respect for the God who commanded the keeping of Shabbat, reverence for the Temple is really reverence for God — not for the physical structure in which God’s presence is found. 

Shabbat and the Temple are examples of Judaism’s way of finding holiness in both time and space. Today’s daf enjoins us to show proper respect for these times and spaces but not make them into objects of worship in of themselves, reminding us that they are but spiritual tools that point us toward the divine. 

Read all of Yevamot 6 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 13th, 2022. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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