Talmud Tips

For the week ending 21 March 2020 / 25 Adar 5780

Shabbat 9-15

by Rabbi Moshe Newman
Library Library Library Library

Judgment in Focus

And the Sage said, “From the time the judges covered their heads (with taleiseim).”

We are taught in a mishna that when we near the time of mincha — even during the week — it is forbidden to do certain activities before praying, lest the activity continue and the person forget to pray. However, continues the mishna, this is true only if the activity wasn’t yet begun, but if the activity was started, it may continue. The halacha regarding this topic is codified in Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 232.

One such activity is “entering into din” — opening a session in a court. The gemara discusses the exact definition of the beginning of the session, and two opinions are recorded: “When the litigants begin” and “When the judges cover their heads.” One definition was said by Rav Yirmiya and the other by Rabbi Yonah. Although these sound like different definitions, the gemara clarifies that these two opinions do not really disagree. If the court was not in session earlier, then the judges would need to don their teleisim before starting, but if the court is continuing after a morning hearing, the new case begins with the claims of the litigants.

A “Talmud Tip” may be learned here from the fact that the dayanim would cover their heads with teleisim when sitting in judgment. Their kippas and hats were not sufficient, it would seem. I once heard an explanation for this practice from Rav Moshe Carlebach, who said it with a big smile, yet with total seriousness. A tallis over the dayan’s head served as a type of “blinder.” Not in the sense of “blind justice,” but to help each dayan stay totally focused on the case from beginning to end, without any peripheral distraction.

  • Shabbat 10a

A Full-Tilt Shabbat

Rabbi Yishmael said, “How great are the words of the Sages, who said that it is forbidden to read by the light of a lamp!”

We learn in our beraita that despite a Rabbinical decree to forbid reading a sefer on Shabbat by the light of a lamp, Rabbi Yishmael thought he was allowed to do so since he was certain he would not tilt the lamp to improve the flame and would therefore not desecrate Shabbat. According to one opinion in the beraita he almost tilted the lamp, and according to another he actually did so b’shogeg. Based on this experience he proclaimed, “How great are the words of the Sages, who said that it is forbidden to read by the light of a lamp!”

Commentaries note that although the reason for the prohibition to read by a lamp — lest one tilt it — is explained in the beraita, the Tana of the mishna omits its mention. Why? They answer this question with an important Torah principle.

The reasons for the mitzvahs and prohibitions in the Torah were not revealed in the Torah so that a person shouldn’t think that if the reason for a particular mitzvah or prohibition doesn’t apply to him, that mitzvah or prohibition also doesn’t apply to him. In a similar way, the decrees of our Sages were enacted to apply to each person, regardless of any reason that might be associated with the decree. Rabbi Yishmael proclaimed that the words of our Sages in the mishna — which did not state a reason for the decree — were “great” in conveying the message that the decree was independent of any particular reason. (Maharitz Chiyus in the name of the Gaon from Vilna) Rav Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg mentioned to me this teaching of the Gaon in a different context (mayim achronim), and added, in the name of the Gaon, that for each reason that our Sages may have revealed as being a basis for a decree, there are actually seventy reasons.

  • Shabbat 11a, 12b

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