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Friday, August 19, 2016

Burn, Baby, Burn! — BT Shabbat 21a — #49

Rabbah said, “Concerning the wicks that the Sages said we may not kindle with on Shabbat: because the flame flickers on them. Concerning the oils that the Sages said we may not kindle with: because they are not drawn up the wick.” Abaye asked Rabbah, “Concerning the oils with which the Sages said we may not kindle on shabbat: What is the law concerning whether one may pour a small amount of [permissible] oil into them and kindle? Do we decree it [impermissible] lest one kindle with only [unacceptable oils], or not?” [Rabbah] said, “We do not kindle.” [Abaye asked,] “Why?” [Rabbah replied,] “Because we may not kindle [with impermissible oils].” [Abaye] responded: “[But, if] one wrapped a substance with which we may kindle over a substance with which we may not kindle, we may not kindle with [the combination]. Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel said, ‘In my father’s household, we would wrap wicking over a nut and kindle.’ This demonstrates that they would kindle [with the sort of combination of materials that Rabbah says is prohibited].” [Rabbah] said to [Abaye], “Don’t refute me from Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel; support me from the first tanna’s ruling.”  [Abaye said,] “There is no difficulty. Practice is superior [proof].”

These days, we buy factory-made candles to light for shabbat, perhaps even purchasing them over the internet without leaving the house and with little effort. Long ago, people used oil lamps and went to some effort to prepare them for use. Mishnah Shabbat 2:1 (20b) lists materials considered unsuitable for wicking and to fuel shabbat lights. Some materials produce superior wicking that draws up the fuel nicely, and some fuels produce a more robust and dependable flame than others. Mishnah does not declare these to be the criteria behind Mishnah’s lists, but in  our passage (from the Gemara) Rabbah presumes these criteria. (This is probably because if the flame flickers, it can easily go out and one would be tempted to relight the lamp, thereby kindling a flame on shabbat, an act that is biblically forbidden.)

How often have you looked at a recipe that called for a certain kind of flour or oil or fruit and wondered: Can I substitute another kind of flour or oil or fruit for at least part of the amount stipulated in the recipe? This is the question Abaye raises: Mishnah says don’t use X, but does that mean I may not use any X at all (for example, by combining X with a permissible substance), or does it mean that I may not use solely X to make my wick or to fuel my shabbat lamp? Rabbah responds: We may not use any of the materials the Mishnah declares impermissible. (Can you hear the echo of a parent who says, “Which part of ‘No’ don’t you understand?”) Abaye wants to know what, precisely, is the prohibition about. Rabbah responds, somewhat obliquely, “Because we may not kindle”—meaning, in a mixture of materials we might end up effectively kindling or fueling the flame with precisely the materials the Mishnah disallows if our combination is weighted heavily in favor of the disallowed material and only a token amount of appropriate material is involved. This, in turn, could lead to the very situation Rabbah presumes is the concern of the Mishnah: a weak, flickering flame that could easily goes out.

Abaye presses the question by citing a specific example whereby a wick is constructed by wrapping a permissible substance around a nut. He points out that no less than Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel claimed that this was how wicks for shabbat lamps were produced in his household.  Would Rabbah claim that the household of the Nasi, the president of the Sanhedrin, was violating halakhah when they prepared their shabbat lamps and wicks?! Rabbah responds that Abaye, who contends that one may combine impermissible materials with permissible materials, chooses to refute him with an anecdote, but could have chosen instead to support him by citing the opinion of the tanna kamma, the first mishnaic opinion. But the tanna kamma simply listed materials that were not to be used; the tanna kamma did not address the question of mixtures. It is Rabbah who reads the Mishnah as forbidding mixtures. Abaye responds by saying that the actual practice of a sage provides better proof than Rabbah’s inference from reading the Mishnah. It is worth pointing out that Abaye’s anecdote concerning the practices of the household of the Nasi is one of leniency; it enlarges the possibilities for practice.

The conversation in the Gemara does not end here, but continues in another direction. I end it here with the dangling question of how we evaluate what seems to be a contradiction between an inference made from a tannaitic ruling and anecdotal evidence of the practice of a sage.


  1. The traditional presumption is that the Mishnah prohibits the use of inferior materials lest the flame flicker out and, in relighting it, one violates Torah’s prohibition against kindling a flame on shabbat (Exodus 35:3 — shabbat candles are lit prior to shabbat). Can you suggest another reason the Mishnah prefers materials that produce a strong and robust flame?
  2. Rabbah seems to be saying that mixing materials—those not allowed with those allowed—is a slippery slope. If combinations are permitted, people will be inclined to use whatever is at hand, including inadequate substances, rather than make the effort to find high quality materials. How do you think the slippery slope argument relates to religious observance and practice? How does it relate to the principle of hiddur mitzvah (beautification of a mitzvah is a mitzvah in itself).
  3. In the Gemara, Rabbah contends that Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel’s family’s practice of making a wick by winding wicking around a nut is not a violation of his reading of the Mishnah: the nut served only as a buoy to keep the wick afloat in the oil; it was not part of the wick. We could argue that if he is correct, this celebrates the pluralism of design in Jewish ritual objects; and if he is wrong, the passage celebrates pluralism of Jewish ritual practices. When is pluralism constructive? Are there limits? If so, when and why?

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