Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Behar-Behukotai (Midrash)

The midrash on Behar includes an interesting exposition about the Shabbat. This is an interesting example of the process of midrashic association. Unlike what one would expect, there are no midrashim in this parsha on the sabbatical (shevi’it / shemita) year—although elsewhere the midrash does observe that those who are meticulous about shevi’it are compared to the angelic hosts, being called “mighty ones who do His word” (based on Ps 103:20).

In this parsha, we find a long series of homilies taking off from the verses stipulating the measures one is required to take when “your brother becomes poor” (Lev 25:35). These words form a leit motif, repeated several times in the chapter, and in fact form the central theme of the entire portion: the responsibility of society and of each individual therein not to allow its members to fall into destitution, but to help them out, giving generously of their time, money, involvement, etc. (How different this is from the Calvinist ethic, which covertly underlies today’s “neo-liberalism,” albeit in secularized form—namely, that worldly success is a sign of grace, and that the poor somehow deserve their lot because they must be lazy!). This chapter of midrash culminates in a series of midrashim (Lev Rab 34.13-16) based upon Isaiah 58:7-13, the passage read as haftarah on Yom Kippur day, describing the fast that God truly chooses—“to share your bread with the hungry… and when you see the naked, to cover him…” etc.

But this passage is not only concerned with social ethics, but with the Sabbath. Thus, in Lev Rab 34.16 [c-d], we find an exposition of vv. 13-14 of this chapter, dealing with the more intangible, “spiritual” aspects of Shabbat behavior: “If you turn back your feet on the Sabbath” [Isa 58:13]. Our Rabbis taught: A person should not walk about his orchard on Shabbat so that he might be there at nightfall and immediately go to the bathhouse.

Elsewhere in the halakhah we find the concept of mahshikh al hatehum: the person who awaits nightfall at the Sabbath limit. One is only allowed to walk a certain distance from ones home on Shabbat in open country (within a city or contiguously inhabited area there are no limits). Some people, who wanted to begin a journey after Shabbat or to go someplace outside of the boundary tried to “outsmart” this rule by walking to the edge of the Sabbath limit towards the end of the day. Our midrash disapproves of this, as utilizing a formal loophole that runs against the restful spirit of the day, defined by the verse in Isaiah.

“To do your business on my holy day” [ibid.] From this, we infer that it is forbidden for a person to go into his field on Shabbat in order to see what is needed. The story is told of a pious man who went into his vineyard to see what was needed and found a breach there, and thought to repair it on the Shabbat. {But then] he said: I will never repair it, because I thought about it on the Shabbat. What did the Holy One blessed be He do? He caused a caperbush to grow and it closed the breach, and he made a living from it his whole life.

Halakhically, of course, one is allowed to do things on the weekday which one had thought about on Shabbat, or even execute a plan discussed with someone on Shabbat; it is only the fruits of actual labors performed on Shabbat that are forbidden on the weekday, and even that in a relatively limited sense. The idea expressed here is that a certain piety is expressed in respecting the holiness of the Shabbat, behaving in such a way that even ones thoughts on that day are divorced from the world of mundane, practical matters. The act of Divine intervention, sending a bush to grow in the place of the gap, is seen as a reward and a sign of approval of this man’s supererogatory piety, which is held up as an ideal.

“And you shall call the Shabbat a delight” [Isa 58:13]—this refers to the Sabbath of Creation [i.e., the weekly Shabbat]. “And the Holy One of the Lord honored”—this refers to Yom Kippur. “And you shall honor it”—this refers to festival days. “From going in your own ways” [ibid.]—this is the intermediate day of the festival. “From seeking your own wishes”—from here that it is forbidden for a person to pray for his needs on Shabbat.

R. Zeira stood before R. Hiyya bar Abba and asked him: That which we say [in Grace After Meals], “Shepherd us [or: our Shepherd], feed us, sustain us“—what is the law on the Shabbat? He said to him: it is a formula of the blessing.

The ban on involvement in weekday matters on Shabbat extends to the realm of prayer: hence, the thirteen petitionary blessings that form the heart of the weekday Amidah are replaced on Shabbat and Yom Tov by a single blessing concerning the various meanings of the day. So much so, that R. Zeira is troubled about the few words of request appearing in Birkat Hamazon—and is answered that an exception is made for fixed, formulaic prayer. Indeed, I once heard that the Mi sheberakh la-holeh, the prayer for the ill recited at the time of Torah reading—is only permitted on Shabbat for the seriously ill (i.e., those for whom one would also be permitted to do things on Shabbat).

“And from speaking a word.” When the mother of Shimon bar Yohai used to speak superfluous things on Shabbat, he would say to her, “It is the Sabbath” and she would be quiet.

At first glance, this is a rather bizarre and even obnoxious story—one can imagine a brash young man home from yeshiva, filled with a sense of his own superior piety, telling his mother to shut up at the Sabbath table. What is going on here?

Apparently (and I have not had time to research this point at all properly), there are sources for the idea of secular speech being forbidden on the Shabbat, just as there are sources suggesting that it is improper to read any secular literature, such as newspapers, letters, and even serious books, on the Shabbat. The idea underlying all this is that the Sabbath is thought of as a day, not only of cessation of physical labors, but on which ones mind and thoughts are wholly turned away from the world of “weekday,” “vokhadik” things—that is, that whole mood of being in which one approaches the world, and other human beings, in a utilitarian, functional manner. Just as the ban on creative labors on Shabbat is widely interpreted as a kind of acting out of the theological idea that God is the Creator and Ruler of all, so too is the mental refocusing on Shabbat, the turning of ones attention away from all mundane thoughts and speech and towards matters of Torah and Godliness, a way of making the Shabbat a day totally devoted to holiness in the inner sense as well.

“Then you shall take delight in the Lord, and he shall make you ride upon the heights of the earth” [ibid., 14]. These are a total of fourteen [blessings], and the other ten which are written about Jacob, as is written “and I shall feed you with the inheritance of Jacob your father” [ibid.], [where are they?]. And these are them: “May God give you of the dew of heaven, and the fat of the earth, and much / plenty of grain and wine. May nations serve you, and peoples bow down to you. Be the senior one among your brothers, and the children of your mother shall bow down to you. Those who curse you are cursed, and those who bless you are blessed.” [Gen 27:28-29]

The reference to various numbers of blessing is based upon §11 in this same chapter, where it states that one who engages in kindness with the poor man receives twenty-four blessings, while one who neglects him is punished with a like number of curses. This is a further indication that the various units of this chapter of midrash are interrelated and at least partially interdependent upon one another. But what is the connection to Shabbat? The idea is obviously expanded: the 24 blessings are now applied to one who performs all the things written in Isaiah 58: if only fourteen have been listed thus far (these are enumerated in Rav Ze’ev Einhorn’s commentary), where are the other ten? Hence the need to invoke the verse about Jacob’s blessing.


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