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On (Not) Understanding the Reasons Behind Rabbinic Prohibitions: The Case of Teaching Shehiyah

August 26, 2009 by  
Filed under Education, Halakha, Talmud

 On (Not) Understanding The Reasons Behind Rabbinic Prohibitions:  The Case of Teaching Shehiyah

by Daniel Reifman

Boiling Pot

Teachers of Halakhah are often torn between conflicting agendas: on the one hand, to ensure that students have mastered all the laws relevant to contemporary observance, on the other hand, to familiarize them with a sense of the background—both the history and reasoning—that informs what we practice.  Throw in the fact that most day schools accord less time for Halakhah than for other Judaic studies subjects, and it’s no wonder that the one of the central purposes of education—to engage our students’ critical faculties—is often overlooked. 

I admit that encouraging students to think critically about the halakhic process presents certain challenges, not the least of which is the risk of undermining students’ respect for that process.  Yet I would suggest that such concerns reflect our fears as educators more than our students’ actual experiences.  Taught with appropriate restraint, such an approach to Halakhah can engender a sense of respect for the halakhic process by allowing students to engage with the material on their own terms. 

The following is an example of this approach as applied to the topic of shehiyah—leaving food on the fire from Friday afternoon into Shabbat, an activity the Sages restrict in certain circumstances.  My primary goal is simply to get my students thinking about the reasons behind rabbinic prohibitions, but ultimately I also want to question the assumption that we can always know exactly why such prohibitions were enacted.

 The debate between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel

I introduce the topic of sheyihah by placing it within a broader framework of melakhot (prohibited actions) that are set into motion late on Friday afternoon.  This issue is the subject of a prominent debate between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel, as recorded in Mishnah Shabbat 1:5-9: 

בית שמאי אומרים: אין שורין דיו וסממנים וכרשינים אלא כדי שישורו מבעוד יום; ובית הלל מתירין.  בית שמאי אומרים: אין נותנין אונין של פשתן לתוך התנור אלא כדי שיהבילו מבעוד יום, ולא את הצמר ליורה אלא כדי שיקלוט העין; ובית הלל מתירין.  בית שמאי אומרים: אין פורשין מצודות חיה ועופות ודגים אלא כדי שיצודו מבעוד יום; ובית הלל מתירין.

…ושוין אלו ואלו שטוענים קורות בית הבד ועגולי הגת.

Beit Shammai rule: ink, dyes and vetches may not be steeped unless they can be dissolved while it is yet day; but Beit Hillel permit it.  Beit Shammai rule: bundles of wet flax may not be placed in an oven unless they can begin to steam while it is yet day, nor wool in the dyer’s kettle unless it can assume the color [of the dye]; but Beit Hillel permit it.  Beit Shammai rule: traps for wild beasts, fowls, and fish, may not be laid unless they can be caught while it is yet day; but Beit Hillel permit it.

…and both [schools] agree that the beam of the [oil] press and the rollers of the wine press may be loaded [right before Shabbat].

Before proceeding to the Talmud’s explanations of the machloket (halakhic debate), I ask my students to consider whose opinion seems more intuitive.  Typically students are quick to realize the logic behind Beit Hillel’s position: an action completed before the onset of Shabbat cannot constitute a violation of Shabbat, even if its effects extend well past sundown.  The difficulty then, lies in explaining Beit Shammai’s position.  I further ask my students to consider why Beit Shammai concedes in the cases of the oil and wine presses, and why the following mishnah (1:10) records no objection from Beit Hillel:

אין צולין בשר בצל וביצה אלא כדי שיצולו מבעוד יום…

Meat, onion[s], and egg[s] may not be roasted [right before Shabbat] unless they will get roasted while it is yet day…

Here, too, is a melakhah that is set in motion before the onset of Shabbat, yet the ruling is presented anonymously—presumably placing it outside the scope of the machloket.

The Talmud Bavli, we should note, doesn’t directly address any of these questions.  Only in the process of explaining a parallel beraitha (in which Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel debate a further series of cases in which an action done before Shabbat has effects that continue into Shabbat) does the Bavli (18a) raise the issue of shevitat keilim—the notion that one’s utensils must also not “participate in” melakhah on Shabbat—and then suggest that this is the underlying basis of the machloket.  But this explanation doesn’t fit neatly with most of the mishnah’s cases (as students are quick to point out), nor does it account for the cases in which Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel do agree: loading the weights of an oil or wine press—which all agree is permissible—and placing food on the fire to roast—which all agree is prohibited.1 Indeed, the Yerushalmi—which parallels part of the sugya in the Bavli—makes no mention of shevitat keilim in this context.

The Tosefta’s version of the debate 

Instead of focusing on the Bavli’s explanation of the machloket, I follow up our discussion of the Mishnah by showing my students the Tosefta (Shabbat 1:9), which presents the machloket between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel in dialogue form:

אמרו בית שמאי לבית הלל: אין אתם מודין שאין צולין בשר בצל וביצה בערב שבת עם חשיכה אלא כדי שיצולו?  אף דיו סמנין וכרשנין כיוצא בהן.

אמרו להן בית הלל: אי אתם מודין שטוענין קורות בית הבד ותולין עגולי הגת ערב שבת עם חשיכה?  אף דיו סמנין וכרשנין כיוצא בהן.

 אלו עמדו בתשובתן ואלו עמדו בתשובתן, אלא שבית שמאי אומרים: “ששת ימים תעבד ועשית כל מלאכתך” [שמות כ:ט] – שתהא כל מלאכתך גמורה; ובית הלל אומרים: “ששת ימים תעשה [מעשיך]” [שם כג:יב] – מלאכה עושה אתה כל ששה.

Beit Shammai said to Beit Hillel: Don’t you admit that one may not roast meat, an onion, or an egg on Friday afternoon immediately before nightfall unless they will get roasted [before Shabbat]?  Likewise ink, dyes or vetches [may not be steeped immediately before nightfall].

Beit Hillel said to them: Don’t you admit that one may load the beams of the oil press or suspend the rollers of the winepress on Friday afternoon immediately before nightfall?  Likewise ink, dyes or vetches [may be steeped immediately before nightfall].

These stood by their answer, and these stood by their answer; but Beit Shammai said: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work” [Ex. 20:9] — that all your work should be complete; and Beit Hillel said: “Six days you shall do [your work]” [Ex. 23:12] — you may do work all six [days].

Unlike in the Mishnah, where the cases in which Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel agree appear almost as an afterthought, in the Tosefta they form the crux of the debate.  Each side makes its case by citing an accepted precedent, and the machloket revolves around the issue of which precedent is more relevant to the case of steeping dye plants right before Shabbat.  What does seem like an afterthought in the Tosefta is the derashot (textual inferences) that Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel cite as the basis for their positions.  Rather than presenting the derashot as part of the dialogue, the Tosefta cites them only after noting that neither side yielded its stance.  What the Tosefta implies, then, is that neither side could fully articulate why the other’s side precedent isn’t relevant.

A basic model of legal reasoning:   Rav Moshe and the Chazon Ish

I find the Tosefta’s version of the machloket an interesting teaching tool on two levels.  First, I use it to illustrate to my students one of the most fundamental forms of legal reasoning.  Given a question about any halakhic issue, we can construct a test case on either side of that issue by finding two known precedents, one of which is prohibited and the other permitted.  Having set up such a framework, we can formulate any halakhic conclusion about the case in question simply as a choice to use one of the precedents over the other.  Particularly for students not trained in abstract Talmudic reasoning, this model can be a simple and effective way to frame complex halakhic issues.

For example, consider the debate between two 20th-century poskim (rabbinic decisors), the Chazon Ish (R. Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz) and R. Moshe Feinstein, regarding the use of a blech to leave food on the stovetop into Shabbat.  R. Moshe Feinstein (Iggerot Moshe O.H. 1:93) rules that covering the burners with a blech (metal sheet) permits one to leave food that is not fully cooked (such as a cholent) on a stovetop into Shabbat, a point disputed by the Chazon Ish (O.H. 37:11).  Their debate centers around the Mishnah’s ruling (Shabbat 3:1) that one may leave a stew on a kirah (a type of ancient oven) into Shabbat if the coals in the oven have been banked (i.e., covered) with ash.  What about a case in which the coals (or the equivalent heat source) have been covered with something else, such as a sheet of metal?  Here we find conflicting implications from the medieval commentators.  On the one hand, Mordechai (Hagahot Mordechai Shabbat ch. 3) states that covering the opening of the oven with an empty pot is the equivalent of baking the coals.  On the other hand, Rashi (Shabbat 37a, s.v. גבה) implies that one is required to bank the coals even if one places the stew atop the cover (כיסוי) of the oven.  The practical difference between an empty pot and the oven’s normal cover would seem to be negligible, and it’s tempting simply to chalk up this apparent conflict to a simple difference of opinion between Rashi and Mordechai.  However, since both of their rulings are accepted by later authorities, we are forced to say that the two scenarios—placing a stew atop an empty pot vs. placing the stew atop the oven’s normal cover—are halakhically distinct.  Here, then, are the conflicting precedents that inform the use of a blech.  The debate between the Chazon Ish and R. Feinstein can be framed as a question whether a blech is more comparable to an empty pot or to an oven cover.

  19th century oven

But in order for this model of legal reasoning to be effective, we need first to be able to articulate the difference between the two precedents in conceptual terms: Given two such similar cases, why is it that one is permitted and the other prohibited?  It’s this conceptual formulation that allows us to categorize the case in question as being more similar to one precedent or the other.  In the case of the blech, both the Chazon Ish and R. Feinstein agree that the difference between Rashi’s ruling and the Mordechai’s ruling stems from the need for a shinui (irregular procedure) in order to leave food on the fire.  Placing food on top of an empty pot is considered a shinui because one would not normally cook this way, unlike placing the food on top of the oven’s normal cover which might be done even during the week (at least in the context of the type of oven referred to in the Mishnah).  The Chazon Ish and R. Feinstein disagree about whether placing the pot atop a blech is or is not considered normative cooking practice.

Precedents with no clear rationale

The problem we face in the case debated by Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel—preparing a dye solution right before Shabbat—is that neither side can explain the difference between the two precedents.  Why should loading the weights of an oil or wine press right before Shabbat be permitted when the equivalent case of cooking—placing meat on the fire right before Shabbat—is prohibited?  This is not to say that there is no way of explaining the difference between these cases, only that in the Tosefta’s version of the machloket, neither side is able to articulate a cogent distinction.  Faced with an irresolvable conflict between two precedents, their machloket over a third case ends in a stalemate: אלו עמדו בתשובתן ואלו עמדו בתשובתן. 

Of course this analysis only begs the question: If no one can explain the reasoning behind these precedents, why are they valid arguments?  Here, then, is the second point I impart to my students: as much as we like to assume that Halakhah flows in smooth and coherent fashion from a fixed set of principles, we must acknowledge that often practice takes on a life of its own.  This is true not only with regard to practices that we categorize as minhagim (customs), but even—as in this case—with regard to practices that have the force of gezeirot (rabbinic edicts).  The Tosefta’s language suggests that by the time of Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel’s debate, these rulings—to load the weights of oil and wine presses right up until Shabbat but not to begin roasting food right before Shabbat—were sufficiently ancient for the original reasoning behind them to have been forgotten.  Moreover, it would seem that the two practices weren’t perceived as being in conflict until Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel considered a set of similar cases, such as preparing a dye solution right before Shabbat; only then did the underlying conceptual issue come to the fore, and with it an irresolvable contradiction.


Although this sugya provides particularly clear examples of rabbinic prohibitions which lack clear rationales, I would suggest that this phenomenon is far more widespread than generally acknowledged.  Following the approach I have outlined here, I recommend that in cases like these we trust our students’ intellectual curiosity, giving them the freedom to question accepted interpretations, then empowering them with the tools to seek out alternatives.

  1. The Bavli (18b) also suggests a reason that Beit Hillel would concede to Beit Shammai with regard to leaving foodstuffs in the oven from Friday afternoon: שמא יחתה בגחלים — “lest one come to stoke the coals”.  But like the idea of shevitat keilim, the concern that one might come to stoke the coals emerges only in the Bavli’s analysis of a beraitha.  Only in the medieval commentaries do we find this explanation used to account for Beit Hillel’s concession to Beit Shammai in mishnah 1:10. []
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