From Berakhot to Shabbat in the Age of Corona

by Ilana Kurshan

It was a Friday afternoon in the middle of winter, just a few months ago. I was trying to motivate my son Matan to practice violin. He is supposed to practice every day, but as usual, he was searching for any distraction. “Ima, look,” he told me, pointing to the swing on our porch. “The wind is so strong today that the swing is moving by itself, with no one on it.” It happened to be Erev Shabbat Parshat Bo, and we were learning Masechet Berakhot in Daf Yomi, so how could I resist? I told him the story of David’s Kinor—in modern Hebrew the term means violin, though in the biblical context it refers to a harp. “Did you know that King David had a Kinor just like you?” I told my son. “And it was sort of a magical Kinor,” I went on, trying to capture his attention. “How was it magical?” he asked me. “It played by itself,” I told him. “Every night at midnight, the wind would blow on his Kinor and cause the strings to vibrate so it played on its own. It was sort of like an alarm clock for David, because as soon as he heard the music, he knew it was time to wake up and study Torah, which he did every night from midnight until dawn.” 

I thought of telling Matan about the Romantic poets’ fascination with the Aeolian harp, an instrument played by the wind, but I instead I decided to point out the connection to our parsha that week, which described the Israelites’ dramatic exodus from Egypt. I told Matan that the rabbis of the Talmud discussed David’s Kinor in the context of the exodus, because the Torah says that Moses told Pharaoh that God was going to strike the Egyptian firstborns “at about midnight.” Why about midnight? Because even though God had told Moses that he would kill the Egyptians at midnight, Moses didn’t know exactly when midnight was, so just to play it safe, he said “about midnight.” As the Talmudic rabbis explained, Moses, unlike David, did not have a magical Kinor played by the wind. “And neither do you,” I said to my son. “If we want to hear your Kinor play music, you have to play it. So take out your violin, Matan!” 

I share this anecdote because it is one of many examples of how I am constantly trying to “translate” the Talmud into terms that will speak to my young children, who range in age from eight years old to nearly eight months. Stories and phrases from the Talmud are constantly making their way into my daily conversations with my kids – when my baby looks up from nursing, I tell the kids about the infants at Yam Suf who looked up from their mother’s breasts to join in singing the Song of the Sea. When my son tells me that he doesn’t need to study for his Chumash test because he already read through the perek in school, I quote the rabbinic statement that appears at several points throughout the Talmud – אם קרית לא שנית ואם שנית לא שלשת – if you’ve learned it once, you have not reviewed it. And if you’ve only reviewed it, you haven’t gone over it a third time. When my toddler leaves cheerios strewn across the floor and then goes back and steps in them, leaving crumbs all over the floor, I tell my husband that it’s the kind of damage known in the first perek of Bava Kama as Regel, and that every toddler is essentially a Shor Muad – an ox that is known to have gored several times, and that can be assumed to gore again.

These are examples from all over the Talmud, but we’re now in the midst of Masechet Shabbat, and once again it seems that where we are in the Talmud could not be more relevant – so much so that the act of translation feels extraneous. I began learning Masechet Shabbat against the backdrop of the Corona Crisis, as I gradually realized that people all over the world were being asked to accept upon themselves an extended period of resting, retreating, and desisting from labor. Here in Israel, the Ministry of Health issued increasingly stringent guidelines every few days regarding the extent to which we were permitted to leave our homes and engage socially: No gatherings of over 100 became no gatherings of over ten which became no minyanim and no unnecessary social interaction with anyone outside one’s own family. First the schools were shuttered, then the restaurants and malls were closed, and then we were told not to leave home unless absolutely necessary. And so it was while increasingly confined to the private domain of my home that I learned the first chapter of tractate Shabbat, which begins with a discussion of the limits placed on our interactions with people outside.

In the Torah, one of the defining features of Shabbat is the injunction to stay put: “Mark that the Lord has given you Shabbat… Let everyone remain where he is. Let no one leave his place on the seventh day” (Exodus 16:29). One of the thirty-nine labors prohibited on Shabbat is that of carrying an object from one domain to another. The rabbis of the Talmud explain that there are four domains—public, private, an in-between domain known as a Carmelit, and a Mekom Petor which is none of the above—and it is prohibited to carry from a public domain like the city square to the private domain of one’s home and vice versa. During the first few weeks of tightening restrictions, each passing day felt more and more like Shabbat. As the reality of this pandemic increasingly set in, I realized that each time I left my home, I was potentially carrying germs that could infect those around me; and each time I returned home from outside, I was potentially carrying germs that might infect my family. I found myself fearing that I might unwittingly be a carrier, and that no amount of handwashing or sanitizing would save the people I love or the communities I am a part of from the threat of contagion.

The opening pages of tractate Shabbat describe a series of hypothetical exchanges between a poor man standing outside a house, and the homeowner inside. May the poor man reach his hand into the house so that the homeowner might place food in his basket? May he take food out of the homeowner’s hand? That is, to what extent are we permitted to engage with those around us who might need our help, or who might be able to help us? I have thought about this question often in the past few weeks, as I’ve tried to “reach out” to friends in far more difficult situations than my own – single moms isolated at home with young kids, unmarried friends living alone, an octogenarian friend from the pool who is now confined to her assisted living facility. It is more difficult to make contact without contact, but I am learning how to extend my proverbial basket. Over the course of the last few weeks my son taught me how to host a Zoom meeting, my twins davened with their first grade teacher on Whatsapp video, and I called a few friends I have not spoken with in months. I would like to be able to extend a real hand, but the Corona virus is transmitted rampantly when people use their hands and touch surfaces that have been contaminated. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise, then, that the hand of a person has a unique halakhic status and is considered neither like the public nor like the private domains (3b). The Talmud (Shabbat 14a) teaches that the sages decreed that hands are ritually impure because they are “preoccupied” – they tend to touch dirty or impure objects. That is, our hands are not ours alone, because they bear the traces of everything in the public domain that we as private individuals have touched.

The discussion of carrying in and out of the house on Shabbat begins with the cryptic assertion that these laws are “two which are four” (2a). That is, although the Bible stipulates only two scenarios involving carrying into and out of the home, these cases multiply to four in rabbinic law – an exponential expansion reminiscent of the rate of Corona’s transmission. Each day we check the news, concerned and alarmed by how quickly the number of cases continues to rise. And that is not all – v’lo zo bilvad – because the exponential growth in cases is matched by the exponential growth of our own realization of the magnitude of this calamity. Again and again I find that yesterday’s deliberations are rendered irrelevant by today’s policies. Should we send our kids to school after Purim, we wondered? And then the very next day, school was canceled. Should we take our kids for their annual dentist appointment, we asked each other? And then the very next day, the Health Ministry issued a new policy advising against all non-emergency medical and dental visits. Was it safe to take our mop top son for a much-needed haircut? Clearly not, if we were not supposed to leave the house. Then we were told that only “essential businesses” may remain open, and I found myself thinking about the list of prohibited activities stipulated in the mishnayot of the first chapter of tractate Shabbat: “A person may not sit before the barber… A person may not work in a tannery…. The tailor may not leave the house with his needle, nor the scribe with his quill” (9b, 11a). The Mishnah is speaking about activities that are forbidden too close to the time for Minchah, or on the eve of the Sabbath, lest a person come to miss the time for prayer or perform labor on Shabbat. These are precautionary measures, much like the Corona policies: No haircuts. No shopping. No library visits. We can feel the impending darkness, but it descends not with the angels that visit on the Sabbath eve, but with the spectre of the angel of death.

Corona, like all aspects of germ theory, requires a leap of faith. We cannot see the droplets that may be infecting others when we touch a doorknob or hug a friend or sneeze into our elbows. And yet we are expected to respond with extreme measures. We are asked to desist from most forms of labor, to stay inside our homes, to spend time only with our families. And so we stay home, working by Zoom in button-down shirts and pajama bottoms in a surreal reality in which the second half of Adar was more topsy-turvy than the first. My husband and I speak of the period of our lives before Purim as B.C.E. – Before the Corona Epidemic. My kids fantasize about what they will do “acharey HaKorona” – after this virus at last has passed and they can go to the park and hang out with their friends again.

This past week schools in Israel reopened for my three oldest kids, who are in first and third grade. They spent the weekend preparing to go back after nearly two months at home. As they tried on their masks and gloves and stuff their bags with alcohol gel and sanitizing wipes, I followed along in the fifth and sixth chapters of tractate Shabbat, where the rabbis debate what various animals and people are permitted to take with them on the sabbath when they venture forth from the private domain into the public. 

My kids, who have been learning at home, had all their schoolbooks and folders to bring back with them, and so their bags are far more weighed down than usual. They are, in that sense, like the camels in the Talmud saddled with a load too heavy for them, which is forbidden, since animals should not be burdened on the day of rest (51b). On their faces they are all wearing scarves over their regular masks, as extra protection, like the Arabian Jewish women who go out on Shabbat with scarves over their faces (65a). My son, whose anxieties are only exacerbated by the present situation, insists on wearing three levels of protection – a cloth mask, a napkin tied with rubber bands over his ears, and a plastic face shield with his name written in big block letters over thick masking tape because otherwise he is unidentifiable. Does he really need all this gear? I suppose for him it is sort of like the amulets discussed in the Mishnah, which are believed to protect their wearers from harm. The Mishnah teaches that a person may wear an amulet if its efficacy has been proven or if it was made by an expert. An amulet against epilepsy, the Talmud teaches, may be worn not just by one who has fallen, but also by one who worries that he will fall (61a). So far, thank God, none of us has fallen prey to this illness; we wear our masks as preventative measures and pray that we will be spared. 

Even after the schools reopened, not all of my kids’ friends went back. Several parents wrote in the class Whatsapp groups that they were too nervous about sending their kids, and wanted to first wait and see the repercussions of this change in policy. Daniel and I felt confident that our kids’ school was handling the situation responsibly and sensitively, and so we did not hesitate about returning them to school. Besides, the Talmud seems to frown upon those who hold themselves to special standards rather than adopting the policies to which the general public is expected to adhere. The Babylonian sage Shmuel was particularly strict with his daughters in terms of what sort of ribbons they were allowed to wear in their ears on Shabbat (65a). And the Mishnah relates that Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah's cow used to go out on Shabbat with a strap between its horns, even though the sages forbade such a practice, which leads to an extended Talmudic discussion about the importance of speaking up when those around you fail to adhere to the behavior expected of them (54b). In our present reality, when everyone is wearing different types of masks in different ways—some covering only their mouths, some covering their nose and mouths, some with the mask merely symbolically secured under their chins—it is hard not to judge everyone you see on the street, but the Talmud provides guidelines for how to speak up constructively to the people we see when we go out. 

For the past few weeks, we have been trained to stay away from one another and to keep within the confines of our homes. It is difficult, when venturing out for the first time, not to regard everyone we see as a potential threat. At the beginning of Masechet Shabbat we read about Bar Yohai and his son, who emerged from their cave after twelve years in isolation and burned up everything they saw with their eyes, until a divine voice rebuked them with the words, “Have you come out to destroy my world?” Ultimately when we do go out, it should be to seek fellowship and act kindly toward those around us. My kids came home from school and could not tell me a thing they learned, but they were all so happy to be back with their beloved teachers and friends. Even at two meters away and with three masks over their faces, they were able to feel the embrace of their school community, and hopefully the loving embrace of their family as well. I kissed them each when they left the house and again when they returned, hoping that this amulet, at least, would work its magic. 

When they left, in the few moments of quiet I found, I turned to the daf. Until now I have been learning only before dawn or after midnight -- in bed on my cellphone, on the couch with an open Gemara, by podcast as I take a solitary walk through the darkness. As I near the end of my second cycle, I am grateful to have Daf Yomi as one of the few constants in my life when so much normalcy has been suspended. Shabbat lasts 25 hours, but the length of “Chufshat HaKorona” is indefinite. Each week in Lecha Dodi we welcome Shabbat with the words, “Arise! Get up! Your light is coming.” I pray that by the time we conclude the last chapter of tractate Shabbat, the chapter that begins with the words “one on whom darkness descended” (מי שהחשיך),  the light will have come at last so that we may arise and get up – and go out.

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