Tze U'lmad Sh'lah L'kha

Weekly Talmud Learning with Rabbi Mordecai Schwartz, director of Admissions, The Rabbinical School, JTS

Rabbi Shimon B. Elazar would say: "According to Beit Shamai, [on Shabbat] we do not make arranged marriages for our children, nor apprentice them to [a master] for Torah study or to learn a trade, nor do we comfort the mourner or visit the sick. But Beit Hillel permits [all of these.]"

The two first-century schools of Rabbinic thought, Beit Shamai and Beit Hillel, crop up quite often in the Talmud. Here Rabbi Shimon b. Elazar, an early third-century Sage, quotes their positions. This dispute between the two schools goes to the heart of what the experience of Shabbat should encompass. On the one hand, as I mentioned last week, there is the principle that Shabbat is a time that should be free from worry. It is a day to focus on the transcendent rather than the mundane worries of our workaday existence. To that end, Beit Shamai attempts to remove a range of stressful stimuli from the Shabbat experience. Making arrangements for a child's future is fraught with all sorts of stress and, Beit Shamai contends, is best left for a weekday. The same thing applies to visiting the mourner or the sick.

But Beit Hillel, along with all of the latter halakhic tradition, disagrees. The communal character of Shabbat trumps these concerns. So long as one does not do any prohibited labor to make these arrangements or make these visits on Shabbat, they are permitted. These activities improve the quality of communal life, and this itself is one of the benefits we accrue from keeping Shabbat.

Questions

  1. What are some ways in which Shabbat is an individual spiritual discipline?
  2. What are some ways in which Shabbat is a communal practice?