י״ז במרחשון ה׳תשע״ג (November 2, 2012)

Shabbat 30a-b: Desecrating Shabbat on Behalf of the Sick

On yesterday’s daf the Mishna taught that someone who extinguishes a fire so that someone who is ill will be able to sleep will not be held liable for desecrating. This ruling is discussed in detail on today’s daf.

This question was asked before Rabbi Tanḥum from the village of Nevi: What is the ruling with regard to extinguishing a burning lamp before a sick person on?

The Gemara relates that Rabbi Tanḥum delivered a lengthy homily touching upon both aggadic and halakhic materials surrounding this question. Ultimately the Gemara concludes with Rabbi Tanḥum’s ruling:

A lamp is called ner and a person’s soul is also called ner, as it is written: “The spirit of man is the lamp [ner] of the Lord” (Mishlei 20:27). It is preferable that the lamp of a being of flesh and blood, an actual lamp, will be extinguished in favor of the lamp of the Holy One, Blessed be He, a person’s soul. Therefore, one is permitted to extinguish a flame for the sake of a sick person.

According to the Gemara in Massekhet Yoma (85b), the halakha that requires one to perform prohibited labors on Shabbat in order to save human life is not based on this homily. The actual source is the verse that states that the mitzvot of the Torah were given so that one should “live by them” (Vayikra 18:4–5), from which it is inferred that, as a rule, one is not commanded to give his life in order to fulfill a positive mitzva or to avoid violating a prohibition. Since this teaching was presented before an unlearned crowd, it was expounded in a manner that would appeal to a wide audience.

This style of teaching, which opens with a halakhic question and proceeds to deal extensively with aggada and ethical teachings, only to conclude with a halakha, is typical of the teachings of beginning with the generation of Rabbi Tanḥum. Here, the Gemara presents a complete homiletic interpretation of a Sage with all the external trappings. This style was especially common in Eretz Yisrael and in the aggadic Midrash Yelamdenu, as well as Midrash Tanḥuma, which is attributed to Rabbi Tanḥum. In those two anthologies of midrash, the halakhic question opens with the words: Teach us, our Rabbi [yelamdenu rabbeinu], switches to an aggadic discussion, and ultimately returns to a halakhic conclusion. The She’iltot of Rav Aḥai Gaon was also influenced by this style of presentation. This tradition was also preserved in the teachings of the Sages in many Jewish communities.

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