The “Duh! Moments” in the Talmud

One of my student pulpits was in Kauneonga Lake, NY, in the Catskills. From July 4th weekend through Labor Day, the bungalow communities, hotels and communities come alive as many Orthodox Jews from the city come up to spend the summer in the fresh air.

A weekly newspaper runs a full page ad for Hatzola, the Jewish amublance corps, with phone numbers and instructions. One of the instructions is that if you call at night, you should “send someone to the bottom of the driveway of your bungalow colony with a flashlight even on Shabbos,” to direct the ambulance.

This past Sunday, in Talmud tractate Shabbat, page 128b, there was a discussion of the permissibility of assisting a woman in childbirth on Shabbat. The discussion contains one of my favorite Talmudic responses–Peshita!–which is literally translated as “obviously, why would you even need to mention this?” but I translate simply as “Duh!”.

The Mishnah tells us that “one may assist a woman giving birth on Shabbat, and call a midwife for her to travel from place to place…and one may desecrate Shabbat for a woman giving birth.” The question is then asked, What does [the statement about desecrating shabbat] come to include? These things have already been mentioned elsewhere.

The answer is that “one may light a lamp.”

Peshita! Duh! We already know this, why would you even need to mention it?

Ma hu d’taima: (literally, it might come to your head) You might think… in this case, what if the woman giving birth is blind and can’t make use of the light? If someone is helping her, it will settle her mind to know that the helper has light by which to see. In other words, we attend to someone’s emotional and mental health as well as their physical well-being.

Ka mashma lan: Learn from this, that there’s a reason it needed to be stated.

When I saw the ad in the Catskills newspaper, reminding people to bring a flashlight even on Shabbos, my first reaction was, Peshita! Of course, we know this! But if there’s a streetlight, why would I need a flashlight? Based on the Talmud’s discussion, the flashlight isn’t for the person directing the ambulance, it’s for the people in the ambulance so they can focus on the task at hand, which is getting to the ill or injured person. Ka mashma lan.

Pikuach nefesh–the preservation of life and health, is such an important mitzvah (commandment) in Judaism that if someone’s life or health is in danger, or appears to be, one may ( I would say must) desecrate Shabbat in order to take care of that person.

All the more so, in our everyday lives we need to be mindful of preserving life and health, ours and that of others, especially during this COVID pandemic. Follow the guidelines that our health and science professionals are recommending, and don’t rely on God to produce a miracle.

My health–and yours–depend on it.




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