Monday, 24 March 2014

Sukka 50 a, b

Were snakes a common danger in Talmudic times?  The rabbis are concerned about water that has been consecrated for use as a libation.  That water is not to be left overnight.  The rabbis wonder about straining the water if it is left for a time uncovered; they ask whether the water can be left if it is covered.  The example used to discuss these possibilities is a snake's venom.  It is noted that venom in water will sink or disperse, while venom in wine will rise to the surface.  Did snakes frequently slither around at night, leaving their venom in vessels of wine or water?  If this is even a possibility, I am reminded at how different peoples' fears must have been at that time. Rather than being bitten by mosquitoes, my ancestors were fearful of snake bites and lurking venom.  Truly terrifying fears.

We begin Perek V with a short Mishna: the flute of the Drawing of the Water (from Siloam) was played for five or six days, depending on when Shabbat fell.  Playing the flute did not override Shabbat nor the Festival.  Steinsaltz teaches us in a note that instruments are not played on Shabbat both because they do not promote the restful environment of the day and because instruments can break and might be fixed on the day of rest.  Additionally he teaches us that flutes were the most significant instruments of this time, either because of their volume in the Temple or because they carried the tune of the Priests.  Music was only part of the sacred service.

The Gemara wonders: what is the primary essence of song? Singing through the mouth? or playing a tune with instruments?  Perhaps the essence of song is singing accompanied by instruments.  The Levites sang through their daily offering.  We are told that only a song that is part of the Temple service would override Shabbat.  The rabbis consider whether the flute, a wooden vessel, is fit or not fit.  We learn that Moses' flute was made with a reed, and wood was chosen as the appropriate vessel for a flute because it allowed for the most pleasant sound.  Other instruments were allowed to be played in the Temple, we are told in a note.

The rabbis move from this conversation about music and musical instruments into one regarding the construction of another item, the menorah.  The rabbis are demonstrating the differences among two hermeneutical principles.  The first is generalizations and details and the second is amplifications and restrictions.  If general statements are generalizations and not amplifications, then the rabbi arguing his point will create logical categories and will use details - specific examples - to prove his point.  If general statements are amplification, however, the rabbi arguing his point will say that the general statement can be applied to many other situations - amplifying the statement - and that the restrictions - specific examples - are used only to limit the generalization.  Thus amplifications are more inclusive tools.

Using these hermeneutical principles, the rabbis continue to discuss the candelabra and the significance of its construction.  

One of my favourite parts of learning Daf Yomi is when I have the opportunity to better understand the hermeneutical principles employed by the rabbis.  Those larger systems of thought and argument are so necessary in understanding the context in which this learning is situated.

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