Shabbat and the Noahide, part III: Rashi

In the last installment in this series, we looked at the passage in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin, page 58B.

In this installment, we will:

  • briefly review the Talmudic passage
  • examine Rashi’s comments on this passage
  • compare Rashi’s comments here with his commentary on the Torah
  • examine an alternative version of the Talmudic passage referenced by Rashi
  • discuss whether the variations in the Talmudic text depend upon the divergent understandings of Gen. 8:22 introduced in part I

(WARNING: The following analysis is complicated, so, as we say in yeshiva, “Hold on to your hat!”)

As it is brief, let us examine the Talmudic passage again, since we will shortly look at the classic commentaries on that passage:

אר”ל עובד כוכבים ששבת חייב מיתה שנא’ (בראשית ח, כב) ויום ולילה לא ישבותו ואמר מר אזהרה שלהן זו היא מיתתן אמר רבינא אפי’ שני בשבת

Resh Lakish said: A gentile that observes a sabbath (lit. ‘that ceased’) is liable to death, as it says: ‘And day and night they shall not cease’ (Genesis 8:22), and the master said: their prohibition is their liability to death. Ravina said: even [if he observed a sabbath] on Monday.

For our analysis of this passage, refer to the previous post.

Now let’s examine the foremost commentator on the Talmud, Rashi. Clarification of Rashi’s remarks will follow:

עובד כוכבי’ ששבת – ממלאכתו יום שלם חייב מיתה שנא’ יום ולילה לא ישבותו וקא דריש ליה לא ישבותו ממלאכה דאבני אדם נמי קאי ולא תימא לא ישבותו אהך ששת עתים דקרא קאי כלומר לא יבטלו ולא יפסקו מלהיות

‘A gentile that observed a sabbath’ — [i.e. that ceased] from his work for a full day — ‘is liable to death, as it says, ‘day and night they shall not cease.’ [Resh Lakish] expounds this [verse to mean] ‘they should not cease from work,’ referring also to mankind. [In other words,] do not say that ‘they shall not cease’ refers [only] to the six time periods mentioned in the verse, i.e. that they will not be nullified and they will not cease to be.

The first thing to note is that Rashi, consistent with what we’ve said before, explains that the ‘sabbath’ referred to here means a cessation from ‘his work,’ i.e. the regular labor of the person, not the specific forms of creative labor specified in Jewish law regarding observance of Shabbat. This conforms perfectly to what we explained previously, that the prohibition against a cessation of work is not related to Shabbat as the Seventh Day observance of the Almighty’s “day of rest,” but rather concerns man not being idle so as not to come to sin. Man must not cease for a full day cycle — “day and night” — from his normal labor.

The other important point in Rashi is that he presents his understanding of the plain meaning of Genesis 8:22, one that conforms to his commentary directly on that verse (as mentioned in the first installment in this series). Since it is relevant to Rashi’s comments here, let us again examine Gen. 8:22 again:

עֹ֖ד כָּל־יְמֵ֣י הָאָ֑רֶץ זֶ֡רַע וְ֠קָצִיר וְקֹ֨ר וָחֹ֜ם וְקַ֧יִץ וָחֹ֛רֶף וְי֥וֹם וָלַ֖יְלָה לֹ֥א יִשְׁבֹּֽתוּ׃

So long as the earth endures, Seedtime and harvest, Cold and heat, Summer and winter, Day and night Shall not cease.

And Rashi’s comments there on the words לא ישבתו (lo yishbotu):

לא ישבתו לֹא יִפְסְקוּ כָּל אֵלֶה מִלְּהִתְנַהֵג כְּסִדְרָן

SHALL NOT CEASE — None of these shall cease to take their natural course.

Rashi’s comments on the Torah reveal that in his opinion, the plain meaning of the verse is that the time periods mentioned in the verse — seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night — will not cease, from this time forward, to follow their natural course.

Now let’s compare that to what Rashi says on the above Talmudic passage. Rashi points out that in Resh Lakish’s view, there is another, less intuitive reading of the verse. Rashi says “קא דריש ליה” — ka darish leh — “he (Resh Lakish) expounded.” The word darish (“expounded”) literally means “seek” or “search,” and refers to a deeper textual meaning, one that must be teased out of the text. This is in contrast to what is called peshat, or the “plain meaning.” So Rashi’s position is that the plain meaning is like his commentary on the Torah, that “they shall not cease” refers to the time periods in the verse, but an additional, deeper meaning, stated by Resh Lakish, is that “they shall not cease” refers to man.

An Alternative Text

In his next remark, Rashi emphasizes further that the plain meaning does not refer to mankind. Rashi references an alternative version of this Talmudic passage with a difference of one word — the word פשיטא (peshita — “This is obvous!”) — appears between the statement of the Resh Lakish and the statement of Ravina. How does this change the meaning of the passage? Quite a bit, as Rashi will point out.

Typically, “peshita” (“This is obvious!”) comes to challenge the preceding statement. The nature of the challenge can be paraphrased like this: “That statement is so obvious as not to require saying, so what new information does it add?” The assumption is that any statement recorded in the Oral Law bears necessary information. If the information appears superfluous or extraneous, this is a problem worthy of the challenge: “Peshita!”

In this context, the challenge of “peshita” would mean: “The teaching of Resh Lakish, that a gentile is prohibited, based on Gen. 8:22, to observe the Sabbath, is obvious! After all, the verse states openly, ‘They shall not cease’! What new information, then, does Resh Lakish convey?”

The statement of Ravina, then, serves as an answer to this question. “Ravina said: even [if he observed a sabbath] on Monday.” In other words, the novel point of Resh Lakish’s statement is not that a gentile may not observe the Sabbath. That is already obvious from the plain wording. The novel point is that the gentile is prohibited to observe a day of rest on any day of the week, not only the seventh day.

Rashi objects to this version of the Talmudic passage:

פשיטא לא גרסי’ דהא טובא קמ”ל דאבני אדם קאי

We do not follow the text that reads, “This is obvious.” On the contrary, [the statement of Resh Lakish] is very novel, teaching us that [Gen. 8:22] refers to mankind.

According to Rashi, the challenge of peshita (“This is obvious!”) is inappropriate here, since Resh Lakish’s statement, even without Ravina’s clarification that it applies to any day of the week, is not obvious at all. Since the “obvious” reading of Gen. 8:22 is that lo yishbotu (“they shall not rest”) refers to the time periods, it is extremely novel to contend that it refers to mankind. Rashi, therefore, rejects this version of the text and advocates for the version that does not include the word peshita.

Rashi’s commentary on the Talmud here is consistent with his commentary on the Torah.

The Other Opinions

However, in the first installment in this series we saw a number of commentators that understood the plain meaning of Gen. 8:22 to conform to the statement of Resh Lakish in the Talmud. The Malbim even referenced the Sages’ prohibition against a gentile observing a sabbath in his commentary to that verse.

So it may be that the variants in the texts of the Talmud referenced by Rashi depend upon these divergent views of Gen. 8:22. In other words, while Rashi rejects the version including the word peshita, perhaps those who understand the plain meaning of Gen. 8:22 differently than Rashi would prefer the word peshita remain.

Either way, however, the end result appears to be the same — a non-Jew may not observe a full day of rest on any day of the week. Is whether that prohibition is derived from the plain meaning of the verse or through a deeper “derash” method relevant to any legal ramifications? We shall see as we continue to explore this topic.

Next up, another classic commentary on the Talmud, Rabbi Shmuel Eidels, aka the Maharsha!

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2 thoughts on “Shabbat and the Noahide, part III: Rashi

  1. So the sages are saying that a Sabbath for rest is a gift only to the Jews? What will the Goyim say?! Does this mean that Gentiles are forbidden to take a vacation? If I see a Gentile tourist, is he worthy of death? Or does this mean that only a regular, weekly day of “cessation” is prohibited, but not a vacation day? What is the status, then, of pagan “holidays” such as Xmas or Easter?

    1. “So the safe are saying that a Sabbath for rest is a gift only to the Jews?” While this is essentially the thrust of the sources we have seen, to pin this “novelty” on the Sages may be misplaced. Hopefully, this study will demonstrate that this position is well rooted in Scripture. True, this idea may not be a popular one, but the question is whether or not it is RIGHT. As for exact application, stay tuned as we continue to explore this topic. Whether a gentile tourist is worthy of death has little to do with whether or not you see him. But let me put you at ease that this Talmudic passage does NOT mean we should carry out such a sentence. Again, for more on that, stay tuned. The penalty is less the point to focus on than the question of permitted or not so.

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