Shabbos 81   Toilet paper shortages 

One of the most challenging aspects of Gemora study today is being able to step into the environment in which Chazal lived – the agricultural and pre medieval jargon often feels irrelevant to us and makes it harder to internalize the timeless laws and values that they teach us.

As hard as it is to identify with an ox goring a cow, or share cropping, it is even harder to identify with areas of halacha that seem to assume an extremely primitive lifestyle .

For example, so much Talmudic discussion assumes that nighttime was a time without good lighting, and unsuitable for many activities, and candlelight was often an unreliable  luxury. 

When the Gemara (Brachos 2) assumes that poor people eat dinner early, due to not being able to afford candles to eat by, or discusses what to do when the candles go out during the Shabbos meal ( Pesachim 101a ) , it is kind of hard to identify in an era where electric light is taken for granted in all but the most undeveloped regions .

Yet sometimes, Hashem puts us in situations, where we suddenly able to identify with the sugya- the regular power outages in today’s South Africa, for example, which seem to love shabbos evening in particular, or those experienced even in modern New York in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy , suddenly showed us how we cannot and shouldn’t take it for granted – I am not saying this was Hashem’s reason, chalila, but there is no doubt that we are expected to learn whatever logical lessons we can from situations he puts us in .

One of the ” lighter”  though still depressing  moments during the horror of the Corona outbreak was the pictures of shoppers from Australia to Israel hoarding toilet paper, often leaving the shelves bare .

The prospect of running short of such an essential commodity in modern times in a modern country was incomprehensible prior to this pandemic, but we soon realised that nothing is to be taken for granted .

The truth is that for most of our history, toilet paper of the modern kind did not exist, and we seem to have managed just fine.

In fact , until recently, having one’s own built in toilet in the house was not the norm, and people used to set aside a demarcated area as an ablution spot, sometimes in ones courtyard and sometimes out in the fields .

This was often fraught with embarrassment and sometimes danger, and we were faced with all kinds of questions  regarding davening near a “toilet”, where to leave one’s Tefillin ( which people wore all day), how to ensure modesty, protect against the many demons that were believed to hang out in such places, and of course, on our daf, how to use one on Shabbos.

Finding a suitable toilet was often such a challenge , that in searching for the meaning of the biblical phrase “לעת מצא” – a Eureka moment , one of the Amoraim applies it to the moment one finds a suitable toilet  (Brachos 8a) – something hard to appreciate today, but that those of us who have spent hours on safari or driving through India, can certainly identify with more easily .

On our daf, there is a halachik discussion as to how to carry stones on shabbos required for use as “toilet paper.”

In the absence of that most essential of household commodities, the norm was indeed to use a stone, or perhaps a reed, for cleaning oneself .

Although such a discussion might have seemed mundane or even comical to us “moderns”, it is incredible how this suddenly seems more understandable after the events of this year.

Issues discussed include how to carry  below the minimum amount required to become liable for punishment , how to avoid the concern of tearing out grass, how to bypass the problem of Muktza, and of course the very important factor of כבוד הבריות ( human dignity ) and how it can push aside rabbinical prohibitions 

We daven that we shall merit to appreciate the daily things we take for granted, as well as  the wisdom of every word of the Torah, without having to be put in difficult and unimaginable circumstances chalila in order to do so!

Shabbos 80 Remembering the Temple and leaving the wall unplastered 

In our Mishna, we are told that the minimum quantity of thick sand that one is liable for transporting on shabbos is the amount needed to put on top of a trowel filled with plaster (and mix with it) to strengthen it before use in building .

The Gemara suggests that this Mishna must be the opinion of Rabbi Yehuda who holds that sand indeed does strengthen plaster. ( otherwise this would not be considered something of importance to be considered a punishable act .)

This view is reflected in a Beraisa which says that one is not permitted to plaster his house, as a sign of mourning for the Temple, unless one mixes the plaster with straw or sand to make it less effective  .

Rabbi Yehuda holds that it is forbidden  even if one mixes it with sand, as sand strengthens it .

The Gemara refutes this suggestion and says that it is possible that even the Chachamim who argue with Rabbi Yehuda would accept the ruling in the Mishna, as the act of weakening the plaster is considering for its benefit so that it can be used for plastering one’s home.

It follows from this discussion that everyone agrees that there is a prohibition against plastering one’s house  even during the week without adding something to the cement that weakens it , and this prohibition was made in order to make us remember that we are in a constant state of mourning for the destroyed Temple , שיבנה במהרה וימינו .

The truth is that this prohibition is also brought in Bava Basra 60b,  and there  is a different Beraisa that is also brought  there that says that plastering the house is only permitted if one leaves a square of 1 armlength  unplastered.

We need to clarify whether this is a second condition, both of which are required , or whether anyone of the two is sufficient. A third option is that the authors of the two statements actually disagree with each other, and only one of the two conditions would work at all.

This is also part of a list of decrees that Chazal made after the destruction for the same reason , including refraining from serving one dish at a meal, putting ash on the head of a חתן (groom), leaving out a stone from women’s jewelry  , and based on Sotah 48a and Gittin 7a,  refraining from playing musical instruments (a topic for another post, Hashem willing .)

Although the custom to break a glass at a wedding might be a derivative of these customs, and there are some pious people in Yerushalayim  in particular that do indeed have unplastered squares in their homes, it does not seem to be common practise to follow all these things, and given that these are based on explicit rulings in the Talmud, this requires some serious explanation.

One possibility is that these decrees never actually caught on and were not accepted by the majority of Jews at the time, due to their being too harsh.

Although this might seem surprising, the Rambam does in fact rule (Mamrim 2/6-7) that if Chazal make a decree and it is not accepted by the majority of the people at the time, it is null and void!

He even rules further than even it appears to have caught but a later court din finds that this is not so, they may annul it, even if they of lesser stature than the court that enacted it .

However , we see  from our daf ( and the sugyas in Bava Basra and Sotah ) that this rule was discussed many years later by the Amoraim of the Gemora, and no mention is made of the possibility  that it didn’t catch on.

It is clear from the same  Rambam (Mamrim 2/2)  that once a decree was accepted , the decree remains in force and cannot be annulled ( though see Kesef Mishna there who toys with the idea that if the decree indeed was later dropped by the people because they could not  handle it, it may also be annullable- he rejects the idea mainly because of a Rashi that implies otherwise , itself an interesting point regarding his methodology .) 

Furthermore, the Rambam himself brings this rule, together with the others ( Taaniyos 5/12) and rules that it is only permitted if one leaves a square Ama unplastered – he doesn’t seem to clearly mention the heter of mixing the plaster with sand or straw ( why this is so requires an analysis  of the sugya and Rambam outside the scope of a daf post, but see the נוסעי כלים on the Rambam for a detailed discussion about this, or  preferably try work it out yourself first!)

However, he does make it clear, based on the Gemora, that if one buys a house already plastered , there is no need to remove a square Ama’s worth  of the plaster .

As most of our houses are bought already plastered, this could explain why we do not see these unplastered squares in most people’s homes.

However , it seems that if one builds a home from scratch, as people certainly do still do, one would be required to leave the square unplastered, as per the Gemara and the Rambam.

Yet many religious people do not seem to do this either, and many or all of the other decrees mentioned in the Gemara AND brought by the Rambam also do not seem to be  universal normative practise .

This is even more bizarre given that these laws are brought by the Tur and Shulchan Aruch as well( O.C 560.)

Although discussed by various Poskim, including the Chayei Adam, Mishna Berura  and the Tzitz Eliezer regarding music (15/33) , I am not aware of any halachically convincing explanation for this .