Ingenuity and Compromise - Shabbat 39
In this case, the issue is how the hot springs are heated. One side says that the hot springs are made hot by the sun, while another claims that they are made hot by passing over the entrance to Gehinam (commonly pronounced Gehenna, the Rabbinic word for Hell) – thus heated by fire! Note that, contrary to contemporary liberal Jewish presentations, Jewish tradition does in fact include an afterlife with a burning Hell for the condemned. In the end, the Tiberians enjoy a pyrrhic victory: Ulla says that the halakha [rabbinic law] agrees with them, but Rabbi Nakhman reminds him that the Tiberians themselves broke the pipe a long time ago to avoid the controversy, and thus the entire discussion is moot. Moot in the particulars of Tiberias, of course, but not in rabbinic thought for parallel or comparative cases.
More interesting for those who have chosen to not be bound by Shabbat restrictions is a general approach of rabbinic debate cited at the end of Shabbat 39b – "Every place you find two disputing and an additional one compromising, the halakha is as the words of the compromiser." We have seen how far the Talmud goes to harmonize disagreeing positions, and again we see the value of compromise and agreement. Many Jewish communal institutions continue to run subconsciously on this kind of principle, seeking compromise that is generally acceptable by consensus rather than ramming through by majority vote what is deeply disagreeable to a minority. This lesson, unfortunately, needs to be learned and relearned in every generation.
Rabbi Adam Chalom