Refining Rules - Shabbat 40
People used to bathe with water warmed just before Shabbat, and then they started bathing with water warmed on Shabbat while claiming it had been warmed just before. So the rabbis banned the use of warm water for Shabbat bathing entirely, but allowed people to use steam baths instead. But they kept bathing in warm water and claiming that they were just sweating! So then the rabbis banned sweating but still allowed the use of the hot springs in Tiberias. Of course, people kept using water heated on Shabbat and claiming they went to Tiberias! The rabbis then tried to ban the Tiberias hot springs, but “they saw this rule would not stand for them” (i.e. the people wouldn’t or couldn’t be that strict), so they allowed the hot springs but kept the ban on sweating. Anyone who has tried to refine house rules with children knows this kind of a dialogue!
No wonder the very next saying is that one who violates a rabbinic commandment can be called a “transgressor” [Aramaic avreina]! And one can imagine that Talmudic rabbis wanted to avoid such a title as much as possible. So what to do if someone is about to commit a violation in a place like a bathhouse or outhouse, where for Rabbi Jokhanan human nudity forbids speaking of Torah and divine law? Two anecdotes of Rabbis teaching lessons in bathhouses would seem to contradict this rule, and claiming those rabbis spoke in “secular language” [lashon khol] rather than Hebrew [lashon kodesh – literally “holy tongue”] doesn’t apply since according to Abaye one may speak of secular matters in holy language, but not of holy matters in secular language (thus this entire blog would be treyfe [forbidden]!). The answer is that one may teach a Torah lesson even in a bathhouse if it is to stop someone from a transgression [aveira]. While we today may disagree on what constitutes a “transgression” worth correcting another about, we can agree that violating social norms may be necessary to prevent someone from doing wrong. Children certainly, but even adults can use and should be willing to accept gently-offered words of advice.
Rabbi Adam Chalom