Shabbat 75 – The Limits of Learning
There is a difference of opinion between Rav and Shmuel as to whether magushta [“magianism” or Persian astrology] are sorcery or blasphemy, but in either case it is clearly strictly prohibited to learn from them. In some ways, this was Rabbinic stargazing’s loss, since Mesopotamian and Persian astronomers had many centuries of celestial observation experience and expertise from which Rabbinic calculations could have benefited. In Rabbinic theology, “magic” and “miracle” were very different animals: one was permitted and divinely-authorized supernatural power, and the other was forbidden. Our English words “magic” and “magician” come from the Persian magus via Greek (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magi) – so learning their star patterns, even if intended to better calculate the Jewish calendar, violated this boundary. From our perspective, however, they were two sides of the same coin.
The other limit on learning described here is a brief elaboration on the Shabbat prohibition on “writing two letters.” I personally find learning much more effective if I can take notes – even if I never look at the notes again, the act of writing fixes the information better in my brain. But such a learning style would be restricted on Shabbat – though it is comforting to know that someone writing one letter large enough to cover the space for 2 letters is not liable. However, if someone erases one letter to create enough space to write 2 (even without actually writing them), he is liable. So for the Talmud it’s not only what you learn, but how you learn it when learning happens at sacred times.
Rabbi Adam Chalom