Sunday, March 20, 2016

Hidary, 'One May Come to Repair Musical Instruments'

Richard Hidary, 'One May Come to Repair Musical Instruments': Rabbinic Authority and the History of the Shevut Laws

mBets 5:2 lists a series of activities prohibited on the Sabbath under the category of shevut (rest) laws because they are not conducive to the restful Sabbath atmosphere. Second Temple sources already proscribe some of these activities, and tannaitic sources consider them prohibited by biblical mandate. The Bavli, however, reinterprets these laws as rabbinically-enacted safeguards (gezerot) lest one come to violate a biblical law. For example, bBets 36b teaches that one may not swim on the Sabbath lest one come to make a flotation device, and one may not clap lest one come to fix a musical instrument. As the strangeness of these seemingly far-fetched worries suggests, and as earlier sectarian and rabbinic sources confirm, the Bavli’s explanations are not the original reasons for these laws. This prompts us to wonder why the Bavli demoted them to the status of rabbinic laws and resorted to such circuitous reasoning to explain their prohibition. This analysis will help explain the Bavli’s curious explanations for the shevut laws, and also serve as a case study for understanding some of the motivations and mechanisms of rabbinic legislation and interpretation. This example will also shed light on how the rabbis succeeded in imbuing the rabbinic legal system in general with authoritative status.