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Clothes Make the Man

Though the Talmud offers a near-endless supply of halakhic rules, its legal discussions are also a medium through which the Rabbis take up issues that we might understand as philosophical, political, or theological.  The recent daf yomi (or “daily page”) Shabbat 63 presents a compact example.  On the surface, the legal issue is nothing more profound than the technicalities of what can and cannot be transported on Shabbat.  Yet a careful reading shows that this is simultaneously an exploration of war, peace, and the nature of manhood.

The general rule is that one may not transport objects in public areas on Shabbat.  However, clothing and certain “adornments”—what we might call accessories—are permitted.  But what constitutes an adornment?  The Mishnah rules: “A man should not go out on Shabbat—not with a sword, nor a bow, nor a shield, nor a mace nor a spear.”  On the surface, it would seem that items of military gear are off-limits on Shabbat because they are carried rather than worn. 

But this ruling is disputed: “Rabbi Eliezer says, ‘They are an adornment for him.’”  His statement makes clear that the sword under discussion is not a sword carried for defense, which would be subject to different rules, but an accessory designed to project an image.  A trip to the art museum reminds us that kings and princes have long adorned themselves in military regalia to telegraph physical strength, military prowess and, ultimately, authority to rule.  The Mishnah may have had a Roman general in mind; in today’s world the analogue might be the Marine Guard’s ceremonial sword.  Rabbi Eliezer is saying that in a culture where weapons are deployed symbolically, they become part of a man’s dress uniform, an adornment that may be carried on Shabbat.

The Sages respond by changing the terms of the debate:  “But the Sages say, [swords] are but a disgrace, for the verse [Isaiah 2:4] says, ‘They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.’”  The Sages argue, in other words, that Rabbi Eliezer has employed the wrong standards.  Conventional society may consider the decorated warrior a respectable image of manhood; but in the long view of human history, the valorization of military power represented in the sartorial symbols of war will not adorn a man but disgrace him.

Thus, the Sages offer a critique of military valor from the perspective of Isaiah’s messianic future.  But why import this utopian standard into the decidedly compromised present?  The classical commentaries are largely silent on this issue, leaving the matter to interpretation.

One possibility is that the Sages are reacting to Rabbi Eliezer’s focus on the ornamental.  A functional sword is mere necessity, but a ceremonial sword makes a normative claim: the warrior is an ideal image of man. The Sages reject this image.  In their view, symbols should project true ideals; and the Jewish ideal is messianic, a state in which bearing a sword would look as foolish as “carrying a lamp in the broad daylight.” Thus, even in the present, military ornaments are more farcical than symbolic, more degrading than adorning.  That is why they are prohibited on Shabbat.

An alternate reading is that the Sages are echoing an idea, found elsewhere in the Talmud (and later emphasized by the Hasidic masters), of Shabbat as an aspirational time that peers into the messianic era.  The sword belongs to the six days of creation, reflecting the sub-optimal present; but Shabbat anticipates the Messiah.  Hence, the symbols of war have no place in the domain of Shabbat.   

Such is the debate in the Mishnah itself.  But the Talmud offers two understandings of what divides Rabbi Eliezer and the Sages.  The first proceeds along the lines just described: the Sages contend that Shabbat should reflect the messianic ideal of turning swords into plowshares, while Rabbi Eliezer holds that this all lies in the future.  In the present “era of war,” as Rashi renders it, the sword presents a legitimate image and may be carried on Shabbat as a warrior’s “adornment.”

The Talmud’s second version of the debate raises the stakes still further.  The question of what items can be carried on Shabbat is itself a question about the ends of human history: just what will the Messiah bring about?

In this reading, the Sages maintain that the Messiah will usher in an era of human perfection; but Rabbi Eliezer’s view is more minimalist.  Deuteronomy 15:11 teaches that “the poor will never cease to be in the land,” and “never” is interpreted to include the messianic era.  Poverty is inconsistent with perfection, because where there is poverty there will be war.  While the Messiah will bring about political restoration and religious redemption, there will be no perfection while human souls remain encased in bodies.  Thus, according to Rabbi Eliezer, so long as we remain human, strife is inevitable, and the sword a legitimate symbol.

The Talmud then returns to the image of manhood.  Is Rabbi Eliezer’s acceptance of the sword as an adornment a mere concession to the facts of power, or is it a reflection of an essential value?

Thus, the Talmud asks, “What is the reason of Rabbi Eliezer, who said, ‘It is an adornment for him?’  For it is written [in Psalm 45:3], ‘Gird your sword on your side, you mighty one, clothe yourself with splendor and majesty.’”  The psalm links the sword to splendor and majesty.  Thus, Rabbi Eliezer’s acceptance of the sword as an adornment is no mere concession; for him, the warrior embodies a legitimate ideal.

But, the Talmud continues, “Rabbi Kehana said to Mar the son of Rabbi Huna, ‘But this verse speaks of the words of Torah.’  He replied, ‘Nevertheless, the verse is never devoid of its plain meaning (ayn mikra yotzeh midei p’shuto).’”

The Bible may valorize military power, but the talmudic rabbis already live in anticipation of the Messiah. Talmudic men distinguish themselves not in physical battle but through the jousting of halakhic argumentation--what the Rabbis rather deliberately term “the battle of Torah.”  Hence, in Rabbi Kehana’s view, the psalm speaks metaphorically, not of a warrior but of a Torah scholar who, as Rashi explains, keeps halakhic arguments at his side ready for deployment in battle.  But the Talmud concludes otherwise: the verse must also retain its literal meaning.  Metaphors are compelling only if their objects of comparison ring true.

The issues addressed in this passage touch on some of the central themes of Western thought: the ideal of manhood, the tension between intellectual and physical prowess, poverty and politics, and the possibilities and limitations of human perfection.  But the Rabbis do not engage these questions through philosophy or theology; they do so through the specific regulations of halakhah.  What begins as debate over a niggling detail in the laws of Shabbat becomes a discussion of humankind’s ultimate destiny.  The reverse, however, is equally true: assessing the ideal man is forever tethered to the minute details of Shabbat observance.  The compelling, sometimes maddening genius of halakhah is that its analysis of human thought cannot be disaggregated from its regulation of human behavior.

Chaim Saiman is a professor of law at Villanova Law School.  He currently serves as the Gruss Visiting Professor of Talmudic Law at the U. Penn Law School, and the Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life at Princeton University.  His book, Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law will be published in the Library of Jewish Ideas by Princeton University Press and the Tikvah Fund.

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Mark on December 7, 2012 at 7:27 am (Reply)
It's an Marine Corps NCO sword it's only used on special occasions.You don't walk around with it on every day.I hope we all get shatnes checked as well
David Levavi on December 7, 2012 at 3:07 pm (Reply)
I will take rabbinical head-scratchers and chin-pullers seriously when they get their heads out of the clouds and and plant their feet firmly on the ground.

When my daughter wanted to apply for AFROTC I asked my ("Modern Orthodox") Rabbi about Sabbath restrictions. From my point of view, the war on Islamic Fascism is a milchemet mitzvah for which all Sabbath restrictions should be set aside.

Carrying was the Rabbi's main concern especially as my daughter was enrolled at Carnegie Mellon which was too holy to allow military recruiters or ROTC and my daughter had to carry her uniform (not allowed to be worn in public) to Pitt to join her squadron. The Rabbi grudgingly conceded that if my daughter carried her uniform in her backpack it could be construed as "wearing" rather than "carrying."

My Rabbi's tone and expression suggested that he didn't think it entirely proper that a religious Jewish girl should be so eager to serve in the military. My daughter, a mathematician then in her senior year at Stuyvesant High School had witnessed the attack on the WTC first-hand and was undeterred. She enrolled in AFROTC and, I'm proud to say, was shortly promoted to Deputy Squadron Commander.

The last time American Jews enthusiastically signed up for service in the American military was during the Spanish American War when Teddy Roosevelt booted the Spanish Crown and the Spanish Church from its last stronghold in America. American Jews participated in the Spanish American War in numbers far exceeding their proportion in the American population.

Jews of that generation served honorably at home as well. When Teddy Roosevelt, as New York Police Commissioner, was cleaning up the monstrously corrupt and almost exclusively Catholic police force, he openly and publicly called out to "Jews of the Maccabee type" to replace the Irish cops. Young Jews by the hundreds responded and joined up to patrol the streets of their city.

The fact that Jewish representation in the armed forces today is proportionately equal to participation in the military by Episcopalians is a disgrace. Islamists blather about "Crusaders" but even in their wildest fantasies don't dare hope for the utter annihilation of all Christians. And after the three day standown of the NYPD under David Dinkins and Bill Clinton during the Crown Heights rioting, when the Jewish population of Crown Heights was reduced to cowering in their homes without protection, any Jew who imagines he can rely on Irish and African American cops for his and his family's protection is delusional. New York cops can no more be relied on to protect Jews from African Americans than French cops can be relied on to protect Jews from attack by Muslims.

The ordinary American Jew, unlike his Israeli cousins, doesn't know one end of a pistol or a rifle from another. His experience of fighting is nil. His ignorance of the most basic martial skills reduces American Jewry to sheep ripe for slaughter.

The best and most honorable way for a young Jew to learn how defend himself and his community is by putting on a uniform serving in the armed forces. Putting off college until after a tour of duty in the military is the healthiest thing any young Jew can do--guaranteed to improve his character and make him both a better Jew and a better citizen. Delaying college until after military service also makes for a more mature, more focused college student, far more clear in his mind about why he is in school and what he plans to do with his life.

Rabbis whose only use for a sword is as a debating point to determine what may or may not be be carried on the Sabbath are not fit to lead the American Jewish congregation. This sixty-six year-old American Jew awaits the appearance of a respected orthodox Rabbi who will publicly and forcefully set aside all Sabbath restrictions and urge, indeed halachically require, young American Jews to honorably serve their nation and their people.
    Andrewson on December 9, 2012 at 9:22 pm (Reply)
    The malaise you speak of is not entirely or uniquely Jewish, David. My kinfolk over the sea, once bellicose highlanders who knew how to defend kith and kin and took no insult without drawing the dirk are now civilized "Europeans" or worse, "world citizens." Good Lord. Their chief concern is "social justice," and who excel in veganism and French wines rather than cattle raid roasts and rough brew. 'Tis the times, me friend; let your heart swell with pride and be happy you're blessed with such an admirable daughter.
stoney on December 9, 2012 at 11:16 am (Reply)
On the eighth day G-d created Marines!

Besides by law only a Marine may wear the sword as prescribed by MCO P1020.34.

Considering Human Behavior.... Chaim should ponder the sound of rockets hitting Sderot vice the symbolism of the few and the proud - Semper Fi !!
Samson on December 9, 2012 at 11:53 pm (Reply)
Chaim, Does your intepretation of this alleged repulsion to military symbolism include the Israel Defense Forces? Almost all of their symbols include swords!!!! I served 30 years in the Marine Corps and was proud to serve, just as my father did in World War II. You clearly have an anti-military slant to your article. You are very fortunate that there are, and have been, those of us in the Jewish community and the American and Israeli communities at large, who step forward to protect our freedom and our very existance, if not, you probably would not be alive - did you think of that?
To David Levavi - you are right on the mark 100%, except the assumption that not many Jews are serving now. Please know that there are many, although they are not in the news often, and many are not "religious" and may not list their religion as Jewish, therefore do not get included in statistics; but as we know, ethnic Jews who are not religious are still Jews none-the-less. They are the "silent sentinels" and heroes, you may not hear of them but they are certainly there. Please extend our thanks to your daughter for her service to our country! And thank you for supporting her in her important, courageous and patriotic endeavor. Also, please visit the Aleph Institute website - there you will see an Orthodox Jewish organization (led by Rabbis) who are extremely supportive of our US Troops.
And to Mark and Stoney, thank you for your insightful comments and thank you for your service to our country and especially the Marine Corps! Semper Fi, Samson
David C on January 23, 2013 at 11:51 pm (Reply)
"The last time American Jews enthusiastically signed up for service in the American military was during the Spanish American War when Teddy Roosevelt booted the Spanish Crown and the Spanish Church from its last stronghold in America. "
I disagree with the blast statement in that Jews were proud to serve in World War II, the fight against the Nazi's and Imperial Japan. Two of my uncles served in that war and another Uncle served during the late 50's early 60's in Germany.

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