Clothes Make the Man

By Chaim Saiman
Friday, December 7, 2012

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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