There is a famous Jewish joke that looks something like this: On a Shabbat morning during morning prayers in the synagogue, Yankel whispers to his friend Mendel:Nisht Shabbes Geret (not to mention Shabbat, but) I’m selling my car. “Mendel asks:”Nisht Shabbes Gerethow much? “Yankel answers:”Nisht Shabbes Geret$ 3000. “Mendel whispers back:”Nisht Shabbes Geret“Let me think about it.” Later the men meet again at the Mincha service (in the afternoon). Mendel nudges Yankel and whispers: “Nisht Shabbes GeretI have thought about it and will take the car. “Yankel shakes his head.Nisht Shabbes GeretI sold it at Kiddusch! “
This joke tickles our funny bones because Yankel and Mendel clearly know they are doing something wrong by talking about Shabbat business, but they decide that if they add the “magic” restriction “Nisht Shabbes GeretIt is as if they are not really crossing the Sabbath.
The ban on discussing business that Yankel and Mendel want to undermine is part of today’s conversation. The rabbis are debating what can be discussed on the Sabbath. The Mishna begins:
A person is not allowed to hire workers on Shabbat to work for them after Shabbat, since it is even forbidden to talk about weekday matters on Shabbat.
Since it is forbidden to talk about regular business on the Shabbat, this Mishna states that no workers can be hired on the Shabbat, even if they only start their work after the Shabbat ends.
In the Gemara, the rabbis examine the parameters of exceeding the ban on hiring a worker on Shabbat. Rav Ashi says:
You cannot explicitly say to another on Shabbat: Hire workers for me, but you can say to another: does it seem that you will come to me tonight? This is permissible, although both understand that the questioner intends to hire the other person to work for him.
According to Rav Ashi, it is the specificity of one’s own language that makes the difference between crossing the Sabbath and not crossing the Sabbath. Even if you do not hire workers for yourself on Shabbat, but ask someone else to do the hiring, such a speech on Shabbat is still prohibited. However, using a vague language – even if the subtext is clear – does not violate the Sabbath.
But the rabbis have to teach us more than just mimicking Yankel and Mendel’s artful evasion from the laws of Shabbat. They point to an important lesson: Our speech has the ability to influence our way of thinking. The more precisely we talk about the business on Shabbat, the more our thoughts can actually deal with this business, which leads us to lose our focus on the holiness of Shabbat. If we pay attention to our language, we can stay in a special moment and appreciate the here and now instead of allowing our focus to go elsewhere.
This piece originally appeared in one My Jewish learning Email newsletter from Daf Yomi, sent on August 3, 2020. To receive the newsletter, sign up here.
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