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Do people exert themselves or not? Do they go above and beyond?

(images courtesy聽of

After weeks of discussing walls, pits, courtyards and alleys, a small debate in the middle of pages 96b and 97a caught my attention.聽 My interest in weaving and dyeing drew me to this side discussion about strips of Tekhelet found in the marketplace and whether they could be used for tzitzit.聽聽 Rabbi Elazar states, if one finds strips of Tekhelet in the marketplace, one may not use them for tzitzit (because this requires specific intent) but if one finds threads, they are fit.聽 The Gemara puts the bar even higher stating that the threads must be spun and twisted in a way that is suitable for tzitzit, and only then can it be assumed that they were created for this purpose. 聽This discussion connects with the earlier question of whether someone would go to the trouble to make amulets that look exactly like tefillin.

诪专 住讘专 讟专讞 讗讬谞讬砖 讜诪专 住讘专 诇讗 讟专讞 讗讬谞讬砖

The Koren Steinsaltz Talmud interprets this line as: 鈥淎pparently,聽one聽Sage,聽Rabbi Yehuda,聽holds聽that聽a person exerts聽himself to fashion an amulet that looks like phylacteries,聽and聽one聽Sage,聽Rabbi Meir,聽holds聽that聽a person does not exert聽himself for this purpose, and therefore something that has the appearance of phylacteries must be phylacteries.鈥

This is a Tannaitic dispute about whether or not people exert themselves to fashion difficult items such as tefillin and Tekhelet if they are not going to be used for those specific ritual purposes. 聽As someone who has studied the Tekhelet dyeing process, and has watched the process of making kosher tefillin, 聽I can understand Rabbi Meir鈥檚 position. 聽It鈥檚 an incredible amount of work. 聽But Rabbi Yehuda disagrees.聽 He says people might exert themselves. 聽They might make special efforts even for non-ritual items like a beautiful cloak. 聽By the way, this is not the only place that the Gemara uses the expression 鈥渁 person exerts himself鈥 or 鈥渁 person does not exert himself.鈥澛犅 I found several examples in other tractates where the rabbis are trying to dissect and predict human behavior.

I think this is a very interesting insight into the rabbis鈥 view of human nature. 聽Are humans uniform, predictable creatures who are programmed to survive by doing what is necessary, and no more? 聽Or are humans capable of creating incredible things, whether it is art or music, a scientific theory, or a discovery that changes the world? 聽Do they sometimes go way above and beyond for their families, friends and communities, fellow soldiers, or perfect strangers?

In truth, we see both sides of humanity, especially in times of crisis.聽 We鈥檝e seen people who just don鈥檛 want to 鈥渆xert鈥 themselves in the least to practice social distancing and follow health recommendations, and we鈥檝e seen unbelievably dedicated medical professionals, volunteers, and even second graders who know that loving grandma means not giving her a hug right now.聽 It might be that both of these inclinations exist in every individual, and in every society. 聽But if we agree with Rabbi Yehuda that humans are capable of exerting themselves, then we can be hopeful and resourceful in our efforts to get them to do just that.

P.S. Anyone who is finishing or even studying eruvin is definitely exerting herself!

Julie Mendelsohn

Julie Bloch Mendelsohn made aliyah with her family in 2009. Julie has a law degree, a Master of Public Health, has studied several foreign languages, and is currently pursuing a master's degree in archaeology. Julie dyes, spins, and weaves her own yarn and textiles. She loves to learn Daf Yomi and is interested in topics relating to Jewish law and ancient materials and crafts, ancient languages, and history.
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