(images courtesy of tekhelet.com)
After weeks of discussing walls, pits, courtyards and alleys, a small debate in the middle of pages 96b and 97a caught my attention. 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. 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. 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. This discussion connects with the earlier question of whether someone would go to the trouble to make amulets that look exactly like tefillin.
מר סבר טרח איניש ומר סבר לא טרח איניש
The Koren Steinsaltz Talmud interprets this line as: “Apparently, one Sage, Rabbi Yehuda, holds that a person exerts himself to fashion an amulet that looks like phylacteries, and one Sage, Rabbi Meir, holds that a person does not exert himself for this purpose, and therefore something that has the appearance of phylacteries must be phylacteries.”
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. As someone who has studied the Tekhelet dyeing process, and has watched the process of making kosher tefillin, I can understand Rabbi Meir’s position. It’s an incredible amount of work. But Rabbi Yehuda disagrees. He says people might exert themselves. They might make special efforts even for non-ritual items like a beautiful cloak. By the way, this is not the only place that the Gemara uses the expression “a person exerts himself” or “a person does not exert himself.” 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’ view of human nature. Are humans uniform, predictable creatures who are programmed to survive by doing what is necessary, and no more? Or are humans capable of creating incredible things, whether it is art or music, a scientific theory, or a discovery that changes the world? 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. We’ve seen people who just don’t want to “exert” themselves in the least to practice social distancing and follow health recommendations, and we’ve seen unbelievably dedicated medical professionals, volunteers, and even second graders who know that loving grandma means not giving her a hug right now. It might be that both of these inclinations exist in every individual, and in every society. 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!