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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Living Liminality / Jerusalem Talmud Berakhot 2b

Many years ago, the daughter of dear friends became a bat mitzvah. Her family held a reception in their home that evening. Standing on the front porch, her father said, “Would you lead Havdalah?” I told him I would be honored and delighted. “Do you think it’s time? Wait, I’ll go check my computer,” he said and turned to walk into the house. Chuckling, I grabbed his arm, pointed to the sky, and counted stars, “One, two, three. It’s time.”

The Rabbis in Eretz Yisrael ask what constitutes “night time” for the purposes of saying the Shema. They choose an astronomical sign provided by God and visible everywhere (except on an overcast night). The luminaries in the firmament are their clock. Would that we could live a life so intimately tuned to the physical universe in which we abide, but which we largely ignore thanks to feats of human engineering.

When the stars appear, night has descended.

But how many stars must appear for it to be considered night? R. Pinchas in the name of R. Abba bar Pappa says that when one star is visible it is definitely still day; when two stars are visible, it is uncertain whether it is day or night; when three stars are visible, it is night.

It would seem then that the short period when two stars are visible is liminal time. It is bein ha-shemashot (twilight), neither day nor night. For a tradition that categorizes everything (permitted/forbidden, ritually clean/ritually unclean, holy/mundane, kasher/traife), time that stands outside the day/night dichotomy causes discomfort and anxiety. What is it? How do we consider it? What is permitted? What is forbidden?

There are two times a week when we are concerned with whether it is day or night with respect to the prohibition of melachah [work forbidden on shabbat]: when shabbat arrives and when it departs. When must we cease work, and when may we recommence work?

The Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) offers two formulations, one that accepts liminal time, and one that attempts to obviate it. The first formulation is that of the same R. Pinchas mentioned above.
On the eve of shabbat, if someone saw one star and performed melachah [work that is forbidden on shabbat], he is exempt [from bringing a sin offering]. [If he saw] two [stars], he brings a conditional guilt offering. [If he saw] three [stars] he brings a sin offering. At the conclusion of shabbat, if someone saw one star and did melachah [work that is forbidden on shabbat] he he brings a sin offering. [If he saw] two [stars] he brings a conditional guilt offering. [If he saw] three [stars] he is exempt.
R. Pinchas’ interpretation is consistent with what he says above. The cases of one star and three stars are clear: on erev shabbat one star means it is still day, so no violation has occurred; three stars means it is shabbat, and therefore a violation has occurred. On the other end, motza’ei shabbat (the conclusion of shabbat), one star is still shabbat so a violation has occurred, but three stars is no longer shabbat so no violation has occurred. In between, for that short period of time that we cannot define, a conditional guilt offering is brought, acknowledging that perhaps a violation has occurred, but we don’t really know.

The second formulation is that of R. Yosi the son of R. Bun. R. Yose feels compelled to pin down the two-star moment and place it in either the day or night category on both ends (erev shabbat and motza’ei shabbat).

R. Yose the son of R. Bun explained:

If you say that when there are two stars, it is a questionable [situation] [here are the two possibilities to analyze]:

If he saw two stars on the eve of shabbat and they warned him, but he did melachah [work that is forbidden on shabbat], and if he saw two stars at the conclusion of shabbat, and they warned him but he did melachah [work that is forbidden on shabbat], whatever your desire [to say about the period when two stars are visible, he has transgressed the prohibition of melachah [at either the beginning or conclusion of shabbat].

If the first [two stars] [mean that it is still] day, then the latter [two stars at the end of shabbat] [also mean that it is] day, and he will be liable [for what he does] during the latter [stars]. If the latter [stars] [mean that is] night, then also the former [two stars on erev shabbat] also [mean that it is] night. And he will be liable [for what he does] during the former [stars].
R. Yose gives us two options:

Option #1 is where we claim that two visible stars is still daytime. One who does melachah during this period, both during the arrival and at the conclusion of shabbat, is violating the prohibition at both ends. But how can this be? If two stars before shabbat is day, he is not in violation. R. Yose adds the condition that he was warned that his work might be considered a violation. If it is not a violation before shabbat, then it certainly is at the end of shabbat. In this case, the liminal period of bein hashemashot (twilight) is defined as day.

Alternatively, Option #2 is where the first star is considered day, and the second and third star are considered night. Consistency demands that we apply the same standard at the beginning and conclusion of shabbat. If he is not guilty at the first star before shabbat (because it is day), he must certainly be guilty at the first star at the conclusion of shabbat (because it is day – it is still shabbat). In this case, the liminal period of bein hashemashot is defined as night.

We can applaud R. Yose for his consistency and logic. The first scenario strains logic, but R. Yose repairs that by adding the dimension of the warning. I think his reasoning is not a case of “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds” (those immortal words of Ralph Waldo Emerson), but rather a case of discomfort. R. Yose cannot live with the uncertain, undefined, uncategorized two-star moment. The liminal state of bein hashemashot makes him anxious.

British cultural anthropologist Victor Turner (1920-1983) studied liminality in rituals. (Turner published “Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites of Passage” in his 1967 book The Forest of Symbols.) Liminality is an in-between state characterized by being outside established structures (including hierarchies). It is, at its core, a state of uncertainty, defying clear definition. It is unstable. This is why it is a source of discomfort and anxiety to many in authority.

Yet Jewish life and tradition are filled with liminal moments, even extended liminal periods of time. The ten days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a liminal time when we, like Jonah in the belly of the big fish, are suspended between life and death. The Israelites’ 40 years in the wilderness – neither slaves in Egypt nor free people in Eretz Yisrael – was a liminal time. In a sense, our entire lives can be seen as lived in the liminal time between Creation and ultimate redemption, the Messianic Age.

What is it that R. Pinchas can live with, and indeed honor, but which makes R. Yose so uncomfortable? It is uncertainty. Yet life is filled with uncertainty. Perhaps it is more honest to say, as author Ursula LeGuin observed, “The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next.” If uncertainty brings discomfort, it is also, according to Nobel Laureate in Chemistry Ilya Prigogine, “at the very heart of human creativity.” It is uncertainty – and our willingness to invite it into our lives – that opens our minds and hearts to new ideas, new experiences, and new ways to conceive the world and our place in it. Living with liminal, uncertain time, is an excellent training ground.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

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