Beitzah 16

Science and Health

Many Jews have the custom of singing Shabbat songs, or zemirot, after the festive meals every Shabbat. One of my many favorites is an early modern onecalled Yom Zeh L’Yisrael (“this is a day for Israel”), traditionally sung after Friday night dinner. The second stanza reads:

“Hearts’ desire for a broken nation,

for ailing spirits an extra soul,

From the troubled spirit,

God will remove a sigh, on the Sabbath, day of rest.”

What I love about this zemer is that it recognizes that we need rest not only from physical labor but from emotional labor, sadness and pain. But an extra soul?! Where on earth does that idea come from?

You’ve probably already guessed the answer — that’s right, it’s today’s daf!

Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish said: The Holy One, Blessed be he, gives a person an additional soul on Shabbat eve, and at the conclusion of Shabbat removes it from him, as it is stated: He ceased from work and was refreshed (vayinafash). (Exodus 31:17)

The Hebrew word translated as “refreshed” (vayinafash) shares a root with the word for “soul” (nefesh). According to this midrash, being refreshed means literally receiving an extra soul. But alas, this gift of a second soul is temporary. Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish (a.k.a Reish Lakish) makes clear that the soul evaporates at the end of the sacred day.

The idea that God gives people not just physical respite but an additional spiritual recharge in the form of an extra soulon the Sabbath is remarkable. It recognizes the limits of human spiritual life without divine assistance.

As beautiful as this is, there is an apparent dark side to this midrash. Depending on how we read Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, a divinely-assisted human spiritual life may not be available to everyone. Reish Lakish’s teaching follows a discussion about whether gifts can be given anonymously or in secret. God’s ultimate gift to us (after the universe, life, the Torah and maybe also puppies) is Shabbat! As part of this discussion, Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai is quoted as saying:

All the mitzvot that the Holy One, Blessed be he, gave to the Jewish people, he gave to them in public — except for Shabbat, which he gave to them in private. As it is stated: It is a sign between me and the children of Israel forever. (Exodus 31:17)

But the Gemara notes a problem with the idea that Shabbat was given to Israel secretly. After all, if non-Jews don’t know about it, how can they be liable for not wanting to observe it! Therefore, the Gemara concludes:

He did inform them (non-Jews) of the concept of Shabbat, but he did not inform them of the reward (for keeping it). And if you wish, say instead that he also informed the Gentiles of its reward, but about the idea of the additional soul given to each person on Shabbat he did not inform them.

So perhaps it’s not Shabbat or even its larger rewards that were kept secret from the Gentiles, just the additional soul. Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai assumes that only Jews are obligated to observe the Sabbath, and thus only Jews receive an additional soul one day a week to facilitate the ultimate spiritual observance of the day.

But Reish Lakish doesn’t actually say that. He says God gives a human being an extra soul on Friday evening. I’ll be honest: It seems likely to me that the human beings Reish Lakish is picturing are Jews. And that equivalence in his mind raises all kinds of other moral and ethical questions about how we do or don’t see human beings who are different from us. But in not specifying that explicitly, Reish Lakish leaves open the possibility that divine assistance is available to everyone, Jews and non-Jews alike, to experience this spiritual doubling. After all, doesn’t everyone deserve a break — not just from physical labor but from the stresses of daily life? 

Read all of Beitzah 16 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on September 16th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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