My chavruta and I are excited to have finally reached the end of mesechet Shabbat from the Talmud Bavli. That said, the end of this tractate was rather anti-climactic.
Talmudic tractates are largely filled with dry, matter-of-fact discussions of Jewish legal matters. These are interspersed with more colorful aggadic sections containing stories, legends, and medical remedies. That said, the Talmudic redactor usually will save a particularly juicy aggada for the end of a Tractate. Classic examples of this are the oft-quoted poetical drashas about Talmidei Chachamim at the end of mesechet Brachot and the famous story of Rabbi Akiva's laughter while the other sages cry at the end of Makkot.
And so, I was primed to see what Talmudic tidbit the huge, 314-page mesechet Shabbat would end with. Perhaps there would be some inspiring story of Shabbas observance, or maybe a lesson on the true meaning of the day. How disappointing to find a dry discussion of which rabbinic prohibitions we are allowed to violate for the sake of performing a Mitzva and the principle of Mitasek.
And yet, upon re-reading this final story on Mitasek, I begin to wonder if my first impression was wrong. Chazal's writing can work at multiple levels, and this particular story contains a number of surprising details brought in the typical concise and understated manner of Talmudic texts.
One Shabbat, Ulla visits the house of the Exilarch, Raba bar Rav Huna, a sage of renown and one of the one of the most powerful men in the Babylonian diaspora. Ulla has no doubt come to consult on some Torah matter, yet he finds the Exilarch immersed happily in a barrel of water, engaged with the critical task of measuring the volume of liquid in the barrel. Somewhat taken aback, Ulla interrupts Raba's computation, asking him
"Did not the Rabbis prohibit measuring on Shabbat?!"
Rabba turns to him and replies
"Generally speaking, you are correct, but I'm not actually trying to compute something of significance! I'm just playing around enjoying my bath!"
This absurdist image of Rabba bar Rav Huna taking a bath brings to mind an older story of a different sort of sage taking a bath: the famous story of Archimedes of Syracuse.
Archimedes, the famous mathematician, is floored when his Monarch tasks him with the problem of determining if the golden crown he commissioned is actually made from pure gold. The great sage ponders the problem for days without arriving at a solution. Finally, despairing of a solution, he goes to take a bath. Sitting in the tub, watching his mass displace the water, Archimedes suddenly arrives at the critical insight, shouting "Eureka!" and running naked through the streets of Syracuse to tell the King.
The Romans were fond of this story of Archimedes, and the sages of the Talmud were no doubt familiar with it. And so, we now understand why the story of Ulla and Raba bar Rav Huna was chosen to end the mesechta, and that it has something fundamental to say about the Sabbath rest. At first glance, it seems absurd to find the great sage playing in the bathtub like a child- is this how a Great Man conducts himself? Yet the story alludes to the classic parable of Archimedes to teach us that rest is actually essential to the creative process. Rabba bar Rav Huna's playful Shabbas diversions are actually what allow him to be such an effective scholar and leader the rest of the week.
הדרן עלך מסכת שבת!