Columns - 2018

    Hold Your Breath for Shabbat

    Right alongside Newton's laws of gravitation and motion is the empirically confirmed fact that for every two rabbis there are at least three opinions.

    Despite that truism, it might surprise some people that the Talmud is not a straightforward set of rules. It's actually a long litany of debates, with multiple sides represented by rabbis who are often best characterized by Abbott & Costello's starting infield of Who, What, I Don't Know, and I Don't Give a Darn.

    With that in mind, it should be no surprise that scholars recently discovered a shocking, dissenting opinion in the long-lost Mishnah tractate Bava Gump. Theologians are used to this tractate being dominated by the opinions of Rabbi Telfon, the Great Communicator. However, much like his better-known predecessor, Rabbi Tarfon, Telfon had his share of Talmudic detractors. In particular, one of Telfon's major challengers was Rabbi Noah bar Seegnal.

    Little is known yet about bar Seegnal, except that he'd often try to put Telfon's rulings on hold. Bar Seegnal would outright block people from picking up anything from Telfon's colleague, Rabbi Selfon.

    For example, it's commonly known that there are restrictions from doing almost anything on Shabbat, all in the name of rest. This blesses us with walking instead of driving and waking up for services instead of sleeping in.

    Of course, rest is good. Regularly stepping back from this crazy world is cleansing. Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot, even though one of the things you can't do on Shabbat is watch reruns of "Cheers."

    One of the more notorious Shabbat restrictions is against making fire. This translates into modern times as not using electricity and in any way honoring Jim Morrison's request to light his fire.

    Bar Seegnal extrapolated this to include another restriction: on Shabbat, one cannot create carbon dioxide.

    Why? Carbon dioxide is created in nature by a combustion reaction. (Bar Seegnal knew A.P. science well before there were A.P. courses. Or science.) Of course, combustion is the act of burning something. Making fire is prohibited, and fire is combustion, therefore anything created by combustion is prohibited. Mathematicians call such equations the transitive property of no internet on Shabbat.

    This begs the question of how, if they abide by this prohibition, anyone is supposed to survive the traditional day of rest without it becoming the day of their final rest. After all, this rule would quickly turn the end of every week into a 24-hour remake of "Waiting to Exhale."

    Also, what is rest without sleep? On Shabbat, there are many opportunities to sleep: During the night, during the afternoon, during the sermon. But how can someone sleep yet be consciously mindful to not exhale?

    Bar Seegnal's guidance is clear on this point. "To ensure that you do not exhale in your sleep, you shall not sleep from sunset to sunset, from the start to end of Shabbat. This precept is a blessing in disguise, as it enables you to remain conscious so that you can enjoy every moment of rest to be had throughout Shabbat."

    This ruling had the potential to let the air out of Shabbat for Jews everywhere, but it was not questioned by many rabbis. For one thing, at the time, none of them knew what carbon dioxide was. However, that did not stop Rabbi Selfon from saying to bar Seegnal, "you try it."

    Noah bar Seegnal was accustomed to this kind of reaction. He apparently had a reputation as a catalyst for poor reception. As for Selfon's call to arms, bar Seegnal dialed back his rhetoric slightly by saying that there was no point in him trying it by himself because the true reward would come only when all the people tried it, together.

    No such attempt was ever made. One of the tenets of Shabbat is that you can violate any rules of Shabbat to save a life. Rabbi Telfon declared that this means people should be allowed to preserve their own lives by breathing. And by having the freedom to sleep through the sermon.

    Doug Brook isn't holding his breath. To read past columns, visit For exclusive online content, like

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