It's Not Quite That Simple

For the week ending 15 November 2014 / 22 Heshvan 5775

Going Out On a Limb

by Rabbi Dr. Yitzchak Greenblatt
Library Library Library

Jeremy is from a little town in upstate New York. He spent a couple of years studying at Yeshiva in Israel before returning to his hometown. There aren’t many Jews in his town, and he is the only one of them to have attended Yeshiva. As such, he is viewed by his local coreligionists as a “Rabbi” of sorts. Especially on Shabbat, when they aren’t able to phone halachic authorities who live elsewhere, they tend to come to Jeremy and ask him what to do.

Mr. Soldat is a veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq, where he was severely wounded, and had to have his foot amputated. He has a state-of-the-art prosthetic foot, which, when he inserts the stump of his leg into it, enables him to walk around quite well. When his foot was amputated the doctors inserted small connectors into the stump of his leg, which enable the prosthetic foot to be attached. One Shabbat Mr. Soldat makes his way to shul and Jeremy notices the prosthetic leg. He casts his mind back to his Yeshiva days and remembers a mishna in Tractate Shabbat (66a):

A man who is lacking a foot may go out (on Shabbat) with his “wooden foot” according to Rabbi Meir; but Rabbi Yossi forbids it.

In the times of the Mishna it was common for people crippled in this way to carve a piece of wood into the shape of a foot so as to hide their disability. This mishna is talking about a place where there is no eruv, which would allow someone to carry from a private domain to public domain on Shabbat (and vice versa). Anything which is considered a garment and is being worn is of course fine. Rashi, our essential commentary on the Gemara, explains that the disagreement between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yossi seems to be that Rabbi Meir regards this prosthetic wooden “foot” as close enough to a shoe to be considered a shoe, whereas Rabbi Yossi is of the opinion that it is not considered a shoe, perhaps because shoes are not generally wooden — clogs were not known in those times! The halacha (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 201:15) follows the opinion of Rabbi Yossi, and the wooden foot may not be “worn” to go outside on Shabbat. It seems then, thinks Jeremy to himself, that this law would apply to the Mr. Soldat’s prosthetic leg and that the poor man will be confined to his quarters over Shabbat until such time as the town council can be convinced to allow an eruv to be built, which is not likely to be anytime this century.

But, as with everything in Judaism, it’s not quite that simple!

Rabbeinu Tam, whose mother was Rashi’s daughter, disagreed with his grandfather’s understanding of the dispute between Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yossi. Remember Rashi thought that they argued over whether the wooden foot could be considered a shoe. Being as the halacha follows Rabbi Yossi, the conclusion would be that it is not a shoe and therefore forbidden. But Rabbeinu Tam (Tosafot ibid.) says the point of disagreement cannot be the shoe-status of the wooden foot, because elsewhere in the Gemara (Yoma 78b), it is apparent that Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Yossi agree that this wooden “foot” may not be worn on Yom Kippur, as it isconsidered a (comfortable) shoe! He therefore explains that both Rabbis agree that it is considered a shoe, and according to Torah law it may be worn outside on Shabbat. Rabbi Yossi, however, is of the opinion that the Sages enacted a rabbinical prohibition because they were concerned that the wooden foot, being only loosely attached, might become detached and a person might then pick it up while outside and carry it four cubits, which would definitely be forbidden.

According to this explanation of Rabbeinu Tam, Rabbi Yossi’s rationale for forbidding wearing the rudimentary, wooden prosthetic “foot” outside is as a safeguard, lest someone be tempted to pick it up and carry it should it become disconnected. But, as Rabbi Moshe Isserles writes in his addenda to the Code of Jewish Law (201:15) is permissible to wear a wooden shoe into which the foot is inserted and one need not be concerned that it may fall off.

The same logic may surely be extended to Mr. Soldat’s top-of-the-line modern prosthetic foot, which is firmly fastened to his leg. Since there is no reason to be concerned that it will come off, there is no need to forbid wearing it. Jeremy may tell Mr. Soldat that he is free to walk around on Shabbat to his heart’s content.

It takes much more knowledge for someone who is trying to be religious to say that something is allowed than to say that it is forbidden. There is sometimes an attitude of “Well, I might as well not do that in case it’s forbidden”. To allow something requires education. Whereas a person’s intentions in disallowing something may be laudable, it is preferable to learn enough to be able to decide accurately whether something is actually allowed. The answer is often surprising, and those things which may seem at first glance to be forbidden may actually be perfectly fine (and vice versa!) Therefore, we should be wary of jumping to conclusions on the basis on limited information. Thank G-d we have been born into a world where there are so many opportunities to become more educated. Thousands upon thousands of books about Judaism have been written, in Hebrew, English and many other languages, and many talks and lectures are available in various formats with easy access no matter where in the world we may find ourselves. We Jews have always been obsessed with education, and it’s never been more accessible than it is today!

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