Military Cosplay

A few interesting things I wanted to talk about from Shabbat 63.

Before I get to the interesting stuff, yes, the Sages continue their unbelievable misogyny and ignorance of the female body. No, that’s not how hymens work. No, the “womb” (I think they actually mean vulva, in context) is not appropriately called the “place of foolishness.” Also, apparently my wife needs to wear makeup even inside the house on Shabbat because, of course, without makeup I wouldn’t find her attractive and then it would be totally fine for me to divorce her.

63a has an interesting (and apparently much commented-upon) discussion of military cosplay. The question at hand is whether a man (not a woman) can go out on Shabbat carrying weapons. There’s a dispute about this, and it turns on whether or not there will be war in the Messianic age. Shmuel says that in the Messianic age the only difference will be that the Jewish people will no longer be subject to other nations, but war and poverty and all other problems of the world will persist (if Shmuel is right, we’re going to get to the Messianic age and a lot of Jews will be like, “THIS we waited thousands of years for?”). Rabbi Eliezer says that in the Messianic age there will no longer be war.

Where they seem to agree is on the idea that in a world without war, weapons will no longer be ornaments. The reason this is important is that, generally speaking, you can’t go out on Shabbat with tools, but you *can* go out with ornaments. For a soldier, presumably going out on Shabbat with weapons would be clearly forbidden (I think? There are separate rules based on profession, like a seamstress can’t go out with the same kinds of needles other woemn can). But what if you are just wearing a weapon because it looks cool, and you don’t have any intention to use it?

Abaye points out that in a world without war, weapons are like “a candle in the afternoon.” As the modern commentary in my edition explains, a candle in the afternoon, because its light is not useful, is not even ornamental – i.e., the light is so washed out it isn’t even pretty.

Similarly, it is only the value that our world places on war that makes swords, guns, etc. look “cool.” This seems pretty obvious to me – no one would dress up in military-style gear if we didn’t have a culture that fetishized the idea of the violent gun-toting hero (even as it more often than not degrades and ignores the well-being of the people we actually ask to kill on our behalf).

And I’d side with the Rabbis who disagree with Eliezer in the Mishna. Eliezer apparently allows carrying weapons on Shabbat because they are ornaments (in our time). By extension, they seem to say, weapons should not even be considered ornaments here and now in pre-Messianic times – anyone who looks towards a world without war should not place value on war in our world.

Daf 63a also seems to create a problem for the Talmud. I always worry about these things because I accept the humble principle that there’s probably nothing I’m going to notice in the Talmud that hasn’t been picked up on in the past 1500 years. But there are some parts that make me go: seriously? (Not just the bad women’s anatomy, which is par for the course for religious texts)

On 63a we get the principle that even when a part of the Torah has a metaphorical or homiletical meaning, this does not invalidate its literal meaning. So, for instance, even if saying that a “sword girded on your thigh” is a glorious ornament is really referring to the possession of Torah knowledge, it still means that a literal sword on your literal thigh is an ornament.


You may remember me ranting earlier about the contortions the Rabbis go through to exonerate David and others when the Torah clearly and plainly states that they sinned. If literal meanings are still important here, on daf 63, why were they the realm of fools and ignoramuses on dafs 55-56? I don’t have anything else to say here. It just reads less like “the oral tradition expands on the written one” and more nakedly like “we will use the Torah to mean what we want it to mean in 500CE,” which is distressingly like the way many use religious texts today.

Similarly, there’s a section that crosses 63a-b that is difficult. On 63a, we’re told that it is better to associate yourself with a “vengeful and begrudging” Torah scholar than a “righteous” person who is not observant.

Note that this seems to make it clear that we’re not talking about personality traits which are morally neutral, or maybe which provide only a facsimile of morality. For instance, we are not contrasting a brusque Torah scholar with a nice am ha’aretz.

So that seems obnoxious and wrong-headed.

But then, on daf 63b, only a few paragraphs later, we’re told that Torah study will cheer you but G!d will judge you by your deeds.
In context, I think you could actually read the bit on 63b as undermining or contradicting 63a’s claim. But the commentary in both the Gemara and the modern commentary just… let it pass.

Photo: Long Beach Comic Con Cosplay 2016 by V Threepio (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)