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Thought for the Day: Breadth and Boundaries of Rabbinic Decrees

Rabbinic g'zeiros/fences often times seem eminently sensible.  Take muktza, for instance.  (Well, don't actually take it if you happen to have printed this out and are reading on Shabbos.  If you didn't print this out but are reading it on a computer on Shabbos; please stop now.)  If you don't even pick up a hammer (muktza, d'rabbanan), then you won't accidentally whack a nail and finish that bookcase (d'oraisa; yikes!).  In situations where you are allowed to pick up a hammer (you need the place where it is resting, or you need to crack some nuts), you will have already realized that you are in a safety zone and will take appropriate cautions.  That's similar to having guardrail on the walkway at the edge of the Grand Canyon.  (Important Aside: The chance you are taking by of recklessly transgressing a rabbinic decree and risking transgressing a Torah decree -- having eternal repercussions -- is infinitely worse than recklessly ignoring the guardrail -- since even the 700 or so foot drop can only take a finite toll on your infinite life.)

On the other hand, there are rabbinic g'zeiros that seem far-fetched.  The mishna (Terumos 8:4) forbids drinking uncovered beverages because of fear that a snake might have taken a drink and left some venom.  There is also a g'zeira not to blow shofar on a Rosh HaShanah that falls on Shabbos because of the fear that someone might forget himself and carry the shofar in the public domain.  Both of these decrees, however, are actually motivated by a deep concern for the sanctity of life -- our Sages made every effort possible to protect every single Jew.  Both are based on a deep understanding of human nature.  Not an inductive supposition based on empirical evidence and human created models of behavior, rather a deductive understanding based on a deep knowledge of the blueprint from which the human psyche was created -- our Torah.

Even if the reason for a decree may not apply to your particular case, the decree remains in force (as explained here).  For example, even if you live in a community with a kosher eiruv, you will not be blowing shofar on a Shabbos Rosh HaShanah.  On the other hand, if the parameters of the decree simply do not apply, then the decree itself never covered that situation.  For example, nowadays we are permitted to drink beverages that were left uncovered overnight because there simply are no snakes in populated areas (Mishnah Berurah 160:23).  I can't stress enough that this is not a leniency in rabbinic decrees nor deciding on our own that a decree is no longer needed; this is simply the result of a careful analysis of the parameters of the decree.

Now let's look at the g'zeira to not perform any curative or even palliative procedures on Shabbos for minor aches and pains.  The source of the decree comes from a concen that one thing will lead to another and person could be lead to grinding the ingredients necessary to produce a new potion or salve on Shabbos.  Therefore, only medical procedures that involve or could involve grinding herbs are included in the decree.  Why, then, are vigorous massages included?  Because, the Mishna Brura explains, the heating of the muscles can also be achieved with salves; hence, the only process gets put into the purview of the decree.  Snuff, on the other hand -- even though it actually is made from ground tobacco -- is not included because it's main function is to produce a mild high and not to alleviate aches and pains.

Sorry for the extra length... I've been really working on understanding this whole topic and I don't have complete clarity.  I need a cup of coffee.

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