Catching the Bug (Shabbat 90b)

Not long ago, on Shabbat afternoon, my daughter found a rather large beetle in our bathroom and began screeching in horror. Her less squeamish twin sister rather heroically put on a pair of plastic gloves (which we have in ample supply these days) and dropped it off the floor of our porch to the ground below, where I hope it lived to tell the tale. I didn’t think twice about what she had done – she had not dealt with the creature inhumanely (in so far as one can be humane to an insect), nor had she trapped it, which is forbidden on Shabbat. But when I came to a recent daf in Masechet Shabbat (90b), I was reminded of the incident and it started, well, to bug me.

Here, as in most of Masechet Shabbat until this point, the rabbis are discussing the laws of carrying objects from one domain to another on the Sabbath. They consider a wide range of items – dyes, spices, amulets, weapons, animal feed… and dead pets. It was the dead pets that caught my eye. The Mishnah introduces the subject with a discussion about carrying grasshoppers out of the house on Shabbat. One may not carry a live grasshopper out of the house on Shabbat, but if it is dead, it may be carried outside so long as it is smaller than a fig in volume. (A fig is just a standard unit of measurement in the Talmud. We have ounces, pounds, and liters; they had olives, figs, and eggs). The Talmud explains that grasshoppers were stored for medicinal purposes because they were used as a talisman against forgetting one’s Torah learning. The fourth-century Babylonian sage Abaye clarifies that there was a particular species of grasshopper that was used for this purpose, following a detailed procedure: “One eats its right half, and casts its left half into a copper tube, and seals it with sixty seals, and hangs it on his left arm… And one learns as much as he wants, and then eats the other half. If he does not do so, his learning will be forgotten.” I’m not exactly sure what’s going on here, except that I sometimes eat chocolate bars this way – half a bar before I sit down to work at night, and then the other half right before I go to bed. Maybe grasshoppers would be a healthier option?

In any case, in Talmudic times, the grasshoppers were apparently not just food but also playthings. The Mishnaic sage Rabbi Yehuda comments that even if the grasshopper is not kosher, one is liable for carrying it out on Shabbat, because children used to play with them. (Were grasshoppers like marbles? Or more like wind-up toys? I think my kids once had a wind-up bug….) Another sage objects that no one would give a child a non-kosher grasshopper to play with, because if it died the child might eat it. But the Talmud clarifies that Rabbi Yehuda does not share this concern; he insists that a child would never eat his dead pet grasshopper, because he would not regard it as food. In the child’s eyes, what was once a pet could never become a snack.

This question of how the child would regard a grasshopper recalls a famous line from this week’s parsha, when the spies return from the land of Israel and share their reports with the people. Ten of the spies cannot help but give voice to their fears. True, they say, the land does flow with milk and honey (which are, incidentally, the two foods my baby still can’t eat – Matan says he lives in the wrong country). But the cities are fortified, the people are like giants, and – “we looked grasshoppers in our own eyes, and so we looked in theirs” (Numbers 13:13). The ten spies, unable to trust in God, are convinced that will be crushed—or at least thrown off the porch—by the giants in the land. Their claim is twofold – they themselves felt like grasshoppers, and they appeared like grasshoppers to the Canaanites. In midrash Tanchuma (Shlach 7), God takes them to task for their second statement, pointing out the error of their assumption:

They said, “We looked like grasshoppers in our own eyes.” God said, “This I can overlook. But ‘And so we looked in their eyes’ – here I am angry. Did you know how I made you look in their eyes?

God is angry at the people for assuming that they know how the Canaanites would regard them. After all, God has the power to determine the way the Israelites appear to the inhabitants of the land, and so the spies ought to have trusted that God would make them look good. Who is to say that the Canaanites would have regarded them as food to be eaten in the land that “devours its inhabitants?” Maybe instead, with God’s help, the Israelites would be regarded as pets, or at least welcomed as new arrivals. I can’t promise that the next time we find a bug in the house on Shabbat, I’ll encourage the kids to adopt it as a household pet; I’m far too squeamish for that. But at least I, like the spies, will have a good story to share.

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