D’var Torah – Snow on Erev Shabbat

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 1 February 2019

In most places in our texts, snow is only talked about as a symbol.  Snow is used as a metaphor: for the whiteness of leprosy or for the whiteness of purity.  Alternatively, the bringing of snow is an aspect of God’s power over the natural world.

Only once is actual snow mentioned in the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), when a soldier called Banayah, who will be appointed head of David’s bodyguard, is described as killing a lion in a pit ‘b’yom ha-shaleg’ – on a snowy day.  But we learn nothing more about what the weather was like that day.

There is, though, one story of a really snowy Shabbat in the Babylonian Talmud.
It is a story about the early life of Hillel, before he became a famous Sage, when he was still a poor man who just wanted to learn.

The story goes that back then Hillel would work each and every day to earn just half a dinar – a tiny amount.  Of that, half would go to pay to come into the study hall, and half he would use to sustain himself and his household.
One day, though, he could not find any work, and the guard of the study hall would not allow him in.  So he went up onto the roof and sat at the edge of the skylight so that he could hear words of Torah being taught by the great teachers of that generation, Shemaya and Avtalyon.
That day was an Erev Shabbat in winter, and it started to snow. In the morning when Shemaya and Avtalyon looked up they saw the outline of a man spread across the skylight.
They went up and found Hillel covered with snow three cubits high – just over a metre of snow.  They pulled him out from the snow, washed and cleaned him, and despite the fact that it was Shabbat, sat him opposite a fire to warm him up.

The main message of the story – as told in the Talmud – is that Hillel should be a model for our Jewish lives.  His desire to learn Torah was such that he did not allow lack of wealth, or the weather, to stand in the way of his Judaism.

But there is also a learning from Shemaya and Avtalyon, too.  They made their place of study and prayer one that was warm enough to heat Hillel up – metaphorically and actually.  A place to which he could come in from the cold.

May we have Hillel’s yearning for Torah, for Jewish life.  And may we, like Shemaya and Avtalyon, make a Jewish home and a Shabbat that is capable of warning us up even on the coldest of days…
With the warmth of song and community, let us welcome the Shabbat bride.