The Sderot Menorah And The Hobnailed Sandal

A menorah stands atop the yeshiva in Sderot. No ordinary menorah, it is fashioned out of pieces of rocket happily donated by the neighboring communities across the border in Gaza, delivered by airborne express. Attempts to decline the gift having failed, Israel had to resort to a strong return-to-sender message to put the service on hold.

The menorah, however, stands, and will do what it does best next week. Is its message confusing? Is it mixing metaphors, comparing two historical epochs that are fundamentally different? An enigmatic gemara may shed light on this question.

Shabbos 60A tells us about the ban on wearing a hobnailed sandal. Said sandal is held responsible for the tragic deaths of Jews hiding in a cave. Spotting the impression left in the ground by the shoe set off a panicked response, with many killed in the rush for the exit. The incident occurred on Shabbos; therefore the ban applied only to Shabbos.

The superficial understanding of the gemara does not completely satisfy. Sandals don’t kill; panic kills. Why ban the messenger? Isn’t such a ban far-fetched? And if it isn’t, shouldn’t it apply on any day, even if the tragic incident took place on Shabbos?

Furthermore, asks Rav Chanoch Ehrentrau in Iyunim B’Divrei Chazal U-v’leshonam, the Yerushalmi adds elements that make the sugya even harder to understand. It offers two other versions of the introduction of the ban. According to one, the sound of this sandal caused pregnant women to miscarry; according to another, the sight of it did the same. Just how did an unusual sound or a bit of metal trim on a shoe cause miscarriage? Additionally, the Yerushalmi asks why the ban should not have been lifted after the time of shmad in which the story took place ended. If the very sight of this garment was death-dealing, why should the end of a nasty governmental edict suggest that a ban meant to increase public safety be lifted?

Rabbi Ehrentrau offers a wonderful suggestion. (I assume that the author is not the Rabbi Chanoch Ehrentrau, formerly of the London Bais Din, but Rabbi Dr. Chanoch Ehrentrau, who learned in the Ksav Sofer’s yeshiva, and later became the Rav of Munich. I have not had a chance to check online collections to verify this. Perhaps one of our readers can fill us in.) He demonstrates from both midrashic and historical sources that the hobnailed sandal was part of the battle gear of the Greco-Roman soldier. Most likely, the Jews in the cave had fled the edicts against Jewish practice. They did not wear such sandals, but some isolated individual had come into possession of a pair. When he wore them, he left tracks in the vicinity of the cave. Someone spotting those tracks spread the word that they had been discovered by the enemy, setting off a mass panic. The sandals indeed were to blame for the tragedy, not because of anything intrinsic to them, but because they indicated the presence of the detested enemy soldiers. According to the other versions in the Yerushalmi, their sight or sound could cause a woman to miscarry in anticipation of what those soldiers might do. On the other hand, they were problematic only as long as the enemy imposed his will. When the decrees ended, it would be expected that the ban should be lifted.

The Yerushalmi answers that the ban has not disappeared because beis din did not formally lift it. But why? Rav Ehrentrau suggests that the ban was left in place as a permanent reminder of those who fled to the caves in order to doggedly remain faithful to Hashem and His Torah, and ultimately paid with their lives. The ban remains “on the books” as a tribute to those who would not give in.

Although Rav Ehrentrau does not entirely go in this direction, we might expand upon his thesis by incorporating another novel idea, this one from Rav Yitzchok Izak Halevi Rabinowitz, the Doros HoRishonim (vol. 1, pgs. 341-342). Sources report that in the struggle against the Syrian-Greeks, some communities refused to fight on Shabbos, and were slaughtered by the enemy, until the Maccabbim got the word out that people should resist even on Shabbos.

The Doros HoRishonim rejects the suggestion that people were originally ignorant of the halacha that Shabbos must be violated by soldiers in battle. Rather, he says, at times the odds were so heavily against them, that they knew with certainty that they would all be killed by the enemy even if they resisted. They had no real weapons, and could expect no reinforcements. They had never violated Shabbos before. Doing so now, in the final hours of their lives, seemed pointless. If they were to die anyway, better that they die free of the taint of chilul Shabbos, even if permissible. This attitude held sway until battle conditions changed, and they learned that they stood a chance of staying alive by waging war.

If the two ideas can be combined – if they deal with the same group of Jews – the hobnailed sandal takes on even greater meaning. The ban of the sandal on Shabbos would then be a tribute not just to those who lived and died with mesiras nefesh for mitzvos, but to a group that glorified Shabbos by eschewing the human tendency to resist. Sensing what they thought was their imminent demise at the hands of Antiochus’ soldiers who had spotted them, they rushed the exit because they would not take up arms and stand their ground.

The ban, then, testifies to the endurance of the Jewish people, despite the best efforts of others to destroy them. The Sderot menorah is no mixed metaphor, but on a continuum of other times and places where Jews would not give in to the enemy, even at great peril. Like the hobnailed sandal, it testifies to the Invisible Dome security system of Divine protection that engineered the survival of the rest of the community, bayamim haheim, bazman hazeh.

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4 Responses

  1. Nachum says:

    “They had no real weapons, and could expect no reinforcements. They had never violated Shabbos before. Doing so now, in the final hours of their lives, seemed pointless.”

    On the other hand, there is what R’ Ziemba wrote when asked about fighting in the Warsaw Ghetto uprising (when they were also pretty sure they would fail): Sometimes, especially if the enemy is out to kill you no matter what, it’s best to *live* al kiddush Hashem (if only for a few more days) then to die al kiddush Hashem.

    It’s also possible that, indeed, they were ignorant of the halakha because it didn’t exist yet- maybe until that point, the question had never really come up.

    [YA – 1) Despite my having used the R. Menachem Ziemba story for years, I have been taken to task for it. The family denies the story, and some history people believe it is a fabrication. i would love to learn that the story is accurate. 2) Your possibility is the standard way the question is addressed. Could be; the Doros HoRishonim is more attractive to me.]

  2. Gershon Pickles says:

    The Sderot Menorah is a powerful message, and R. Ehrentrau’s homiletic suggestion is a good one. In truthful reality though, the ban remained on the books for the same reason most bans or customs remain on the books, long after they should have disappeared – simple conservatism, dressed up in the halachic construct of not being permissible to change a ban unless we are greater in widsom and number [i.e., it’s impossible.] Even in that Gemara in Shabbos, it is obvious there is total confusion about the ban – which, itself, we are only aware of from secondary sources – with Babylonian amoraim offering totally conflicting opinions about the reason for the ban that occurred in a different country and empire, hundreds of years earlier. (It seems clear, though I’ve not looked into it, that there is some confusion with the story from I Maccabbes that you cite from Halevy. For obvious reasons, everything about that period became confused in the transmission to Babylon centuries later.) If there is uncertainty about even the circumstances behind the ban, kal vichomer we can’t go about giving suggestions as to why it’s still around, other than the one mentioned above.

    [YA – I don’t think this is true. The gemara’s question was why batei din closer to the event did not lift the ban when they could. There clearly were times in history in which later batei din unded prior legislation. We are speaking here of the time of Tanaim, where this certainly could have been done.]

  3. cvmay says:

    #1 The story that you posted regarding Rav M. Zimba zt”l has been debunked by Mr. Hillel Seidman and his two talmidim who were with him at the time of the discussion. The above retell that the Rav gave them a brocha…to fight the enemy.

    ‘Sensing what they thought was their imminent demise at the hands of Antiochus’ soldiers who had spotted them, they rushed the exit because they would not take up arms and stand their ground.”
    In contrast those in Yeshivat Sderot will rush the exit of the yeshiva, take up arms and stand their ground.

  4. Bob Miller says:

    The discussion above about Rav Ziemba points to the need to properly authenticate Gedolim stories, especially those with important halachic ramifications. It’s not enough to say something could have happened.

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