LAWS OF REST

Examine your clothing before going out, for you may be carrying something without knowing it. Do not place a wick into a bowl of oil, for then the oil will be drawn up and you will promote burning. Do not light with cedar bast or uncombed flax. Are you Nahum the Mede? So do not light with boiled tallow.

Do not stumble around in the dark. But if you turn out the light because you fear idolaters or melancholy, you will not be held liable. Follow significance: examine your clothing. Do not turn out the light to spare the wick, it is you who needs to be spared. Right now someone makes peace on the height where wine is breaking.

Where you see the word children instead read builders, for we are “our fathers’ children, our grandchildren’s ancestors,” and laws rip from walls. Have you tithed? Have you drawn a line around your house? Have you left the cedar bast under its bark? Have you stumbled in the dark? Yet evidence exists for silk.

These are the thirty-nine generative acts of labour: to make two loops, to erase two letters, to trap a deer, to seek out the wars of God. Think of yourself as an amputated leg and do not go out carrying your stump. Think of yourself as pebble enough to cast at a bird. For this you are liable: bone enough to make a spoon.

 

I want to provide a privileged reading of the title poem from David B. Goldstein’s new book, Laws of Rest (BookThug, 2013). The poem plays with Jewish traditions and language in a way that I fear might be lost on a reader unfamiliar with them, and I believe the poem to be strong enough to deserve some explication in order for it to be fully appreciated. For starters: the title of Goldstein’s poem, “Laws of Rest.” Of course this is funny: how can you legislate “rest”? But in the context of the poem, the irony isn’t only absurd.

The Sabbath is supposed to be a day of rest.  That is, no work.  Everyone knows this.  In Jewish tradition, laws and practices around the Sabbath are concerned largely with what does or does not constitute “work.”  Since the admonition against working on the Sabbath is explicitly stated in the Torah itself (Exodus 20:8-11, etc.), the question of what “work” is (pace Phil Levine) must be very carefully explored and understood. Reams of argument and discussion dissect and define “work,” with 39 categories and then further refining of these categories.  For some this might seem like unnecessary legalistic hairsplitting, but for those who believe that these rules were given by God, then getting their interpretation right is very important.  Even in a more liberal religious context, an engagement with the idea of “work,” and perhaps the decision to refrain from it (or some versions of it) as a way of separating the Sabbath from the rest of the week, deserve serious consideration and elaboration.

One of the 39 categories of work is “carrying.” Some people have always made a living “carrying,” whether they are warehouse workers or stevedores or messengers or UPS delivery men. So it makes perfect sense that “carrying” would be one of the categories of work prohibited on the Sabbath.  But what about carrying a pot of soup from the stove to the table?  Or to your neighbour’s house for a shared dinner?  What about carrying your sleeping four-year-old upstairs to bed?  If a postman is “working” by carrying a letter to your house (no matter how light it is), then what about carrying the keys in your pocket?  We could perhaps mostly discuss intent (carrying for a job vs. carrying for pleasure or family), but that won’t solve all our problems – is carrying laundry any less “work” than carrying a court summons?

Jewish thinkers have argued these points for two thousand years, and these arguments inform Goldstein’s poem, and serve as its main source of material.  His one footnote refers to three chapters in the Mishnah Shabbat, a tractate of Jewish Oral Law that was codified in the early third century CE and deals mostly with these sorts of questions.

The poem opens with a typical rabbinic suggestion, meant to prevent accidental transgressions:  “Examine your clothing before going out, for you may be carrying something without knowing it.” Much of what follows are references to what the rabbis call “building a fence around the law” – that is, don’t do something that will tempt you to break the Sabbath laws (such as placing “a wick into a bowl of oil,” which isn’t prohibited, but which might tempt you to light the wick, which is.)  The “Nahum the Mede” at the end of the first stanza paragraph was an early interpreter of Jewish law whose views are most often recorded as dissenting opinions, as in:  “Nahum the Mede says one may use melted tallow for the Sabbath lamb, but the sages prohibit it” (Mishnah Shabbat 2:1).

Goldstein has some fun here referring to some fairly obscure rulings from the same text.  Apart from their delightful strangeness, the accumulation of them suggests that the plethora of regulations makes the “rest” which we’re supposed to be experiencing on the Sabbath rather, well, stressful.  Goldstein’s repetitive use of “Do not…” contributes to the sense that the practices surrounding “Sabbath rest” might actually go a long way to preventing it.  Even if you resist the recorded admonishments, you must abandon your rest in order to do so.  (It’s worth noting, though, that arguing about religious law is decidedly NOT prohibited on the Sabbath…)

Thus far the references are not so remarkable in and of themselves, although the oddness of the language and its music is very rich.  Where the poem begins to turn, for me, is halfway through the second stanza paragraph:  “Do not turn out the light to spare the wick, it is you who needs to be spared.”  Traditionally, a lit fire (or, more recently, an electric device) can be left burning, but one is instructed not to light or extinguish a fire.  So a stove left on low heat can keep a stew warm for a Sabbath lunch, but if you accidentally leave your bedroom light on when you go out on Friday afternoon, you’ll have to sleep on the couch. Thus, “Do not turn out the light to spare the wick” is Goldstein’s way of mashing up the ancient and modern versions of this law, but the addition to the end, “it is you who needs to be spared” is an interesting one. Spared from what? From work?  From some other form of extinguishing?

What follows is a reference to a familiar pun that begins to consider the implications of rejecting the inheritance. In Hebrew, “children” is “ba-nim” and “builders” is “bo-nim,” so the rabbis like to make poetic puns about how our children will be the builders of the future, how we build them up like houses, etc. The problem here seems to be that the voice of the poem, which has kept a cynical distance from the obscure practices referred to regarding the “laws of rest,” suddenly now begins to doubt itself.  The imperative “do nots” of the previous stanzas become a more tentative line of questions: “Have you tithed? Have you drawn a line around your house?”  A question begins to emerge behind this list: if you haven’t done these things, what have you done?

This is followed by a strange little rhyming couplet: “Have you left the cedar bast under its bark?  Have you stumbled in the dark?” I keep reading an “or” in between these two questions. That is to say: the inheritance is obscure, arbitrary, legalistic and perhaps even counterproductive. But the abandonment of the inheritance is no solution.

This tension hits its peak with, “Think of yourself as an amputated leg and do not go out carrying your stump.” The image is completely nonsensical: how could an “amputated leg” carry its own stump?! But if we think about the context of the tradition being referred to all around this poem, a possibility emerges. An amputated leg has been “cut off” from its source. If I can pursue this odd disturbing allegory, this stump did so willingly, cut itself off from its body (say, because the body was riddled with contradiction or obscurity or backwardness or whatever). In which case, the poem is instructing it not to carry the “stump,” the sort of scar tissue of the break, the site of the cleavage.

But why not? Isn’t the poem located at the very site of this cleavage? Living as it does between esoteric knowledge and the rejection of that knowledge, doesn’t the poem, essentially, “carry its own stump”? Does an amputated leg still feel pain on the body from which it has been removed?  Can a poem reject textual material while at the same time mining it for music and imagery?

This is a recurring theme in the rest of Goldstein’s collection – the conflict between inheritances (religious, artistic, intellectual) that are filled with problems and contradictions, and our inability to fully escape them toward some higher truth of thought or action.  Here he accomplishes this with a slight of hand that is ironically diffident towards the tradition it draws from and is drawn to. The poem’s obscurity is an essential part of its thematics, which means that a reader can be forgiven for needing a Guide for the Perplexed to parse out its rich layers of meaning.

 

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Adam Sol’s fourth book of poetry, Complicity, will be published by McClelland & Stewart this spring. He teaches at Laurentian University’s campus in Barrie, Ontario.

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