Not Your Father's Talmud

Rabbi Adam Chalom of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago explores the Talmud from a Humanistic perspective, one page a day.

Location: Highland Park, Illinois, United States

Rabbi Adam Chalom is the Rabbi of Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in suburban Chicago. He is also the Assistant Dean for the International Institute for Secular Humanistic Judaism.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Exceptional Circumstances - Berakhot 16

One would think that when it comes to a commandment, there would be two options – do it, or do not do it. Far be it from the Talmudic Rabbis to accept only black and white! In their jurisprudence, there are at least four possibilities: one could be required to do something, required not to do something, exempt from the positive requirement (but the “saint” may still choose to do it), or exempt from the negative law (but the “saint” may still choose to refrain). And even then there can be exceptional circumstances and exceptional individuals.

Rabban Gamliel was not obligated to recite the Shema on his wedding night, but he chose to do so nonetheless – an example of the conceptual difference between the “saint” and the normal human. Workmen in certain trees or scaffolding may recite from their somewhat precarious positions, but those in more risky positions should descend first. The new bridegroom of a virgin is exempt from Shema recitiation, but not if he has married a widow! Exceptions are often possible, perhaps including even mourning for a slave’s death, as long as one is appropriately qualified for the more permissive or elevated behavior.

In this Talmud page, we find a continuity and a discontinuity with our own days. Rabbis create new prayers and new endings to their personal recitations, just as contemporary liturgical creativity flowers today. Yet we also read that full mourning for the death of slaves (Hebrew avadim, sometimes creatively translated as “servants”) is not allowed. One rabbi even flees his own students to avoid receiving their condolences, and we are told to lament their death as one would lament a donkey or an ox.

There are attractive details in this page, to be sure – students who are very slow to get the hint are told “I thought you would be scalded by warm water, but you’re not even scalded by boiling water.” There are wishes for long life, health, and happiness in this life, not only in the world to come. The balance of a laborer’s duty to work and to pray, between personal and professional obligations, is still very important. And the question of why a bridegroom who marries a virgin is more “agitated” than one who marries a widow could be very interesting to explore...

In the end, though, we find that the Rabbis are not radical exceptions to the ordinary circumstances of every human being – they are a product of their time and place, a setting where slavery was common and the humanity of slaves was doubted. The Rabbis of the Talmud, just like Rabbis of our own days, are neither saints nor devils; they are human beings like everyone else.

Rabbi Adam Chalom