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.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Distinctions and the Fear of Heaven - Berakhot 33

Today’s Talmud page raises two challenging issues – questions of havdallah, or “distinctions,” and the concept of the “Fear of Heaven” (yir’at shamayim). The formal discussion concerns overlapping prayer requirements – if a festival falls immediately after Shabbat (Sabbath), certain blessings might be redundant between the liturgy during or at the end of Shabbat and the daily Tefillah (Amida prayer discussed on previous pages).

In the special blessing instituted by Rav and Shmuel, two pre-eminent rabbis in mid-3rd century Babylonia, we see much rabbinic ideology of havdallah. There is a formal havdallah ceremony marking the end of Shabbat and the beginning of the regular week, but the concept goes deeper. There is a fault line in Talmudic Judaism separating Shabbat from the week, holy from ordinary, light from dark, and Israel from everyone else. Though a value statement is implicit in the divisions of end-of-Shabbat liturgy, it is made explicit in this new form: God has made Shabbat is holier than working days, and Israel is similarly holy because God has given them his festivals, Shabbats, and commandments. It IS appropriate to have pride in oneself and one’s tradition, but one does not need to feel BETTER than others to do so.

The second challenge is more philosophical – if God (metaphorically, “Heaven” or “sky” – shamayim), is all-powerful, how can an individual’s behavior and choices be judged? What gives one merit over any other? The Talmudic answer: “all is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven.” In more flippant translation: God runs everything except whether people obey him! This phrase for obedience, or worship, or piety strikes us as unusual – is fear really an ideal relationship? In a world where human power to control life and death was minimal and the caprices of disease, disaster, and fate were great, perhaps such a reaction was natural. Today, however, life is too precious a commodity to live it in fear – let us live in joy instead.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

For the complete text of the traditional Havdallah ritual, you can visit