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.

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Creative Evasions - Shabbat 29

The human mind is a marvelous instrument, for as clear and simple as we believe a particular rule to be, human ingenuity can always think of ways to avoid, evade, or modify the rule to make life more complicated. The Torah says no work may be done on Shabbat, the Mishnah refines what exactly is meant by work, and the Talmud distills the question still further. If we moderns become impatient with the detailed wrangling, we can at least understand the very human desire to impose order on chaos, as well as the human impulse to find ways around rules.

Our first example of legal creativity involves a simple machine to keep an oil lamp burning during Shabbat. It would clearly be forbidden for a person to manually add oil to the burning lamp, but what if he were to create a device, like an eggshell hollowed out and filled with oil, that would drip a little oil at a time to keep the light going? Rabbi Judah would allow it, but the khakhamim [Sages] do not. However, if the device, whether an actual egg or a ceramic object, is actually joined to the lamp, it is as if it were one implement and thus is permitted! A very inventive solution to avoid a dark Shabbat.

The second case is even more clever – on Shabbat, one is not supposed to carry much, certainly nothing as large as a bench. But what about dragging it on the ground? That isn’t exactly carrying, but it does accomplish the goal of moving it from point A to point B. Rabbi Simeon pages earlier (22a) permitted dragging a couch, chair, or bench so long as one did not intend to make a rut in the floor (which would be digging!). But another rabbi still worries that allowing someone to drag a bench in a stone-paved room will lead to dragging elsewhere and ruts being dug on Shabbat all over the place. In the end, there is an agreement to disagree – some permit dragging small items and others do not (since you’re just replacing carrying them with intentionally dragging them), but all agree that large objects can be dragged since that’s the only way to move them. Let the shlepping [hauling] commence!

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Monday, May 30, 2005

Moses and the Unicorn - Shabbat 28

The ongoing Talmudic debate about coverings shifts in today’s page to animal skins – can the skin of a ritually-clean [tahor] animal skin become defiled, and must one use the skin of tahor animals for holy purposes? Recall that rabbinic concepts of “unclean” are not the same as our “dirty” or “infected,” but are better understood as “spiritual tainted” – for example, a covering that hangs over a dead body becomes tameh [unclean], whether or not it was from an unclean animal or a clean one. So they turn back to the book of Exodus’s description of the tent that covered the Tabernacle [mishkan]. We can already guess the conclusion of Rabbi Joseph that appears on side b: “only the skin of a tahor animal is permitted [literally “kosher”] for ‘the work of heaven.’” What is undetermined is the rationalization for that conclusion.

The problem they run into is one of vocabulary – Exodus refers to the skin of a takhash as part of the covering, but later generations don’t really know what that animal is! They assume it was clean (because of course Moses had already been revealed what Rabbi Joseph would recite later). So they draw instead on word of mouth: Elai heard Simon ben Lakish say that Meir said the takhash was a separate species, undetermined as to domestic or wild, with one horn in its forehead. A Unicorn? According to the Talmud, it appeared for Moses to use its skin for the mishkan, and then was hidden again. . .

The connection to Moses is important in a more practical consideration, since Rabbis in Talmudic times were not building a mishkan. What halakha [religious law] did Rabbi Joseph envision for his general statement about using clean animals for holy work? The answer: tefillin [prayer boxes], since the passage that defines partly defines their use in Exodus 13:9 reads “it shall be for a sign to you upon your hand, and for a memorial between your eyes, that YHWH’s Torah may be in your mouth,” or as the Rabbis take it – ‘that Torah may be on something permitted in your mouth!’ The problem here is that some aspects of the tefillin are understood to be Biblical, while others are halakha l’moshe misinai – a law from Moses on Sinai. Or, in other words, a tradition so old we don’t know when it began but something we can’t prove from the Bible itself! And in those days, saying something was old and traditional was enough justification in itself for its continuation – fortunately, bazman ha-zeh [in these days] life is more open to innovation and freedom.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Sunday, May 29, 2005

The Smallest Proofs - Shabbat 27

Sometimes the Talmud asks reasonable questions, and then gives unfathomable answers. In today’s page, the rabbis continue a debate entered on the previous page concerning categorizing different kinds of cloth based on how easily certain materials can become tameh [unclean] from different spiritual contaminants. Wool or linen can be contaminated by leprosy in as small a space as three finger-widths, while other materials may require more extensive contact of three handsbreadths. And here is where creative rabbinic Torah interpretation comes in.

For the Rabbis, no word, wording, sentence structure, or textual proximity is without divine intention and meaning. In this case, one rabbi asks where they learned that woven materials other than linen or wool (like camel hair) are liable to such uncleanness, and they are pointed to Leviticus 11:32, which reads in part: “And upon whatever any of them, when they are dead, falls, it shall be unclean; whether it is any utensil of wood, or garment, or skin, or sack. . .” The questioner responds: I can learn from “garment” what I already accepted, but how does this prove the extension of the rule to something new? The response: it says “OR garment.” In other words, the little word “or” must be a sign that there is more to the rule than meets the eye. In the previous page, the word “and” filled the same role. To our mind, the original verse is simply completing a list, and has nothing to say of camel hair (or, for that matter, linen and wool either). But for the Talmud, every little detail is an opportunity for interpretation.

The same approach supports one interpretation of the commandment to wear tzitzit [fringes] on the corner of one’s garments – in Deuteronomy 22:11, one is commanded not to wear a garment of different sorts together [shaatnez], and in verse 12 fringes at the four corners of one’s cloak are required. From this, this interpretation assumes that the fringe requirement only applies to linen or wool, since the verses come right after one another. Again, any list like the list of commandments in Deuteronomy is going to have one item follow another, and we would not automatically jump to such a conclusion – the first and the second amendment to the Constitution do not appear to interpret each other. This is the creative but sometimes maddening Talmudic tendency to find proof from the smallest of sources.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Diaspora and Shabbat Oils - Shabbat 26

Today’s daf [page] is another discussing which oils may be burned for Shabbat lights, an entire debate made moot in modern times by the ubiquity of wax candles for Jewish ceremonies. So we are more amused than scared by the anecdote related here to demonstrate the dangers of using volatile balsam oil. A mother-in-law who hated her daughter-in-law had her first anoint herself with balsam oil and then light a lamp, a spark from which leapt out and burned her up completely. One is seldom as fearful of being destroyed by candle wax.

What is interesting to note is the limits of rabbinic restrictions – as they try to refine which oils are permitted, Rabbi Tarfon even goes so far as to claim that one may only light Shabbat lights with olive oil. At that point, Rabbi Yokhanan ben Nuri “stood on his feet” [amad al raglav] and shows the wide breadth of his contemporary Jewish Diaspora experience. He claims that in Babylonia they only have sesame oil, in Medea nut oil, in Alexandria radish oil, and more – and what are they each to do? One could have argued that they should just find a way to pay for olive oil and import it; if it’s important enough to them, they can put their money where their values are. But the implication of the page is that Rabbi Yokhanan carried the dispute.

What we take from this incident is the varieties of Jewish practice defined by differences in geography and local culture. The word “Diaspora” itself comes from the Greek for “spreading” [e.g. diagram] and “seed” [e.g. spore], and just like plants are slightly different when planted in different soils, so too are human cultures. Jewish culture is sometimes pictured in a bubble, utterly unaffected by the world around it as it preserved itself unchanged for 2000 years. In fact, Jewish culture has always grown and learned from cultures around it, whether in material culture like oils for lamps or in intellectual culture like science and philosophy. This is one tradition we are glad to continue.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Friday, May 27, 2005

Conflicting Commandments and Who is Wealthy? - Shabbat 25

In traditional Jewish circles, it is assumed that the Torah contains 613 mitzvot [commandments], even as there is substantial disagreement as to what those 613 are – 248 positive commandments [mitzvot aseh – literally “do!”], and 365 negative commandments [mitzvot lo-ta’aseh – “do not do!”]. Maimonides has his list made in the 12th century, but others have theirs that differ. In other words, different individuals look at the same text and come up with different commandments – the quibbling over how to reach 613 means that there aren’t clearly 613 in the Torah text itself.

In any case, today’s Talmud page begins with a classic example of the conundrum of conflicting commandments – what is one to do if one mitzvah prescribes a particular action while another mitzvah says to do the opposite? In this example, the question is whether one may use the “oil of burning” [shemen s’rayfa – a defiled holy oil] for lighting Shabbat lights during a special holiday. On one side, a rabbi claims one should burn it up completely – a mitzvat aseh - even on a holiday, following the example of the Passover sacrifice. On the other, another follows the tradition that the sacred cannot be burned – a mitzvat lo-ta’aseh - on holidays. What should be done?

The general rule is that when a positive and a negative mitzvah conflict, one should follow the positive; but if two disagree with one, follow the two. Here, another positive commandment, that the holiday should be treated as a Shabbaton, or total cessation of work, is brought to settle the issue – two is greater than one. But this discussion does raise interesting possibilities; one can imagine all kinds of scenarios where commandments conflict and yet the issue must be resolved. And we today might not agree on which commandments apply or have precedence over others.

The other interesting excursion in today’s page concerns a more mundane question – who is to be considered wealthy? While Pirke Avot [Sayings of the Fathers – a Mishnah section not commented on in the Talmud] has one answer, here four rabbis offer their own version: Meir says, “he who has pleasure [literally nakhes!] in his wealth,” Tarfon says, “one with 100 vines, 100 fields, and 100 slaves to work in them,” Akiva says, “he with a wife attractive in deeds,” and Yose offers, “he with a privy next to his table.” Of these four, Akiva’s is the most elevated philosophically, but Yose’s is certainly the most practical! I still prefer Pirke Avot’s answer: “the one who is happy with his lot.”

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Prayer Variations - Shabbat 24

Much of Talmud Tractate Berakhot was concerned with the precise order and recitation of specific prayers – the grace after meals [birkat ha-mazon], the Standing Prayer [amida, or sometimes called just tefillah – “prayer”], and, of course, blessings [berakhot]. In its compilation of rabbinic teachings related to Hanukkah, the Talmud today turns to whether one should Hanukkah and, by extension, other holidays, in the course of daily or common prayers. One might think that since the observance of Hanukkah is derabanan [rabbinical], one need not mention it, but on the other hand there is a perceived benefit to “publicizing the miracle.” In this case one need not mention it, but if one chooses to do so it should appear at a specific part of the after-meals blessing.

Then another asks about Rosh Khodesh [new moon, literally “head of the month”], a very important holiday for a lunar calendar (and today making a comeback among Jewish feminist circles because of the parallel to monthly cycles). Because a lunar month can be 29 or 30 days, depending on when the new moon appeared, this holiday was crucial until centuries later the rabbis were able to determine mathematically what the correct pattern would be. Rosh Khodesh is d’oraita [biblical], but does not prohibit work, so is it important enough to mention? After a difference of opinion, we hear the general rule that explains what is mentioned and what is not – if when the Jerusalem Temple stood there were additional animal sacrifices offered, the special event is mentioned multiple times in certain places. If there were no special sacrifices, one should allude to it once but omitting it is no big deal.

Yet again we find that the traditional prayer service as defined by the Talmud contains tremendous variation –what is said on the weekday is not the same as what is said on Shabbat, and if either of those days happens to be a minor holiday like Hanukkah or Rosh Khodesh or even the intermediate days [kholo shel moed] of a long festival like Passover, the text has still more variations. To know all of these details and to be precise in their enactment requires both a time commitment and a submission to Talmudic authority that are both foreign to modern liberal Jewish sensibilities. It is doubtful today that reciting volumes of traditional texts will provide more meaning than heartfelt personal expression.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Why Light the Lights? - Shabbat 23

We find still more details on rabbinic Hanukkah observance in today’s page. Because the rabbis have formulated an explicit verbal blessing for being commanded to light Hanukkah candles, those unable to speak or understand the blessing (deaf-mutes, the mentally-deficient, or children) accomplish nothing. Women, however, are expected and even obligated to light them – one of the exceptions to the general rule that women are exempt from time-specific positive mitzvot [commandments]. Olive oil is the best for a Hanukkah light (in ancient technology), but any oil is permitted. And not only those who light the candles, but even those who see the lit khanukkiah [Hanukkah candelabra] should say a blessing.

The problem with the rabbinic blessing for being commanded to light Hanukkah candles is: where in the Torah did God command it? The holiday was based on events centuries after the Torah was compiled (even according to academic historians), and there is of course no mention of it. What prooftext can the rabbis bring? Deuteronomy 32:17 – “ask your father, and he will show you; your elders, and they will tell you.” In other words, THE RABBIS have commanded it, and since they are the divinely authorized authorities, it is as if God had commanded it himself! Trying to refine this principle means exploring other rabbinic pronouncements – if we only apply such blessings to clear cases, what about the second day of holidays, which is based on doubt? Keep in mind, however, that we know the end of the story – the Talmud gives reasons why its traditional practice should stay as it is, not to make changes.

The most interesting discussion in today’s page concerns motivation for performing commandments – why should one put a khanukkiah in two doorways if they face opposite sides of the house? The answer: in case others might suspect you hadn’t performed the commandment! The same for the commandment of pe’ah [leaving corners of a field unharvested for the poor to collect] – one reason is to help the poor, but another is to avoid suspicion. While guilt may motivate to positive action, this seems a little strong. A much better basis for decision appears when debating which light to light if one has oil enough only for one – the Hanukkah or Shabbat light versus the light for the house. Raba’s answer: clearly the house light because of shalom bayit – peace in the house. In our reading, peace in the house is a high enough value to even supersede rabbinic commandments.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Lighting Hanukkah Lights - Shabbat 22

Continuing its collection of laws relating to Hanukkah nerot [lights/candles], the Talmud tries to refine its general pronouncements from the previous page. If one is supposed to display the lit khanukkiah [Hanukkah candelabra] publicly, at what height? And where? One authority says it should be on the right side of the door as one enters, and another on the left. In a refreshing break from the Talmud’s common practice of indeterminacy, here we get a clear statement: the halakha [law] is that one places the mezuzah [holy doorpost box containing Biblical text] on the right and the khanukkiah on the left. While in rabbinic and pre-modern times, such public displays would be the rule in overwhelmingly-Jewish residence patters, today this emphasis on public display demands both strong connection with one’s Jewish identity and comfort demonstrating that connection to one’s non-Jewish surroundings.

A second debate touched on in a previous page concerns the use to which one may put Hanukkah lights – can one count money by them? The answer is no for an interesting reason: one should not use something produced by a mitzvah [commandment] for a secular purpose, like eating from the fruits and nuts with which one decorates their sukkah [temporary hut for the fall harvest holiday]. If one considers Hanukkah and Sukkot to be cultural traditions rather than mitzvot, however, one can still give the ritual its due. Or one can adapt it to new purposes – how often in modern life do we read by candlelight? Could reading by the light of a Hanukkah menorah in fact help us experience, if only for a moment, part of our ancestors’ lives before electric lighting, or to sympathize with those in the world still living by firelight?

The third Hanukkah question debated here concerns which action fulfills the mitzvah – is it lighting the candles or placing the khanukkiah in the doorway? For contemporary Jews, the lighting is clearly the more important action, but one perspective argues that the placing it publicly could be considered more important. The problem is that Raba said both that lighting and holding it in the house means nothing, AND that lighting it and taking it outside means nothing! In the end, the rabbinic blessing for lighting Hanukkah candles, which says God commanded them to kindle Hanukkah lights, ends this debate. As to where God commanded the Jews in the Torah to light candles to commemorate an event that happened 1000 years after the events ascribed to Mount Sinai and Torah revelation, that is a topic for tomorrow’s daf [page],

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Monday, May 23, 2005

Lights of Hanukkah - Shabbat 21

In their discussion of what may and may not be used to light Shabbat candles, the rabbis practically stumble onto what today in the North American context is treated as a very important Jewish holiday – Hanukkah. They say that the materials forbidden for Shabbat candles are also disqualified for Hanukkah candles for the same reason – they don’t burn evenly and might need to be relit. More interesting for us is what Shabbat 21b has to say about Talmudic Hanukkah observance and beliefs.

The general guideline, we read, is one set of lights for a man and his house, though the zealous (and the zealous of the zealous) have each member of the household light their own. It turns out that Beit Shammai [the house/school of Shammai] and Beit Hillel disagreed how to light the lights. Beit Shammai would light 8 the first night, 7 the second, and so on, to represent the number of days left, or to parallel the decreasing number of bulls sacrificed at the Temple on subsequent days of Sukkot. Beit Hillel lit 1 the first night, 2 the second (as we do today) either to agree with the number of days completed or because of the general principle: “One increases in holiness and does not decrease – d’ma’alin b’kodesh v’ayn moridin.” This religious principle is behind many movements of religious fervor, each more “holier than thou” than the last. However, immediately after this saying we read of two respected men in Sidon who, side by side, lit their menorahs differently, each following the reason and the school they found more persuasive – a very inspiring model for today’s Jewish pluralism.

One is supposed to put the lit hanukkia [Hanukah candelabra] outside the house, or in the public-facing window unless it is a time of danger (i.e. religious persecution) when one may place it on a table. However, one is not supposed to use its light for any purpose like reading, since the candles are understood to commemorate a miracle, a miracle whose story is created by the Talmud itself! Today the Talmud’s story is more well-known than what really happened, but that doesn’t change the truth of history.

If one reads the Books of Maccabees or Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews, histories of the period written much closer to the events of 165 BCE, there is absolutely no mention of any miracle of the light that had enough pure oil for one day but lasted for eight – it first appears in this Talmud page. 1 Maccabees describes a desecrated altar being rededicated in an 8 day festival on the 25th of Kislev and an annual celebration declared by Judah Maccabee. Why 8 days? When Solomon dedicated his Temple, it was an 8 day celebration. Why the 25th of Kislev? That was the date the Greeks had defiled the Temple for one of their celebrations, so a good date to mark its re-purification. In the Talmud, the date for Hanukkah (which means “dedication”) is the same, but the reasoning is very different – a divine miracle instead of a human achievement. Celebrating Hanukkah today should be a memory of the story, but also of the real history behind it.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

For further reading:

The First Book of Maccabees – – go to Apocrypha, then 1st Macacbees chapter 4, verses 36-59.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

What to Burn? - Shabbat 20

A tricky phenomenon for the general category of actions begun before Shabbat that may continue during Shabbat is the question of fire. In pre-rabbinic times, there were arguments between the Pharisees and the Sadducees concerning the rule in Exodus 35:3 – “you shall not kindle a fire in your habitations on the Sabbath day.” Did this mean no fire should be burning (Sadducees), or that one could not light a new fire but could continue to use one that had been lit before sundown (Pharisees)? The Rabbinic answer to this question followed the Pharisees, which is one reason why the rabbis created the ritual of lighting Shabbat candles at sundown Friday – to clearly demonstrate that one could use lights lit before Shabbat during Shabbat.

Today’s Talmud page does not explore this historical or theoretical background, but rather the rules about fire and Shabbat candles stipulated in the Mishnah texts under consideration. These Mishnah texts also take the Pharisaic/Rabbinic perspective on the issue as a given, so they are more concerned with the mechanics of following through on that approach. After all, fire is an active chemical process, and often requires stirring or adding wood which could be considered conscious interventions to “kindle” a fire as forbidden on Shabbat. So in general logs should catch fire through the “greater part,” says the Mishnah, and the Talmud explores what that means – of each log or the entire pile? Of its thickness or circumference, or both? Or another way to think about it, so that an artisan would not use it for something else. And we have the predictable debate of which burning materials need to catch fire “through the greater part” and which do not.

In that same vein of materials, we also read about what materials may serve as acceptable wicks for Shabbat candles, and what may not. The reasoning behind these exclusions is not explored until tomorrow’s page, because they are more interested in what materials the Mishnah is talking about – the vocabulary has changed enough that they are not sure what each word means? Some rabbis even say, “I asked nekhutay yama [seafarers] what it is” to find out what the Mishnah’s rabbis meant. In other words, as much as the Talmud claims to be an organic and precise transmission of oral tradition from the earliest generations of Jewish legend through Pharisees and early Rabbis, sometimes they just don’t know what the words mean any more.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Saturday, May 21, 2005

The Power of Inertia - Shabbat 19

On our previous page, we considered the question of foreseeable consequences – if one provides the impetus for a non-Jew to perform an action that for a Jew would violate a Shabbat restriction, is it a problem? While today’s page continues that discussion, it also considers another side to the same question that was touched on yesterday – what about actions begun before Shabbat that have lingering effects during Shabbat? Does the power of inertia commit a violation of Shabbat?

The example the original Mishnah text considered was that of an oil or wine press, where one loads the container with olives or grapes, sets it to press the fluid out, and it continues to ooze the valuable liquid through Shabbat. The Talmud asks which authority put the general principle so clearly: “everything which comes automatically is well?” Some suggest Rabbi Ishmael, since he would permit one to finish crushing garlic or grapes during Shabbat; others nominate Rabbi Eleazar, who accepted honey that oozed from crushed honeycomb on Shabbat. The point of both is that actions performed before Shabbat that continue to produce effects during Shabbat are not necessarily forbidden – the idea behind modern Orthodox use of timers set before Shabbat for lights and devices to turn on and off during Shabbat.

The basic point to these discussions, however, is to consider the longer-term ramifications of one’s actions – the fact that one may begin a process that continues on Shabbat is a parallel to seeing the effects of our own actions beyond our immediate circumstances. So one is told not to set out on a ship less than 3 days before Shabbat, lest one not return in time. Some require a legal fiction of agreeing with the ship’s captain to stop traveling for Shabbat, even if both know the ship will not stop, but others do not.

The most creative response to this last teaching I have seen is the poem “The Israeli Navy” by the American Jewish poet Marvin Bell, cited in Voices Within the Ark: The Modern Jewish Poets, p414. The poem reads, in part:

“The Israeli Navy,
Sailing to the end of the world,
. . . .
Turned back,
Rather than sail on the Sabbath.
Six days, was the consensus,
Was enough for anyone.

So the world, it was concluded,
Was three days wide
In each direction,
Allowing three days back.”

In other words, if our horizons are bounded by our own self-imposed ideological limitations, our world can appear only three days wide!

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Friday, May 20, 2005

A Non-Jewish Shabbat? - Shabbat 18

There has always been a philosophical tension at the heart of traditional Jewish practice – on one hand, the God of Israel is imagined to be the one and only God existing in the universe. On the other hand, he has given very specific rules like those concerning Shabbat, rules that can define who has a share in the “world to come” and who does not, to a tiny minority of humanity (i.e. the Jews). So what should the Jews do about non-Jews on Shabbat – should they avoid causing them to break Shabbat rules, or should they not care since the Shabbat rules don’t apply to non-Jews anyways?

The Mishnah text cited at the end of the previous Talmud page which forms the framework for the next few pages’ discussion concerns these kind of questions – for example, while Beit Shammai [the house/school of Shammai] would forbid selling something to or helping load something for a Gentile that could not arrive home before Shabbat, Beit Hillel would permit it. And a further discussion in the Talmud details the argument – Beit Shammai wanted the Gentile to be able to arrive at home before Shabbat began, while Beit Hillel said all he needed to be able to do was reach the first house inside the wall of his home city, not his own home. And Rabbi Akiva comes to state the final conclusion: as long as the non-Jew leaves the Jew’s house before Shabbat. Or, in another example, Beit Shammai would allow a man (i.e. a Jew) to sell his khametz [leavened bread] to a non-Jew only if he would eat it before Passover, while Beit Hillel says as long as the Jew can eat it, he can sell it – it doesn’t matter what happens to it once the non-Jew owns it.

In other words, for the Akiva/Hillel/Talmudic view, once the non-Jew is beyond a sphere where Shabbat observance matters (i.e. a Jewish home), it doesn’t matter whether they observe Shabbat restrictions or not. For the Shammai view, one’s responsibility to not break an important rule does not end with one’s own actions, but rather with the events one causes to take place. From a contemporary, ethical standpoint, one could argue either side. Who am I to impose my values on others who can make their own decisions? And who am I to allow and even facilitate another breaking a rule I consider important because of something I did? Does your responsibility end once something leaves your sphere, or is it illegitimate to require others to live up to your standards? The answer, of course, is that both are important ethical approaches, and it is fortunate that both were preserved in the Talmud to provoke just such a discussion.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Purity Laws and Non-Jewish Interactions - Shabbat 17

One of the ironies of Shabbat from the rabbinic period to our own day is that traditional-minded Jews have observed their Shabbat restrictions and ritual purity laws while surrounded by a world that couldn’t care less. In fact, in the ancient world Jews were thought of as lazy because they insisted on resting once every seven days! A major confrontation between Hillel and Shammai concerned whether baskets of grapes could become impure – when Hillel asks why Shammai cares about grapes and not olives, Shammai responds, “watch out, or it will apply to olives too!” The point here for us is that Hillel, the head of the Sanhedrin [rabbinic council] is outvoted and shamed; but the outside world could not make heads nor tails of why.

In trying to list the 18 legal issues enacted that same day, many nominations deal with relations with the other 99% of the world. Imagine the non-Jew’s response to the scenario envisioned by this teaching: “one should give his wallet to a nokhri [stranger – non-Jew] if Shabbat evening falls on him while he is on the road.” That would certainly provide amusement and pleasure, but the very next teaching would not: non-Jewish bread, and oil, and wine, and daughters (i.e. wives) were forbidden. In other words, the basic social courtesy of ‘breaking bread together’ is impossible.

They debate why these items – the bread and oil are forbidden because of their wine, which was used for libations to idols (a historical fact not mentioned in the Talmud because it was known or assumed). And their wine was forbidden because of their daughters, who in turn were forbidden because of davar akher [another matter], and “another matter” because of “another matter!” What could be so terrible that it has two layers of euphemism? Commentators believe it refers to idolatry, and the second layer is explained in the Talmud itself – “Said R. Nahman b. Isaac: They decreed that a nokhri child shall defile as if by ziva [impure sexual discharge], so that an Israelite child should not associate with him for ‘lying with a male.’”

Is that all “they” do? Is that what we would all “do” with them? Just as their daughters are treated as niddah [menstrually impure] from birth, their babies are instantly sexually impure. How often was “lying with a male” between Jews and non-Jews a problem? Obviously more than zero, but we will never know. What we do know today, however, is that discrimination in one direction is no pardon for hatred and slander in return.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Spiritual and Ritual Uncleanness - Shabbat 16

If we needed more confirmation that Rabbinic concept of being ritually unclean [tameh] has nothing to do with contemporary standards of cleanliness and hygiene, today’s page provides it. Containers made of wood, skin, bone, or glass remain clean if they are flat, but can be made unclean if they are hollow [literally mekablin – “receive something”]. Wood absorbs liquid and thus can be very unhygienic – in fact, thousands of lives were saved in 19th century Europe when hospitals switched from wooden bedframes to iron ones. But metal here can certainly be defiled, whether flat or hollow. And how does one “clean” such a defiled object? In this, pottery, wood, metal, glass and other materials all have something in common – if they are broken, they become “clean.” If only the dirty dishes worked the same way today. . .

Lest one believe that that is the easy escape from t’umah [uncleanness], each material has different standards for what may be done with the pieces. If the broken pieces of a metal container are remade into another container, even if melted down and refashioned, they revert to their previous status of uncleanness. For a ceramic or wooden vessel, on the other hand, if they are broken they are clean, and if they are remade into a new container it can become defiled again but is not automatically unclean.

Now we today may think these rules of ritual cleanliness to be silly, unscientific, and a vestige of a worldview that believed a divine power cared about every last detail of every last part of life. We could interpret these teaching allegorically, saying for example that just as one cannot create a clean metal vessel from pieces of an unclean one, one cannot create a just society built on little injustices. But we also need to remember that these definitions of purity and impurity had and have real life consequences – trying to resolve exactly what were the 18 issues on which Beit Shammai [the house of Shammai] and Beit Hillel disagreed, Rabbi Nahman b. Isaac suggested that they declared that the daughters of the Kutim [Samaritans, a branch-off of the Jewish people] were niddah [menstrually impure] from their cradles. In other words, even touching one, let alone marrying one, was a source of spiritual schmutz [dirt]. From that ethic, we have little positive to learn.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Roots of Rabbinic Judaism - Shabbat 15

Every ideological and religious movement has their founding period, even if later generations claim origins much more remote than history supports. Thus we have seen the rabbis claim that their blessings and rituals date back to Biblical figures, and that some of their laws are halakha l’moshe misinai – a law from Moses on Sinai. Today’s Talmud page, on the other hand, gives us a glimpse into the history behind the real roots of Rabbinic Judaism.

When the Talmud was compiled, its rabbis looked back on oral traditions going back several hundred years. And so sometimes they are not sure which teacher taught a particular saying originally, or they know that Hillel and Shammai disagreed on three topics but they now have to figure out what those three were. They differed as to how much flour required a special offering, or how much contained water poured into a mikvah [ritual bath] made it impure, or whether a woman’s menstrual impurity applied retroactively to her last clean test or only forward from the point she first noticed blood. In all of these cases, the Sages split the difference and found a compromise.

To resolve who originally decreed glassware could become unclean, the Talmud must turn to history. While some claim it goes back to very early teachers, we read a fascinating anecdote about when Rabbi Ishmael fell sick and the others wanted to know “two or three” things his father Rabbi Jose had said. Rabbi Jose claimed that 180 years before the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE the “wicked kingdom” took over Israel, 80 years before the destruction glassware was so categorized, and 40 years before the destruction the rabbinic Sanhedrin [council] left the Temple for the marketplace. His first date is problematic historically – the Maccabees took over Israel around 160 BCE, and the Romans around 66 BCE, so it is more likely that the date for the “wicked kingdom” is a round rather than precise number. The claim that the glassware ruling was 80 years before the destruction would put it a generation later than the earliest claim, or during Hillel’s time. According to another tradition cited here, Hillel and his descendants led the Sanhedrin for 100 years of the Temples existence, which would mean from 30 BCE to 70 CE. Thus while we can’t be exactly precise on the dates, we do feel the importance of precedence and historical transition.

This expands on my point from our previous page – while the Biblical past is beyond historical development, history and generation in Rabbinic period are very important for the Talmud’s rabbis to establish. Who was earlier than whom, who was whose teacher, who lived and taught before the Temple’s destruction and who did not. In other words, as timeless as they claim their teachings to be, even they know on some level that outside events have always had a significant impact on the content of Rabbinic Judaism.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Monday, May 16, 2005

Unclean Hands - Shabbat 14

As we have already seen, Rabbinic concepts of “clean” and “unclean” have much more to do with ritual purity than our standards of dirt or germ removal. In today’s case, the particular question is what may make something holy like the terumah food offering unclean. Surprisingly, we read that a sefer [holy book or scroll, i.e. books of the Bible] are unclean – holy books being unclean? On an anthropological level, we can understand that holy things have special power, and thus are dangerous. And crossing the boundary between holy and human can often make one ritually unclean simply for having crossed that boundary.

The answer the Talmud gives here is that they used to store terumah with the holy books, since both were holy, but because the books were harmed by the vermin attracted by the food, they were defined as unclean. And human hands that touch a holy book are called unclean, for Rabbi Parnok decreed that “one who grasps the sefer Torah [Torah scroll] naked shall be buried naked.” Does he really mean naked? The Talmud clarifies that it means without following the rules of not touching the scroll itself – thus the tradition of the yad [hand] as a pointer for reading the Torah scroll. And the “uncleanness” of holy books was used as the code for deciding which books should be included by the Rabbis in the canonized Hebrew Bible and which should be excluded – do they render the hands unclean? If so, they were holy enough for inclusion.

It turns out, however, that the rule goes even further – hands themselves are defined as “unclean” for touching terumah! Why? Because they “wander” and tend to touch things, and who knows where those hands have been? This rule is ascribed to two of the earliest rabbinic teachers – Hillel and Shammai themselves, and not to their schools of thought. While this may be historical, the last attribution is certainly not – claiming that Solomon (one millennium before the first rabbis) enacted the rules of the eruv and washing the hands! Within the rabbinic period, the rabbis have a sense of historical precedent and development, but before that point, everything is up for grabs. In some ways, this is a common human phenomenon – anything before our own time is emotionally considered “in the past,” with more in common between World War I and Crusades than between World War I and events in our lifetime. For the rabbis, anything before their time was the “holy past,” where gradual development and historical evolution were not relevant concepts. Thus Solomon created concepts of rabbinic Shabbat observance, and so on and so on.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Sunday, May 15, 2005

The Dangers of Monthly Impurity - Shabbat 13

One of the more touchy subjects in rabbinic law is the question of the menstruating woman [niddah] – just like the eruv [permissive boundary] for Shabat, it has its own Talmudic tractate. A mishnah reference to the separation of impure people from one another earlier in tractate Shabbat, leads to a discussion of this particular law. Based on Torah law, the niddah is considered ritually impure and can “schmutzify” (make impure – my own slang) others by physical contact until her blood flow has stopped for seven days. The question considered here is whether a man and his menstruating wife can share a bed if they each wear separate garments. Fortunately this pre-occupation with menstrual status has faded from the lives of many contemporary Jews.

Some argue that since two boarders at an inn can sit at the same table while one eats meat and the other eats cheese (even though eating both by one person would violate kashrut [kosher dietary laws]). By analogy, they can share the bed without touching each other because there are two minds involved (and thus can remind each other) with an unusual feature (being clothed) to separate them. Other claim that the niddah is like a neighbor’s wife, and since one cannot share a bed with a neighbor’s wife, even in separate garments, one may not do so with a niddah.

This concept of keeping extra distance to avoid sin is what we’ve been discussing in previous pages. So it is understandable to read a teaching of Ulla that the nazir [one who has vowed to consume no wine] to even avoid the vineyard. What surprises us is that it appears to prove pliga deeday adeeday – he disagrees with himself. For when Ulla returned from his school, he would kiss his sisters on the breasts (other say, on the hands)! If one is forbidden to have sexual relations with one’s siblings, where is this leading? Hypocrisy was no more accepted then than it is now.

To prove the general point, however, a citation from another rabbinic collection tells of a scholar who died in middle age, and whose widow carried around his tefillin [prayer boxes] to other scholars asking why he died if obeying the commandments promised long life? None could answer her, but Elijah (the supposed author of the collection) discovered that her husband shared her bed during her seven cleansing days after her menstrual flow stopped. Elijah’s response: “Blessed is God that he killed him” fairly for this violation, despite his great learning. Probably not the most comforting words to the widow, but to the (male) rabbis defining these laws, a new confirmation of the dangers of approaching the niddah.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Alas, there is also an interesting anecdote about the teachings enacted in the upper chamber of a Rabbi’s house on the one day Beit Hillel was outnumbered by Beit Shammai, But we will have to let it go for this cycle of the Daf Yomi. And I apologize for the pun in the first sentence of today's blog entry, but it was (originally) unintentional.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Gateway Activities and Limited Angels - Shabbat 12

As restrictive as the life defined by Tamudic Shabbat observance may appear to us, imagine how strict it would be (and would have been for our ancestors) without the qualifications, legal fictions, and refinements of Talmudic argument. In our original Mishnah text, it says that one should not read by a lamp on Shabbat. Why not, the Talmud asks? One might be tempted to intervene by tilting it so that the oil would continue burning longer (obviously, centuries before electric lighting) – thus a conscious intervention to cause something to burn. In the course of that clarification, they also ask whether one may kill vermin on Shabbat, and Beit Shammai [the house/school of Shammai] say that one may not negotiate an arranged marriage for a baby girl or teach a son to read or comfort mourners or even visit the sick on Shabbat! Fortunately, Beit Hillel permits these things (with no editorial comment on arranged marriages), and the position of Beit Hillel is clearly accepted because the next discussion turns to what one should say when visiting a sick person on Shabbat.

While many alternatives are offered, the interesting debate is what language one should speak in such a setting – Hebrew or Aramaic? Rabbi Eleazar would sometimes use one, and sometimes the other. And the Talmud asks, “didn’t Rabbi Judah say you should not ask for your needs in Aramaic, and Rabbi Johanan said the angels don’t even understand Aramaic?” A very intriguing glimpse into rabbinic theology and “angeology:” while one may speak to God or to the Shekhina [divine presence] in any language, the angels only speak the divine language of Hebrew! Fortunately for this case, the Shekhina is assumed to be supporting the ill, so Aramaic is understandable by the kingdom of Heaven. Who knew one would need a translator?

The restriction on reading by lamplight, however, remains – if two are studying different subjects by the same light, they each might accidentally tip the lamp, so they should not unless they study the same scroll. An open fire is impermissible even for ten people, because any one could forget and stir the fire. And Rabbi Ishmael b. Elisha assumed he could read without tilting, but when the moment arrived he was about to do it and celebrates the sages for predicting his inclination (though some say he did tilt and promised a sacrifice when the Temple was rebuilt). The point for the Talmud here is that one should avoid activities that lead to violations – just as some speak of “gateway drugs” that lead to harder drugs, the rabbis are concerned about “gateway activities” that would lead to Shabbat violations, which might then lead to rampant violations of law, ethics, and morality. From our perspective, however, not all gateways go to the same dark place – some lead to freedom of choice.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Friday, May 13, 2005

Wisdom and Temptation - Shabbat 11

In the line of “sayings of Rab” that began on previous pages, our page begins with more wise sayings. Some may have had wisdom in their own day, but others are timelessly true: “any illness but that of the bowels, any pain but heart pain, or any ache but a headache.” We may disagree with his last one (“any evil but an evil wife”), but it is hard to disagree with the next saying – though the original refers to reshut, or domain (as discussed above), I prefer how this saying sounds in the Soncino translation as “government:”

“Raba b. Mehasia also said in the name of R. Hama b. Goria in Rab's name: If all seas were ink, reeds pens, the heavens parchment, and all men writers, they would not suffice to write down the intricacies of government.”

Is that not true for all times and places, and most certainly our own?

And again the “potpourri” quality of an individual Talmud page makes its appearance. We find a discussion of whether a man with a discharge of pus can go out on Shabbat with the bag required to catch the discharge, but in the more interesting context of whether an individual can go out wearing the instrument of their trade: a tailor with a needle, a moneychanger with a coin, a scribe with his quill, or a dyer with a color sample on his neck. If they are worn as clothing, one might think they would be allowed out. And Rabbi Judah says that artisans are liable for the tools of their trade, but all others would be exempt – so a non-tailor carrying a needle would be fine!

Why this differentiation? The initial Mishnah text under discussion makes clear that the overall objective is something else – a man and a woman with forbidden discharges are prohibited from even eating together mipney hergel aveira – because it could lead to sin/transgression. In other words, if one leaves home with the tools of one’s trade on Shabbat, one might be tempted to work. In our context, if you took your laptop computer, Blackberry, or cellphone with you on vacation, the changes of work being are that much greater. So to avoid “temptation,” leave them at home!

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Thursday, May 12, 2005

When to Eat and How to Give Gifts - Shabbat 10

As we saw in Berakhot, where many pages were spent discussion which prayers could be said at what distance from a privy/outhouse, the Talmudic Rabbis do not ignore the real-world context of their pronouncements. When considering when a lawsuit begins, so as to know what to avoid beginning shortly before afternoon prayers, the importance of the real world is re-emphasized: Rabbi Hisda and Rabbah b. [son of] Rabbi Huna sat and judged all day long “until their hearts were faint.” And they are corrected by Rabbi Hiyya b. Rab, who says when it says in Exodus 18 that Moses judged the people “from morning to evening,” do you really think he sat there the entire day? Rabbi Hiyya says he must have stopped to study Torah, but we would have any other number of reasons to take a break. And so does the following teaching: judges should judge until the main meal of the day, but not after.

And what time should that be? Of course, there are recommendations for meal times: The first hour of the day is the mealtime for “gladiators” (or circus performers), the second for robbers (who are up all night), and the third for inheritors (who have the money and leisure to eat early). There is some dispute after this, some saying laborers eat in the fourth hour and all others in the fifth while others say that everybody eats in the fourth hour, laborers in the fifth, and scholars [talmiday khakhamim] in the sixth. What ever the order, the last statement is certainly true – “after that, it is like throwing a stone in a barrel.” In other words, avoid late lunches.

The most interesting discussion in today’s page is not what blessings one may say in a bath house as opposed to a privy, but rather sayings about giving gifts. Consider this saying of Rab: “The one who gives a gift to his fellow must inform him” in an imitation of God, who in the Bible often takes explicit credit. And Shimon Ben Gamliel likewise suggests that if one gives food to a child, one should inform his mother. Another rabbi suggests one doesn’t need to inform them, but the Talmud clarifies that that only applies to something one’s fellow would find out anyways. The wisest insight: one should not distinguish (by a gift) one child over the others. Why? Because of the small gift Jacob gave Joseph over his brothers, their jealousy led to the descent into Egypt. The power of myth to inspire fair treatment?

Or perhaps the fruit of real-life experience. To draw on the words of a contemporary judge, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (hardly my favorite) put it very well in a speech: “Parents know that children will accept quite readily all sorts of arbitrary substantive dispositions: no television in the afternoon, or no television in the evening, or even no television at all. But try to let one brother or sister watch television when the others do not, and you will feel the fury of the fundamental sense of justice unleashed."

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Limits and Beginnings - Shabbat 9

One of the challenges the Talmudic rabbis face is defining edges – when does private space stop and public begin, what is the beginning or end of an action, and so on. Today’s page begins by evaluating a Baraita [a teaching from the age of the Mishnah not included in that authoritative compilation] that claims that a threshold of a house can be both public and private space – private when the door is open, and public when the door is closed. So the Talmud’s rabbis try to define how far within the opening something must be to be on one side or the other, and how far down the covering of the door must be to be considered closed, and so on.

And then they turn to another Mishnah teaching about activities one should not begin before the daily afternoon prayers, but do not need to be stopped in the middle if begun: one should not go to the barber, nor to the baths nor or a tannery, nor to eat nor to a lawsuit. And so the Talmud begins by trying to define why these activities – one might be enmeshed in a long lawsuit, or one might come in at the end and have a new argument to make them start over again. One might have a hairstyle like Ben Elasah (who cut his hair close which took a long time), or worse the scissors might break and waiting to fetch new ones would take even longer.

But the last definitions are questions rarely considered today: when do these activities begin, so as to know whether or not should still stop or if one may continue? And we read that a haircut begins when the barber places his sheet on your knees; a bath when one removes his cloak; tanning when tying on an apron. And eating? One says when you wash your hands, but another says “when you loosen your belt”! I guess some rabbis took their eating more seriously than others. . .When would YOU define when a haircut or a bath begins? I might have considered after the first cut, or getting a toe wet, but my commentary has yet to be included in the Talmud proper.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Letter and Spirit of the Law - Shabbat 8

The contemporary liberal Jew, whose personal experience has been far removed from the world of halakhic [religious legal] restriction, may find these discussions in Shabbat to be totally foreign to his/her life and memory. Why should rabbis care how far I carry an object, or where I throw it, or how close to the ground an object comes to be considered part of the ground (answer: 3 tefakhim or handsbreadths)? Those who are familiar with a halakhic lifestyle, however, either through study or personal experience, recognize the exactitude of these discussions. And their underlying rationale is understandable, in a way: if the ruler of the entire universe had given you precise instructions of what you were supposed to do to live a good life and receive a reward in this life and/or in the world to come, wouldn’t you want to know exactly what you were supposed to do, and what the limits were?

On the question of limits, we find another example of the eruv extension in today’s page. We read recently that the eruv is a rabbinic legal fiction that enables someone to extend the bounds of what is considered private space so as to facilitate carrying objects on Shabbat. We read today that one may also use the mechanism of placing food in a discrete location to extend walking distance – the 2000 cubits one is allowed to walk from a private abode may actually be measured from where one places special food just before Shabbat, thus enabling one to call that spot “home” to begin the 2000 cubit radius. At question here is not the proposition that a home can be defined by some food in a hole in the ground, but rather how deep that hole must be to count! And the answer here is less than 10 handsbreadths deep, because then it would be another private space, while if less than 10 it is still part of the space above it.

As many who are outside of or question the halakhic worldview have done, one begins to consider the possibility that such an extension of a legal fiction begins to make the original rule seem ignored. I have the same reaction to “kosher for Passover” chocolate cakes – if the point is to eat lekhem ‘oni [the bread of affliction], then don’t dodge that by sticking to the detail rule about leaven/yeast [hametz] while eating chocolate cake! In the end, it becomes a battle between the “letter” of the law, and the “spirit” of the law, and for individuals who don’t accept the law’s authority in the first place, even more removed than that.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Monday, May 09, 2005

Rabbinic Precision - Shabbat 7

Sometimes the differences between modern life and the Talmudic world are major and conceptual, but at others they are minor and technical. The case of measurements and units is one of the latter. Previous pages in Shabbat and today’s page in particular are concerned with specific measurements – public ground cannot extend over a height of 10 “handsbreadths” [tefakhim – around 4 inches each], and the minimum range for throwing violations is four “cubits” [amot – 18-24 inches]. The reason these measurements are approximate is because they come from a period before precise precision in measurements was feasible – a cubit was the distance from one’s elbow to the end of their middle finger, which was different on everyone, and hands are notoriously of different sizes. What is interesting is that this indeterminacy does not prevent the rabbis from being as precise as they are in defining boundaries, even though the measurement itself was imprecise.

Thus they consider the case of throwing an object onto a wall – if the wall were over 10 tefakhim (3-4 feet), he would be exempt because it is as if he threw it into the air; if the wall were lower, it would be like throwing onto the ground in a karmelit [intermediate space], and thus a liability-inducing transfer from private to other space would have taken place. Can one really throw an object exactly on top of a wall? They consider the case of throwing something sticky, like a juicy fig cake, or perhaps throwing an object into a cavity in the wall. Some question whether such a case is really possible, but in the end the resolution is that the original saying must refer to “on” a wall rather than “into” a wall.

The last example, something touched on in earlier pages, is the most relevant. Rabbi Hisda claims that if one puts a rod in private ground and throws something upwards that lands on it, it is still private ground because private ground extends upwards to the sky. The Talmud then asks if his case is like that of Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi, who considered this case: if a tree is in private ground but its branches tilt into the street, and one throws an object that gets caught in the branches, is the tree considered private or public ground? Rabbi Judah would consider the branches as legally part of the tree, but the other Rabbis follow contemporary homeowner ethics – the branches over your head are your problem, even if the tree is planted in the other person’s yard. Just don’t gather those branches on Shabbat – a different mitzvah violation!

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Legal Fictions - Shabbat 6

As an undergraduate student, I was told that Aristotle’s philosophical writings were very difficult to begin reading because every section assumed that you already knew every other section – so there was no good starting point. In some ways, the Talmud is similar – here, several pages into their discussion of “carrying” on Shabbat between public and private realms, the rabbis define both the terms of their debate and the general rule that was already assumed. We find on today’s page that there are four domains: public, private, karmelit [intermediate], and an “exempt place.” And we find what they are. Private space is defined by a wall or trench of 10 “handsbreadths” in height and four wide. A public space is a main road, or a public square, or an open alley. And one is not allowed to carry from one to the other – if done unwittingly, one is liable for a sin offering; if done deliberately, one may be punished by stoning! And the intermediate space of the karmelit, like the sea or a field, has its own rules.

The most interesting case, however, is one that is only alluded to in this section because the issue has its own entire tractate in the Talmud. We read here that if many houses open to a common courtyard, or in a blind alley, one is generally not allowed to carry out UNLESS there is an “eruv.” The Eruv is a rabbinic “legal fiction” that creates a new boundary to define private space and thus facilitate carrying over a greater range of space. One version of the eruv stipulates that houses sharing a courtyard could prepare food together in the center, thus marking the entire courtyard as private space for Shabbat and enabling them to carry from one house to another. The most famous versions are based on strings or wires on poles that can define neighborhoods, even entire towns, as the same private space, thus facilitating carrying. In other words, many of the rules just discussed and to be discussed on coming pages are rendered practically moot in regular Shabbat experience by such legal creativity!

As we know, of course, the commentary is its own reward. Thus a tractate like Shabbat may not get to the basic rules under discussion for several pages, because its students will be studying it over and over again. In one sentence in this page, we find a tantalizing allusion to a “secret scroll” from the school of Rabbi Hiyya, a phenomenon with which commentators and academic scholars find fascinating independent of its relationship to Shabbat. Is this a dramatic device to make a teaching seem older? Is it rabbinic censorship? Or something misplaced? Those are the questions that interest us – but not those that interest the Talmud. When we write our own, we can pursue our own directions.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Saturday, May 07, 2005

The Unsolvable Question - Shabbat 5

As with anything human, there are limits even to Talmudic arguments. Continuing their attempts to define what constitutes a violation of the ban on carrying an object across the boundary between public and private, they consider a new hypothetical. While the original Mishnah example was two people handing an object to each other, what if one throws something to another? It depends how accurate the thrower is: if the catcher moves to catch it, he is liable, but if he stands still in his place, the thrower is liable. A far cry from playing catch with a baseball (staying still to catch is more accurate) or football (hitting the other while running is better)! The point here is the catcher who moves is exerting agency, while the accurate thrower is the primary agent behind the exchange. Why is this a problem? Because in some sense, one’s own hand can be considered a private realm, but the air is public. One of the variables for the rabbis is the height of the object, so they also consider if one sets up a pole with a basket on the top, and the object one throws up rests in the basket, one again is liable. Basketball?

But then we have another case, even more tricky: what if someone throws something and then moves and catches it himself? Is it a violation of boundaries or not? In the English translation, the resolution reads “The question stands over;” the original Aramaic is teku, which has no exact translation. However, traditional Jewish folklore treats this word as an acronym for tishbi yetaretz kushiyot v’ba’ayot – “the man from Tishbi (Elijah) will solve difficulties and problems.” In other words, when Elijah returns from heaven as a precursor to the Messiah, he will spend at least some of his time resolving the unsolvable questions where the Rabbis got stuck. This indicates a willingness to live with limited uncertainty, but also an optimism that there is an answer out there that will someday be found. Today, when we say, “I don’t know” about the universe, we do better to say, “I don’t know YET,” since we’re not waiting for Elijah any more.

Later on in today’s page, the same phrase appears in the question of carrying out objects at rest – if a nut in a container is considered “at rest,” and that container then floats on water, is the nut considered in the container and at rest or on the water and not at rest? Again the answer is teku – no decision at this time. Our response to these questions might be “who cares?” or “you’re certainly stretching the question of ‘carrying’ on Shabbat.” There are three things to consider – first, we have 150 more pages in tractate Shabbat to go; second, this again is an example of exploring what our cultural ancestors considered important; and third, if you were given the job of defining what was public and private space, how would you refine those concepts? The Talmud’s rabbis strove to meet a task they believed God had given them – to define the rules of living for every aspect of life. And if it took them years of discussion, they believed it was worth it for the end results of pleasing their God and “the world to come.”

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Friday, May 06, 2005

The Rabbi as Legal Scholar - Shabbat 4

In contemporary liberal Judaism, we think of rabbis as clergy – experts in Jewish identity, yes, but also personal counselors, ceremony officiants, community representatives, and even synagogue complaint departments. For Talmudic Judaism, and for the first 1800 years of Rabbinic Judaism, a rabbi’s primary role was as legal scholar and judge: someone who had memorized halakhic [religious legal] traditions, could reason through them, and could offer an authorized legal ruling. This helps the rabbis of the Talmud make sense to us – the rabbis we are reading about in Shabbat sound little like the intellectual sermonizers and sensitive pastoral counselors of modern experience.

One of the common techniques of any legal scholar is to look at hypothetical situations, like our Mishnah’s example of the men on either side of a doorway bringing or taking objects from the public to the private domain [reshut]. In today’s page, we consider two other hyptheticals – in the first, what should a man do who puts a loaf of bread in an already-hot oven to bake and then realizes that it’s Shabbat? One is forbidden to bake bread on Shabbat on penalty of a sin-offering, but it is rabbinically prohibited to remove bread from an oven during Shabbat as well! A literal case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” The choice is between an unwitting violation of a stricter rule and a conscious violation of a lesser rule. One suggestion is to ask another to remove it, thus having them break a rule to save the first person from breaking a greater rule, but that is ruled out as inciting another to sin. In the end, it is decided that he may remove it before he commits a “stoning prohibition” [asur selika] – in other words, it’s serious but not deadly serious.

The second hypothetical is employed not specifically to clarify the original hypothetical of two men in a doorway, but rather to ascertain who created the original mishnah discussion in the first place as a means to understand it better. Just as we would read private letters and other legal writings of an American “founding father” to explore what they meant by “property” or “liberty” or “bear arms” in the Constitution, so here later generations of Talmudic rabbis want to connect the Mishnah with its author, and thus other teachings on the same subject. One side proposes the authorship of Rabbi Akiva, because he claimed that throwing an object from private sphere to private sphere through a public space involved a violation of the boundaries (though the other rabbis disagreed). Akiva’s perspective might agree with the Mishnah’s ascription of blame, thus helping to explain its reasoning. Another suggests Rabbi (meaning Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi, the compiler of the Mishnah), because he argued against the other rabbis that throwing an object from public space to public space through private space is a boundary violation. We can see, regardless of how this issue is resolved, how much this resembles modern “legalese.”

Why is all of this important? In short, halakha permits one to carry objects in private space that one may not carry in a public area, and crossing the boundary as we have seen is a problem. As we will discover in later dapim [Talmud pages], however, rabbinic ingenuity will find ways to finesse this and other Shabbat restrictions to make life more livable.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Study and Distraction - Shabbat 3

Tractate Shabbat is over twice as long as tractate Berakhot for two reasons – the Mishnah texts are longer, and there is much more commentary around the Talmud text in the classic Vilna edition of the Talmud on which the daf yomi [daily page] cycle is based. The central text of the Talmud as we have it today is a combination of the Mishnah (compiled around 200 CE) and a commentary connected to the Mishnah (compiled over the next 300 years). But on the standard daf [page] this base is surrounded by generations of commentary – Rashi from medieval France, the Tosafists (Rashi’s students), and many others. On some topics they have less to say, but on the detailed legalistic discussions of contextual halakha [religious law], there is always another side to the argument.

Today’s page continues the discussion of the boundaries between public and private. If a hand may transport an object from public to private, as the Mishnah example says it can, does that mean the hand has an intermediate status between public and private? And if one picks up something and moves it from one realm to another, may one put it down again until the end of Shabbat? Must it be done unknowingly to be exempt? Much of the debate revolves around four categories of rabbinic law: liable [khayav] or exempt [patur] for a sin offering for doing X, and X being permitted [mutar] or forbidden [asur] to do. In fact, for rabbinic decisions some actions can be exempt from sin offerings but still forbidden to do – we would say, strongly recommended against.

The most interesting piece of the page is a short anecdote that gives us insight into the creative process of the Talmud itself. Rab asks Rabbi a question about a case like the above, which Rabbi answers correctly, but Rab is admonished by Rabbi Hiyya – when a rabbi is studying one tractate, don’t distract him with questions about another! Because rabbinic teachings in this period were based on memory and oral recitation, this makes sense. To read behind the admonishment, when Rab asked his question and Rabbi gave his answer to this situation, they were actually discussing something totally different. This tangential comment was remembered and passed down as part of the teachings on Shabbat, even though it was thought of in the course of studying something else.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Details, Details - Shabbat 2

We enter the world of Shabbat restrictions in mittin derinen [Yiddish for “in the middle of everything”] with a detailed discussion of the restrictions of carrying on Shabbat. Some commentators spend much time asking why the Talmud begins not with general rules on major categories [avot, literally “fathers”] but rather a particular teaching from one of the sub-categories [toledot, literally “generations”]. Or why doesn’t it begin chronologically with traditions concerning the beginning of Shabbat at sundown on Friday evening? Or, for that matter, why not start with one of the original Biblical pronouncements on Shabbat, like Exodus 20:9-10 – “Six days shall you labor, and do all your work; But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger that is within your gates.”

Instead, the Talmud begins Shabbat with a detailed sub-set of restrictions on “carrying” – the crossing of boundaries of public and private. If one is not allowed to carry a particular item across the border between public and private, what happens if someone standing outside the house puts his hand in and gives or receives such an object? What if the homeowner puts his hand outside and does the same? The general category in the Mishnah text is called “carryings out” [yetziyot], but the Talmud clarifies that the crossing of boundaries in either direction is what is under discussion.

So through a complicated discussion of various circumstances, we learn that one who puts his/her hand across a boundary and passively receives an object that he/she then brings over is exempt, but actively bringing in or taking away something is a problem. And so what? The categories of “liable” and “exempt” literally applied to sin-offerings made at the Jerusalem Temple, and Shabbat celebrations today are more often considered as spiritually edifying than as restricting in nit-picking detail. The truth is that Shabbat today is what you make of it, but Shabbat as rabbinic Judaism fashioned it WAS a world of both inspiration and meticulous restriction. To understand that world, we need to read the rules of the game. And so we begin tractate Shabbat.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Children and Builders, Past and Future - Berakhot 64

This last page of tractate Berakhot is actually a half a page – each “daf” [page] of the daf yomi [daily page] actually is two sides of a piece of paper – 32a (side 1), followed by 32b (side 2), and so on. And the subjects discussed at the very end of Berakhot seem to hold little connection to our first discussion of the Shema and its recitation. We find general discussions of good fortune and bad, and how to say goodbye – leaving one’s friend, one should say lekh l’shalom [go to peace] rather than lekh b’shalom [go in peace] because of what happened to Biblical examples of each, but when leaving the dead one should say “go in peace” instead. In modern usage, either would be a positive statement of hope with which to take one’s leave.

We also find a story about the choice of the head of a Babylonian Rabbinical academy at the beginning of the 4th century CE between Rabba and Rabbi Joseph – Rabbi Joseph is called “Sinai” (i.e. holder of the traditional teachings going back to Sinaitic revelation), while Rabba is called “uprooter of mountains” [oker harim] because of his cleverness with argument and debate. When they send back to the land of Israel to ask whom they should choose, they are told “Sinai” – follow the ancestral tradition. But Joseph fears he will only serve in the post for 2 years because of what “astrologers” [khaldai – literally “Chaldeans”] have told him, and he declines. Thus Rabba and argument and debate rule for 22 years, and Joseph after that for only 2. Having read through an entire Talmudic tractate and its many arguments on matters far divergent from “blessings,” we can see the truth of that proportion.

The most interesting interpretation on this page, however, appears at the very end of the entire book. The claim is made that the students of the wise [talmiday khakhamim] increase peace in the world, because a clever rabbinic re-reading of “your children” [banayikh] as “your builders” [bonayikh] in Isaiah 54:13 would change the original to suggest that religious education leads to greater peace in the world. This may or may not be the case; but if we focus on the change from “children” to “builders,” we can find a still more important lesson.

In a profound letter called “The Builders” to his friend and collaborator Martin Buber, the German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig wrote that “nothing Jewish may be excluded as alien,” the animating philosophy behind this Talmud blog for liberal, secular, cultural and Humanistic Jews. He also wrote the following about the experience of being an educated Jew between past and present:

“This is just the very basis of our communal and individual life: the feeling of being our fathers’ children, our grandchildren’s ancestors. Therefore we may rightly expect to find ourselves again, at some time, somehow, in our fathers’ every word and deed; and also that our own words and deeds will have some meaning for our grandchildren. For we are, as Scripture puts it, ‘children’; we are, as tradition reads it, ‘Builders.’” {cited in On Jewish Learning, ed. Nahum Glatzer (Schocken Books), p91}.

This is our challenge; this is our privilege. On to tractate Shabbat!

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Monday, May 02, 2005

Teaching and Learning Torah - Berakhot 63

The last Mishnah text to be explored in depth in Berakhot ends with a simple phrase: “time to work for YHWH” [the name of God, often translated as “The Lord”]. For the Talmud’s rabbis, this means the study and transmission of “Torah,” which they understand as both the written Torah and, more importantly, the “oral Torah” that includes rabbinic halakha [religious law]. As we have seen throughout Berakhot, according to the rabbis one studies Torah for life in the world to come, and for rewards in this world as well – today they say that one weak in Torah study will be weak in a day of trouble, and those who die for Torah hold it the most firmly. Those who abase themselves for Torah will be exalted, and so on.

An important question, then, is who has the authority to define Torah in content, interpretation, and ruling? Hanania, the nephew of the eminent Rabbi Joshua, left the land of Israel for the eastern Jewish Diaspora and began deciding for himself and his community when new months began (based on the new moon) and when leap years should occur in the Jewish calendar. Two scholars, Rabbi Yose ben Kippar and the grandson of Rabbi Zekharia ben Kebutal are dispatched to investigate and bring him back into line. When they claim they have merely come to learn Torah from him, they are praised by Hananiah as great scholars, but when they begin to negate his rulings, declaring unclean what he calls clean and clean what he calls unclean, he calls them worthless. They threaten to excommunicate him, and declare that those who follow him have no share in the God of Israel. The people weep and capitulate to central authority, even though the two scholars broke a rabbinic tradition by declaring clean what another called unclean – one is able to be stricter in declaring objects prohibited, but not more lenient in permitting them. This “holier than thou” phenomenon in religious life of stricter means better is still with us today, as is the question of interpretive and ritual authority.

The problem is that, between the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, the breakdown of the Rabbinic Sanhedrin, and the dislocations and freedoms of modern life, there IS no more central authority. A teaching in today’s page ascribed to Hillel the Elder, who lived in the early first century CE, tries to strike a balance between openness and authority: if the rabbis of one’s generation are not spreading “Torah,” you should; but if they are, hold yours in to let them proceed. And he also speaks of the ground on which those seeds may fall: in generations eager to learn, spread knowledge; in those with no interest, keep it in to yourself.

We see similar tensions even today between those who say Jewish knowledge and attention should be spread broadly and appeal to many different styles of Jewish identity, and those who say one should only focus on the most intense, serious, strict and traditional styles of Judaism – and if the others aren’t interested in that, too bad. The best approach is that of Raba cited here: “A man should always first learn Torah and then scrutinize it.” In my words, give people many ways to learn about their Jewish identity, and then they can examine it for themselves. That is the entire idea behind this Talmud blog, and adult Jewish education in general.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Bathroom Manners - Berakhot 62

Today’s page begins with odd behavior from an eminent rabbi – Rabbi Akiva claims that he followed another rabbi into a privy [beit kisay – “house of the chair”] and learned three lessons: to use a privy facing north or south but not east or west, to sit rather than stand for “evacuating,” and that one should wipe with the left and not the right hand. And another rabbi claims to have learned the same from watching Rabbi Akiva! Why is this information important for rabbis to learn by personal experience? Rabbi Akiva explains: “it is Torah and I needed to learn.” In other words, the very personal behavior of a teacher could be a model for halakha [religious law], even in that most personal of acts. The same rationale (“it is Torah”) is given for hiding under another rabbi’s bed while he was with his wife, but that’s not the central discussion here.

Why north and south? To avoid facing Israel while creating something universally unclean. Why wipe with the left and not the right? Three alternatives are given: because the Torah was given with the right hand, because it is read with the right hand, or because one binds tefillin [prayer boxes] with it. In my opinion, the rabbis here are actually following a common human standard: what is common (i.e. right-handedness) is better or holy, and what is less common (i.e. left-handedness) is worse and even evil. Berakhot 61a claimed that it was natural to assume that good inclinations came from the right side and evil from the left; similarly, the English word “sinister” derives directly from the Latin for “left side” – “left” in Italian is still sinistra. And the practice of eating with the right hand and wiping with the left is the dominant cultural practice in many parts of the world, including India (as I learned from talking with a college roommate).

In today’s page, we also find why the rabbis are so concerned about what we would call bathroom behavior, both here and earlier in Berakhot – because “modesty” is important even in private. Thus one cannot be called modest with immodest bathroom behavior, even after death; one should evacuate oneself at night as one would during the day (i.e. not uncovering private parts); and one should be alone to do one’s business. And there are still more recommendations: Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel claimed that holding back can cause disease; modesty in a privy protects from bad dreams, scorpions, or evil spirits; and it’s better to do one’s business early in the morning or late at night so as not to have to travel too far. Interesting historical details, but not what one would expect to find for timeless revelation.

Rabbi Adam Chalom