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.

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