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