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, 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