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, 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