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 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