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.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

Legal Fictions - Shabbat 6

As an undergraduate student, I was told that Aristotle’s philosophical writings were very difficult to begin reading because every section assumed that you already knew every other section – so there was no good starting point. In some ways, the Talmud is similar – here, several pages into their discussion of “carrying” on Shabbat between public and private realms, the rabbis define both the terms of their debate and the general rule that was already assumed. We find on today’s page that there are four domains: public, private, karmelit [intermediate], and an “exempt place.” And we find what they are. Private space is defined by a wall or trench of 10 “handsbreadths” in height and four wide. A public space is a main road, or a public square, or an open alley. And one is not allowed to carry from one to the other – if done unwittingly, one is liable for a sin offering; if done deliberately, one may be punished by stoning! And the intermediate space of the karmelit, like the sea or a field, has its own rules.

The most interesting case, however, is one that is only alluded to in this section because the issue has its own entire tractate in the Talmud. We read here that if many houses open to a common courtyard, or in a blind alley, one is generally not allowed to carry out UNLESS there is an “eruv.” The Eruv is a rabbinic “legal fiction” that creates a new boundary to define private space and thus facilitate carrying over a greater range of space. One version of the eruv stipulates that houses sharing a courtyard could prepare food together in the center, thus marking the entire courtyard as private space for Shabbat and enabling them to carry from one house to another. The most famous versions are based on strings or wires on poles that can define neighborhoods, even entire towns, as the same private space, thus facilitating carrying. In other words, many of the rules just discussed and to be discussed on coming pages are rendered practically moot in regular Shabbat experience by such legal creativity!

As we know, of course, the commentary is its own reward. Thus a tractate like Shabbat may not get to the basic rules under discussion for several pages, because its students will be studying it over and over again. In one sentence in this page, we find a tantalizing allusion to a “secret scroll” from the school of Rabbi Hiyya, a phenomenon with which commentators and academic scholars find fascinating independent of its relationship to Shabbat. Is this a dramatic device to make a teaching seem older? Is it rabbinic censorship? Or something misplaced? Those are the questions that interest us – but not those that interest the Talmud. When we write our own, we can pursue our own directions.

Rabbi Adam Chalom