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 10, 2005

Letter and Spirit of the Law - Shabbat 8

The contemporary liberal Jew, whose personal experience has been far removed from the world of halakhic [religious legal] restriction, may find these discussions in Shabbat to be totally foreign to his/her life and memory. Why should rabbis care how far I carry an object, or where I throw it, or how close to the ground an object comes to be considered part of the ground (answer: 3 tefakhim or handsbreadths)? Those who are familiar with a halakhic lifestyle, however, either through study or personal experience, recognize the exactitude of these discussions. And their underlying rationale is understandable, in a way: if the ruler of the entire universe had given you precise instructions of what you were supposed to do to live a good life and receive a reward in this life and/or in the world to come, wouldn’t you want to know exactly what you were supposed to do, and what the limits were?

On the question of limits, we find another example of the eruv extension in today’s page. We read recently that the eruv is a rabbinic legal fiction that enables someone to extend the bounds of what is considered private space so as to facilitate carrying objects on Shabbat. We read today that one may also use the mechanism of placing food in a discrete location to extend walking distance – the 2000 cubits one is allowed to walk from a private abode may actually be measured from where one places special food just before Shabbat, thus enabling one to call that spot “home” to begin the 2000 cubit radius. At question here is not the proposition that a home can be defined by some food in a hole in the ground, but rather how deep that hole must be to count! And the answer here is less than 10 handsbreadths deep, because then it would be another private space, while if less than 10 it is still part of the space above it.

As many who are outside of or question the halakhic worldview have done, one begins to consider the possibility that such an extension of a legal fiction begins to make the original rule seem ignored. I have the same reaction to “kosher for Passover” chocolate cakes – if the point is to eat lekhem ‘oni [the bread of affliction], then don’t dodge that by sticking to the detail rule about leaven/yeast [hametz] while eating chocolate cake! In the end, it becomes a battle between the “letter” of the law, and the “spirit” of the law, and for individuals who don’t accept the law’s authority in the first place, even more removed than that.

Rabbi Adam Chalom