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 11, 2005

Limits and Beginnings - Shabbat 9

One of the challenges the Talmudic rabbis face is defining edges – when does private space stop and public begin, what is the beginning or end of an action, and so on. Today’s page begins by evaluating a Baraita [a teaching from the age of the Mishnah not included in that authoritative compilation] that claims that a threshold of a house can be both public and private space – private when the door is open, and public when the door is closed. So the Talmud’s rabbis try to define how far within the opening something must be to be on one side or the other, and how far down the covering of the door must be to be considered closed, and so on.

And then they turn to another Mishnah teaching about activities one should not begin before the daily afternoon prayers, but do not need to be stopped in the middle if begun: one should not go to the barber, nor to the baths nor or a tannery, nor to eat nor to a lawsuit. And so the Talmud begins by trying to define why these activities – one might be enmeshed in a long lawsuit, or one might come in at the end and have a new argument to make them start over again. One might have a hairstyle like Ben Elasah (who cut his hair close which took a long time), or worse the scissors might break and waiting to fetch new ones would take even longer.

But the last definitions are questions rarely considered today: when do these activities begin, so as to know whether or not should still stop or if one may continue? And we read that a haircut begins when the barber places his sheet on your knees; a bath when one removes his cloak; tanning when tying on an apron. And eating? One says when you wash your hands, but another says “when you loosen your belt”! I guess some rabbis took their eating more seriously than others. . .When would YOU define when a haircut or a bath begins? I might have considered after the first cut, or getting a toe wet, but my commentary has yet to be included in the Talmud proper.

Rabbi Adam Chalom