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.

Monday, May 30, 2005

Moses and the Unicorn - Shabbat 28

The ongoing Talmudic debate about coverings shifts in today’s page to animal skins – can the skin of a ritually-clean [tahor] animal skin become defiled, and must one use the skin of tahor animals for holy purposes? Recall that rabbinic concepts of “unclean” are not the same as our “dirty” or “infected,” but are better understood as “spiritual tainted” – for example, a covering that hangs over a dead body becomes tameh [unclean], whether or not it was from an unclean animal or a clean one. So they turn back to the book of Exodus’s description of the tent that covered the Tabernacle [mishkan]. We can already guess the conclusion of Rabbi Joseph that appears on side b: “only the skin of a tahor animal is permitted [literally “kosher”] for ‘the work of heaven.’” What is undetermined is the rationalization for that conclusion.

The problem they run into is one of vocabulary – Exodus refers to the skin of a takhash as part of the covering, but later generations don’t really know what that animal is! They assume it was clean (because of course Moses had already been revealed what Rabbi Joseph would recite later). So they draw instead on word of mouth: Elai heard Simon ben Lakish say that Meir said the takhash was a separate species, undetermined as to domestic or wild, with one horn in its forehead. A Unicorn? According to the Talmud, it appeared for Moses to use its skin for the mishkan, and then was hidden again. . .

The connection to Moses is important in a more practical consideration, since Rabbis in Talmudic times were not building a mishkan. What halakha [religious law] did Rabbi Joseph envision for his general statement about using clean animals for holy work? The answer: tefillin [prayer boxes], since the passage that defines partly defines their use in Exodus 13:9 reads “it shall be for a sign to you upon your hand, and for a memorial between your eyes, that YHWH’s Torah may be in your mouth,” or as the Rabbis take it – ‘that Torah may be on something permitted in your mouth!’ The problem here is that some aspects of the tefillin are understood to be Biblical, while others are halakha l’moshe misinai – a law from Moses on Sinai. Or, in other words, a tradition so old we don’t know when it began but something we can’t prove from the Bible itself! And in those days, saying something was old and traditional was enough justification in itself for its continuation – fortunately, bazman ha-zeh [in these days] life is more open to innovation and freedom.

Rabbi Adam Chalom