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.

Friday, May 20, 2005

A Non-Jewish Shabbat? - Shabbat 18

There has always been a philosophical tension at the heart of traditional Jewish practice – on one hand, the God of Israel is imagined to be the one and only God existing in the universe. On the other hand, he has given very specific rules like those concerning Shabbat, rules that can define who has a share in the “world to come” and who does not, to a tiny minority of humanity (i.e. the Jews). So what should the Jews do about non-Jews on Shabbat – should they avoid causing them to break Shabbat rules, or should they not care since the Shabbat rules don’t apply to non-Jews anyways?

The Mishnah text cited at the end of the previous Talmud page which forms the framework for the next few pages’ discussion concerns these kind of questions – for example, while Beit Shammai [the house/school of Shammai] would forbid selling something to or helping load something for a Gentile that could not arrive home before Shabbat, Beit Hillel would permit it. And a further discussion in the Talmud details the argument – Beit Shammai wanted the Gentile to be able to arrive at home before Shabbat began, while Beit Hillel said all he needed to be able to do was reach the first house inside the wall of his home city, not his own home. And Rabbi Akiva comes to state the final conclusion: as long as the non-Jew leaves the Jew’s house before Shabbat. Or, in another example, Beit Shammai would allow a man (i.e. a Jew) to sell his khametz [leavened bread] to a non-Jew only if he would eat it before Passover, while Beit Hillel says as long as the Jew can eat it, he can sell it – it doesn’t matter what happens to it once the non-Jew owns it.

In other words, for the Akiva/Hillel/Talmudic view, once the non-Jew is beyond a sphere where Shabbat observance matters (i.e. a Jewish home), it doesn’t matter whether they observe Shabbat restrictions or not. For the Shammai view, one’s responsibility to not break an important rule does not end with one’s own actions, but rather with the events one causes to take place. From a contemporary, ethical standpoint, one could argue either side. Who am I to impose my values on others who can make their own decisions? And who am I to allow and even facilitate another breaking a rule I consider important because of something I did? Does your responsibility end once something leaves your sphere, or is it illegitimate to require others to live up to your standards? The answer, of course, is that both are important ethical approaches, and it is fortunate that both were preserved in the Talmud to provoke just such a discussion.

Rabbi Adam Chalom