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.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

The Power of Inertia - Shabbat 19

On our previous page, we considered the question of foreseeable consequences – if one provides the impetus for a non-Jew to perform an action that for a Jew would violate a Shabbat restriction, is it a problem? While today’s page continues that discussion, it also considers another side to the same question that was touched on yesterday – what about actions begun before Shabbat that have lingering effects during Shabbat? Does the power of inertia commit a violation of Shabbat?

The example the original Mishnah text considered was that of an oil or wine press, where one loads the container with olives or grapes, sets it to press the fluid out, and it continues to ooze the valuable liquid through Shabbat. The Talmud asks which authority put the general principle so clearly: “everything which comes automatically is well?” Some suggest Rabbi Ishmael, since he would permit one to finish crushing garlic or grapes during Shabbat; others nominate Rabbi Eleazar, who accepted honey that oozed from crushed honeycomb on Shabbat. The point of both is that actions performed before Shabbat that continue to produce effects during Shabbat are not necessarily forbidden – the idea behind modern Orthodox use of timers set before Shabbat for lights and devices to turn on and off during Shabbat.

The basic point to these discussions, however, is to consider the longer-term ramifications of one’s actions – the fact that one may begin a process that continues on Shabbat is a parallel to seeing the effects of our own actions beyond our immediate circumstances. So one is told not to set out on a ship less than 3 days before Shabbat, lest one not return in time. Some require a legal fiction of agreeing with the ship’s captain to stop traveling for Shabbat, even if both know the ship will not stop, but others do not.

The most creative response to this last teaching I have seen is the poem “The Israeli Navy” by the American Jewish poet Marvin Bell, cited in Voices Within the Ark: The Modern Jewish Poets, p414. The poem reads, in part:

“The Israeli Navy,
Sailing to the end of the world,
. . . .
Turned back,
Rather than sail on the Sabbath.
Six days, was the consensus,
Was enough for anyone.

So the world, it was concluded,
Was three days wide
In each direction,
Allowing three days back.”

In other words, if our horizons are bounded by our own self-imposed ideological limitations, our world can appear only three days wide!

Rabbi Adam Chalom