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.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Prayer Variations - Shabbat 24

Much of Talmud Tractate Berakhot was concerned with the precise order and recitation of specific prayers – the grace after meals [birkat ha-mazon], the Standing Prayer [amida, or sometimes called just tefillah – “prayer”], and, of course, blessings [berakhot]. In its compilation of rabbinic teachings related to Hanukkah, the Talmud today turns to whether one should Hanukkah and, by extension, other holidays, in the course of daily or common prayers. One might think that since the observance of Hanukkah is derabanan [rabbinical], one need not mention it, but on the other hand there is a perceived benefit to “publicizing the miracle.” In this case one need not mention it, but if one chooses to do so it should appear at a specific part of the after-meals blessing.

Then another asks about Rosh Khodesh [new moon, literally “head of the month”], a very important holiday for a lunar calendar (and today making a comeback among Jewish feminist circles because of the parallel to monthly cycles). Because a lunar month can be 29 or 30 days, depending on when the new moon appeared, this holiday was crucial until centuries later the rabbis were able to determine mathematically what the correct pattern would be. Rosh Khodesh is d’oraita [biblical], but does not prohibit work, so is it important enough to mention? After a difference of opinion, we hear the general rule that explains what is mentioned and what is not – if when the Jerusalem Temple stood there were additional animal sacrifices offered, the special event is mentioned multiple times in certain places. If there were no special sacrifices, one should allude to it once but omitting it is no big deal.

Yet again we find that the traditional prayer service as defined by the Talmud contains tremendous variation –what is said on the weekday is not the same as what is said on Shabbat, and if either of those days happens to be a minor holiday like Hanukkah or Rosh Khodesh or even the intermediate days [kholo shel moed] of a long festival like Passover, the text has still more variations. To know all of these details and to be precise in their enactment requires both a time commitment and a submission to Talmudic authority that are both foreign to modern liberal Jewish sensibilities. It is doubtful today that reciting volumes of traditional texts will provide more meaning than heartfelt personal expression.

Rabbi Adam Chalom