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 06, 2005

The Rabbi as Legal Scholar - Shabbat 4

In contemporary liberal Judaism, we think of rabbis as clergy – experts in Jewish identity, yes, but also personal counselors, ceremony officiants, community representatives, and even synagogue complaint departments. For Talmudic Judaism, and for the first 1800 years of Rabbinic Judaism, a rabbi’s primary role was as legal scholar and judge: someone who had memorized halakhic [religious legal] traditions, could reason through them, and could offer an authorized legal ruling. This helps the rabbis of the Talmud make sense to us – the rabbis we are reading about in Shabbat sound little like the intellectual sermonizers and sensitive pastoral counselors of modern experience.

One of the common techniques of any legal scholar is to look at hypothetical situations, like our Mishnah’s example of the men on either side of a doorway bringing or taking objects from the public to the private domain [reshut]. In today’s page, we consider two other hyptheticals – in the first, what should a man do who puts a loaf of bread in an already-hot oven to bake and then realizes that it’s Shabbat? One is forbidden to bake bread on Shabbat on penalty of a sin-offering, but it is rabbinically prohibited to remove bread from an oven during Shabbat as well! A literal case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” The choice is between an unwitting violation of a stricter rule and a conscious violation of a lesser rule. One suggestion is to ask another to remove it, thus having them break a rule to save the first person from breaking a greater rule, but that is ruled out as inciting another to sin. In the end, it is decided that he may remove it before he commits a “stoning prohibition” [asur selika] – in other words, it’s serious but not deadly serious.

The second hypothetical is employed not specifically to clarify the original hypothetical of two men in a doorway, but rather to ascertain who created the original mishnah discussion in the first place as a means to understand it better. Just as we would read private letters and other legal writings of an American “founding father” to explore what they meant by “property” or “liberty” or “bear arms” in the Constitution, so here later generations of Talmudic rabbis want to connect the Mishnah with its author, and thus other teachings on the same subject. One side proposes the authorship of Rabbi Akiva, because he claimed that throwing an object from private sphere to private sphere through a public space involved a violation of the boundaries (though the other rabbis disagreed). Akiva’s perspective might agree with the Mishnah’s ascription of blame, thus helping to explain its reasoning. Another suggests Rabbi (meaning Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi, the compiler of the Mishnah), because he argued against the other rabbis that throwing an object from public space to public space through private space is a boundary violation. We can see, regardless of how this issue is resolved, how much this resembles modern “legalese.”

Why is all of this important? In short, halakha permits one to carry objects in private space that one may not carry in a public area, and crossing the boundary as we have seen is a problem. As we will discover in later dapim [Talmud pages], however, rabbinic ingenuity will find ways to finesse this and other Shabbat restrictions to make life more livable.

Rabbi Adam Chalom