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 09, 2005

Rabbinic Precision - Shabbat 7

Sometimes the differences between modern life and the Talmudic world are major and conceptual, but at others they are minor and technical. The case of measurements and units is one of the latter. Previous pages in Shabbat and today’s page in particular are concerned with specific measurements – public ground cannot extend over a height of 10 “handsbreadths” [tefakhim – around 4 inches each], and the minimum range for throwing violations is four “cubits” [amot – 18-24 inches]. The reason these measurements are approximate is because they come from a period before precise precision in measurements was feasible – a cubit was the distance from one’s elbow to the end of their middle finger, which was different on everyone, and hands are notoriously of different sizes. What is interesting is that this indeterminacy does not prevent the rabbis from being as precise as they are in defining boundaries, even though the measurement itself was imprecise.

Thus they consider the case of throwing an object onto a wall – if the wall were over 10 tefakhim (3-4 feet), he would be exempt because it is as if he threw it into the air; if the wall were lower, it would be like throwing onto the ground in a karmelit [intermediate space], and thus a liability-inducing transfer from private to other space would have taken place. Can one really throw an object exactly on top of a wall? They consider the case of throwing something sticky, like a juicy fig cake, or perhaps throwing an object into a cavity in the wall. Some question whether such a case is really possible, but in the end the resolution is that the original saying must refer to “on” a wall rather than “into” a wall.

The last example, something touched on in earlier pages, is the most relevant. Rabbi Hisda claims that if one puts a rod in private ground and throws something upwards that lands on it, it is still private ground because private ground extends upwards to the sky. The Talmud then asks if his case is like that of Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi, who considered this case: if a tree is in private ground but its branches tilt into the street, and one throws an object that gets caught in the branches, is the tree considered private or public ground? Rabbi Judah would consider the branches as legally part of the tree, but the other Rabbis follow contemporary homeowner ethics – the branches over your head are your problem, even if the tree is planted in the other person’s yard. Just don’t gather those branches on Shabbat – a different mitzvah violation!

Rabbi Adam Chalom