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.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Roots of Rabbinic Judaism - Shabbat 15

Every ideological and religious movement has their founding period, even if later generations claim origins much more remote than history supports. Thus we have seen the rabbis claim that their blessings and rituals date back to Biblical figures, and that some of their laws are halakha l’moshe misinai – a law from Moses on Sinai. Today’s Talmud page, on the other hand, gives us a glimpse into the history behind the real roots of Rabbinic Judaism.

When the Talmud was compiled, its rabbis looked back on oral traditions going back several hundred years. And so sometimes they are not sure which teacher taught a particular saying originally, or they know that Hillel and Shammai disagreed on three topics but they now have to figure out what those three were. They differed as to how much flour required a special offering, or how much contained water poured into a mikvah [ritual bath] made it impure, or whether a woman’s menstrual impurity applied retroactively to her last clean test or only forward from the point she first noticed blood. In all of these cases, the Sages split the difference and found a compromise.

To resolve who originally decreed glassware could become unclean, the Talmud must turn to history. While some claim it goes back to very early teachers, we read a fascinating anecdote about when Rabbi Ishmael fell sick and the others wanted to know “two or three” things his father Rabbi Jose had said. Rabbi Jose claimed that 180 years before the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE the “wicked kingdom” took over Israel, 80 years before the destruction glassware was so categorized, and 40 years before the destruction the rabbinic Sanhedrin [council] left the Temple for the marketplace. His first date is problematic historically – the Maccabees took over Israel around 160 BCE, and the Romans around 66 BCE, so it is more likely that the date for the “wicked kingdom” is a round rather than precise number. The claim that the glassware ruling was 80 years before the destruction would put it a generation later than the earliest claim, or during Hillel’s time. According to another tradition cited here, Hillel and his descendants led the Sanhedrin for 100 years of the Temples existence, which would mean from 30 BCE to 70 CE. Thus while we can’t be exactly precise on the dates, we do feel the importance of precedence and historical transition.

This expands on my point from our previous page – while the Biblical past is beyond historical development, history and generation in Rabbinic period are very important for the Talmud’s rabbis to establish. Who was earlier than whom, who was whose teacher, who lived and taught before the Temple’s destruction and who did not. In other words, as timeless as they claim their teachings to be, even they know on some level that outside events have always had a significant impact on the content of Rabbinic Judaism.

Rabbi Adam Chalom