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.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

The Smallest Proofs - Shabbat 27

Sometimes the Talmud asks reasonable questions, and then gives unfathomable answers. In today’s page, the rabbis continue a debate entered on the previous page concerning categorizing different kinds of cloth based on how easily certain materials can become tameh [unclean] from different spiritual contaminants. Wool or linen can be contaminated by leprosy in as small a space as three finger-widths, while other materials may require more extensive contact of three handsbreadths. And here is where creative rabbinic Torah interpretation comes in.

For the Rabbis, no word, wording, sentence structure, or textual proximity is without divine intention and meaning. In this case, one rabbi asks where they learned that woven materials other than linen or wool (like camel hair) are liable to such uncleanness, and they are pointed to Leviticus 11:32, which reads in part: “And upon whatever any of them, when they are dead, falls, it shall be unclean; whether it is any utensil of wood, or garment, or skin, or sack. . .” The questioner responds: I can learn from “garment” what I already accepted, but how does this prove the extension of the rule to something new? The response: it says “OR garment.” In other words, the little word “or” must be a sign that there is more to the rule than meets the eye. In the previous page, the word “and” filled the same role. To our mind, the original verse is simply completing a list, and has nothing to say of camel hair (or, for that matter, linen and wool either). But for the Talmud, every little detail is an opportunity for interpretation.

The same approach supports one interpretation of the commandment to wear tzitzit [fringes] on the corner of one’s garments – in Deuteronomy 22:11, one is commanded not to wear a garment of different sorts together [shaatnez], and in verse 12 fringes at the four corners of one’s cloak are required. From this, this interpretation assumes that the fringe requirement only applies to linen or wool, since the verses come right after one another. Again, any list like the list of commandments in Deuteronomy is going to have one item follow another, and we would not automatically jump to such a conclusion – the first and the second amendment to the Constitution do not appear to interpret each other. This is the creative but sometimes maddening Talmudic tendency to find proof from the smallest of sources.

Rabbi Adam Chalom