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 05, 2005

Study and Distraction - Shabbat 3

Tractate Shabbat is over twice as long as tractate Berakhot for two reasons – the Mishnah texts are longer, and there is much more commentary around the Talmud text in the classic Vilna edition of the Talmud on which the daf yomi [daily page] cycle is based. The central text of the Talmud as we have it today is a combination of the Mishnah (compiled around 200 CE) and a commentary connected to the Mishnah (compiled over the next 300 years). But on the standard daf [page] this base is surrounded by generations of commentary – Rashi from medieval France, the Tosafists (Rashi’s students), and many others. On some topics they have less to say, but on the detailed legalistic discussions of contextual halakha [religious law], there is always another side to the argument.

Today’s page continues the discussion of the boundaries between public and private. If a hand may transport an object from public to private, as the Mishnah example says it can, does that mean the hand has an intermediate status between public and private? And if one picks up something and moves it from one realm to another, may one put it down again until the end of Shabbat? Must it be done unknowingly to be exempt? Much of the debate revolves around four categories of rabbinic law: liable [khayav] or exempt [patur] for a sin offering for doing X, and X being permitted [mutar] or forbidden [asur] to do. In fact, for rabbinic decisions some actions can be exempt from sin offerings but still forbidden to do – we would say, strongly recommended against.

The most interesting piece of the page is a short anecdote that gives us insight into the creative process of the Talmud itself. Rab asks Rabbi a question about a case like the above, which Rabbi answers correctly, but Rab is admonished by Rabbi Hiyya – when a rabbi is studying one tractate, don’t distract him with questions about another! Because rabbinic teachings in this period were based on memory and oral recitation, this makes sense. To read behind the admonishment, when Rab asked his question and Rabbi gave his answer to this situation, they were actually discussing something totally different. This tangential comment was remembered and passed down as part of the teachings on Shabbat, even though it was thought of in the course of studying something else.

Rabbi Adam Chalom