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 16, 2005

Unclean Hands - Shabbat 14

As we have already seen, Rabbinic concepts of “clean” and “unclean” have much more to do with ritual purity than our standards of dirt or germ removal. In today’s case, the particular question is what may make something holy like the terumah food offering unclean. Surprisingly, we read that a sefer [holy book or scroll, i.e. books of the Bible] are unclean – holy books being unclean? On an anthropological level, we can understand that holy things have special power, and thus are dangerous. And crossing the boundary between holy and human can often make one ritually unclean simply for having crossed that boundary.

The answer the Talmud gives here is that they used to store terumah with the holy books, since both were holy, but because the books were harmed by the vermin attracted by the food, they were defined as unclean. And human hands that touch a holy book are called unclean, for Rabbi Parnok decreed that “one who grasps the sefer Torah [Torah scroll] naked shall be buried naked.” Does he really mean naked? The Talmud clarifies that it means without following the rules of not touching the scroll itself – thus the tradition of the yad [hand] as a pointer for reading the Torah scroll. And the “uncleanness” of holy books was used as the code for deciding which books should be included by the Rabbis in the canonized Hebrew Bible and which should be excluded – do they render the hands unclean? If so, they were holy enough for inclusion.

It turns out, however, that the rule goes even further – hands themselves are defined as “unclean” for touching terumah! Why? Because they “wander” and tend to touch things, and who knows where those hands have been? This rule is ascribed to two of the earliest rabbinic teachers – Hillel and Shammai themselves, and not to their schools of thought. While this may be historical, the last attribution is certainly not – claiming that Solomon (one millennium before the first rabbis) enacted the rules of the eruv and washing the hands! Within the rabbinic period, the rabbis have a sense of historical precedent and development, but before that point, everything is up for grabs. In some ways, this is a common human phenomenon – anything before our own time is emotionally considered “in the past,” with more in common between World War I and Crusades than between World War I and events in our lifetime. For the rabbis, anything before their time was the “holy past,” where gradual development and historical evolution were not relevant concepts. Thus Solomon created concepts of rabbinic Shabbat observance, and so on and so on.

Rabbi Adam Chalom