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.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

The Unsolvable Question - Shabbat 5

As with anything human, there are limits even to Talmudic arguments. Continuing their attempts to define what constitutes a violation of the ban on carrying an object across the boundary between public and private, they consider a new hypothetical. While the original Mishnah example was two people handing an object to each other, what if one throws something to another? It depends how accurate the thrower is: if the catcher moves to catch it, he is liable, but if he stands still in his place, the thrower is liable. A far cry from playing catch with a baseball (staying still to catch is more accurate) or football (hitting the other while running is better)! The point here is the catcher who moves is exerting agency, while the accurate thrower is the primary agent behind the exchange. Why is this a problem? Because in some sense, one’s own hand can be considered a private realm, but the air is public. One of the variables for the rabbis is the height of the object, so they also consider if one sets up a pole with a basket on the top, and the object one throws up rests in the basket, one again is liable. Basketball?

But then we have another case, even more tricky: what if someone throws something and then moves and catches it himself? Is it a violation of boundaries or not? In the English translation, the resolution reads “The question stands over;” the original Aramaic is teku, which has no exact translation. However, traditional Jewish folklore treats this word as an acronym for tishbi yetaretz kushiyot v’ba’ayot – “the man from Tishbi (Elijah) will solve difficulties and problems.” In other words, when Elijah returns from heaven as a precursor to the Messiah, he will spend at least some of his time resolving the unsolvable questions where the Rabbis got stuck. This indicates a willingness to live with limited uncertainty, but also an optimism that there is an answer out there that will someday be found. Today, when we say, “I don’t know” about the universe, we do better to say, “I don’t know YET,” since we’re not waiting for Elijah any more.

Later on in today’s page, the same phrase appears in the question of carrying out objects at rest – if a nut in a container is considered “at rest,” and that container then floats on water, is the nut considered in the container and at rest or on the water and not at rest? Again the answer is teku – no decision at this time. Our response to these questions might be “who cares?” or “you’re certainly stretching the question of ‘carrying’ on Shabbat.” There are three things to consider – first, we have 150 more pages in tractate Shabbat to go; second, this again is an example of exploring what our cultural ancestors considered important; and third, if you were given the job of defining what was public and private space, how would you refine those concepts? The Talmud’s rabbis strove to meet a task they believed God had given them – to define the rules of living for every aspect of life. And if it took them years of discussion, they believed it was worth it for the end results of pleasing their God and “the world to come.”

Rabbi Adam Chalom