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 22, 2005

What to Burn? - Shabbat 20

A tricky phenomenon for the general category of actions begun before Shabbat that may continue during Shabbat is the question of fire. In pre-rabbinic times, there were arguments between the Pharisees and the Sadducees concerning the rule in Exodus 35:3 – “you shall not kindle a fire in your habitations on the Sabbath day.” Did this mean no fire should be burning (Sadducees), or that one could not light a new fire but could continue to use one that had been lit before sundown (Pharisees)? The Rabbinic answer to this question followed the Pharisees, which is one reason why the rabbis created the ritual of lighting Shabbat candles at sundown Friday – to clearly demonstrate that one could use lights lit before Shabbat during Shabbat.

Today’s Talmud page does not explore this historical or theoretical background, but rather the rules about fire and Shabbat candles stipulated in the Mishnah texts under consideration. These Mishnah texts also take the Pharisaic/Rabbinic perspective on the issue as a given, so they are more concerned with the mechanics of following through on that approach. After all, fire is an active chemical process, and often requires stirring or adding wood which could be considered conscious interventions to “kindle” a fire as forbidden on Shabbat. So in general logs should catch fire through the “greater part,” says the Mishnah, and the Talmud explores what that means – of each log or the entire pile? Of its thickness or circumference, or both? Or another way to think about it, so that an artisan would not use it for something else. And we have the predictable debate of which burning materials need to catch fire “through the greater part” and which do not.

In that same vein of materials, we also read about what materials may serve as acceptable wicks for Shabbat candles, and what may not. The reasoning behind these exclusions is not explored until tomorrow’s page, because they are more interested in what materials the Mishnah is talking about – the vocabulary has changed enough that they are not sure what each word means? Some rabbis even say, “I asked nekhutay yama [seafarers] what it is” to find out what the Mishnah’s rabbis meant. In other words, as much as the Talmud claims to be an organic and precise transmission of oral tradition from the earliest generations of Jewish legend through Pharisees and early Rabbis, sometimes they just don’t know what the words mean any more.

Rabbi Adam Chalom