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 12, 2005

When to Eat and How to Give Gifts - Shabbat 10

As we saw in Berakhot, where many pages were spent discussion which prayers could be said at what distance from a privy/outhouse, the Talmudic Rabbis do not ignore the real-world context of their pronouncements. When considering when a lawsuit begins, so as to know what to avoid beginning shortly before afternoon prayers, the importance of the real world is re-emphasized: Rabbi Hisda and Rabbah b. [son of] Rabbi Huna sat and judged all day long “until their hearts were faint.” And they are corrected by Rabbi Hiyya b. Rab, who says when it says in Exodus 18 that Moses judged the people “from morning to evening,” do you really think he sat there the entire day? Rabbi Hiyya says he must have stopped to study Torah, but we would have any other number of reasons to take a break. And so does the following teaching: judges should judge until the main meal of the day, but not after.

And what time should that be? Of course, there are recommendations for meal times: The first hour of the day is the mealtime for “gladiators” (or circus performers), the second for robbers (who are up all night), and the third for inheritors (who have the money and leisure to eat early). There is some dispute after this, some saying laborers eat in the fourth hour and all others in the fifth while others say that everybody eats in the fourth hour, laborers in the fifth, and scholars [talmiday khakhamim] in the sixth. What ever the order, the last statement is certainly true – “after that, it is like throwing a stone in a barrel.” In other words, avoid late lunches.

The most interesting discussion in today’s page is not what blessings one may say in a bath house as opposed to a privy, but rather sayings about giving gifts. Consider this saying of Rab: “The one who gives a gift to his fellow must inform him” in an imitation of God, who in the Bible often takes explicit credit. And Shimon Ben Gamliel likewise suggests that if one gives food to a child, one should inform his mother. Another rabbi suggests one doesn’t need to inform them, but the Talmud clarifies that that only applies to something one’s fellow would find out anyways. The wisest insight: one should not distinguish (by a gift) one child over the others. Why? Because of the small gift Jacob gave Joseph over his brothers, their jealousy led to the descent into Egypt. The power of myth to inspire fair treatment?

Or perhaps the fruit of real-life experience. To draw on the words of a contemporary judge, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (hardly my favorite) put it very well in a speech: “Parents know that children will accept quite readily all sorts of arbitrary substantive dispositions: no television in the afternoon, or no television in the evening, or even no television at all. But try to let one brother or sister watch television when the others do not, and you will feel the fury of the fundamental sense of justice unleashed."

Rabbi Adam Chalom