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, June 30, 2005

A Golden City - Shabbat 59

Our current Talmud discussion concerning what certain people may wear out of their house tries to draw a distinction between an ornament and a burden – one is not supposed to carry around a burden on Shabbat, but wearing an ornament would be permitted. I remember being surprised as an undergraduate in college hearing that on Shabbat Orthodox Jewish students would not carry their keys in their pockets but could wear them with a pin on their clothes, but I have since learned that this is the same kind of rationale.

In our original Mishnah text, we read that women should not go out wearing “a golden city” [ir shel zahav] – in other words, a golden ornament so bulky that it crosses the line from ornament to burden! What city? Of course, “a golden Jerusalem” [Aramaic yerushalayim d’zahava], just like Rabbi Akiva made for his wife (that story is in Nedarim 50a). This kind of an ornament is often referred to in rabbinic literature, and it became the basis for the very famous Naomi Shemer song Yerushalayim Shel Zahav [Jerusalem of Gold] written after the Israeli victory in Jerusalem in 1967. You can read all about the song, including more on rabbinic sources, at

Rabbi Meir would hold a woman going out with such an ornament liable for a sin-offering, but the Sages exempt her unless she takes it off in order to show it and thus carry it in the street. And Rabbi Eliezer tries to reason that the only kind of woman who would have such a piece would be an “important woman” [ishah khashuva], and such a woman wouldn’t remove it for display. Interestingly enough, any considerations of modesty, decorum, or tact in terms of how large a piece of gold jewelry can be on Shabbat are not explored. For me, any piece of jewelry that is so large that there is even an argument about whether or not it is a burden is too large for my tastes.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

What May Slaves and Animals Wear? – Shabbat 58

While it is true that Biblical and Rabbinic legislation prescribed a day of rest on Shabbat for not only Jewish individuals but also for slave and animals, slaves were still slaves on Shabbat just as animals were still livestock. So just as the men writing the Talmud could discuss what women were allowed to wear out of the house while observing Shabbat, so too should one understand what other beings for which one was responsible were allowed to wear.

Thus we read that, according to Samuel, a slave is allowed to leave the house with a seal (of ownership) on his neck but not on his garment. What is the difference? One idea is that his master puts the seal on his neck but he puts it on his garment – and as commentators explain, in that case he is afraid to remove and carry the neck seal but might do so with the garment. However, interjects the Talmud, of course the master has put his seal of ownership on the slave’s garment as well! Rather, it must be that if the seal breaks off the garment, he might fold the garment over his shoulder and carry it out of fear – as Rashi interprets, fear that his master might accuse him of losing it on purpose and trying to pass himself off as a free person [ben khorin, the same phrase used at Passover in the song Avadim Hayinu/We were slaves]. And going out with a folded garment on one’s shoulder is a clear no-no. To prevent that possibility, circumstances that could lead to it are also prohibited.

There is another tradition that slaves cannot leave the house with an ownership seal on either the neck or the garment, because they are neither ornaments nor tools but rather badges of shame (again, Rashi’s understanding). The problem with this interpretation is that the Talmud discussion goes on to make a distinction between a metal and a clay seal of ownership, permitting a clay one. While they may certainly weigh and be worth different amounts, the shame of both is probably equivalent. Rather than challenging slavery itself, the Talmud is more focused here on defining the conditions of servitude and Shabbat observance.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

What May Women Wear? - Shabbat 57

The next area of Talmudic Shabbat discussion is more closely defined by the Mishnah text under consideration than the previous few pages. The focus is on what women may wear out of the house on Shabbat, and what they may not wear. As we have seen before, the Mishnah lists specific examples of what may not be worn out, like wool or linen ribbons or a “golden city” [ir shel zahav], but does not give a general principle defining WHY these particular items are prohibited and others are allowed. We are told by the Mishnah, however, that wearing these out is not a serious transgression – she who does is nevertheless not liable for a sin-offering in atonement.

How to discover the rationale behind these particular items? First, the Talmud notes an oddity to the Mishnah passage – when talking about not wearing ribbons out on Shabbat, it also says that she cannot perform tevilah [ritual immersion/cleansing] in them. The Talmud interjects (my translation): “who said anything about tevilah?” But this is how they find their answer: because she can’t wear them for tevilah, that means if she had to perform that ritual she would have to take them off. If she had them in her hand and carried them more than 4 cubits, she would violate the Shabbat limitation on carrying. Thus the ribbons are prohibited on Shabbat.

This, of course, begs another question – why are they prohibited for tevilah? The answer, coming from other legal discussions, is that some believe that they are a barrier between water and the skin of the person being immersed and therefore should be forbidden. This explains why later on in the Talmud’s discussion ribbons of hair are permitted, since they allow water through. And now one has a general principle of what women may and may not wear in their hair out of the house on Shabbat.

Today, of course, our concern in what we wear in going out is far less about what we may need to take off for ritual immersion and far more about appearance and comfort (every individual strikes their own balance between the two). Traditional restrictions on dress, for Shabbat or for every day of the year, have been left behind for the freedom of individual expression. We can understand the reasoning and values behind rabbinic prohibitions like ribbons on Shabbat even if we don’t accept the prohibition itself.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Monday, June 27, 2005

Saving Heroes - Shabbat 56

The theme of the end of yesterday’s and all of today’s page is “kol ha-omer ____ khata, ayno ayle toeh – All those who say that _____ sinned, they are nothing but wrong.” So if you thought that David, or Solomon, or Josiah sinned because of what you can read about them in the Bible, you must be wrong. One could be forgiven for coming to such a conclusion from reading passages like I Kings 11:6: “and Solomon did that which was evil in the sight of the Lord” – as the rabbis explain this away, in fact he WANTED to do evil but didn’t actually do it. The Rabbis serve as spinmeisters for Biblical heroes!

And so on through some of the most famous moral failings of the Judean monarchy. Jewish “cheerleaders” often highlight the fact that the Bible’s portrayals of early figures like David and Solomon include their faults and failings, thus making them more real heroes. But the Talmud wants them to be perfect, so if David steals away one of his soldier’s wives and has the man killed (as he does with Uriah and Bathsheba in II Samuel 11, this must be explained away. Thus Rabbi, who claims to be related to David, defends him. David must have WANTED to do even but of course didn’t do any. And every man going to war in David’s army gave their wife a bill of divorce [get], so it wasn’t adultery. And the prophet Nathan’s condemnation of David is also explained away – Uriah disobeyed David’s order to go home (intended to cover up David’s adultery that had impregnated Bathsheba), and should have been condemned by the Sanhedrin, but he received his just penalty. Never mind that Uriah refused to sleep with his wife because of his loyalty to the troops suffering in the field, or that the Rabbinic Sanhedrin didn't yet exist historically. . .

Indeed, to preserve the reputation of David and Solomon, others take the fall – in the Bible Solomon is condemned for building altars to other gods, for letting his many wives turn him away from worshipping only YHWH, but here he is blamed not for DOING anything, but for allowing things to be done. Thus we end up with a mix of positive and negative messages for our own times – honesty to the evidence would mean accepting the human mistakes of major figures in our literature (and in ourselves) and not interpreting or fudging them away, but we agree that allowing bad things to happen has as bad results as doing it oneself. In all this, we must let the truth be the truth – save spin for politicians.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Text of David’s affair with Bathsheba, Uriah’s murder, and Nathan’s condemnation – II Samuel 11-12.

Sunday, June 26, 2005

Life, Death, and Divine Justice - Shabbat 55

In a lengthy theological digression from Shabbat rules and regulations, the Talmud turns to questions of divine justice. We saw at the end of the previous page that one has an obligation to inform others of their incorrect behavior, and today’s page clarifies that even if they will not accept the correction, still one has an obligation to inform them. This obligation derives from a rabbinic midrash [story based on a Biblical passage] on Ezekiel 9:4, where God commands that a tav [last letter of the Hebrew Aleph-Bet] be put on the foreheads of those in Jerusalem “who sigh and who cry for all the abominations that are done in its midst,” so that

The midrash creates a dialogue between God and the “midat ha-din” [attribute of justice], a side of God’s decision-making process whose counterpoint is the midat ha-rakhamim [attribute of mercy]: God puts a tav of ink on the righteous and one of blood on the wicked, but midat ha-din asks what the difference is since “they had the power to protest and did not.” God tried to defend them by saying “I knew their protest would not be received,” but he is answered, “You knew, but did they?” In other words, no human can know in advance whether a protest against wickedness will be heard or ignored, so we have an obligation to protest. In this case, rabbinic midrash has interpreted the original narrative even more cruelly – while Ezekiel seems to save at least those who “sigh and cry,” this version condemns them as well for their failure to protest to the wicked.

The case of Holocaust bystanders provides a powerful parallel – who can say what might have happened if more had chosen to protest earlier in the process? The parallel to the Holocaust experience is even more powerful when one of the rabbis interprets the two different tavs – one is for tikhiyeh [you shall live], and the other is for tamut [you shall die]. Just as Nazi doctors played God in the concentration camps, pointing to the right or the left for the gas or life, so does the Talmud’s God play God by supposedly condemning or rescuing those who live or die. Facing the classic conundrum of providential religion – why do people suffer and die if God is good and all-powerful - Rabbi Ammi puts the rabbinic perspective flatly: “There is no death without sin, and there is no suffering without iniquity.” Many today would just as flatly disagree.

While there are some minimal attempts to refute this bald conclusion in today’s page, there are far more attempts to soften the sins of Biblical figures – where the Torah says Reuven slept with his father Jacob’s concubine (Gen. 35:22), the Rabbis have decided he must have simply turned over her bed, because how could his descendents in Deuteronomy have cursed those who committed the same violation? More on this topic in tomorrow’s page, but suffice it to say here that from our perspective, hypocrisy would be nothing new under the sun.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

For information on the German Pastor Martin Niemoller and his famous quotation on the importance of protest during the Holocaust, see:

Saturday, June 25, 2005

Human Responsibility - Shabbat 54

A classic ethical debates concerns the limits of human responsibility – am I only responsible for my own actions, or am I also responsible for the actions of others under my authority? On one hand, we know that we have a duty to teach our children correct behavior, and that we should be held responsible for failing to do so. On the other hand, if we are adults and independent individuals, we have no need of and are insulted by others having the khutzpah [gall] to tell us how to live our lives.

The Mishnah mentions that a cow is forbidden to go out on Shabbat with a strap between its horns, but also that Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah’s cow would go out like that but without the permission of the rabbis. The Talmud’s rabbis ask if it truly was his only cow, as implied by the Mishnah’s phrasing – after all, another tradition holds that this rabbi was so wealthy that his annual tithe was 13,000 calves annually! Rather, it is claimed that it was his female neighbor’s cow, and since he could have easily corrected her but did not, it is referred to as his.

From this specific case, the Talmud turns to the general philosophical question highlighted above. Four rabbis sat and discussed the question and taught their conclusion: whoever can stop the people of his house from transgression and does not, is responsible. And the same is true for the people of his city, or even for the entire world [kol ha’olam kulo]. I am at once inspired by the willingness and generosity to take responsibility for the moral behavior and education, and made nervous by contemplating what counts as a “transgression” worthy of intervention. Is my choice of diet, or dress, or Shabbat observance, or marriage partner, or any other of the freedoms I enjoy, subject to nosy intervention by well-meaning “responsibility-takers?”

Today, one would hope that Rabbi Eleasar ben Azariah could address his situation like this: he could politely inform her one time of the rabbinic rulings on Shabbat and cows, and then let her be mature enough to make her own decision and take responsibility for those actions. Thus he has taken responsibility for informing her, but not taken away her dignity by assuming she can’t make decisions for herself. Wouldn’t the world be much nicer if values arguments proceeded on this basis instead of the way they work today?

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Friday, June 24, 2005

Animal Suffering and Pleasure - Shabbat 53

The proper treatment of animals on Shabbat was much more important in Jewish life when livestock were part of everyday life – today we are not concerned whether our dogs or cats are carrying to much of a burden any day of the week. A hot topic in today’s Talmud page concerns what a donkey [khamor] may wear, and may not wear, during Shabbat when it is also commanded to rest (see Deuteronomy 5:13-14). The Mishnah text discussed here permits a donkey to wear a cushion tied to its back, and the question the Talmud considers is: why? And what else can it wear if a cushion is permitted?

A saddle is not allowed, according to this discussion, and one must lead around the donkey until it falls off because removing a saddle is intended to cool off the donkey, which is not considered as crucial as keeping it warm as a cushion (i.e. blanket) would. Rab taught that one may put a fodder bag on an animal to feed from on Shabbat, and if one may provide the animal the pleasure of feeding, kal va’khomer [how much more so] may one put on a cushion to avoid causing animal suffering! Samuel, on the other hand, would allow the cushion but not the fodder bag since the animal could be fed by dropping food on the ground and a feed bag is a luxury. When Samuel was told what Rab had taught, he responded, “If he said that, he knows absolutely nothing about Shabbat!”

The question we can consider here is the appropriate level of concern for animals – do we want only to avoid needless animal suffering (and what counts as “needless”), or do we also want to provide them positive pleasures? Modern consumers, who do not personally encounter the wide variety of animals whose meat and other products they enjoy every day, rarely consider the conditions in which the animals are raised, treated, killed or prepared. One need not become completely vegetarian or vegan [use no animal products at all] to contemplate or act on such questions, and releasing cattle into the wild would itself be animal cruelty since they have been bred to be fed fodder and killed for meat for so many generations that they are practically helpless on their own. But this is a case where the difference in life experience from the days of the Talmud to our own times can remind us to consider our lives in a new way.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Importance of Specificity - Shabbat 52

There are several times in Talmudic literature that general categories require refinement. In fact, much Talmudic discussion is focused on harmonizing different teachings that come into conflict in areas of overlap. For example, a person’s ring [taba’at] is susceptible to uncleanness, but an animal’s (nose) ring and other utensils are not. So why does the Mishnah text under discussion mention purifying animal accoutrements like chains or rings by sprinkling water or immersion, if they can’t become unclean?

One rabbi suggests that this refers to human objects that have become animal ornaments (thus changing categories), but another comes up with a more convincing explanation because it harmonizes with another teaching. Such objects can become unclean just as it was taught elsewhere that an animal’s staff can become unclean. What does an ox’s nose ring and a shepherd’s staff have in common? They are both used by humans to lead animals. Thus it wouldn’t matter whether they were originally human ornaments or originally made for animals, and that could have been the end of the discussion.

To complicate matters, a student from Galilee had heard about distinctions being made between rings, and Rabbi Eleazar responded “you must mean about during Shabbat, because for uncleanness the one and the other are the same” (i.e. they are all alike). Another way to the same conclusion as above, but are all rings really alike, the Talmud asks? After all, above it said that human rings could be unclean but not those of animals? Yes, he meant human rings. Did he mean finger rings or other rings used by humans for fastening clothes or robes? (finger rings). And what if the ring is metal but the signet is coral, or vice versa? He only referred to entirely metal rings.

The point we can learn from all of this is the importance of specificity. It may be the case that we want to make a general pronouncement, and our thinking isn’t clear without several examples. Or it may be the case that when we look to apply general rules to specific cases, they don’t work as well in every eventuality as we imagined they would. Any rule needs to be checked against real life to see if it should be a real rule, and the more cases the better.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Respect and Compassion - Shabbat 51

For all of the attention to picayune detail we have seen so far in defining Shabbat observance, there are also times when a touching humanity is displayed in rulings and legal discussions. The first half of today’s page is mainly focused on elaborating the Mishnah’s ruling concerning storing cold water during Shabbat. To answer a “rabbinic paradox” – two opposite legal rulings ascribed to the same rabbi – we are told that Rabbi prohibited such storage before his encounter with Rabbi Ishmael son of Rabbi Yose, but permitted it afterwards. The encounter was very simple: Rabbi ruled against storing cold water, and Rabbi Ishmael said “my father allowed it.” And that is all Rabbi needed to hear to change his ruling, so great was his respect for Rabbi Yose. But that respect went two ways, because Rabbi Yose occupied his father’s place but was submitting to be a student before Rabbi, and then Rabbi submitted to his authority as well! Rabbi Papa touchingly observes: “Come and see how much they loved each other!”

In the second half of today’s page, the Mishnah text under discussion concerns the circumstances under which animals may go out and about on Shabbat. We should recall that Biblical Shabbat law commands rest not only for the landowner, but for everyone and everything:

Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord your God; in it you shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your ox, nor your ass, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger who is inside your gates; that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you. (Deuteronomy 5:13-14)

So when the Mishnah specifies what kind of controlling device (a bit, rope, or chain) specific animals may be wearing on Shabbat, the Talmud explains that one wearing a device intended for another could be considered a burden, and thus prohibited. There is some debate about a muzzle/collar [soger], but the resolution is that since its goal would be to protect the animal, it is indeed permitted. The attention to this detail, the compassion for the rest of others of other species, deserves to be highlighted here.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

When to Act and What to Expect - Shabbat 50

Two general rabbinic principles ripe for philosophical debate appear in today’s Talmud page, as the rabbis continue to grapple with how to handle certain materials on Shabbat. After all, one may use a number of materials for either a permitted or a prohibited purpose, and it all depends on what one intended to do with them as to whether one may handle them. And such materials are generally designated as intended for a permitted purpose in some way.

So if one is permitted to bring a sackful of earth into a house to use for one’s needs on Shabbat, says one rabbi, he should mark a corner of it. The problem is that dirt looks like dirt! Fortunately, there is an out: the sages decreed (in more convoluted language) that where such an act is possible, it should be done; but where an act is impossible, nothing is required. The philosophical debates in this principle are not unpacked in the Talmud, but they could be rich: is there NOTHING one could do in a given situation – have we given in to “impossible” to quickly? When can acting when there is really nothing to be done make the situation worse? And why be guilty in particularly difficult circumstances for doing nothing when there IS no right action to take?

The second general principle brings us back to the conflict between the restrictive Rabbi Judah and the permissive Rabbi Simeon. If there is a side-effect to a particular action, like cleaning a utensil with a material like sand or chalk that may incidentally smooth out or alter the metal, Rabbi Judah would prohibit it – “a thing not planned – prohibited” [davar sheh’ayn mitkaven – asur]. But Rabbi Simeon would allow it – davar sheh ‘ayn mitkaven – mutar [permitted]. Again, the philosophical roads not taken beckon us: should one be allowed to benefit from unintentional but foreseeable consequences? How can you draw the line between intended and unintended results – that is, couldn’t people “clean” their utensils while really wanting to smooth them out? These general philosophical inquiries were not the primary attention of the Talmud and its traditional commentators, but they might well be for later generations!

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Monday, June 20, 2005

Miracles and Making Lists - Shabbat 49

There are two very important elements in today’s daf [page] that we will consider separately. The first is an anecdote about a man named Elisha that appears again almost verbatim later in tractate Shabbat 130, inspired here by a mention that food can be stored for Shabbat in dove’s wings. Elisha is called the “master of wings” [baal k’nafim] because of the following story: once the Roman government prohibited the wearing of tefillin [prayer boxes] on pain of death, but Elisha wore his anyways. When pursued, he fled, and when he was caught, he hid them in his hand. When asked what he had in his hands, he replied “wings of a dove,” and miraculously that is what was there. The moral of the story, as often happens in rabbinic parables, came at the beginning – wearing tefillin requires a pure body. And what does that mean practically? Raba says one shouldn’t sleep in then, while Abaye suggests one should not pass wind in them. This entire passage is a great example of the heights of rabbinic religious imagination, combined with the almost shockingly-earthy reality of rabbinic pronouncements and human concerns.

The second is a great example of one of the basic tasks of the Talmud – to explain the thinking behind the Mishnah. The Mishnah said that there are 39 categories of work prohibited on Shabbat; the Talmud here asks the very reasonable question: “why 39? To what does the number 39 correspond?” One rabbi speculates that it is related to the kinds of work performed to build the Tabernacle during the Exodus, since the rules of Shabbat appear right next to the Tabernacle construction in Exodus 35. Another claims that it is the number certain variations of the word melakha [work] appear in the Torah, and when challenged he suggests they pull out a Torah scroll and count them! The challenge comes that the word melakha can sometimes be professional work, but it can also be used euphemistically for other activities, so the challenger asks if a particular example of the word counts towards the 39. The end of this debate is teku – undecided, and waiting for Elijah to return from heaven to settle the issue! (see Blog entry on Shabbat 5 for more on this concept). Besides, using my CD ROM of the Hebrew Torah to count the occurrences of those words, I came up with 47. . .

All of this is very different from our approach to lists. Do we want to have a number fixed, and then try to fill it, or come up with sensible categories and then find out how many we have? While it is a good idea when giving a speech not to have too many points (audience memories are notoriously spotty), not necessarily when making laws. Why not? Because one invents things to fill the number rather than giving an honest list of the genuine possibilities.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Sunday, June 19, 2005

The Necessary Connection - Shabbat 48

Is a tire part of an automobile? On one hand it is integral for the car’s function, but on the other one could argue that a tire is clearly replaceable and removable, and the car remains clearly an undamaged car when on a repair jack with a tire off. In rabbinic terminology, a similar question is put in various ways: are otherwise acceptable objects attached to problematic ones also forbidden to use on Shabbat? Or, in another way of thinking about it, are these items considered connected in terms of becoming unclean in general?

A piece of wood temporarily improvised as an axe handle, or laundry loosely stitched together for transportation, or a bunch of keys – all are considered “connected” for purposes of uncleanness unless they have begun to be untied. In other words, a loose tire might be considered less on the car than on its way off of it! Rabbi Meir is credited with the general principle: whatever is bound to something, behold it is like it (i.e. they are one object). Of course, Rabbi Meir’s authorship of this saying must be deduced by other rulings of his on similar subjects, but that is par for the rabbinic course.

What can we glean from this discussion? Think of necessary consequences – if we know that a particular action is fine in and of itself but it will necessarily lead to bad consequences down the road, we cannot but consider those two pieces one issue. And the same is true in considering what happens to us – sometimes what gets us is an unintended consequence of another action, but that doesn’t make the originator of the bad results innocent if they could have been reasonably predicted. In other words, they share what the Scottish philosopher David Hume called a “necessary connexion [sic]” upon which we base our basic concepts of causality, sequence, and for that matter personal responsibility.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Saturday, June 18, 2005

Outside the Box - Shabbat 47

Jewish culture has always had fruitful interactions with its non-Jewish surroundings. Exhibit A on today’s page is the originator of a tradition – a chain of rabbis 5 removed from the actual event relies on the authority of testimony by “Rabbi Romanus.” For all the official enmity between the rabbis and Roman/Hellenistic culture, obviously there was some interchange if a rabbi could be named Romanus! There have been many studies done comparing Talmudic dialectical argument to Hellenistic philosophy, and there are over 2500 terms of Greek linguistic origin in the Talmud (cited in Louis Feldman, Jew and Gentile in the Ancient World, 1993, p31). Even if those terms are rare in theological, literary, or philosophical discussions, their prevalence in areas of government, society, and personal behavior indicates a profound linguistic and social interaction.

Another interesting detail demonstrated in today’s page is the ability of the rabbis to come up with ways around strict yes or no answers. You would think that behavior would simply be defined as “do this” or “don’t do that,” but the rabbis are very creative in refining these categories. Here they consider the case of assembling a bed –the sockets for the legs or the legs themselves should not be inserted, but if they are inserted the individual is not liable for a sin offering. But it is still forbidden to do it! This concept of patur aval asur [exempt but forbidden] runs the risk of becoming a rule without any penalties other than “I’d be very disappointed in you.” Yet it also provides for shadings of grey in behavior – something could be forbidden and liable for punishment, or forbidden but exempt, or permitted. And this is independent of considering whether an action was intentional or not!

The best example of new options is Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, who says if the legs are loose, it is permitted. Who would have thought outside the box to come up with another option beyond inserting the legs or not? Or that shoddy workmanship could exempt you from a sin offering? The best parallel I can think of to this in modern Jewish life is how Israeli parliament votes take place. You would think there could be three options: yes, no, or abstain. But at every sensitive vote, certain legislators use the “outside the box” option – they are absent. I know that this strategy is not unique to or created by Jews, but just as Hellenistic vocabulary and argument have found their way into the Talmud and inform Jewish identity, so too have parliamentary maneuvers.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Thursday, June 16, 2005

The Annulment of Vows - Shabbat 46

Our previous discussion concluded with the category of individually-declared muktzeh [temporarily forbidden] items, whether from a traditional rabbinic perspective or in modern ethical and personal decisions. Rabbi Simeon’s permissive ruling in allowing the handling of a lamp on Shabbat extends to many other categories of behavior. In fact later generations had different practices because some followed Rabbi Simeon while others did not – one rabbi visits another’s house and moves a lamp, he angers his host! And a rabbi who follows one practice in one town and another elsewhere may be an astute politician, but the implication is that he should choose a side and stick to it (his excuse is that he believed one but didn’t want to disrespect the other). I particularly like the anecdote when Rabbi Avia visited Raba and tracked mud in the house, so Raba got mad and tried to vex him with a question about this issue – neat freaks have been part of humanity for many generations.

More problematic for us is a later discussion of the voluntary proscriptions that individuals may choose to apply to themselves. Of course, men are free to make such declarations, but rabbinic law, based on the rules set forth in the Torah in B’midbar [Numbers] 30, accepts that a father may cancel his daughter’s vows, or a husband his wife’s. And such vows by women can be annulled even on Shabbat, so how can a woman know what should be muktzeh for her since her husband could simply cancel her vow? On the other hand, if she expected him to cancel it, how can she be sure and thus handle the item? Thus the general rule of Raba as proclaimed by Rabbi Pinkhas: any woman who vows, on the opinion (i.e. consent) of her husband does she vow.

Needless to say, this is not the way of the world for contemporary liberal Jews. In the era this was written, property belonged to the husband or father and thus its final disposition depended on his consent; thus a “dependent’s” vow needed official approval. Today, I cannot and should not annul my wife’s vows, though if a child were to promise a telemarketer to buy 100 Flo-Bee systems I imagine parents would intervene to cancel that vow! So while we have redefined who may competently take a vow, adult supervision may still be required.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Self-Prohibitions - Shabbat 45

Today’s page continues the previous page’s discussion of the intricacies of muktzeh [temporarily prohibited] items on Shabbat, specifically nerot [lamps] on Shabbat – may one move them or not? Rabbi Judah defined the official approach of the Mishnah by permitting only never-used lamps to be handled, while Rabbi Simeon articulated a broad minority perspective that all lamps could be moved except a lamp actually burning on Shabbat – once it went out, it too could be moved. The problem with Rabbi Simeon’s approach is that Rabbi Judah defined the lamps as muktzeh because they were “repulsive”, not because of their active use or original purpose, so how can Rabbi Simeon permit it?

Rabbi Simeon, it turns out, takes a permissive approach to muktzeh in a lot of areas – he might well allow people to use the wood from their sukkah [festival huts] for other purposes, just as his son would allow people to draw oil from a lamp burning on Shabbat. And he would certainly allow someone to define part of the fruits and decorations of their sukkah as permissible to eat during the festival, while others might not. One authority claims that Rabbi Simeon rejects the category of muktzeh for anything except drying figs and grapes, where an individual defines them as off-limits until they are finished changing. The important point here that IS generally accepted is that items can be defined as muktzeh not only by their general function or by their “repulsiveness” but also by individual decision.

As we go through life, we often try to exercise self-control by defining certain items, substances, or behaviors as unacceptable – sometimes from popular agreement, and sometimes on an individual basis. Our guidelines for living are no less important because we ourselves had defined them – if I decide that ice cream is muktzeh for me because I can’t eat it in moderation, then I should take that “ruling” as seriously as a strict diet supervised by a dietician. I can change my mind later if circumstances warrant (i.e., I’ve demonstrated renewed self-control in other areas), but just because I made the rule doesn’t mean it wasn’t made for good reason.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

What is Prohibited? - Shabbat 44

One of the trickiest parts of legal categorization, whether by contemporary or rabbinic legalists, is deciding what is included in a particular category and what is not. What does “regulate commerce” mean in the US Constitution – does that include items that COULD be sold but are used privately (for example from recent news, medicinal marijuana), or only actual business that crosses state lines? Today’s page explores some permutations of the rabbinic category of muktzeh, or “temporarily forbidden.” Objects that are muktzeh are, on ordinary days, perfectly permitted to be handled and used, but on Shabbat or on holidays are permitted.

Adin Steinsaltz, in his tremendously useful The Talmud: The Steinsaltz Edition – A Reference Guide (NY: Random House, 1989), describes some of the different kinds of muktzeh in terms of subcategories – items whose customary function would be prohibited on Shabbat (like a pen), items that are repulsive, items specifically designated not to be used on a particular Shabbat because they would not be ready before Shabbat began, and so on.

The question considered here in both the Mishnah and its accompanying Talmud discussion is about a lamp – obviously it may be used for the Shabbat lights, but may one handle it afterwards since it is forbidden to light a new light on Shabbat? The rabbis conclude that one may handle a new (i.e. never been used) lamp and not an old one, not because of the usual function of a lamp but rather because of “repulsiveness.” Though not stated explicitly in the Talmud, I suspect this is because a used lamp still has some oil in it and could be relit, while a never-used lamp would have been impossible to light. If they had defined lamps as untouchable because of their general function, on the other hand, this would have contradicted earlier generations that permitted handling them in certain circumstances.

What are we to glean from this? We should always be willing to ask ourselves if our reactions are based on real reasons, or if they are rationalizations. Is a burned-out lamp really “repulsive,” or is that the reason given to avoid other problems? Is our behavior in a particular situation really based on the reasons we give, or are those “reasons” really rationalizations for decisions we made emotionally or with personal interest in mind? Don’t just think about what you’re doing – explore WHY you do what you do as well.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

A Corpse on Shabbat - Shabbat 43

A conflict of mitzvot [commandments] often produces the most interesting discussions, just as in contemporary philosophical debates a conflict of two positive values can produce sparks. If one values both color-blind justice and ethnic diversity, how to handle public college admissions? In today’s case, the conflict is between kavod ha-meiteem [honoring the dead] and observing Shabbat. What to do if one sees a corpse lying (i.e. rotting) in the sun, though it is Shabbat?
On one hand, it is clear that one should not just blithely ignore the body. On the other, one may not simply pick it up and haul it away – this would both defile oneself and violate the rules of carrying on Shabbat. Rabbi Huna suggests a legal fiction: one can make a shade for the dead for the sake of the living, but not for the sake of the dead. The Talmud itself asks, “huh?” So two rabbis explain – two men sit down next to the body, make a shade for themselves, then walk away. Voila! “A screen is located above the body.” Or, we might say, a clever way to honor the dead by slowing decay.

Other legal fictions may be possible – in the story of David’s death and burial by Solomon in Shabbat 30, it was mentioned that one may place a loaf of bread or a child upon a body to enable one to move the body. The reasoning behind this legal principle will not be explained until daf 142, but another possible solution is to move it from funeral litter to funeral litter – kind of rolling it away with small movements.

The more interesting case is whether one may rescue a corpse from a fire. A well-known Talmudic principle is that one may break one Shabbat to save a life so that the individual may celebrate many more Shabbats; but a corpse has none in its future! In this case, the law is decided more for the living than for the dead: Rabbi Judah ben Lakish says that since a person will be so agitated for his dead (loved one), he might extinguish the fire, you should permit the rescue of a corpse from fire. Compassion for the dead is an important value, but so too is considering the emotions of the living.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Monday, June 13, 2005

Through Thick and Thin - Shabbat 42

Over 100 pages into the Daf Yomi [daily page], I have found that some pages are treasure troves of historical information, rabbinic philosophy, interesting anecdotes and creative reasoning. And some pages are, frankly, rather thin in terms of material relevant to contemporary liberal Jews who live lives independent of the authority of Talmudic halakha [religious law]. This should not be surprising; in fact, the vast philosophic gulf between these two worlds makes it inspiring to have found as much interesting material as we have.

Today’s page is, unfortunately, one of the thinner ones. In English translation, one can tell how detailed the halakhic wrangling is by the relative sizes of the Talmud text and its commentators – the more contentious the issue, the more later commentators like Rashi or the Tosafists had to say on the subject. Thus the more surrounding commentary was created for that particular page, and less original Talmud text could fit there. The pages we have found most interesting have been those anecdotal or ethical texts that have had less commentary and more original material.

A central issue in today’s page, continuing the discussion of “indirectly heated materials on Shabbat” is how to handle water that has been boiling on a stove – for example, Beit Shammai [the house/school of Shammai] claims that one may pour hot water into cold (thus cooling it), while one may not pour cool water into hot (thus heating it). Beit Hillel, on the other hand, would allow one to pour hot into cool or cool into hot. The Talmud clarifies that this permission applied only to a drink, but not to something as substantial as a bath. Then it debates if a basin is more like a bath or a cup. Since pouring into another container is one more step removed, the rabbis are more permissive here than they were with indirectly-heated ovens. In short, this is not likely to be a legal debate that will shape global ethical behavior. But tomorrow’s promises to be much more interesting. . .

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Naked Etiquette and Hygiene - Shabbat 41

We saw in tractate Berakhot [blessings] that a not-insubstantial number of rabbinic discussions concerned etiquette in bathing and toilet situations – should one wear tefillin [prayer boxes] into a privy, or recite the Amida [standing prayer], if one is, shall we say, less than modestly attired? A similar set of questions is raised in today’s page, as the rabbis consider the appropriate etiquette for entering or leaving a river for bathing.

Rabbi Zera claims to have seen Abbahu covering his privates in such a setting but is not certain whether he touched himself or not. The Talmud immediately (almost indignantly) asserts that of course he did not, since Rabbi Eliezer clearly taught, “the one who holds his member and urinates is as if he brought a Flood upon the world.” A piece of graffiti I once saw over a urinal dealt with the same issue: “if you shake it more than three times, it’s masturbating.” Abaye defends Abbahu’s behavior, saying there was no risk of impure thoughts because his concern was the river. Others wonder whether he was covering up because he was shamed of his circumcision, but again alternative circumstances explain both position – if one descends towards the river, one need not cover for modesty reasons, but ascending could require discretion. The scholars of Rabbi Ashi did just that – going to the river they stood upright, proud of the covenant of Abraham (i.e. circumcision), but ascending they bent over out of modesty. Note that this entire discussion does not concern holy behavior like reciting blessings, but rather everyday interactions with one’s own body. So while in some areas Judaism can be seen to affirm human sexuality, in others it clearly sees the naked human body as shameful.

We also see here more rabbinic recommendations for healthy living, examples of which we also saw in Berakhot. Eating without drinking leads to stomach trouble, eating without walking at least 4 cubits creates bad breath, having to defecate but still eating is like an oven heated on its ashes and leads to perspiration. And several suggestions concerning bathing are simply argued by analogy: bathing in hot water without drinking any, or bathing hot without a cold shower after, or bathing without anointing afterwards are all frowned upon. Will breaking these rules lead to the consequences described? Probably not – but you’re welcome to experiment!

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Saturday, June 11, 2005

Refining Rules - Shabbat 40

Today’s page concerns the question of water heated on the eve of Shabbat [erev Shabbat] – water heated ON Shabbat is clearly forbidden, but how can one forbid water heated BEFORE Shabbat begins? The Talmudic version of “give them an inch, they’ll take a mile” is the following story.

People used to bathe with water warmed just before Shabbat, and then they started bathing with water warmed on Shabbat while claiming it had been warmed just before. So the rabbis banned the use of warm water for Shabbat bathing entirely, but allowed people to use steam baths instead. But they kept bathing in warm water and claiming that they were just sweating! So then the rabbis banned sweating but still allowed the use of the hot springs in Tiberias. Of course, people kept using water heated on Shabbat and claiming they went to Tiberias! The rabbis then tried to ban the Tiberias hot springs, but “they saw this rule would not stand for them” (i.e. the people wouldn’t or couldn’t be that strict), so they allowed the hot springs but kept the ban on sweating. Anyone who has tried to refine house rules with children knows this kind of a dialogue!

No wonder the very next saying is that one who violates a rabbinic commandment can be called a “transgressor” [Aramaic avreina]! And one can imagine that Talmudic rabbis wanted to avoid such a title as much as possible. So what to do if someone is about to commit a violation in a place like a bathhouse or outhouse, where for Rabbi Jokhanan human nudity forbids speaking of Torah and divine law? Two anecdotes of Rabbis teaching lessons in bathhouses would seem to contradict this rule, and claiming those rabbis spoke in “secular language” [lashon khol] rather than Hebrew [lashon kodesh – literally “holy tongue”] doesn’t apply since according to Abaye one may speak of secular matters in holy language, but not of holy matters in secular language (thus this entire blog would be treyfe [forbidden]!). The answer is that one may teach a Torah lesson even in a bathhouse if it is to stop someone from a transgression [aveira]. While we today may disagree on what constitutes a “transgression” worth correcting another about, we can agree that violating social norms may be necessary to prevent someone from doing wrong. Children certainly, but even adults can use and should be willing to accept gently-offered words of advice.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Friday, June 10, 2005

Ingenuity and Compromise - Shabbat 39

If necessity is the mother of invention, rules are the progenitors of ingenuity in getting around them. A case in point is an innovation in Tiberias described by the Mishnah text cited in the previous page; they had a pipe of cold water that ran through a hot springs to warm the water up. Very clever, but can one use such water on Shabbat? The Mishnah says that the sages prohibited washing with or drinking it on Shabbat, and just washing on other holidays. The question the Talmud explores is: what makes it warm? All agree that something may be used on Shabbat that is warmed by the sun, while direct fire heat is prohibited. The question is what to do with objects like stoves that are heated by fire and can then heat something else?

In this case, the issue is how the hot springs are heated. One side says that the hot springs are made hot by the sun, while another claims that they are made hot by passing over the entrance to Gehinam (commonly pronounced Gehenna, the Rabbinic word for Hell) – thus heated by fire! Note that, contrary to contemporary liberal Jewish presentations, Jewish tradition does in fact include an afterlife with a burning Hell for the condemned. In the end, the Tiberians enjoy a pyrrhic victory: Ulla says that the halakha [rabbinic law] agrees with them, but Rabbi Nakhman reminds him that the Tiberians themselves broke the pipe a long time ago to avoid the controversy, and thus the entire discussion is moot. Moot in the particulars of Tiberias, of course, but not in rabbinic thought for parallel or comparative cases.

More interesting for those who have chosen to not be bound by Shabbat restrictions is a general approach of rabbinic debate cited at the end of Shabbat 39b – "Every place you find two disputing and an additional one compromising, the halakha is as the words of the compromiser." We have seen how far the Talmud goes to harmonize disagreeing positions, and again we see the value of compromise and agreement. Many Jewish communal institutions continue to run subconsciously on this kind of principle, seeking compromise that is generally acceptable by consensus rather than ramming through by majority vote what is deeply disagreeable to a minority. This lesson, unfortunately, needs to be learned and relearned in every generation.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Intention and Forgetfulness - Shabbat 38

Any guide to life and human behavior must address the question of intentions as well as actions – we may intend well but create terrible results, or we may not have intended to break a rule but do so anyways. And sometimes we unintentionally violate a rule in a way that benefits us; the question then becomes can we enjoy the fruits of our forbidden labors if we didn’t intend to break the rule? If we forgive ourselves for accidentally leaving a restaurant without paying, are we more likely to “forget” again?

Rabbi Hiyya Bar Abba was asked, “what if someone forgot a pot on the stove and cooked it on Shabbat?” This would deal with the case of a dish that was not mostly or completely cooked, since the previous page dealt with the line between reheating and cooking anew. Hiyya spent the night thinking about it and came back in the morning to say that if it was accidental, he may eat of it, but if intentional he may not. There is some debate about what a third party may do – some say a third person could eat even if it had been deliberately cooked on Shabbat (because they did nothing wrong), while others say that a third person can’t eat even if the cooking was accidental (because no one should enjoy the fruits of willing transgression).

The amusing side of this discussion is the development of the principle of forgetfulness: once the Rabbis decreed that one who forgets is like one who unwittingly cooks on Shabbat, there was a rash of people who all of a sudden kept “forgetting” pots on stoves and cooking on Shabbat. At that point, the Sages [khakhamim] changed their mind and began to penalize those who forgot. This situation is similar to the story of the Orthodox community that permitted their adherents to buy VCRs, with the idea that they could watch tapes of the Rebbe teaching Torah, but when they found that some community members were also using their VCRs to watch pornography, they had to change the ruling back again.

The more serious question for us to consider is the danger demonstrated in the Talmudic anecdote of permitting enjoyment of what is obtained accidentally but illicitly – people will being to claim it was an “accident” to enjoy what has been forbidden. Intentions are important, but so too are effects in the real world. And just like the Rabbis re-evaluated their decision based on how it played out, we should be willing to reconsider our rules based on the consequences they produce.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Shabbat Reheating - Shabbat 37

If one is not allowed to use fire to actively cook food on Shabbat, what are the grey areas around that activity that might be permissible? In other words, how did our ancestors manage a hot meal despite Shabbat restrictions? Talmud Tractate Shabbat returns to direct legal debate about Shabbat observance with a Mishnah text concerning a stove that has already been warmed but whose fire has been swept out or covered with ashes – in what contexts may one use the accumulated heat as long as it doesn’t involve active fire?

First, the original text makes a distinction between a pot of water and a dish of food, since one is a matter of heating or cooling while the other may actively change through cooking. The Talmud then tries to claim that the Mishnah’s discussion applies to putting a pot or dish on the stove but not to simply keeping it there as Shabbat begins; later discussion makes clear that even a pot kept on the stove requires the active fire to be removed. Some clever person then imagined the case of TWO stoves joined to each other, where one is swept out but the other is not so that the heat of the stove with an active fire will still carry over to the other stove that has been properly treated – can one put something on the properly-treated stove? There is some debate as to the positions of Beit Hillel [the house/school of Hillel] and Beit Shammai according to Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Meir on this question – one says they would allow nothing or just water, where the other says one would allow water and the other water and a dish of food.

The larger question is: what constitutes forbidden cooking? What is the line between reheating and cooking in the days before microwaves and Tupperware leftovers? The Talmud’s rabbis observed details, and they noticed that cooked food has less bulk than raw food. So Rab and Samuel created a general rule that anything that, through heating, shrinks and is improved is forbidden to leave on a warm stove, and Rabbi Nahman adds that if it shrinks and deteriorates it is allowed. All of this makes us glad to live in communities where firing up the stove on Shabbat is a personal decision, with no communal condemnation awaiting.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Shofars, Trumpets, and Transformations - Shabbat 36

As we saw in yesterday’s page, at one time in Jewish history the beginning of Shabbat was marked with public blowing of a shofar [ram’s horn]. But this creates a conundrum for the hazzan [community official] who blew the shofar – if Shabbat begins at the last shofar blast, and there is a tradition that one is not supposed to handle (lest one use) an instrument like a shofar on Shabbat, what does he do with it now that Shabbat has begun? The Talmud claims that he would have a hiding place for the shofar on his roof, where he puts it immediately after its use.

The problem is, there is an alternative legal tradition that says that a shofar may be handled, but not a trumpet [khatsotsra] – one may use a curved shofar to hold water and, as the Talmud says, “give water to a child,” but a trumpet is too long and straight to be so used. Rabbi Joseph tries to harmonize the two traditions, claiming “lo kushiya – no difficulty”: the latter refers to an individual’s shofar, while the former refers to the community’s shofar. The problem with this solution, Abaye points out, is that the community shofar is just as useful to give water to a poor child as an individuals is! And further, there is a THIRD legal tradition that says both a shofar and a trumpet may be moved on Shabbat.

The “solution” the Talmud offers is to ascribe each view to a different authority – as the medieval commentator Rashi explains, Rabbi Judah allows a shofar to be moved, since there is a permitted use for it, but since a trumpet could only be used on Shabbat for a forbidden purpose (i.e. sound), for Shabbat it is defined as muktzeh, or “untouchable.” Rabbi Simeon, on the other hand, allows anyone to move muktzeh items on Shabbat, so he would allow both to be handled (though of course not used for forbidden purposes!). Rabbi Nehemiah, on the third hand, says one only uses an object for its normal purpose, and since it’s forbidden to sound a shofar on Shabbat and that’s its normal purpose, one may handle neither a trumpet nor a shofar on Shabbat. All of this is even more complicated because Rabbi Hisda claims that after the Temple was destroyed, the very words “trumpet” and “shofar” exchanged meanings!

What does all of this have to do with us? Plenty. It is refreshing to see some historical awareness that terms can change their meaning over centuries, and that what WE mean by a particular term is not what it has always meant. The diversities of rabbinic thought and practice are evidence of Jewish plurality, if not philosophical pluralism. And we can follow the tradition of putting objects, ideas and even culture to new uses in new settings.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Monday, June 06, 2005

Shabbat, Stars and Shofars - Shabbat 35

While the previous daf [page] tried to define twilight so one can know when Shabbat begins in terms of the setting sun, today’s gives a different rule of thumb – according to Rabbi Judah, seeing one star means it is still day, seeing two defines twilight, and three is nighttime. And another Rabbi clarifies that this refers to neither “large stars” one can see by day (what we now know are planets) nor small ones only seen really at night, but rather middle sized stars. And if it’s cloudy? The Talmud suggests observing the chickens in a city, or a raven in the countryside – no word about what to do in a suburb that prohibits owning livestock.

In part to address the challenges of determining sundown in a city, we also read about an historical anecdote that is a Jewish parallel to the public Muslim call to prayer – the Rabbis claim that the shofar [ram’s horn] used to be blown six times to mark the start of Shabbat. Today we use the shofar exclusively for the High Holidays, but historically it was the Jewish “Public Address System” for many occasions. In this case, there is some discussion as to what the blasts signified. The first was a sign for people to stop working in the fields, the second told shops in the city to stop work, and the third meant one should light the Shabbat lights. Then three blasts would be blown – a teki’ah [long sound], a teruah [several short sounds], and a teki’ah – and Shabbat would begin.

However, there is a fly in the ointment – Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, the nasi [head of the Rabbinic council], asks what to do about the Babylonian Jews who blow teki’ah and teruah and then start Shabbat in the middle of the teruah? Another voice interjects to clarify that they must have blown two tekiahs to make up six sounds, though we might argue that they followed a variant tradition. In any case, the exemption is very simple: minhag avoteyhen b’yadeihen – their fathers’ custom is in their hands. They follow what their ancestors did, so who are we to change it? Another example of Jewish variety within rabbinic Judaism, even in the ancient world.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Sunday, June 05, 2005

Defining Twilight - Shabbat 34

From our rather entertaining excursion into Second Temple Rabbis like Hillel and Shimon bar Yohai and their speculative philosophy on life and death, today’s page returns to the more expected exploration of the rules of observing Shabbat by expounding on the Mishnah – in this case, the last-minute “checklist” just before Shabbat begins of tithing from food, setting up a courtyard eruv [public food that makes public space private for carrying objects], and then lighting the candles. The Mishnah also specifies what to do is there is doubt whether it is fully dark or not, but this kind of question opens up miles of commentary for the Talmud.

What IS twilight [beyn ha-shemashot – literally “between the suns”]? Keep in mind that the Rabbis were trying to define this concept without the benefit of clocks or a strict sense of universal time – today we could just define it by something like 6:15-6:42pm. Imagine you were camping without a watch or a computer and had to decide when it was nighttime – the sun setting is a very gradual process, and while there is clearly a difference between a red glowing sunset and nighttime under the stars, what is the dividing line between one and the other? Rabbi Judah claims that while as the eastern sky has a reddish color, and while the lower horizon is “paler” than the upper, it is still twilight; once the upper and lower horizons are of the same color, it is night. To my mind, this is as good a definition as any other.

The reason defining twilight is important for the Talmud’s rabbis is based on another question: does twilight count as day or as night? That is, on a Friday evening, how can you know when it is Shabbat, or not yet? On one hand, twilight is considered a “doubtful” time, where one can be flexible in assigning blame for not completing tasks like the eruv in time – “a doubt in Rabbinical law is judged leniently.” On the other, because it is an uncertain time, the rabbis would rather be safe and put in effect the more strict requirements – just in case. This is why in traditional Jewish practice there is a “margin of error” around candlelighting times for Shabbat. Because at that time of day, one has entered. . .the twilight zone.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Saturday, June 04, 2005

Tragedy and Judgment - Shabbat 33

There is a macabre competition the religiously-inclined can pursue when facing tragedy – which is more numerous, the varieties of sins worthy of punishment or the varieties of cosmic punishment for sins? Today’s page explores the punishments for robbery, for perverted or delayed justice, for vain oaths and profaning God and Shabbat, for bloodshed, and for blasphemy – any number of tragedies, from the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple and national calamity to an individual falling ill are connected to Jewish transgressions. Even about this there is disagreement – some argue that askarah [digestive trouble] comes from neglecting tithes, or slander, for eating untithed food, or for neglecting Torah study. We would point to “diet,” but that’s missing the rabbinic point of explaining tragedy in a just universe. We can, however, take heart that we agree that several of the issues they call transgressions are still objectionable, even if for us their correction relies more on human than on divine justice.

This last “reason” of neglecting study raises predictable questions: why then would women, or children, or non-Jews (all of whom are not commanded to study) – or for that matter school children [tinokot shel beit rabban – literally “babies of the Rabbi’s house”] who DO study enough - suffer from askarah? The answers: for women – because they interfere with their husbands’ study; for non-Jews, because they interfere; for children – because they make their fathers neglect to study. I would argue the last one is actually a worthy replacement! Why do school children suffer? Rabbi Gorion (or perhaps Rabbi Joseph ben Shemaiah) claims that the righteous suffer for the sins of their generation, and if there are no righteous the school children suffer instead. One begins to sympathize with Job and ask, “is that justice?”

This page also contains a fascinating story about Rabbi Simon bar Yohai and the dangers of loose lips. Rabbi Judah comments how great are the public works of the Romans, and Rabbi Simon retorts that they built streets and markets to install whores, baths to clean themselves, and bridges to take tolls. This is the reverse of a marvelous scene in Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, where Jewish revolutionaries ask disparagingly “what have the Romans ever done for us?” and come up with a large number of answers: “apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

Rabbi Shimon’s comments were reported to the authorities, and he and his son fled to a cave where they hid for 12 years. They took of their clothes (to prevent them wearing out) and sat in sand up to their necks until it was time to pray, at which point they got dressed, prayed, then took them off again. Having been told by Elijah that the Roman emperor was dead and the decree against them annulled, they leave the cave, only to be so judgmental of people living ordinary lives plowing and sowing rather than studying Torah that their gaze causes everything to burn up. They are returned to the cave for a year, after which they come out and see someone hurrying to observe Shabbat, which calms them down.

What can we get from this fable? Shimon bar Yohai is traditionally claimed (impossible historically) to be the author of the Zohar, the most important book in Jewish mysticism, so this story is understandably celebrated in those circles. We see the danger of critical comments, and also the problems created by being unnecessarily negative about the good works of others with whom we have conflict – even if the bridges were to collect tolls, now you can cross the river! Studying in isolation from the outside world is dangerous, because you won’t accommodate your ideas to messy reality. And even if we can’t burn up others with our judgmental eyes, the emotional impact and its consequences are similar.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

You can read or hear the entire The Life of Brian scene at:

Friday, June 03, 2005

Death and Justice - Shabbat 32

One can think of few worse tragedies than a woman dying in childbirth, an occasion that is much less frequent today than in previous generations because of modern advances. Yet for rabbinic theology, women dying in childbirth must have done something wrong to deserve it! A Mishnah text cited at the end of the previous page and discussed in today’s daf jumps out at us – “for three sins women die in childbirth: not being careful in niddah [menstrual impurity], khallah [offerings from bread], and lighting Shabbat candles.” As our page tells it – “the soul in you is called a ner [lamp], thus I warned you about the ner (of Shabbat). . .if you neglect it, I will take your souls.” Whatever consolation we can derive from the important position of women with regard to these responsibilities is negated by their condemnation.

Why in childbirth, the rabbis ask? Several sayings are brought to make the point that times of danger are when actions are judged: “leave the drunkard alone – he will fall of himself.” And so the next question is: when are men judged? The answer: when crossing a bridge. For this reason, Rab would not cross a bridge where a non-Jew sat, lest the non-Jew be judged and he be caught up in the tragedy! A more sober conclusion was reached by Rabbi Yannai, who proclaimed that “one should never stand in a dangerous place and expect a miracle, lest it not happen.” And, continued Yannai, even if one does happen, it’s deducted from your total of merit so don’t feel so good about yourself!

Indeed, even falling seriously ill is considered to be under death sentence – when you go in the street you’re arrested, when you have a headache you’re in chains, and taking to bed is like going to the gallows. What are the best advocates for clemency? Teshuva u’ma’asim tovim – repentance and good deeds. There are still more tragedies to explain: some women die from their husband’s unfulfilled vows, but others argue that unfulfilled vows cause one’s children to die instead. Or perhaps the latter tragedy is for neglect of Torah study, or of the mezuzah [doorpost], or tzitzit [fringes]. I suspect that few of these explanations do anything to really address the agonizing pain of losing a child, other than to add guilt to injury.

We also learn that ame’ ha-aretz [the ignorant] die for two reasons: calling the aron ha-kodesh [holy ark where the Torah is kept] an arna [chest – same word but in Aramaic], and for calling a beit kenesset [synagogue] a beit am [house of the people]. Heaven forbid that elements of rabbinic culture be more closely connected to the people’s life by using their own words and changing to focus of the synagogue from the supernatural to the human! To my mind, the synagogue should be a house of the people, by the people and for the people that it claims to serve.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Thursday, June 02, 2005

The Patience of Hillel - Shabbat 31

Two of the most famous founding figures in Rabbinic Judaism are Hillel and Shammai, and today’s page contains some wonderful maises [stories] about the Hillel’s gentleness and Shammai’s impatience, all to prove the rabbinic saying that “A man should always be gentle like Hillel, and not impatient like Shammai.” Even if what they were teaching is foreign to us, the lesson of gentle persuasion is not lost.

Two men make a bet of 400 zuzim that one of them can get Hillel mad, so he shows up on erev Shabbat [Shabbat eve] to urgently ask a silly question, go away, then come back a few moments later with another – why do Babylonians have round heads, or Palmyreans bleared eyes, or why Africans have wide feet, and so on. Hillel responds to each question patiently, and the man eventually complains that he has lost the 400 zuzim. Hillel answers that too – Hillel is worth more than 400 or even 800 zuzim, and he will still not lose his temper. The next time we find ourselves about to blow our top to save a few bucks, we can consider this and think twice.

A non-Jew came to Shammai asking how many torot the Jews have, and when he is told of the Oral and Written Torah, he says, “I believe you for the Written Torah but not the Oral Torah [i.e. rabbinic teachings] – teach me only the Written Torah.” Shammai scolded and repulsed him. When the same man came to Hillel, the first day Hillel taught him “Aleph, Bet, Gimmel, Daled” [the first four letters of the Hebrew alphabet], but on the second day he taught them backwards. The convert says, “that’s not what you taught me yesterday!” And Hillel responds, “don’t you have to trust me, your teacher, to tell you what’s true? So trust me with the Oral Torah too!” We see here how important it is to demonstrate one’s authority as a teacher by showing knowledge rather than asserting authority.

The most famous ma’aseh [story], that of the convert wanting to know the entire Torah while standing on one foot, concludes with Hillel’s famous summary: “What is hateful to you, do not to your neighbour: that is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.” And the fourth concerns a non-Jew who wanted to become High Priest, was driven away by Shammai with a yardstick, but accepted by Hillel to begin studying. Hillel set him studying the laws of government, where he read that even David as a non-priest could not come close to the sanctuary, so kal va-khomer [how much more so] a convert! And he thanked Hillel for his welcoming patience. Let people learn for themselves, and they will thank you for empowering them. In some sense, this is the rationale behind this entire Talmud Blog!

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The Living and the Dead - Shabbat 30

While rabbinic attribution of certain books of the Bible to famous figures may simplify historical investigation by eliminating it, it does create other problems. David is traditionally understood to have written Tehillim [Psalms], even though many were clearly sung at a Jerusalem Temple not built in David’s lifetime. And Solomon is considered the author of both Mishlay [Proverbs] and Kohelet [Ecclesiastes], even though their focus on wisdom and occasional cynicism about divine justice seem closer to Hellenistic philosophy of late antiquity than to Jewish religious thought of Solomon’s day.

Kohelet 4:2 says, “I praise the dead that are already dead more than the living who are still alive,” and the context indicates that the dead are lucky because the living are still suffering with no deliverance – hardly traditional rabbinic theology! Yet it would seem to contradict Kohelet 9:4, which prefers life to death: “a living dog is better than a dead lion.” How to reconcile this disagreement? The first verse is interpreted as praise of holy ancestors, as when Moses convinces God to relent from destroying Israel by appealing to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob or Moses himself whose laws (unlike a regular prince) have lasted far beyond his death. An affirmation of tradition is created out of its negation.

And the second is the opportunity for a story: David supposedly wanted to know the end of his life, but was told he could not know it. So David studied all day on the Shabbat he was supposed to die, and while he was studying the Angel of Death [malakh ha-mavet] could not take him! But David was tricked into climbing a ladder in the garden, which broke and distracted him from his study, and he lay dead on the ground. Solomon asked the Sanhedrin [rabbinic court] what to do to keep the dogs away, and they told him to cut up a carcass and pick up the body, even though it was Shabbat. Thus the “living dogs” were better off than the “dead lion” (David). What is the Shabbat connection to all of this discussion of Kohelet? The question was can one extinguish a lamp on Shabbat for a sick person, and the answer is: better for the physical light to go out than the human soul. But I could have told you that without any stories – life should always be more important than a simple light.

Despite these creative interpretations, there was obviously some discomfort with the theological challenges posed by Kohelet and Jewish wisdom literature – here we read that the Rabbis wanted to “hide” it because of contradictory teachings like the one examined above, and the same for Proverbs 26:4-5, which say the exact opposite, each with their own reasons. The rabbinic answer, which is the right one, is that what is wise to do in some circumstances is not wise in others. There are times the dead are better off than the living, and there are times life is better than death. True wisdom is knowing the difference.

Rabbi Adam Chalom