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 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