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.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

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