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 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 Thus it wouldn’t matter whether they were originally human ornaments or originally made for animals, and that could have been the end of the discussion.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