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.

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