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 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