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.

Monday, June 20, 2005

Miracles and Making Lists - Shabbat 49

There are two very important elements in today’s daf [page] that we will consider separately. The first is an anecdote about a man named Elisha that appears again almost verbatim later in tractate Shabbat 130, inspired here by a mention that food can be stored for Shabbat in dove’s wings. Elisha is called the “master of wings” [baal k’nafim] because of the following story: once the Roman government prohibited the wearing of tefillin [prayer boxes] on pain of death, but Elisha wore his anyways. When pursued, he fled, and when he was caught, he hid them in his hand. When asked what he had in his hands, he replied “wings of a dove,” and miraculously that is what was there. The moral of the story, as often happens in rabbinic parables, came at the beginning – wearing tefillin requires a pure body. And what does that mean practically? Raba says one shouldn’t sleep in then, while Abaye suggests one should not pass wind in them. This entire passage is a great example of the heights of rabbinic religious imagination, combined with the almost shockingly-earthy reality of rabbinic pronouncements and human concerns.

The second is a great example of one of the basic tasks of the Talmud – to explain the thinking behind the Mishnah. The Mishnah said that there are 39 categories of work prohibited on Shabbat; the Talmud here asks the very reasonable question: “why 39? To what does the number 39 correspond?” One rabbi speculates that it is related to the kinds of work performed to build the Tabernacle during the Exodus, since the rules of Shabbat appear right next to the Tabernacle construction in Exodus 35. Another claims that it is the number certain variations of the word melakha [work] appear in the Torah, and when challenged he suggests they pull out a Torah scroll and count them! The challenge comes that the word melakha can sometimes be professional work, but it can also be used euphemistically for other activities, so the challenger asks if a particular example of the word counts towards the 39. The end of this debate is teku – undecided, and waiting for Elijah to return from heaven to settle the issue! (see Blog entry on Shabbat 5 for more on this concept). Besides, using my CD ROM of the Hebrew Torah to count the occurrences of those words, I came up with 47. . .

All of this is very different from our approach to lists. Do we want to have a number fixed, and then try to fill it, or come up with sensible categories and then find out how many we have? While it is a good idea when giving a speech not to have too many points (audience memories are notoriously spotty), not necessarily when making laws. Why not? Because one invents things to fill the number rather than giving an honest list of the genuine possibilities.

Rabbi Adam Chalom