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.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Shabbat Reheating - Shabbat 37

If one is not allowed to use fire to actively cook food on Shabbat, what are the grey areas around that activity that might be permissible? In other words, how did our ancestors manage a hot meal despite Shabbat restrictions? Talmud Tractate Shabbat returns to direct legal debate about Shabbat observance with a Mishnah text concerning a stove that has already been warmed but whose fire has been swept out or covered with ashes – in what contexts may one use the accumulated heat as long as it doesn’t involve active fire?

First, the original text makes a distinction between a pot of water and a dish of food, since one is a matter of heating or cooling while the other may actively change through cooking. The Talmud then tries to claim that the Mishnah’s discussion applies to putting a pot or dish on the stove but not to simply keeping it there as Shabbat begins; later discussion makes clear that even a pot kept on the stove requires the active fire to be removed. Some clever person then imagined the case of TWO stoves joined to each other, where one is swept out but the other is not so that the heat of the stove with an active fire will still carry over to the other stove that has been properly treated – can one put something on the properly-treated stove? There is some debate as to the positions of Beit Hillel [the house/school of Hillel] and Beit Shammai according to Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Meir on this question – one says they would allow nothing or just water, where the other says one would allow water and the other water and a dish of food.

The larger question is: what constitutes forbidden cooking? What is the line between reheating and cooking in the days before microwaves and Tupperware leftovers? The Talmud’s rabbis observed details, and they noticed that cooked food has less bulk than raw food. So Rab and Samuel created a general rule that anything that, through heating, shrinks and is improved is forbidden to leave on a warm stove, and Rabbi Nahman adds that if it shrinks and deteriorates it is allowed. All of this makes us glad to live in communities where firing up the stove on Shabbat is a personal decision, with no communal condemnation awaiting.

Rabbi Adam Chalom