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 06, 2005

Shabbat, Stars and Shofars - Shabbat 35

While the previous daf [page] tried to define twilight so one can know when Shabbat begins in terms of the setting sun, today’s gives a different rule of thumb – according to Rabbi Judah, seeing one star means it is still day, seeing two defines twilight, and three is nighttime. And another Rabbi clarifies that this refers to neither “large stars” one can see by day (what we now know are planets) nor small ones only seen really at night, but rather middle sized stars. And if it’s cloudy? The Talmud suggests observing the chickens in a city, or a raven in the countryside – no word about what to do in a suburb that prohibits owning livestock.

In part to address the challenges of determining sundown in a city, we also read about an historical anecdote that is a Jewish parallel to the public Muslim call to prayer – the Rabbis claim that the shofar [ram’s horn] used to be blown six times to mark the start of Shabbat. Today we use the shofar exclusively for the High Holidays, but historically it was the Jewish “Public Address System” for many occasions. In this case, there is some discussion as to what the blasts signified. The first was a sign for people to stop working in the fields, the second told shops in the city to stop work, and the third meant one should light the Shabbat lights. Then three blasts would be blown – a teki’ah [long sound], a teruah [several short sounds], and a teki’ah – and Shabbat would begin.

However, there is a fly in the ointment – Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel, the nasi [head of the Rabbinic council], asks what to do about the Babylonian Jews who blow teki’ah and teruah and then start Shabbat in the middle of the teruah? Another voice interjects to clarify that they must have blown two tekiahs to make up six sounds, though we might argue that they followed a variant tradition. In any case, the exemption is very simple: minhag avoteyhen b’yadeihen – their fathers’ custom is in their hands. They follow what their ancestors did, so who are we to change it? Another example of Jewish variety within rabbinic Judaism, even in the ancient world.

Rabbi Adam Chalom