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.

Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Shofars, Trumpets, and Transformations - Shabbat 36

As we saw in yesterday’s page, at one time in Jewish history the beginning of Shabbat was marked with public blowing of a shofar [ram’s horn]. But this creates a conundrum for the hazzan [community official] who blew the shofar – if Shabbat begins at the last shofar blast, and there is a tradition that one is not supposed to handle (lest one use) an instrument like a shofar on Shabbat, what does he do with it now that Shabbat has begun? The Talmud claims that he would have a hiding place for the shofar on his roof, where he puts it immediately after its use.

The problem is, there is an alternative legal tradition that says that a shofar may be handled, but not a trumpet [khatsotsra] – one may use a curved shofar to hold water and, as the Talmud says, “give water to a child,” but a trumpet is too long and straight to be so used. Rabbi Joseph tries to harmonize the two traditions, claiming “lo kushiya – no difficulty”: the latter refers to an individual’s shofar, while the former refers to the community’s shofar. The problem with this solution, Abaye points out, is that the community shofar is just as useful to give water to a poor child as an individuals is! And further, there is a THIRD legal tradition that says both a shofar and a trumpet may be moved on Shabbat.

The “solution” the Talmud offers is to ascribe each view to a different authority – as the medieval commentator Rashi explains, Rabbi Judah allows a shofar to be moved, since there is a permitted use for it, but since a trumpet could only be used on Shabbat for a forbidden purpose (i.e. sound), for Shabbat it is defined as muktzeh, or “untouchable.” Rabbi Simeon, on the other hand, allows anyone to move muktzeh items on Shabbat, so he would allow both to be handled (though of course not used for forbidden purposes!). Rabbi Nehemiah, on the third hand, says one only uses an object for its normal purpose, and since it’s forbidden to sound a shofar on Shabbat and that’s its normal purpose, one may handle neither a trumpet nor a shofar on Shabbat. All of this is even more complicated because Rabbi Hisda claims that after the Temple was destroyed, the very words “trumpet” and “shofar” exchanged meanings!

What does all of this have to do with us? Plenty. It is refreshing to see some historical awareness that terms can change their meaning over centuries, and that what WE mean by a particular term is not what it has always meant. The diversities of rabbinic thought and practice are evidence of Jewish plurality, if not philosophical pluralism. And we can follow the tradition of putting objects, ideas and even culture to new uses in new settings.

Rabbi Adam Chalom