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 14, 2005

What is Prohibited? - Shabbat 44

One of the trickiest parts of legal categorization, whether by contemporary or rabbinic legalists, is deciding what is included in a particular category and what is not. What does “regulate commerce” mean in the US Constitution – does that include items that COULD be sold but are used privately (for example from recent news, medicinal marijuana), or only actual business that crosses state lines? Today’s page explores some permutations of the rabbinic category of muktzeh, or “temporarily forbidden.” Objects that are muktzeh are, on ordinary days, perfectly permitted to be handled and used, but on Shabbat or on holidays are permitted.

Adin Steinsaltz, in his tremendously useful The Talmud: The Steinsaltz Edition – A Reference Guide (NY: Random House, 1989), describes some of the different kinds of muktzeh in terms of subcategories – items whose customary function would be prohibited on Shabbat (like a pen), items that are repulsive, items specifically designated not to be used on a particular Shabbat because they would not be ready before Shabbat began, and so on.

The question considered here in both the Mishnah and its accompanying Talmud discussion is about a lamp – obviously it may be used for the Shabbat lights, but may one handle it afterwards since it is forbidden to light a new light on Shabbat? The rabbis conclude that one may handle a new (i.e. never been used) lamp and not an old one, not because of the usual function of a lamp but rather because of “repulsiveness.” Though not stated explicitly in the Talmud, I suspect this is because a used lamp still has some oil in it and could be relit, while a never-used lamp would have been impossible to light. If they had defined lamps as untouchable because of their general function, on the other hand, this would have contradicted earlier generations that permitted handling them in certain circumstances.

What are we to glean from this? We should always be willing to ask ourselves if our reactions are based on real reasons, or if they are rationalizations. Is a burned-out lamp really “repulsive,” or is that the reason given to avoid other problems? Is our behavior in a particular situation really based on the reasons we give, or are those “reasons” really rationalizations for decisions we made emotionally or with personal interest in mind? Don’t just think about what you’re doing – explore WHY you do what you do as well.

Rabbi Adam Chalom