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 28, 2005

What May Women Wear? - Shabbat 57

The next area of Talmudic Shabbat discussion is more closely defined by the Mishnah text under consideration than the previous few pages. The focus is on what women may wear out of the house on Shabbat, and what they may not wear. As we have seen before, the Mishnah lists specific examples of what may not be worn out, like wool or linen ribbons or a “golden city” [ir shel zahav], but does not give a general principle defining WHY these particular items are prohibited and others are allowed. We are told by the Mishnah, however, that wearing these out is not a serious transgression – she who does is nevertheless not liable for a sin-offering in atonement.

How to discover the rationale behind these particular items? First, the Talmud notes an oddity to the Mishnah passage – when talking about not wearing ribbons out on Shabbat, it also says that she cannot perform tevilah [ritual immersion/cleansing] in them. The Talmud interjects (my translation): “who said anything about tevilah?” But this is how they find their answer: because she can’t wear them for tevilah, that means if she had to perform that ritual she would have to take them off. If she had them in her hand and carried them more than 4 cubits, she would violate the Shabbat limitation on carrying. Thus the ribbons are prohibited on Shabbat.

This, of course, begs another question – why are they prohibited for tevilah? The answer, coming from other legal discussions, is that some believe that they are a barrier between water and the skin of the person being immersed and therefore should be forbidden. This explains why later on in the Talmud’s discussion ribbons of hair are permitted, since they allow water through. And now one has a general principle of what women may and may not wear in their hair out of the house on Shabbat.

Today, of course, our concern in what we wear in going out is far less about what we may need to take off for ritual immersion and far more about appearance and comfort (every individual strikes their own balance between the two). Traditional restrictions on dress, for Shabbat or for every day of the year, have been left behind for the freedom of individual expression. We can understand the reasoning and values behind rabbinic prohibitions like ribbons on Shabbat even if we don’t accept the prohibition itself.

Rabbi Adam Chalom