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 21, 2005

When to Act and What to Expect - Shabbat 50

Two general rabbinic principles ripe for philosophical debate appear in today’s Talmud page, as the rabbis continue to grapple with how to handle certain materials on Shabbat. After all, one may use a number of materials for either a permitted or a prohibited purpose, and it all depends on what one intended to do with them as to whether one may handle them. And such materials are generally designated as intended for a permitted purpose in some way.

So if one is permitted to bring a sackful of earth into a house to use for one’s needs on Shabbat, says one rabbi, he should mark a corner of it. The problem is that dirt looks like dirt! Fortunately, there is an out: the sages decreed (in more convoluted language) that where such an act is possible, it should be done; but where an act is impossible, nothing is required. The philosophical debates in this principle are not unpacked in the Talmud, but they could be rich: is there NOTHING one could do in a given situation – have we given in to “impossible” to quickly? When can acting when there is really nothing to be done make the situation worse? And why be guilty in particularly difficult circumstances for doing nothing when there IS no right action to take?

The second general principle brings us back to the conflict between the restrictive Rabbi Judah and the permissive Rabbi Simeon. If there is a side-effect to a particular action, like cleaning a utensil with a material like sand or chalk that may incidentally smooth out or alter the metal, Rabbi Judah would prohibit it – “a thing not planned – prohibited” [davar sheh’ayn mitkaven – asur]. But Rabbi Simeon would allow it – davar sheh ‘ayn mitkaven – mutar [permitted]. Again, the philosophical roads not taken beckon us: should one be allowed to benefit from unintentional but foreseeable consequences? How can you draw the line between intended and unintended results – that is, couldn’t people “clean” their utensils while really wanting to smooth them out? These general philosophical inquiries were not the primary attention of the Talmud and its traditional commentators, but they might well be for later generations!

Rabbi Adam Chalom