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.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Shabbat 90 – What is Hidden Away

As we have seen, many items are prohibited to take from private to public space in certain quantities, but smaller quantities are allowed. In today’s page, we see a list of materials of which ANY amount is prohibited: various kinds of spices and metals, long pepper, and so on. On some level, this kind of absolute prohibition makes somewhat more sense then the “pocket police” or the guilt-stricken individual trying to measure a fig’s size worth of nutshells to determine if a violation has been committed. The most interesting items of this list are old scrolls and their covers, and pieces of the misbeakh [altar] and its stones, because we get a reason WHY they should not be taken out – they are only taken out from a place in order to be “hidden away” [l’gonzam], so they cannot be removed on Shabbat.

This tradition of “hiding” or burying old holy items, particularly books, is not particularly explored in this Talmud page, though it will be on Shabbat 115a. Because that later page is full of detail of what goes in and is excluded from a geniza [where the holy books are hidden or buried], this is a good opportunity to highlight the most exciting result of rabbinic superstition in Jewish history. In short, to avoid “taking the name of YHWH in vain,” the Rabbis enacted that texts with God’s name, like Torah scrolls or prayerbooks, should be disposed of in a geniza rather than simply discarded, destroyed or reused.

In 1896, Solomon Schechter, then a scholar of Rabbinic Judaism at Cambridge University, was shown a couple of papyrus fragments that two (non-Jewish) women had bought on vacation in Cairo. He immediately recognized them as fragments of the Hebrew original of the Wisdom of Ben Sira, a book up to that point only known to modern scholarship in a Greek translation. In fact, before that moment many scholars had believed that Ben Sira was originally written in Greek and the claim of translation was a fake! Schechter discovered that the fragments came from the geniza of the Cairo Jewish community, and he managed to transfer the bulk of what was there to Cambridge by 1898. It turns out that the Ben Sira text was copied in the Middle Ages from an older original, but fragments of a more ancient Hebrew Ben Sira were found in the Dead Sea Scrolls over 50 years later.

This Cairo Geniza has proven to be a treasure trove of Jewish documents from the Middle Ages of all kinds, for the Cairo Jewish community began to “hide” not only holy books but also letters, contracts, liturgy, and just about anything on paper! Thus an unofficial archive of medieval Jewish life was the end result of Rabbinic fear of disrespecting the divine name by throwing it out. Who could have guessed?

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Shabbat 89 – The Torah Revealed from Heaven

One of the offenses that would deny an Israelite a place in the world to come, according to the Mishnah (Sanhedrin 10:1) is to deny that torah min ha-shamayim – the Torah is from heaven. The idealization of the Torah in rabbinic Judaism has its parallels in the idealization of wisdom in Hellenistic and Biblical wisdom literature – for example, “it is a tree of life” in Proverbs 3:18 is about wisdom; the rabbis read that phrase as referring to Torah.

But there are always complications bridging heaven and earth. According to today’s Talmud page, when Moses ascended via Mount Sinai to heaven to receive the Torah, the angels objected to his presence – they use a line from Psalm 8:5 “what is man, that you are mindful of him?” to object to his giving humanity the Torah, a secret treasure that existed 700 generations before the world itself was created! God tells Moses to answer them, and he is afraid lest they destroy him, so God extends his protection and Moses lets them have it. With citation after citation, he makes clear that the Torah was written for human beings and for the Israelites – “honor your mother and father,” “I brought you out of Egypt,” and so on. This Torah that Moses receives has been handwritten by God himself – when Moses ascends, he sees God writing the taggin, or crowns, on the letters. THIS is the basis for the rabbinic reverence for the Torah that, if one watches how traditional congregations treat the scroll, borders on “Tor-olatry” [Torah idolatry].

All of this legendary storytelling has clear goals: to make Jews feel special to be chosen to have received the Torah, to encourage piety and obedience to rabbinic authority as the authorized interpreters of this heavenly text, to create wonder and awe as part of the religious experience every time the Torah is taken out for ceremonial reading. We who see the Torah as the product of human beings are at once more and less impressed – it is not the product of heavenly powers, but isn’t it amazing that we are still reading the product of HUMAN powers so many centuries later! Not worthy of worshipping, but definitely worth exploring.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

There is also an amusing discussion in the second half of this page where God says to Isaac “your children have sinned” and Isaac retorts “when they said ‘we will do and we will hear’ you were proud to call them “my children,” but now that they sinned you’re calling them ‘YOUR children?’” How many parents have had similar discussions?

Friday, July 29, 2005

Shabbat 88 – “We will do and we will hear”

The most important difference between Orthodox Judaism and more liberal approaches concerns the issue of a covenant to follow the Torah entered into at Mount Sinai. Orthodox Judaism sees this promise as real, binding, and obligatory for all Jews everywhere and in every generation. On the other hand, liberal Jews everywhere consider the complete revelation of the Torah (written and oral) at Mount Sinai a pious myth rather than actual historical fact. Nevertheless, the “event” remains the central myth of rabbinic Judaism, whether or not one believes it happened or is binding today.

Just before the Sinaitic revelation described in Exodus, Exodus 19:17 says the Israelites “stood b’takhtit [under or at the foot of] the mountain.” According to one rabbi, this means that God held the mountain over them saying, in essence, accept my Torah or die. Another rabbi wryly notes that this gives ammunition to reject its observance, seeing that it was not a free choice, but a third retorts that a later generation accepted its obligations again in the days of Esther. One does indeed wonder, however, what implications this has for enforcing the punishment provisions of the Torah if punishment was threatened for its rejection.

This “forced” interpretation is in stark contrast to the very next discussion on this Talmud page – that of the famous “na’ase v’nishma – we will do and we will hear” (Exodus 24:7). In other words, they agreed to follow the covenant before hearing what it was! We read here that 600,000 angels (one for each male Israelite) gave them each two crowns at that moment – one for na’ase and one for nishma. An outside critic generations later points out that the Jews must have been rash, giving precedence to their mouth over their ears and not listening before accepting. Raba responds that this was a sign of faith and integrity rather than impetuousness.

IS absolute acceptance, before hearing the conditions, an ideal? The traditionalist might respond, “it’s unconditional love of God – no matter what! Don’t you love your family unconditionally?” And my response: “Continuing to love anyone who is violent, abusive, neglectful, arrogant and distant unconditionally is a recipe for personal pain and tragedy. It may hurt to say goodbye, but that will be better for me than the silence.” Reading the fine print in any contract is always a good idea!

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Shabbat 87 - The Holy Chronology

Keeping track of calendars through Jewish history is a complicated task. One of the most difficult problems is that the calendar fundamentally changed in the middle of Jewish history. In Leviticus 23, where the major Torah holidays are listed, we read that Passover takes place in the first month, while the “day of atonements” takes place in the seventh month. Today, of course, the “day of atonements” is part of the Jewish New Year, which begins in the fall, while Passover is a spring holiday that takes place in the seventh month. The Torah itself doesn’t name most of the months, and the names it does use are not those of our current Jewish calendar (which was likely adopted from the Babylonians after the 6th century BCE).

Thus much of today’s page continues a debate begun yesterday as to what day various events took place in relation to Shabbat, the revelation of the Torah, and the current Jewish calendar. One of the tools the Talmud’s rabbis used to ensure events fell on the correct day used to be the variable quality of months. Months were based on observation of the moon’s cycle, and the lunar month being 29.5 days, some months had 29 days and others had 30 depending on when the New Moon was sighted. For over 1500 years, the Jewish calendar has been calculated mathematically, but in discussing the Torah’s chronology, the Rabbis can claim as they do here that what today is fixed as a 29 day month was that one year given 30 days!

Indeed, even divine commandments admit of some flexibility under Moses’ hands. The Rabbis point out three times that they believe Moses took actions mida’ato [from his own understanding] and God agreed post facto – he added a day to prepare for the revelation in Exodus 20, he entirely separated himself (sexually) from his wife, and he broke the Lukhot [Tablets] of the law. Why the first? He reasoned that the 2 days started tomorrow. The second? If the (male) Israelites had to be pure by sexually abstaining to hear God once, Moses did so all the time, so kal va’homer [how much more so] must he abstain all the time! The third? If one of the taryag mitzvot [613 Torah Commandments] says a stranger may not eat the Passover sacrifice, then how can rebellious Israel that has made a Golden Calf to worship receive them all? And one Rabbi adds that God congratulated him on that last decision, exclaiming, “Yasher kokhekha sheh-shibarta – good job that you broke them.”

Note what is implicit in this passage – for the Rabbis, the lukhot contain NOT JUST the 10 Commandments, but also an entire Torah! A later version is given, but what might have been written on that first version? That is our opportunity for new mythmaking – thou shalt not treat women with less respect than men, thou shalt not condone slavery in any way, . . .

Rabbi Adam Chalom
To research the Hebrew date or calendar for any Gregorian calendar year or month, you can visit

Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Shabbat 86 - Semen, Sex, and Sin

One of the more common “ritual contaminants” that can make someone or something tameh [ritually impure] is zera [semen, literally “seed”] or other sexual discharges. The Mishnah text debated today considers a woman who has a sexual discharge after three days unclean based on what the Torah describes as the preparations for the Israelites to receive divine revelation in Exodus 19:15 – “be ready by the third day; do not come near a woman.” The implicit assumption in these instructions, it must be noted, is that the audience is men (excluding women, who may be excluded from the revelation as well). But the practical result for later generations is the assumption that sexual relations, because of the emission of sexual fluids, are inherently a source of impurity for both.

The Talmud goes on to debate on which day Moses offered these instructions to avoid sexual contact, since it is assumed that the 10 Commandments presented in Exodus 20 were offered on Shabbat. And what time of day did he warn them? One objects that it could not have been morning, since “Israelites are holy and do not cohabit [literally “use the bed”] during the day,” so he would not have needed to warn them in the morning. Why would daytime sex be profane? Obviously, because one could see nudity! This is clarified by exceptions to the daytime prohibition – if the house is dark, it is permitted. And a rabbinic scholar [talmid khakham] can make darkness with his “garment” [literally tallit, or prayer shawl!] and proceed.

Love and sex are complicated issues for modern ethics because the restrictions and taboos of earlier generations seem quaint, antiquated, or simply offensive. For example, our Talmud page also explores what hypothetically happens to semen in non-Jewish women, whose bodies are assumed to run differently because they are not worried about mitzvot [commandments], and also animals (!). So the old rules are rejected, but absolute freedom has physical and emotional consequences as well – from heartbreak to pregnancy and disease, and an undermining of the emotional intimacy of pair-bonding (straight or gay) that is a powerful factor in human happiness. While sex and the human should not be “impure,” entering this Paradise can still be risky business.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Shabbat 85 – Sowing Seeds

One of the more obscure restrictions in the Torah concerns what one may planting in a field – Deuteronomy 22:9 says: “You shall not sow your vineyard with different seeds; lest the fruit of your seed which you have sown, and the fruit of your vineyard, be defiled.” Is this an example of early agricultural wisdom based on observation and experience? Perhaps; but it is also one of a series of laws that, two verses later, commands one to avoid wearing any garment with linen and wool together. This rule, called shaatnez, is so opaque that even Maimonides, the famous Sephardic medieval rabbinic authority, said it was one of those commandments meant to test your obedience to God because there was no real reason behind it. So perhaps not sowing with different seeds was more theological than agricultural.

Be that as it may, the Mishnah and Talmud inherited this rule and needed to work within it. Thus when the Mishnah claims that in a planting box six handsbreadths on a side, one may plant therein 5 different kinds of seeds, one on each side and one in the middle. How to do this without violating Deuteronomy’s law? The Talmud claims that the earlier rabbis realized that such a planting arrangement would not cause the roots of each to draw nutrients from each other, which is how they interpret the original Deuteronomic rule. And the Talmud and its commentators further explain planting patterns that clearly indicate that the seeds were not indiscriminately planted together but rather in independent strips.

This passages is of more historical than ethical or philosophical interest – we can learn something about patterns of small-scale agriculture in more urban settings, something of the vegetable diet of the times, and also about the change in priorities in rabbinic law. The Mishnah contains an entire seder, or order, called Zera’im [seeds] – obviously, agriculture and planting were very important to them, particularly rules concerning planting in the land of Israel. The Talmud explores the section from Zera’im on Blessings (as we did this year), but that’s about it! The agricultural insights they have to offer are sown [pardon the pun] throughout the rest of the Talmud instead. This may indicate a move to more urban concerns, or the reality of a Babylonian Talmud composed hundreds of miles from Israeli fields. Today, with new and active Jewish farming in that very soil, old issues have sprouted up [oops. . .] all over again.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Monday, July 25, 2005

Shabbat 84 – The Limits of Possibility

Sometimes we can give up too easily. Many times when we say to others (or to ourselves), “I just can’t do it,” we really mean, “I just don’t want to do it.” If the task at hand were important enough to us to put our full minds and resources towards it, we would; but if it isn’t important enough to justify a radical refocusing of our priorities, then we “can’t” do it. At the same time, of course, there are literal no-win situations where fulfilling others’ expectations ARE simply impossible.

As we explore the Talmud’s labyrinth of laws and rituals, we can concede that in many cases, if it were important enough to us we could manage like this – although our choice to pursue a different course for our lives is frequently reaffirmed. It is also nice to see that one of the legal assumptions behind Talmudic reasoning is that fulfilling one’s obligation should not be absolutely impossible, even if it is ridiculously difficult.

In debating what kind of objects are susceptible to becoming defiled by a zab, or one ritually impure because of a sexual discharge, we find the following discussion: certain objects cannot be cleaned in a mikvah [ritual bath], so if they can’t be cleansed are they susceptible to defilement? The answer: it depends on the material. If other objects made of similar material (e.g. clay, wood) are able to be cleansed by a mikvah, then it can become defiled; but if nothing made of that material can be so cleansed, it is not at risk. Thus at the same time some objects may be made useless, but some limits to contamination are possible.

My approach to the question, particularly in the kitchen, is: if I can’t clean them, I don’t want to use them! Further, cleanliness is a much more clear-cut issue to worry about than ritual impurities which are invisible and a human construction with no physical reality behind them.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Shabbat 83 – Defilement and Holiness

When I was an undergraduate in Jewish studies, I sometimes got the feeling that I was learning about the Jews as if they lived in a bubble – outside world history seems only tangentially related to the internal developments of Jewish civilization. The truth is, as is evident from any study of even rabbinic sources, that Jews have lived among, been influenced by, and dealt with non-Jews for over 2000 years. The Talmud is addressed to the Jews, but it is very aware of the involvement of non-Jews in Jewish experiences.

One case in point is today’s page, which discusses a tangential Mishnah ruling that idols defile someone by carrying them just like something menstrually impure [niddah]. Aside from feminist objections to treating menstruation as “impure,” the discussion still further beyond a modern multicultural respect for religious difference: a foreign man or woman, as well as their idol and its serving utensil ALL defile if they are carried, even if they are not physically touched. In fact, non-Jews are declared here to be impure like zabin [those with impure sexual discharge] in all respects! And not just they themselves, but anything they move or carry acquires their impurity. An idol may defile only if it is the size of an olive or larger, but this small concession is little consolation to our offended sense of tolerance and human dignity. So much for shaking hands with your neighbor – or for choosing to live near anyone not Jewish.

While the Rabbis could not create a hermetic seal between the Jewish world and its surroundings, they could imagine a world where it would be so – at the end of today’s page, one rabbi offers a new insight into a particular rule, and another exclaims that one should never leave the beit hamidrash [house of study] even for an hour because this law had been studied for many years until someone found its reason. And others emphasize the importance of studying Torah every hour, even at the hour of one’s death. Indeed, the Talmud claims, the Torah can only survive with those willing to sacrifice their lives for it. Is there anything today that WE would sacrifice as much for? Or has our love of life become a positive value that outweighs loyalty to an ancestral tradition that, as we have seen today, commands an ambivalent allegiance?

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Shabbat 82 – Successful Bodily Functions

Lest you begin to think that the Talmud’s excursions into the details of outhouse procedure are irrelevant to its overall project of explaining and exploring the Oral Torah given to Moses on Sinai, we find an amusing anecdote of a father-son dispute that also highlights the difference in mindset between Talmudic times and our own. Rabbi Huna once said to his son Rabba, “why don’t you go to study with Rabbi Hisda, who is such a wise man?” Rabba answers, quite understandably, “I go to him to learn Torah and holy things and he gives me milay d’alma. [translated by Soncino as “secular discourses,” literally “words of the world”] For example, he tells me ‘when you enter a privy, don’t sit down too fast or strain too much because you might dislocate one of the three glands in the rectum.” I can imagine teaching this in a Jewish adult education class today and getting shocked stares from an audience expecting something very different.

Rabbi Huna’s response is very telling – “he speaks of the life of God’s creations, and you think he’s teaching milay d’alma. All the more reason to learn from him!” In other words, even the most mundane, secular or even profane matter that has to do with God’s creation is fodder for religious exploration. Today we understand the world divided into “religious” matters and “secular” matters – working at our job, fixing our roof, going to the bathroom all in the latter category. While rabbinic Judaism did have words for “holy” [kodesh] and “secular” [khol], they didn’t really have the same sense, since even the “secular” was suffused with a sense of omnipresent and omnipotent divinity. It is only when our concept of God shrinks to accommodate to real-world experience that space for the “secular” is created.

Thus advice for the person who needs to “evacuate” but cannot (i.e. constipation) is not just advice, but part of the tradition of living a healthy life. One Rabbi suggests standing up and sitting down; another suggests moving side to side; and there is a dispute over whether concentrating on it or not thinking about it at all will be more helpful. There is even a traditional blessing for successfully leaving a bathroom with every tube and orifice in working order! And even the most secular of us may let out some religious vocabulary (from other religions too!) when we’ve had to go and finally have success.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

For more on this topic, see my entry for Berakhot 60, which is also where the “bathroom blessing” is found. A traditional (and straight-faced) exploration of the “bathroom blessing” that contains its full text can be read at:

Friday, July 22, 2005

Shabbat 81 – How to Wipe Yourself

Warning – it is advised not to read this entry immediately before or after eating. . .

Early in tractate Berakhot, we saw how preoccupied the Rabbis became with rules concerning outhouses [in Hebrew, beit kisay – house of “the chair”]. The Talmud again returns to the subject in the context of stones – one is prohibited from carrying out a chip or a stone large enough to throw at a bird, and this is the tangent to leap to privy procedures. Why? Because in Talmudic times it was evidently customary to clean oneself after “evacuating” with small stones – paper being tremendously more scarce and thus expensive at the time! And there are special considerations to carrying stones on Shabbat, of course.

Initially, the standard of stones used in a privy was to use three of specific sizes, but an authority points out that one is hardly inclined to weigh them on a scale to find out, so the standard is changed to “maleh ha-yad - a handful.” One is not supposed to “evacuate” on a ploughed field on Shabbat, lest it cause a clod of dirt to fall in a hole and qualify as the forbidden action of ploughing; nor should one cleanse with a potsherd – not because of any danger or suspicion of witchcraft, nor because it might unintentionally tear out hair, but because Rabbi Yokhanan said it lest you think that as a utensil, a shard would be permitted. In other words, they can’t find a real reason, but because a famous rabbi said it, they have to at least find a reason for why he said it even if not for the rule itself.

We also find Rabbinic advice for avoiding takhtoniot, or hemorrhoids – do not eat leaves of vines or reeds, the spine of a fish, or drink the lees of wine; and do not wipe yourself with lime, clay, or [read on at your own risk!] a chip one’s neighbor has already used. Now Rabbi Sheshet would allow this last case, since the stone would be evidently of a size permissible to handle on Shabbat since a previous user had already done so.

This entire question brings two thoughts to my mind. First, there has to be a limit to reusing items in the bathroom. When, a few years ago, my wife suggested that we start buying recycled toilet paper, I stared at her aghast until she quickly clarified that we should buy toilet paper made from recycled paper – I had obviously understood her very differently. Second, knowing how to wipe yourself is one of the basic steps to independence – at first you’re taught by a parent, but you soon figure out how to do it best for yourself. If we didn’t think the Talmud’s rabbis were a little anal retentive before now, it is certainly more plausible than ever before.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Thursday, July 21, 2005

Shabbat 80 - “We Must Labour to be Beautiful”

If you thought that the quantity debates couldn’t get more detailed, you would be wrong – today’s page begins to explore what happens if one brings out half of a prohibited quantity, and then the second half somewhat later! You can’t bring out enough ink to write two letters, but if you bring out enough to write one letter, write it, then go back in and bring out enough ink to write a second letter and write that, you are not guilty of a violation. And if you bring out enough for one letter in a pen, enough for one letter in dry ink, and enough for one letter in an inkstand? This question will have to wait for Elijah to return [teku] to resolve it.

In the midst of these hairsplitting quantity debates, however, we do find a fascinating anecdote on the coming of age of young women in Talmudic times. One of the amounts prohibited by the Mishnah is “Lime – enough to put on the smallest of girls.” This refers not to the fruit but to the building material, which was evidently also used as a hair remover (depilatory) at this time. The Talmudic discussion of this rule cites Rab’s teaching that when b’not yisrael [Jewish girls] experience puberty early [literally “without reaching their years”] and thus have new hairs growing, poor girls would cover/remove the hair with lime, rich girls with fine flour, and princesses with special oil. Today, women of all ages turn to bikini wax instead. We also read that Rabbi Bibi made a practice of treating his daughter with a depilatory one limb at a time, and “received 400 zuzim for her” – evidently as a bride price.

Clearly, there was a premium on appearing young – it certainly “added value” to Rabbi Bibi’s daughter. There are many uncomfortable reasons why men wanted and want women to look like girls, or today young girls to look like women – is it for interpersonal dominance, or desire for a virgin for clear genetic transmission, or something even darker? We could ask the same question about “trophy wives,” for that matter. But what this Talmudic passage proves above all is the insight of W. B. Yeats’ masterful poem, “Adam’s Curse.” In this work, a poet complains about how hard his job is, and is brought up short by a woman who says simply:

'To be born woman is to know--
Although they do not talk of it at school--
That we must labour to be beautiful.'

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Complete text of Yeats’ “Adam’s Curse”:

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Shabbat 79 - On What to Write a Mezuzah?

In the Mishnah’s catalog of items of which specific amounts are forbidden to take from one domain to another on Shabbat, one small item receives substantial attention. The Mishnah prohibits taking out parchment [klaf] “enough to write on it the smallest phrase in tefillin [prayer boxes], which is Shema Yisrael [Hear, Israel].” The problem arises from an non-Mishnaic tradition that one is not allowed to take out enough parchment or duksustos [a lower-quality parchment] to write a mezuzah [doorpost box]. Which is the correct amount?

The connection between tefillin and mezuzah is obvious from many perspectives – they contain the same passages from Deuteronomy [Deut. 6:4-9 and 11:13-21 – tefillin also have passages from Exodus]; anthropologically, they are both totems and good luck signs; behaviorally, they were traditionally used and touched multiple times a day. The resolution of this particular issue is that duksustos is determined by mezuzah size, since one should not use it for tefillin, while parchment is determined by this shortest phrase in tefillin, the famous “Shema.” Incidentally, there are other passages in Deuteronomy that begin “Shema Yisrael,” but when you use those two words, everyone refers to Deuteronomy 6, including the Talmud here.

Again we see the difference between recommended and acceptable practice – it is a “halakha l’moshe misinai – a law from Moses on Sinai” (in other words, “so old we don’t know when or why it started”) that tefillin texts should be written on parchment and those in a mezuzah on duksustos, but also that in a pinch each can use the other material. But there is a limit to efficiency – a Torah scroll or tefillin text that has worn out may not be remade into a mezuzah using the unwritten margins of the parchment.

The question we would like to ask again it outside the bounds of Talmudic discussion: why include THESE texts in the tefillin or the mezuzah? In modern times, could one choose their own texts, from the Bible or even from other Jewish writing, to signify their highest values? And is there a risk that such ritual behavior crosses the line into superstition? After all, many rabbinic authorities to this day suggest that if you’re having a run of bad luck, you should check your mezuzah. . .

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Shabbat 78 – More Carrying Out on Shabbat

The debate over permissible quantities continues. How much paper can one move from private to public space on Shabbat? How much water? How much oil, and how much honey? One could get lost in the details of quantity, quality, and possible uses of each of these substances in the Talmudic world. Fortunately, we do find a general principle worth exploring under the heading of “water.”

Abaye derives the following general principle from the Rabbis’ specific rules: whatever has a common use and an uncommon use, the rabbis follow the common use towards leniency. So if drinking wine is common while using it as a remedy is uncommon, the minimum amount for liability is the amount one would drink, even if as a cure one uses less. The same for milk: common for drinking but not for healing, so the larger amount is permitted. For honey, on the other hand, which at the time was used for both eating and for healing scars or scabs, the smaller amount for healing is what creates the Shabbat violation. There is some debate about water and whether it is commonly used for healing or not, but since the Rabbis chose the smaller amount as a restriction we know that the end of the discussion will show in certain places and contexts that water healing is in fact common – in this case for the eyes.

We saw similar principles with regards to physical objects that have permitted and prohibited uses on Shabbat, and the real question is what one’s presumption is – will one use it for prohibited purposes, or can one trust that people are obeying the rules even if it looks like they might not? And our approach is one more step removed: can we treat what one carries from any place to any other place on Shabbat as that person’s private business? Whether they are following detailed Shabbat restrictions may have little to do with whether they are a good person, or nice to their fellow human beings, or tolerant of other people’s opinions. But this just another version of the quantum leap one makes out of a traditionalist mindset into the wider world of modern thought.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Monday, July 18, 2005

Shabbat 77 – A Purpose for Everything

Rudyard Kipling wrote an entire series of “Just So” stories, where he explained how certain things in the world today came to be. And there are many stories like this today: how the Zebra got its stripes, why the mosquito buzzes in your ear, and so on. Evolutionary biologists have their own take on this literary genre, explaining the “evolutionary advantages” of features like the zebra’s stripes or opposable thumbs as why the animals are the way they are today. And Creationists believe that, in the words of today’s Talmud page, God “in his world did not create one thing in vain” or without a purpose.

Thus we learn, according to Rab Judah in Rab’s name, that the snail exists to serve as a remedy for a scab, the fly to treat hornet stings, the mosquito for serpent bites, and spiders for scorpion stings. And Rab Judah also told Rabbi Zera “the secrets of the universe”: Why do goats walk before sheep? Like in Genesis, the dark precedes the light. Why do camels have short tails? Because they eat thorns and a long tail would be caught. Why is the ox’s tail long? To swat off the flies. Why is a chicken’s lower eyelid bent upwards? To keep out the dust from living in the rafters. Many of these are either rabbinic versions of “just so” stories, or part of the theology that the world exists for human benefit and use – either non-scientific or an incitement to human entitlement. But some of these explanations do make sense from an evolutionary perspective, like the ox’s tail. More proof that close observers of the universe, even coming from very different perspectives, can come to similar conclusions.

In the same vein, there are a whole series of puns or popular etymologies on today’s page – thus levusha [outer garment] is like lo busha [no shame], darga [stairs or ladder] is like derekh gag [way to the roof], etc. In some cases, the linguistic connection is clear – because Hebrew and Aramaic are both Semitic languages, their vocabularies and grammar are very similar. And because Semitic languages use a three-letter root system for word-concepts, the same three letters in different combinations can mean similar concepts. For example, Shalom is peace, shalem is complete, l’shalem is to pay, mushlam is perfect, etc.

All in all, an entertaining diversion from the picayune details of materials allowed out of the private domain on Shabbat!

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Shabbat 76 - How Much is too Much?

One of the ways Talmudic debates can easily get beyond a modern’s patience threshold is when they begin to haggle amounts – not just whether one is permitted to leave the house with certain objects or not, but how much of a particular substance constitutes a violation. The Mishnah specifies that one should not carry out quantities of food that would satisfy different animals – enough straw k’maleh fi parah [that fills a cow’s mouth], enough corn for a lamb’s mouth, enough herbs for a goat, etc. The Mishnah also clarifies that their quantities cannot cumulatively amount to a violation, since each has a different standard – so corn, straw and herbs need are counted in separate categories. For human food, anything over the size of a dried fig is too much, and different foodstuffs DO combine for humanity since that same size is the standard of violation for all of them.

Now one could get caught up in the debate and begin to argue from within: can’t cows eat herbs too? Or lambs eat straw? So then why use that particular animal to designate an appropriate quantity, and why can’t the food items be considered together? Or in a more philosophical vein, one could argue about the intent of the Mishnah’s rule – why NOT feed animals that are not one’s own by bringing food from the private into the public sphere?

But it is also important to take a step back and look at the big picture. How does someone know if you’ve carried out too much? Do they turn out your pockets to check? And what kind of society can be created by such fastidious attention to detail and quantities – the kind that focuses on the letter of law rather than the spirit, one that focuses more on the pilpul [tiny details] more than on people and their needs and desires? Because the restrictions on what may be carried from private to public space are so complicated, this also has the result of forcing people to stay home, because who can know if they’re able to leave? When seeing the debate from this perspective, our answer to the question of how much is too much becomes: “genug! - enough already!”

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Shabbat 75 – The Limits of Learning

While it’s been said that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” it often depends what that little knowledge is. In a style we have already seen in our Talmud study, one authority’s saying on multiple subjects is an opportunity for interesting tangents. Rab said three things of increasing punishments to one of his disciples: one should not pull out a thread from a seam on Shabbat on pain of a sin-offering, one should not learn from a Magush [Magus – a Persian astrologer/sorcerer] on pain of death, and one who can calculate the tekufot u’mazalot [celestial cycles and Zodiac signs] should do it on pain of being shunned.

There is a difference of opinion between Rav and Shmuel as to whether magushta [“magianism” or Persian astrology] are sorcery or blasphemy, but in either case it is clearly strictly prohibited to learn from them. In some ways, this was Rabbinic stargazing’s loss, since Mesopotamian and Persian astronomers had many centuries of celestial observation experience and expertise from which Rabbinic calculations could have benefited. In Rabbinic theology, “magic” and “miracle” were very different animals: one was permitted and divinely-authorized supernatural power, and the other was forbidden. Our English words “magic” and “magician” come from the Persian magus via Greek (see – so learning their star patterns, even if intended to better calculate the Jewish calendar, violated this boundary. From our perspective, however, they were two sides of the same coin.

The other limit on learning described here is a brief elaboration on the Shabbat prohibition on “writing two letters.” I personally find learning much more effective if I can take notes – even if I never look at the notes again, the act of writing fixes the information better in my brain. But such a learning style would be restricted on Shabbat – though it is comforting to know that someone writing one letter large enough to cover the space for 2 letters is not liable. However, if someone erases one letter to create enough space to write 2 (even without actually writing them), he is liable. So for the Talmud it’s not only what you learn, but how you learn it when learning happens at sacred times.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Friday, July 15, 2005

Shabbat 74 – From Many to One?

As we saw on the previous daf, the Mishnah provides a general list of the avot melakhot [major categories of work – literally “fathers of work”] that are prohibited to perform on Shabbat, while the Talmud takes each term (e.g. “reaping”) and clarifies other similar actions that are likewise prohibited. At other times, however, it seems that the process could work in reverse: it is pointed out in today’s daf that “winnowing, selecting, grinding and sifting” could all be considered “one” action – as the medieval rabbi Rashi’s commentary explains it, they all involve separating food from the inedible. So why did the Mishnah list them separately?

The answer Raba and Abaye both give is based on a Talmudic assumption – why are there 39 categories of prohibited work? Because, according to the Rabbis, there were 39 categories of work performed to build the mishkan [Tabernacle – Tent of Meeting during the Exodus and 40 years of wandering]. So Raba and Abaye agree that if these labors were involved separately in that project, then they must be listed here separately.

There is a problem with this line of argument, however – it is immediately observed that “pounding,” a labor performed to build the mishkan, is not listed by the Mishnah as a forbidden action! And while commentators clearly accept pounding as a forbidden action, it is not part of the number 39. This imprecision when it comes to numbers is nothing new in Jewish counting – the “40 years” in the wilderness consist of 1 year of events and “39 years later. . .”, and the Rabbinic agreement that the Torah contains 613 commandments does not extend to what they actually are – thus the number is not really a list, but lists are made to reach the number.

Note the power of definition – the Rabbis can claim all sorts of actions are prohibited if they can show them as derivative from an av melakhot [major category]. Boiling pitch mishum [on account of] “cooking,” plucking a bird mishum “shearing,” and so on. Thirty-nine proves only the beginning of Shabbat prohibitions that today are of mostly academic interest to the majority of the world’s Jews.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Shabbat 73 - From One to Many

In an undergraduate philosophy course, I was told that Aristotle’s philosophical works are challenging to begin studying because each section seems to assume that you have already studied the other sections; thus there is no perfect entry point from which to begin. Rabbinic legal works like the Talmud and Mishnah are very similar – here we have been studying Shabbat rules for over 70 dapim [pages], and only in today’s page do they list and explore in detail the major categories of work prohibited on Shabbat.

The Mishnah lists “forty minus one” avot melakhot [major work categories], from agricultural to handicrafts, creating or destroying, writing or erasing, kindling or extinguishing fire, and the last we saw at the beginning of our Talmud tractate: carrying from one domain to another. The Talmud then takes each category and describes which tasks are subsumed under that general category. Thus where the Mishnah says “Sowing,” the Talmud claims that sowing, pruning, planting, and grafting are all one labor.” Or “Reaping,” because it is a harvesting of food, should also include collecting grapes or gathering olives, dates, figs, or other cultivated food.

One can imagine what today would be called a “strict constructionist” objecting to this line of Talmudic argument – if it says “reaping,” they meant “reaping” only! And that would certainly limit the reach of these prohibitions. But we can also understand how general terms can be used to define broader areas of law – banning murder but ignoring accessories, or criminalizing armed robbery but ignoring embezzlement would not make sense.

Of course, a systematic law code would begin with texts just like this, and then proceed to specific examples. Tractate Shabbat began with the specific case of carrying from one domain to another, and took much space to get to the general pronouncement. This is just one more example of what makes the Talmud a distinctive document – one meanders to and through the law in a way that one is forced to understand halakhic reasoning and debate instead of simply getting the rules in a list. It’s not an accident that the word Talmud is related to the word talmid [student].

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Shabbat 72 – Shabbat and the Week

Sometimes the examples one chooses to illustrate a legal point can be more interesting than the legal point under discussion! Today’s page continues trying to hash out the difference between the liability when one has prior knowledge of one’s transgression versus being unaware that one’s action was prohibited. It turns out that there are two categories of guilt-offerings: asham vadai [certain guilt] and asham talui [“depends” guilt], and ‘Ulla tries to illustrate that one can still require a certain guilt offering even if unaware at first that it was prohibited.

Here is his example: if one “cohabits” five times with woman betrothed to another (violating Leviticus 19:21), he is only liable for one offering. Rabbi Hammuna objects that one could cohabit, set aside a sacrifice, and say “wait until I come back after ‘cohabiting’ again” in the interests of efficiency! But ‘Ulla clarifies that his example only applies to prohibited “cohabitations” not set apart by offering an atonement sacrifice in between. And others consider the same example from the perspective that prior knowledge would require separate atonements for each “cohabitation.” It is certainly interesting how far hypothetical examples to explore other legal points can take us from our central topic.

Returning to the central focus of this tractate (i.e. Shabbat), we find another example of the importance of relativity to truth – in certain contexts one’s breath is warm (with cold hands), but in others it is cool (with hot soup). Here the Rabbis teach that khomer Shabbat mish’ar ha-mitzvot, v’khomer sh’ar ha-mitzvot me’Shabbat – Shabbat can be more strict than the rest of the commandments, and the rest of the commandments can be more strict than Shabbat. If one performs two actions while unawares on Shabbat, one is liable for each unlike with other mitzvot. At the same time, unintentionally violating a regular mitzvah still automatically incurs an atonement offering, but unwitting violation on Shabbat does not. Yet one more reason Rabbinic Judaism made a separation [havdalah] between Shabbat and the week – even the law has different effects.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Shabbat 71 – The Theory of Involvement

Today’s page concerns ignorance of the law – if one unwittingly broke a Shabbat work restriction and was then informed of what the law was, what should one’s punishment be? And if one then committed a similar action that falls within the same av or general category of forbidden work unaware that that too was forbidden, is he liable to perform a khatat [sin-offering] or not? And can atonement for one action cover another, what the Soncino translation renders as “the theory of involvement”? To summarize the discussion, a few of the Rabbis cited here do not accept “involvement” [gerira], but most do.

Two caveats we must keep in mind in this kind of exploration: first, the Rabbis in the Talmud are discussing sacrifices that haven’t actually been performed for hundreds of years since the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE. So their punishments are theoretical, though one could read this as simply their vocabulary for approval or disapproval, permission or prohibition. Second, the major reason the Talmud’s rabbis have to deal with cases of unwitting violation is that they are constantly creating and adding to the halakha [religious law] – so you can’t fully blame the average individual for being unclear on what was prohibited and what was not!

In our own context, we can imagine cases where many rules might be broken in one series of actions, and the question we would pursue is: what constitutes restitution? Is it only the first in the series, or each individual violation? We imagine that our courts pursue each count or charge individually, but we know that plea bargains aim at a simplified, cheaper process that also creates an overall punishment – thus they throw out certain charges to get a plea deal to lesser offenses. While this may violate some abstract sense of justice, where every little violation demands a specific compensation, we can also accept that we live in an imperfect world with imperfect justice, and sometimes the best we can do has to be good enough. Though in theory we don’t, in practice we too accept our own version of “involvement.”

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Monday, July 11, 2005

Rabbinic “Mercy” - Shabbat 70

There are many elements of a prohibited action of which one may be unaware during its unwitting performance – one may not know that the action is forbidden at a certain time, or that the forbidden time is now, or what the punishment for such a violation would be. In this case, one may not know that it is Shabbat, or not know that a particular action like writing is prohibited, or not know what the punishment is. And the Talmud is certainly not the easiest place to find a quick answer to any of those questions. For those who would like a more detailed examination of traditional Jewish law and practice, I can recommend Isaac Klein’s A Guide to Jewish Religious Practice, which does a very good job of both explaining traditional observance and giving primary sources (Bible, Mishnah, and Talmud) for specific practices.

But we are interested in the Talmud less for its concrete conclusions than for its process and discussions. Most interesting today is another example of what could be called “rabbinic mercy.” Many of the harsh punishments laid down pretty explicitly in the Torah are modified, softened, and even categorically transformed by rabbinic interpretation. The Talmud begins by trying to explain why one may be liable for several sin-offerings for several actions that were committed while knowing that it was Shabbat but unaware that the particular action was forbidden. And even though the Torah repeatedly says that someone who violates Shabbat should be killed (cited here from Exodus 31:14 and Exodus 35:2), the fact that the first citation uses the emphatic form of “be killed” [mot yumat – “will surely die”] while the second does not [yumat – “will die”] is an opening to interpret that an unwitting offender should “die by money” [yumat bamamon] – that is, be financially penalized by offering a sacrifice.

On one hand, we can be glad that the rabbis softened what is a blanket Torah condemnation of any Shabbat violation. On the other, we can admit that rabbinic cleverness doesn’t completely soften the original harshness. This is the difference between interpretation of a founding document and having the courage to clearly amend or object to parts of it. The Rabbis of the Talmud will say elsewhere that courts that condemn even a few people to death in several years are wicked courts – but following the Bible’s legislation explicitly would lead to every court being very wicked. Thank goodness they didn’t, but too bad they weren’t willing to assert their own values more explicitly.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Sunday, July 10, 2005

What Day Is It? - Shabbat 69

We have all had weeks, or even particularly long nights, when we wake up and wonder to ourselves, “what day is it?” For those living a secular lifestyle, while this may be a problem if it’s a school or work day we think is the weekend, it is not as crucial whether today is Saturday or Sunday. For those who observe the rules for Shabbat, however, it makes a big difference.

So, Rabbi Huna asks, what happens if you’re traveling in the wilderness (or, some manuscripts add, on the road) and you don’t know when it is Shabbat? His answer: you should count 6 days and then observe one as Shabbat. Hiyya bar Rab suggests the opposite: you should observe one day and then count six. Why do they disagree, asks the Talmud? One treats it like the Creation of the world – six days of work followed by a “shabbat.” The other treats it like the experience of Adam ha-Rishon [Adam the first (human)] – he was created on the 6th day, so for him it was one day of rest followed by six of work. The Talmud settles on the first suggestion – count six and observe one.

Nevertheless, suggests Raba, you should be extra careful – do only the work you must do for your requirements, except on your 7th day. Another interjects: “so he should die on that day?” Answer: on the previous day he prepared double. Response: “what if that day happened to be Shabbat and he did double the violations?” Resolution: do only what you must do, even on your seventh day. Final follow-up question: “So how do you know it’s his 7th day?” Because of Kiddush [sanctification of wine and Shabbat at its beginning] and Havdallah [“distinction” marking the end of Shabbat]. One can derive from this discussion that to “observe” Shabbat in less certain times means to mark it with Kiddush and havdallah, even if not performing work is not possible.

The early modern Hebrew writer, Hayim Nachman Bialik, wrote a short story called “The Short Friday” that appears in, among many other collections of his work, Random Harvest: The Novellas of Bialik. In “The Short Friday,” a Rabbi is called away just before Shabbat to a bris [circumcision], at which he gets drunk, falls asleep, and ends up at midnight at an inn run by a Jew – the Rabbi knows it because he sees the remnants of a Shabbat meal on a table before he dozes off again. As the Rabbi sleeps, the innkeeper sees him and assumes he must have made a mistake – how could the Rabbi be there if it was truly Shabbat? So he cleans up, wakes up everyone, opens up the inn and goes to work. When the Rabbi awakens, he assumes he slept through 24 hours and totally missed Shabbat, so he gets on the sleigh and goes home – arriving just as everyone in town gets out of Shabbat services to see him! How much of our sense of time depends on the world around us. . .

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Forget Shabbat - Shabbat 68

A great principle – a klal gadol – of Shabbat observance brought up by the Mishnah and elaborated by the Talmud concerns violation through ignorance. As understood through Talmudic interpretation, if someone forgets that there is such a thing as Shabbat and commits many prohibited labors on many Shabbats, they are liable for only one sin offering for all of it. If you know about Shabbat but forget that it’s Shabbat at that moment and break many rules, you’re liable for each Shabbat you’ve broken. And if you know that it’s Shabbat and what that means, you’re liable for every primary category of labor you break, once per category even if you write or sew many times. In short, unlike our common understanding of laws, ignorance of the law IS an excuse.

Who would be someone who wouldn’t know what Shabbat is but still be expected to observe it? After all, non-Jews are not required to observe Shabbat, so if they don’t know what it is it doesn’t matter. Rab and Samuel agree that someone not knowing what Shabbat is must be a case like a child taken captive among nokhrim [strangers, Gentiles], or someone who converted to Judaism while still among nokhrim. But it could be the case for either of those examples that they DID know what Shabbat was at one time – the child from their early experience or the convert from early instruction. In that case, some feel they should be liable as anyone else who just forgot that it was Shabbat, but others would not blame them for their violations.

The experience of “hidden children” during the Holocaust has strong echoes of this discussion – some of those children were given to other families so young that they forgot what it meant to be Jewish. And they certainly could not observe Shabbat while hiding among non-Jewish families, even if they remembered what they were supposed to do and not do. And the “convert” example could connect for us with people who discover that their parents or grandparents had been Jews and they never knew it – Stephen Dubner’s Turbulent Souls: A Catholic Son’s Return to his Jewish Family tells his own story of being raised by devout Catholics in upstate New York who were both born Jews in New York City and abandoned it. Or former Secretary of State Madeline Albright would be another. From an ethnic point of view, we are glad they have discovered their roots. From a Jewish law perspective, as we’ve seen, it can raise different challenges.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Friday, July 08, 2005

The Ways of the Amorite - Shabbat 67

One of the trickiest lines to draw is that between miracles and magic: miracles are divinely-authorized supernatural interventions, while magic is a non-God-related supernatural intervention. Those more secularly inclined don’t see much of a difference between the two, but to strict monotheists and monolatrists [worshipping ONLY one God] like the Rabbis, there is a big difference. The fear was that magic power like that drawn on in incantations and amulets would in fact be worshipping other gods, which was strictly forbidden.

Rabbi Jokhanan’s suggestion to cure an inflammatory fever by cutting one notch in a cord each day while reciting progressive verses from God’s encounter with Moses in a burning bush in Exodus 3 is entirely acceptable, since you are using both God’s text and his power. For an abscess, we are told to speak of the angels could cure boils and then say the magic words: “bazak, bazik, bizbazik, mismasik, kamun kamik” – even Rashi admits they have no meaning but are part of the incantation, like "abra-cadabra." And there are similar incantations against demons, even a “demon of the privy”! Here we begin to get into the murky waters of angels, demons, and other supernatural powers not strictly under the umbrella of direct divine authority. And certainly foreign to our experience today, where much more can be plausibly explained using natural cause and effect.

So how can you tell what kind of incantations are forbidden? The Rabbinic phrase for them is yesh bo mishum darkhei ha-emori [there is in it something of the way of the Amorite], and Raba and Abaye agree that anything that has a cure in it is not “the way of the Amorite.” But the Talmud does give plenty of examples of what is forbidden: asking one’s luck to be lucky, or a husband and wife exchanging names (probably to avoid evil), saying “I will drink and leave over” twice, dancing and counting 71 fledgling chickens so they won’t die, or requires silence to cook lentils, or the woman who urinates in front of her pot to speed its cooking – in all of these behaviors yesh bo mishum darkhei ha-emori. Evidently there is a difference between kosher magic and treyfe [not kosher] magic – but to me, it’s all magic and make-believe.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Haimishe [home] Remedies - Shabbat 66

The first half today’s page is consumed with the debate of whether an individual with a prosthetic leg or arm can wear them out of the house on Shabbat. The fact that the discussion takes that long is one problem; its conclusions are still another. What is more interesting to us is the later discussion of what kinds of cures and treatments are permissible to use on Shabbat – not for what it teaches us about Shabbat observance, but for what it demonstrates about the treatment of illness in rabbinic times. And even back then, there was suspicion of how effective the cures were: wearing 3 garlands can stop an illness, 5 can cure it, and 7 can protect against witchcraft! But like every good magical cure, there are enough conditions to make disproving it impossible: according to Rabbi Aha ben Jacob, these garlands only work if they have not been seen by sun, moon or rain, nor has it heard iron, chickens, or footsteps. Thus another one says, in effect, very helpful since that’s basically impossible to do!

Other cures permitted on Shabbat: putting a hot cup on the stomach for stomachache, swaddling a baby, or wearing a “preserving stone” (to prevent miscarriage). We also learn that one may rub oil or salt into the skin. In fact, three famous Rabbis would rub oil and salt into their hands and their insteps to sober up! Once they were feeling tipsy, they would rub in these materials and recite: “just as this oil becomes clear, so may the wine become clear.” Or, if this didn’t work, they’d soak clay from a wine vessel in water, asking for the same result. We still have “home remedies” today, but it’s interesting to see what they were centuries ago.

Abaye even shares some tricks he learned from his mother: all incantations that must be repeated many times should include the name of the sick person’s mother, and whenever the number of repetitions is not specified, it should be 41. And if you have a daily fever, you take a new coin and equivalent weight in salt, and tie both to your neck with a twisted cord. Or sit a crossroads and catch an ant with a large burden in a brass tube that you seal with lead, then shake it and magically transfer your burden to the ant. Or go to a river, take a pitcher of water, swing it around your head 7 times, then throw it over your back, all while asking the river to borrow some water and then announcing its return. Since I don’t believe the river is really listening these days, I think I prefer ibuprofen.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Protecting Daughters - Shabbat 65

One index of how free a particular society or culture or family is would be to look at how it treats its women – specifically, how protective the authorities are over women in different phases of life. In traditional Jewish life, before they were married women were under the authority of their fathers. In some cases, as with the legend mentioned a few days ago that holds that Rashi educated his daughters and taught them to wear tefillin [prayer boxes], paternal permissiveness ruled. In others, restriction was the rule.

Such is the case for a particular anecdote in today’s daf [page]. The Mishnah permits banot [daughters] to go out with threads in their ears, as an allowed ornament in place of an earring to prevent the ear-hole from closing. But Samuel’s father was extra strict: he would not allow his daughters to go out with threads in their ears. He also would not allow them to sleep together, and he went to extra effort to build them mikvaot [ritual baths] and thus facilitate their ritual purity. When it is pointed out that he forbids what the Mishnah explicitly permits, the difference is fudged by saying they had colored threads for their ears, which were more of a temptation to remove and show off. By the way, the same is true of a gold tooth – too tempting to remove to show off and thus carry too far; but a silver tooth is permitted.

And why prevent them from sleeping together? In some passages, it is assumed that women are not sexual beings until they are married, but here there is fear of Rabbi Huna’s saying: “women that commit lewdness with each other are banned from marrying priests” (i.e. not pure virgins as they must be to marry a kohen [priest]). As intriguing as this issue might be for modern sexual identity politics and history, the Talmud explains rather that he was more concerned that they “get used to a strange body.” In modern times in developed countries, sharing a bed, even with one’s loving partner, is a learned process since most have their own beds from childhood – anyone who has fought over the covers or been clocked in the head by a stray elbow knows the experience. In the Talmud, the focus is on preserving daughterly purity; today, we might call learning to share a life skill!

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

For Appearance’s Sake - Shabbat 64

There are times when the rabbis of the Talmud can sound as puritanical as any fundamentalist religious authority – today’s page asks why the Israelites of the generation that wandered in the wilderness for 40 years under Moses were in need of atonement. The answer: shehzanu eyneihem meen ha-ervah – literally, they whored their eyes through nudity. And what does it mean that their atonement, according to rabbinic interpretation, included casts of breasts and wombs? They symbolize “outer” and “inner” lusts, and from this Rabbi Sheshet learns that whoever looks upon a woman’s little finger is as if he gazed on her “special place.” Not that far away from a fundamentalist Islamic authority who decrees women should be covered head to toe for similar reasoning.

The more important legal concept explored here, however, concerns the importance of appearances. “Rab Judah said in Rab's name: ‘Wherever the Sages forbade [aught] for appearances’ sake, it is forbidden even in one's khidrey khadarim [“room of rooms” or innermost room].’” The principle of mar’it ayin [“seeing of the eye” or appearance’s sake] means that one should not perform a certain action lest it lead to the perception of incorrect behavior. To draw a modern parallel, sitting in a non-kosher restaurant, even if one eats nothing, looks like un-kosher behavior is taking place. Or, in an example brought by the commentator Rashi, one should not lead camels tied together on Shabbat lest others think you are taking them to market to sell them. But Judah is going even farther – just because no one is there to watch you and judge you incorrectly doesn’t mean you can still do the action! Even in private, you are not free of the tyranny of popular prejudice.

If we ran our lives based on the perceptions of others, no one would fear “Big Brother” because there would be many judging eyes on everyone at every moment. Thank goodness that we are not only free to make our own decisions about life, but that we are free to make them without being constrained by others’ senses of propriety. We do sometimes choose based on the possible perceptions and sensitivities of others, but these are free choices we make from our generosity towards their sensibilities. We could also choose to tell them it’s none of their business. Or, in one of my favorite lines in the fabulous movie The Price Above Rubies, when the main female character is chastised for not covering her hair, “You can look at the ceiling, or you can look at the shoes, but it’s not my problem!”

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Monday, July 04, 2005

Messiah, Meaning, and Companionship - Shabbat 63

Today’s page is one of those meaty ones that make us wish we could linger for a few days on one page without pursuing the next and the next. However, if one lingered on every such page, the daf yomi [daily page] cycle would take even longer than 7.5 years! The Mishnah text that forms the core of the discussion is a beautiful connection between prophesy and legalism. Should swords be considered “burdens” or “ornaments” on Shabbat? Rabbi Eliezer maintains that they are ornaments, but the Sages agree that they are merely “shameful.” Why? In Isaiah’s famous end of days prophesy (Isaiah 2:4) he imagines, “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” In other words, if swords were primarily ornamental, why would they be totally transformed and vanish in messianic times, why call them “ornaments” on Shabbat now? Because it is like a candle at noon – ornamental at the moment, but needed in dark times.

One rabbi asks why Rabbi Eliezer called the swords ornaments, and he is pointed to Psalm 45:4 which speaks of binding a sword upon a leg. Rabbi Kahana objected – this verse must be referring to words of the Torah! In other words, he takes the rabbinic interpretation of “sword” as metaphor for “Torah” as the original or only meaning of the verse. He is corrected with a very important saying: “Ayn mikra yotse mip’shuto – Scripture never leaves its plain meaning.” Even if there is an allegorical or metaphorical interpretation, the literal meaning of the text still applies. In our terms, don’t let later understandings and creative interpretations replace or totally obscure the original meaning, even of problematic texts. In response to this, Rabbi Kahana exclaims, “By age 18 I had studied the entire Talmud, and I never learned this saying until today.” And from this anecdote the Talmud draws a beautiful lesson for any student – keep studying, and you’ll understand it eventually!

We also read several statements about the value of two scholars working together – phrased in Talmudic theology of divine help and reward, they nevertheless describe an ideal of collegial cooperation from which we can learn. Two scholars should sharpen each other in what they study, be amiable to each other in their study, and pay attention to each other. The traditional model of hevruta [companion] study, where two students study together in discussion rather than each individually, is an interesting model to apply to all kinds of textual study, but also important in any endeavor of shared inquiry.

And we don’t even have the time to go into the implications of a fascinating saying by Rabbi Lakish: “He who lends [money] is greater than he who performs charity; and he who forms a partnership is greater than all.” The implications of this saying for pride and shame, poverty and generosity, even Maimonides’ famous ladder of tsedakah [charity], must be teased out on your own. Or, for that matter, the anti-canine implications of “whoever raises a bad dog keeps loving-kindness [khesed] from his house” – is this why some Jews don’t like dogs? More study for another occasion. . .

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Women and Commandments - Shabbat 62

As we have seen on other pages, women are treated differently from men when it comes to rabbinic laws. After all, the Mishnah didn’t prohibit a man to leave his house wearing a “golden city” ornament. So when ‘Ulla’s saying that “what is fit for a man is not fit for a woman, and what is fit for a woman is not fit for a man” is brought to bear here, it is meant to claim that something like a signet ring can be simultaneously a “burden” for a woman (and thus not wearable out on Shabbat) and an “ornament” for a man (thus wearable). When one rabbi objects to this double standard for the same object, Rabbi Joseph responds that Ulla meant, “women are a different people.” Wise-crackers today might put it, “it’s like they’re an entirely different species!” And women might say the same about men.

We read here an assumed principle discussed on earlier pages, that women are exempt from all time-specific positive commandments [kol mitzvah aseh sheh-ha-zman gorma nashim p’turot]. In this case, Rabbi Meir argues that since tefillin [prayer boxes] are required both at night and on Shabbat, it is not limited by time and thus incumbent on women. There is a legend that the famous medieval Talmud commentator Rashi taught his daughters to wear tefillin, and a recent novel Rashi’s Daughters: A Novel of Life, Love and Talmud in Medieval France by Maggie Anton takes a romantic (and not too historical, according to a review I read) look at that story. In most traditional communities, however, the principle regarding time-bound positive commandments is invoked to prevent women from publicly reading from the Torah or participating in a minyan [prayer quorum] or reciting kaddish [prayer in honor of the dead].

Today’s page later delves into the gruesome cosmic punishments of Jewish women for being too seductive and haughty, but for us there is a bit of comic relief. How would you interpret the saying, “Three things bring a man to poverty: urinating naked in front of one’s bed, disrespecting washing the hands, and his wife cursing him to his face”? Fortunately, Raba clarifies each of these possibilities. Urinating facing away from the bed or into a chamber pot is acceptable, but on the floor is not. Even washing the hands inadequately is OK, as long as they are washed at all. And the wife’s cursing must be because of her jewelry, and he is only at risk if he has the money but doesn’t provide it. Incontinent slovenly penny-pinchers, beware!

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Saturday, July 02, 2005

How to Tie Your Shoes - Shabbat 61

A famous Hasidic legend tells of two followers going to visit their Rebbe – one plans to listen to the rebbe’s teaching and learn a great lesson, while the second plans to watch the rebbe tie his shoes to learn a great lesson. Why “tie his shoes?” Because when a person is considered holy and perfect, EVERYTHING they do is considered holy and a model.

This is one of the reasons Talmudic discussions can go from the sublime to the ridiculous. On today’s page, Rabbi Yokhanan says one should treat their shoes like tefillin [prayer boxes], which are worn on the left hand; thus one should put on their left shoe first. But a baraita [Mishnah-era teaching not included in the Mishnah] says one should put on the right first and then the left! Fortunately, Rabbi Joseph appears to put our minds at ease: since the baraita has it one way and Rabbi Yokhanan the other, either way is acceptable. A Win-Win! But Mar son of Rabina found the best way to satisfy both: he put on the right shoe but didn’t tie it, then slipped on the left shoe and tied it, and only then tied the right one. This pickiness is not limited to putting on shoes – one must take off the left first and then the right, and washing must begin with the right and then the left. There is one sane voice in this chorus: R. Ashi reports that R. Kahana was not particular about how he put on his shoes!

The more interesting anthropological detail in today’s page is the discussion of which kinds of amulets, or magic charms, can be worn on Shabbat. The Mishnah says that only one made by an expert can be worn – the Talmud discusses how to define an approved amulet or an approved amulet-maker – the general standard is three magic healings. Of course we should be calling them “miraculous” healings and charms, since they derived their “powers” from the use of the divine name (YHWH), but “magic” gives us today a better sense of how they were used. We also read that they were considered special because of the divine name, but not holy enough to save from a fire on Shabbat.

Jews have not been immune from their own superstitions – monotheism does not cure the desire for magic power. If one is facing a run of bad luck, they are encouraged to check their mezuzah [doorpost box with holy text]. And the founder of Hasidism, the Baal Shem Tov [“master of the good name”], most likely got his title from making the very kinds of amulets discussed in today’s page. But we will never know exactly how he put on his shoes.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Friday, July 01, 2005

The Soul of Soles - Shabbat 60

Every religious tradition has its debates about issues that take up more space than they deserve. A famous Catholic debate concerned how many angels could fit on the head of a pin; today’s daf debates how many nails on a sandal should be permitted to wear out of the house on Shabbat. In case you were wondering. . .

The Talmud asks why the Mishnah prohibited men leaving their homes on Shabbat with “nail-studded sandals” [the Hebrew for sandal is “sandahl,” derived from Greek]. Samuel proceeds to tell a story where Jews hiding from persecution in a cave decided that they could enter the cave but not leave it lest their hiding place be discovered. Unfortunately, one of their sandals was reversed and its track on the ground led them to believe one had left, thus panicking them into a crowding frenzy that killed more of them than the enemy did. Other rabbis speculate that instead they heard someone walking above the cave, or at the back of a synagogue, and thus panicked and trampled each other with their nail-studded shoes. And since this took place on a Shabbat, thus the prohibition (after much more discussion, of course) of sandals whose nails are structural rather than ornamental.

But never let it be said that the Talmud’s Rabbis missed an opportunity to disagree: HOW MANY nails count as ornamental? Some say seven, others say 13. One says five is allowed but sever is forbidden. Another says 5, 7, 8, or 9 are allowed. In Pumbedita [a Babylonian rabbinic academy] they allow 24, while in Sura [another Babylonian academy] only 22. And if most of the nails have fallen out and only 4 or 5 are left, that is permitted too. Who knew that such profound lessons could be derived from a deep study of religious tradition?

Rabbi Adam Chalom