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.

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