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 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