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.

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