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 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