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.

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