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.

Thursday, July 14, 2005

Shabbat 73 - From One to Many

In an undergraduate philosophy course, I was told that Aristotle’s philosophical works are challenging to begin studying because each section seems to assume that you have already studied the other sections; thus there is no perfect entry point from which to begin. Rabbinic legal works like the Talmud and Mishnah are very similar – here we have been studying Shabbat rules for over 70 dapim [pages], and only in today’s page do they list and explore in detail the major categories of work prohibited on Shabbat.

The Mishnah lists “forty minus one” avot melakhot [major work categories], from agricultural to handicrafts, creating or destroying, writing or erasing, kindling or extinguishing fire, and the last we saw at the beginning of our Talmud tractate: carrying from one domain to another. The Talmud then takes each category and describes which tasks are subsumed under that general category. Thus where the Mishnah says “Sowing,” the Talmud claims that sowing, pruning, planting, and grafting are all one labor.” Or “Reaping,” because it is a harvesting of food, should also include collecting grapes or gathering olives, dates, figs, or other cultivated food.

One can imagine what today would be called a “strict constructionist” objecting to this line of Talmudic argument – if it says “reaping,” they meant “reaping” only! And that would certainly limit the reach of these prohibitions. But we can also understand how general terms can be used to define broader areas of law – banning murder but ignoring accessories, or criminalizing armed robbery but ignoring embezzlement would not make sense.

Of course, a systematic law code would begin with texts just like this, and then proceed to specific examples. Tractate Shabbat began with the specific case of carrying from one domain to another, and took much space to get to the general pronouncement. This is just one more example of what makes the Talmud a distinctive document – one meanders to and through the law in a way that one is forced to understand halakhic reasoning and debate instead of simply getting the rules in a list. It’s not an accident that the word Talmud is related to the word talmid [student].

Rabbi Adam Chalom