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.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Shabbat 74 – From Many to One?

As we saw on the previous daf, the Mishnah provides a general list of the avot melakhot [major categories of work – literally “fathers of work”] that are prohibited to perform on Shabbat, while the Talmud takes each term (e.g. “reaping”) and clarifies other similar actions that are likewise prohibited. At other times, however, it seems that the process could work in reverse: it is pointed out in today’s daf that “winnowing, selecting, grinding and sifting” could all be considered “one” action – as the medieval rabbi Rashi’s commentary explains it, they all involve separating food from the inedible. So why did the Mishnah list them separately?

The answer Raba and Abaye both give is based on a Talmudic assumption – why are there 39 categories of prohibited work? Because, according to the Rabbis, there were 39 categories of work performed to build the mishkan [Tabernacle – Tent of Meeting during the Exodus and 40 years of wandering]. So Raba and Abaye agree that if these labors were involved separately in that project, then they must be listed here separately.

There is a problem with this line of argument, however – it is immediately observed that “pounding,” a labor performed to build the mishkan, is not listed by the Mishnah as a forbidden action! And while commentators clearly accept pounding as a forbidden action, it is not part of the number 39. This imprecision when it comes to numbers is nothing new in Jewish counting – the “40 years” in the wilderness consist of 1 year of events and “39 years later. . .”, and the Rabbinic agreement that the Torah contains 613 commandments does not extend to what they actually are – thus the number is not really a list, but lists are made to reach the number.

Note the power of definition – the Rabbis can claim all sorts of actions are prohibited if they can show them as derivative from an av melakhot [major category]. Boiling pitch mishum [on account of] “cooking,” plucking a bird mishum “shearing,” and so on. Thirty-nine proves only the beginning of Shabbat prohibitions that today are of mostly academic interest to the majority of the world’s Jews.

Rabbi Adam Chalom