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.

Saturday, July 16, 2005

Shabbat 75 – The Limits of Learning

While it’s been said that “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” it often depends what that little knowledge is. In a style we have already seen in our Talmud study, one authority’s saying on multiple subjects is an opportunity for interesting tangents. Rab said three things of increasing punishments to one of his disciples: one should not pull out a thread from a seam on Shabbat on pain of a sin-offering, one should not learn from a Magush [Magus – a Persian astrologer/sorcerer] on pain of death, and one who can calculate the tekufot u’mazalot [celestial cycles and Zodiac signs] should do it on pain of being shunned.

There is a difference of opinion between Rav and Shmuel as to whether magushta [“magianism” or Persian astrology] are sorcery or blasphemy, but in either case it is clearly strictly prohibited to learn from them. In some ways, this was Rabbinic stargazing’s loss, since Mesopotamian and Persian astronomers had many centuries of celestial observation experience and expertise from which Rabbinic calculations could have benefited. In Rabbinic theology, “magic” and “miracle” were very different animals: one was permitted and divinely-authorized supernatural power, and the other was forbidden. Our English words “magic” and “magician” come from the Persian magus via Greek (see – so learning their star patterns, even if intended to better calculate the Jewish calendar, violated this boundary. From our perspective, however, they were two sides of the same coin.

The other limit on learning described here is a brief elaboration on the Shabbat prohibition on “writing two letters.” I personally find learning much more effective if I can take notes – even if I never look at the notes again, the act of writing fixes the information better in my brain. But such a learning style would be restricted on Shabbat – though it is comforting to know that someone writing one letter large enough to cover the space for 2 letters is not liable. However, if someone erases one letter to create enough space to write 2 (even without actually writing them), he is liable. So for the Talmud it’s not only what you learn, but how you learn it when learning happens at sacred times.

Rabbi Adam Chalom