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.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

Shabbat 76 - How Much is too Much?

One of the ways Talmudic debates can easily get beyond a modern’s patience threshold is when they begin to haggle amounts – not just whether one is permitted to leave the house with certain objects or not, but how much of a particular substance constitutes a violation. The Mishnah specifies that one should not carry out quantities of food that would satisfy different animals – enough straw k’maleh fi parah [that fills a cow’s mouth], enough corn for a lamb’s mouth, enough herbs for a goat, etc. The Mishnah also clarifies that their quantities cannot cumulatively amount to a violation, since each has a different standard – so corn, straw and herbs need are counted in separate categories. For human food, anything over the size of a dried fig is too much, and different foodstuffs DO combine for humanity since that same size is the standard of violation for all of them.

Now one could get caught up in the debate and begin to argue from within: can’t cows eat herbs too? Or lambs eat straw? So then why use that particular animal to designate an appropriate quantity, and why can’t the food items be considered together? Or in a more philosophical vein, one could argue about the intent of the Mishnah’s rule – why NOT feed animals that are not one’s own by bringing food from the private into the public sphere?

But it is also important to take a step back and look at the big picture. How does someone know if you’ve carried out too much? Do they turn out your pockets to check? And what kind of society can be created by such fastidious attention to detail and quantities – the kind that focuses on the letter of law rather than the spirit, one that focuses more on the pilpul [tiny details] more than on people and their needs and desires? Because the restrictions on what may be carried from private to public space are so complicated, this also has the result of forcing people to stay home, because who can know if they’re able to leave? When seeing the debate from this perspective, our answer to the question of how much is too much becomes: “genug! - enough already!”

Rabbi Adam Chalom