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.

Monday, July 18, 2005

Shabbat 77 – A Purpose for Everything

Rudyard Kipling wrote an entire series of “Just So” stories, where he explained how certain things in the world today came to be. And there are many stories like this today: how the Zebra got its stripes, why the mosquito buzzes in your ear, and so on. Evolutionary biologists have their own take on this literary genre, explaining the “evolutionary advantages” of features like the zebra’s stripes or opposable thumbs as why the animals are the way they are today. And Creationists believe that, in the words of today’s Talmud page, God “in his world did not create one thing in vain” or without a purpose.

Thus we learn, according to Rab Judah in Rab’s name, that the snail exists to serve as a remedy for a scab, the fly to treat hornet stings, the mosquito for serpent bites, and spiders for scorpion stings. And Rab Judah also told Rabbi Zera “the secrets of the universe”: Why do goats walk before sheep? Like in Genesis, the dark precedes the light. Why do camels have short tails? Because they eat thorns and a long tail would be caught. Why is the ox’s tail long? To swat off the flies. Why is a chicken’s lower eyelid bent upwards? To keep out the dust from living in the rafters. Many of these are either rabbinic versions of “just so” stories, or part of the theology that the world exists for human benefit and use – either non-scientific or an incitement to human entitlement. But some of these explanations do make sense from an evolutionary perspective, like the ox’s tail. More proof that close observers of the universe, even coming from very different perspectives, can come to similar conclusions.

In the same vein, there are a whole series of puns or popular etymologies on today’s page – thus levusha [outer garment] is like lo busha [no shame], darga [stairs or ladder] is like derekh gag [way to the roof], etc. In some cases, the linguistic connection is clear – because Hebrew and Aramaic are both Semitic languages, their vocabularies and grammar are very similar. And because Semitic languages use a three-letter root system for word-concepts, the same three letters in different combinations can mean similar concepts. For example, Shalom is peace, shalem is complete, l’shalem is to pay, mushlam is perfect, etc.

All in all, an entertaining diversion from the picayune details of materials allowed out of the private domain on Shabbat!

Rabbi Adam Chalom