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.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Shabbat 78 – More Carrying Out on Shabbat

The debate over permissible quantities continues. How much paper can one move from private to public space on Shabbat? How much water? How much oil, and how much honey? One could get lost in the details of quantity, quality, and possible uses of each of these substances in the Talmudic world. Fortunately, we do find a general principle worth exploring under the heading of “water.”

Abaye derives the following general principle from the Rabbis’ specific rules: whatever has a common use and an uncommon use, the rabbis follow the common use towards leniency. So if drinking wine is common while using it as a remedy is uncommon, the minimum amount for liability is the amount one would drink, even if as a cure one uses less. The same for milk: common for drinking but not for healing, so the larger amount is permitted. For honey, on the other hand, which at the time was used for both eating and for healing scars or scabs, the smaller amount for healing is what creates the Shabbat violation. There is some debate about water and whether it is commonly used for healing or not, but since the Rabbis chose the smaller amount as a restriction we know that the end of the discussion will show in certain places and contexts that water healing is in fact common – in this case for the eyes.

We saw similar principles with regards to physical objects that have permitted and prohibited uses on Shabbat, and the real question is what one’s presumption is – will one use it for prohibited purposes, or can one trust that people are obeying the rules even if it looks like they might not? And our approach is one more step removed: can we treat what one carries from any place to any other place on Shabbat as that person’s private business? Whether they are following detailed Shabbat restrictions may have little to do with whether they are a good person, or nice to their fellow human beings, or tolerant of other people’s opinions. But this just another version of the quantum leap one makes out of a traditionalist mindset into the wider world of modern thought.

Rabbi Adam Chalom