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 31, 2005

Shabbat 90 – What is Hidden Away

As we have seen, many items are prohibited to take from private to public space in certain quantities, but smaller quantities are allowed. In today’s page, we see a list of materials of which ANY amount is prohibited: various kinds of spices and metals, long pepper, and so on. On some level, this kind of absolute prohibition makes somewhat more sense then the “pocket police” or the guilt-stricken individual trying to measure a fig’s size worth of nutshells to determine if a violation has been committed. The most interesting items of this list are old scrolls and their covers, and pieces of the misbeakh [altar] and its stones, because we get a reason WHY they should not be taken out – they are only taken out from a place in order to be “hidden away” [l’gonzam], so they cannot be removed on Shabbat.

This tradition of “hiding” or burying old holy items, particularly books, is not particularly explored in this Talmud page, though it will be on Shabbat 115a. Because that later page is full of detail of what goes in and is excluded from a geniza [where the holy books are hidden or buried], this is a good opportunity to highlight the most exciting result of rabbinic superstition in Jewish history. In short, to avoid “taking the name of YHWH in vain,” the Rabbis enacted that texts with God’s name, like Torah scrolls or prayerbooks, should be disposed of in a geniza rather than simply discarded, destroyed or reused.

In 1896, Solomon Schechter, then a scholar of Rabbinic Judaism at Cambridge University, was shown a couple of papyrus fragments that two (non-Jewish) women had bought on vacation in Cairo. He immediately recognized them as fragments of the Hebrew original of the Wisdom of Ben Sira, a book up to that point only known to modern scholarship in a Greek translation. In fact, before that moment many scholars had believed that Ben Sira was originally written in Greek and the claim of translation was a fake! Schechter discovered that the fragments came from the geniza of the Cairo Jewish community, and he managed to transfer the bulk of what was there to Cambridge by 1898. It turns out that the Ben Sira text was copied in the Middle Ages from an older original, but fragments of a more ancient Hebrew Ben Sira were found in the Dead Sea Scrolls over 50 years later.

This Cairo Geniza has proven to be a treasure trove of Jewish documents from the Middle Ages of all kinds, for the Cairo Jewish community began to “hide” not only holy books but also letters, contracts, liturgy, and just about anything on paper! Thus an unofficial archive of medieval Jewish life was the end result of Rabbinic fear of disrespecting the divine name by throwing it out. Who could have guessed?

Rabbi Adam Chalom