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.

Friday, July 01, 2005

The Soul of Soles - Shabbat 60

Every religious tradition has its debates about issues that take up more space than they deserve. A famous Catholic debate concerned how many angels could fit on the head of a pin; today’s daf debates how many nails on a sandal should be permitted to wear out of the house on Shabbat. In case you were wondering. . .

The Talmud asks why the Mishnah prohibited men leaving their homes on Shabbat with “nail-studded sandals” [the Hebrew for sandal is “sandahl,” derived from Greek]. Samuel proceeds to tell a story where Jews hiding from persecution in a cave decided that they could enter the cave but not leave it lest their hiding place be discovered. Unfortunately, one of their sandals was reversed and its track on the ground led them to believe one had left, thus panicking them into a crowding frenzy that killed more of them than the enemy did. Other rabbis speculate that instead they heard someone walking above the cave, or at the back of a synagogue, and thus panicked and trampled each other with their nail-studded shoes. And since this took place on a Shabbat, thus the prohibition (after much more discussion, of course) of sandals whose nails are structural rather than ornamental.

But never let it be said that the Talmud’s Rabbis missed an opportunity to disagree: HOW MANY nails count as ornamental? Some say seven, others say 13. One says five is allowed but sever is forbidden. Another says 5, 7, 8, or 9 are allowed. In Pumbedita [a Babylonian rabbinic academy] they allow 24, while in Sura [another Babylonian academy] only 22. And if most of the nails have fallen out and only 4 or 5 are left, that is permitted too. Who knew that such profound lessons could be derived from a deep study of religious tradition?

Rabbi Adam Chalom