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 10, 2005

What Day Is It? - Shabbat 69

We have all had weeks, or even particularly long nights, when we wake up and wonder to ourselves, “what day is it?” For those living a secular lifestyle, while this may be a problem if it’s a school or work day we think is the weekend, it is not as crucial whether today is Saturday or Sunday. For those who observe the rules for Shabbat, however, it makes a big difference.

So, Rabbi Huna asks, what happens if you’re traveling in the wilderness (or, some manuscripts add, on the road) and you don’t know when it is Shabbat? His answer: you should count 6 days and then observe one as Shabbat. Hiyya bar Rab suggests the opposite: you should observe one day and then count six. Why do they disagree, asks the Talmud? One treats it like the Creation of the world – six days of work followed by a “shabbat.” The other treats it like the experience of Adam ha-Rishon [Adam the first (human)] – he was created on the 6th day, so for him it was one day of rest followed by six of work. The Talmud settles on the first suggestion – count six and observe one.

Nevertheless, suggests Raba, you should be extra careful – do only the work you must do for your requirements, except on your 7th day. Another interjects: “so he should die on that day?” Answer: on the previous day he prepared double. Response: “what if that day happened to be Shabbat and he did double the violations?” Resolution: do only what you must do, even on your seventh day. Final follow-up question: “So how do you know it’s his 7th day?” Because of Kiddush [sanctification of wine and Shabbat at its beginning] and Havdallah [“distinction” marking the end of Shabbat]. One can derive from this discussion that to “observe” Shabbat in less certain times means to mark it with Kiddush and havdallah, even if not performing work is not possible.

The early modern Hebrew writer, Hayim Nachman Bialik, wrote a short story called “The Short Friday” that appears in, among many other collections of his work, Random Harvest: The Novellas of Bialik. In “The Short Friday,” a Rabbi is called away just before Shabbat to a bris [circumcision], at which he gets drunk, falls asleep, and ends up at midnight at an inn run by a Jew – the Rabbi knows it because he sees the remnants of a Shabbat meal on a table before he dozes off again. As the Rabbi sleeps, the innkeeper sees him and assumes he must have made a mistake – how could the Rabbi be there if it was truly Shabbat? So he cleans up, wakes up everyone, opens up the inn and goes to work. When the Rabbi awakens, he assumes he slept through 24 hours and totally missed Shabbat, so he gets on the sleigh and goes home – arriving just as everyone in town gets out of Shabbat services to see him! How much of our sense of time depends on the world around us. . .

Rabbi Adam Chalom