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.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Survey – 117-120 (August 27-30)

One of the more complicated situations for the Jew striving to live by the Talmud is what to do in case of a fire on Shabbat – what is one allowed to save from the fire, to where one must take it if carrying an object beyond private space (see the discussion at the beginning of tractate Shabbat), and what one must leave behind. The Mishnah text cited on a previous page claims one may save certain objects only into a closed alley but not an open one, which demands Talmudic clarification of what counts as each. An alley is defined by 3 walls (i.e. a cul-de-sac between two buildings), and it is called closed or open depending on the number of stakes at the open end, or if there are stakes at all. While we might assume that there would be one standard for what constitutes each, it turns out that the standard differs – to save a sefer Torah [Torah scroll], one stake at the open end would be enough, but two would be required to save food.

How much food may one save? Again, it depends – this time on the time of day. The Talmud clarifies the Rabbis ordained that one should eat three meals during Shabbat based on the number of times the word hayom [today] appears in Moses describing Sabbath rules for eating mannah in Exodus 16:25. By the way, from the same chapter in Exodus and its explanation on this same Talmud page comes the Jewish tradition of two loaves for Shabbat evening. So how much food to save? On Shabbat evening, one can save three meals’ worth – so as to have the three prescribed meals. On Shabbat morning, one may only save two, and so on. And if one has saved some food either for that Shabbat or for the following week, one should not appeal from charity relief for either – we are sociologically intrigued to learn that there are two separate charity funds for different needs, as well as communal charity to support poor travelers with both food and lodging, though these charities are described in more detail in tractate Pe’ah.

From this discussion, the Talmud branches off into a long creative collection of sayings and stories about Shabbat – its beauty, its holiness, and its importance. It begins with one Rabbi speculating why three meals? To save from three calamities: the difficulties before the Messiah, purgatory, and the “wars of Gog and Magog.” But saying after saying follows about the beauty of Shabbat. A sampling from pages 118-119 follows:

- R. Johanan said in R. Jose's name: He who delights in the Sabbath is given an unbounded heritage.

- R. Hiyya b. Abba said in R. Johanan's name: He who observes the Sabbath according to its laws, even if he practices idolatry like the generation of Enosh, is forgiven.

- R. Johanan said in the name of R. Simeon b. Yohai: If Israel were to keep two Sabbaths according to the laws thereof, they would be redeemed immediately – incidentally, this is one of the sayings that inspires the modern Chabad movement to encourage so-called “non-observant” Jews to at least light Shabbat candles.

- R. Hanina robed himself and stood at sunset of Sabbath eve [and] exclaimed, ‘Come and let us go forth to welcome the queen Sabbath.’ R. Jannai donned his robes, on Sabbath eve and exclaimed, ‘Come, O bride, Come, O bride!’ – two early expressions of metaphors for the Sabbath as queen and bride that are very important in later Jewish songs.

- It was taught, R. Jose son of R. Judah said: Two ministering angels [malkhay ha-sharet] accompany man on the eve of the Sabbath from the synagogue to his home, one a good [angel] and one an evil [one]. And when he arrives home and finds the lamp burning, the table laid and the couch [bed] covered with a spread, the good angel exclaims, ‘May it be even thus on another Sabbath [too],’ and the evil angel unwillingly responds ‘amen’. But if not, the evil angel exclaims, ‘May it be even thus on another Sabbath [too],’ and the good angel unwillingly responds, ‘amen’. - This Talmud text may well be the source for the malkhay ha-sharet imagined in the traditional Shabbat melody Shalom Aleikhem.

- Abaye said: Jerusalem was destroyed only because the Sabbath was desecrated therein.

- Resh Lakish said in the name of R. Judah the Prince: The world endures only for the sake of the breath of school children. Said R. Papa to Abaye, What about mine and yours? Breath in which there is sin is not like breath in which there is no sin, replied he. Resh Lakish also said in the name of R. Judah the Prince: School children may not be made to neglect [their studies] even for the building of the Temple.

Mixed in with these statements on Shabbat we also see statements on other topics by Rabbi Jose, hoping that his portion [khelki] will be like those who eat three meals on Shabbat or die of bowel trouble or are suspected while innocent – all righteous people anticipating a divine reward. They also include his claims to have never looked at his circumcised penis, to have had sex (only) five times and fathered five sons, to have always believed what his neighbors told him, and to have never in his life retracted anything he said. It’s almost as if the editors said to themselves, “well, we just had a saying by Rabbi Jose on Shabbat, so let’s just put the rest of his sayings in here.” And after Abaye’s statement on Jerusalem, we get authorities with other reasons why Jerusalem was destroyed – for not reciting the Shema, for neglecting to educate school children or despising scholars, for not being ashamed of or rebuking each other for their sins, and so on. In other words, in your own life you had better do these things or else . . . for you!

And from these ethical and philosophical peaks we return on page 120 to the details of what can and cannot be saved from a fire on Shabbat. Much better to end our discussion with “the world endures only for the sake of the breath of school children.”

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Shabbat 101-105 Survey (August 11-15)

As we have seen on earlier pages, intent is an important component of the rabbinic understanding of Shabbat violations – unawareness of breaking a rule can mitigate its violation, unlike the modern aphorism that “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” But what if you remember that what you are doing is prohibited in the midst of an action, or in this case after something you’ve thrown has already left your hand? In a Mishnah passage dissected on these pages we see a general rule that one is liable for a sin offering involving throwing something on Shabbat only if the entire action was while ignorant – if the beginning of the action was intended [sh’gaga] but its end unwilling, or vice versa, one is not culpable.

What do they mean? In this Mishnah text, the example comes before the general rule - if you throw an object and then remember that it’s Shabbat, and then a person or a dog catches it, then no violation occurs. The Talmud goes even further – what if you throw it and it travels two cubits unwillingly (you don’t remember it’s Shabbat), then two cubits willingly (you remember), and then two cubits unwillingly (you forget again!)? The point of this example is probably not to imagine what to do is such a scenario, which is highly unlikely, but rather how to understand the general rule. Today some legal scholars believe that hard cases make bad law, but in this period the general understanding was that difficult cases clarify the intricacies of legal complexities. And we also discover that while a dog catching the object can absolve you, that doesn’t count if you were aiming for the dog to catch it – in other words, no Frisbee exceptions!

Unlike cases of throwing, where intention matters, or carrying, where distance and how it’s carried matter, in the case of “building,” any little amount of chiseleing or drilling a hole count as prohibited work [m’lakha]. Yet again we find a general principle [k’lal]: whoever does m’lakha on Shabbat and it lasts – like building a wall or drilling a hole – is liable. And in the Talmudic discussion that follows, we see more examples clarifying the boundaries of rules – is a chilseler, or one who puts a ventilation hole in a henhouse, liable because of “building” or because of “beating with a hammer?” Predictably, the rivals Rav and Shmuel take opposite sides of each case. And again and again the categories of work prohibited by the Mishnah without any Scriptural reference are tied back to the Torah’s description of building the mishkan [tabernacle] during the 40 years wandering in the desert.

Unlike “building,” in the case of agricultural work like “ploughing” or “weeding,” there are two standards – if one is doing so to improve the object or field itself, any little amount is prohibited, but if instead one is gathering fuel or animal fodder small amounts (enough to boil an egg or a baby goat’s mouthful) are permitted. And in “writing,” two letters are enough for culpability, whether they are written with two different hands or in two inks or in two alphabets or even two of the same letter. However, if they are written with something impermanent like road dust, or on two separate pages of a book that cannot be read together, then it is permissible. Note, however, that writing only one letter that finishes a book is a no-no. There is some debate, however, whether one letter that is intended as an abbreviation counts as writing. . .

But this innocent mention of writing is a marvelous opening for tangential intellectual creativity on the subject of the Hebrew alphabet and its written forms (you can see a Hebrew Aleph-Bet at if you are not familiar). Modern scholars of what is called “secondary criticism” focus on the small differences between Hebrew letters that look or sound similar and may have been interchanged in generations of hand-copying Hebrew texts like the Torah and Bible. Here, the Rabbis also recognize common mistakes and warn that in a Holy text, one must not write:

“alef as an ‘ayyin, the ‘ayyin as an alef, the beth as a kaf, or the kaf as a beth, the gimmel as a zadde or the zadde as a gimmel, the daleth as a resh or the resh as a daleth, the heh as a heth or the heth as a heh, the waw as a yod or the yod as a waw, the zayyin as a nun or the nun as a zayyin, the teth as a pe or the pe as a teth, bent letters straight or straight letters bent [e.g. final khaf], the mem as a samek or the samek as a mem, closed [letters] open or open letters closed [e.g. final mem].”

And any volume with just such a mistake must be hidden away [nigneza] in a geniza and not used in public. In other words, the rabbis make a catalog of precisely the kinds of scribal errors that modern scholars use to date and evaluate ancient texts and their transmission, because of course scribal errors of just this kind happen all the time.

The most interesting passage in this Talmud section, however, I have saved for the last. The best teachers learn from their students, and Rabbi Joshua ben Levi learned from his Rabbis that “children have come to the beit ha-midrash [house of study] and said things such as have not been said even in the days of Joshua (i.e. right after the legendary revelation on Mount Sinai).” And an entire series of playful explanations for the order of the Hebrew Aleph-Bet follows – why Aleph, then Bet? First, learn wisdom (Aleph (#1), Binah). Why Gimmel Daled? Show kindness to the poor [gemol dalim]. And they even imagine why the letters look the way they do!
Why does the foot of the Gimmel reach out? Because the generous should reach out to the poor. Some of their explanations are very pious – the straightened Tsadee follows the bent one because the bent righteous person [tsaddik] will be made upright in the future – but others are simply ethical. Why Samekh-Ayin? Semakh ani’im – support the poor. Historically, the Aleph-Bet’s development is a matter for some debate – in fact, a recent archaeological discovery from the 10th century BCE indicates that the exact letter order was uncertain early in its development. But this child-game remnant is a wonderful alternative way to understand the Hebrew Aleph-Bet as well.

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

For Further Reading:

If you look up a Hebrew alphabet, for example, at, you’ll see how easy the scribal mistakes describe above could be.

You can also read more about the recent abecedary discovery at or other news sites.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Shabbat 96-100 Survey (August 6-10)

Note – catching up for ‘blog paternity leave’

Rabbinic legal discussions often turn back to the Torah for both foundational legal texts and for narrative examples – if the original or rabbinically-articulated law is not clear, perhaps a story from the time of the holy writing can illuminate the question. Thus as they continue debate carrying objects across boundaries between private and public space on Shabbat, Rabbi Judah claims that the gatherer of sticks on Shabbat who is stoned to death by divine decree in Numbers 15 must have committed such a violation. From an historical perspective, we would argue that the very rabbinic concept and prohibition of “carrying from private to public” comes centuries after the purported Exodus narrative and this story, but for the Talmud’s Rabbis what is true in their day always was true in Jewish life.

In Shabbat 96b, Rabbi Akiva goes even one step further with the story of the stick gatherer. Where characters in the Torah have no names of their own (e.g. the wife of Lot in Genesis 19), Rabbinic midrash [creative interpretation] will fill them in. In fact, in many cases they try to tie up two loose ends at once – connecting a character without a name to a character whose name is known but whose actions are not. Thus Akiva speculates that the sick gatherer was in fact Zelophehad, a man who died for an unknown sin and who is more famous for his daughters’ assertion in Numbers 27 that in the absence of sons they should have the right to inherit.

But Akiva is berated for his statement by Rabbi Judah ben Bathyra, who says that “either way you have to account for what you’ve said.” If Akiva is right and it was Zelophehad, the Torah had covered up his identity to preserve his reputation, and Akiva has publicly “outed” him. If Akiva is wrong and it wasn’t Zelophehad, then Akiva has smeared the reputation of an innocent man. And in their disapproval of suspecting the innocent, the Talmud’s rabbis could have taught Senator Joseph McCarthy something important. Today we might also learn something interesting about the story of the Shabbat stick gatherer from a re-visioning of the story by the Hebrew writer David Frischmann, whose Bamidbar: Ma’asiyot Bibli’im, sipurim v’agadot [In the Wilderness: Biblical tales, stories and legends] includes a retelling of the story from the perspective of the gatherer!

Much of the rest of this section of tractate Shabbat explores the building and transporting of the holy Tabernacle during the Exodus period as a model for contemporary Shabbat restrictions. I always find it interesting that so much energy in the Talmud is devoted to the details of something like the Tabernacle that historically was probably never built and certainly was of little daily importance to the Jews who created the Talmud. Why worry about it? One possible answer is that while they could not control much of their life as minorities in exile, they could spend their time instead imagining a period when they could, and what they would have done. At times, however, their imagination failed them – when asked to explain how a beam of wood was on three walls simultaneously, the answer is “nes – a miracle.”

There is also a repeat of Shabbat 7 on Shabbat 99, and a discussion that could have been predicted; if previous discussions covered how far one could carry an object on Shabbat, or throwing an object from private to public space, or from one private space to another through public space (as from one balcony to another), then of course Shabbat 100 can ask: “what if one throws an object less than 4 cubits and it rolls past the 4 cubit line?” With that conundrum, we’ll end this survey of Talmud pages for today.

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Shabbat 92-95 Survey (August 2-5)

Who would have guess that HOW one carries an object out on Shabbat would make a difference? It turns out that the point is to avoid carrying out as people generally carry out – as the Mishnah on Shabbat 92 explains, carrying in either hand or on a shoulder is a violation, but carrying something with your foot or in your mouth or on your elbow or in your ear is not a violation. There is some debate about carrying out on your head, as this is the custom in some places (as we know today from National Geographic), but not in others. The general point is that one’s behavior on Shabbat should be very different from every day, and we can see to sides to this – on one hand, it’s good to get out of the ordinary to create moments of pause and difference, but on the other one should not be so pre-occupied with the different day and its different behaviors that that time becomes more worry than rest.

Thus on Shabbat 94b, one is not allowed to pluck out more than one hair, but pulling out the grey ones from among black ones is prohibited entirely – and not just on Shabbat, but on every day, since it is connected with the Torah prohibition of men wearing women’s clothing! The commentator mentions that it is in the pursuit of attractiveness to the point of effeminacy – no “metro-sexuals” wanted here, evidently. I remember once reading a medieval Spanish Hebrew poem (that I can’t put my hands on now) to the effect that you can pluck one grey hair, but it laughs at you because its reinforcements will eventually arrive to overwhelm you. And that is certainly true.

Some of these pages concern again permissible quantities and contexts for carrying out – using a utensil to carry out a material, or a bed to carry out a person, is not considered a separate violation because the tools are part of the important item (or individual) being carried out. However, make sure to avoid carrying out something k’zayit [the size of an olive] from a corpse or a vermin, since that’s a violation! But later generations allow a corpse to be carried out for a burial, drawing on a saying we saw cited on earlier pages – that human dignity is so great that it can supersede a negative Torah commandment; in this case, as Rashi points out, it’s a Rabbinic enactment regarding “carrying,” but remember that the Rabbis are not overly modest when it comes to projecting their authority and rulings back in time as “Torah.” Today we might say that human dignity and individual choice make commandments into suggestions, but that’s our voice, not the Talmud’s.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Shabbat 116 Sectarians and their Writings

In its discussion of what counts as Holy Scripture worthy of saving from a fire on Shabbat, the Talmud turns to consider the Minim [sectarians] and their writings. Minim is a catch-all term for Sadducees, Samaritans, or Jewish Christians, though as we’ll see today’s page may well be referring to the last group. The difficulty we face in Talmud study today is that over the centuries the original text of the Talmud was censored in Christian lands to remove the most anti-Christian passages – both for self-preservation by the Jews themselves and by converts who pointed out the problematic passages to Church authorities. For example, an unedited text of this page includes mocking of the Gospels as the sin or the falsehood of blank paper – indeed, this entire discussion was sparked by the question of whether the blank spaces from accepted Jewish holy writings could be saved from a fire on Shabbat, so the comparison is insulting to Christians but makes sense in context.

Why such animosity? After all, these people come from a Jewish background, today would be called a “Jewish sect”, and use Jewish scriptures and language as part of their religious life – so are their books worth saving? Exactly the opposite: Rabbi Yose says that on weekdays he cuts out the holy names from their books, puts those scraps into a geniza, and burns the rest of the books. And Rabbi Tarfon vows to bury his son if he doesn’t burn them together with the divine names in them! If he was being pursued by a murderer, he would rather take refuge in a pagan Temple than in their buildings: they know better and still sin.

So when Rabbi Gamliel’s sister, Imma Shalom [mother of peace], goes to visit a "philosopha," she tries to trick him by asking to inherit with her brother against Torah law - if there is a living son, the daughter gets nothing. The philosopha allows her to divide it, and Rabban Gamliel points out his “error.” The response: “since you have been exiled, the oraita d’moshe [Moses’ Scripture] has been replaced by a new law that says son and daughter inherit equally.” But the next day, Rabban Gamliel comes again, and one of them says, “Look in the book, where it says ‘I did not come to destroy the oraita d’moshe nor to add to it,’ and in Moses’ law it says where there is a son the daughter does not inherit.” Unfortunately the context is not clear as to which of them says it, but it is an almost exact quotation of Matthew 5:17 from the New Testament. Striking that it appears here, even more striking if it was Rabban Gamliel who was able to cite it – meaning he had read the book! Perhaps he agreed that to read a book does not make one an adherent – I am no more a Christian for having read the New Testament than I am an Orthodox Jew for having read the Talmud.
Rabbi Adam Chalom

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Shabbat 115 When to Save the Scriptures?

There is a major exception to the rules concerning carrying on Shabbat – the saving of holy writings from destruction by fire. The Mishnah text under discussion today makes very clear that kitve ha-kodesh [the holy writings] may be saved from a fire, whether they are read or not. Parts of the holy writings Bible not read? As the Talmud goes on to explain, while the Torah and selections from the Prophets (readings called haftarot) are regularly read, the ketuvim [writings] part of the Bible are not. Selections from Psalms and the five scrolls (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther) became part of rabbinic liturgy, even if only once a year. But Proverbs, Job, Daniel, Chronicles and other books were defined as holy but did not become part of regular religious reading.

Interestingly, the Mishnah says that “even if they are written in any other language,” when worn out they should be hidden away in a geniza [see our discussion on Shabbat 90] – more confirmation that there were Biblical translations in use among Jews in this period. Many have heard of Targum [into Aramaic] and of the Septuagint [into Greek], but our page also mentions Egyptian, Median, and Elamite – interestingly, one is not allowed to read any of them but the Targum, even though ! There is a debate between Rabbi Huna and Rabbi Hisda as to whether Biblical translations can be saved from a fire – are they THAT holy? The question is not finally resolved, but it is comforting to know that even in Rabbinic times many needed to resort to a translation to understand the Bible.

Kitve ha-kodesh were clearly on another level from other writing involving the divine name – blessings that have been written down and amulets, even though they include God’s name and passages from the Scriptures, should not be saved from a fire. And a scroll that has become so worn out that one cannot find 85 legible letters in it may no longer be saved – who has the time to count in a burning synagogue, I don’t know. And though we would love more information on HOW those translations that may or may not be saved from a fire on Shabbat were used in those days, the Talmud is not a history book.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Shabbat 114 The Status of a Scholar

For all of the serious and problematic limitations to the Rabbinic intellectual enterprise, from its restriction to men and its pious limitations on range of acceptable questions and answers to its ahistorical view of the past, it should be noted that the emphasis on learning, scholarship and wisdom is an improvement over previous forms of Jewish governance. Kings are kings and Priests are priests because of their birth or their skill at power machinations and not because of any redeeming qualities or useful skills they possess. Scholars, at least, must learn and study and can potentially (like Rabbi Akiva) rise from any family background to lead communities.

Because of this, the status of a scholar is an important consideration for the Talmud (also, the people writing and reading the Talmud were “scholars” and it was in their own self-interest!). The very phrase for “scholar”, talmid khakham, literally means “wise student,” showing the connection between learning and teaching. This same connection is highlighted by several teachings in today’s daf: the scholar is the one who can answer a question of halakha from any place; the scholar who only knows one masekhta [tractate] may lead his own city, but one who knows the whole field of learning may serve b’resh metivta – as the head of an academy. In other words, the most learned are those who serve as teachers, and they also lead communities.

An interesting question in Jewish history, and in the Talmud as well, is how much status to give rabbis – for example, should a community provide the Rabbi a living, or should they also have a profession? Almost all rabbis in Talmudic times had professions, but there were also cases envisioned by Rabbi Yokhanan – one who puts aside his own interests in favor of khafatsei shamayim [the interests of heaven] should be supported by the community, but only his basic needs. Today, of course, where being a Rabbi is a trained and generally adequately-compensated profession, such minimal support would be difficult to sell.

But Rabbis today would also understand the sentiment behind Rabbi Yokhanan’s saying that it is a disgrace for a scholar to go out with patches on his shoes. In other words, you can tell the values of a community by how it treats what it claims to value most. If one person says they love all Jews but constantly complains that they don’t follow what that person believes is the only way to be Jewish, how sincere is that original claim? If the scholar is the leader of the community, then treat them well.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Shabbat 113 Everything Changes on Shabbat

We who live with closets full of clothes have a hard time imagining what it would be like to only have one garment to wear. Period – work, leisure, rest, you name it wearing the same clothing. But when Rabbi Huna says that IF one has a change (of clothing), he should change for Shabbat, that “if” is another example of how far from our experience the life of Rabbi Huna’s contemporaries was that he had to consider that possibility. And if one does not have a change? Rabbi Huna recommends even wearing that one garment differently.

For everything is different on Shabbat – drawing on a verse in Isaiah, the Talmud’s rabbis derive many traditions of how to act on Shabbat. Isaiah 58:13 reads “If you restrain your foot because of the sabbath, from pursuing your business on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy day of the Lord honorable; and shall honor it, not doing your own ways, nor pursuing your own business, nor speaking of vain matters,” and verse 14 promises rewards for this observance. But each clause in verse 13 becomes a rabbinic way to distinguish Shabbat.

“honor it” = wear different garments
“not doing your own ways” = your walking [hilukhekha - from the same root as halakha] should be different.
“nor pursuing your own business” = your business is prohibited, Heavenly business is permitted.
“nor speaking of vain matters/your words” = your words on Shabbat should not be like your speech during secular [khol] time. Or you can think about ordinary matters but should speak of them. Incidentally, some Jews historically spoke only Hebrew on Shabbat and their vernacular during the week to fulfill this interpretation.

So what does it mean that your walking should be different? One tradition would have prohibited crossing a stream that can’t be crossed without keeping the back foot on the ground until the lead foot touches the other side, but the resulting extra walking to get around a larger stream is even more work and wading through it might tempt one to wring out their clothes, so the ideal remains but a jump is permitted.

For the modern non-halakhic Jew, distinguishing Shabbat time from other time has taken on less significance, and is a less rigid and ritualistic observance. Nevertheless, the idea of special time, however we observe and use it, can be very useful – as one example, try vacationing without reading a newspaper, or checking your email and phone messages. Then your time really becomes your own.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Monday, August 22, 2005

Shabbat 112 A Mensch Lower than Donkeys

One of the implicit principles in many strict religious traditions is the decline in generations – one might also call it “de-volution.” The founders were, of course, more holy than their heirs, and their direct heirs were more holy than more remote inheritors, and our teachers were of course better than we are today. And things will probably only get worse from here forward. We’ve seen examples of this in how the statements of the Mishnah are treated by the Talmud’s rabbis as a new kind of sacred teaching, and how the earlier generation of amoraim are more authoritative than the later tannaim.

In today’s page, while trying to resolve the question of what to do with a sandal strap that happens to snap on Shabbat, one rabbi comes up with an innovative solution to the status of a repaired sandal that breaks again. And another exclaims, “This one is not human [Aramaic bar enash]!” to be so inventive. But others interject – he is indeed human, a paragon of humanity. The Hebrew translation for a generic human is ben adam [literally “son of Adam”], and a Yiddish equivalent which has made its way into English is mensch. But a mensch is more than a person – it is what the others interjected, the highest kind of person one can be.

Nevertheless, for the devolutionist perspective of traditional rabbinic perspective, the best of today cannot hope to equal what was in centuries before. As Raba ben Zimuna said, “if the rishonim [first (scholars)] were sons of angels, we are sons of people. If they were sons of people, we are donkeys.” And not like the saintly donkeys of Rabbi Pinkhas ben Ya’ir (which refused to eat untithed grain) or Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa (which would deliver its wage back to its master, but only if the amount were exactly correct, no more and no less) – we are like all the rest of the donkeys!

I much prefer to think of the people of the past as people, no more and no less. We may be wiser in many areas of life than they were, and they experienced the natural world very differently and more immediately than we do today – I’m sure that the stars were brighter at night than in our cities and suburbs. What does that make us if they were people? Simply people too.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Note: The Soncino Talmud translation renders “donkeys” as “asses,” but I restrained myself. . .

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Shabbat 111 Anointing and Knots

In the ancient Near East, where water was at a premium, anointing with oil was a common hygienic practice to cover the smell of the rarely-washed. Indeed, the rabbinic traditions of mikvah [ritual immersion] and lightly rinsing the hands before eating may have been improvements in their day, though cleanliness through washing was hardly unknown to Greco-Roman civilization. In any case, the question under discussion here is anointing on Shabbat – the Mishnah, concerned that one might use oil to heal on Shabbat (See above, Shabbat 109), says that one in pain may not rub themselves with wine or vinegar as medicines. Anointing with shemen [oil], on the other hand, since it is commonly done for non-medical purposes would be permitted.

What kind of oil would be permitted? The default in the area was likely olive oil, but the Mishnah clarifies that rose oil (implied to be more expensive) would not be allowed. However, b’nay malakhim [royal children] may do so since they do so anyways, and Rabbi Shimeon claims that all Israelites are “royal children,” and thus should be entitled to do the same. At the end of the Talmud’s discussion, it is agreed (according to Rab) that the halakha [religious law] is with Rabbi Shimeon but not for his reasoning – Shimeon would allow it even if its performance were rare, whereas Rab allowed it only because rose oil was common where he lived. Such are the vagaries of geography and halakha.

The other variable in today’s daf concerns manual dexterity – certain knots are permitted and other are forbidden to tie or untie on Shabbat. A camel driver’s or a sailor’s knot are prohibited, but for those unfamiliar with “knot-ology,” Rabbi Meir gives a much easier rule of thumb: any knot that can be untied with one hand creates no guilt. And many other knots are permitted, like a woman tying up her blouse or anyone tying up an animal to prevent its going out on Shabbat. So the more you practice untying knots with one hand, the more complex life on Shabbat may become – even without Boy Scout training.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Shabbat 110 – Snakes!

The Talmud’s rabbis have remedies for many ailments and situations, as we have already seen. The major concern in today’s page is how to deal with snakes. Their remedy for snakebite is, well, creative: get the embryo of a white donkey, tear it open, and sit on it! And there is the terrible tale of an officer in Pumbedita, one of the major centers of Jewish learning – after he was bitten by a snake, all 13 white donkeys in Pumbedita were torn open, but were found to be trayfa [unclean] and inappropriate, and the 14th was eaten by a lion before they could use it. And at that point one speculates that he was bitten by a snake derabanan [of the rabbis – i.e. cosmic punishment], if the cure was make so impossible – what are the odds?

Of course, all of this is after one is bitten – the rabbis also offer advice on how to avoid any contact from a snake at all. If the snake winds itself around you, you should go into water, put a basket over the snake’s head, force it into the basket and then throw both into the water and “ascend and make off,” or run like the dickens. And if a snake “smells him” (which we know today they do by their tongue), he should try to break the scent by being carried by a companion, or jumping a ditch, or crossing a river. He can also try to ditch it by running to a sandy place, which the Talmud’s commentary claims is impossible for them to follow – I’m not so sure if that one is true by real experience. And finally, if the snake still follows him, at night he can mount his bed on four barrels with one cat tied to each leg to be safe!

All of these have some common sense behind them, but we are instantly reminded of the psychological/mythical baggage behind snake imagery – many see snakes as phallic symbols, and reading this Talmud page does nothing to dispel that impression. If a woman is seen by a snake and is not certain whether it is focused on her, how can she test it? Why, remove her clothes and see if the snake winds around them? And how to throw the interested snake off the trail? Some suggest having sex with her husband in front of it, but others say that will only “strengthen its instincts” and suggest she throw some of her hair and nails at him saying “I am menstrually impure.” Obviously, the rabbis here were concerned that the snake wanted to have sex with the woman – but they also assumed it obeyed the taboos of niddah [menstrual impurity]! They even have a treatment in case a snake makes it all the way in involving spreading one’s legs and attracting it out with appetizing smells before grabbing it with tongs and throwing it on a fire lest it do so again.

Did Freud or Jung read the Talmud to create their theory of phallic symbolism? I doubt it. But it is fascinating to see such concerns here – was it psychological? Did the (male) rabbis “envy” the snake? Why else would it be assumed that snakes desire humans sexually?

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Friday, August 19, 2005

Shabbat 109 – Healing and the Shabbat

While the concept of work being prohibited on Shabbat is well known, less well-known is the tradition of additional dietary restrictions on Shabbat. It turns out that healing on Shabbat is prohibited, so taking certain herbs or remedies are actually forbidden during the day of rest. Thus certain leaves are said to have no medicinal properties, and thus are permitted to use on Shabbat. Or if one bangs their hand or foot, they may soak it in wine to reduce swelling, but not vinegar since that would too obviously be healing! And the delicate, who are healed by wine, cannot even do that, according to Rabbi Hillel (not the same as the early Hillel) who attended the academy of Rabbi Kahana.

We do have other, external evidence of historical Jewish reticence to heal on the Shabbat – if one reads in the New Testament, there is a story in Luke 13:10-17 on this very subject. In the story, Jesus preaches in a synagogue on Shabbat, and he heals a woman. The leader of the synagogue is upset, saying “there are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, but not on the Sabbath day.” The miraculous cure was not the issue, but rather the curing on Shabbat! This story would have taken place right around the time of transition from Pharisees to Rabbis, shortly before the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. Rather than baldly accept Jesus’s rebuke of the leader as a hypocrite, we must remember that “healing” in this period was not the rare miraculous event depicted in the New Testament gospels, but a profession common to holy men, amulet makers, and apothecaries the world over. In other words, it was a way to earn a living – something not to be done on Shabbat by any approach before modern times.

This is not to say that there is universal agreement on this principle of not healing on Shabbat – for example, Rab taught that a hand or foot injury was like an internal injury and thus could justify Shabbat desecration. We would think that alleviating pain and curing a disease would automatically be allowed at any time, but if we think in terms of professional healers, it makes more sense – even doctors are allowed a day off!

Rabbi Adam Chalom

For the full New Testament story of healing on the Sabbath, visit

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Shabbat 108 – When Rav Met Shmuel

Rabbinic literature is full of pairs of sages: we’ve already met Hillel and Shammai from the early rabbinic, or “Tannaitic” period, and today we meet Rab and Shmuel, the leading Babylonian scholars from the early “Amoraic” period, around 220-250 CE (these eras take their name from the Hebrew for how teachings are recalled – tanna vs. amar – with the older generally more authoritative). What’s interesting about this pairing, however, is that we have a story of how they personally met, and a little bit about their personalities as well.

According to today’s Talmud page, one day Shmuel was sitting by the royal canal of Babylon [nehar malka] with Karna, a sage who sometimes earned a living with his nose telling wine merchants which bottles of wine could be preserved longer (see Sanhedrin 105a). The water rose and changed color, and Shmuel read the sign to mean “a great man with stomach trouble is coming from the West” (Shmuel is often cited for his “medicinal” knowledge). So Shmuel tells Karna, “go and smell his bottle!” or, in other words, greet him and check him out.

So Karna meets Rab and quizzes him – how do we know [minayin] that tefillin [prayer boxes] can only be on the skin of a clean animal we are permitted to eat? Answer: it says “the words should be in your mouth” which means on that which could be in your mouth. How do we know that defiling menstrual blood has to be red to count? How do we know that a male must be circumcised in that particular place and not, say, in his heart (“circumcise the foreskin of your heart” Deut. 10:16) or even his ear (“their ear is uncircumcised” Jeremiah 6:10)? Evidently, Rab passes muster for Shmuel brought him home for dinner.

But the treatment wasn’t over yet – Shmuel fed Rab barley bread, a fish pie, and strong liquor but did not show him the privy to relieve himself. Why not? The medieval commentator Rashi claims that, since Shmuel (on this page and many others) was known for his medical knowledge, this must have been a cure for Rab’s stomach ailment. But Rab certainly didn’t know this, for he said with great feeling, “the one who causes me pain, may he have no sons!” And the Talmud says, “and so it was.” Shmuel known for medicine, Rab for his curses and knowledge, and each known better with the other.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

A special note

Due to the birth of my daughter this month, I have been taking a break from the daf yomi. However, now that I’m able to sleep 3 hours at a stretch, I have the mental acuity to pick it back up. I will be working forward matching the general daf yomi schedule from yesterday on, and working back to fill in the gaps for the first half of the month of August.

Thank you for your patience,

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Shabbat 107 – Vermin and Worse

Human animosity to vermin, snakes, and creeping insects [shekatzim u’remasim] is very old and deeply rooted – the villain in the Garden of Eden story is just one example. And this is animosity is very understandable, for poisonous snakes are dangerous, vermin spread disease and insects can destroy crops and make life miserable. Now it is very likely that there are cultures in the world that prize such beings, but Jewish culture is one of many that take the opposite approach. Biblical dietary laws forbid eating them (see Leviticus 11) and declares them unclean even to the touch, and even the Mishnah treats them separately from other animals when enumerating what one may or may not do to them on Shabbat.

Vermin should not be caught or wounded on Shabbat, but insects may be caught or wounded as long as one does not need them for something. And a parallel is drawn to any animal in one’s own domain: catching is permitted, but wounding is a violation. There is something positive here about an approach to Shabbat that avoids wounding or killing animals, though this pause is scant consolation to the bird awaiting a Sunday morning execution! The Talmud debates whether these eight types of vermin have “skins” separate from their flesh (since wounding flesh would clearly be prohibited), and thus whether wounding would be permanent or would heal – the details are less important than the discussion, in this case.

To be sure, there are more extreme approaches – Rabbi Eliezer would say that whoever kills a lice on Shabbat is like one who kills a camel on Shabbat! He would also blame someone who caught a flea on Shabbat, while everyone else would exempt them. Again we see concessions to reality as part of rabbinic jurisprudence – not swatting a flea on Shabbat seems rather extreme for human beings to contemplate. Religion can take ideas to far extremes, but fortunately some human common sense occasionally intervenes.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Shabbat 106 – Trapping Animals

When we think of Shabbat as a time to not do “work,” that does not necessarily mean that it is a time of no exertion at all. This is exemplified by today’s discussion of hunting and trapping animals – hardly a relaxing activity! The Mishnah explains that one who drives a bird into a turret, or a deer into a house, a courtyard, or a vivarin – translated “vivarium” as it derives from Latin (think “aquarium”) for a place for living animals – is liable for a Shabbat transgression. And Rabban Gamliel gives a klal [general rule] to explain why, since he feels that not every vivarin is the same. The general rule is that if the animal no longer needs to be caught (i.e. the space is enclosed like a house or a courtyard), one is liable, but if the vivarin is such that the animal still needs catching, one is exempt.

Why the distinction? Again we enter the world of connected action – if actually hunting a wild animal or physically capturing it would be a clear violation, then an act that has the same practical effect, like trapping the animal in a small enclosed space which makes killing it later a relatively simple task, should have similar consequences. We might think today of someone who doesn’t use a gun before hunting season but herds the deer he wants into an enclosed pen – this is clearly violating the spirit and the point of the law defining hunting season from the rest of the year.

Thus one is prohibited from fishing in an aquarium, or even closing the door if a deer enters the house, thus trapping it. Catching a blind or sleeping deer is a violation, since either would try to run away and escape; but a lame or sick (i.e. exhausted) deer can be caught since they do not. A contradiction between traditions, where one would allow catching animals from a vivarin on a yom tov [festival, literally “good day” or “holy day” like our “holiday”] and another would not, is harmonized by claiming one referred to a small vivarin with few places to hide or escape while the other meant a large one.

In the end, there is a limitation on exertions on Shabbat in this area – one may catch an animal from a vivarin on a festival because the work has already been done, and by the same principle one may not trap an animal in the same on Shabbat because that would be work. In an era when the refrigerated supermarket meat counter has enabled us to be far removed from the process of meat procurement, this vivid reality of what would be necessary to obtain fresh meat in Talmud times on any day of the week is a good reminder of that reality of life.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Monday, August 01, 2005

Shabbat 91 - Intention at the Threshold

We have seen that intention makes a big difference in rabbinic law – if one intends to sow a seed, its moving from a private to a public domain is forbidden in any amount, even if it is less than the quantity forbidden to take out as described in earlier pages. And if one takes food out of the house in a permitted quantity, and then decides once out to plant it, he is still liable for a violation. Note that no actual planting has been performed – only the INTENTION creates the violation.

Here we see a similarity and a difference with our own sense of transgression – the intent to a criminal action makes a big distinction between manslaughter (accidental killing) and pre-meditated murder, but merely intending a criminal action is not a crime except in Steven Spielberg’s recent movie Minority Report. One exception to this principle, which is what makes them philosophically controversial, are “hate crimes” – if I knock you down to steal your wallet, it’s assault; if I do so with a racial or ethnic slur, it’s a crime on top of a crime. Should anti-Semitic graffiti be punished simply as property damage, or as hate crime? Intent makes all the difference.

The other interesting legal theory discussed in today’s daf is the idea of a completed action – according to the Mishnah, one may carry food to the askufa [threshold] and set it down, and then subsequently carry it out. Since the action was not done in one motion [b’vat akhat], even if the first step places a basket of fruit with most of the fruit outside the door, he is not guilty. The Talmud discusses the idea of an intermediate space [karmelit] between public and private, but we find the whole distinction academic – how can pausing in the middle of an action change the nature of the entire sequence? This is why end results matter as much as intentions for us – steps that lead to a crime, even if separated, lead to the criminal result, and THAT should be the determinant for violation.

Rabbi Adam Chalom