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, 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.