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 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