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 17, 2005

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