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.

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