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.

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