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 23, 2005

Shabbat 113 Everything Changes on Shabbat

We who live with closets full of clothes have a hard time imagining what it would be like to only have one garment to wear. Period – work, leisure, rest, you name it wearing the same clothing. But when Rabbi Huna says that IF one has a change (of clothing), he should change for Shabbat, that “if” is another example of how far from our experience the life of Rabbi Huna’s contemporaries was that he had to consider that possibility. And if one does not have a change? Rabbi Huna recommends even wearing that one garment differently.

For everything is different on Shabbat – drawing on a verse in Isaiah, the Talmud’s rabbis derive many traditions of how to act on Shabbat. Isaiah 58:13 reads “If you restrain your foot because of the sabbath, from pursuing your business on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, the holy day of the Lord honorable; and shall honor it, not doing your own ways, nor pursuing your own business, nor speaking of vain matters,” and verse 14 promises rewards for this observance. But each clause in verse 13 becomes a rabbinic way to distinguish Shabbat.

“honor it” = wear different garments
“not doing your own ways” = your walking [hilukhekha - from the same root as halakha] should be different.
“nor pursuing your own business” = your business is prohibited, Heavenly business is permitted.
“nor speaking of vain matters/your words” = your words on Shabbat should not be like your speech during secular [khol] time. Or you can think about ordinary matters but should speak of them. Incidentally, some Jews historically spoke only Hebrew on Shabbat and their vernacular during the week to fulfill this interpretation.

So what does it mean that your walking should be different? One tradition would have prohibited crossing a stream that can’t be crossed without keeping the back foot on the ground until the lead foot touches the other side, but the resulting extra walking to get around a larger stream is even more work and wading through it might tempt one to wring out their clothes, so the ideal remains but a jump is permitted.

For the modern non-halakhic Jew, distinguishing Shabbat time from other time has taken on less significance, and is a less rigid and ritualistic observance. Nevertheless, the idea of special time, however we observe and use it, can be very useful – as one example, try vacationing without reading a newspaper, or checking your email and phone messages. Then your time really becomes your own.

Rabbi Adam Chalom