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 25, 2005

Shabbat 115 When to Save the Scriptures?

There is a major exception to the rules concerning carrying on Shabbat – the saving of holy writings from destruction by fire. The Mishnah text under discussion today makes very clear that kitve ha-kodesh [the holy writings] may be saved from a fire, whether they are read or not. Parts of the holy writings Bible not read? As the Talmud goes on to explain, while the Torah and selections from the Prophets (readings called haftarot) are regularly read, the ketuvim [writings] part of the Bible are not. Selections from Psalms and the five scrolls (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther) became part of rabbinic liturgy, even if only once a year. But Proverbs, Job, Daniel, Chronicles and other books were defined as holy but did not become part of regular religious reading.

Interestingly, the Mishnah says that “even if they are written in any other language,” when worn out they should be hidden away in a geniza [see our discussion on Shabbat 90] – more confirmation that there were Biblical translations in use among Jews in this period. Many have heard of Targum [into Aramaic] and of the Septuagint [into Greek], but our page also mentions Egyptian, Median, and Elamite – interestingly, one is not allowed to read any of them but the Targum, even though ! There is a debate between Rabbi Huna and Rabbi Hisda as to whether Biblical translations can be saved from a fire – are they THAT holy? The question is not finally resolved, but it is comforting to know that even in Rabbinic times many needed to resort to a translation to understand the Bible.

Kitve ha-kodesh were clearly on another level from other writing involving the divine name – blessings that have been written down and amulets, even though they include God’s name and passages from the Scriptures, should not be saved from a fire. And a scroll that has become so worn out that one cannot find 85 legible letters in it may no longer be saved – who has the time to count in a burning synagogue, I don’t know. And though we would love more information on HOW those translations that may or may not be saved from a fire on Shabbat were used in those days, the Talmud is not a history book.

Rabbi Adam Chalom