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.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Shabbat 91 - Intention at the Threshold

We have seen that intention makes a big difference in rabbinic law – if one intends to sow a seed, its moving from a private to a public domain is forbidden in any amount, even if it is less than the quantity forbidden to take out as described in earlier pages. And if one takes food out of the house in a permitted quantity, and then decides once out to plant it, he is still liable for a violation. Note that no actual planting has been performed – only the INTENTION creates the violation.

Here we see a similarity and a difference with our own sense of transgression – the intent to a criminal action makes a big distinction between manslaughter (accidental killing) and pre-meditated murder, but merely intending a criminal action is not a crime except in Steven Spielberg’s recent movie Minority Report. One exception to this principle, which is what makes them philosophically controversial, are “hate crimes” – if I knock you down to steal your wallet, it’s assault; if I do so with a racial or ethnic slur, it’s a crime on top of a crime. Should anti-Semitic graffiti be punished simply as property damage, or as hate crime? Intent makes all the difference.

The other interesting legal theory discussed in today’s daf is the idea of a completed action – according to the Mishnah, one may carry food to the askufa [threshold] and set it down, and then subsequently carry it out. Since the action was not done in one motion [b’vat akhat], even if the first step places a basket of fruit with most of the fruit outside the door, he is not guilty. The Talmud discusses the idea of an intermediate space [karmelit] between public and private, but we find the whole distinction academic – how can pausing in the middle of an action change the nature of the entire sequence? This is why end results matter as much as intentions for us – steps that lead to a crime, even if separated, lead to the criminal result, and THAT should be the determinant for violation.

Rabbi Adam Chalom