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.

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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 29, 2005

Shabbat 96-100 Survey (August 6-10)

Note – catching up for ‘blog paternity leave’

Rabbinic legal discussions often turn back to the Torah for both foundational legal texts and for narrative examples – if the original or rabbinically-articulated law is not clear, perhaps a story from the time of the holy writing can illuminate the question. Thus as they continue debate carrying objects across boundaries between private and public space on Shabbat, Rabbi Judah claims that the gatherer of sticks on Shabbat who is stoned to death by divine decree in Numbers 15 must have committed such a violation. From an historical perspective, we would argue that the very rabbinic concept and prohibition of “carrying from private to public” comes centuries after the purported Exodus narrative and this story, but for the Talmud’s Rabbis what is true in their day always was true in Jewish life.

In Shabbat 96b, Rabbi Akiva goes even one step further with the story of the stick gatherer. Where characters in the Torah have no names of their own (e.g. the wife of Lot in Genesis 19), Rabbinic midrash [creative interpretation] will fill them in. In fact, in many cases they try to tie up two loose ends at once – connecting a character without a name to a character whose name is known but whose actions are not. Thus Akiva speculates that the sick gatherer was in fact Zelophehad, a man who died for an unknown sin and who is more famous for his daughters’ assertion in Numbers 27 that in the absence of sons they should have the right to inherit.

But Akiva is berated for his statement by Rabbi Judah ben Bathyra, who says that “either way you have to account for what you’ve said.” If Akiva is right and it was Zelophehad, the Torah had covered up his identity to preserve his reputation, and Akiva has publicly “outed” him. If Akiva is wrong and it wasn’t Zelophehad, then Akiva has smeared the reputation of an innocent man. And in their disapproval of suspecting the innocent, the Talmud’s rabbis could have taught Senator Joseph McCarthy something important. Today we might also learn something interesting about the story of the Shabbat stick gatherer from a re-visioning of the story by the Hebrew writer David Frischmann, whose Bamidbar: Ma’asiyot Bibli’im, sipurim v’agadot [In the Wilderness: Biblical tales, stories and legends] includes a retelling of the story from the perspective of the gatherer!

Much of the rest of this section of tractate Shabbat explores the building and transporting of the holy Tabernacle during the Exodus period as a model for contemporary Shabbat restrictions. I always find it interesting that so much energy in the Talmud is devoted to the details of something like the Tabernacle that historically was probably never built and certainly was of little daily importance to the Jews who created the Talmud. Why worry about it? One possible answer is that while they could not control much of their life as minorities in exile, they could spend their time instead imagining a period when they could, and what they would have done. At times, however, their imagination failed them – when asked to explain how a beam of wood was on three walls simultaneously, the answer is “nes – a miracle.”

There is also a repeat of Shabbat 7 on Shabbat 99, and a discussion that could have been predicted; if previous discussions covered how far one could carry an object on Shabbat, or throwing an object from private to public space, or from one private space to another through public space (as from one balcony to another), then of course Shabbat 100 can ask: “what if one throws an object less than 4 cubits and it rolls past the 4 cubit line?” With that conundrum, we’ll end this survey of Talmud pages for today.

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation