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.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Survey – 117-120 (August 27-30)

One of the more complicated situations for the Jew striving to live by the Talmud is what to do in case of a fire on Shabbat – what is one allowed to save from the fire, to where one must take it if carrying an object beyond private space (see the discussion at the beginning of tractate Shabbat), and what one must leave behind. The Mishnah text cited on a previous page claims one may save certain objects only into a closed alley but not an open one, which demands Talmudic clarification of what counts as each. An alley is defined by 3 walls (i.e. a cul-de-sac between two buildings), and it is called closed or open depending on the number of stakes at the open end, or if there are stakes at all. While we might assume that there would be one standard for what constitutes each, it turns out that the standard differs – to save a sefer Torah [Torah scroll], one stake at the open end would be enough, but two would be required to save food.

How much food may one save? Again, it depends – this time on the time of day. The Talmud clarifies the Rabbis ordained that one should eat three meals during Shabbat based on the number of times the word hayom [today] appears in Moses describing Sabbath rules for eating mannah in Exodus 16:25. By the way, from the same chapter in Exodus and its explanation on this same Talmud page comes the Jewish tradition of two loaves for Shabbat evening. So how much food to save? On Shabbat evening, one can save three meals’ worth – so as to have the three prescribed meals. On Shabbat morning, one may only save two, and so on. And if one has saved some food either for that Shabbat or for the following week, one should not appeal from charity relief for either – we are sociologically intrigued to learn that there are two separate charity funds for different needs, as well as communal charity to support poor travelers with both food and lodging, though these charities are described in more detail in tractate Pe’ah.

From this discussion, the Talmud branches off into a long creative collection of sayings and stories about Shabbat – its beauty, its holiness, and its importance. It begins with one Rabbi speculating why three meals? To save from three calamities: the difficulties before the Messiah, purgatory, and the “wars of Gog and Magog.” But saying after saying follows about the beauty of Shabbat. A sampling from pages 118-119 follows:

- R. Johanan said in R. Jose's name: He who delights in the Sabbath is given an unbounded heritage.

- R. Hiyya b. Abba said in R. Johanan's name: He who observes the Sabbath according to its laws, even if he practices idolatry like the generation of Enosh, is forgiven.

- R. Johanan said in the name of R. Simeon b. Yohai: If Israel were to keep two Sabbaths according to the laws thereof, they would be redeemed immediately – incidentally, this is one of the sayings that inspires the modern Chabad movement to encourage so-called “non-observant” Jews to at least light Shabbat candles.

- R. Hanina robed himself and stood at sunset of Sabbath eve [and] exclaimed, ‘Come and let us go forth to welcome the queen Sabbath.’ R. Jannai donned his robes, on Sabbath eve and exclaimed, ‘Come, O bride, Come, O bride!’ – two early expressions of metaphors for the Sabbath as queen and bride that are very important in later Jewish songs.

- It was taught, R. Jose son of R. Judah said: Two ministering angels [malkhay ha-sharet] accompany man on the eve of the Sabbath from the synagogue to his home, one a good [angel] and one an evil [one]. And when he arrives home and finds the lamp burning, the table laid and the couch [bed] covered with a spread, the good angel exclaims, ‘May it be even thus on another Sabbath [too],’ and the evil angel unwillingly responds ‘amen’. But if not, the evil angel exclaims, ‘May it be even thus on another Sabbath [too],’ and the good angel unwillingly responds, ‘amen’. - This Talmud text may well be the source for the malkhay ha-sharet imagined in the traditional Shabbat melody Shalom Aleikhem.

- Abaye said: Jerusalem was destroyed only because the Sabbath was desecrated therein.

- Resh Lakish said in the name of R. Judah the Prince: The world endures only for the sake of the breath of school children. Said R. Papa to Abaye, What about mine and yours? Breath in which there is sin is not like breath in which there is no sin, replied he. Resh Lakish also said in the name of R. Judah the Prince: School children may not be made to neglect [their studies] even for the building of the Temple.

Mixed in with these statements on Shabbat we also see statements on other topics by Rabbi Jose, hoping that his portion [khelki] will be like those who eat three meals on Shabbat or die of bowel trouble or are suspected while innocent – all righteous people anticipating a divine reward. They also include his claims to have never looked at his circumcised penis, to have had sex (only) five times and fathered five sons, to have always believed what his neighbors told him, and to have never in his life retracted anything he said. It’s almost as if the editors said to themselves, “well, we just had a saying by Rabbi Jose on Shabbat, so let’s just put the rest of his sayings in here.” And after Abaye’s statement on Jerusalem, we get authorities with other reasons why Jerusalem was destroyed – for not reciting the Shema, for neglecting to educate school children or despising scholars, for not being ashamed of or rebuking each other for their sins, and so on. In other words, in your own life you had better do these things or else . . . for you!

And from these ethical and philosophical peaks we return on page 120 to the details of what can and cannot be saved from a fire on Shabbat. Much better to end our discussion with “the world endures only for the sake of the breath of school children.”

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation