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, September 29, 2005

Survey – Shabbat 146-150 (Sept. 25-29)

Sometimes the frame stories for Talmudic teachings can be more amusing than the teachings themselves. In an anecdote that begins at the end of 145b, two rabbis sat before their teacher, Rabbi Yochanan, who dozed as they speculated as to why life is different in Babylon compared to the land of Israel: why chickens are fatter, why festivals are more joyous, and why scholars dress differently. Suddenly Rabbi Yochanan awoke and rebuked them for idle speculation: “if something is as clear to you as the fact that your sister is prohibited to you, then say it; otherwise, don’t say it!” And he gives his own answers: chickens are fatter because they never suffered exile like those of Israel; festivals are more joyous because they do not suffer there under the curse of Israel for its sins; and Babylonian scholars dress differently because they are not in their homeland.

From this opening, however, we find the most interesting speculation and explanation: why are idolators [ovdei kokhavim – literally “servants of stars”] lustful? The answer is familiar to us, but not generally from Jewish sources: when the serpent in the Garden of Eden came to Eve, he implanted lust in her, so all humanity is naturally lustful. We’ve heard much more on this theme from Christian sources, but here is some evidence that the concept of sex as the sin that caused the Fall was Jewish as well – you can also read about it in the post-Biblical, pre-Christian Jewish writing 4 Ezra, chapter 4. In this text, the Israelites are understood to have escaped from their lust by being present at Sinai to receive the Torah, but idolators were not so lucky. And what of converts, who accept Torah laws and thus should be considered exempt from this “infection?” They were not there, but their “mazalot – fortunes or lucky stars” were to be inoculated on their behalf. We also see again a double standard between Jews and non-Jews – assuming “they” are lustful while “we” are not.

The primary discussion for this survey selection begins with the saga of what may be opened and how on Shabbat – may one open a raisin wrapper, one may not create a new hole on Shabbat but some say one may expand a pre-existing hole and there is a debate about inserting a tube though all agree a tube may be re-inserted if it falls out, and so on. More interesting, we see again the importance of hospitality, as Shimon ben Gamliel proclaims that if one has guests on Shabbat, one may bring a cask of wine, pick up a sword, and cut off the top with one swing with no fear of Shabbat violation! An important general principle is brought up in the discussion: whatever the Sages [khakhamim] banned because it might look bad [mar’it ha-ayin] is forbidden even in the most secret chambers [khidrey khadarim – literally “room of rooms”]. Why? My guess is that perhaps someone could see you there, or more likely what the Sages forbid is forbidden even if you quibble with their reasons behind it.

And for liberal Jews, a very important anecdote appears as well: Ulla visits the Rabbinical academy at Pumbeditha, and he sees the scholars [rabanan] shaking out their cloaks on Shabbat even though we read just above that Rabbi Huna forbade it. Ulla exclaims, “Scholars are desecrating Shabbat!” And Rab Judah says to the scholars, “go shake it near him, because we are not sticklers on this [lo kafdinan mee-day].” A few pages later, we also read about a prohibition on beating the breast or dancing on Festivals that the people ignore without rebuke. The answer to “why not rebuke them?” is marvelous: “better they do it in ignorance (of our law) than in disobedience;’ in other words, they’re not going to stop so why bother telling them? If only allowing others to practice differently because they are not kafdinan [sticklers] for the areas of Jewish tradition they choose to relax, or accepting what people actually do rather than futilely demanding that they change, were today widely accepted Jewish principles. . .

We have already seen that life may be saved on Shabbat, but here we see that not all medical treatments are allowed: the Mishnah stipulates one may rub on oil but not knead it in, one may not induce vomiting or set a broken bone. And if a limb dislocates, one may only bathe it normally “and if it heals, it heals” [v’im nitrapeh nitrapeh]. The Talmud softens these restrictions: that one may oil an invalid on Shabbat, provided the treatment is done differently than it is during the week, vomiting may be induced by hand if not by potion, and a fracture may be set if not a break. But it also offers a cautious tale to those visiting spas: Rabbi Eleazar b. Arak visited places renowned for their wine and hot springs, and his attraction to these pleasures made him forget his learning – when he returned to read from the Torah scroll, he mistook a dalet for a resh and a bet for a khet. Vacationers, beware.

Another example of the “lest” principle described in our previous survey appears in this one as well – one should not count his guests and their portions of food from writing lest he either be tempted to erase mistakes or lest he go on to read secular documents or the text under an image. But from this discussion we are brought to invectives against Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king who destroyed Jerusalem and exiled Jewish leadership to Babylon. He is accused of casting lots over his nobles to determine whose turn it was for homosexual sex [mishkav zakhor – literally “lying with a male”]; he tortured the captive Jewish king Zedekiah by stretching his penis [literally orlah – foreskin] in public; and when he went to Genennah [Hell], he even scared those who were already there!

Finally, we read that one may take certain steps while awaiting the end of Shabbat – one may go to the border of permissible travel to look at one’s field, or to make arrangements for a bride or a corpse, though not to hire someone to do labor once Shabbat is completed. Indeed, one may even travel to theaters and circuses on Shabbat if one is dealing with communal affairs [iskey rabim] – you can’t calculate your own accounts, but charity for the poor [tsedaka l’ani’im] or other “religious accounts” are allowed. All in the name of creating distinctions between Shabbat time and weekday time, something we culturally agree with even if the details elaborated for page after page in tractate Shabbat strike us as overly kafdani’im – more focused on details than the big picture.

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

For Further Reading:

You can see how similar the Hebrew Aleph Bet letters are that Rabbi Eleazar b. Arak confused at

The full text of the Apocryphal work 4 Ezra (also known as 2 Esdras) is available at:

Saturday, September 24, 2005

Survey – Shabbat 141-145 (Sept. 20-24)

One of the most important conjunctions in Rabbinic thought is “lest”. Many actions are prohibited on Shabbat because they MIGHT perform a forbidden action. Imagine this dilemma – can one scrape clay off of a shoe? One rabbi says scraping on the ground is allowed but not on a wall, lest it be construed as “building.” Raba responds that you’d look like quite a dumb builder to be adding clay to a wall like that, so he allows one to scrape off clay on a wall but not on the ground, lest one level a hole that way! A third rabbi allows both, and a fourth allows neither, only letting him use a piece of wood. As we have already seen in tractate Shabbat, sometimes intention is more important – adding oil to a leather shoe may be done if the intention is to polish it but not if the goal is making it softer – but at other times, actions are prohibited because of “lest.”

Much of this survey’s discussions focus on “indirect handling” – for example, picking up a child who is holding a stone rather than the stone itself. As Rabbi Yannai’s school touching adds, “this refers to a child who longs for his father” [batinok sheh-yesh lo ga’agooin al aviv]; in other words, the crying child may be picked up, but you can’t just use a child to pick up a stone (like contemporary baseball fans who lower their kids over the railing to pick up foul balls). And immediately after the original Mishnah permission the Talmud adds that carrying a child with a purse of money around his neck still makes one liable on account of the purse. {a not-so-nice joke on this theme is at the end of this survey}

Many of these rules can tend to the ridiculous. How to open a cask of wine with a stone on it? Tip it over so the stone rolls off. And the very next sentence says that if the cask is among others (thus the falling stone could damage the others), one may lift out the cask of wine from among the others and THEN tip it so the stone rolls off. In other words, to avoid lifting the stone off the cask, one has to lift and move the entire cask first! And the same for forgetting something in the street like a wallet or even a saddlebag full of money – rather than simply pick up the saddlebag, they consulted Rabbi Yochanan who advised them to, “hinikhu aleyha kikar oh tinok v’tilteluha – place a loaf or a child on it and move it.” In other words, artificially define it as private space and then pick it up, even if hauling a child there is more “work” than pickup up the wallet!

We also find a general principle of Shabbat observance articulated here, one that makes much more sense to our sense of Shabbat as human-defined “time outside of time:” “that he does not do as he does during regular weekdays” [sheh-lo ya’ase kaderekh sheh’hu oseh b’khol]. In this case, this is specifically applied to why one may not sponge up wine from a broken cask or collect the produce lying in one’s yard in a basket. We who look for expressions of Shabbat more meaningful than the details of which fruits may not be squeezed to produce juice (most of pages 144a-b and 145a) find this more interesting – what else can we do differently from the weekday to create a sense of rest and difference on Shabbat?

Finally, we again see the value of pursuing tangents – while the main subject may be squeezing fruit, because another well-known saying also began “davar Torah – a word of Torah,” we also find a discussion of halakhic legal cases when evidence is admissible from a person who heard about the situation from another person who actually witnessed it (also called “hearsay”). For Talmudic jurisprudence, hearsay evidence only admissible in the case of a woman whose husband died (thus mercifully freeing her to marry again if she chose) or in the case of wanting to eat a b’khor [firstborn] animal – only if it received a blemish after birth in the presence of a witness was that allowed. And in our own legal system (or at least on TV), hearsay evidence is likewise routinely rejected for good reason.

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

A bad joke for tractate Shabbat - Two Jews are sharing experiences of miracles that they witnessed. One describes looking for a particular passage in the Talmud, opening a volume and finding himself on the exact page of tractate Shabbat that he needed. The other replies, “That’s nothing. Two weeks ago it was Shabbat, and as I was walking home I saw a wallet on the street. I wondered what to do about it, given that it was Shabbat and I couldn’t pick it up. Then, a miracle! At that moment it was Tuesday!”

Monday, September 19, 2005

Survey - Shabbat 136-140 (Sept. 15-19)

One of the more difficult questions for any religious tradition to answer is what to do in the case of an infant death. The Catholic Church (or was it Dante?) created the idea of limbo in part to address the situation of infants who died before they were baptized – condemning them to Hell seemed unjust, but baptism to cleanse from original sin was required for Heaven. In the days when the Talmud was written, infant mortality rates were likely around 30% - the rate in the United States today is 6 per 1000 live births, and the worst in the world is still under 20% (see If one in three children would die within the first year, the question of viability was vital and common.

For Rabbinic law, Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel set the guideline for viability at surviving for thirty days (eight days for an animal). But this instantly raised the question: if before 30 days the child is doubtful, how can one circumcise a son at 8 days? The answer is just in case: if he lives, ok, and if he dies, it’s as if one simply cut basar [meat]. If the baby “fell from a roof or was eaten by a lion” (i.e. died accidentally), it was assumed to have been viable. In the depths of mourning, this would matter little to bereaved parents, though this page records Rabbis questioning other rabbis’ mourning the death of their infants under 30 days old. Viability is actually an issue for the Rabbis because of the archaic tradition of yibbum, or “levirate marriage” – in an oversimplification, if a man dies without having a child, his brother is supposed to take his widow to father a child to inherit the dead man’s land. So if the child died early and were considered dead from birth, then the mother would have to go through o if the child died early and were considered dead from birth, then the mother would have to deal with yibbum.

We do conclude the topic discussed in our previous survey of when one may circumcise a son, including the amusing case of a man with two children, one to be circumcised on Shabbat and one born just before or just after Shabbat – what if he mixes the twins up and circumcises the wrong one on Shabbat? And we also read that, depending on the calendar, a child may end up being circumcised on as late as the 12th day after their birth – normally circumcised on the 8th day, if born at twilight where there’s some doubt on the 9th, if at twilight on erev Shabbat (Friday evening) on the 10th, if a holiday follows Shabbat on the 11th, and if it’s Rosh Hashana (with two days observed) on the 12th. All of this because if the circumcision is NOT on the 8th day, it can’t supersede a festival – one CAN do a circumcision on Rosh Hashana if that’s exactly the 8th day after birth. Today, many choose to circumcise in a hospital, and to celebrate a babynaming when convenient for the family and the parents rather than wrestle with the calendar.

The historical context mentioned in our previous survey for the Rabbinic emphasis on circumcision is highlighted here as well, as the Mishnah basically asserts that “one who doesn’t look circumcised isn’t circumcised” – in the Hellenistic period, some Jews had tried to disguise the fact that they were circumcised to more comfortably participate in Greek (naked) athletics. Thus there is more detail in these Talmud pages than we need to explore as to what constitutes a valid and invalid circumcision. What is more interesting is that at the very end of the discussion, the Talmud finally describes what blessings are to be said by whom during the actual circumcision ritual for infants, converts and slaves bought by Jews. And the most meaningful passage for us here is what the bystanders are to say: “Even as he enters the covenant, so may he enter into Torah, huppah [marriage canopy], and ma’asim tovim [good deeds].” The wishes of wisdom, partnership, and ethical living still resonate for us at the birth of our children.

In the second half of our survey, the Mishnah turns back to the rigors of Shabbat observance – would straining the lees out of wine be work if the strainer had been set before Shabbat began? What about grinding or combining certain ingredients of food or medicine? Or setting up a canopy over a bed – is that like building a tent (thus forbidden), or not? And so on and so on. The details are less interesting and relevant to contemporary liberal Jews than the sayings and stories that the Talmud brings in tangentially in the context of this discussion. We see the Rabbis at Yavneh, who established Rabbinic Judaism and canonized the Hebrew Bible there out of the ashes of Jerusalem destroyed in 70 CE by the Great Revolt, lamenting that in the future the Torah will be forgotten from Israel [atida torah sheh-tishtakeyakh may’yisrael]. Their interpretation of a prophecy in Amos 8 imagines a future where halakha [rabbinic law, which the rabbis equate with “Torah”] is unknown, or at least unclear. As a continuation of this, we also read that the calamities of a generation are caused by the wickedness of Jewish judges [dayyanin], which is later connected to their ignorance. While we today might chafe and strain mightily under Torah or Talmudic law, we can appreciate the importance of both learned and ethical justice.

And the last section of interest in our survey appears in the latter half of page 140b – sayings of Rabbi Hisda, a leader of the Babylonian Rabbinic academy of Sura in the early 4th century CE, on a variety of topics. He recommends that a “scholar" [bar bey rav, literally “son of the house of a rabbi”] with little bread should not eat vegetables to whet his appetite, should not save it for later, but should share his little bread with friends. Hisda also “endorses” underwear from the Nehar Abba section of Baghdad: if you wash it every 30 days, it will last you a year! But don’t sit on a new mat, because it will wear out your clothes. And Hisda also had advice for his daughters: act modestly and don’t eat bread with your husbands, don’t eat greens or dates or drink beer/liquor [shikra] at night, don’t use the privy where they do, and greet a knock at the door with “who is she?” rather than “who is he?” Hisda didn’t give reasons for his recommendations, but the medieval commentator Rashi interprets the dietary rules as avoiding bad smells and laxatives, and the greeting so that they should not get used to speaking with men! Today advice, like the food it concerns, should be taken with some grains of salt.

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

For more information on Jewish infant mortality in ancient times, you can read “Infant Mortality in the Land of Israel in Late Antiquity” by Professor Meir Bar-Ilan, in S. Fishbane and J. N. Lightstone (eds.), Essays in the Social Scientific Study of Judaism and Jewish Society, or online at

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Survey Shabbat 131-135 (Sept. 10-14)

All of the previous 130 pages of rules for Shabbat are all well and good, but as we saw in our last survey there are times when real life interferes with absolute rest. In today’s survey, we see more examples of other Jewish obligations that directly impinge on Shabbat observance. While the original Mishnah text asks what actions may be taken on Shabbat to prepare for a Brit Milah [ritual circumcision], the Talmud broadens the exception to include the gathering of the omer [wheat sheaves] and preparation of two loaves for Shavuot, preparing the lulav and sukkah for Sukkot, matza [unleavened bread] for Passover, or the shofar for the New Year. After all, if the day before such important holidays happened to be Shabbat, without these exceptions who could prepare for the major festivals? The Talmud is very interested in how Rabbi Eliezer came up with all of these exceptions, though none of them are eliminated or really even modified by the subsequent discussion of their reasons. But Rabbi Akiva has the last word, and from a Talmudic perspective it makes sense: anything that can be done on the eve of Shabbat cannot supersede Shabbat, but that which could not be done then may be done on Shabbat. In other words, forgetting or being lazy is no excuse to break Shabbat!

A major part of this survey concerns the initial topic of the Mishnah passage – circumcision and Shabbat. The debate here is not whether one may circumcise on Shabbat or not, but rather whether one may do work on Shabbat to prepare the circumcisions “preliminaries” (i.e. its tools) as well. And how does everyone agree that circumcision supersedes Shabbat? The Talmud’s initial answer: halakha – it’s just the law. The medieval commentator Rashi uses the expanded formula of halakha l’moshe mi’sinai – it is a law from Moses on Sinai. In other words, this practice goes so far back that no can remember it ever being different, so that’s the way it is. There is much further discussion trying to find Scriptural connections for the rule, but in the end we know what the conclusion will be. Even the more interesting philosophical debate of whether or not one may save a life on Shabbat is derived from this question – if circumcision, which affects only part of a man, supersedes Shabbat, kal va’khomer [how much more so] saving the entire person.

Anthropologically, circumcision has been an important part of Jewish civilization for a long time, claiming mythological origins with Abraham but historically part of the culture of that part of the Middle East. It assumed greater importance during the clash with Hellenistic culture, which abhorred what it considered to be bodily mutilation, and by the time the Mishnah and Talmud were written it was the major baby welcoming ritual in Jewish life (there was a minimal ceremony for girls, but we have already seen plenty of other evidence of Talmudic patriarchy). This section of the Talmud provides a wealth of information on the rabbinic approach to this ritual in this period – by detailing the essentials that could be performed on Shabbat, we can learn what the general procedure was. The child would have the foreskin removed, the head of the penis uncovered, the wound would be sucked (to remove excess blood), and a compress with cumin would be placed on the wound. He would be washed both before and after the circumcision, and on the third day after as well.

We also learn some interesting details about infant care in general – Abaye has a series of sayings amra li ima “Mother told me”. If the baby doesn’t suck, its lips are cold so warm them up with a hot coal; if it doesn’t breathe, fan it with a fan or rub the placenta on it. And if a child is too red, its blood has not yet been absorbed; if too “green,” it is lacking blood. In either case, circumcision should be delayed until the child is healthier. And according to rabbinic law, circumcision could only supersede a major festival or Shabbat when being performed on the prescribed eighth day after birth, but not if delayed because of illness, because the baby’s survival is in doubt because of premature birth, or if it is hermaphroditic to a different day.

And what of the rare case of a child “born circumcised?” It is agreed that for that case, the foreskin has been suppressed and a ceremonial hatafat dam brit [drawing a few drops of covenant blood] is required. Whether Shabbat be superseded to do so is the point of debate. And for a convert who is already circumcised before his conversion, there is also a disagreement – Beit Hillel [the house of Hillel] would exempt him, but Beit Shammai would not. We can also read here about the requirements for circumcising slaves as they are acquired, or if they are born into a Jewish household based on the rules for circumcision described in Genesis 17.

In the end, what is our reaction to these discussions of circumcision for adults, infants and slaves, other than crossing our legs? We may be surprised by the imposition of circumcision on slaves (a barrier to Jews buying European slaves in the Middle Ages, by the way, since conversion to Judaism from Christianity was very dangerous), and the medical procedures for infant care and circumcision may seem quaint at best. But the institution of circumcision itself, as the Talmud itself concedes, is so far back in cultural memory that its practice is as deeply rooted in Jewish life as any one can imagine. As for the ethics of the ritual, that is not the Talmud’s concern.

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

For more information on issues concerning circumcision, you can read the statement on Brit Milah of the Leadership Conference of Secular and Humanistic Jews at

Friday, September 09, 2005

Shabbat 130 - Accepting Mitzvot

Rabbinic law is based on the obligation of origins – since your ancestors accepted these rules, you are obligated to follow them. We can sympathize with this approach to a limited extent –national constitutions are not re-authorized every 10 years but continue their authority based on the tacit acceptance of inheritance. The major difference between these two cases is the question of historicity – it is in recorded history with much evidence that the American Constitution was signed, while the only ancient source for the Torah’s authority is the Torah itself! But just as contemporary scholars investigate the “framers’ intent,” so too did the Talmud’s Rabbis believe that how mitzvot [commandments] were accepted in earlier generations set the tone for later generations.

In today’s page, we find interesting insights into the relative importance of certain mitzvot based on their historical experience. Rabbi Shimon ben Eleazar suggests that actions for which Jews had died as martyrs based on the decrees of non-Jewish governments (e.g. the Hellenistic king Antiochus or the Roman emperor Caligula) are taken more seriously. If previous generations died rather than worship idols and insisted on pain of death on circumcising their male babies, these traditions “remain strong in their hands” [adayin hee mukhazeket b’yadam]. On the other hand, mitzvot like tefillin [prayer boxes] that were not the source of martyrdom are “weak in their hands.” And this is reflected even in modern-day Jewish experience – circumcising male children and not bowing to idols or converting to other religions continues in great numbers among very secularized Jews in America and Israel, but tefillin use has certainly declined!

Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel, from an earlier generation, goes even further back in “history” to the original reception of the mitzvot – those accepted in joy, like circumcision, are still performed in joy; but those accepted with unhappiness like rules of permitted marriage (see Leviticus 18) are still the source of misery. As this rabbi put it, delikha ketubah d’lo rimu ba tigra – there is no marriage agreement in which they do not have a dispute! As someone who performs marriage every year, this tradition has definitely been continued.

We also see on this page that what we think of today as “the tradition” was not always so – while today chicken is considered meat for kashrut [kosher] rules to separate milk and meat, it was not universally thought so, even among the Rabbis. Rabbi Jose the Galilean had ruled that since the rule in Deuteronomy 14 said to not boil a kid in its mother’s milk, and chickens do not produce milk, then they were not included in the rule. Thus in his district they ate milk with fowl! A traditionalist would say that the intervening centuries of rabbinic practice impose their own authority, but the cultural historian can point out that what was later is not necessarily what always was.

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Survey – Shabbat 126-129 (Sept. 5-8)

One always finds one’s enthusiasm for Talmudic ethics that resonate with a modern sensibility tempered by subsequent jarring passages. We read in a Mishnah text that one is allowed to move four or five baskets of straw or produce (but not the entire supply) to make room for guests or for students in the Beit Hamidrash [house of study], and in the Talmudic discussion as we shall see, it is an opening for a wonderful collection of sayings and traditions about hospitality. But before that we find detailed discussions of why the Mishnah says “four or five,” if four would be included if you allowed five? And why not the entire supply? Because you might be tempted to smooth out the depression left in the floor! And which is the bigger concern, carrying a heavier burden with fewer trips (thus minimizing the walking) or carrying lighter loads which would require more walking? All agree on less walking.

More interesting to us is the initial impulse – that one may behave specially, creating more space, for guests and for the Beit Midrash. Having juxtaposed the two, rabbis debate whether hakhnasat orkhim [welcoming guests/hospitality] is as great, or even greater, than attending or even being early to the Beit Midrash. And Rab Judah even goes so far as to claim that welcoming (human) guests is greater than receiving the face of the Divine Presence [shekhina]! They also list a number of ethical actions that are described as “a man eats the fruit of them in this world, and the core remains for him in the world to come” – while they meant that there would be a cosmic reward for them in the afterlife, in our vocabulary we might say, “they are their own reward.” These include hospitality, visiting the sick, early attendance at the Beit Midrash, and teaching one’s children to study. Others remember different actions described with the same phrase, including honoring one’s parents, gmilut hasadim [acts of loving-kindness], making peace between a person and his fellow, and above all studying Torah. We are struck by the prevalence of human-focused ethics and behavior, and if we think of “study Torah” as “study wisdom” as WE understand it, there is even more inspirational material here.

One of these principles, ha-dan et khavero l’kaf z’khut -“judging one’s neighbor by the standard of merit” – is explained by a few stories on page 127b. A man from upper Galilee traveled far away to work for another, and before Yom Kippur he wanted to go home to his family and asked for his wages. The employer said he could not pay him, neither in money or produce nor livestock nor material goods. So the employee went home upset (understandably). After the holiday the employer brought three fully-laden donkeys to the employee’s home in Galilee to pay him, and he asked what the employee thought. At every turn, the employee gave him the benefit of the doubt, or “judged him by the standard of merit” – assumed that there was a legitimate reason that his money or his livestock or his produce were tied up and unavailable. And so it was. The principle even applies to rabbis – when Rabbi Joshua went to a Roman noblewoman’s house, took off his tefillin [prayer boxes] four cubits away, went in and shut the door, then immediately upon leaving went to the mikvah [ritual purification bath], his students could have suspected him of sexual impropriety, but they again, as we say, “gave him the benefit of the doubt” and were praised. In our own cynical times, the importance of trust and optimism are worth reinforcing.

These discussion are much more interesting to our mind than the fact that salted meat may be moved on Shabbat but there is a debate about unsalted meat, or alternatively salted fish may be moved but not unsalted fish while both kinds of meat are allowed, and duck meat is fine because for the rabbis it was edible raw. It is cute that one may make calves or foals walk, and a mother is allowed to make her child walk, even in public, as long as he/she can lift up and put down her feet rather than drag them (or be dragged). And while one may not actively work on an animal in labor, one may assist by catching the newborn on the way out. For human beings, fortunately, a woman in labor can be delivered, one may run to fetch a midwife from a distance, one may break Shabbat to light her a lamp or carry oil from a neighboring house, the umbilical cord may be cut, and if the eighth day after a boy’s birth is Shabbat he may be circumcised. A clear principle in Rabbinic Judaism, reaffirmed here, is that sometimes life takes precedence over Shabbat – as one rabbi said, “where [a matter of] life is in doubt we are lenient.” For us our freedom is our life, and so we are "lenient" on more than only matters of life and death.

This opens up an anthropologically fascinating discussion of medical treatments for both women in labor and general invalids, since both may have Shabbat rules broken for them. The Talmudic rabbis were clearly subscribers to the theory that bloodletting was good for the health, even if a complete theory of bodily humors is not articulated. Some recommend eating meat before a bloodletting (life for life), while others suggest wine (red for red). They do suggest eating substantially, especially afterwards, an after-care treatment that makes logical sense to me even if the bloodletting itself doesn’t. And one should wait awhile before getting up, because one is closer to death than life if one gets up too quickly from: bloodletting, sleeping, eating, drinking and sex. You can let blood every 30 days, preferably on Sunday, Wednesday or Friday, but not if the Wednesday is the 4th, 14th, or 24th of the month because that could cause weakness or be dangerous. And Tuesdays are out because Mars [Ma’adim, from the root for “red” adom] rules the even hours, and it would be dangerous to bleed when the Red Planet is out. . .

For my tastes, the ethics are still very interesting, but the medicine has long since been left behind.

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Survey – Shabbat 121-125 (August 31-Sept. 4)

In all of the previous discussion of saving objects from a fire on Shabbat, we have not clarified the rabbinic reason behind ANY action that otherwise might have been forbidden. One is NOT authorized to carry away from a fire a tool that otherwise could not be handled on Shabbat because it is important to save the tool, as we might think. In fact, one may save certain kinds of property from a fire because a person might become agitated seeing the fire and put it out in order to save his property. And THAT would violate the Shabbat restriction on kindling or extinguishing a fire, so lest one violate that Shabbat prohibition, certain items might be saved from a fire. And if a child moves on impulse to put out the fire, they should be restrained because their observance of Shabbat is our obligation. While we might say that allowing a fire to burn unchecked is more of a problem than breaking Shabbat restrictions, the Talmud thought differently.

But an idea comes instantly to mind – what if a non-Jewish person [nokhri] could put out the fire? After all, as a Mishnah passage cited on Shabbat 121a mentions, “his resting is not our concern” [ayn sh’vitato aleyhen]. The Mishnah claims that we shouldn’t tell him to put it out or not, but the Talmud’s Rabbis offer a solution: one may announce in his hearing “kol ha’m’khabeh lo mafsid – whoever extinguishes will not lose (financially).” You can’t tell him to work, you can’t tell him not to work, but this language may follow the letter of the rule while allowing the problem to be solved.

Those familiar with the functioning of the Shabbes Goy (the Shabbat non-Jew) would expect that this would be the opening to allowing non-Jews to do all kinds of work for Jews, but in fact the Mishnah and Talmud in Shabbat 122a-b restrict it instead: As the Mishnah states clearly, if a non-Jew lights a lamp, draws water for his animal, or makes a ramp to descend from a ship for himself, a Jewish person may use it after him; but if he did any of those bishvil yisrael – expressly for the Jewish person – it is forbidden for the Jew to use them. And the Talmud adds: gathering fodder to feed animals, or using a bath immediately after the Sabbath in a town where the majority are Jews; if the majority are non-Jews, one can assume that the water was heated intended for their use instead. The light in particular is a classic example of what the proverbial Shabbes goy would do for a Jew, as long as the Jew asked obliquely like “if someone lit the lamp, they wouldn’t lose by doing so.” So while the original sources in Mishnah and Talmud would seem to have limited such a maneuver to emergencies (like a fire) as too clear of a violation of the spirit of the rules, later generations evidently felt more flexible to bend the rule even further.

The other major discussion in these pages concerns the handling of tools – may one handle them if their usual purpose would be forbidden, even if your intent is to use it for a permitted purpose? Well, yes and no. A blacksmith’s hammer can’t be used for crushing nuts (while a nut hammer can), but a needle may be used remove a thorn, even if it is a needle with an eye that could be used for sewing; as one Rabbi says, “what does it matter to the thorn if it has an eye or not?” In other words, that’s not the “business end” of the needle for this scenario! In fact, eventually just about all tools were allowed to be handled, as long as it wasn’t just moving a tool for a Shabbat-forbidden use just to use the space where it had been lying. As Abaye describes the process, first they allowed tools whose usual function was allowed if you were moving it to use it, then they allowed you to move those tools even if you only needed the space, then even to handle a tool generally for a Shabbat-forbidden use as long as you were using it. And at first one could only use one hand, but later even two hands were allowed. Raba adds that they added the intermediate step of allowing one to move an object from the sun to the shade before opening the door to moving even forbidden objects if one needed their place, and then allowing two people to move objects until finally they capitulated and said, “kol ha-kelim nitalin ba-shabbat - all tools may be handled on Shabbat”. There is plenty more discussion of this subject on these Talmud pages, like who allows what kind of objects to be moved for what purposes, but my guess is that that is enough of this subject for OUR purposes.

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation