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.

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