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 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