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.

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