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.

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!”