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: