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.

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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, October 24, 2005

Survey – Eruvin 16-20 (October 21-25)

Gentle reader, please recall that while we search for valuable ethical insight, part of the “Not Your Father’s Talmud” blog project is to explore the thought process of those generations who created and studied the Talmud, even if the subject is less than immediately relevant to our own lifestyle. Today’s survey has some of both.

Our previous discussions of permissible carrying on Shabbat were in urban settings – alleys, streets and buildings. This selection begins with a discussion of a caravan stopped for Shabbat – a very common situation for Jewish merchants in this period, if not for the present day outside of summer camps. The Mishnah says that you can define a permissible space [eruv] by encamping in a valley and surrounding the camp with kley b’heyma [“tools of beasts” – as the Talmud clarifies, saddles, saddlebags, saddle cushions, etc.]. However, the gaps between the objects defining the “fence” must be less than 10 cubits (15 feet), so they can be treated like a doorway, and the gaps between the piles must not be wider than the piles themselves. But what if the gaps are exactly EQUAL, asks the Talmud? Predictably, one rabbi says “OK” and another says “no way.” This question of gaps versus built-up partitions also bears on defining private space in cities, alleys, and courtyards as well, but the caravan setting is used to try to clarify the issue.

It turns out that a caravan camp could also surround itself with 3 ropes with the highest 3 feet high (a horizontal boundary), or by reeds placed in the ground (vertical) – either horizontal or vertical partition markers with limited gaps between individual markers, but both were not required by the Sages even if particular rabbis disagreed. We recall the debate about marking a narrow alley by either a side-post or a crossbeam, or sometimes needing both, as a parallel discussion. In this case, the limit of space that can be enclosed with a partial partition is, for an individual or two, two beit seah – the space it would take to sow a seah of seed, or approximately 50 x 50 handsbreadths [amot]. And for the Talmud “three’s a caravan” that enables them to enclose six beit seah in such a manner, though others claim they can take as much space as they need as long as there are not two beit seah unoccupied by people or objects.

So here comes the Talmudic genius for hypotheticals – what if three people have defined a space of six beit seah for Shabbat, and then one of them dies? Or if there were two who wrongly defined a space of six beit seah and a third arrives (by camel or birth)? Rabbi Huna and Rabbi Isaac disagree: one claims that the way it was defined to start Shabbat matters more, while the other holds that the number of people is more important. Interestingly, the Talmud is not sure which Rabbi held which position, and it has to bring another anecdote of Rabbi Huna allowing someone to continue to use an eruv defined by a door that was later blocked up to be sure that he is the former and Rabbi Isaac the latter. This debate parallels one between Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Jose in the Mishnaic period – the former was permissive and would allow one to continue to use an eruv even if the marker fell down for that one Shabbat but no more, while the latter wanted to be more consistent and said, “what they can do on this Shabbat they can do in the future, and what they can’t do in the future they can’t do now.” By virtue of his authority, we can know that Rabbi Judah, the nasi [head of the Rabbis] of his generation and the likely compiler of the Mishnah, holds the accepted ruling, though the Talmud text itself gives absolutely no indication!

The next example is even more hypothetical – the Shabbat obligations from which Jewish soldiers are exempt in their camps, including the eruv. For a people without their own national army for 70 years by the time of the Mishnah and centuries by the compilation of the Talmud, this is imaginary indeed! There are variations if they are in a milkhemet reshut – an “optional war” as decreed by a king as opposed to the milkhemet mitzvah – a war commanded by God himself like the destruction of the Canaanites decreed in Deuteronomy. Not only can soldiers camp in any place, they may be buried where they fall – the only others entitled to this are the dead with no relatives to bury them who become a met mitzvah [death of commandment], which enjoins anyone, even a priest, to bury them immediately where they lie. They and the poor can also eat demai, produce from which one suspects tithes have not been taken. How often this ruling applied to situations in the Talmudic period is certainly dubious.

The most interesting passages in this selection uses the Mishnah discussion of how to define a well as private space for Shabbat as a launching pad for an extensive midrash [creative interpretation] on the Garden of Eden and the creation of humanity. Rabbi Jeremiah ben Eleazar, in the first of a series of sayings introduced by the cryptic mnemonic “two, under a ban, praise, dove, house, two, was cursed, by a relationship, three” that indicates earlier oral recitation, suggests that Adam, the first human, had a face on either side (like the Roman god Janus). Why? Because in Psalm 139:5 God is praised for having shaped man akhor va-kedem – in back and in front. Does this mean a full face, or perhaps a tail that was removed later? In support of the full-face explanation, Genesis 1 claims “male and female he created them”, but in support of the tail tale, in Genesis 2 God “built” what he removed from Adam into Eve – as the Talmud says, in the shape of a storehouse: wide at the bottom and narrow on top in order to hold the “fruit.”

Some modern Jewish feminists have looked at this simultaneous, two-face creation as a support for gender equality, but leave it to the Talmud to undercut that modern value right away: if there were two faces, which walked face-first? Of course the man, because “no man should walk on a road behind a woman, even if she’s his wife.” It must be the temptations of the view, but evidently women can't be so tempted. And anyone who crosses a bridge after a married woman or counts out money to her hand directly in order to see her face will be eternally condemned even if he is otherwise as holy as Moshe Rabbenu [our teacher Moses]. Walking behind a woman is not as bad as following an idol or (the worst) walking past a synagogue while the congregation is praying – a “sin” committed by a large majority of Jews every day of the week!

Most of the rest of Rabbi Jeremiah’s sayings are affirmations of the virtues and rewards of piety, and vice versa for vice – Gehenna [Hell] for the wicked and Gan Eden [Garden of Eden] for the righteous. For a tradition that some believe has no afterlife, Eruvin 19a has a lot of speculation on Hell – where its three gates are, what its seven names are (including eretz ha-takhtit – “the under-world.”), and whether wicked Jews would likely repent while wicked ovdei kokhavim [idol worshippers – literally “servants of stars”] would not. Rather than, as the Talmud does, dive back in to the minutia of how to define a well as private space for Shabbat and what happens to that partition if the water dries up, or how much of a person or cow needs to be in the private space to be allowed to drink, let’s end on this note of “hope” instead!

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation