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.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Survey – Eruvin 21-25 (October 26-30)

In my experience, I have found two teaching styles effective in their own way. One is to be organized, systematic, logical, and structured; the second is to meander in interesting ways, covering the topic at hand but not feeling constrained by outlines or agendae. The risk of the former is that structure can take precedence over interesting content, and the risk of the latter is tangential topics that are uninteresting or cause us to lose the forest (the main topic) for the trees. The Talmud is definitely an example of the second pedagogy, both its positive and negative sides.

This survey begins with a continuation of the previous pages’ discussion of the rules of using a well on Shabbat by defining it temporarily as a private space in the midst of public space. But it soon leaps from a saying of Rabbi Hisda on topic to Rabbi Hisda’s memories of other Rabbis explaining passages from the Hebrew Bible as referring to the righteous and the wicked. Israel are of course synonymous with “the righteous,” for they follow the law and then some. The young men have never tasted sin, and the women tell their husbands they are menstrually impure, or even shut them out for that time, just to be sure – reading “new and old, which I have laid up for you, my beloved” in Song of Songs 7:14, “old” must refer to the Torah commandments, while “new” must refer to those of the sofrim [scribes], or the rest of the Hebrew Bible. One Rabbi understands the Song of Songs line to mean Israel saying to God, “I have decreed many more decrees upon myself than you did, and I have kept them.” Who would have thought that in the game of ‘holier than thou,’ the Talmud would try to best God? Another rabbi considers “new” to be kalot [easy/minor] and “old” to be khamorot [difficult or major], but another encourages you to be MORE careful with rules of the sofrim than the Torah! Rebuttal: if they were so important, why weren’t they in the Torah? Answer: Solomon already clarified his earlier passage from Song of Songs in his later writing in Ecclesiastes 12: “of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

You would think that this last phrase would be a problem for rabbis who proclaim the virtue of endless study, but not so: by tweaking pronunciation and making puns, they interpret the last clause to mean that those who scoff at the sages are boiled in excrement, or that those who study much feel the taste of meat like a rich man. Rabbi Akiva might have followed the first interpretation: an anecdote relates that while in prison he was brought very little water: not enough to ritually wash his hands nor enough to drink, and he refused to eat until he could wash his hands because better to die than to disregard the sages’ rulings. Because these prooftexts come from works traditionally thought to have been written by Solomon, this is an opportunity for the Talmud to leap in that direction.

Because the Bible describes Solomon as very wise, rabbis two millennia after Solomon supposedly lived assumed he was wise in rabbinic law as well – they claim Solomon was the one who invented the concept of the eruv and the washing of hands before eating (also a connection between the Akiva story and the Talmud tractate). ‘Ulla remembers Rabbi Eliezer saying that the Torah was like a basket with no handles before Solomon gave his explanations. And the Song of Songs which he allegedly wrote in his youth can’t really be a beautiful love poem; it must be an allegory for Israel’s love of God. Watch how they explore Song of Songs 7:12-13 – a great example of rabbinic midrash [creative explanation] if not a good model for calling a spade a spade:

Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the field; let us lodge in the villages. Let us go early to the vineyards; let us see if the vine has flowered, if the grape blossoms have opened, if the pomegranates are in bloom; there will I give you my loves.

“Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the field;” – Israel said to God, “don’t judge us like urban criminals who lie and rob.” And “going to the field” means “let me show you the scholars enduring poverty to study Torah.
“let us lodge in the villages.” – The Hebrew for “villages” can be tweaked into “disbelievers”, so compare us to those who receive your generosity and despise you.
“Let us go early to the vineyards;” – that is, the batei k’nesiot (synagogues) and batei midrashot [houses of study].
“let us see if the vine has flowered,” – that is, the masters of Scripture [ba’alei mikra].
“if the grape blossoms have opened,” – masters of repeating the early rabbinic tradition [ba’alei mishnah].
“if the pomegranates are in bloom;” – masters of contemporary rabbinic debate [ba’alei gemara].
“there will I give you my loves.” – I will reveal My greatness and glory to you.

This is beautiful love poetry made into religious doctrine by the power of interpretation. And largely unrelated to Shabbat observance, for those who recall the ostensible focus of Eruvin.

When the Talmud returns to that discussion, we read that the mekhitzot [partitions] defining a private space to permit certain actions Shabbat can even overcome a public road running through them! It also turns out that according to Rabbi Yokhanan, in the land of Israel one may carry in a public space on Shabbat with no guilt, so this entire discussion doesn’t apply there - another example of the Diaspora setting for the creation of the Babylonian Talmud. And, as we have seen before, one may have different definitions for different issues – just as the minimum distance may differ for planting different seeds vs. the space between mekhitzot, so the same space (like an alley that ends in a cave) may be considered private space for Shabbat but public space for t’umah [ritual impurity]. Even a public road may be considered private if it so is narrow and difficult to travel that the general public would not use generally it. While the level of detail explored here may seem excessive, it is impressive to see so many hypotheticals and conditions brought to bear on the discussion.

We alluded to courtyards earlier, and by Eruvin 23a the Mishnah has moved on to discussing privately-enclosed spaces, which can actually be as large as seventy square cubits (approx. 150 square ft.). Rabbi Ila’i remembers Rabbi Eliezer saying it could be as large as a beit kor (space to sow a kor of seeds, or about 17,000 square meters), but when he went back to all his students to confirm his memory [bakashti li khaver – literally “looked for a friend for me’], he was unable to do so. We do find here that a beit se’ah [space to sow a se’ah of seed] is 50 x 50 cubits (approx 580 square meters) in the context of defining the maximum size of a karpaf [enclosure] behind a house that can be considered private space – if it’s larger than that, even if it has walls it’s not completely private space for Shabbat carrying. One rabbi even contemplated the following: a mansion adjoined an orchard, and when a wall of the house fell the three remaining walls could be imagined to enclose the orchard for Shabbat! But he is corrected: those walls were made for the inside, not the outside. But points from me for trying to make the best of a bad situation.

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation