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.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Survey – Eruvin 6-10 (October 11-15)

We recall from tractate Shabbat the complications of carrying objects from private to public space on Shabbat, a restriction which necessitates clear definitions of which is which. Before we saw the case of a closed alley; but what of an alley between two buildings that is open on both ends? The Talmud, following the tradition of Beit Hillel [the house of Hillel] settles on having a locked (or at least partially closed) door at one end and a side post and crossbeam – which suggests a doorway - at the other. And what of a crooked alley that has a bend? Rav was more strict and subject it to the rules of an open alley, while Samuel was more lenient and treated it like a closed alley. And there was even a crooked alley in Nehardea that was treated according to the rules of both – the bend was like a closed alley, but because the two side walls never met it was like an open one. And it also depends where the alley ends – does it end in a backyard or a courtyard (something that is or can be defined as private space), or does it end in an open field or a major road (obviously public space).

So what do you do if two authorities disagree? After all, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai are famous for their disagreements, yet while the Talmud asserts “halakha [religious law] is always according to Beit Hillel” [l’olam halakha k’beit Hillel], sometimes later authorities agree with Beit Shammai. The path suggested here is an interesting one: you may choose to follow EITHER Beit Shammai or Beit Hillel. But if you follow only the lenient rulings of both, you are wicked; and if you only follow the strict rulings of both, the Talmud quotes Ecclesiastes 2:14, “the fool walks in darkness”. Later discussion clarifies that this should apply when each authority uses the same reasoning to opposite conclusions – if they are not absolutely mutually contradictory, one may indeed choose the lenient rulings of both.

What if you have minor alleys branching off of a major alley like the legs of a centipede? What if one end of an alley is a rubbish heap and the other is the sea? Can one use the space under the crossbeam defining an alley as private space for other purposes outside of Shabbat private space demarcation, or must it be kept clear? Can the side post be visible from the outside but flush set in the wall from the inside view? These and other conditions are explored and debated, sometimes even within one Rabbi’s own memory: Rabbi Joseph, who lost his memory, says, “I did not hear this teaching.” And Abaye reminds him, “We learned this from you!” There is even a short debate between a width measurement: two fingers or one and a half fingers? These pages are an example of Talmud that is less relevant to modern liberal Judaism, even if we could theoretically explore the legal discussion for mental exercise.

The one detail of this discussion to note is the need for spatial relations to fully appreciate the discussion. In the tradition of Gardner’s “multiple intelligences,” Talmudic culture is often considered to be a verbal culture – prizing ability in words instead of graphic art or mathematics. Reading these discussions of architecture, however, we see that spatial intelligence would have been a real asset in these particular discussions. And while we don’t have records of sketches they could have drawn, an “illustrated Talmud” from that period when books copied by hand would have been too much to ask.

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation