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.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Survey – Shabbat 151-157 (Sept. 30-Oct. 6)

It’s been said that death never takes a holiday, and it certainly doesn’t check with our schedules for convenience. Much like its other rules on Shabbat concerning non-Jews, the Mishnah allows Jews to use graves or coffins made by non-Jews on Shabbat as long as they were made for the non-Jew, and not directly for the Jew. While there is no way to be sure that the coffin-maker’s intent was NOT to sell it to a Jew, the presence of doubt creates permission. But it may well be the case that a Jew dies on Shabbat, and what to do then? We of later generations know that Jewish funerals do not take place on Shabbat, but whence that tradition?

One is allowed within limits to prepare the body: to anoint with oil, to remove the pillow, tie the jaw so it opens no further (but not closed), even place the body in sand to help it keep until the funeral. The Talmud adds one can place a vessel on the stomach to stop swelling, and stop up the bodily openings to prevent air from entering. But one may not close the eyes on Shabbat, and the Mishnah goes on to say that one may not close the eyes someone is about to die – one who does so “sheds blood,” like a lamp about to go out that is nevertheless extinguished. In other words, one is not allowed to hasten even an imminent death, according to Talmudic ethics. So what to do if someone dies on Shabbat with their eyes open? Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel recommends blowing wine in his nostrils, putting oil between his eyes and holding his big toes; and the eyes should close themselves. Honestly, I have no idea if this works or not.

This discussion is an opportunity for the Talmudic rabbis to explore the nature of the aging experience before natural death. Through their commentaries on Biblical verses, they claim that becoming old includes: forehead and nose droop, eyes are made weaker from weeping (unlike before age 40), arms and legs tremble, teeth vanish (“the grinders do not grind”), lips become slack, and one is bent over as if looking for something that has not been lost. Two legs become three (with a stick for walking), digestion becomes difficult, even a bird can wake one from sleep but singing voices sound like a whisper. The smallest bump seems like a mountain, and even walking on a flat road is scary. Opinions can change, and the wise may become wiser but the ignorant even more foolish, but the passions fade. These “interpretations” really derive from experience, and thus their connection with Biblical text is all the more clever.

The overall approach to death on Shabbat is stated succinctly by the same rabbi: “For an infant a day old the Sabbath is desecrated; for David, King of Israel, dead, the Sabbath is not desecrated.” There are two senses here in which the living are better than the dead. Why is the smallest of the small of the living greater than the great among the dead in this case? Because one violates one Shabbat so that many may be observed, but the dead are free of mitzvot [commandments]. And one need not guard a baby against being eaten by a mouse, but the body of a dead giant like Og king of Bashan needs guarding.

So what happens after death, according to the Talmud? For all of the protestations one might have heard that “Jews don’t have an afterlife,” it’s just not true as these pages demonstrate. Worms pain the dead as a needle would hurt the living, and one’s own soul mourns for 7 days after one’s death. The dead can hear all said in their presence until the grave is closed, or until the flesh rots away. The body returns to dust (a la Genesis: from dust you came and to dust you return), but the spirit [ruakh] lives on and is delivered to “Dumah,” the angel of the deceased: the righteous have rest under the Throne of Glory [kisay ha-kavod], while the wicked suffer and are thrown about the world. The bones of the righteous do not rot like those of the wicked until just before the resurrection of the dead. For the first 12 months, the body exists and the soul can go up or down, but after 12 months the soul ascends and never returns. And Rab claims that you can know if a person will be part of ha-olam ha-ba [the world to come] by the funeral eulogy – if one is moved, that’s a good sign. And you should plan to repent one day before your death. Who knows when they will die, respond the students? All the more reason to repent today, replied Rabbi Eliezer. We might say, live life to the fullest each day because who knows?

What if Shabbat takes you by surprise, while you are still on the road? In a concession to reality, the Rabbis allow someone to pass his wallet (or anything of value he finds BEFORE Shabbat) to a non-Jew, even though that’s asking him to carry on Shabbat – it was proven to the Rabbis through experience that people can’t restrain themselves when it comes to money, and if you don’t allow this they themselves will carry it over 4 cubits in public space! If there is no non-Jew present, you can put it on a donkey even though the donkey is supposed to be resting on Shabbat too (see Exodus 20). If the choice is between a donkey and an imbecile, deaf-mute or minor, choose the donkey because it is not human, but if no donkey is there the imbecile should carry it; and predictably there is a debate over priority between the deaf-mute and minor! And what if one is alone? The Sages had a secret: one CAN carry it, but in increments of less than 4 cubits, broken by a pause; and they didn’t start with that because it was both the worst and the easiest of the alternatives. We can accept the pedagogic value of that approach.

The case of the laden animal provokes more lengthy debate – the Mishnah says that for objects that can’t be handled on Shabbat, one should untie the cord so they slide off. The Talmud clarifies that if they would break, pillows may be brought to cushion the fall. So what of Rabban Gamliel? His ass was laden with honey, and he would not unload it on Shabbat so it went rancid, at which point it was only good for dressing camel sores. If he untied the cords, the containers would have broken; if he brought pillows, they would have been stained and no longer useful. And the animal’s suffering [tsa’ar ba’aley khayim] under the load for a full day? Well, says the Talmud, that’s only de-rabanan [a rabbinical rule]. . .Nevertheless, care for animals is important, even on Shabbat. Animals not only rest but may be fed on Shabbat from big quantities (even untying sheaves), but not by undoing small bundles because that would mean more work for the human than minimally required – you can make fodder, but don’t make a big deal out of it, so pour water on bran but don’t stir it. We may be shocked to read that one may not force-feed calves but may do so to birds, until we remember that we still eat food from force-fed fowl.

Even though tractate Shabbat ends on 157b with a discussion of the details of closing a skylight, the major discussion on 156a-b is much more interesting – do horoscopes apply to Jews? Rabbi Joshua ben Levi speculates that one born on the first day of the week (i.e. Sunday) will be without “one thing” – the Talmud elaborates to “completely wicked or completely righteous” because light and darkness were created on the first day (Genesis 1). He goes on to give “horoscopes” for each day, but he disobeys the rule of newspaper horoscopes: always say something nice so people identify with it, because who wants a horoscope like this?
- Born Monday: bad-tempered, because then the waters were divided.
- Tuesday: wealthy and unchaste, because plants which multiply rapidly and intermingle were created on day 3.
- Wednesday: wise and with a good memory, because the Sun and Moon were made on day 4.
- Thursday: generous, because animals who live on divine generosity were made on day 5.
- Friday/erev Shabbat: will be a seeker, one says, a seeker after good deeds.
And one born on Shabbat will die on Shabbat, since the great day of Shabbat was desecrated because of him. Another Rabbi disagrees, claiming that the mazal [fortune or constellation] of the hour is more important: under the influence of the sun, distinguished with no secrets but thus an unsuccessful thief; under Venus, wealthy but unchaste; under Mercury, wise with a good memory; under the moon, he will suffer destroying and rebuilding (like the moon) but will have secrets and can be a successful thief; under Mars, he will shed blood - as a surgeon, a thief, or a mohel [circumciser]; and so on.

But do Jews believe in horoscopes, in fortunes, in constellations, you might ask? What about the absolute Biblical prohibitions on worshipping the tseva ha-shamayim [the army of heaven, i.e. the stars]? In the classic rabbinic style, you are also right – what follows in the Talmud is a long series of Rabbis who decree ayn mazal l’yisrael – the constellations have no power over Israel. Yochanan and Rab each bring their own prooftext or midrash [creative interpretation] to prove it; Samuel and Akiva have personal narratives where Jews do charity and avoid their “cosmologically-fated” death, and they teach tsedaka metzil mi’mavet [charity saves from death].

But the final anecdote is the most important for us: Rabbi Nahman b. Isaac’s mother was told by a fortune that her son would be a thief, so she made sure to cover his head to ensure his piety. It failed and he ate someone else’s dates right off of the tree, but the point for us is the anthropological evidence that wearing a headcovering (kippah) was NOT expected of everyone; in fact, it was imposed here to try to make someone with wicked tendencies more pious. Thus those who choose not to wear one today are actually going back to earlier Jewish practice. And that’s an important part of the Not Your Father’s Talmud blog project – to find these details of evidence for the way life was to inspire the way life is today.

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation