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.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Survey – Eruvin 51-55 (November 25-29)

Life is hardly convenient, and we are forever busy. Thus it is entirely conceivable, in our day or in the days of the Talmud, that one could find oneself at some distance from their home as Shabbat was about to begin. If one cares to follow the rules, is there any way to make it home without traveling beyond the limit permissible? Indeed, even the Mishnah envisioned this possibility – if a person knows of a specific tree, he can claim to make his Shabbat base [shevita] under that tree, and thus can walk the allowed 2000 cubits to the tree, and another 2000 cubits to his home. A legal fiction, of course, since my guess is that he never plans to go BACK to that tree during Shabbat, but a fiction with the object of getting home for Shabbat at least makes some kind of sense.

It is the Talmud’s task, however to explain the peculiarities of that legal fiction. Raba claims it only applies if you can run and reach that root before Shabbat begins, even if evening would hit before you reached home. And can you rely on some ELSE knowing of a specific tree? Rabbi Yosef in this case lies to Rabbah, claiming that Rabbi Yose taught that one may rely on another’s knowledge. Even though Yosef says “s’mokh alie – trust me,” the Talmud confesses that he claimed Yose said it so Rabbah would agree with him, not because it was true! The ethics of this “well-intentioned falsehood” are not probed by the Talmud, and the status of the ruling itself is up in the air – if Rabbi Yose didn’t teach it, does that mean it’s still halakha [law] by someone else, or is the very ruling not really true? The pious would at least attribute it to Rabbi Yosef, but we might disqualify him for reverse plagiarism, or what scholars sometimes refer to as pseudepigraphy – claiming a citation to an older authority for his own original work!

In a classic Talmudic question, we are asked “where did the figure of 2000 cubits come from?” And in classic Talmudic style, the answer makes no logical sense: by a series of gezerah shavah [shared language], Rabbi Hisda connects in sequence Exodus 16:29 to Exodus 21:13 (both have the word “place”), then that verse to Numbers 35:26 (both have “flee”), then that verse to Numbers 35:27 (both have “border”), then that verse to Numbers 35:5 (both have “outside”) – the last verse specifies the open space around cities at 2000 cubits. There are, of course, plenty of other verses that use the same words (“place” is pretty common!), so the kind of reasoning WE would accept is again absent. Another reminder that Talmudic “logic” can appropriately be put in scare quotes.

We also find a common feature of life in every age that unfortunately is hard to change: the fact that rules for rich and poor are different. The subject here is defining an eruv (Sabbath border marker) with one’s feet or with bread – the poor perhaps could not afford to use bread, while it would inconvenience the rich to require them to walk out when they could send a servant with bread they could easily afford. Rabbi Meir claims the essence [ikar] of an eruv is bread, and thus relax the rule for the poor to let them use their feet, while Rabbi Judah says the essence of the eruv is one’s feet, but only a poor man could make a breadless eruv. And while Judah wants both rich and poor to define an eruv with their feet, other Sages are more generous to the rich, allowing a servant to set it and requiring bread from a poor person at home, assuming they will have enough. Credit for egalitarian impulses, deduction for problematic execution.

So far we have considered the cases of people punctilious in their observance of the law. What of someone who forgets to make such a declaration? Or someone who goes beyond their own prescribed border? In the latter case, the Mishnah would ban anyone going even one cubit (1.5 feet) beyond from returning, while others have a greater margin of error. And (you can almost predict it), the Talmud asks, “what about the person who has one foot on one side of the border and another on the other?” In addition to wanting to smack that person, it turns out it takes two feet to place one outside the point of no return. What if darkness fell when just outside the border? Again, the Mishnah is unforgiving, but Rabbi Simeon is generous, giving a 15 cubit margin of error for “hato’in – those who make mistakes.”

As the Mishnah goes on to discussing how to set a tekhom [boundary] around a town and what shape they should be, the Talmud instead goes off on another midrashic [homiletical] tangent to explain a few unusual places, names and incidents in the Torah; for example, does the new king that did not know Joseph at the beginning of the book of Exodus mean a new king or the old king who made new decrees as if he didn’t know Joseph? Archaeologists might actually have a third answer: a native Egypt king who rebelled and rejected the Hyksos kings and their fellow Semites. But a topic for another class, or for a commentary on the Torah rather than the Talmud.

We also learn that Rabbi Oshaia Beribi was a profound teacher – they would crowd closely in 8 students per cubit to learn from him, and like Rabbi Meir lo yokhlu haverav la’amod al sof da’ato – he was above and beyond his generation [literally “his colleagues could not stand at the end of his understanding”]. And again, we see the principle that earlier generations were greater, and this generation is terrible: their hearts were as wide as the Temple, and ours are like a thin needle; compared to them, for us debating is very difficult, our sabara [logical argument] is weak like a finger that can’t break wax, and we forget as easily as a finger fits in a large hole. And this from a generation that could quote the Hebrew Bible line and verse from memory, though they couldn’t cure an infection. We today have used our brains differently, but we have also learned that the intellectual achievements of yesterday are not always greater or more important than those since.

The most interesting section of this Talmud selection concerns the keys to good learning – what the b’nai yehuda [Judeans] did right and the b’nai galil [Galileans] did wrong. The Judeans cared for or were exact in their language and made simna [mnemonics], learned from one teacher, and made their learning public. And the Galileans did the opposite on everything; for example slurring their speech so people couldn’t know if they wanted ‘amar (wool), imar (a lamb), hamor (an ass) or hamar (wine). Of course, when asked to clarify the correct spelling of certain words in dispute, some Judeans said one while the other said the other! However, some others are smart by creating double meanings or speaking enigmatically, as other examples attest.

We also read a great story by Rabbi Joshua ben Hanina, a great sage who admits that he was only defeated in argument 3 times: by a woman, by a little boy, and by a little girl. Staying in an inn, he ate all the beans the hostess gave him the first two days, but when she over-salted them the third he claimed to have eaten earlier. She pointed out he still ate the bread, and that the sages have said one should leave none in the pot but a little on the plate. The little girl caught him “illegally” crossing a field on a path clearly made illegitimately. And when Joshua asked a little boy which of two roads to take to get to town, he was told “one is short but long, and the other is long but short.” Taking the first, Joshua found his way blocked, and came back to complain that the boy told him that that route was short. The boy answered “I also said it’s long. . .” and got a kiss on the head for his cleverness. And in the spirit of unexpected cleverness, we also see series of anecdotes about Beruriah, the very clever and learned wife of Rabbi Meir. She corrected Rabbi Jose the Galilean when he asked her in too many words how to get to Lydda, and a student who studied too quietly.

When should one study Torah? Why all the time of course, says Rabbi Joshua ben Levi. When traveling by yourself, or feeling pain in your head or throat or bowels or bones or even the entire body – because, like a universal magic potion, the Rabbis believed Torah study could fix everything. And that’s why so much space here and throughout the Talmud is spent on trying to get the exact meaning behind every word, phrase and verse; even if our way of understanding text, history, and authorial intent are light years away. And how do they claim to have gotten it right? They explain in Eruvin 54b that Moses received it from God, taught it to Aaron, then to Aaron’s two sons in his hearing, then the elders > thus Aaron heard it 4 times, so you can know what YOU received from your tradition is true too; so goes the traditional argument. We might dryly say the same about believing the world to be flat. This is the model for traditional learning: repeat, teach until the student has mastered it (even 400 times!), use mnemonics, study at fixed times, and be humble in your knowledge.

Finally, finally, we return to towns and Sabbath borders. But after this excursion, do we really want to get back to small details instead of great visions, idealism, pedagogy and anecdotes?

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Survey – Eruvin 46-50

We have seen many previous examples of the Talmud recording both sides of an argument, often without a clear ruling as to what the final halakha [Jewish religious law] is. Over the course of 1000 years of rabbinic argument, there was a constant creative tension between legal code and legal discussion – a legal code (like the mid-1500s Shulkhan Arukh [set table] by Rabbi Joseph Caro or Maimonides’ earlier Mishneh Torah) states clearly and simply the halakha for each topic, while legal discussion explores hypotheticals, alternate rulings, and other possibilities. So one generation would want a clear statement of halakha, while the next wanted more discussion, and so on. The Talmud is clearly a case of legal discussion, and in our current selection we finally get some rules of thumb when it comes to resolving disputes between authorities.

The first case they consider is the difference between two individual rabbis with conflicting rulings and one rabbi who disagrees with several of his khaverim [colleagues – literally “friends”]. You can imagine that it would take extraordinary circumstances for one to prevail against many, and indeed that is the case. For example, Rabbi Akiva disagrees with the khakhamim [sages] for what to do when one hears a report of the death of a close relative – if the news arrives after 30 days after the death, Akiva says one need only mourn one day, while the sages say the full seven strict and 30 semi-strict mourning days must be observed from the point the news is received. It turns out that the halakha follows Akiva, for another sage gives the general rule: whenever you find a case where an individual rabbi is permissive and several are restrictive, the halakha follows the many EXCEPT for this case with Akiva! But the Talmud claims immediately that this is the only exception, based on another general rule that halakha follows more lenient rules in mourning – by and large, yekhid bamakom rabim [one versus many] follows the rabim.

And what of the many cases where it is yekhid bamakom yekhid/one on one? Here Rabbi Jacob and Rabbi Zerika, and then Rabbi Johanan and Rabbi Assi, finally come to the rescue. Here is the simplest form of the discussion, in the format of a single-elimination tournament – those familiar with the 1990s band “They Might Be Giants” will recognize the pattern too!*

Rabbi Akiva versus any one other colleague – Akiva wins
Rabbi Yose versus several of his colleagues at once – Yose wins
Rabbi (i.e. Rabbi Judah) versus any one other colleague – Rabbi wins

Rabbi Meir versus Rabbi Judah – Judah wins
Rabbi Judah versus Rabbi Yose – Yose wins
Rabbi Simeon versus Rabbi Judah – Judah wins

And, the Talmud says, no need to say explicitly that Meir or Simeon lose badly to Yose by the transitive power of halakhic superiority! And what is Rabbi Simeon goes up against Rabbi Meir in the “consolation match?” Teku – it remains undecided. There is some debate as to how strictly these general rules were meant – for usual halakhic decisions, or to incline the judgment in that direction, or merely to say it’s acceptable to end up that way? Nevertheless, this general road map to the halakha is very useful!

However, Rabbi Mesharyeha tries to throw a wrench in the works, claiming that these “matchups” should be disregarded. And the next full daf [page] is consumed trying to find on what that ruling was based (again you see the creative tension between simple rule and reasoning/argument behind it). Possible supports range from examples in the Mishnah text currently under discussion to many others; e.g., Rabbi Simeon’s ruling defeats Rabbi Judah’s in the case of an eruv for three intersecting courtyards. Or take the case of a person out of his house on Shabbat affecting the eruv of the courtyard he shares with others: Rabbi Meir says it affects the others, Rabbi Judah says it doesn’t, Rabbi Jose says it affects them if he’s not Jewish (and could be expected to return even on Shabbat) but not if he’s Jewish (and wouldn’t be expected to break the rules), and Rabbi Simeon says even if he stays in town but goes to his daughter’s house, he’s not expected to return so he doesn’t affect his courtyard neighbors. And Rabbi Simeon sets the halakha! And so on for many examples – but to each example, the Talmud offers this rebuttal: “mai kushiya? Dilma: heikha d’itmar, itmar; heikha d’lo itmar, lo itmar – What’s the difficulty? Perhaps if it’s said it’s said, but if not said it’s not said.” In other words, if an exception to the general rule of “who beats whom” is stated in the tradition, then we follow that; but if not stated, why not use our new guidelines?

The opposite kind of proof is also tried – in cases of conflicts between individual rabbis, examples where they DO follow the pattern of “who beats whom” and explicitly say “the halakha follow Rabbi X” might disprove the general guideline; after all, why would they have to say explicitly “the halakha follows Rabbi X” if everyone knows it does? And these cases are much further afield – whether one can make a man wait 3 months to marry certain kinds of women after their husbands die, or whether one can risk defilement by going to non-Jewish fairs, courts, or other areas to do business or to study Torah. In the end, the most the Talmud admits to Rabbi Mesharyeha is that these general guidelines were not universally approved, since Rab disagreed. But I have to admit, there seemed to be plenty of examples to disprove the rule – how many exceptions to a guideline constitute a problem? We might even be more interested in the anthropological details of which kind of widows were more problematic, or details of contacts between Jew and non-Jew, like the cases of Jews borrowing objects from non-Jews over Shabbat or festivals, or a non-Jew returning something on Shabbat previously borrowed from a Jew, that are turned to next.

Finally, we arrive at the core of our discussion – the few cubits allowed to a person who has found himself BEYOND the Shabbat limit. While I mentioned above that a cubit [amah] is about 18 inches, technically a cubit is the distance between one’s elbow and middle finger. So Rabbi Mesharyeha astutely asks his son to ask Rabbi Pappa whether one should use their own arm or the standard amah for sacred objects? And what about the legendary giant Og of Bashan – did he get an extra advantage? Pappa’s response is priceless: “if we were so exact, we’d never get anywhere – always use your own arm!”

And what of two people who find themselves next to each other – can they treat each other’s 4 amot [6 feet] like a common courtyard, giving them more room to move? A series of rabbis compare this example to intersecting courtyards, courtyards and alleys, and so on, but we also find a general discussion of the principle underlying the very institution of the eruv itself – is it kinyan [acquisition of property], so the residents around a shared courtyard become joint owners of everything, or is it dira [residence], since people depend on food so where food is placed they can all be considered to be living? The practical question is whether one may use an object or only food to define an eruv, but it is fascinating that what the basis is for the very institution in this tractate is not fully clarified – we haven’t been told who wins between Samuel and Rabbah.

The issue that will consume our next selection is begun at the end of this one – what if someone is approaching their home as night falls on a Friday evening but is still about 4000 cubits away, and they know of a particular tree or wall; can they say “my eruv is placed there” and thus be able to get to their house even though Shabbat has already begun? Points for cleverness, but you have to have a very specific 4 cubit space in mind for this to work; if you’re not specific, “lo amar kloom – [it’s as if] he said nothing.” We also learn from the Mishnah, without discussion from the Talmud, that Rabbi Judah said that both rich and poor could define an eruv by their feet (b’raglav), but that the Rabbis were nice to the rich man who could afford an eruv loaf of bread so he didn’t have to personally go out with his feet at sundown. Isn’t that generous to the rich – rather than make both face the same rule, here the rich get an advantage. Just goes to show that even rabbis are not immune to making life easier for those who already have it easy. I prefer the line from E.K. Hornbeck in Inherit the Wind: “my job is to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.”

Rabbi Adam Chalom

* See the lyrics to “Particle Man” from the album Flood to get the reference. E.g. at

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Survey – Eruvin 41-45 (November 15-19)

In any document of law, whether is be a Constitution or a Talmud, there is always a balance to be struck between restriction and freedom – when does the individual have autonomy, and when are they told to stop. We have already seen debates over whether to apply a lenient or restrictive ruling to various issues concerning eruvim, but this tension is highlighted in particular in our current survey selection.

The survey begins with the continuation of an issue raised at the end of the last one – what to do if two religious duties conflict when two holy days are adjacent or even the same day. Unlike the previous example, which was a case of multiple positive celebrations, what is one to do if Tisha B’Av, the solemn fast day the Rabbis created to commemorate the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, happens to fall on or adjacent to Shabbat? If the fast was the day before and ended at sundown the moment Shabbat began, one would “enter Shabbat afflicted,” so one must eat food k’baytsa [the size of an egg] before sundown. If right after Shabbat, one must cut short the Sabbath seudah shli’sheet [third meal] to begin the fast. But if they are on the same day, okhel v’shoteh kol sheh-tsarkho – one should eat and drink as needed, even to make a feast like King Solomon.

Similarly, according to Rabban Gamliel, the head of the Sanhedrin, and others, one may not impose a fast on new moons, Hanukkah and Purim. We would prefer that, when push comes to shove, life and celebration are more important than restrictions, mourning and death. Indeed, later we read that anyone who crosses a Shabbat boundary to save a life or for other positive religious duties, even as far as 2000 cubits [3000 feet], may return without additional restriction. But that is not always the resolution - a second kind of restriction addressed here concerns the present and the past – after the death of Rabban Gamliel, his long-time rival Rabbi Joshua tried to reverse the above ruling about fasts and festivals, but the Sanhedrin rejects his attempt – “Yehoshua, ayn shom’im lakh – Joshua, none listen to you” – because it is too sudden. By the days of Rabbi Yose (some 50 years later), however, the halakha [religious law] is changed to what Rabbi Joshua wanted – one must complete a fast before Shabbat rather than ‘take the edge off’ before Shabbat begins.

The previous 40 pages of Talmud tractate Eruvin have addressed how to define an eruv and a little of what one may do inside of one. But what if that restriction is broken and you find yourself beyond the limit? What if, the Mishnah imagines, Gentiles or a ruakh ra’ah [evil spirit] carry one beyond the limit? One is only allowed to move within 4 amot [cubits, about 18 inches] where one finds oneself, but if they carry one back in it’s as if one never left. We are intrigued why non-Jews would carry a Jew out of town (most likely for no good, of course), but what is a ruakh ra’ah? It is explained by the medieval commentator Rashi as follows: a demon possesses you, you go out of your mind, and you find yourself outside the border. The phrase ruakh ra’ah itself is the trigger here for a totally unrelated piece of Talmud wisdom - three things cause a person to lose his mind [m’avirin et ha-adam al da’ato]: idolators, ruakh ra’ah, and severe poverty. But as consolation, they will never see Gehenna [Hell], having already atoned for their sins, who suffer these in life: severe poverty, bowel disease, and ha-reshut [government(!)]. And some add “or an evil wife [isha ra’ah],” though others argue one may divorce her instead of suffering, though her ketubah [marriage agreement] settlement might cost too much or he may have children with her. To soften this, here is a very old joke on that last topic: why is a Jewish divorce so expensive? It’s worth it.

Obviously, if being taken out restricts one to 4 amot, if one willingly leaves he has the same restriction. So what if one is carried out and walks back, or walks out and is carried back? Does the carrying back erase the walking out, or does the carrying out against one’s will “immunize” against walking back? In fact, any deliberate move in or out limits one to 4 amot. The exception to that limitation? If one must “answer the call of nature,” one of our favorite principles applies: Human dignity is so important that it supersedes a negative Torah command. And in one of the more silly arguments, what about fruit that went beyond the border – can you eat it? It makes sense that something taken out b’mazid [intentionally] would be forbidden, but it turns out that even if it was taken out b’shogeg [unknowingly], you can only eat it if it is in its original place. And, believe it or not, some claim that one can only eat the fruit if they were unknowingly put back in the original place – in other words, by pure coincidence! Never underestimate the power of religious thought to supersede reality; for example, the 2000 cubits one is permitted to move may end in the middle of an enclosed courtyard or in another town. And such a case, the eruv takes precedence over the enclosed courtyard or the very town – the imaginary line of a temporary house more significant than bricks and mortar.

And what if one is on a ship at sea that is constantly moving? The more permissive allow one to move within any enclosed area like another town, a cattle pen or a ship. The more piously restrictive, like Rabbi Akiva, stick to a strict limit – one may only move within 4 amot of where one finds oneself either on a ship. If one is carried away to another town on land or placed in an enclosed cattle-pen, some allow full travel within that enclosed boundary, but others restrict movement to 4 amot. And not necessarily 4 amot in any direction, but at its most restrictive one is imagined to be in a circle with a DIAMETER of 4 amot, thus meaning one may only move 3 feet one-way in any direction! Even at the most permissive, one may only move 6 feet, and even then it is a one-way movement. What a powerful metaphor for how we experience unreasonable restrictions of religious tradition: one is only allowed to move within a few feet of space.

But what if one is over a certain height off of the ground? In an age before airplanes, the Rabbis debate whether tekhumin [Shabbat boundaries] apply over a meter off of the ground. Their only possible examples are someone on a ship, and maybe the time Elijah spoke in both Sura and Pumbedita [2 Babylonian rabbi academies] on the same Shabbat (thus flying between them), or maybe it was Joseph the demon who wouldn’t care about the rules anyways. The issue is not fully resolved, but we next read some examples of “pre-airplane” rabbinic practical innovation. Rabban Gamliel had a sh’foferet [tube] that enabled him to see at a distance – try it yourself with any tube and see how the tunnel focuses your vision. They could also measure the height of a palm tree from its shadow’s length: by comparing a person’s shadow to their height, the tree’s shadow is the same ratio because the angles are the same!

Another major exception to Shabbat restrictions applies to saving lives – midwives assisting at childbirth, a person trying to save another from bandits or a flood, even soldiers defending their city from attackers are permitted to go beyond the boundary, even if they must carry weapons! One can even attack foreigners besieging a Jewish city on a frontier, as long as they came for murder or plunder – if only for money, then the Sabbath cannot be violated. And not just a national frontier, but even a boundary between Jewish and non-Jewish settlement. Jewish self-defense is thus not only an innovation of modern times, but part of the reality of Jewish history.

There are further discussions of what to do if one falls asleep before entering a town on Shabbat eve, and whether overlapping circles of restricted movement of different individuals enable them to share the other person’s distance in order to share a meal, and so on. But thus far is enough for this survey.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Monday, November 14, 2005

Survey – Eruvin 36-40 (November 10-14)

It is entirely possible that in a long career of teaching, one may teach one side of one position, and years later argue the opposite on a different topic. In a post-script to The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco describes having a critic point out that he has a character and that character’s adversary make the same argument on the same page – he had added a few lines at the last minute before publication and forgotten about what was written right afterwards! Eco’s post-modern response is that the text has a life of its own, and “The author should die once he has finished writing. So as not to trouble the path of the text.” (p508, Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1984). The Talmud has a very different approach to contradictions: when Rabbi Jose seems to be on both sides of a fence, permitting a doubtful eruv but requiring extra care for doubtful ritual purification, no contradiction is possible. He must have been quoting his teacher’s rather than his own perspective, or else he must consider the more serious rule d’oraita [from Scripture] while the other is d’rabanan [Rabbinical]. Traditional Judaism’s refusal to admit contradictions takes the early Rabbis, and rabbinic tradition as a whole, out of the realm of human production; our own conviction that the creators of Judaism were indeed human opens up a wide range of new possibilities.

An eminently human impulse is to hedge one’s bets and invent conditions. One may, for example, use bread for an eruv that is promised to be consecrated later (because who knows if this will be followed through), but something declared to be holy now and planned to be made unholy (and thus edible) later cannot be used. Or the Mishnah claims that one can set up TWO eruvim on either end of town in case threatening nokhrim [strangers] whom one wishes to flee or a sage [khakham] whom one wishes to approach show up – the eruv would apply that would get one closest to the sage or farthest from the strangers. And if neither applies, one could ignore both and be like an ordinary town dweller, able to use the town itself as his marker. Amusingly, Rabbi Isaac learned this tradition backwards, so one would want to approach the foreigners and flee from the sage! Rather than admit a mistake, however, the Talmud explains it thus: one wants to flee tax collectors but approach town elders, and one would approach a sage but flee a basic school teacher (particularly if a sage was also approaching).

The halakhic [Jewish religious legal] issue here is if two sages come from two directions - if a person could CHOOSE which eruv applied, it would be a retroactive designation, also called b’raira [literally, “choice”]. If you buy a quantity of wine that needs to be tithed, can you promise to set aside an amount later and drink anyways? Or can you say the last tenth of grain is the offering, even though you don’t know exactly which grain that will be until you use the other 9/10ths? In our particular example, can you set up an eruv for all the shabatot [Shabbats] of a year that may or may not apply depending on where one wants to go? In the end, a similar distinction is attempted between rules that are d’oraita and d’rabanan, with the latter more permitted, though some would say it applies to all or none. And one could make the common-sense argument that a universal condition like the permanent eruv would eliminate awareness of its existence for the rest of the year, so what would be the point to the rule in the first place? On the other hand, attention to tiny details of what is and is not a valid eruv is hardly the topic that will inspire a passion for Judaism among the masses.

Because of the strictness of the Talmud’s Shabbat, what if a yom tov [holiday] immediately follows Shabbat – can one set up TWO eruvim, one for each event, as Rabbi Eliezer suggests? The Mishnah’s sages recommend instead having one eruv for the two days, accomplished with the aid of an emissary to re-establishes it for the second day and eats it then. But both agree that the two events are separate “holinesses” [kedoshot]. Imagine having your birthday and anniversary one day after the other – both deserve some acknowledgement, even if some arrangements are made to cover both at once. This discussion also highlights an alternative method of defining an eruv: not just with food but “b’raglav – with his feet”, or by physically sitting there at twilight as Shabbat or the holiday begins. But you can’t mix and match – if you set the first holy day’s eruv with your feet, you can’t use bread for the second day, and vice versa.

The reluctance to admit error even applies to measures the Rabbis instituted just in case, like the second day of Rosh Hashana [the New Year festival] for Jews in exile [galuyot] – the extra day was added because the testimony of the previous new moon might not arrive in time to know the exact date of the holiday. Different Rabbis suggest conditional eruvim or tithing or even liturgy in case the second day is the actual date, but the khakhamim reject it. There is something amusing about Rabbi Dosa’s suggestion that the liturgy read, “Fortify us God on this the first day of the month, either today or tomorrow [eem hayom eem l’makhar].” In this case I agree with the Rabbis – pick a date and stick with it! In fact, this debating can be seen as anthropological evidence of the process of acclimating to living outside of the land of Israel – exactly how holy ARE these new days and customs we’ve innovated, and how careful do we need to be to avoid working on them?

And we also face the conflict of religious duty – what if, as Rabbi Dosa’s conditional prayer highlights, the New Moon [Rosh Khodesh] and a festival (like Rosh Hashana) are the same date? What if the New Year also falls on Shabbat (as it does in 2006), making it a triple festival: what blessings do you say, how do you celebrate it? We for whom Shabbat is not that different from all other days, and who often miss the new moon, find such juxtapositions interesting but not a crisis. But we also live on the other end of history: for us they are traditions; for the Talmud’s Rabbis, they were innovations that became institutions. And so too with our creations of our own day – loo y’hee, may it be.

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Survey – Eruvin 31-35 (November 5-9)

A large number of contemporary apologetics for traditional rabbinic Judaism include “rational” explanations for the mitzvot [commandments] laid out by tradition. The apologetics try to find personal reasons for following the commandments along the lines of “you’ll be happier and healthier if you do so.” But the traditional answer to “why follow the commandments” was much more like Tennysons Charge of the Light Brigade: “ours is not to reason why/ ours is but to do or die.” Or, as Raba puts it, “mitzvot lo leihanot nitnoo – commandments were not given to enjoy.” Raba’s statement helps to explain why an eruv may be placed on a grave, even though one is not allowed to “enjoy” something like a grave – if one is fulfilling a commandment, it by definition is not for one’s own enjoyment.

As we saw before, an eruv may be made up of just about any food, including sometimes food that couldn’t be eaten by one of the common courtyard residents. After all, if demai [food of uncertain tithing status] is only for the poor, who’s to say (however unlikely) that a person couldn’t possibly renounce his property and thus become poor? But the person making the eruv is supposed to know what they are doing – thus the Mishnah prohibits sending an “imbecile, deaf-mute, or minor” to make it (the minor may make an eruv for courtyards but not for travel boundaries). If you send them towards another person, as long as you stand and watch them go, and the other person receives the food to set up the eruv, then you can even send a trained peel [elephant] or kof [monkey] with the food! And what if the recipient doesn’t do his duty? The assumption is that shaliakh oseh sh’likuto – an emissary does his mission, at least for the purposes of assigning halakhic [religious legal] blame. And this reasoning makes some sense to us: if you send someone to accomplish a task, if they are able to do it and just don’t by their own fault, it’s hard to blame the person who sent them.

An argument about a parallel case regarding required tithes on produce does make a distinction, however, whether that shaliakh [emissary] is a khaver [“friend,” i.e. colleage of the Rabbis] or an am ha-aretz [ignoramus, literally “person of the land” or “peasant”]. In other words, can you trust that they fulfilled their mission with all the attention to detail required? Anyone who has worked in an office with more than one other person knows this kind of problem! Amusingly, the argument comes down to a debate between father and son: if you are in doubt whether the am ha-aretz performed the proper tithe, but not eating what he gives you would cause him to break an even more important rule, what should you do? Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi [the prince] would rather the khaver break a small prohibition [isura kalila] than the am ha-aretz break a big one [isura raba], but his father Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel would rather the am ha-aretz break a big rule than the khaver break a small one. What does this mean to us? It’s a question of elites versus the masses – Rabbi Judah would rather have the elites be slightly less holy to save the masses from greater transgression, while his father preferred to keep the elites pure even at the cost of greater transgressions by the “peasants.”

And, to draw on contemporary experience, what if one is in a bear-prone area and wishes to put their eruv in a tree? The Mishnah specifies that it must be lower than 10 amot [hand widths] (about one meter), but it can’t be moved if it is between 10 and 3 amot above the ground according to Rabbi Judah. The Sages disagree with that last proposition, but all agree that if the tree is in private ground, it doesn’t matter how high it is – only if the tree is in public space does the height matter. It must be that the person intends to “Sabbath” at the roots, or under his own eruv. And, of course, the tree must be at least 10 amot high and at least 4 amot wide, etc. etc. The basic concept, however, is that the eruv has a lot of power to define just about anywhere as private space, even in the midst of public space. In case one is interested, one could also put one’s eruv down a cistern [bor – literally “hole”], even if it is 100 amot [10 meters] deep. Our closest parallel to this concept today might be our sense of “personal space,” a variable concept that changes depending on the different standards of where you were raised – in my experience, Europeans and Indians have a much higher tolerance for crowding (e.g. in subway cars) than Americans, and New Yorkers much more so than Midwesterners.

The other important argument in these pages is that a person and their eruv need to be in the same place or kind of space – if the bottom of the cistern is described as private by the eruv but the person at the top is in purely public space, then that food couldn’t work as his eruv (only if he’s in a karmelit, or intermediate space, does that case work). So imagine this real possibility: the eruv is put in a cupboard, and the key is lost – are the person and his eruv in the “same space” if he can’t get to it? Well, Rav and Shmuel assume, the cupboard must be of bricks, which Rabbi Meir permits to breach to get food out. And it must only be referring to an eruv for a yom tov [holiday] but not for Shabbat (even though everything else seems to be talking about Shabbat), and the key must have been lost in town – if it’s lost in a field, then the eruv is not valid. Or it might be a wooden cupboard, reason Rabbah and Rabbi Joseph, so it’s like an object that the prohibitions on building and destroying don’t apply. Or maybe it’s like a tent, says Rabbi Eliezer!

In any case, the question is what is something happens to the eruv once it’s placed? The Mishnah asks, what if it rolled away or got burned, or something fell on it? If it happened before nightfall, and he could fix it, then it doesn’t apply; but if afterwards, it’s ok. And what if you’re not sure? Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Judah agree here: you’re stuck both pushing a donkey and pulling a camel – can’t go far at all in any direction. But there is a debate as to whether a doubtful eruv counts as an eruv – even among the sayings of Rabbi Meir himself. For minor tameh [uncleanness], he is lenient if purification is doubtful; but for major tameh, he is restrictive. And once it’s proven that Rabbi Meir believed the rules of Shabbat travel limits to be d’oraita [from Scripture], and that must be a major rule, then he would restrict in the case of doubt.

While the Talmudic rabbis are clear that they believe one should obey mitzvot without an eye to any enjoyment, we would take the more lenient approach of balancing serious, non-harmful enjoyment today with continuity with the past – if the latter inhibits the former, then it can and should be reconsidered. But if the Rabbis separated enjoyment from mitzvot, it is also clear that they did derive some enjoyment from DEFINING the mitzvot themselves – in the debate and memory and citation, there is a process that we too are a part of by our very study.

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

Friday, November 04, 2005

Survey – Eruvin 26-30 (October 31-November 4)

WARNING! This one’s a long one. . .

This survey begins to delve into a particular case of defining an eruv that was common given domestic architecture of the Talmudic period: when there is a courtyard shared by many houses. While this is not made explicit at first, food is brought out to the common courtyard on a Friday afternoon. This temporarily defines the open space as “private” for the course of Shabbat and tus permits people from multiple houses to carry objects from one to the other without crossing a boundary between public and private space. But what if one neighbor doesn’t get along with all of the others (a common experience now and probably then) and does not participate in defining the eruv even though he lives on the courtyard – can others still carry into his space, or can he carry out of it? Does he have to explicitly declare his non-participation, or can he opt out by silence or forgetfulness? And does his non-participation in the eruv also forfeit his right to carry in his own house? After much discussion, the conclusion is that if he explicitly declares his non-participation, then the eruv is valid but not for him; but if he says nothing, the eruv is not in effect. An interesting result of this ruling would be the need for neighbors to cooperate, or at least speak to each other once a week – this was clearly long before suburban sprawl, front lawns, and anonymous neighbors.

It is the next Mishnah section that begins to define what may be used to create an eruv, although 50 pages later the Talmud and later commentators like the Tosafists (12-13th century CE) make a distinction between eruvim for travel on Shabbat and for defining a courtyard. It turns out that any food except for water and salt, which are not considered real nourishing food and thus are permitted to a person who vowed to eat no food, may be used to define the former. You can even use salt AND water mixed together, but not either individually. But only bread may create a courtyard eruv. The Talmud tries to exclude unripe dates and lichen, but later teachers allowed it – for example, when Rab came to Babylon where lichen was in fact eaten, it became permitted. And one must define what counts as food in the first place: if raw beets are said to be dangerous to your health and raw onion even poisonous, can they count as food? And how much food is required? The answer: two meals’ worth, or garnishing equivalents.

And it doesn’t have to be food that you like, or even food you personally are allowed to eat: a nazir [one under vow of wine abstinence] may be included in an eruv made by wine (since others could drink it), and any ordinary “Israelite” can use terumah [tithed food] even though only a priest may eat it. If you vowed not to eat a particular loaf, it can still be used for your eruv; however, if you said “this loaf is prohibited to me” (i.e. for ALL benefit), then you couldn’t use it. Beit Hillel [the house of Hillel] argued this point with Beit Shammai, explaining that since one may set up an eruv on Yom Kippur [day of Atonement] that an adult can use even though the food is only permitted to a child or pregnant woman (who are not required to fast), so too in this case. There is part of the rational mind, however, who might agree with Beit Shammai on this one – doesn’t it make sense to use food one might be able to eat? But that’s asking for sense out of a legal fiction that enables one to carry on Shabbat without crossing public ground – human inventions (and in my opinion mishegas [craziness] all).

Before giving the specifics of what and how much, however, an important theoretical legal discussion takes place first. Rabbi Yokhanan said “ayn l’midin min ha-k’lalot v’afilu ba-makom sheh-ne’emar bo ‘khootz’ – we do not learn from general rulings, even in a case that specifically includes ‘except.’” In other words, when you have a general rule that has exceptions, the exceptions may not be limited to what has been listed. So just because you know the general rule, don’t automatically apply it to everything! In face, we soon learn in the Talmudic eruv discussion that other foodstuffs are also not allowed to define an eruv, even if water and salt are the only exceptions listed by the Mishnah. Now we, with a historical mindset, might say that the Mishnah authors really did intend everything to qualify except water and salt while later generations of rabbis expanded the prohibition further in violation of the general rule, but that approach is outside the framework of Talmudic thought.

A parallel example is the general rabbinic rule that women are exempt from positive commandments [mitzvot aseh] with a fixed time [sheh-ha-z’man gorma], while men must fulfill them, but those not time-dependent must be performed by both. We must recall that being “exempt” in a context where being obligated to perform an action is the highest duty is no privilege. Thus, for example, reading the Torah on Shabbat was not required, and thus for centuries was neither expected nor encouraged, of women. But the Talmud immediately points out that there ARE time-based commandments that women must do, like eating matza [unleavened bread] on Passover or rejoicing during Sukkot (Deuteronomy 16:14 – “And you shall rejoice in your feast, you, and your son, and your daughter, and your manservant, and your maidservant . . .”). And there are non-time-dependent commandments from which they are exempt, like “be fruitful and multiply” or even Torah study [talmud torah] – as the medieval commentator Rashi explains, Deuteronomy 11:19 can be read “teach them to your sons” and not daughters. Of course, “sons” in Hebrew (b’neikhem) could also be read inclusively as “children,” and though Rashi himself only had three daughters and no sons, the patriarchy of his time and his tradition went unchallenged until our own era.

We can see how the Talmud sometimes uses unrelated legal discussion to clarify the main issue, as it veers off into a discussion of what may be purchased by money tithed according to Deuteronomy 14:26 and thereby elaborates on the overall issue of general rules and exceptions. And for us, it re-emphasizes the importance of punctuation, something absent from the Bible. The verse says, “And you shall bestow that money for whatever your soul desires, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatever your soul desires;” in other words, a general rule (whatever your soul desires), specific examples (oxen etc.), and another generality. The question for the Talmud is: is this a case of ribuyay u-miyutay [expansion and restriction], or k’lalay u-p’ratay [general and detail]? Here’s how each works:

Ribuyay u’miyutay: if you have an expansive rule followed by restrictions, you can only do what’s included by the example. If the verse had been “whatever you want: oxen, sheep or wine,” you could only get one of those three. But since we have expansion-restriction-expansion, it is understood in this progression: expansion - whatever you want; restriction inward: oxen, sheep, wine are ok; great expansion outward again: not just oxen and sheep, but anything remotely like them. If it differs totally, like water or salt, then it clearly doesn’t count. “Spend that money on whatever you want: oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink or just about anything of use.”

K’lalay u-p’ratay: a general rule followed by details works similar to the way it was explained in the other example: “whatever you want: oxen, sheep, wine, etc.” meaning only one of the examples, and the general statement gives you some context so you don’t include, say, people (WHATever, not WHOMever) by analogy from just a list. When you have general-detail-general, you can only obtain something that is substantially similar to the details: like oxen, sheep, or wine, if it gets its sustenance from the ground. “Spend the money on whatever you want: oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or anything else in that vein.”

Why all of this in the context of an eruv discussion? The Talmud has made a connection between what could be bought by this tithe, and what may be used to define an eruv. Since both discussions hinge on salt, water, and salt water, they must be connected, must be the assumption. We’ll end with one last kernel of rabbinic wisdom from Eruvin 29b, so breathtaking as to need no amplification:

“Abaye further stated: Nurse told me: If a man suffers from weakness of the heart let him fetch the flesh of the right flank of a male beast and excrements of cattle [cast in the month] of Nisan, and if excrements of cattle are not available let him fetch some willow twigs, and let him roast it, eat it, and after that drink some diluted wine.”

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

If I haven’t recommended it before, I found it very useful for this discussion of the halakhic principles of generalities and details to turn to The Talmud, the Steinsaltz Edition: A Reference Guide by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz (NY: Random House, 1989).