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.

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).