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.

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