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.

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