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.

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