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.

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