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.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Survey – Eruvin 56-60 (November 30-December 4)

Again and again we have been struck by the combination of insight and ignorance we find when it comes to Rabbinic knowledge of the natural world. On one hand, we read at the very beginning of this survey that darkened bread, new beer and vegetables were thought to increase one’s excrement, bend the stature and reduce 1/500th of human eyesight. And there was some debate over whether a radish should be considered a sam khayim [drug of life] or sam ha-mavet [drug of death]! This particular radish hair is split by differentiating between the roots and leaves, or between eating it in winter or summer; we might say “it’s just a matter of personal taste!”

At the same time, however, we have a detailed discussion of compass directions and seasons in the context of setting the official boundary sides of a town to match the four directions. How to tell what are North and South (at least in the Northern Hemisphere)? Simple: on a “yom arokh – long day [i.e. summer day]”, the side on which the sun rises and sets is North; and on a “yom katzar – short day [winter day]”, it will do so in the South. And at tekufat Nisan and Tishrei [the “turning” of these two months], the sun rises and sets exactly in the middle of East and West – we would say, on the equinox. In fact, our terminology differentiates between solstice (longest or shortest day) and equinox (equal day and night), while the Talmud calls each event a tekufat in its particular month. And it defines the space between them as “91 days and 7.5 hours.” And if you do the math through 4 seasons, you reach 365 days and 6 hours, or the solar year under the Julian calendar (365 ¼ days, made even by a leap year every 4). We know today that the actual solar year is 365 days, 5 hours, 49 minutes (see, which is why in our Gregorian calendar there are exceptions to leap years for years divisible by 100 or 400, but not bad on the Talmud’s part!

This solar insight came from deciding the boundaries of a town, a discussion the explanation of which requires both more drawing and more geometric ability than I innately possess. More interesting than the intricacies of square area versus circles, and open space at the corners versus the sides, is the question of a karpaf, or extension of a city boundary. If one is allowed limited travel beyond the official city boundaries on Shabbat, but two cities are very close to one another, is there any way to have them count as one city for Shabbat travel? But of course, respond the Mishnah and Talmud – each town can extend their boundary a karpaf [about 70 cubits], and if the two karpafs touch, voila! You have two towns considered one for Shabbat travel! And if there are three towns in the shape of a triangle, the middle one can even be used to connect the further two! We might then ask, how restricting is this travel restriction now, anyways?

So how do you measure a tekhom Shabbat – Shabbat travel boundary? The Mishnah decrees one must use a rope exactly 50 cubits long (75 feet), based on the measurement of Exodus 27:18 of the court of the Ark of the Covenant. After debating of what material the rope must be made, the Talmud explores a dilemma raised by the Mishnah – what to do while measuring if you reach a valley or a hill? After all, going up or down would use up a lot of the 2000 cubits allowed. Being generous, the Mishnah and Talmud assume that the 2000 cubits are in a straight line – straight over a chasm (of a certain minimum depth, of course) or piercing straight through a hill (over a certain minimum height). In fact, we read further on that generosity is the entire rationale behind Shabbat boundaries in the first place – one is able to take the further out of two markers, or even the word of a slave or maidservant that ad kan tekhom Shabbat – the Shabbat boundary goes to here. The Mishnah claims that the reason for this automatic permissiveness is that the entire concept of the Shabbat boundary was declared by the sages lo l’hekhmir ayleh le’hakayl – not to be make more difficult but to make easier. Lest we think they are proto-Reformers, however, the Talmud “clarifies” this latter saying: another tradition holds they enacted rules not to make easier but to make harder, so in the classic tradition of “holier than thou,” divrei torah [Torah rules] are made stricter even if they may relax Shabbat boundaries, which are only d’rabanan [rabbinical].

We also read of the interesting case of a town that had been owned by one person [i.e. was all one private space] and became a town of many households [many private spaces] – one eruv is permitted for the entire town, even though the Talmud has a hard time imagining such a scenario actually taking place. And we find that a person cannot set their eruv up in the karpaf (see above), but that they can use one set up by their son to make it home for Shabbat even though that would limit their travel to 2000 cubits from the eruv but not from the city boundaries themselves. Evidently you can’t use two legal fictions at once to get TOO far beyond the letter of the law.

Since for liberal Jews these discussions of Shabbat boundaries are more academic or historical than life-altering, it is legitimate for us to ask what else might have been done if the time, energy, learning and discussion spent on these definitions and their enforcement had been turned to charity, science, poetry or other pursuits we today value? We can find allegorical meaning for ourselves in exploring what defines a neighborhood or a community, or how to define Shabbat as different in space as well as time by limiting our attention to a more restricted radius. But exact precision in such pursuits is more picky than practical.

Rabbi Adam Chalom