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.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Survey – Eruvin 21-25 (October 26-30)

In my experience, I have found two teaching styles effective in their own way. One is to be organized, systematic, logical, and structured; the second is to meander in interesting ways, covering the topic at hand but not feeling constrained by outlines or agendae. The risk of the former is that structure can take precedence over interesting content, and the risk of the latter is tangential topics that are uninteresting or cause us to lose the forest (the main topic) for the trees. The Talmud is definitely an example of the second pedagogy, both its positive and negative sides.

This survey begins with a continuation of the previous pages’ discussion of the rules of using a well on Shabbat by defining it temporarily as a private space in the midst of public space. But it soon leaps from a saying of Rabbi Hisda on topic to Rabbi Hisda’s memories of other Rabbis explaining passages from the Hebrew Bible as referring to the righteous and the wicked. Israel are of course synonymous with “the righteous,” for they follow the law and then some. The young men have never tasted sin, and the women tell their husbands they are menstrually impure, or even shut them out for that time, just to be sure – reading “new and old, which I have laid up for you, my beloved” in Song of Songs 7:14, “old” must refer to the Torah commandments, while “new” must refer to those of the sofrim [scribes], or the rest of the Hebrew Bible. One Rabbi understands the Song of Songs line to mean Israel saying to God, “I have decreed many more decrees upon myself than you did, and I have kept them.” Who would have thought that in the game of ‘holier than thou,’ the Talmud would try to best God? Another rabbi considers “new” to be kalot [easy/minor] and “old” to be khamorot [difficult or major], but another encourages you to be MORE careful with rules of the sofrim than the Torah! Rebuttal: if they were so important, why weren’t they in the Torah? Answer: Solomon already clarified his earlier passage from Song of Songs in his later writing in Ecclesiastes 12: “of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.”

You would think that this last phrase would be a problem for rabbis who proclaim the virtue of endless study, but not so: by tweaking pronunciation and making puns, they interpret the last clause to mean that those who scoff at the sages are boiled in excrement, or that those who study much feel the taste of meat like a rich man. Rabbi Akiva might have followed the first interpretation: an anecdote relates that while in prison he was brought very little water: not enough to ritually wash his hands nor enough to drink, and he refused to eat until he could wash his hands because better to die than to disregard the sages’ rulings. Because these prooftexts come from works traditionally thought to have been written by Solomon, this is an opportunity for the Talmud to leap in that direction.

Because the Bible describes Solomon as very wise, rabbis two millennia after Solomon supposedly lived assumed he was wise in rabbinic law as well – they claim Solomon was the one who invented the concept of the eruv and the washing of hands before eating (also a connection between the Akiva story and the Talmud tractate). ‘Ulla remembers Rabbi Eliezer saying that the Torah was like a basket with no handles before Solomon gave his explanations. And the Song of Songs which he allegedly wrote in his youth can’t really be a beautiful love poem; it must be an allegory for Israel’s love of God. Watch how they explore Song of Songs 7:12-13 – a great example of rabbinic midrash [creative explanation] if not a good model for calling a spade a spade:

Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the field; let us lodge in the villages. Let us go early to the vineyards; let us see if the vine has flowered, if the grape blossoms have opened, if the pomegranates are in bloom; there will I give you my loves.

“Come, my beloved, let us go forth into the field;” – Israel said to God, “don’t judge us like urban criminals who lie and rob.” And “going to the field” means “let me show you the scholars enduring poverty to study Torah.
“let us lodge in the villages.” – The Hebrew for “villages” can be tweaked into “disbelievers”, so compare us to those who receive your generosity and despise you.
“Let us go early to the vineyards;” – that is, the batei k’nesiot (synagogues) and batei midrashot [houses of study].
“let us see if the vine has flowered,” – that is, the masters of Scripture [ba’alei mikra].
“if the grape blossoms have opened,” – masters of repeating the early rabbinic tradition [ba’alei mishnah].
“if the pomegranates are in bloom;” – masters of contemporary rabbinic debate [ba’alei gemara].
“there will I give you my loves.” – I will reveal My greatness and glory to you.

This is beautiful love poetry made into religious doctrine by the power of interpretation. And largely unrelated to Shabbat observance, for those who recall the ostensible focus of Eruvin.

When the Talmud returns to that discussion, we read that the mekhitzot [partitions] defining a private space to permit certain actions Shabbat can even overcome a public road running through them! It also turns out that according to Rabbi Yokhanan, in the land of Israel one may carry in a public space on Shabbat with no guilt, so this entire discussion doesn’t apply there - another example of the Diaspora setting for the creation of the Babylonian Talmud. And, as we have seen before, one may have different definitions for different issues – just as the minimum distance may differ for planting different seeds vs. the space between mekhitzot, so the same space (like an alley that ends in a cave) may be considered private space for Shabbat but public space for t’umah [ritual impurity]. Even a public road may be considered private if it so is narrow and difficult to travel that the general public would not use generally it. While the level of detail explored here may seem excessive, it is impressive to see so many hypotheticals and conditions brought to bear on the discussion.

We alluded to courtyards earlier, and by Eruvin 23a the Mishnah has moved on to discussing privately-enclosed spaces, which can actually be as large as seventy square cubits (approx. 150 square ft.). Rabbi Ila’i remembers Rabbi Eliezer saying it could be as large as a beit kor (space to sow a kor of seeds, or about 17,000 square meters), but when he went back to all his students to confirm his memory [bakashti li khaver – literally “looked for a friend for me’], he was unable to do so. We do find here that a beit se’ah [space to sow a se’ah of seed] is 50 x 50 cubits (approx 580 square meters) in the context of defining the maximum size of a karpaf [enclosure] behind a house that can be considered private space – if it’s larger than that, even if it has walls it’s not completely private space for Shabbat carrying. One rabbi even contemplated the following: a mansion adjoined an orchard, and when a wall of the house fell the three remaining walls could be imagined to enclose the orchard for Shabbat! But he is corrected: those walls were made for the inside, not the outside. But points from me for trying to make the best of a bad situation.

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

Monday, October 24, 2005

Survey – Eruvin 16-20 (October 21-25)

Gentle reader, please recall that while we search for valuable ethical insight, part of the “Not Your Father’s Talmud” blog project is to explore the thought process of those generations who created and studied the Talmud, even if the subject is less than immediately relevant to our own lifestyle. Today’s survey has some of both.

Our previous discussions of permissible carrying on Shabbat were in urban settings – alleys, streets and buildings. This selection begins with a discussion of a caravan stopped for Shabbat – a very common situation for Jewish merchants in this period, if not for the present day outside of summer camps. The Mishnah says that you can define a permissible space [eruv] by encamping in a valley and surrounding the camp with kley b’heyma [“tools of beasts” – as the Talmud clarifies, saddles, saddlebags, saddle cushions, etc.]. However, the gaps between the objects defining the “fence” must be less than 10 cubits (15 feet), so they can be treated like a doorway, and the gaps between the piles must not be wider than the piles themselves. But what if the gaps are exactly EQUAL, asks the Talmud? Predictably, one rabbi says “OK” and another says “no way.” This question of gaps versus built-up partitions also bears on defining private space in cities, alleys, and courtyards as well, but the caravan setting is used to try to clarify the issue.

It turns out that a caravan camp could also surround itself with 3 ropes with the highest 3 feet high (a horizontal boundary), or by reeds placed in the ground (vertical) – either horizontal or vertical partition markers with limited gaps between individual markers, but both were not required by the Sages even if particular rabbis disagreed. We recall the debate about marking a narrow alley by either a side-post or a crossbeam, or sometimes needing both, as a parallel discussion. In this case, the limit of space that can be enclosed with a partial partition is, for an individual or two, two beit seah – the space it would take to sow a seah of seed, or approximately 50 x 50 handsbreadths [amot]. And for the Talmud “three’s a caravan” that enables them to enclose six beit seah in such a manner, though others claim they can take as much space as they need as long as there are not two beit seah unoccupied by people or objects.

So here comes the Talmudic genius for hypotheticals – what if three people have defined a space of six beit seah for Shabbat, and then one of them dies? Or if there were two who wrongly defined a space of six beit seah and a third arrives (by camel or birth)? Rabbi Huna and Rabbi Isaac disagree: one claims that the way it was defined to start Shabbat matters more, while the other holds that the number of people is more important. Interestingly, the Talmud is not sure which Rabbi held which position, and it has to bring another anecdote of Rabbi Huna allowing someone to continue to use an eruv defined by a door that was later blocked up to be sure that he is the former and Rabbi Isaac the latter. This debate parallels one between Rabbi Judah and Rabbi Jose in the Mishnaic period – the former was permissive and would allow one to continue to use an eruv even if the marker fell down for that one Shabbat but no more, while the latter wanted to be more consistent and said, “what they can do on this Shabbat they can do in the future, and what they can’t do in the future they can’t do now.” By virtue of his authority, we can know that Rabbi Judah, the nasi [head of the Rabbis] of his generation and the likely compiler of the Mishnah, holds the accepted ruling, though the Talmud text itself gives absolutely no indication!

The next example is even more hypothetical – the Shabbat obligations from which Jewish soldiers are exempt in their camps, including the eruv. For a people without their own national army for 70 years by the time of the Mishnah and centuries by the compilation of the Talmud, this is imaginary indeed! There are variations if they are in a milkhemet reshut – an “optional war” as decreed by a king as opposed to the milkhemet mitzvah – a war commanded by God himself like the destruction of the Canaanites decreed in Deuteronomy. Not only can soldiers camp in any place, they may be buried where they fall – the only others entitled to this are the dead with no relatives to bury them who become a met mitzvah [death of commandment], which enjoins anyone, even a priest, to bury them immediately where they lie. They and the poor can also eat demai, produce from which one suspects tithes have not been taken. How often this ruling applied to situations in the Talmudic period is certainly dubious.

The most interesting passages in this selection uses the Mishnah discussion of how to define a well as private space for Shabbat as a launching pad for an extensive midrash [creative interpretation] on the Garden of Eden and the creation of humanity. Rabbi Jeremiah ben Eleazar, in the first of a series of sayings introduced by the cryptic mnemonic “two, under a ban, praise, dove, house, two, was cursed, by a relationship, three” that indicates earlier oral recitation, suggests that Adam, the first human, had a face on either side (like the Roman god Janus). Why? Because in Psalm 139:5 God is praised for having shaped man akhor va-kedem – in back and in front. Does this mean a full face, or perhaps a tail that was removed later? In support of the full-face explanation, Genesis 1 claims “male and female he created them”, but in support of the tail tale, in Genesis 2 God “built” what he removed from Adam into Eve – as the Talmud says, in the shape of a storehouse: wide at the bottom and narrow on top in order to hold the “fruit.”

Some modern Jewish feminists have looked at this simultaneous, two-face creation as a support for gender equality, but leave it to the Talmud to undercut that modern value right away: if there were two faces, which walked face-first? Of course the man, because “no man should walk on a road behind a woman, even if she’s his wife.” It must be the temptations of the view, but evidently women can't be so tempted. And anyone who crosses a bridge after a married woman or counts out money to her hand directly in order to see her face will be eternally condemned even if he is otherwise as holy as Moshe Rabbenu [our teacher Moses]. Walking behind a woman is not as bad as following an idol or (the worst) walking past a synagogue while the congregation is praying – a “sin” committed by a large majority of Jews every day of the week!

Most of the rest of Rabbi Jeremiah’s sayings are affirmations of the virtues and rewards of piety, and vice versa for vice – Gehenna [Hell] for the wicked and Gan Eden [Garden of Eden] for the righteous. For a tradition that some believe has no afterlife, Eruvin 19a has a lot of speculation on Hell – where its three gates are, what its seven names are (including eretz ha-takhtit – “the under-world.”), and whether wicked Jews would likely repent while wicked ovdei kokhavim [idol worshippers – literally “servants of stars”] would not. Rather than, as the Talmud does, dive back in to the minutia of how to define a well as private space for Shabbat and what happens to that partition if the water dries up, or how much of a person or cow needs to be in the private space to be allowed to drink, let’s end on this note of “hope” instead!

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Survey – Eruvin 6-10 (October 11-15)

We recall from tractate Shabbat the complications of carrying objects from private to public space on Shabbat, a restriction which necessitates clear definitions of which is which. Before we saw the case of a closed alley; but what of an alley between two buildings that is open on both ends? The Talmud, following the tradition of Beit Hillel [the house of Hillel] settles on having a locked (or at least partially closed) door at one end and a side post and crossbeam – which suggests a doorway - at the other. And what of a crooked alley that has a bend? Rav was more strict and subject it to the rules of an open alley, while Samuel was more lenient and treated it like a closed alley. And there was even a crooked alley in Nehardea that was treated according to the rules of both – the bend was like a closed alley, but because the two side walls never met it was like an open one. And it also depends where the alley ends – does it end in a backyard or a courtyard (something that is or can be defined as private space), or does it end in an open field or a major road (obviously public space).

So what do you do if two authorities disagree? After all, Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai are famous for their disagreements, yet while the Talmud asserts “halakha [religious law] is always according to Beit Hillel” [l’olam halakha k’beit Hillel], sometimes later authorities agree with Beit Shammai. The path suggested here is an interesting one: you may choose to follow EITHER Beit Shammai or Beit Hillel. But if you follow only the lenient rulings of both, you are wicked; and if you only follow the strict rulings of both, the Talmud quotes Ecclesiastes 2:14, “the fool walks in darkness”. Later discussion clarifies that this should apply when each authority uses the same reasoning to opposite conclusions – if they are not absolutely mutually contradictory, one may indeed choose the lenient rulings of both.

What if you have minor alleys branching off of a major alley like the legs of a centipede? What if one end of an alley is a rubbish heap and the other is the sea? Can one use the space under the crossbeam defining an alley as private space for other purposes outside of Shabbat private space demarcation, or must it be kept clear? Can the side post be visible from the outside but flush set in the wall from the inside view? These and other conditions are explored and debated, sometimes even within one Rabbi’s own memory: Rabbi Joseph, who lost his memory, says, “I did not hear this teaching.” And Abaye reminds him, “We learned this from you!” There is even a short debate between a width measurement: two fingers or one and a half fingers? These pages are an example of Talmud that is less relevant to modern liberal Judaism, even if we could theoretically explore the legal discussion for mental exercise.

The one detail of this discussion to note is the need for spatial relations to fully appreciate the discussion. In the tradition of Gardner’s “multiple intelligences,” Talmudic culture is often considered to be a verbal culture – prizing ability in words instead of graphic art or mathematics. Reading these discussions of architecture, however, we see that spatial intelligence would have been a real asset in these particular discussions. And while we don’t have records of sketches they could have drawn, an “illustrated Talmud” from that period when books copied by hand would have been too much to ask.

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

Monday, October 10, 2005

Survey – Eruvin 2-5 (October 7-10)

In tractate Shabbat, we saw several allusions to the concept of an eruv – a way to define what could be thought of as public space into private space for the purposes of carrying on Shabbat. Our new tractate Eruvin [plural for “eruv” in Aramaic] focuses on this specific issue because defining its parameters and usage is so complicated. As we begin, we are also aware from our experience that the tangential discussions and historical details found along the way may prove very interesting.

The exploration begins with an entrance to a closed alley (with walls on three side and one open side) – how to define it as private space? One may have a beam across the opening, says the Mishnah, as long as it is lower than 20 cubits (about 30 feet) and narrower than 10 (15 ft.). Rab speculates that the figures derive from the structure of the Second Jerusalem Temple [mikdash] when it stood, or perhaps the Biblical description of the Tabernacle [mishkan] during the 40 years of Sinai wandering. It is interesting from an historical perspective to see that the Talmud concedes that the two terms are sometimes exchanged (likely because they served similar purposes of “divine encounter), because some modern scholars believe that the Biblical descriptions of the mishkan were actually written around the building of the mikdash instead. The reason they focus on these buildings is to determine what the maximum size of a permissible “entrance” is by Biblical definition, so they can define what size would count in order to define the alley as private space for Shabbat carrying. If the original Mishnah claims that the shape of a doorway is enough, even if wider than 10 cubits, what counts to define a doorway shape?

The other major parallel the rabbinic discussion draws on is a sukkah [booth for the holiday of Sukkot], which according to the Rabina has much more specific size parameters because it is d’oraita [from the Bible] while the rule of the entrance to an alley is only d’rabanan [from the Rabbis]. The irony is that the Rabbis are the ones who define the details of what is d’oraita – the Bible says nothing about the SIZE of one’s sukkah. And it is the Rabbis who also create their own problems: what about a crossbeam where part of it is over 20 cubits high and part is under 20 cubits high? After much discussion, the Talmud asks: what’s the decision? I’ll quote the Soncino translation directly: “Rabbah b. R. Ulla replied: The one as well as the other is inadmissible. Raba replied: The one as well as the other is admissible.” I’m glad they cleared that up! And if your crossbeam on your alley is under 10 handsbreaths high (the minimum, approximately 4 feet), don’t worry – you can always dig out some of the earth beneath it to make it tall enough!

Another problem that Abaye raises “in the name of Rabbi Nachman” is the very measurement of a cubit, which traditionally was the distance between one’s elbow and the tip of their middle finger (which of course is different on everyone). A “cubit” [amah] for the sukkah or an entrance is five “handsbreadths” [tefakhim], while a cubit for purposes of “forbidden mixtures” [kilayim – as in planting a field with two kinds of seeds] is six tefakhim. Or you can say that the standard is six tefakhim, but for kilayim one spreads out one’s fingers for each tefakh while for openings one keeps the fingers together. In either case, it’s clear that one is supposed to be more careful to give extra space when facing the possibility of a forbidden mixture. And since one can find basically no discussion in the Bible for any of these measurement debates, Rab asserted strongly that they are halakha l’moshe mi'sinai: a law given directly and orally to Moses on Sinai and then passed down orally, and thus known by rabbinic tradition but not provable from the written revelation. And in the middle of discussing possible Scriptural sources for such rules, the Talmud interjects: do you imagine these are actually written (in the Torah)? They are traditional halakha that the rabbis have supported from the Torah! We would say there’s a big difference between deriving the law from the original source and connecting it post facto to give a new rule old authority.

Indeed, this is what much of Talmudic law is trying to do. But this issue of the authority of measures and partitions is crucial to the entire agenda of tractate Eruvin – if the goal of Talmudic debate was to determine the law [halakha] that one should follow, then one should be sure that the subject of one’s debates was indeed halakha l’moshe mi’sinai and not just the invention of a later age. We today don’t need to imagine that the debates and issues go back any further than Rabbinic Judaism itself, 1800 years ago – that’s far enough back for us to feel like we’re reaching into the distant past.

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Survey – Shabbat 151-157 (Sept. 30-Oct. 6)

It’s been said that death never takes a holiday, and it certainly doesn’t check with our schedules for convenience. Much like its other rules on Shabbat concerning non-Jews, the Mishnah allows Jews to use graves or coffins made by non-Jews on Shabbat as long as they were made for the non-Jew, and not directly for the Jew. While there is no way to be sure that the coffin-maker’s intent was NOT to sell it to a Jew, the presence of doubt creates permission. But it may well be the case that a Jew dies on Shabbat, and what to do then? We of later generations know that Jewish funerals do not take place on Shabbat, but whence that tradition?

One is allowed within limits to prepare the body: to anoint with oil, to remove the pillow, tie the jaw so it opens no further (but not closed), even place the body in sand to help it keep until the funeral. The Talmud adds one can place a vessel on the stomach to stop swelling, and stop up the bodily openings to prevent air from entering. But one may not close the eyes on Shabbat, and the Mishnah goes on to say that one may not close the eyes someone is about to die – one who does so “sheds blood,” like a lamp about to go out that is nevertheless extinguished. In other words, one is not allowed to hasten even an imminent death, according to Talmudic ethics. So what to do if someone dies on Shabbat with their eyes open? Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel recommends blowing wine in his nostrils, putting oil between his eyes and holding his big toes; and the eyes should close themselves. Honestly, I have no idea if this works or not.

This discussion is an opportunity for the Talmudic rabbis to explore the nature of the aging experience before natural death. Through their commentaries on Biblical verses, they claim that becoming old includes: forehead and nose droop, eyes are made weaker from weeping (unlike before age 40), arms and legs tremble, teeth vanish (“the grinders do not grind”), lips become slack, and one is bent over as if looking for something that has not been lost. Two legs become three (with a stick for walking), digestion becomes difficult, even a bird can wake one from sleep but singing voices sound like a whisper. The smallest bump seems like a mountain, and even walking on a flat road is scary. Opinions can change, and the wise may become wiser but the ignorant even more foolish, but the passions fade. These “interpretations” really derive from experience, and thus their connection with Biblical text is all the more clever.

The overall approach to death on Shabbat is stated succinctly by the same rabbi: “For an infant a day old the Sabbath is desecrated; for David, King of Israel, dead, the Sabbath is not desecrated.” There are two senses here in which the living are better than the dead. Why is the smallest of the small of the living greater than the great among the dead in this case? Because one violates one Shabbat so that many may be observed, but the dead are free of mitzvot [commandments]. And one need not guard a baby against being eaten by a mouse, but the body of a dead giant like Og king of Bashan needs guarding.

So what happens after death, according to the Talmud? For all of the protestations one might have heard that “Jews don’t have an afterlife,” it’s just not true as these pages demonstrate. Worms pain the dead as a needle would hurt the living, and one’s own soul mourns for 7 days after one’s death. The dead can hear all said in their presence until the grave is closed, or until the flesh rots away. The body returns to dust (a la Genesis: from dust you came and to dust you return), but the spirit [ruakh] lives on and is delivered to “Dumah,” the angel of the deceased: the righteous have rest under the Throne of Glory [kisay ha-kavod], while the wicked suffer and are thrown about the world. The bones of the righteous do not rot like those of the wicked until just before the resurrection of the dead. For the first 12 months, the body exists and the soul can go up or down, but after 12 months the soul ascends and never returns. And Rab claims that you can know if a person will be part of ha-olam ha-ba [the world to come] by the funeral eulogy – if one is moved, that’s a good sign. And you should plan to repent one day before your death. Who knows when they will die, respond the students? All the more reason to repent today, replied Rabbi Eliezer. We might say, live life to the fullest each day because who knows?

What if Shabbat takes you by surprise, while you are still on the road? In a concession to reality, the Rabbis allow someone to pass his wallet (or anything of value he finds BEFORE Shabbat) to a non-Jew, even though that’s asking him to carry on Shabbat – it was proven to the Rabbis through experience that people can’t restrain themselves when it comes to money, and if you don’t allow this they themselves will carry it over 4 cubits in public space! If there is no non-Jew present, you can put it on a donkey even though the donkey is supposed to be resting on Shabbat too (see Exodus 20). If the choice is between a donkey and an imbecile, deaf-mute or minor, choose the donkey because it is not human, but if no donkey is there the imbecile should carry it; and predictably there is a debate over priority between the deaf-mute and minor! And what if one is alone? The Sages had a secret: one CAN carry it, but in increments of less than 4 cubits, broken by a pause; and they didn’t start with that because it was both the worst and the easiest of the alternatives. We can accept the pedagogic value of that approach.

The case of the laden animal provokes more lengthy debate – the Mishnah says that for objects that can’t be handled on Shabbat, one should untie the cord so they slide off. The Talmud clarifies that if they would break, pillows may be brought to cushion the fall. So what of Rabban Gamliel? His ass was laden with honey, and he would not unload it on Shabbat so it went rancid, at which point it was only good for dressing camel sores. If he untied the cords, the containers would have broken; if he brought pillows, they would have been stained and no longer useful. And the animal’s suffering [tsa’ar ba’aley khayim] under the load for a full day? Well, says the Talmud, that’s only de-rabanan [a rabbinical rule]. . .Nevertheless, care for animals is important, even on Shabbat. Animals not only rest but may be fed on Shabbat from big quantities (even untying sheaves), but not by undoing small bundles because that would mean more work for the human than minimally required – you can make fodder, but don’t make a big deal out of it, so pour water on bran but don’t stir it. We may be shocked to read that one may not force-feed calves but may do so to birds, until we remember that we still eat food from force-fed fowl.

Even though tractate Shabbat ends on 157b with a discussion of the details of closing a skylight, the major discussion on 156a-b is much more interesting – do horoscopes apply to Jews? Rabbi Joshua ben Levi speculates that one born on the first day of the week (i.e. Sunday) will be without “one thing” – the Talmud elaborates to “completely wicked or completely righteous” because light and darkness were created on the first day (Genesis 1). He goes on to give “horoscopes” for each day, but he disobeys the rule of newspaper horoscopes: always say something nice so people identify with it, because who wants a horoscope like this?
- Born Monday: bad-tempered, because then the waters were divided.
- Tuesday: wealthy and unchaste, because plants which multiply rapidly and intermingle were created on day 3.
- Wednesday: wise and with a good memory, because the Sun and Moon were made on day 4.
- Thursday: generous, because animals who live on divine generosity were made on day 5.
- Friday/erev Shabbat: will be a seeker, one says, a seeker after good deeds.
And one born on Shabbat will die on Shabbat, since the great day of Shabbat was desecrated because of him. Another Rabbi disagrees, claiming that the mazal [fortune or constellation] of the hour is more important: under the influence of the sun, distinguished with no secrets but thus an unsuccessful thief; under Venus, wealthy but unchaste; under Mercury, wise with a good memory; under the moon, he will suffer destroying and rebuilding (like the moon) but will have secrets and can be a successful thief; under Mars, he will shed blood - as a surgeon, a thief, or a mohel [circumciser]; and so on.

But do Jews believe in horoscopes, in fortunes, in constellations, you might ask? What about the absolute Biblical prohibitions on worshipping the tseva ha-shamayim [the army of heaven, i.e. the stars]? In the classic rabbinic style, you are also right – what follows in the Talmud is a long series of Rabbis who decree ayn mazal l’yisrael – the constellations have no power over Israel. Yochanan and Rab each bring their own prooftext or midrash [creative interpretation] to prove it; Samuel and Akiva have personal narratives where Jews do charity and avoid their “cosmologically-fated” death, and they teach tsedaka metzil mi’mavet [charity saves from death].

But the final anecdote is the most important for us: Rabbi Nahman b. Isaac’s mother was told by a fortune that her son would be a thief, so she made sure to cover his head to ensure his piety. It failed and he ate someone else’s dates right off of the tree, but the point for us is the anthropological evidence that wearing a headcovering (kippah) was NOT expected of everyone; in fact, it was imposed here to try to make someone with wicked tendencies more pious. Thus those who choose not to wear one today are actually going back to earlier Jewish practice. And that’s an important part of the Not Your Father’s Talmud blog project – to find these details of evidence for the way life was to inspire the way life is today.

Rabbi Adam Chalom
Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation