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, April 15, 2006

Survey – Eruvin 76-80 (December 20-24)

There are times, working one’s way through the various permutations of eruv possibilities when multiple interlocking courtyards are considered, that one wishes there had been an ancient building code forbidding such structures. Why? Because they raise all kinds of possibilities of residents in an inner or outer courtyard participating or not in their courtyard’s eruv, and how that effects their desire to travel through one or the other. Our current survey begins with a discussion of how large a window between the courtyards must be to allow the residents to use one eruv for both if they choose. The Mishnah declares that it must be 4 hands wide by 4 hands tall, and less than 10 hands above the ground. So, the Talmud asks, why does the Mishnah go on to also explain the opposite: that if it is less than 4x4 or higher than 10, one eruv may not serve for both courtyards? Why, PART of the window could be under 10 handsbreadths and the rest over – only if ALL of the window is higher than 10 hands must 2 eruvs be prepared. We might say that it was simply the Mishnah’s style to say both the law and its corollary opposite, but because the Talmud considered the Mishnah its law source, it was assumed that nothing was stylistic and everything admitted of legal analysis.

And then you can debate how large a round window must be, which shows us again that the rabbis could have derived a rough sense of pi (a circumference of 3 is about a diameter of 1 > a diameter of 1 creates a circumference 3.14159… to be more precise), or the diameter of an isosceles right triangle – sides of 1, diameter of 1 + 2/5 (or 1.4142 with a calculator). They were not about to discover the law of gravity, but we can often forget that the ancients had some sophistication with mathematics, engineering, and other sciences we sometimes assume are basically modern. Even if there isn’t a permanent wall, there are other ways to designate division: a pile of hay 10 hands high can count, and residents of each courtyard could feed their cattle on their respective sides, provided they didn’t take any away but just fed them from the pile. But the cattle shouldn’t eat it down to under 10 hands high, since that would create new problems.

How low and how thin can the wall between the courtyards be to permit a joint eruv (10 hands high and 4 thick)? How large of a breach in the wall counts as a doorway for the same purpose (10 cubits, or 15 feet)? In fact, a larger breach means they’re one courtyard and may ONLY prepare one eruv – thus giving us some sense of the rabbis’ minimum balance of wall and open space needed to define property lines. And what about a trench – how deep must it be (10 as well), and if it’s been filled in with hay or gravel or dirt does that make them be considered one courtyard? What if there’s a ladder against the wall – does that make a difference, and what does the ratio of wall-height to ladder-height need to be to enable sharing an eruv? We even read that using a tree as a ladder is forbidden while using an asherah, a tree dedicated to a Canaanite fertility goddess from which any benefit is absolutely forbidden as idolatry and paganism, IS permitted! The Talmud tries to explain that since the prohibition on using the asherah comes from something other than Shabbat, it’s allowed for this purpose, but the ruling still strikes one as odd, given the Biblical and rabbinic abhorrence of the asherah (see, for example, II Kings 23:6).

We also get a Mishnah explanation for a concept explored in previous pages: how to create a shittuf, or shared space in an alley. One places a jar there (later explained to have wine or other food), declaring “this belongs to everyone,” and then a person considered an independent individual needs to “receive” it: a grown-up son or daughter, or a wife, or a Hebrew maid or slave/servant (eved) can do so. But a minor child or a Canaanite maid or slave cannot. We easily understand the distinction for the minor, but why treat the slave differently? Because Hebrew slaves are periodically freed, but Canaanite slaves can be slaves forever! Cheers for considering Hebrew slaves still people, but jeers for not doing the same for all peoples.

Rather than delve right into this topic, however, our Talmud page instead jumps from a ruling of the savei d’pumbedita – the elders of Pumbedita, one of the pre-eminent rabbinic academies in Babylon – on this subject to a whole host of other rulings by the same group. One who recites Kiddush [wine blessing] for Shabbat or a holiday must taste at least a mouthful; one may only light a fire on Shabbat for a woman in childbirth; and an asherah by implication is a tree guarded by priests but not eaten from. Only then does the Talmud return to questions of whether a real transfer of possession is required to define shittuf, or merely the declaration by the individual is enough. And there are even cases where a wife may set up shittuf without her husband’s knowledge – heaven forbid!

There are two rulings of special interest and relevance to us with which we may conclude. First, Rabbi Ishmael, the son of Rabbi Yose, speaks to our reaction to these many laws when he quotes his father, who said, “Every time you can be relax eruvim rules, relax them!” And second, when debating what minimum quantity of food is required to keep an eruv valid after some have eaten from it over the course of Shabbat, Rabbi Yose rules that even the smallest quantity of food is all right, since they only enacted the rule of eruvim for courtyards so that the children should not forget it. Does this mean that all of this legal discussion was only to provide an educational point? In fact, that is the precisely the role it is serving for us here – not a guide to active living, but an opportunity for memory that these rules existed and were lived by by our ancestors once upon a time.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Friday, April 14, 2006

Survey – Eruvin 71-75 (December 15-19)

So far in Eruvin, we have seen how ownership is a balance between private possession and shared space – my household versus a shared courtyard. Our current survey begins with a further such complication: what if two or more households have agreed to split a common possession in a shared space, like an alley? I can think of friendly neighbors today, for example, who would share a more expensive lawnmower and just take turns using it rather than buy and maintain it alone. In our case, the Mishnah claims that if they share a vat of wine, they need no special eruv, but if it is wine and oil, they do. Why? As the Talmud explains, the wine could be kept in one large vat, but wine and oil require two containers and thus are not as clearly shared property. The reason this discussion is included in Eruvin is that there is a secondary kind of connection neighbors may make called a shittuf, or “association” – by contributing to a shared pot, they create a shared space for Shabbat. Not quite a modern “co-op,” but something in that direction. Unlike an eruv, which must be made with bread, a shittuf may be made with wine or, of course, with bread. Rabbi Meir would require an eruv for courtyards and a shittuf for alleys, but the consensus of the other Rabbis was that either device would work to cover both – an eruv in a courtyard covers the alleys, and a shittuf in an alley covers the courtyard.

BUT don’t think that the Rabbis of Meir’s generation have the last word, for later Rabbis claim three ways Rabbi Meir wins out in the long run:

- Rab Judah claims Rab said “the halakha [religious law] is as Rabbi Meir [says].”
- Rabbi Huna says, “the minhag [custom, lower force than halakha] is as Rabbi Meir.”
- Rabbi Yokhanan says, “the people act [nahagu ha-am] as Rabbi Meir.”

In other words, three sources of authority for a particular practice: halakha, minhag, and what the people actually do. Personally, I’ve always found the second two both more relevant and more interesting to my life than the first. Would you really rather think through the permutations of five courtyards and an alley – an eruv in one with no shittuf in the other, or a shittuf in the alley but one inhabitant of one of the courtyards forgets to chip in for the eruv, or one forgets about the shittuf – or hear about the cultural customs and daily life conditions as actually lived in Talmudic times? In truth, both are important: after all, halakha is a testimony both to some lived experience and to what the rabbis wanted people to do (even if they didn’t). And even the rabbis draw on actual experience: one common phrase used in this survey is ta sh’ma – come and hear of a real example that demonstrates the legal principle under debate.

The Talmud considers still more possible eruv situations – if several groups stay in a room, need they contribute one eruv portion to the common courtyard eruv for each group, or one for the whole room? How much of a partition counts to treat them as if they were in different rooms? And if children eat for Shabbat at their father’s table before going back to their own homes (on the same courtyard, a commentator clarifies) to sleep, can they participate in his eruv without contributing on their own, or need they renounce their share of the courtyard to be able to use it? The most important consideration in that last case is whether the son receives pras, or a maintenance allowance, from his father. Where does the Talmud learn that? From the case of a man who has 5 wives or 5 slaves he maintains with a pras – there is unrestricted movement between households automatically (though we can only imagine what the 5 wives thought about that). In fact, a similar relationship also applies to teacher and student.

Again, architects and urban planners would find the discussions of what to do when there is an inner courtyard entirely contained by an outer one – can those in the inner court walk through the outer courtyard to travel their permitted 2000 cubits, even though their eruv technically only applies to their own courtyard? Or can those from the outer go through the inner, since it’s contained in their own? I could draw a stretched analogy about how this could be compared today to relationships between inner cities and suburbs, or the “inner” person and the “outer” person, but to be honest, the rabbis who wrote this discussion were talking about inner and outer courtyards and what kind of restrictions on personal behavior they thought were required – NOT moral behavior, just private personal behavior! And whether people carry something in or out of their houses, in my mind, is much less important than whether they love their neighbors as themselves. Sharing a lawnmower, now THAT’S significant.

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Survey – Eruvin 66-70 (December 10-14)

Who knew that a simple commandment like “remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy” (Exodus 20) could create so many laws and conditions? Today’s selection continues earlier discussions of the conditions to create an eruv [Sabbath home marker] for a shared courtyard, but with a new situation: what if you have renters in a home owned by someone else? And what if the landowner is non-Jewish but the renters are Jewish? In fact, the renters can cause the non-Jewish landlord’s share of a courtyard to be counted towards a shared eruv, though again Rabbi Joseph claims to have never head this ruling and Abaye reminds him that Joseph himself taught that ruling! Even without a detailed medical history, we can suspect what Joseph was dealing with.

In addition to the interesting sociological tidbit that Jews would rent rooms in buildings owned by non-Jews (hardly a ghetto-style mutual separation), we also hear cases of interest to urban planners and architects: what if you have an inner and an outer courtyard? In this case, the inner courtyard takes precedence, for its eruv can be valid even if the outer courtyard has one “shareholder” not participating, but if the inner is invalid so too is the outer. There also is more haggling to be had concerning the size of a non-Jews doorway into a shared courtyard: what size may be considered a karmelit, an intermediary space between public and private ground. And if one renounces his right to a piece of the courtyard for the purposes of an eruv, how permanent is that, does it apply to their house as well, if they forget to participate in the eruv can they participate in the now-common space defined by the others, and so on and so on. Even to the case of someone dying in the middle of Shabbat – what then is the status of his share of the courtyard?

You may notice that I haven’t tried to answer any of these questions, or explain the Talmud’s way of working through them. One saying in our selection about two sages gives me the opportunity to explain why. We read about Rabbi Hisda and Rabbi Sheshet that they were a little afraid of each other: Rabbi Hisda was intimidated by how many mitaniya [rabbinic rulings or sayings] Rabbi Sheshet knew, and Rabbi Sheshet trembled from the pilpul of Rabbi Hisda. What is pilpul? It is quintessentially-Talmudic logic, splitting hairs for the sake of further discussion, on and on ad boredom. Much of the aforementioned discussion, particularly for the vast majority of contemporary Jews who do not observe Sabbath restrictions on carrying between private and public space (let alone other Shabbat rules!), is thus little more than pilpul. But the Talmud takes it very seriously: if there is a question in a particular teacher’s ruling, one should object before obeying if it concerns a Torah rule, but one should obey and object later if it’s a Rabbinic rule! You could say that this puts Torah rules on a higher level, since one should be extra careful about not breaking the rule, but it also puts the individual rabbinic teacher in a very powerful position. Never underestimate the importance of who wrote the document to who is given authority.

As one example, in our original Mishnah text under Talmudic discussion, Rabban Gamliel related his childhood experience of sharing an alley with a tsdoki [Sadducee] – a member of the Jerusalem priestly elite who disagreed on many ritual questions with the Pharisees or early rabbis. Interestingly, while the Talmud claims the Sadducee is like a non-Jew for eruv questions, Rabban Gamliel says they are not – personal experience with a neighbor, perhaps? But in a Talmudic retelling of the anecdote by Rabbi Meir, the Sadducee is referred to as to’av – abomination. On one hand, they are closer to each other by both being Jews; on the other, their differences are magnified by their very proximity and conflicting claims to authority.

We also read a fascinating discussion of other kinds of renegade Jews, from the rabbinic perspective: the mumar [“changed”, one who doesn’t follow rabbinic law] and the gilui panim [“revealed face”, bold public sinner]. Can they renounce their portion of a shared courtyard for an eruv? It hinges on an old debate between Rabbi Meir and the sages: Rabbi Meir felt that someone who disregarded one area of the Torah was suspect in all areas, while the Rabbis gave him the benefit of the doubt unless the one area he violated was idolatry [avodat kokhavim, literally “serving the stars”]. In our experience, consider our debates over the question of whether someone cheating on their taxes (or their spouse) makes them suspect everywhere else. In fact, the conclusion to the Talmud’s discussion is that offering wine to idols is on the same level of violation as public Sabbath desecration, since one who does either was not allowed to offer sacrifices. In other words, according to this reading of the Talmud, those who publicly violate Shabbat (most Jews today) can be suspected of violating every Torah commandment, including honoring their parents or bestiality!

And we who celebrate Shabbat Friday night or even Saturday morning but go to the gym on Saturday afternoon are not exempt – we read here that something permitted for part of Shabbat is allowed for all of Shabbat, and something forbidden for part is forbidden for all. This “all or nothing” approach is one reason why the most traditional lump Conservative, Reform, Humanistic and other Jews into one bag – do they observe traditional halakha [religious law] in its entirety or not? If not, then they’re like the Sadducee of Rabban Gamliel – to be avoided. But who needs their approval to have a personally-meaningful connection with one’s heritage?

Rabbi Adam Chalom

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Survey – Eruvin 61-65 (December 5-9)

One of the fascinating features of Talmudic discussion is the interaction of multiple chronological layers of halakhic [Jewish religious legal] debate. In the beginning of this survey, the Talmud continues its earlier discussion two towns close enough to each other to be considered one for the purposes of traveling on Shabbat by discussing the next Mishnah passage that has not yet been cited, since the rabbis discussing it already knew it was coming. In that passage, we see a record of Rabbi Akiva disagreeing with the multitude: on Shabbat they would allow a person to walk through both towns, and then 2000 cubits beyond (as if they were really one), while Akiva would be more strict and only allow one 2000 cubits from their individual eruv [Shabbat home marker]. He makes a reasonable analogy: if he put his eruv in a cave, you’d only let him travel 2000 cubits! They respond: “aymatie – when is this? When no one lives there!” In other words, if you’re creating a legal-fictional home by your eruv, it might as well extend through inhabited space like a town. And then the Talmud continues the debate – his contemporaries and later consider the case of a deserted town, or a large and spacious cave like that attributed to King Zedekiah (Jeremian 52:7), but the final result is stated succinctly by Raba centuries later: in eruvin, we don’t listen to Rabbi Akiva.

The next topic, however, is another of anthropological as well as halakhic interest: the Mishnah and following Talmud discussion considers the case of a Jew sharing a courtyard with a nokhri [non-Jew], or with someone (Jewish) who “ayno modeh b’eruvin – who does not accept the principle of eruv.” Does it take only one of those to make the courtyard off limits for Shabbat, or does it take several Jews who disagree? Rabban Gamliel even remembers growing up in Jerusalem sharing an alley with a tsdoki [Sadducee – rival Jewish sect to the early rabbis] and his abba [father] telling them to hurry up and put out what they’d need to use before he could restrict their use of the eruv. All of this is wonderful historical information: Jews and non-Jews sharing courtyards, Jews disagreeing with each other about Jewish practice, Sadducees who had a reputation for Biblical literalism not accepting the rabbinic innovation of the eruv, and so on.

The crux for the discussion in the following Talmud pages is the standing of the non-Jew’s home for the purposes of Shabbat. Is indeed a valid dwelling, or is another saying applicable: “khatsiro shel nokhri, haray hoo k’dir shel b’hayma – the courtyard of a non-Jew, behold it is like a cattle-pen.” In other words, their status in the courtyard is negligible, so they really can’t restrict its use. The ethics of that ruling notwithstanding, what would then give that “resident” the standing to interfere with an eruv? In fact, reasons the Talmud, the ruling was instead likely made to prevent the Jew from seeing and learning from what the non-Jew did, either by breaking Shabbat restrictions or general evil-doing, since by default “a non-Jew is suspected of bloodshed (nokhri khashood ashpikhoot damim).” To use the courtyard for Shabbat, the non-Jew must lease his piece of the courtyard to the Jews for that day, and so they debate how strict of a lease would be required to get him to agree – is a “perfect” lease (for some minimal sum or with documents and witnesses) required, or would an “imperfect” lease be acceptable? Acceptable that is, both to the non-Jew who has to consent, and to the rabbis for their own followers to offer. And there may be the case where the non-Jew simply suspects the Jew of “witchcraft” – if they don’t understand Shabbat in the first place, they’re unlikely to make temporary leases around it. As a later commentator put it, having to deal with the hassle every week would inspire the Jew to move elsewhere, saving him “from the evil influence of the heathen’s questionable mode of life.” We can see through this that sometimes ghettos were not only imposed from outside the Jewish community.

We saw earlier in this selection how later generations understood earlier legal discussions – what about two authorities operating in the same time? Even if there is a clear “master” in that period, or even in that place, can others proclaim halakhic [religious law] decisions? Raba claims that “a young scholar may examine his own knife” (for purposes of ritual slaughter), thus granting some autonomy in legal decisions. And Rabina explains that he can be both a talmid [student] and khaver [colleague] to his master, the ideal relationship of any scholar (even today) to their former students. But on the same page, Raba decrees that in general it is assur [forbidden] on penalty of death to make a legal ruling in the presence of one’s Master, and even in his absence (though not under penalty of death). Several anecdotes make the same point: such a student should be bitten by a snake, or die within a year, or go to she’ol [the afterlife] without children, and so on. While some claim that Judaism is a tradition of unfettered and unbiased debate and argument, there is also a clear sense of hierarchy, maintaining the ego and dignity of the teacher, and limiting the autonomy and independence of the student. This does have a practical side of restricting innovation, but a concomitant result of restricting innovation!

After all, what if your Master is like Rabbi Nahman, who disagreed Rabbi Judah’s prohibition on making legal rulings after drinking a log [six eggs’ worth] of wine – Nahman claims that without drinking a quarter log, his mind isn’t clear! And in a modern incarnation of the difference between DUI (Driving Under the Influence) and DWI (Driving While Intoxicated), the rabbis try to determine when one is shatui [had drunk] versus shikor [drunk] – the former may pray a valid prayer, but the latter may not. Some suggest walking or sleeping off the drink, but others claim it will make you more tired and drunk if you’ve have over a quarter log. And “Italian wine” [yayin italki – i.e. Roman wine] is considered stronger, requiring 3 times the walking to wear off. Those who are drunk and sell themselves into servitude, or commit a capital or flogging-worthy offense must face the consequences of their actions, unless they are as “drunk as Lot” (see Genesis 19:30 – unconscious). So what is a responsible use of wine? Rabbi Hanin claims it can comfort mourners and the wicked about to perish for their sins. Keeping a clear mind having drunk some wine puts one in august rabbinic company. And when wine flows like water in a house, it is a sign of blessing (we might say, alcoholism!). In all seriousness, it is very reasonable to have as a general guideline “shikor lo yoreh – a drunk should not make legal decisions.”

We’ll end this survey with one other piece of valuable wisdom: “a person is known by three things: his cup (how he drinks), his purse (how generous he is), and his anger.” The Aramaic is even more clever: koso, keeso, v’ka’aso. And others add: also by his laughter [sakhako]. If you want a way to understand others, or know if a person is a good person, these are not bad places to start.

Rabbi Adam Chalom