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, 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