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.

Friday, April 14, 2006

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