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 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