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