Saturday, June 04, 2005

Rabbinic rules for the working stiff

Smack in the middle of chapter 2, and masechet shabbat turns from spatiality to work, or may I even suggest: The Worker.

Looking first at daf 9b, the mishnah sets out several gezerot – precautionary rules – to ensure that the people have time for the afternoon prayers (minchah). If it’s nearly time to pray, don’t even start – not with the barber, the bathhouse, or the tannery. Don’t put the court in session, if you’re the judge.

For everyone who runs late or cuts it close, this gemara’s for you. It’s Murphy’s Halakhah, antiquity style. Don’t wait for the last minute, else: if you’re a barber, the scissors might break; if you’re in a bathhouse, you might feel faint; if you’re dealing with the tanner, your leather might be messed up. Granted, the mishnah insists that that customers refrain from doing business. Nevertheless, what would be the outcome from observing these precautions? The workers would not be rushed themselves and they would have time for a coffee, unh prayer, break. Well before MOT Marx railed against endless working hours, and long before those L.A. Jews published “No Shvitz: Your One-Stop Guide to Fighting Sweatshops", the Talmud was surreptitiously cutting down on working hours. (Well, maybe.)

A couple of daf later, the talmud gives a little subversive guide to The Boss:

Work under an Ishmaelite and not under an [Edomite = Roman], under an Edomite and not under a [Persian], under a Persian and not under a Torah scholar, under a Torah scholar and not under an orphan or a widow. (Artscroll Shab 11a)
In other words, it’s difficult to work for a boss who you need to treat with utmost respect and sensitivity. But it’s clear who are real taskmasters.

For future reference, let’s keep a list of some other types of work mentioned: delousing, tailor (11a), teaching, winepress, scribe, fuller, weaver, dyer, money changer, and the catch-all craftsman (אומן). (bShab 11b) (Read what a business prof thinks the Talmud says about ideal, honorable and dishonest occupations.)

Color this post a “work in progress” and let’s take a break for a...
Good shabbos,

Kaspit כספית

Friday, June 03, 2005

An article on appropriate techology for shabbat

Having just mentioned Jeremy Benstein in a previous post, it's worth re-reading his dvar (Torah-inspired essay) from ten (!) years back. He addresses, in part, the downside of the very technologies inspired by rabbinic regulation of cholent and other sundry sabbaticality...

Hands Off of Nature! by Jeremy Benstein

…. Shabbat implies an approach that can be labeled biocentric, demanding that humans abstain from domination. It thereby allows them to see themselves as creatures, rather than creators. Orthodox philosopher David Hartman says of the seventh day: "... the flowers of the field stand over and against man as equal members of the universe. I am forbidden to pluck the flower or to do with it as I please; at sunset the flower becomes a `thou' to me with a right to existence regardless of its possible value for me... The Sabbath aims at healing the human grandiosity of technological society."

Shabbat, then, is to time what a nature preserve is to space. Both are "places" marked with distinct boundaries. In both, the soul of the human "visitor" is refreshed, while the natural order is preserved in its unviolated form. Outside the boundaries, we do not seek to negate civilization, the realm of human action, and make the whole world a preserve. But ideally the values experienced inside the "fence" will influence how we view the world beyond, and our role in it.

But there is an unresolved tension between the lofty aggadah and the nitty-gritty of the Shabbat halakhah. If Shabbat implies renouncing human domination over the natural world, and represents a more harmonious relationship with the rest of creation, then how can we justify the waste involved in modern observance of the Sabbath, such as leaving lights and other electric appliances on for the entirety of the day? And doesn't Sabbath observance become a violation of the mitzvah of bal tash'hit - the prohibition of senseless waste?

Some observant Jews look to technology to solve the problem: Let timers operate our lights; let us "observe" the Sabbath by using electronic relays and devices invented specifically for the seventh day. But is turning to technological innovations to comply with restrictions in the Sabbath's spirit of humility and human creatureliness? Rather, it only emphasizes our continued scientific exploitation of nature, and the use of the uniquely human creative impulse that we are meant to be restraining on this day. Perhaps there is no single solution that will satisfy all Jews, but I believe that the issue must be addressed when teaching, and observing, Shabbat.

Parashat Yitro; January 26, 1995

Read the whole essay and the rest of the series, too. Let's think more Shabbat-based technologies and the implications for a Jewish critique of technology writ large.

Kaspit כספית

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Shabbos time and space

Thoughts on opening up tractate Shabbat (bShab 2ff):

(Yes, you can google: “As much as/Just as/More than the Jew has kept shabbos/shabbat, shabbos has kept the Jew” ...but you can’t make me say it!)

Shabbos is a day of rest – but not a day of inactivity. Yes, rabbinic law (halakhah) prohibits work. However, in theory, halakhah proscribes only that work which fits within its 39 categories (avot).

Shabbos is an ancient cultural practice that continues to mark Jews, the MOTs, as rooted in an agricultural past, with land(s) and “natural” cycles, in short: an aboriginal past. (Aboriginal idea from a 1998 conference at Hahvahd , talk by Jeremy Benstein of Tel Aviv’s Heschel Center. This idea can be pursued rather far out in a spiritual direction.)

In The Shabbat, Heschel expresses the notion that shabbos is a radical alternative to modernity’s approach(es) to time. Granted. Shabbos time is special, I feel the difference every week. And shabbos time does speak truth to power, calling into question all those not-yet-reduced (post-)industrial long working hours, overtime and speed-up. But Heschel contrasts the shabbos innovation with time to the mundane concern with space.

However, space is not neglected in Jewish thinking and observance of shabbos. Indeed, there is nothing random about the Babylonian Talmud’s (redactors’) choice to begin Tractate Shabbos with space. Much of the opening chapter deals with work that spans space. Space is rabbinically organized into four domains for the purposes of Shabbat. These 4 domains are the private, public, quasi-public karmelit, and the exempt (public) space. You can rest assured, these four domains do not map neatly onto any modern legal constructs, such as private vs. public property! Rather, the halakhic man looks at the world, especially on shabbos, through a unique spatial imaginary spun out of shabbos and many other masechtot (lit: webs).

Whoa, disclaimer time (or space). After writing these words, I looked up Charlotte Fonrobert’s fine article on the eruv (and mEruvin), a rabbinic innovation to allow carrying across domains. She states:
As the companion to the preceding tractate dealing with the laws of the Sabbath, m.Eruv. can, at least in part, be read as developing the spatiality of the seventh day of the week. Indeed, supplementing Heschel’s popular notion of the Sabbath as the “palace in time” which forms the basis of his description of Judaism as a “religion of time” versus a “religion of space” the rabbinic Sabbath has all the world to do with spatial practice and situating oneself and the community in space. (source below)
(I’ve also heard Fonrobert speak about eruv. So should my musings above be credited to ideas raised by her and otherwise floating around the ether?)

Well, Fonrobert argues that the rabbinic imaginary creates boundaries between Jews and gentiles, between rabbinic and other Jews. I had something less dramatic in mind, merely that the rabbinic imagination shapes how the halakhic Jew observes the world around them, categorizes and becomes sensitive to spaces, objects-in-spaces, and spatial distinctions/nuances. Or perhaps the sensitivity is internalized, and the halakhic guy or gal merely exhibits a rabbinicized mode of human spatial consciousness.

Ok, I’ve spaced out. Remind me to get back to the aboriginal Jew and modern technology, which is more clearly hermercurial….

Kaspit כספית

Cooper, D. 1998: Governing out of order: space, law and the politics of belonging. London: Rivers Oram Press. xiv + 242 pp. £35.00 cloth, £14.95 paper. ISBN: 1 85489 102 2 cloth, 1 85489 103 0 paper.

"From Separatism to Urbanism: The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Origins of the Rabbinic Eruv" by Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert in

Friday, May 20, 2005

Autonomy :: technology

(bShab 17b) Halakha forbids Jews from working on shabbat. Can they delegate their work to a tool, a technology? The sages here disagree: beit Shammai demands that the tools must finish their work, whereas beit Hillel allows the tool to do מלאכה (forbidden work) on shabbat. Who’s in charge, the human or the tool? Brings to mind some recent reading on autonomy…
The human is autonomous, for Kant, because each of us is free to legislate our duties in accord with the moral law.
Technology is autonomous, for Langdon Winner (“Frankenstein's Problem: Autonomous Technology?”). The invention is out-of-control and wants to be free, but the creator is confused and tormented...
The corporation is autonomous, for Byron Sherwin (Golems among us : how a Jewish legend can help us navigate the biotech century ). The corporation as artificial person, as golem, gains rights as the natural person loses their freedom.
Modes of production are autonomous, for historical materialists. (I.e., if reading Marx as technological determinist.)
Between free will and determinism, the Talmudic text excretes the nomos and the self. Does beit Shammai consider the tool as an extension of the self, a restricted agent? The practical halakha is complex but tends to follow beit Hillel. Does beit Hillel regard Technology as a purely autonomous entity? Say it ain’t so, b”H.