Thursday, April 20, 2006

Shmini (Rambam)

Rambam on Food

This week’s parasha contains the major chapter of the Torah dealing with the laws of kashrut (repeated, with slight variations, in Deuteronomy 14:3-21). Hence, this is a suitable occasion to discuss the significance of food and eating in the Rambam. It goes without saying that, in the Yad, Rambam treats the legal aspects of kashrut comprehensively. These are treated in Hilkhot Ma’akhalot Asurot (“the Laws of Forbidden Foods”) and Hilkhot Shehitah (“The Laws of Slaughtering,” which also includes tereifot), which to my mind are the best, most systematic introduction to the laws of kashrut one could hope for. Significantly, these and the laws treating sexuality (see Aharei-Kedoshim) are treated in Sefer Kedushah, “The Book of Holiness”—as if to say, a person begins to acquire holiness, not through ethereal mental exercises focused on the transcendent world of metaphysics, but through disciplining, in the most immediate, down-to-earth sense, the most basic physical appetites.

In the Guide of the Perplexed, Maimonides places the commandments relating to forbidden foods and forbidden sexual liaisons and forbidden foods as the last two of the fourteen classes, giving the general rationale for kashrut as “to put an end to the lusts and licentiousness manifested in seeking what is most pleasurable and to taking the desire for food and drink as an end” (Guide, III. 35; Pines, p. 357). Rather, as he states elsewhere, the true end of life ought to be pursuit of the knowledge of God, and physical pleasures are a distraction from these. Interestingly, in his detailing of the rationale for the specific laws of kashrut (III. 48), such as the prohibitions of certain species of animals, fowl and fish, or the separation of meat and milk, he does not offer a symbolic explanation, such as is found in numerous Rabbinic midrashim and many of the other classical commentaries. He suffices with stating, without elaboration, that all of the kinds of food forbidden to us are in fact harmful, enlarging in a few sentences only upon pork and the fat of the intestines (it is Rambam the physician, rather than Rambam the rabbi, who is speaking here). The prohibition against meat cooked in milk is related to the customs of the ancient idolaters.

Rambam is perhaps unique in that, in addition to the aspect of religious law, he deal with the subject of eating and proper diet from the viewpoint of maintaining health and proper equilibrium of the bodily function—as, after all, is only to be expected of a physician. He addresses these issues in greatest detail in his medical writings—a literature with which I am unfortunately unfamiliar (a multi-volume edition of Maimonides’ medical writings does exist, in English, edited and translated by Prof. Fred Rosner of Yeshiva University). He does, however, briefly discuss the question of diet in the Mishneh Torah, in the fourth chapter of Hilkhot Deot, “Laws of Character Traits” (I shall discuss this treatise as a whole in greater depth next week):

1. Since the body being healthy and whole is among the ways of God—for it is impossible for a person to understand or attain anything of knowledge of the Creator if he is sickly—therefore a person needs to distance himself from those things that destroy the body, and to accustom himself to those things that lead to health and healing. And these are: a person should never eat except when he is hungry, nor drink except when he is thirsty, and he should not postpone seeing to his bodily needs even for a moment. Rather, whenever he needs to urinate or to defecate he should immediately attend to it.

Rambam’s starting point here is the centrality of knowledge of God. Since clarity of thought is impossible without proper health, one must live in a way that insures one’s health. His approach is basically a utilitarian one. There is nothing here (or elsewhere in Rambam) resembling the Hasidic concept of avodah begashmiut, of serving God through the physical world, by “elevating” its elements to a higher spiritual plane. Nor does he foster the attitude that the simple enjoyment of the good things in God’s world can in itself be a religious act. (Compare the saying at the end of Yerushalmi Kiddushin, “In the future, a person will be held accountable for whatever good things he saw in the world, and did not taste.”)

2. A person should not eat to the point that he fills his stomach completely, but should hold back about a quarter-way from satiation. And he should not drink water during the meal except for a small amount, and that mixed with wine. But when the food begins to be digested he may drink what he needs to drink, but he should not drink water in great quantities even after he has digested the food. Nor should he eat until he has examined himself very thoroughly, lest he needs to attend to his bodily functions. Nor should a person eat until he has walked prior to eating, until his body begins to be warm, or performed some labor, or exerted himself in some other way. The rule is, he should strain his body and exert himself every day in the morning until his body begins to be warm, and then sit quietly until his equilibrium returns, and then eat. And if he washes himself with warm water after he has exerted, that is good, and thereafter he should drink a bit and then eat.

3. When a person eats, he should always sit in his place or recline to his left, but he should not walk or ride or exert himself or upset his body. Nor should he walk about until he has digested his food; but whoever walks or exerts himself after his meal brings upon himself harsh and severe illnesses.

On the one hand, the Rambam constantly emphasizes the importance of physical exertion and exercise; on the other, eating as such must take place in a calm, restful atmosphere. Each activity has its clearly delineated place, and appropriate time intervals—for settling oneself after exercise or bathing, for digestion after eating, etc.— are ordered to separate each activity. Likewise drinking with meals, presumably because it inhibits the natural functioning of the digestive juices, is discouraged.

We can only envy him for living in a calmer age. His suggestions, valuable as they may be, are far more difficult to implement in the hectic life-style of the modern world, where many people are forced, at least during working hors, to “eat on the run”— doubtless one of the sources of wide-spread obesity and other eating ailments.

5. … a person should not sleep immediately after eating, but should wait after his meal three or four hours. And he should not sleep during the day.

In §§6-13, Rambam provides specific guidelines about diet: which foods are to be avoided completely, which to be eaten only rarely, which on occasion, which in summer and which in winter, etc. He also offers remedies (separate for young and old) for loosening the bowels—a subject he saw of critical importance for maintaining good health.

14. And they [the sages of medicine] said another rule regarding the health of the body: So long as a person exercises and exerts himself a lot, and is not satiated, and his bowels are soft, no illness shall befall him, and his strength shall increase—even if he eats bad foods.

15. But whoever sits comfortably and does not exert himself, or postpones seeing to his bodily needs, or whose bowels are hard—even if he eats good foods and observed the rules of medicine—all his days will be painful and his power will decline. And excessive eating is to every person’s body like a death potion, and it is the main source of all illnesses, and most ailments that befall people are either from eating bad foods or from filling his stomach and overeating even of good foods. And this is what Solomon said in his wisdom: “He who guards his mouth and tongue, guards his soul from troubles” [Prov 21:23}. That is, one who guards his mouth from eating bad food or from satiation, and his tongue from speaking except what is necessary.

I am reminded here of Jesus’ harsh remarks in the Gospels criticizing the Pharisees for worrying more about what they put into their mouth rather than what comes out of it. Rambam here puts the lie to this dichotomy, stating that both are equally important. If anything, improper eating is more a matter of physiological health (he does not deal here with kashrut), whereas transgressions involving speech (including gossip, malicious speech, crude and vulgar language, false oaths, etc.) are more of an ethical–spiritual nature.

Talmudic Insights on Prayer

Continuing with some thoughts on the daily Talmud page: this week’s readings focus upon the act of prayer per se. Thus, in Berakhot 29b we learn by inference, from a discussion of what ought not to do, about the requirement of kavvanah in prayer:

Mishnah. Rabbi Eliezer says: One who makes his prayer fixed, his prayer is not [beseeching of] mercy. Gemara. What is meant by “fixed”? Rav Yaakov bar Iddi said in the name of Rav Oshaya: Whoever’s prayer seems to him like a burden. And the Rabbis said: whoever does not recite it in a language [manner?] of petition. Rabba and Rav Yosef both said: Whoever is unable to renew something therein. … Rabbi Yohanan said: It is a mitzvah to recite it at the twilight of the sun.

What is meant by each of the four approaches or answers mentioned in the Talmud?

1) R. Oshaya’s response, “one whose prayer seems to him like a burden,” refers to an essential paradox in Jewish prayer: on the one hand, prayer is a mitzvah, an obligation, that must be recited every day, even several times a day; on the other hand, by its very essence prayer is understood as an interior, spiritual-emotional act (“service of the heart”), that cannot be conjured up at will in quite the same way as one performs a purely formal act. The recitation of the text is merely the external husk; “fixity” is thus the enemy of the desired spiritual attitude. Thus, one who prays—meaning, who recites the words—as an obligation, to be discharged as rapidly and simply as possible, without involving one’s inner being in any significant way—hasn’t really prayed.

Of course, if taken seriously, the norm implied is very difficult: not only to recite prayer thrice daily, but to do so with fullness of attention, feeling, involvement, etc. It seems excessive to expect the average person, who is neither a saint nor a full-time contemplative (preferably independently wealthy without any other obligations or responsibilities in life!) to achieve such concentration every single day. And yet, to abandon that expectation is to give up on a central component of Jewish religious life.

2) The Rabbis said: “Whoever does not recite in a language of petition.” In what sense is this different from #1? Assuming that this refers to recitation of a fixed text, such as the one familiar to us (albeit in olden times, the prayer text itself was more flexible, and consisted only of the basic contents and closing formula of each blessing), it seems to mean that prayer is recited in manner or attitude suitable to supplication, to appealing to the Almighty for our needs, individual and collective—meaning, again, not mechanically, but with feeling. The word tahanunim derives from the root hn"n—meaning, grace, favor, to give gratuitously, unconditionally, freely—not by way of quid-pro-quo or related to any covenant or treaty between the two sides. In other words, in tahanunim we throw ourselves entirely upon God’s mercies, believing in His kindness and bounty and love for us; seeing Him, not as bound by any obligations to us, but as giving freely simply because such is His nature. It is this point: that we must come to God without any claims, without any sense of being “owed” - that is the essence of prayer.

And, interestingly, the set of thirteen middle blessings of the Amidah begins with the words "you graciously give man knowledge…”, and uses the same verb further on in that blessing. Significantly, this is the blessing concerned with man’s intellectual faculties—precisely that gift in which human beings see their uniqueness—as if to say: the mind, in which man most prides himself, is in fact a freely given gift from God.

3) Rabba and Rav Yosef’s answer, “Whoever is unable to innovate something therein,” means that prayer, even if heartfelt, cannot merely be a recitation of a formal text, but must relate in a real way to the worshipper’s concrete situation—which, being part of life, involves constant flow and change, challenges, needs, hopes and worries.

4) Rabbi Yohanan’s phrase dimdumei hamah has no precise equivalent in English: “twilight” or “dusk” generally imply evening, more than they do morning. Here, the sense is, at the moment that the sun is dim, not yet/anymore yielding its full light, whether in morning or evening. The idea here is that one is to pray at the precise moment when he sun is rising and when it is setting (or immediately before). There is an almost mystical sense in which different periods of time are imbued with different kinds of spiritual significance: and certain times are simply times of grace.


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