Friday, March 28, 2008

Shemini (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this parasha, see the archives to this blog, below, at April 2006.


This year, due to it being a leap year, we find a rather interesting juxtaposition: Parashat Shemini falls the week after Purim. Purim: the day of drinking, revelry, and the notion of reaching the state of “not knowing the difference between…,” a concept interpreted by many as suggesting a state beyond cognition, a kind of mystical transcendence of the whole realm of comprehension and rationality. But in this week’s parasha, in wake of the story of Nadav and Avihu, who died when they went unlawfully into the Inner Sanctuary to burn incense—an act prompted, some say, by an excess of religious ecstasy or, in another view, after imbibing strong drink—there is a warning to the kohanim that they not drink any wine when “going into the Tent of Meeting”—i.e., when serving in the Temple (Lev 10:8-11).

Interesting, this same rule is extended by the Sages to include the act of teaching Torah (which at one time, as noted in this very passage, was among the priestly functions; cf. Malachi 2:7) and, especially, to issuing halakhic rulings (see Rambam, Bi’at Mikdash 1.3-4). The posek, or the religious court judge, must be cold sober when deliberating and applying words of Torah. In other words: we find here that great store is put on mental clarity, on the ability to make distinctions—often, rather subtle ones.

Purim consciousness, the sense of Ad delo yada, the mystical mentality in general, is one that blurs distinctions, that tends to see the whole world in fuzzy terms, all things flowing and merging into one another. And, to be sure, it is one of the important perspectives forming the kaleidoscope that makes up a religious world-view—one to which we surrender one day a year. But, by contrast, the halakhic perspective of year-round Judaism emphasizes sharp distinctions, “edges.” Things are either permitted or forbidden—and it is essential that these be made out of mental clarity.

Interestingly, Shabbat, which more than any other day symbolizes the quest for unity, has “fuzzy” edges. Of course, this is in large measure due to the nature of twilight: the day segues into night, rather than there being an abrupt, clear transition between the two, as one might have on the moon. But it also seems symbolically appropriate that this be so—although here too, at any given moment the individual is either observing Shabbat or not, even if he adds 72 minutes, or even many hours, of Tosefet Shabbat.

This idea of clear, sharp, distinctions is well exemplified by the very next section of our parasha, Leviticus 11, devoted to the mitzvah of kashrut.

Kashrut: Forbidden Species

This chapter gives the basic rules of what is perhaps the best known and socially most distinctive Jewish observance: kashrut. Interestingly, this chapter does not simply list prohibited kinds of food, but creates an entire structure, dividing the world of living creatures into four main groups—mammals, fish, birds (i.e., denizens of earth, water, and sky), and various types of “creeping things”— reptiles and insects. Within each class, it states “these are those that you shall eat” and “these are those that you shall not eat” or “these shall be unclean” (tamei; often translated “impure”) or “an abomination” (sheketz) to you. The laws of kashrut thus seem as much concerned with building a map of the world of living things, as they are with dietary concerns per se.

Indeed, Rambam, in the very first halakhah in the Laws of Forbidden Foods (Hilkhot Ma’akhalot Asurot 1.1) defines the mitzvot in this chapter, for each category of living being, as including both a prohibition (“not to eat…”) and a positive commandment: “to know the signs of which mammal/bird/fish/insect is clean / pure and which impure.” In this context, he invokes the verse, “to distinguish between the unclean and the clean, between the animal that may be eaten and that which may not be eaten” (11:47).

Thus, one might say that the essence of this mitzvah lies in the drawing of distinctions. Interestingly, in recent years some anthropologists have discussed kashrut in similar terms, as reflecting the paradigmatic role in Jewish culture of structure and the imposing of cultural order upon the chaotic physical world (see HY I: Shemini = Shemini [Torah]). One can of course discuss the specifics of kashrut: why are these animals permitted and not others? Many commentators have suggested various schemes for viewing kashrut, such as noting the largely predatory nature of the non-kosher fish, birds, and mammals and the more “gentle” nature of the kosher species, qualities which we somehow ingest by eating them. Alternatively, there is a Kabbalistic view that the non-kosher creatures come from the world of the kelipot, of untamed spiritual energy, and exercise deleterious effect on those that eat them.

But all these ideas are ultimately speculative, and it is important to remember that, like any other mitzvot, one’s observance of kashrut does not stand or fall on one or another “explanation” or “rationale” for the mitzvah, but is a priori. (This, on another level, is one of the central messages inferred from the use of the word hukah, “statute,” in the opening verse of Numbers 19, read this Shabbat as maftir for Parshat Parah). Rather, the fact of making distinctions, of having a kind of map that imposes a certain scheme upon the world of living beings, is in itself important. How so? Nature viewed by itself may be seen as chaos. So, too, the person who relates to food in terms of appetite or the sensation of taste alone—the gourmet, or even more so the gourmand—will eat anything. Kashrut seems somehow related to the idea that God created the world in an orderly way. If Creation was an act of imposing order, then kashrut “imitates” God by imposing order on chaos. (On one level, this might be compared to the scientist, who constructs order, imposing categories of species, orders, phalanxes, etc, upon the raw data of the universe of living things. Notably, Rav Soloveitchik draws a parallel between the scientist and the halakhist in his essay , Halakhic Man.) This idea, coupled with the notion of self-restraint as a quintessential human quality, go a long way towards explaining the centrality of kashrut in Judaism.


“Perfect Writing” vs. “Perfect Reading”

On Purim night, I was present at an informal reading in someone’s home where a woman was asked to read one chapter of the Megillah “cold.” Afterwards, she repeatedly apologized for not reading her chapter perfectly, as if this might have been an halakhic stumbling block of sorts to her listeners. This prompted me to undertake a short investigation of the halakhic nature of the reading of the Megillah, and the difference between Megillah reading and Torah reading.

What I discovered was quite interesting. The halakhah contains numerous laws governing the manner of writing of a Torah scroll, any one of which, if not fulfilled properly, renders it pasul, unfit for use: for example, if even a single word is spelled incorrectly, even if the error in no way affects the sense of the particular word, as in the addition or omission a yod or vav (haser or yater); if the spaces between the parshiyot are incorrect; if the special format used for Shirat Hayam or Haazinu is absent, or used in the wrong place; etc. By contrast, the Megillah may be read even if it has unclear or smudged or torn letters; indeed, even if a few words (up to half the text!) are missing, and the reader recites from memory, his recitation is kosher. Similarly, the parchment on which the Megillah is written need not to have been cured lishmah—with conscious intention of being used for a mitzvah—and, at least in the case of a private reading, for an individual, it may in a emergency even be read from a book (i.e., a handwritten codex) bound with other scriptural texts. Another halakhah stipulates that the sheets of parchment composing the Megillah need not be stitched together from top to bottom as is a Torah scroll, but that three stitches, in the top, middle and bottom, suffice—this, because it is called an iggeret, an epistle or letter, rather than a sefer, a book.

The basic, underlying difference between the two is this: the Sefer Torah, the Torah scroll, is conceived by the halakhah first and foremost as an object of kedushah, of perhaps the highest degree of holiness of any object that we have in our present-day religious life. This, because it is the closest thing we have to an embodiment of the Sinai revelation. It is seen as an exact copy of the Torah given at Sinai, and its public reading is not only an act of instruction, but a symbolic reliving of Ma’amad Har Sinai.

The megillah, by contrast, is seen in more instrumental terms. Unlike the reading of the Torah, the reading of the megillah is an obligation incumbent upon each individual Jew, man and woman, and must be complete, in its proper order (i.e., without skipping around), and without interruption. In principle, one may not miss even one word—for which reason, when noise is made upon reading Haman’s name, many readers go back and repeat the words from that point. The essential thing, in the case of the Megillah, is the act of reading per se; it is in this sense that it is an iggeret, an epistle written to convey a specific message or idea to the public. Its function is to tell the story, to bring the events related therein to the consciousness of listeners. (Hence, it may in theory even be read in a language other than Hebrew, if that is the one best understood by the public—but I have not heard of any physical evidence of this ever being done in practice.) The Megillah as a physical object is an instrument serving this need, so that we are not overly punctilious about its physical-halakhic qualities. Some scholars have suggested that Purim is modeled after festival days in other cultures, that begin with a public reading or telling the story of the event commemorated by the festival, followed by feasting, celebration, general revelry, and gift-giving.

To end with a comparison to another written artifice: the halakhah stipulates that the scrolls used in the tefillin and the mezuzah by written without interruption and without error: כתיבה תמה, “perfect writing.” One might perhaps say that, in the case of Megillat Esther, the corresponding notion is of קריאה תמה, “perfect reading.”

Purim and Shavuot

On Shabbat Purim, Mishael Zion gave a shiur at Shira Hadasha on the notion of Purim as a kind of “parody” of the other, more serious Jewish holidays. He discussed possible parallels and ironic or satiric contrasts between Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur and Pesah, as against Purim. But another, even more striking relation, is that between Purim and Shavuot, as suggested by the following Rabbinic dictum:

Rabba said: Even though Israel initially accepted the Torah out of coercion, when He held the mountain above them like a barrel, they again accepted it in the days of Ahashuerus, as is said, ‘They fulfilled and accepted” [Esther 9:27]—the fulfilled what they had already accepted. (b. Shabbat 88a]

Purim seems to be viewed here as a kind a second Shavuot, a day of “Accepting the Torah”—and this time, not under compulsion, but willingly, out of love and free choice. Beyond the play on the words קיימו וקבלו (“they fulfilled and accepted,” which in the original context simply refers to the institutionalization of Purim by Mordecai and Esther), what is the underlying idea here? What is unique about Purim that prompted a fuller acceptance of Torah than previously? Is this midrash perhaps saying something about the nature of Jewish Diaspora existence and Torah: that Torah, in the classical Rabbinic sense, is somehow a product of situations of restriction, persecution, the absence of socio-political autonomy and sovereignty? Or perhaps about God’s working in hidden ways in mundane human life as being somehow more persuasive than the dramatic, even bombastic miracles of the Exodus and the Revelation? I have no answers to these questions, but only wanted, at this point, to raise them as issues for reflection and consideration.


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