Thursday, March 20, 2008

Tzav-Purim (Mitzvot)

For more teachings on this parasha, see the archives of this blog for April 2006. For more Purim teachings, see March 2006.

“All Fat … and all Blood You Shall Not Eat” (Lev 7:22-27)

With all the hullabaloo, festivity and studied foolishness surrounding Purim (which for us Jerusalemites extends over three entire days, through Shabbat and into the beginning of next week!), one tends to forget that there is also a regular Torah portion to be read and studied. Although this portion, Tzav, contains eighteen mitzvot—nine positive and nine negative, according to Sefer ha-Hinukh—only two of them are applicable outside of the Temple and its era. Moreover, the latter half of the parasha (Leviticus Chap. 8) is concerned with a singular, one-time event: yemei ha-miluim, the consecration or initiation of Aharon and his sons into the priesthood by Moses.

The two mitzvot observed nowadays are the prohibitions, respectively, against eating certain fatty portions of animals (helev), and that against imbibing the blood of both domesticated and wild animals, and of fowl. The former law apples specifically to those fats portions which were offered upon the altar, and which covered certain organs (the entrails, the kidney and the liver); it would therefore seem likely that the prohibition was an extension of the holiness attached to those parts; moreover, the fact that these were vital organs may relate to the theme of reverence for life and its processes, as is the case in the prohibition of blood. (In practice, this law is one with which the ordinary Jew need never concern himself, as in any kosher butcher shop or distributor the forbidden portions are removed prior to sale.)

By contrast, the prohibition against blood is one of the basic rules of kashrut. Today, most kosher meat is sold “kashered,” but until a generation or two ago the preparation of meat for cooking, through salting, draining and washing, was one of the important tasks of the Jewish housewife; the preparation for broiling of those organs that are rich in blood, such as the liver and the heart, was a particularly complex procedure. In any event, the underlying idea is clear enough, and is being articulated in several other places in the Torah where these prohibitions are repeated (Lev 17:11; Deut 12:16 ff.): “the blood is the nefesh (life/vital-soul-matter).” That is, the blood embodies the vitality of the animal; what we eat, after the blood is removed, is essentially dead flesh, not the actual life stuff of the animal.

Two related thoughts. The ban on blood is closely linked with two other laws in Judaism: the prohibition against sexual relations with a menstruating woman, which might be reformulated as “do not copulate on the blood”; and the prohibition against murder, defined as shefikhut damim, lit., “spilling of blood.” There is a kind of aversion to blood, a recoil from casual use of or contact with it, deep within the Jewish mentality; the law suggests and seems designed to inculcate a deep reverence for life. Year ago, Milton Himmelfarb elaborated upon this point, noting that there is something in the Jewish sensibility (one might almost call it the Jewish “aesthetic”) that abhors blood, seeing both blood and a certain type of unfettered sexuality as antithetical to Judaism. “Inchastity is the piety of paganism… Bloodshed is likewise the piety of paganism… They did not need to read Ovid or Petronius or Tacitus or Juvenal to know how the pagans were about sex and about blood.” (Cf. HY I: Metzora)

A second thought prompted by this parasha is that the strict prohibition against blood, as the carrier of life, suggests that vegetarianism is the ideal state, and that meat-eating is a kind of compromise with the reality of the human desire for meat. This has been suggested, most notably, by the late Rabbi A. I. Kook, in his pamphlet Hazon ha-Tzimhonut veha-Shalom, as well as by other rabbis and commentators. In Leviticus 17 the consumption of meat, at least that of domesticated mammals, is restricted to offerings made at the altar; only later, when the people had settled throughout the Land of Israel and it was too difficult from them to get to the altar routinely, eating meat in a secular setting was permitted, but then only “because your soul desires to eat meat” (Deut 12:20 and following). The term used to indicate the desire to eat meat, ta’avah, evokes the appetitive, lustful element entailed in eating meat. Similarly, the laws of dam, of scrupulously removing all blood from the animal’s flesh, emphasizes that (a) this food-stuff was once a living creature, whose life-blood flowed out of it at the time of slaughter; and (b) what we eat is the dead, non-vital component of it. The Edenic ideal of humans eating fruits and grain seems to remain in the background of this law.


Capsule Halakhot

For the benefit of those readers who are confused as to just how Purim is to be observed this year, I present a capsule summary of the laws governing Purim Meshulash (three-day Purim, for Jerusalemites), and Purim on Friday (elsewhere). Note: most of the laws given here apply only here in Jerusalem where, as a result of Shushan Purim falling on Shabbat, the different aspects of Purim are spread over three days. Only the last paragraph, relating to the proper time for eating the Seudat Purim on Friday, applies to other places.

Thursday Night/Friday, 14 Adar II, March 20-21: Megillah reading, night and day & gifts to the poor (matanot la-evyonim) during the day.

Friday night / Shabbat, 15 Adar II, March 21-22: Recite Al hanissim in all prayers and in Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals). Special Torah reading for Purim (Vayavo Amalek; Exod 17:8-16) is read as Maftir; the haftarah is a repetition of that for Shabbat Zakhor (Saul and Agag). One “talks about “ matters of Purim (sho’alin vedorshin).

Sunday, March 23, 16 Adar II: Purim Se’udah (festive meal) is postponed to this day, but one does not recite Al hanissim in the usual place, but as a special Harahaman at the end of benching. Mishloah Manot (sending gifts to one’s friends) In Jerusalem: recite neither Tahanun nor Lamnatzeah; elsewhere: no Tahanun.

Friday, March 21, outside Jerusalem: One holds the usual festive Seudat Purim, with two possible time options: (1) Late morning or early afternoon, finishing (eating; preferably also benching) approximately three hours before Shabbat (i.e., Minhah Ketanah); or (2) One begins the meal in the late afternoon after saying Minhah. In the middle of the meal, once Shabbat has begun, one covers the bread, recites Kiddush, and continues the same meal into Friday night as a Shabbat meal. Both Al hanissim and Retzeh are recited in the Grace after Meals. This latter option is strongly advised for those, e.g. living in the Diaspora, who must work on Friday.

“To You, Silence is Praise”

I have been trying to find something wise or deep or clever or paradoxical to say about Purim. I even started to write an essay on the “mitzvah” of not taking oneself seriously, with fanciful and humorous proofs based, as it were, on various biblical or Rabbinic proof-texts.

But then I realized that all that is besides the point. If one takes seriously the Hasidic teachings about Purim—for example, that the mitzvah of drinking “until one does not know” alludes to a state transcending cognitive knowledge—then one must, at least for one day, go beyond all the words and ideas and hiddushim that we are constantly grinding out, and arrive at the state described by the Psalmist, “To You, silence is praise” (Ps 65:2). I see a person, on Purim, drinking himself into silence. Not the oblivion of the alcoholic (although perhaps a person needs to get really drunk once in his/her life, as is the practice among teen-age yeshiva boys on Purim, to know what it’s all about), but a kind of “spaced-out” mellowness, in which the person, mildly inebriated, is content to simply be: to stop the constant race of the ego to be heard, to be seen, to do, to understand, to comprehend, to create, to innovate—and to simply sit back and be present. I envision an old-time hippie, high on grass, who simply sits and “grooves” on the world. And I am reminded, also, of some sentences from Henry David Thoreau about how even the best conversation eventually lapsing into silence, and that “Silence is the universal refuge, the sequel to all dull discourses and all foolish acts, a balm to our every chagrin, as welcome after satiety as after disappointment.” And, long before him, the words of Kohelet, about the surfeit of written words: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (Eccles 12:12).

“He was Ahasuerus”

This year I found myself asking: Who was Ahashverosh? A strange midrash states that, wherever the Megillah refers to “the king” (hamelekh) without mentioning his name, this in fact alludes to God. Thus, “On that night the king’s sleep was disturbed” (6:1) because the King of Kings, the Holy One blessed be He, was disturbed by the murderous plot being hatched against His people. Who, then, was this king who in some sense served as a dwelling-place/incarnation/vessel (?) for the Almighty?

Quite simply, he was someone who lived out every pubescent boy’s fantasy. Every night he got to sleep with a different beautiful young virgin woman (by my calculation, during the four year period between the deposition of Vashti and the crowning of Esther, even deducting the initial twelve-month period in which they were being steeped in perfumery, he must have been with close to one thousand women —even the Islamic heaven with its seventy virgin can’t compete!), while spending all day drinking and feasting and carousing with his friends. He also like to show off—his wealth, and the beauty of his wife—and when he was thwarted in the latter, he reacted with rage. In short, an extraordinarily immature, self-indulgent individual (another reason women may have to like the Megillah—not only because of the female heroine, but because it seems to confirm the adage current among many feminist women that “all men are basically overgrown babies”). A few more examples of his basic stupidity: at the end of Chapter 1 he issues an edict “that all the women should honor their husbands”—as if such a thing could possibly be legislated! Secondly, in 7:8 he misconstrued Haman’s last-ditch attempt to save his skin by falling at Esther’s feet as an attempt at seduction! Surely, any intelligent person could have understood what was really going on through such things as body language, tone of voice tone, etc. Finally: apart from engaging in sex and acting and drinking, he doesn’t really do very much of anything. If one examines the sentences in which he speaks, he basically gives carte blanche to whomever enjoys his favor at the moment, whether Haman (a classic example of the pompous ass—but that’s for another time) or Esther. He was particularly susceptible to feminine flattery and wiles. After Chapter 7, following the scene of the second banquet and Haman’s conclusive downfall (or was it an upfall, hanging on the 50 cubit gallows?), he essentially turns the running of the empire over to Esther and Mordecai, so as to go back to partying and enjoying himself.

And this is the instrument God chose to affect redemption?! Yes—and that’s precisely the point. Hester panim, God working in concealment, behind the scenes, means that He utilizes precisely the least noble human traits and motivations, which He has Himself implanted in humankind, to turn the world around.

Postscript: I’ve been reading a lot of Phillip Roth lately. In one of his essays on American Jewish writers, he describes Bernard Malamud, especially in his novel The Assistant, as identifying Jewishness with a certain kind of high moral seriousness, if not actual suffering and martyrdom. This was a leitmotif of much of American Jewish culture as he knew it in his early years of writing. Indeed, much of Roth’s own writing is about his hero’s (a thinly disguised alter-ego) attempts to escape this mode, and to explore the ribald, the joyous, the pleasurable approach in life, without guilt. “To put the oy back in Goy, and the Id in Yid.” There is perhaps a little bit of this in Purim—although, unlike the Latin carnival, it’s hardly a holiday from morality.

A gutt’n Purim to all!


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