This coming week’s portion includes the law of the second Pesach sacrifice; if someone cannot offer the sacrifice at its appointed time due to ritual impurity or a journey of some sort, he can offer it a month later (Num. 9). This might make one think: why is Passover so important- not only “why is Passover so important that you can have a do-over if you can’t get everything right at the appropriate time” but also “why is Passover so important that people who ignore other Jewish holidays have Seders”?
I don’t have all the answers. But Prof. Milgrom points out that the Torah itself privileges Passover- not just through “Pesach Sheni” (the make-up opportunity discussed above”) but also in another respect. Milgrom notes that Passover “is the only holiday observance whose willful neglect is punishable by the divine penalty of karet.” (Karet is some sort of supernatural punishment like a premature death- details here).
Generally, karet involves “prohibitive commandments”- the “thou shalt nots” of the Torah. But “performative” mitzvot (that is, commandments requiring you to do something) generally are not subject to karet, and in fact punishments for their violation are rarely specified. The only exception to this rule is circumcision; failure to circumcise your son makes you subject to karet. In other words, Passover is the only yearly holiday for which the failure to perform affirmative obligations makes you subject to karet.
Why? What do Passover and circumcision have in common? Milgrom notes that Passover “has national significance: As a commemoration of the Exodus, its observance is a reaffirmation of the covenant struck by God with Israel at the beginning of its national existence.” Similarly, circumcision is “a sign of the covenant.” In other words, these mitzvot are foundational; without them there is no sign of a special relationship between Jews and God.
This week’s portion includes the sotah ritual, in which a wife accused of adultery undergoes a trial by ordeal. At the end of its discussion, the Torah notes that the suspicious husband shall be free of guilt no matter what happens, even if the wife is cleared (Num. 5:31).
Why is the husband’s situation mentioned? Milgrom writes “the point of this addendum is to assure a suspicious husband that he has nothing to lose by bringing his wife to the ordeal.” Here, the Torah, like good modern policymakers, is worried about creating perverse incentives and disincentives: it wouldn’t make sense to create this procedure if someone was taking big risks by getting involved in the Biblical justice system- for example, risking a “counter honor-killing” (if that’s the right phrase) by the ticked-off family of a dishonored wife.
Would that we were so wise today! The expenses of litigation are sometimes so great that the winner suffers as well as the loser, since a successful verdict may not compensate for attorneys fees, etc. Of course, we could avoid this by creating a “loser pays” rule- but that rule creates its own problems, such as being especially harmful to less-affluent litigants, or encouraging bad (overly stingy or overly generous to a defendant) settlements to avoid the loser-pays rule. I don’t see any way out of the problem- but it is interesting to think that the Torah was grappling with similar issues 3000 years ago.
This week we begin the book of Numbers (Bamidbar). The Numbers portion of the JPS commentary is written by Prof. (and Rabbi) Jacob Milgrom.
The most interesting thing about Milgrom’s discussion of this week’s Torah portion is his discussion of the laws of the Levites and the first-born. The Torah makes it clear that God shall “take” the Levites in place of the first-born (3:12) but adds that when God smote the first-born of Egypt, “I consecrated every first-born in Israel” (3:13).
Why is God so obsessed with the first-born? Is this just another nonrational decree?
Milgrom points out that some pagans were obsessed with the first-born too, in a different way. Some Mesopotamian cities make the first-born inherit the family idols or (in Milgrom’s words) “care for the burial and worship of his deceased parents”. So here the Torah is sharply deviating from some pagan customs.
Maybe the Torah’s devaluation of the first-born (not just here, but in Genesis where first-borns Ishmael, Esau and Reuben lose family leadership to their younger brothers) is part of its devaluation of paganism- an attempt to say to the idol-worshippers, “you think that the first-born is so special, but not only can our God smite him, our God can hire the first-born to do religious work, and THEN demote the first-born and choose someone else to do that stuff.”
Grapes (because the Torah portion begins by mentioning grapes; I don’t like grapes enough to be super-creative about them) and a pear
sweet potatoes sauteed in olive oil (good- and I always thought I didn’t like sweet potatoes!)
baked black beans and romaine lettuce (combined!) swirled together with a little mustard and ketchup. (After some bad news at work i felt like I needed comfort food, so I combined the comfort of mustard and ketchup with the health of black beans and salad).
an attempt at arepas, but with seminola flour. (Basically I made semolina pancakes, sauteed them in fake lo fat butter, and made little sandwiches with cottage cheese, black beans, lox- they were OK but I suspect real version with corn meal is better; I just happened to have semolina flour lying around and wanted to get rid of it)
vanilla/semolina pancakes with little bits of chocolate inside (same dish as last week but with bits of a choc bar to make it even more delicious!)
This week’s portion contains the commandment of shmitta, requiring the Jews to let the land lie fallow every seven years (Lev. 25:4-5). At first glance this commandment seems irrational; in fact, I remember hearing the apparent irrationality of this commandment used as proof of the Torah’s truth (on the theory that the Jews would have never followed such a crazy law if it wasn’t God-given).
But the JPS commentary suggests that this rule actually makes agricultural sense. Prof. Levine explains that allowing the land to rest “helped to reduce the amount of sodium in the soil.” An additional commentary at the end of the JPS Leviticus book explains further: allowing arable land to rest “served to reduce the quantity of alkalines, sodium and calcium, deposited in the soil by irrigation waters.” In fact, JPS writes that one reason for the decline of the Sumerians was high alkaline content in the soil, which lead to declining crop yields. Shmitta guards against this problem.
But why, then, did 20th-century Jewish farmers try to avoid shmitta? JPS explains that today shmitta is not scientifically necessary because crop rotation and fertilizers allow the soil to be more productive even in the absence of a year or rest.
My caveat: I don’t know enough about agriculture to independently evaluate this explanation- but it does sound interesting.
A kind of gelatinous beef/chicken mess called Galah (which I suspect may be the same as goulash). I ate it Sat night after shabbos (I only bought a tiny $3 package). Too salty for my taste.
By and large, Hatzlacha (the big Williamsburg kosher market, 414 Flushing- near G train at Flushing Ave) is bigger and better than anything in Manhattan but not as good as Pomegranate (Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn) or Aaron’s Kissena Farms (Kew Gardens Hills). Caveat: by “good” I mean selection not price; since I don’t shop at any of these places that often I don’t remember the prices.
Prof. Levine, in the JPS Commentary, suggests that the wheat offerings were made of semolina flour. So I made some semolina stuff-
bread made out of semolina flour and olive oil (oddly shaped, tastes OK)
falafel (really falafel-like pancakes) with semolina flour and chickpeas
vegetable pasta (also with semolina) with trout, chickpeas
BBQ rainbow trout
spinach skin dumplings (saw them in store and figured I’d try them, a bit blah)
something like the falafel-y pancakes except with vanilla cake flour mixed in for dessert (surprisingly good!)
caramel pudding (parve, not so good as you migh guess- I thought it was something more like a sauce)
At the very end of this week’s portion, the Torah notes that one who kills a beast shall make restitution for it, while one who kills a human shall be executed (Lev. 24:21). More broadly, Levine notes that the Torah “consistently differentiates between human life and the life of animals.”
On the other hand, the Torah has numerous provisions designed to prevent cruelty to animals. This week’s portion notes that no one may offer a mutilated or castrated animal as a sacrifice, and then adds “You shall have no such practices in your own land, nor shall you accept such from a foreigner… for they are mutilated.” (22:24).
Isn’t the first sentence quoted redundant? Levine thinks not; he suggests that the latter sentence reveals “a general prohibition of abhorrent practices” such as “genital mutilation” and gelding horses- in other words, that this language is not limited to sacrifice but is a general prohibition of mutilating animals. And halacha appears to agree .
Of course, today pet owners neuter and spay animals for their own good. So do these rules bar “fixing” pets? Many rabbis tend to agree. However, there is enough division that a few modern rabbis argue for leniency (see the end of this article).
At any rate, my broader point is that the Torah steers a middle way between an “animal rights” perspective and a complete refusal to acknowledge that nonhuman animals ever have valid interests.
On another note, the JPS commentary has an interesting view of the relationship between Yom Kippur and Sukkot. Why is Sukkot five days after Yom Kippur? Prof. Levine notes that the rituals for Yom Kippur include ritual purification of sacred shrines (first the Tabernacle, later the Temple). Thus, “scheduling [Yom Kippur] only a few days prior to the major pilgrimage festival of the year ensured that the sanctuary … would be restored to a state of fitness in time for the celebration of the autumn Sukkot festival.”
This week’s Torah portion is another double portion. The first half is mostly about sacrifices; the second is more about ethics.
One of the more uncertain parts of Acharei Mot is the commandment that “if anyone of the house of Israel slaughters an ox or sheep or goat in the camp, or does so outside the camp, and does not bring it to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting to present it as an offering to the Lord … bloodguilt shall be imputed to that man.” (Lev. 17:3-4). Deut. 12 provides that Jews can slaughter animals for food without going to a sacrificial altar, as long as they avoid eating blood.
Is there a contradiction between these verses? It could be argued that Lev. 17 means that no domesticated animal can be killed outside the Tabernacle, which essentially would prohibit a non-sacrificial use of meat and contradict Deut. 12. Indeed, the talmudic sage Rabbi Ishmael took this point of view, asserting that the Torah originally forbade all slaughter away from the central altar and that Deut. 12 allows what had previously been forbidden (perhaps because as the Jews spread throughout the Land of Israel, the sacrificial altar was further away).
But Baruch Levine (author of the JTS commentary on Leviticus) points out that Rabbi Akiva disagrees. Rabbi Akiva argued that the term “slaughter” in Lev. 17:3 (in Hebrew, shahat) is not meant to cover all killing of animals, just sacrificial slaughter. In support of this view, Levine notes that there is another Hebrew word (nehirah) for ordinary stabbing. Thus, Lev. 17 and Deut. 12 do not contradict each other: both allow non-sacrificial slaughter anywhere, but require sacrifices to be in holy places.
Both portions have provisions relevant to xenophobia. Lev. 18:22 says that a male shall not “lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is an abhorrence.” Levine points out that there are two biblical narratives involving homosexuality (Gen. 19 and Judges 19). Both involve the same situation: the men of a town seek to rape a male foreigner. So perhaps the purpose of this provision is at least partially to prohibit xenophobic rape. This may explain why lesbianism is not mentioned in the Torah- to the extent it came up at all, it did not involve rape or xenophobia.
Similarly, the Torah generally prohibits misconduct directed against “a stranger” (19:33). The Torah points out that “you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (19:34). What sort of strangers might these be? Levine points out that the term “stranger” does not mean the prior inhabitants of the land (who the Jews are commanded to wage war against); instead, it means “a foreign merchant or craftsman or a mercenary solider.” Levine also notes that “most ancient societies had laws protecting foreign merchants, officials and others.” In other words, here the Jews are not completely unique: other societies wanted to protect at least some foreigners. How come?
It seems to me that it is in a commercial society’s interest to protect foreign merchants; if traders are mistreated, they won’t come to your town or nation, and your economy will be isolated and poor and have a limited supply of goods. So to some extent, being nice to strangers is good business.
Fairway on the UWS had prepackaged meals from Abigael’s so I got lazy and got a tilapia/pasta dish as my main course- not bad, but not exceptional.
Also frozen chicken cigars which were much better- nicely spiced
a bit of lamb (I figured I had enough so I just did one piece in honor of the portion, which involves a lot of sacrifices of lambs)
kosher for Pesach waffle (on sale- not that great)
kosher for Pesach apple blintzes (ditto)
Not one of my more elaborate or better meals but satisfying enough.