This week’s portion contains the laws of the Nazirite, someone who temporarily takes on an ascetic lifestyle, including abstaining from wine and haircuts. Wine I can understand, but why haircuts?
Sforno writes that this prohibition will (in the Soncino Chumash’s words) “divert his thoughts from his physical beauty and indulging in vainglory.” In other words, if you aren’t too preoccupied with your hair you won’t be too preoccupied with your physical appearance generally.
This is one area where Judaism is very countercultural, and which I have really struggled with. I was taught to believe that respectable people shave every day and get haircuts about once a month.
But an observant Jew who follows all common customs and laws will have to go through over 100 days without shaves or haircuts- shabbos (52 per year), yom tov (another dozen), sefirah (33 days I think) and the three weeks before Tisha’b’Av (21 more). I avoid shaving etc on shabbos and yom tov, but am less consistent about sefirah and the three weeks, because my mother is a bit obsessive about proper hair, and letting her see me with a month-old beard would not be good for her mental health.
Having said that, I think that there is something to be said for the idea that even good grooming has limits. More broadly, I think that traditional Judaism teaches us not only to control our bad urges, but to keep our good urges from getting out of control.
This week’s parsha begins with a census of the Jews; the men “declared their pedigrees after their families, by their fathers’ names.” (Num. 1:18). Ibn Ezra plausibly interprets this to mean that the men established the dates of their birth, so that Moses could decide whether they were over 20 and thus eligible for military service.
Rashi has a less plausible but more interesting spin: he says that men produced genealogical documents. Given that paper was pretty scarce in premodern, pre-printing press societies (even for nonslaves) I don’t think it makes a lick of sense to take this literally. But it is interesting for me to think about the implications of why it doesn’t make sense.
The reason I can’t imagine recently freed Egyptian slaves carrying around family trees is that Where paper is scarce, learning has to be primarily oral. So for most people (other than the few who could afford scrolls) the Torah was, of necessity, an oral Torah. It seems to me that this be one of the reasons (though not the only one of course) for the pre-Talmud idea that most tradition should not be set to writing; even if most people could read, if books are rare and expensive writing is a waste of resources. (Of course, oral learning has other advantages over written learning- but that is a much deeper discussion).
This coming week’s portion states “You shall make you no idols, neither shall you rear you up a graven image” (Lev. 26:1). But haven’t the Jews already been commanded not to worship idols? Why do they need to have this issue raised up again?
The Soncino Chumash is helpful here. It notes (channeling numerous medieval commentators) that this language comes right after a discussion of the laws of Jewish slaves. Thus, the above message must be meant as a statement that even if a Jew is sold to be a slave to a heathen, he cannot worship the heathen’s idols. The commentators go further and write that the Jew is bound by mitzvos generally.
I was just reading an essay about Jews who faced the latter issue in Nazi labor camps; for example, is there any way to avoid eating bread during Passover when you are effectively a slave and on starvation rations? Some Jews managed to trade bread for potatoes; others just had to ignore this mitzvah in order to survive.
This coming week’s Torah portion says that priests generally may not make themselves ritually impure for the dead except for certain relatives; including the mother and father (Lev. 21:2). The mother is listed first. Why?
Ibn Ezra says that generally men live longer than women, and that the mother is thus named first because the mother dies first.
What’s interesting about this observation is that it is inconsistent with current reality. I looked through the World Almanac and found only three nations where men live longer- Swaziland, South Africa, and Botswana, all in the “AIDS belt” of southern Africa (which I am guessing has something to do with this). Everywhere else, women live longer. In the poorest nations, women tend to live only slightly longer. Everywhere else, women live about 4-8 years longer.
One might think that the biggest gap is in the most advanced nations- not so! In Russia and in some former Soviet bloc nations, women live over a decade longer. I would guess that this is because women are less likely to drink themselves to death, and alcoholism is a major problem in these nations.
So back to Ibn Ezra- was he just wrong? I find that easy to imagine since deaths in childbirth were probably very common and very noticeable, and he might have focused on that instead of on higher female life expectancies among women. Or perhaps women really did have shorter life spans in the Middle Ages for some reason- but I can’t imagine any reason for this that wouldn’t be equally applicable to poorer nations today. So I suspect Ibn Ezra just guessed wrong.
Either way, the whole problem is an interesting example of the Torah being relevant to something beyond the ritual and ethical realms that it normally addresses.
The end of the Torah portion mentions that the Jews are entering a “land of milk and honey” (Lev. 20:24). And the Haftorah for Kedoshim says that Israel will be sifted “as corn is sifted in a sieve” (Amos 9:9). So there will be corn, honey and milk.
So I made corn cakes with cream cheese (so-so). Also a frozen dessert with dates (since the honey in question may have been made of dates), honey and milk.
On a less biblical note:
mackerel shakshusa (plenty of mackerel left over from Pesach) (or maybe I should say pseudo-shakshuka since I am not feeling 100 pct and used bland diced tomatoes instead of a spicier mix)
eggplant rolls with rice inside (made by Galil, not by me)
kimche (yes, there’s kosher kimche now- brand name is Ozuke)
mixed berries (blueberries, raspberries, strawberries)
This week’s Torah portion contains all sorts of regulations about sexual misconduct. Probably the most morally questionable law (by modern secular standards) is “Thou shalt not lie with mankind as with womankind” (Lev. 18:22). The Torah does not explain the logic of this prohibition, nor does Soncino (other than saying it is “unnatural” whatever that means).
But at the end of this list of laws, the Soncino Chumash has the germ of an explanation. It cites Rashbam’s view that Lev. 18:30* means that these prohibitions are “a fence, keeping you back from trespassing the other commandments of God.”
What other commandments? Well,, as you might recall adultery was prohibited way back in Exodus (as one of the Big Ten). It seems to me that in preindustrial society, most men probably married very early in life (as is still true in Third World societies and among Hasidim). It follows that in such a society, male homosexuality usually involved cheating on one’s wife. And if homosexuality usually involves cheating on one’s wife, a separate prohibition on homosexuality makes adultery harder by ruling out half of all possible sex partners. Thus, Lev. 18:22 might be a fence against adultery.
*stating that Jews shall not keep “these abominable customs, which were done before you”.
A few nights ago, Mr. Hitler showed up in my dreams. We were just driving around an interstate highway in my home town (actually he was driving) and he was feeling depressed and slightly suicidal. We didn’t talk about Jews or war though (let alone my dozens of relatives who were murdered by his followers).
This week’s portion is primarily about skin diseases. However, it begins by discussing childbirth, ruling that if a woman has a baby boy, she is ritually impure for seven days (Lev. 12:1). Rashbam writes that after the first week the “impure blood” surrounding the boy has been eliminated, and so on the eighth day, the child is fit for circumcision.
This strikes me as a bit similar to the last portion. Last week in shul, the rabbi pointed out that the building of the Mishkan is a bit like creation: a lot of the terminology is similar, and it ends after seven days. And just as on the eighth day man starts creating the world on his/her own, the Mishkan was inaugurated on the eighth day. Just as the creation story ends with a sin and man’s awareness of death, the Mishkan story ends with the death of Nadab and Abihu (who apparently may have sinned in some way, as discussed in last week’s dvar).
Similarly, the first seven days of the child’s life are a part of creation, in the sense that the child is not fully part of the Jewish people. Just as the people didn’t really act during the first seven days of the Mishkan (leaving everything up to God and Moses), the mother doesn’t participate in Jewish ritual life during her child’s first seven days (because of ritual impurity).
Just as Jews recreated the world (after seven days of leaving everything up to God) by using the Tabernacle, they recreate a baby boy (in the sense of changing his body, and eliminating the mother’s ritual impurity) on the eighth day.
After two weeks of Pesach, back to our regularly scheduled programming.
This week’s portion includes the story of Nadab and Abihu, two sons of Aaron who, after burning incense at the Tabernacle, “offered strange fire” (Lev. 10:1) before God and then die.
What did they do wrong? What is this strange fire? The Talmudic sages offer lots of homiletic explanations, some of which sound a bit like lashon hara (e.g. speculating that the two young priests were drunk). On the other hand, Ibn Ezra gives a narrower halachic explanation, suggesting that they should have relied on the fire from heaven rather than putting fire on the alter themselves. This explanation reminds me of something I read in Richard Elliot Friedman’s Torah commentary about a decade ago: that to the ancient mind, ritual precision was really, really important.
At first glance, it may seem that the past is another country. On the other hand, I have just been through a week of ritual precision; I devoted my kitchen and half of my living room to eating and food preparation (and thus to chametz-free life) while I merely checked for chametz in the non-food half of my living room. When I went from the non-food half to the food half I washed my hands, just in case there were chametz crumbs in the non-food half that might spread into the food half. Although I’m sure many people didn’t think of this, on the other hand many people keep stringencies I don’t. In any event, Pesach’s emphasis on ritual precision seems to fit nicely with this week’s portion.
I spent the first few days of Pesach in my parents’ hometown and this week living on canned sardines and nuts. My last few meals should be a bit less austere, but still probably more austere than most: I didn’t want to be bothered with lots of cooking, so I covered up all my burners etc. (I did get a crockpot but when I was immersing it in the mikveh* the main part of it shattered; I can still use the bottom layer to heat food for a few minutes but it is not safe to leave it on for 48 hrs.) .
But still I have plenty of cold food (some of which I will heat up using the remains of the crockpot and/or yom tov candles: corned beef, pastrami, mackerel, blueback salmon for meat, also nuts, bananas, avocado/ground walnut salad. For dessert, chocolate marshmallows, cotton candy and vanilla icing. Also I think there will be food at shul which should take care of Fri and Sat lunch if I am lucky.
*See here for an explanation of this mitzvah.
After the fact notes: I was unable to go to shul Saturday due to bizarre circumstances (charity run closing off several miles of a street that I couldn’t go into suburbs without crossing). On positive side, it turns out that there is a spot in my apartment where, if I place food on the right table at the right time, the sun will warm them up just in time for lunch- worked today for marshmallows!