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August 19, 2013 / conservadox

Dvar Torah- Ki Tavo

This week’s Torah portion notes that after giving tithes, Israelite farmers must swear their compliance with a variety of rules (Deut. 26:12-14).

One statement a farmer must make is “I have not deposited any of it [the portion of produce to be tithed] with the dead” (Deut. 26:14).  What does it mean to deposit food to the dead, and why would anyone do it?

Tigay points out that in the pagan world, it was common to try to sustain the spirits of dead relatives by providing them with food and drink.   Similarly, in some graves in Israel, archaeologists have found holes in the ground (presumably to be used for sending food into graves).

The Torah does not forbid its practice; instead, it merely prohibits using the tithe for it because contact with the dead would make the tithe ritually impure.

Why didn’t the Torah forbid something that smacks of pagan ritual?  My guess is that this is an example of “meeting people where they are”- tolerating deeply rooted practices even though there might be good reasons to forbid them (e.g. slavery).  The Torah sometimes forbids pagan-like activities (e.g. sacred poles) and sometimes does not (depositing food with the dead).

These issues bedevil us still.  There are many practices in our country which seem secular to most of us yet have Christian or pagan roots- New Year’s Day, St. Valentine’s Day and Halloween.  Many Jews are pretty laissez-faire about everything but the most blatantly Christian celebrations.  This is somewhat less true among Orthodox Jews- but even so Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day (and even St. Valentine’s Day) seem widely accepted among modern Orthodox Jews, though not Halloween.

This is one area where I try to be at least a bit strict, if only to remind myself that these are not my “real” holidays.  Although I will go to a party for Thanksgiving or New Year’s Day if invited, I try to do at least something to remind myself that this is not really a Jewish holiday.  On Thanksgiving, I might eat a token amount of turkey, but if I’m not invited somewhere I am not going to make a big festive meal – my feeling is that Shabbat (let alone Succot) are Jewish versions of same.  And on Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, I try to do something that a gentile wouldn’t do- like work at home (if I have any work to do) or go to a minyan if possible.

What about Valentine’s Day?  I find Valentine’s Day to be viscerally repugnant, since it has a “St.” in it, which is not true of the other special secular days (and Catholic “saints” were often venomous anti-Semites).  But of course, when I had a girlfriend I had a problem, since I didn’t want to create a human relations crisis.  So this is what I did: I ignored the day itself.  But the next day I brought flowers, and explained my point.  It seemed to work out adequately.

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One Comment

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  1. Shira Salamone / Aug 20 2013 4:32 pm

    I disagree regarding Thanksgiving. In my opinion, Thanksgiving is as American a holiday as is US Independence Day. I don’t think of Thanksgiving as either pagan or Christian–I’ve even heard that Thanksgiving may have been based on Sukkot. To me, celebrating Thanksgiving is an American hakarat ha-tov/acknowledgement of gratitude. This country has been good to me, and I owe it my respect.

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