Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Aha! Halakhah

Generally during the school year I have little time for reading novels. But this past week I made an exception for Howard Jacobson's The Finkler Question, which recently won the Booker Prize. Ever since I began reading it, though, its characters' preoccupation with Jewish identity have spilled over into my life in some unusual ways. Like in Food Science class.

Let me explain.

When I graduated from elementary school I received an award for dinim, or halakhah, also known as Jewish law (literally, "the way"). At the time we had spent a year studying the laws of Shabbat and I'd grown a bit obsessed with memorizing the 39 melachot or actions one is prohibited from performing on the sabbath according to Jewish law. Traditionally understood as "work," the melachot actually correspond to actions required for the service in and construction of the Tabernacle. Odd as it may sound, I was reminded of this in my Food Science class during a lecture on cereals and grains. Sitting there I realized that everything I needed to know about the process of bread-making, from start to finish (ie. seed to table), I learned in my 8th grade dinim class. Here's why: the first eleven melachot prohibited on Shabbat are the steps necessary to bake bread (since bread was an essential component in the Tabernacle). I tore out a piece of looseleaf paper and tried to jot down all the Hebrew words for ones I could remember: sowing, plowing, reaping, binding sheaves, threshing, winnowing, etc... (During a break in lecture I had to Google the rest.)

Then late tonight, awake and alert after drinking too much green tea I was perusing Tuesday's Health section of the NY Times and came across this question: does lying on your left side calm heartburn? Instinctively I assumed the answer would be yes. Why? Because part of the Passover seder requires reclining to the left as was the custom for royalty in ancient times. Eating while reclining to the left, I'd been taught, was optimal for digestion. Lest you think this was just the creative explanation of a Jewish day school teacher, the hypothesis was considered by a more credible source and appeared in Nature as well. Another aha! halakhic moment.

I'm not suggesting that everything I need to know I learned in Jewish day school (though I'm sure I could make that argument, much like in film school when I wrote a paper on documentary entitled, Everything I Need to Know About Ethnographic Film I Learned from Nanook [of the North] based upon the premise of the book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten). But reflecting on the ways Jewish tradition informs my understanding of so many concepts - whether baking bread or sleeping on the left side - I chose to write about this not because I think that Judaism, or any other religion, culture or heritage, for that matter, contains all the answers, but, in a much broader sense, I recognize the value of these personal experiences and of the many lessons we absorb and retain over the years from engaging with the communities around us. And that seemed worth sharing.

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