Friday, March 28, 2008

Parshat Shmini 5768: Tolerance

This week, we have three major parts of our portion; we continue the sacrifices started in last week’s portion. On the eighth day of sacrifices, everything goes so well fire from the Lord devours the sacrifices. But things then turn tragic. Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu offer alien fire and are fatally consumed by the fire of the Lord. The rest of the Leviticus 10 then gives the aftermath of this tragedy and a prohibition against priests making sacrifices while intoxicated. We end with the laws of prohibited and permitted animals for eating, the basis of the kosher laws. Those start in chapter 11 with

1. And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying to them, 2. Speak to the people of Israel, saying, These are the beasts which you shall eat among all the beasts that are on the earth.

Much of what we’ve read from the book of Leviticus has been mitzvot that has been rather impractical in post temple times. In the next few chapters of Leviticus many mitzvot will deal with public health. This all starts with the backbone of the kosher dietary rules in Leviticus 11. Yet the connection between the sacrifices and what we eat was underlined by the rabbis:

The altar of wood three cubits high . . . . and he said to me, This is the table that is before the Lord(Ezek. 41:22) [Now the verse] opens with ‘altar’ and finishes with ‘table’? R. Johanan and R. Eleazar both explain that as long as the Temple stood, the altar atoned for Israel, but now a man's table atones for him.[Ber. 55a]

When I’m not studying Torah or writing this column, I spend my life as an Environmental Health Professional. Most people would call me a Health Inspector, and I have spent a lot of time walking through many restaurants pointing out all kinds of violations that could make customers sick. Unlike my government colleagues, I’m a private consultant, and people hire me to internally check stuff so the local heath department never finds it wrong. A couple of years ago while working at a large convention center, I was inspecting a glatt kosher food kiosk for a client. The orthodox owner of this kiosk, watched me inspect his neighboring kiosk, a barbecue pork place, and eyed my nervously as I stuck my thermometer into pulled pork. Walking up to him, I referred to my thermometer as a “treif-o-meter” and then asked for his thermometer so I could take the temperature of his hot dogs and make sure they were over 140°F. His initial suspicion of anyone messing with his food relaxed at the quirky comment. We had a wonderful conversation after he noted how much the local kosher certifying agency and I did a lot of the same stuff.

Kashrut and food safety have been interwoven parts of my life for years. In 2006, I gave a presentation at the national meetings of my professional association explaining to a standing room only crowd of Health inspector and public health officials spilling out into the hallway what Kosher is and how to inspect not only a kosher restaurant but also how to deal with many faith-based food issues. It was so popular, and it got recorded at a second presentation two days later, which also brought in a crowd. That video is still on my professional association’s bestseller list as of this writing. I’ve given that talk locally several times and still get calls for it once in a while. Health and Kosher seem to be related.

In his Guide to the Perplexed, Maimonides makes one of the first health claims for kosher. Indeed he claims that everybody knows one shouldn’t eat pork. Even though Maimonides was a royal physician in Islamic Egypt, he may not have been talking as a doctor but as a Jew living in Egypt during the crusades. Eating pork flagged you as a Christian and a possible enemy spy, and that would be unhealthy. I don’t think in terms of health when it comes to Kosher. I’ve always thought what we call today treif is the fourth category of contamination in public health, the other three being biological, chemical and physical. The biblical taamei, changed to Terefa by the Talmudic rabbis was more about our connection to the divine. As such that connection might change and the rules about that connection might change. Islam and Judaism both don’t eat pork, and require a very specific method of slaughter for permitted animals. Yet they differ on the details of the procedure. Kosher requires the process be blessed for an entire day’s work, before the Shochet starts his day of cutting. On the other hand, Halal requires each animal to have a blessing while facing Mecca.

But even among Jews there are debates and even conflicts about what is the proper procedure. In late 18th century one movement took a lot of fire from traditional jews due to its very stringent the slaughter procedures and inspections for meat. Usually thought to be a reforming movement in Eastern Europe, The Hasidic movement was more strict about kosher meat than other movements of the time. There is evidence that the Baal Shem Tov himself was a Shochet at one part of his life, and we do have his request for a responsa he wrote in the name of the village council. He requested a ruling on the issue if one type of lesion is considered kosher, which the local rabbi had permitted. He demanded the use of only extremely sharp knives, which brought the movement a lot of flack from traditional Jews.

Even in Talmudic times, there were debates about what was and wasn’t kosher. One of the most interesting is the ruling of R. Jose of the Galilee, who believed the prohibition of dairy and poultry was absurd, since the Torah states “in its mother’s milk” and fowl produces no milk. People in the Galilee who were taught by one of the students of R. Jose would therefore mix milk and poultry. As one should follow the custom of the locality it was permitted. [Shabbat 130a]

Modernity had led us into even more confusion and conflict when comes to Kosher. Since the late 18th century, not only the Hasidim, but many other observant Jews have taken to intense stringencies, and not just for meat. Two examples include the prohibition of broccoli and raspberries, since it is very difficult to remove tiny insects from them. Similarly, some of the very observant in New York City do not use their tap water, since there is microscopic shellfish called copepods in the reservoir feeding the city which gets into the water supply.

This is not only true of orthodoxy. Some in the liberal side of Judaism are also finicky as to the sources of their food, which they have termed Eco-kosher. For some, that means organic. For others, that might mean the food was produced in places with good labor practices, and for others under environmentally friendly conditions. On some occasions, one can have all three of these, In others those three criteria might contradict each other.

What we are left with is confusion. From the non observant Jew who would drop dead before having a glass of milk with his cheeseburger to the strictly observant who would not even walk into a house that does not follow exactly the same rules they do, Kosher observance has hit a point where it has become a completely personal practice. I am just as guilty of this as anyone else. My version of kosher prohibits red meat, allows chicken, and following R. Jose of the Galilee I do allow myself dairy with poultry. I don’t eat any shellfish or fish without scales, only the permitted kosher seafood. I’m not very Eco-kosher. I for one really don’t care where my food is coming from; I’m too cynical and too much a food industry insider to believe anyone’s claim.

Today it is not whether you keep kosher but how you keep kosher. There too many ways to keep kosher. But with Passover approaching, the flip side of that coin is also approaching. While the level of observance of removing and banning Hametz from the house will again be a personal observance, the Passover Seder often is far from a small private event. A lot of people from many different observance levels, and sometimes even differing religions come to the Seder table. The question which has bothered me for quite a time is how does one address the needs of all of them. Since I don’t eat red meat, I have on occasions gone to Orthodox homes, and ate very little, since they were serving meat that meal. On the other hand, my fear of Tuberculosis, E. Coli, Salmonella and a variety of other diseases might keep me from eating at some eco-kosher homes that only drink raw milk.

While I’ve been a Heath inspector for quite a white for the last few months I’ve been more involved with quality control in stuff other than food. And that has gotten me thinking about one of the big issues in quality control: tolerances. Put another way, how stringent or how lenient does one have to be in order to have a successful product? One of the very reputable books I read startled me with a bit of wisdom I hadn’t thought of before: if you have too many defects, one thing to do is broaden your tolerances that a lot of what you are claiming as defects become acceptable product. That sounded rather alarming and a bit seedy at first glance. It definitely went against my Jewish sensibilities of putting fences around Torah, putting as many preventative measures a possible in place to prevent failure. There was more to this story. Much of industry tolerances were set as arbitrary numbers. There was no real reason why those tolerances existed. The product worked fine even at the broader tolerances. The problem is no one knows exactly when the product really did stop working with statistically valid data. Not knowing that they throw away a lot of good product for no reason.

Thinking about that and the stringencies many people put on the rules of Kosher, I’ve done some wondering. Instead of thinking about our personal tolerances, maybe we should think about what tolerances make for valid observance as part of a group, and what is an arbitrary restriction? Maybe another way to frame the question of how to keep kosher as a group is how does the group as a whole experience kosher? What makes this community find sacred in the experience of eating? The rabbis transferred sacrifices to the dining room table. Nowhere is this as apparent as Passover. The question that really needs to be answered before the kosher question is said very early in the Passover Seder – What makes this night different than any other night? What makes our eating into a sacred connection?

I have no real answer here, just a belief as a guy who keeps kosher to some extent. Liberals and conservatives both make my observance frustrating, and I lose the holiness in that frustration. What makes dining room table less sacred is amount of fussing and fighting among people over this. How can we stop the bickering between people over what to eat?

So what does everyone else think?

Friday, March 21, 2008

Tzav/Purim 5768: Treif and Galut

This week covers more procedures for the sacrifice in the Mishkan, and then the record of those first sacrifices. Like many of these chapters about the sacrificial procedure, it is seemingly irrelevant to things today: indeed it was seemingly irrelevant to the world of even the Rabbis who didn’t have a temple either. Where we find things irrelevant, like sacrifices, it is time to look closer at the text for deeper meaning, for some things standing the test of time. This week we read:

19. And the flesh that touches any unclean thing shall not be eaten; it shall be burned with fire; and as for the flesh, all who are clean shall eat of it. 20. But the soul who eats of the meat of the sacrifice of peace offerings, that belongs to the Lord, having his uncleanness upon him, that soul shall be cut off from his people. 21. Moreover the soul who shall touch any unclean thing, as the uncleanness of man, or any unclean beast, or any abominable unclean thing, and eat of the meat of the sacrifice of peace offerings, which belongs to the Lord, that soul shall be cut off from his people. 22. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 23. Speak to the people of Israel, saying, You shall eat no kind of fat, of ox, or of sheep, or of goat. 24. And the fat of the beast that dies of itself, and the fat of that which is torn by beasts, may be used in any other use; but you shall in no wise eat of it. [Leviticus 7:19-24]

The book of Leviticus centers on the issue of tamei and tahor , often translated unclean and clean. Yet, another translation could be Contaminated and pure. Thinking about contamination has been my profession for quite a while. When I’m not writing this commentary, I’ve been an environmental health professional, what many commonly call a health inspector. I’ve been looking for contamination in restaurants and restaurant food. But for the last five, as part of my graduate studies I’ve thought about contamination differently too. As I’ve explored Torah along with my environmental health background, I’ve begun to see some interesting patterns between my public health career and the Levitical code. Over the next few weeks I’ll be discussing some of them. Until we get to Parshat Acharei Mot, tamei situations are thematic for much of this text.

One of these issues of tamei, we refer to as treif. While the context of the passage above applies to the temple service, it was not hard to extend it to all eating, as other passages elsewhere give details of this prohibition. If meat comes into contact with impure things it is not to be eaten. If a person handling food is clean, that they didn’t touch impure things, such as an infection on a human, or a pig, they may eat it. The fat of the animal was not to be eaten. Other forms of unclean included where an animal dies on its own or is torn by another animal the food animal is not clean enough to eat. But one can use that fat for other purposes, say axle grease.

While tamei often parallels contamination from biological, chemical and physical sources, it really is another type of contamination: spiritual contamination. In some way which is not completely explained, certain acts render a people and things contaminated. Like bacteria or chemical residue, such contamination can transfer between a contaminated object and a person or a person and the food they consume. I actually use the translation of tamei as spiritual contamination when talking to public health officials about faith based eating practices and how they conduct food inspections of faith based facilities. While what the actual contaminant is, and why we shouldn’t eat it change by faith, whether I’m dealing with the Islamic Hallal/Haram food codes, Kashrut, Hindu vegetarianism, or certain prohibitions among Christian sects, all can understand someone’s reluctance in terms of a contaminating agent.

But through an evolution of things, and based on our passage, when Jews talk about spiritually impure foods that is not the word we use. Instead we use the term treifa. Treifa actually means torn, and really applies to one case of tamei, that of one animal tearing up another animal. But we can see in that case it means the meat is unclean and prohibited from being eaten. While our passage in Leviticus 7:24 refers to the fat of a treifa animal, Exodus 22:30 mentions the flesh and Leviticus 22:8 prohibits eating any part of the animal. By rabbinic times it referred not only to kosher animals that were torn by beasts, but animals that were torn by anything. As treifa became one of the common standards to determine the suitability of an animal, it began to be used for any animal which was unfit for kosher slaughter, thus prohibiting from slaughter “downer” animals that were too ill to be slaughtered or could not walk. From there, instead of referring to just the status of meat, it began to be used for any other food that was not considered kosher, essentially replacing tamei. In the Yiddish vernacular glatt, which really meant certain organs in a kosher animal had no tumors, eventually meant strictly kosher and its opposite was treif, not kosher.

But the term treif did not end with just food, but often is now used to talk about anything not kosher. I find it interesting that the term has become a derogatory term used by some observant Jews to talk about other Jews not following the same observances as themselves. Having to bear it often at the Orthodox Hebrew school during my preparation for my bar mitzvah, it has bothered me that a term meant to describe a specific status of a food product is used for lashon hara. In one poetic sense however, I can see their point. Something holy is rendered unholy by the attack of a belligerent third party. The holy Jew, is torn by the secular world, and thus becomes non observant. But the imagery falls apart when we realize that any such attack is non voluntary. The cow does not go out to meet the wolf to be torn. In this understanding, Treif is not derogatory, but tragic -- the treifa animal is a victim, not a volunteer. I doubt anyone would have the chutzpa to call a holocaust survivor treif, but in many ways, they are victims of wild aggression, bearing the tears and scars.

I’ve been having a lot of problems writing this column lately. I’ve been feeling kid of treif my self, but in a variation of treif. I seem unable to get these columns out for both issues of time to prepare and a spiritual drive to write. In the last few weeks, I feel like I’ve been torn. Thinking of two other people in this circumstance came to mind last night.

5. There was a Jewish man in Shushan the capital, and his name was Mordecai, son of Jair, son of Shimei, son of Kish, a Benjamite; 6. Who had been exiled from Jerusalem among the captives exiled with Jeconiah king of Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had exiled. 7. And he brought up Hadassah, that is, Esther, his uncle’s daughter; for she had neither father nor mother, and the maid was beautiful and of good presence; and, when her father and her mother died, Mordecai adopted her as a daughter.[Esther 2:5-7]

We have in Mordecai and Esther two people completely torn from the world as they knew it. Not only that, they are told by Jeremiah that God decrees they are to stay put for seventy years [Jeremiah 29]. According to the biblical text, these are the first people to go into exile. After centuries of living in the land of Israel, the first set of people are forced to leave the land. Among those are Mordecai and his extended family. Whether Esther was born in exile or in the land is never made clear, but she is the first generation to grow up in a land not her own. She and Mordecai define another type of treif: People torn from their land, or put another way torn from their reality and placed into another’s.

We are all in galut, in exile in some way. Being so, we are also all treif, torn in some way from the connection that makes us live and our lives special. Lately I’ve been brooding about where I wanted my life to go. I’m an incredible public speaker, and it is lecturing and teaching, both to a handful and a room of 500 that gives my life meaning. Whether it is D’vrei Torah or a lecture on a technical issue concerning contamination I’m most alive in front of an audience. I spent five years of my life getting myself into a position to do that for a living through grad school. Then, just as I got ready to graduate, the economy tore my plans to shreds. Deep in my soul, I am very torn right now. What makes me alive in my soul and what is to be my living are not going to be the same things. There will sparse opportunities to do what I truly want, and each are going to be very precious to me.

Yet unlike the treif animal, there is a difference in this spiritual type of treif. Jeremiah in his letter telling the people in exile to stay put tells them also that this is temporary, though it will be a rather long time.

10. For thus says the Lord, That after seventy years are fulfilled at Babylon I will take heed of you, and perform my good word toward you, making you return to this place. 11. For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. [Jeremiah 29:10-11]

Unlike animals, we are allowed to heal from our own disconnection, and not be treif forever, to do so involve prayer:

12. Then shall you call upon me, and you shall go and pray to me, and I will listen to you.13. And you shall seek me, and find me, when you shall search for me with all your heart. 14. (K) And I will allow myself to be found by you, says the Lord; and I will restore you from your captivity, and I will gather you from all the nations, and from all the places into which I have driven you, says the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I caused you to be driven away. [Jer. 29 12-14]

Through our wanting and praying for divine connection, we can become whole again in time. I’m not giving up on public speaking, or on my desire to teach about Jewish thought. I realize a lot of what I wanted won’t happen as fast as I would have liked. I’m in galut myself for a while. Yet I can be like Mordecai and Esther, and live in galut, live as a torn person from my dreams and hopes, yet live the best I can under alien conditions. That is the real story of Esther: even when things are bad, live the strongest and best you can. The power of that can be immense. According to one Midrash to the book of Esther [Esther Rabbah VIII: 3], Esther will literally give birth to the return from exile: King Darius II who will order the Jews back to Israel. It might take time but I’ll be whole again too.

In the hangover from all the groggers (or in my case drum) and Purim spiels it’s nice to reflect on some powerful ideas found in this rather odd book of the Tanach. It’s nice to realize not just for me, but for everyone, there is a way to deal with the times when things don’t seem to go your way.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Vayikra 5768: Parables of Sin

This week we begin Vayikra, otherwise known as Leviticus, starts with the procedures for different types of sacrifices. We learn how we are to essentially deplete barnyards of animals for different types of sacrifices, some for transgressions, and others for thanksgiving. For vegetarians, we learn that only one type of plant material, grain, is burned while all others are not. First fruits are not to be burned according to the text, but part of the meal offering is. Different classes of sins are then enumerated.

During this week’s portion we read a line an entire chapter about classes of sins:

1. And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 2. Speak to the people of Israel, saying, If a soul shall sin through ignorance against any of the commandments of the Lord concerning things which ought not to be done, and shall do against any of them; [Leviticus 4:1-2]

Again mentioning the same topic, we read:

27. And if any one of the common people sins through ignorance, when he does something against any of the commandments of the Lord concerning things which ought not to be done, and is guilty; 28. Or if his sin, which he has sinned, comes to his knowledge; then he shall bring his offering, a kid of the goats, a female without blemish, for his sin which he has sinned.[Leviticus 4:27,28]

The rabbis in Leviticus Rabbah spend a great deal of time asking some fundamental theological questions including “Is it our bodies or our souls that sin?”

While researching what I wanted to do this week, a parable caught my eye. Parables are known throughout rabbinic literature from quite early times. Indeed there is even a formula for a parable. At its most general, the formula would be stated.

A parable. To what can this be compared to? This can be compared to a… so too can …

Variations of this formula omit parts of the above general form. Parables are ways of talking about a very esoteric idea in terms of very common things and concrete stories. One such parable about learning is found in the Perkei Avot:

Elisha b. Abuyah said: He who learns when a child, to what is he [to be] compared? — To ink written on a new writing sheet; and he who learns when an old man, unto what is he like? — To ink written on an erased writing sheet.

To use Elisha b. Abuyah’s parable to explain parables, those with experience in the world have stuff you cannot completely erase. Parables are for those who have those experiences. Parables use those marks left over from erasing to build onto the new learning.

In the one I found this week, the rabbis are expounding on the phrase from Ecclesiastes 6:7 Neither is the soul filled. The rabbis use a parable to explain this:

R. Levi said: It is like unto a townsman who has married a royal princess; even though he feeds her with all the dainties in the world, he does not fully discharge his obligation. Why?-Because she is a royal princess. So, too, however much a man does for his soul, he does not discharge his full obligation. Why?-Because it is from on high. [Leviticus Rabbah IV: 2]

What does fulfilling the soul have to do with sinning? In another well known parable, the rabbis compare the soul and the body to two guards of an orchard. The king who owns the orchard reasons that since one of these guards is blind and one lame, they cannot get at the fruit of his orchard, and thus be trusted to guard the fruit. Yet the fruit is eaten, and the king figures out that the lame man sat of the shoulders of the blind man and together they got the fruit. So too, the Rabbis conclude, does the soul and the body work together to sin. [Leviticus Rabbah IV: 5]

Yet there is a rebuttal also in parable. The body and soul are like two women: a daughter of a priest and a commoner. Both live in the same household and both do the same sin. The master of the house takes the daughter of the priest to task and not the commoner because the daughter of the priest knew better. So too is the body like the commoner and the soul the daughter of the priest, it knows a lot better than the body. [ibid.]

When I first read the parable about the townsman and the royal princess, it seems when it comes to sin, we cannot win. The divine origin of our souls actually makes us less than perfect. We should try our best to not to sin, but inevitably, due to the nature of the body and soul our efforts will fall short. Ironically, to deal with sin is one of the gifts from God.

After reading the other parables mentioned here, and I began to wonder. There is a body soul connection repeatedly mentioned in the other parables. The parable of the princess and the commoner may also fit this pattern. The princess is the soul, and the body the commoner. The story of the orchard guards charges that the body and the soul are both responsible for sin. The story of the two women charges the soul responsible for sin. The commoner and the princess may likewise be emphasizing the responsibility of the body, but with a twist.

In popular culture and in the dominant theological thought pervasive in our culture, we hear of “animal urges.” The physical is the root of all evil in this view. The soul, being of divine origin cannot sin. According to this view the urge to sin is in our physical requirements, one that some in the world of science have tried to confirm. If we deny the body, the soul’s purity will shine through goes the argument.

Yet the princess and the commoner point to something else, a failure to communicate. Commoners and royalty do not talk the same language. The Soul does have desires and demands, ones the body tries to accommodate, yet fails. The body just can’t understand them. The princess wants a five star meal, yet the commoner brings home hamburger, fries and a coke. What the princess really wants is outside the experience of the commoner, and thus he fails. Sin often comes about because the body desires to fulfill the desires of the soul. Yet often, the way the body uses experience and sensation are inadequate to the task, and thus, even with the best of intentions we end up sinning.

The soul yearns for love and relationship, both with our fellow human beings and with God. The body all too often redefines relationship and love into exclusively physical sensation. Sex and touch becomes the body’s response for the soul’s yearning. Often the physical become the only way to fulfill that need for relationship, but as Ecclesiastes 6:7 noted: All the labor of man is for his mouth, and yet the soul is not filled. It is never enough, and more of the same is added. Having five Big Macs instead of one is still not a five star meal. We get more ridiculous in our attempt to satisfy the soul. From wanting relationship and love, we might get into a downward spiral trying to satisfy that with promiscuity, adultery and pornography. It is all too often in the news that some seemingly upright person has a downfall due to such sin, be it sex, drugs or other activity.

We cannot avoid sin completely, but we can minimize it. The solution in my view is not conventional thinking, but as the parables above intimate, it is very Jewish thinking. The lame man’s and blind man’s real job was to keep other people from eating the King’s fruit. If someone else comes by to steal, the lame man and blind man alone are as powerless to stop them as individuals as they are to steal the fruit themselves. However, the lame man can see thieves, and can tell the blind man who to catch going over the fence into the orchard. If they can work together to steal fruit, so too can they work together to guard the fruit. Both sin and virtue in their case is the same solution: good communication between them.

The princess and the commoner need to communicate. The princess needs to say “I want to go the 5-star restaurant down the street with real waiters and have a candlelit dinner there and a wonderfully prepared five course meal!” The commoner has to actually listen to this, and then say “Where to? I’ll make the reservations”. We need to integrate our bodies and souls. Both have their needs and both need to serve the needs of the other, taking joy in fulfilling those needs. As in any good relationship there is communication, there is give and take.

As any newspaper on any day of the week will tell you in their own parables, denying one or the other often leads to disaster. Sin happens. But sin does not have to control us; we can control sin, making it a minimal part of our lives. Understanding that both the body and soul are responsible and that we keep both our bodies and souls holy and in sync with each other we control sin. To combat sin is not just a matter of doing and not doing. We must always remember the mind-body connection.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Parshat Pekudei 5768: The Art of the Mishkan

For most years, Vayakhel and Pekudei are a double portion. As this is a leap year, they are separate. In last week’s portion Vayakhel we have Moses first giving the instructions for creating the Mishkan he learned on Sinai, employing the people to help in the construction with Betzalel as lead craftsman and architect. The people enthusiastically help out in its construction, so much so Betzalel has to ask for the donations to stop. In this week’s portion, Pekudei, all the pieces are completed, and Moses puts the components together for the first time. The cloud of glory covers the Mishkan to end the book of Exodus.

In this usual double portion I decided to do something similar to the text and make this a two-parter. I ended last week with a question: Should I do art on Shabbat? Using traditional texts, it becomes rather clear that there is a lot of halakic evidence that suggests art should not be done on Shabbat. I ended last week’s portion with a hint on one way of looking at this question differently however. We read this week:

Thus was all the work of the tabernacle of the Tent of Meeting finished; and the people of Israel did according to all that the Lord commanded Moses, so did they.[Exodus 39:32]

In many ways this is similar to another passage in Torah:

1. Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. 2. And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had made; and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had made. 3. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it; because that in it He had rested from all his work which God created and made. [Genesis 2:1-3]

What is significantly different in these two passages is the word for work. In Genesis 2 the word is malacha (מלאכה), in Exodus 39 it is avodah (עבדה). As I mentioned last week, we started the construction of the Mishkan with the prohibition of work on Shabbat, and the rabbis took the definition of creative work, malacha, as the tasks necessary to complete the Mishkan, just like it was necessary to complete the works of creation in Genesis 2. But our text in Exodus 39 does not end construction with malacha but avodah.

Malacha based on God’s use of the word in Genesis 2, means creative work. It also can mean occupation. Thus as a general rule if we do something that creates, or something that is our career, then we are doing prohibited works on Shabbat. On the other hand avodah fundamentally means service. Avodah usually means a particular type of service, divine service or prayer. In the Perkei Avot, the weight of this is made clear:

Simeon the Righteous was one of the last of the men of the great assembly. He used to say: the world is based upon three things: the Torah, Divine Service, and the practice of kindliness. [Avot 1:2]

The early Rabbis made avodah, in their minds prayer, one of the pillars of the world. Yet a difference in words alone does not give me a complete answer.

Last Shabbat in a D’var Torah I gave on this same subject I asked the question about art and Shabbat. As it was a Reform congregation I got a lot of interesting answers, though many were along some of the avenues I discussed last week. Yet it was a few artists who said something that I had thought of, but its full impact hadn’t hit me. Sunday afternoon, when I attended my painting class, and experienced this comment I knew I was on to something.

What I was doing was painting a picture of a rose, ivy and a spider plant. All of my focus and concentration was on these three plants, and seeing every detail and every shade and color in them. Working on those leaves I realized what the artists in the discussion had said was completely true. When one works on art with focus and intention, you are observing the world differently than you normally do. Witnessing creation in this heightened sense is very different than in any other.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, try a rather startling experiment known in art instruction as blind contour drawing. Take a piece of paper and a pencil, and any object you want to draw, for example a cup of coffee. Put the pencil to the paper and draw the edges of the object without ever looking at the paper, never taking your pencil off the paper. Only concentrate your eye on the differing edges in the object, such as where your object meets the air, or where different parts connect. Just like mine, Your drawing may not look like much when you are done, but if you did the exercise right you have been finding and seeing things in the object you never would have otherwise seen had you merely looked at the object.

What I think happened in the construction of the Mishkan, the artisans, known as the wise of heart took the intention of building very seriously. It started as a job but as they built and created, it was no longer a creation, but a reflection of reality just like the blind contour drawing. Such a reflection was so deep, it was no longer work, but had changed into a prayer. They were not making something new but describing what was there all along. A painter might think of the paint flowing from the object onto the canvas or paper. This is no longer work; it is avodah, a prayer to the creator.

I believe I should paint on Shabbat. As an artist it is my unique and heartfelt prayer to God coming not from my lips but from my brush and hand. Painting is okay, but not completely. I’m going to add a few rules as well to make this as much of a special Shabbat experience as I can. Shabbat is about a very special time, a way a sanctifying time instead of space or object. I think one of the passages most of interest in this respect is one of the strongest statements about not doing anything with a painting:

Our Rabbis taught: The writing under a painting or an image may not be read on the Sabbath. And as for the image itself, one must not look at it even on weekdays, because it is said, Turn ye not unto idols. How is that taught? — Said R. Hanin: [Its interpretation is,] Turn not unto that conceived in your own minds.[Shabbat 149a]

While the whole seems rather harsh I think it points to an important truth, and one which resonates today in many ways. R. Hanin had it right: we should not turn to representations of reality and call them reality. That is the true idolatry. It is easy to look at the coffee cup and draw what you think is there, like I did here. As most good art educators will tell you, most of our drawing abilities never increase beyond third grade because we do exactly that. We put symbols in place of what is really there. In most art, unless we are consciously doing so, we should not turn reality into a symbol, and then add a caption to that symbol to tell people what to believe. In the ancient world that was exactly what they did. Someone might make a picture of something, and in its caption call the picture a god, and thus worthy of worship. Today from the local news to reality TV to even taking dramas all too seriously, it’s easy to fall victim of turning one person’s creative vision into reality in the same way.

Each artist, painter, photographer, or video cameraman, looks at the word differently and shows their own perspective. I could make a quick sketch of the same coffee cup but leave out details or see some more clearly than others for example. To use their vision as our own is to limit our own vision, and start not with the infinite, but the finite view of that artist. I can see the whole word in photographs, and yet not have experienced any of it. I can paint a beautiful model for a reference photograph, but it is nothing like painting a real woman. The photograph took the artistic ability of the model and the photographer and gives me only one flat view of a much greater, dynamic scene. God made the bigger scene; we made the photo in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. God made Maui, some photographer shot a few miniscule pieces of it.

To witness creation we need to witness creation itself, not a representation of it. From that concept comes the new restriction in my Shabbat observance, one that dove tails nicely into my own prohibitions of not watching television, or listening to music on Shabbat, all of which give limited representations of creation. I no longer use reference photos on Shabbat, I work from life only. I witness what is really in front of me, for all its detail and grandeur. Looking in this way brings me more towards a true avodah, where creativity changes into a prayer allowed on Shabbat.

It is a historical irony not lost on me that one of the people who gave a wonderful response at my D’var last week is the daughter of a rabbi I’ve learned from for a while. . Her idea was to focus on the idea of career for the prohibition of malachah, and not creative work. To her, creative work expressing one’s Judaism, like making a talit, was a good thing to do on Shabbat. In one of her father’s books and his prolific e-mails, he inspired me to write my own Shabbat halacha over eleven years ago. That Shabbat halacha changes now, and to close this week’s portion I thought I’d give you the new and revised version, of how I look to Shabbat for a time of joy, of holiness and of rest.

Shlomo’s Shabbos
Live Juicy one day a week. Start it with candles. Read Torah and Talmud and contemplate them. Wear wild Hawaiian shirts. No Internet, iPods, or TV or anything else electronic. Walk when you can, walk for the fun of it. Don’t buy anything but food or medicine. Love. If no one else is around love yourself. Don’t forget to hug! Spend time relating to other people. Have outrageous conversations. Eat a REALLY good meal. Dessert and sweets were created for Shabbos!!! Be sensual. Use all your senses to consciously taste, smell, see, touch, and hear. Sense how wonderful everything is. Paint and draw the beauty in Creation as you see it. Read spiritual books and novels of imagination. Take naps. Pray and Play. It doesn’t matter what or how -just play. Sing for the joy of singing, sing for the joy of God. With instruments, even if you can’t. Don’t do anything that has to do with work-unless someone's life is in danger. Bless God, yourself, everyone, and everything else.

May your Shabbat be one of rest, holiness and delight.