Emor Letter 2012
While we, as Americans, have long been accustomed to the availability of bananas through the winter from the Americas, strawberries year round from Mexico, sweet corn out of season from Guatemala, and fresh Brazilian orange juice, it is the barley season that befuddles us. Not just, “what is barley used for?”, but why can’t I eat new barley or any grain when I want to?
I’m half kidding on that! If we were Biblical Israelites, who followed the prescriptions of this week’s portion, called Emor, from Leviticus, the culinary rules would be quite clear:
“When you enter the land that I am giving to you and your reap its harvest, you shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest. He shall elevate the sheaf before the Lord for acceptance in your behalf; the priest shall lift it high on the day after the Sabbath…Until that very day, until you have brought the offering of your God, you shall eat no bread or parched grain or fresh ears, it is a law for all time throughout the ages in all your settlements.” (Leviticus 23: 10 – 12, 14)
In the time of the Temple Jews were instructed to bring a small harvest of their early spring grain to the priests on the second day of Passover, calling it an “Omer offering”. From that day, as Leviticus 23:9 expresses it, “you shall count seven weeks” up to Shavuot. But why continue to recite the formula at Friday evening services? Since the Temple is long since gone, and our people are no longer agricultural (for the most part) what is this ritual for us today?
Traditionalist would argue that counting the 50 Days of the Omer serves as the bridge between Passover and Shavuot, connecting our gratitude for freedom with our appreciation of the discipline of Torah from the revelation at Mount Sinai of the laws of holiness. Some would follow Maimonides line of thought that the counting marks our eagerness to cherish each day of the ancient journey from Slavery to Responsibility.
I appreciate that later generations offer lofty assessments of the motivations of ancestors, but I sense by the later comments of the Mishnah from the 2nd Century of the Common Era that matters were more complex, even in their day!
Without sounding too skeptical my doubts are about how a people who lived so close to the land could withstand the temptation to consume new grains when there was pressing need for nourishment. If the purpose of such rites was to show God the devotion of the one harvesting from the land so that He might accept the gift of a visual offering, but that it not be destroyed, then the “raising high” of the grain is an inspirational moment for the farmer--- and perhaps an echo of earlier pagan rituals where the proof of fertility of the land and labor of the farmer was the contest to lift high a particular bouquet.
Moreover, slowing the spring harvest process to demonstrate the maturity of the young plants deeply pushes the nervous farmer to acknowledge that it is by God’s grace that the land produces his and his community’s nourishment. Generally speaking, farmers are in a rush when there is certainty of harvest, and do not lose time for distractions or errors when the future is at stake.
Perhaps that’s why the Mishnah, tractate Orlah 3:9, offers the farmers of Israel and the nearby lands a “mulligan” – that golfer’s chance to take a do-over when the commonly accepted rules of the game are too strict for one’s skills or conscience. Listen for the “extra stroke or two”…
“If it is uncertain whether certain fruits are orlah [from the first three years since a Jew planted the tree; perhaps the tree is older or was planted by a non-Jew]: if it is in the Land of Israel, it is forbidden; if in Syria, it is permitted; and if completely outside the Land, then he can go down to the orchard and buy the fruit so long as he isn’t seen picking it. A vineyard which has vegetables mixed in it, and outside it vegetables are being sold [possibly from the vineyard and thus forbidden as kilayim, a banned admixture]: if it is in the Land of Israel, it is forbidden; if in Syria, it is permitted; and if completely outside the Land, then he can go down to the orchard and gather the fruit so long as he isn’t seen picking it himself. New grain [chadash, e.g., winter wheat before the omer is offered on the second day of Pesach] is forbidden by the Torah in all places. Orlah law is traditional, and vegetables mixed in a vineyard are forbidden by the rabbis [within Israel].” ( Mishnah Orlah 3:9)
Now I like the emphasis on public versus private behavior in their day: it leads me to ask, for a quick digression, in our day, are there activities that, while technically permitted, a Jew should not be seen doing? Which and why?
And, if the rules of the Orlah are treated differently in different locales because of local custom or pressing need, does that mean the local Jew was the one who decided on the applicability?
That’s what made the rule of the spring grains so appealing:
If new grain (chadash) is forbidden until after the omer offering on Pesach [after which it is called "old" (yashan)], why should that rule exist without the flexibility as the other two rules of the Mishnah? Did the writer of the Mishnah fear that without a Temple (since the year 70) or authorized priesthood in the days of the Mishnah (because of the Roman’s strict role as conquerors) that the line of reasonable public Jewish behavior had to be drawn somewhere?
One line of our Mishnah had a famous afterlife. The great Hungarian rabbi Moses Sofer (1762-1839) of Pressburg (now Bratislava) is frequently quoted as writing “ he-chodosh assur min ha Torah” playing on the missing word for grain to create a new slogan for his day "the new [grain] is forbidden by the Torah in all places".
His followers correctly understood that he meant to attack innovations in Judaism being proposed by the maskilim who advanced “enlightened” arguments as to what practices would be retained or changed for the Jews of early 1800’s. By his rule, innovation is the antithesis of true Judaism.
For Sofer only Judaism as previously practiced by an authorized community was acceptable. In his rules, as he patiently taught and wrote for over 35 years as a community leader in Pressburg, the tenets and rituals of Judaism never changed. Quite literally, eating “new grain” new ideas, whether they be philosophical, social or practical is an offense to Orthodox practice. Thus, no secular subjects were added to the curriculum in Pressburg. Reform Judaism was to be vigorously opposed, while the small variations in local traditional practice were not to be examined too closely.
By Sofer’s creation of a counter-modernizing movement, he sought to oppose the rationalist efforts to explain or make philosophical comparisons of Judaism to other religions or to their central texts (which were both early and thoughtful efforts of the German Reformers.) Correctly, I think, Sofer understood that if one made educated comparisons and looked for the historical precedents for prayers, customs and set synagogue rituals, that one was going to find deep satisfaction in some mitzvot and minhagim (laws and customs) and diminished relevance in others.
But Judaism does require conscious refashioning to live in each locale or generation, not a rejection of Western culture and the endorsement of separatism. With the advent of modernity the community as a public corporation – which held the right of discipline over each member – ended as rights of civic participation were granted to us by both Gentile and secular governments.
Secularization also meant that compartmentalization becomes possible.
As Rabbi David Ellenson, the Orthodox raised leader of the Reform Hebrew Union College, notes, “One can go to synagogue on a Shabbat morning and to a soccer game in the afternoon. Many areas of life are usually no longer seen from, or be guided by an ‘elitist-religious’ kind of perspective. Yet, as we saw for Jews living in France or England in the early modern period, no thought is given to justifying this type of behavior. It has no ideological dimension…There is no absolute solution anymore. People will increasingly have multiple options and make different choices – the more so as they do not share a common Jewish culture and are not likely to internalize the same set of norms.”
So, if the issue for us, particularly in the Somerset Hills is no longer ‘ how do I become modern’, but, ‘ how do I deeply become Jewish’ then we must thoughtfully work out what it means to place Judaism towards the center of our lives, and not at the periphery.
But, if you’ve read this far…you’re probably there already!