Sunday, October 4, 2009

Please Don't Eat the Hoopoe: Funny Torah Laws

For Jews, the first five books of the Bible are called the Torah. And though we have no perfect English rendering for this deliciously untranslatable word, scholars usually settle upon "law." Which makes a certain amount of sense, given the fact that a good part of these five books is taken up by a very detailed legal corpus.

It is said that the Torah gives Jews 613 commands, or mitzvot. (And here's a handy web site that lists and thematically arranges all of them ... thanks jewfaq.com!) These 613 laws are more or less binding, depending on any individual Jew's placement within the religious spectrum of modern Judaism--from Reform to Orthodox. For the latter of these, scrupulous adherence to all 613 forms the core of a vibrant--if conservative--spiritual praxis.

Now, almost no one I know--observant Jews included--has been through all 613, because so few read the Torah from front to back any more. And even though I champion Biblical literacy in this space, those who try and fail to make it through Leviticus still have my sympathy.

However, the hardy few who bushwack their way through the legal backwater have a few delightful surprises waiting in store. And while a lot of ink gets spilled writing about outdated Torah laws, or unnecessarily harsh ones, I'd like to stick to a different type tonight--the hiarious ones. Because stuck among the ritual prescriptions, hygiene rules, and priestly codes of conduct are--and I say this with all respect to Jewish readers--some pretty funny strictures. Let me tell you just a few.

But before I begin, let me be the first to admit that the Bible's legal humor derives largely from the fact that our culture differs so completely from that of classical Hebraism. Few to none of these rules would have struck a 8th-century BCE resident of Judah as "funny." (Think of an ancient Hebron resident trying to wrap his mind around illegal internet file sharing.) But I don't live 2800 years ago in Israel, so I'll go ahead and snicker.

Most know that in the Torah, murder draws a death sentence (Exodus 21:12). But did you know that the same law holds true for oxen? True. Further, the Torah even dictates the mode of execution: "When an ox gores a man or woman to death, the ox hall be stoned" (Ex. 21:28). Let me tell you--it's been way too long since I've been to a good ox-stoning, when the ox is really pissed.

Torah law also lays out correct punishment for careless hole-diggers. "If someone leaves a pit open, or digs a pit and does not cover it, and an ox or a donkey falls into it, the owner of the pit shall make restitution, giving money to its owner, but keeping the dead animal" (Ex. 21:33-34). I cannot tell you how many times I've forgotten to cover all my pits after a hard day of pit-digging! But then again, a dead donkey is just as good as a live donkey in a pinch ... especially if dinner's coming up soon. Just use coriander to mask the pungent donkey scent.

Speaking of food, kosher law is amusingly specific from time to time. Now, all my conservative and orthodox Jewish friends know the basics: no shellfish; only eat animals that chew cud and have cloven hooves (cows are just fine); no meat and dairy together (though scholars remind us that this last is really a Talmudic--not a Biblical--prescription).

But some of the exceptions are delightfully unexpected. For instance, we all know that observant Jews do not eat pork. But did you also know that the Torah also expressly forbids the consumption of "rock badger" (Lev. 11:5)? Do you what a "rock badger" is? Me neither ... but do not even think about throwing one on the Weber this weekend. Also specifically forbidden? Hoopoe (Lev. 11:9) and gecko (11:30). And there goes my favorite meal ... sauteed gecko served in a hoopoe bouillon with fried gecko legs on the side.

Later--on a much different note--the Torah goes into some length describing a detailed incest ban. My favorite part? "You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father's brother, that is, you shall not approach his wife; she is your aunt" (Lev. 18:14). I love the straight-forward, definitional earnestness of that last phrase. "Holy buckets! My aunt? Let me double check here ... father's brother's wife is ... oh man, I think they're right. Me and Uncle Carl are going to have to have a little talk soon."

There are a few others that make me smile more than I should, but it's late and I'm tired, so I'm off to bed. Besides, I've got to get up early for an ox-stoning.

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