Last week, justice. This week, law.
Some laws lead to justice, some to injustice, and most to more laws.
There several dozen laws in this week’s portion, described in the Etz Hayim edition of the Torah as “Miscellaneous Laws.” These include laws concerning: captive war brides, rights of the firstborn of a less-favored wife, insubordinate sons), decent treatment of the body of an executed criminal (none of that sticking head on pikes for display on London Bridge), returning lost animals and helping with fallen animals, not cross-dressing, not capturing a mother bird with her nestlings, and building a barrier on the roof to prevent people from falling off it. There are specified forbidden combinations of seed, working animals, and fibers in clothing. Speaking of fibers, we also read details about tzitzit, the fringes on a four-cornered garment (see also http://www.aish.com/jl/m/mm/Tzitzit.html for details). And then we get into sexual misconduct, suspected or genuine. Eventually, we read about purity rules for a military camp, asylum for escaped slaves, cult prostitutes, charging interest, and treating all fairly and respectfully: your customers, workers, the poor, the widow, the orphan, and those sentenced to be flogged. The portion ends with a reminder to remember Amalek: blot out his name but be vigilant against his actual and symbolic progeny.
Laws typically arise because of something that you don’t want to happen, whether or not it actually has yet, or in response to a specific situation. Then you think of potential future complications and incorporate provisions for dealing with them into your law. (Add in the need to placate specific interests, and you’ve got a 2400 page Congressional bill.) Then, once the law is in force, real, unforeseen complications ensue, prompting even more laws.
You can readily visualize the situations prompting many of the laws in the Torah. The Mishnah, on the other hand, which expounds on the Torah laws, often indulges in what appears to be mental gymnastics ad absurdum, to see the logical, even if obviously theoretical, implications of a law. For example, in this week’s portion, we read about the “levirate” marriage, yibbum in Hebrew, in which the widow of a man who died childless marries her husband’s brother, and any children from the union are considered children of the dead man. We saw this in the story of Tamar and, in order, Er, Onan, Shelah, and Judah (Gen. 38) and in the Book of Ruth. In the Mishnah, a whole tractate, Yevamot, considers issues like when yibbum must or mustn’t occur and how to get out of it by a process called halitzah. Some of the scenarios described are quite possible, e.g., what if the surviving brother is sterile? Others, while serving a pedagogical goal of sharpening reasoning skills, make you wonder if they had too much time on their hands, or what they were smoking, like Yevamot 11:3: 5 women each have a baby boy, and the 5 babies (call this group 1) get mixed up, so it is not known which baby goes with which mother. Then each woman has another son (these 5 are group 2); these each stay with the correct mother. All the group 1 boys grow up, marry, and die childless. Who among the surviving brothers (group 2) is obligated to marry (or to be formally renounced by) whom? Think about it.
We are well into the month of Elul. Every morning the shofar is blown to remind us of the need for self-examination as we approach the High Holy Days, only a few weeks away. This year, I have few enough outside distractions that I may, finally, actually, be in the proper frame of mind by Rosh Hashanah.
A Bit of Talmudic Humor
Excerpt from “Talmudic Humor and the Establishment of Legal Principles: Strange Questions, Impossible Scenarios, and Legalistic Brainteasers,” by Hershey H. Friedman, Ph.D.
A baby pigeon that is found within fifty cubits of a coop belongs to the coop’s owner [the assumption is that it came from the coop]. If it is found outside the fifty cubits, then it belongs to the finder [the assumption being that it came from the wild]. Rabbi Yirmiyah asked: If one foot of the pigeon is within the fifty cubits and one foot is outside, to whom does it belong? It was for this that they expelled Rabbi Yirmiyah from the academy. (Babylonian Talmud, Bava Bathra 23b) (Only temporarily)
A man once asked his Rabbi to explain the meaning of “Talmudic Reasoning.”
The Rabbi replied: “Well, it’s not too easy to explain, but I think I can demonstrate it to you and you will get the point. I will ask you a simple question and you give the answer. Are you ready?”
The man was ready, so the Rabbi continued: “Imagine that two men come out of a chimney, one is dirty, the other clean. Which one takes a bath?” The intrigued listener immediately replied: “That’s easy, Rabbi. The dirty one takes the bath.”
“Not so,” said the Rabbi. “The Talmud would explain that when the men came out, the dirty one looked at the clean one and saw a clean face. Meanwhile the clean one looked at the dirty one and saw a dirty face.” A knowing look, complete with broad smile, flashed onto the man’s face.
The Rabbi continued, “Now tell me which one takes the bath?” The answer was quick and sure. “Now I get it Rabbi, the clean one takes the bath!”
The Rabbi looked just a bit unhappy, but he answered patiently, “No. You see, the Talmud would go on to ask: ‘How could two men come out of a chimney and one be clean and the other dirty?”
This doesn’t seem fair to me. Wasn’t having more than one wife enough punishment?
Stupid Laws in Delaware (Yay.)
Location: Lowes Crossroads, Delaware | no comments
And in New Jersey: http://www.stupidlaws.com/laws/united-states/new_jersey/
It is illegal to frown as the town is a “Frown-Free Town Zone”
Location: Bernards Township, New Jersey | no comments
Lawyer: Are you being selective about what you remember and what you don’t remember as to the details of your previous record?
Witness: I don’t remember.
In the late 1800s, a British Judge hailed a cab and told the driver to take him to the Royal Courts of Justice.
“Where are they?” asked the driver.
“You mean you don’t know where the law courts are?” asked the judge incredulously.
“Oh! The law courts,” replied the driver. “You said the Courts of Justice.”
It’s time now for the historic tobacco settlement Q and A:
Q. Could you please explain the recent historic tobacco settlement?
A. Sure! Basically, the tobacco industry has admitted that it is killing people by the millions, and has agreed that from now on it will do this under the strict supervision of the federal government.
Q. Will there be monetary damages assessed?
A. Yes. To compensate for the immense suffering caused by its products, the tobacco industry will pay huge sums of money to the group most directly affected.
In my many years I have come to a conclusion that one useless man is a shame, two is a law firm and three or more is a congress. — John Adams