There is little doubt that Halacha greatly complicates life for the religious Jew. There is no other religion that requires so much dedication and includes so much emphasis on detail. There is hardly a nook or cranny of a Jew’s life in which Halacha does not make its demands. Many halachic volumes and responsa have been written about minor issues, seemingly blowing them out of all proportion.
The exact amount of matza that must be eaten on the Pesach Seder night is a case in point. The law requires the consumption of a ke-zayith (a unit of volume approximately equal to the size of an olive) to fulfill one’s obligation. But what is the size of an olive? For hundreds of years, halachic scholars have debated this question, even including what is the weight of an olive. Is today’s olive equal in size to the olive from the time of the Bible or of the Talmud? Many opinions have been suggested, and to this day a substantial number of religious Jews will adhere to one and reject others, believing that only a larger measurement will ensure that one has fully fulfilled one’s obligation according to all opinions.
The same is true about the lulav and etrog. How tall must a lulav be? How green do the leaves have to be so that they are not considered dry? What if the etrog is not completely spotless? Is it still religiously valid? What is the correct size? What happens when its pitom, which biologists call its “stigma” (a flowered blossom protruding at the top), has been partially damaged? Thousands of questions like these are found in the Talmud and in the writings of later authorities.
To this day the religious Jew takes delight in these debates and, in fact, discusses them as if his life depends on it. To an outsider this looks altogether ludicrous, and the dismissal of it all as “hair-splitting” is well known. One wonders what people would say if they were told that their Christmas tree has to be of a certain measurement, with a particular number of leaves and ornaments. What if there were to be major differences of opinion among the authorities on whether the leaves must be fully green or may include some spots that are a bit yellow? And what if, God forbid, one ornament is missing or damaged?
What is behind this obsessive way in which Halacha deals with all these issues? What has this to do with religion? Isn’t religion the realm of the soul, of deep emotions and beliefs?
In Devarim (16:1) we find a verse that directly deals with our problem:
“Safeguard the month of the early ripening [Nissan] and bring the Pesach offering unto the Lord your God, for in the month of the early ripening the Lord your God took you out of Egypt at night.”
According to Jewish Tradition, this verse instructs the people of Israel to make sure that Pesach, which commemorates one the most important events in Jewish history, will always be celebrated in the spring. Rabbi Obadiyah Sforno, the great Italian commentator of the 15-16th centuries, comments on this verse in a most original way:
“Take care, with ongoing attention, that Nissan will fall in the spring by means of the ibbur, the combination of the lunar months and sun years, so that you adjust it through the calculations of the lunar years with those of the sun.”
A careful reading of Sforno’s comment seems to reveal a most daring thesis, which directly deals with our question. Since the lunar year has fewer days than the solar year, and since the Jewish year is, to a great extent, based on the lunar year, it is necessary, after a few lunar years, to add an extra month (Adar Sheni, around March) to make sure that Nissan, and therefore Pesach, will fall in the spring and not in the winter.
In that case, alludes Rabbi Sforno, there is a most important question: Why does the Jewish calendar not simply follow a solar year? If, in any case, we must make sure that Pesach falls in the spring, what is the purpose of consistently following lunar years, if eventually one has to align these with the solar years?
His answer is most telling: so as to complicate life. In order to make sure that the month of Nissan and the festival of Pesach will always fall in the spring, one has to make difficult astronomical calculations. The Torah deliberately complicated the Jewish year by modeling it on a lunar year, so that Nissan would not automatically fall in the spring, so that the Sages would have to make complicated calculations. Sure, it would have been much easier to follow the lunar year! But that would have come with a serious religious setback. “A smooth sea never made a skillful mariner,” says the English proverb.
Judaism wants to make the Sages and the Jewish community constantly aware that they live in the presence of God, and to accomplish that goal life has to be complicated and an ongoing challenge! Only through constant occupation with the divine commandments and their minutiae, and only by confronting the obstacles to implementing these commandments, can one be cognizant of God’s presence. Religion’s main task is to disturb. To make sure that in our day-to-day life, and on a very pragmatic level, we do not take anything for granted. It is through challenges and complications that we are constantly surprised. These give birth to wonder, which then reminds us of God’s presence. It is not philosophical contemplation that brings God closer to man. God is not an intellectual issue but the ultimate reality of life. Only in the deed, in the down-to-earth, complicated and heart-rending existence of daily life, which asks for sweat and blood, does one escape superficiality and enter an awareness and attentiveness. By studying astronomy, encountering major complexities, and using scientific instruments for the purpose of ensuring that Pesach falls in the spring, the Sages were forced to find solutions, which then made them aware of the sheer uniqueness of this world. Their total commitment to a biblical commandment, including the need to investigate, discuss and implement it, gave them a sense of the mystery of life. Through the constant wonder that accompanied them in their search and ultimate resolution, they became aware of the living God.
Even simply guaranteeing that a festival falls in the right season cannot be taken for granted. It requires concentration and calculation, not only in one’s study in an ivory tower, but also in the greatest study hall of all – the world! This, however, can only be achieved when man encounters problems that he cannot ignore. They must stare him in the face. Each obstacle is also a challenge, a wake-up call from his slumber.
This idea runs contrary to our way of thinking. If anything, western civilization looks for ways to make life less complicated. Many of our scientific inventions are founded on this premise. And no doubt this is of great importance. Man’s life should be less complicated! It would grant him more time to enjoy life, to investigate elements of spirituality, and to search for deep, sacred beauty. But in these matters it is ongoing effort that is required. Were that not to be the case, one would fall into devastating boredom, which, after all, is the result of no longer noticing the uniqueness of our lives. Boredom comes from taking life for granted. This has disastrous consequences for the human spirit. It will slowly die. To live means to stay alert, to take notice. When it comes to the spirit, man should never live an effortless and uncomplicated life.
Scientific research has often revealed parts of our universe that can stir the heart of man in ways that were not possible in earlier times. Scientists dedicate their lives to the most minute properties of our physical world. They are fascinated with and often even carried away by the behavior of cells, the habits of insects and the peculiarities of the DNA code. God is in the details, goes the saying. So, too, halachic authorities look for the smallest details so as to make man sensitive to every fine point of his life. By making us careful with how much matza to eat, what size lulav to use, and to what extent our etrog should be spotless, they create a subconscious awareness in us of every dimension of life. Everything is put under a microscope in order to ensure that we never take anything for granted. Halacha is an anti-boredom device. It is the microscopic search for God.
Indeed, Judaism’s main purpose is to complicate life so as to create a psychological environment that makes the Jew constantly aware of living in the presence of God. This is in no way an eccentric observation; it is consistent with the very purpose of religious life. Religion is a protest against taking life for granted. There are no insignificant phenomena or deeds in this world, and it is through Judaism’s demands and constant far-reaching interference into our daily life that we are made aware of God as our steadfast Companion.
No doubt God could have made life easy and straightforward, but this would have undermined the very purpose of creation: the search and discovery of God at every moment and on every level of man’s existence in this world.
This is clearly the meaning of the famous talmudic statement by Rabbi Chanania ben Akashia (Makkoth 23b) when he said: “The Holy One blessed be He desired to confer merit upon Israel, therefore He gave them Torah and mitzvoth in abundance, as it is said: ‘God desires for the sake of its righteousness that the Torah be expanded and strengthened. (Isa. 42:21)”
One of the great challenges confronting Judaism is the problem of behaviorism, which is the result of getting used to the way Judaism informs man to respond to all of life, which is nothing less than extraordinary. When that happens, halachic living becomes self-defeating. What it wishes to prevent is what it actually encourages. With a play on Nietzsche’s observation that anyone who has looked deeply into the world may guess how much wisdom lies in the superficiality of man, we may suggest that one of the great tragedies of today’s halachic man is his obliviousness to how much profundity his halachic superficiality hides. *
“God is of no importance unless He is of supreme importance.” Abraham Joshua Heschel
* For a possible solution to this problem, look for our next “Thoughts to Ponder.”