Relics, writings show non-Jewish influences on Jewish practices

Rabbi Josef A. Davidson serves Congregation B’nai Amoona.

By Rabbi Josef Davidson

My favorite professor in rabbinical school taught Semitic languages, and I took virtually every course that he taught in Aramaic, Syriac and Arabic. His own Ph. D. had been earned at the Sorbonne, and his thesis was the culmination of his study of what he called “magic bowls.” These bowls were found buried in the earth bottoms up and inside them were incantations written in Aramaic. 

What could possibly be the purpose of such “magic bowls?” Why were they buried in such a fashion? 

The key to these questions was to be found in the Aramaic incantations inscribed in each one. He discovered that similar bowls were utilized by a non-Jewish population with their own inscriptions to keep evil spirits from rising out of the ground. The belief was that the bowls would catch them and that the words would neutralize their power in some manner. The Jewish population assimilated this behavior but inscribed their own incantations to ward off the evil spirits.

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Over the millennia of Jewish existence, there have been many instances such as this of a Jewish population in effect mimicking the practice, the music, the behavior, the dress of the people among whom it resided. Today, for example, when one feels fortunate, one “knocks on wood.” The origin of this behavior is clearly not in the Jewish world, but the behavior has been assimilated by many Jews. Melodies such as the classic one for Adon Olam come from those popular in Europe, and customs such as eating latkes and playing with the dreidle also have their origins in the non-Jewish population. The genius of Judaism is that by and large these have been transformed into something uniquely Jewish.

So it is that we may question a verse from this week’s double Torah portion, Aharei Mot/Kedoshim, that instructs us, “You shall not mimic the practices of the land of Egypt where you lived or of the land of Canaan where I am taking you; and in their ways, you shall not walk.” (Leviticus 18: 3) Is this verse to be taken literally, does it only proscribe the practices of these two localities? Or is it meant to be more universal with regard to the practices of the many different nations among whom we have and continue to reside?

Just such a question came before the Kotzker Rebbe Menachem Mendl. It seems that during the reign of Czar Nicholas I a decree went forth requiring Jews to wear hats with visors just like their Gentile neighbors. The Jews were outraged, and many vowed that they would die rather than to copy the practice of wearing such hats in the manner of their neighbors. The Chassidim of Kotzk were engaged in a furious debate in Menachem Mendl’s Beit Midrash over the proper response to this edict in light of the Torah’s proscription on mimicking the other nations. Finally when the rebbe appeared, they posed the question to him, to which he replied and snapped, “The clothing of Jews is only the tallis (tallit) and tefillin!”

What we learn from this reply is that as Jews, we need be concerned that we are practicing authentic Jewish observances before we concern ourselves with those of our neighbors. If Jews practice the essence of Judaism, then the practices of our neighbors will become irrelevant.  This provides for the freedom to transform those practices that speak to Jews into meaningful, Jewish practices that enrich rather than impoverish Judaism, just as did the many melodies, customs, foods and holidays that were assimilated from the non-Jewish communities among whom Jews have resided. If Jews choose to wear hats with visors, let them wear them as Jews!