In the Torah and Talmud, Human Beings Determine Ritual Reality

April 16 2021

This week’s Torah reading of Tazri’a-M’tsora (Leviticus 12-15) is largely concerned with laws of purity and impurity relating to the disease of tsara’at, usually rendered as leprosy. Not only can this ailment infect people, but it can also afflict clothing and houses, in certain cases causing all vessels within a structure to contract ritual impurity. When a house appears infected, Scripture requires the owners to remove everything therein, and then ask a priest to inspect it, who will then either declare it pure or impure. Martha Himmelfarb examines the reasons for this step, and its significance for understanding the nature of Jewish law:

Once the process of determination begins, everything in the house— whether made of cloth, leather, hair, or metal—is subject to impurity. . . . In other words, to spare the person time, money, and anguish, the Torah permits—even encourages—the homeowners to clean out their home before the priest enters and evaluates it.

Once the priest recognizes the signs of leprosy, [however], shouldn’t the vessels and furniture be automatically impure, even if removed? After all, they were in an impure house! How does removing the vessels protect them from impurity? The legal loophole used here seems to reflect a role for human intention in law. Physical reality alone does not convey impurity. At least in regard to house leprosy, until the priest decides to close the house for a seven-day quarantine, it and the objects inside it remain pure.

Human intention and engagement play an important role in rabbinic law. For example, people must intend to fulfill the commandment to hear the sound of the shofar in order to fulfill the commandment. Just physically hearing the note of a ram’s horn is insufficient to make it count as a ritual act of shofar blowing. . . . Until the priest has declared the house quarantined because of leprosy, the house and its objects remain in a state of purity. Ritual reality is determined by human beings.

This kind of legal thinking, ubiquitous in rabbinic literature, is admittedly not common in the Torah. To the best of my knowledge, this leprosy passage is the only such instance. The passage thus marks the beginning of a process of legal thinking that would later be developed by the rabbis and become part and parcel of how Jewish law functions.

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Read more at theTorah.com

More about: Halakhah, Leviticus, Torah

Will Costco Go to Israel?

Social-media users have mocked this week new Israeli finance minister Bezalel Smotrich for a poorly translated letter. But far more interesting than the finance minister’s use of Google Translate (or some such technology) is what the letter reveals about the Jewish state. In it, Smotrich asks none other than Costco to consider opening stores in Israel.

Why?

Israel, reports Sharon Wrobel, has one of the highest costs of living of any country in the 38-member Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.

This

has been generally attributed to a lack of competition among local importers and manufacturers. The top three local supermarket chains account for over half of the food retail market, limiting competition and putting upward pressure on prices. Meanwhile, import tariffs, value-added tax costs and kosher restrictions have been keeping out international retail chains.

Is the move likely to happen?

“We do see a recent trend of international retailers entering the Israeli market as some barriers to food imports from abroad have been eased,” Chen Herzog, chief economist at BDO Israel accounting firm, told The Times of Israel. “The purchasing power and technology used by big global retailers for logistics and in the area of online sales where Israel has been lagging behind could lead to a potential shift in the market and more competitive prices.”

Still, the same economist noted that in Israel “the cost of real estate and other costs such as the VAT on fruit and vegetables means that big retailers such as Costco may not be able to offer the same competitive prices than in other places.”

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Read more at Times of Israel

More about: Costco, Israel & Zionism