Friday, April 09, 2010

the economics of matzah and milu'im

In the Maharal-ian universe the number seven represents the recurring pattern of nature, epitomized by the seven days of the week, while the number eight is associated with the transcendent (think of bris milah, Chanukah). It is therefore ironic that after sitting secluded in the confines of Ohel Moed for seven days, “hevi’ani hamelech chadarav”, after offering for seven straight days korbanos shelamim which had the unique din of being categorized as kodshei kodashim and eaten only within the Ohel, on the exalted yom hashmini, the eighth day, which our parsha describes, this special milu’im state ends and the operation of the Mishkan begins its normal routine. Why is this eight different than all others?

The explanation is that immersion in intense and isolated holiness, such as which occurred during the days of milu’im, is not an end in itself, but is a means. Torah life is not meant to be lived cloistered in an Ohel. Intense spiritual growth in isolation is but a prelude and preparation for the even greater and more noble task of doing good in the regular, mundane world; engaging in the day to day without succumbing to spiritual lethargy and decay. It was that greater purpose which began on the eighth day.

Professor Steve Landsburg has an interesting blog post entitled, “The Tragedy of Chametz,” in which he comments about our giving up bread and the Xstian observance of Lent, “This always strikes me as mildly tragic. If you’re going to sacrifice your pleasures in order to feel virtuous, why not at least do it in a way that helps someone? Instead of giving up meat or leavened bread, donate a few hundred dollars to a worthy cause.” He compares these activities to a runner who pushes himself to run around a track: “You push yourself to do something hard, you feel good about it, and you leave the world pretty much the way you found it. What a shame that you didn’t push yourself to do something useful instead.”

Even if one accepts this sort of economic argument that measures “good” based on social utility alone (plenty of joggers run around a track for personal health and enjoyment; there need not be a social benefit for an activity to be positive), I think we can offer a reasonable response to Landsburg. The Zohar asks: if matzah is such a spiritual, elevating food, why do we not withdraw from chametz completely and eat it year round? The answer echoes the lesson of the days of milu’im: matzah is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The week of withdrawal from chametz is a week dedicated to building a different food-consciousness so that our eating year-round is done in a more spiritual, mindful manner. Having a different consciousness about food in turn can lead to a different consciousness about consumption in general.

It would be shortsighted to describe a week spent in job training or learning a new skill as a “tragic” waste of time even there is no immediate benefit (in fact, productivity may suffer during the training period). The net future gain accrued from having improved skills or knowledge more than compensates for the immediate loss (why else would companies offer paid training?). There may be no immediate gain from giving up chametz for a week, but without the spiritual “training” period of that week, the net gain of good works that result from having taken the time to work on developing a more moral and thoughtful personality would be impossible to attain.


  1. Barzilai2:10 PM

    Thanks for the mareh makom. I needed someone to bash today, and this did just the job. I doubt he'll print my response, but I enjoyed writing it.

  2. I see your response up there, so at least he's fair. Maybe he does a better job with the economics than with the Judaism.
    Anyway, I'm glad I helped make your day : )

  3. I don't really understand hidden meaning style explanations, as if eating matzah is meant to introduce kedusha to the rest of the year, why doesn't everyone know and perceive it as such?

  4. The lack of a perceived effect is no proof that the phenomenon is any less real. If I eat chazir I may not perceive any deleterious effect, but we learn from the end of this week's parsha that it is metamtem es halev.

    The effect is a function of the kavanas hagavra, not the mere act of eating, and as such is dependent on the attention,knowledge, and energy of the person performing the act. Obviously someone who just shoves a k'zayis matzah down his throat will have a different mitzvah experience than someone who thinks deeply about what matzah means. We may often fall short of the ideal kavanos, but by learning torah like this we at least know what to aim for. The Piecezna discusses this a lot, see the second ma'amar at the end of Chovas haTalmidim ("Torah, Tefilah, Shirah") for starters.

  5. My perspective on Matza is this:
    In Parshas Shemini we are introduced to the concept of Timtum Halev, that prohibited foods defile our bodies' potential for kedusha. It seems to me that if there's a concept of timtum halev, there must be a converse concept of 'zichuch halev.' So we have to ask, what is the opposite of ma'achalos asuros? Everyone's immediate answer is , "things that are muttar to eat." This is not correct. The opposite of a thing is not the absence of the thing; the opposite of hate is not indifference, it is love. The opposite of issurei achila is mitzvas achila. There is only one mitzvas achila deoraysa of a specific food bizman hazeh, and that is Matza. Maybe, maybe, also wine by kiddush, but pashtus that's a heicha timtza of how to make kiddush, not a mitzva of wine in itself. So it stands to reason that achilas matza is mezachech es halev; according to the Gaon, matza the entire Pesach. According to the Rif, only the first night. According to others, only that one kezayis on the first night. All this doesn't matter. If you hold of timtum halev, you've got to hold of the converse, and the classic application would be Matza on Pesach.

  6. Barzilai12:38 AM

    Yes, he is fair, but I was disappointed that he didn't respond. I thought that at least he would say "Aha! So the Rambam and Yeshiyahu agree with me that Pesach, as most people keep it, is a selfish and wasteful experience." He probably printed it just to show how delusional those frummmies are.

  7. Where is this zohar?
    Also the derech hashem says when explaining pesach that we are in a chametz withdrawal. We can't live all year round but for a week we can.