Podcast: Episode 5 – Beards, Payot and Tattoos in Torah

Transcript:

Shalom and welcome to another episode of The Okie Hebrew Podcast – this is episode 5. This will be the first of a series of episodes I like to call “mitzvah misconceptions” where we’ll be tacking certain aspects of Torah and Jewish life that have been misunderstood. Most of these misconceptions are an attempt to explain some aspects of observant Jewish life (or a lack of) that have caused division in the religious world. It’s my hope that this series will give you listeners a look at what the Torah has to say about these instead of just that guy giving people a dirty look. In this episode, we’re going to discuss some subjects that have wrongly caused division within the Jewish and Torah-keeping communities: tattoos, beards and payot – the side locks normally worn by some observant Jewish men. Let’s get into it!

So, have you ever seen an observant Jewish person with tattoos on their arms? How about an observant Jewish man with no beard? Though these types of things may seem odd to you, they’re no cause for alarm. They’re actually fine according to both Torah as well as various oral traditions. I know many of you may need to pick up your dropped jaws after having heard that from me, but please give me a chance to explain. It will all make sense shortly. 

Misconception: Having a tattoo is against Torah. 
I’ve heard far too many horror stories about the rabbi or members of the Jewish community who have discriminated against the guy who had an arm full of tattoos. I’m here to say that you should let that guy into your community just as quickly as anyone else – possibly even more quickly. 
The keyword in this mitzvah is “תתנו” – “tetanu”, which means to make or to give. This is an active word which does not entail possessing, such as “נשא” – “nasa”, which means to have, to lift up or to exalt.
So, essentially, there is no sin in having a tattoo – only in willfully acquiring a tattoo. Still, many who have repented and tried to live spiritually observant lives fall victims to prejudice from even religious leaders in their community due to the stigma that a tattoo brings. When it comes to the mindset that is appropriate, a tattoo is a reminder of a past life – a battle scar.  One must also never forget that if every past averah, every trangression were to leave a physical mark on our bodies such as tattoos, we’d all be so covered that we wouldn’t be able to recognize each other!

Misconception: It is a mitzvah to have a full beard or side-locks (payot). 
Many believe the symbol of a righteous Jew is a full beard that takes up their entire face and brims over their collar onto their shirt. Many other righteous Jews are pictured with tightly coiled side-locks that add a sense of piety to their character. Still, it says nowhere in Torah to have a full beard or side-locks.
Most all of the great personalities of the Torah had beards. When many think of Charleston Heston playing Moses in “The 10 Commandments”, they remember the big fake beard he wore atop Mount Sinai. Every artist rendition of any positive masculine figure of the Bible is almost sure to have a beard. Still, the Torah nowhere explicitly states that having a full beard is a mitzvah. What does it say?
Leviticus 19:27:
לא תקפו פאת ראשכם ולא תשחית את פאת זקנך
“You shall not round off the side-growth of your heads nor harm the corners of your beard.”
These mitzvot have nothing to do with having, but rather have to do with not cutting what happens to grow.
While it’s implied that if you don’t cut the hair on the sides of your head or cut the corners of your beard, you will wind up with a very large beard and long side-locks, this isn’t always so. Some men cannot grow good beards or thick hair due to genetics or other reasons. I recently spoke with a Torah-observant man who was ashamed to grow his beard due to some past radiation treatments for cancer making his beard grow back in an odd way.
So, should the thick-full beard and thick payot be the picture of the truly righteous man? No. Even an unrighteous man can look truly handsome with a thick beard. Rather, the picture of righteousness and emunah, faith, is the man who cannot grow a very thick beard, but grows what he can with what he has. A patchy beard for the Creator is a million times more holy than a thick beard as a symbol of one’s own piety. 

This has been episode 5 of the Okie Hebrew Podcast – the first in the series of “mitzvah misconceptions.” I hope this has been a productive podcast for you to you not cast judgments on people sole on their looks. There is always more to learn beneath the surface. I’m Ken Lane, aka Yefet ben Ezra of Okie Hebrew.com. Shalom. 

Podcast Episode 4 – The Most Underestimated Commandment

Transcript:

Shalom everyone and welcome to episode 4 of the Okie Hebrew Podcast. I’m Ken Lane, aka: Yefet ben Ezra of OkieHebrew.com and this podcast will cover something extremely unique we find in the Torah: legislation of the mind. Let’s get into it! 
I’ve noticed that there’s one mitzvah – one commandment that gets the least amount of attention – yet deserves the most – and it’s found in Exodus 20 at the tail end of the rest of the 10 commandments. 
לֹ֥א תַחְמֹ֖ד בֵּ֣ית רֵעֶ֑ךָ לֹֽא־תַחְמֹ֞ד אֵ֣שֶׁת רֵעֶ֗ךָ וְעַבְדֹּ֤ו וַאֲמָתֹו֙ וְשֹׁורֹ֣ו וַחֲמֹרֹ֔ו וְכֹ֖ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר לְרֵעֶֽךָ
“You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, his manservant, his maidservant, his ox, his donkey or whatever belongs to your neighbor.” 

Seems pretty straight forward, right? Think again – literally! Though classically thought of as the 10th Commandment (or utterance) of the Decalogue, this prohibition is one that surpasses one’s physical conduct and requires the practitioner to actually adjust the way they think. In most teachings on the Decalogue, this mitzvah gets swept under the rug because it’s almost impossible to enforce. How does anyone else know when you’re admiring the form of the lady bent over the copy machine in the office or shaking your mental fist at your buddy’s new car when you compare it to your clunker? 

What’s even more startling is when you realize that, though this mitzvah is dead-last on the list of the ten utterances, it’s almost always responsible for us committing the other nine. Whether you envy your friends who go out to the movies on Shabbat or allow your heart to lead by your head over some infatuation with someone other than your spouse, what leads up to transgressing the mitzvah of breaking Shabbat or committing adultery is the “act” of coveting something. Though the tablets of stone end with this one, they also start with this one. 

One of the most detrimental aspects of violating this commandment is the effect it has on relationships. No other sin pins brother against brother, friend against friend and destroys community faster. All power-grabs are attributed to transgression of this mitzvah. In the same way, many marriages have been destroyed by the wandering eyes and therefore wandering hearts of spouses. Every day, they see what they could have had. This turns from seemingly innocent “window shopping” to entire fantasies built up in people’s minds until they feel they must act for the sake of fulfilling their own desires. Just as soon as the fantasy has a chance to become a dream-come-true for the coveter, it becomes a nightmare for their spouse and family – oftentimes for them as well. 

Just like other sins we strive to avoid, the 10th commandment is no different – it requires preparation. In the same way you prepare for Shabbat by making sure you have the day off work, grocery shopping beforehand and working out all of the details the week prior, abstaining from coveting works in a similar way. Here are few of those ways. 

  • Guard Your Eyes: Modesty goes beyond what you wear – it’s also where you choose to indulge. If your eyes are a hurdle, practice looking away from potentially tempting sights. It’s difficult at first so you may need to “feed your animal” a bit by rewarding yourself on your successes until it becomes habit. If you can successfully keep your eyes off the cute guy in marketing (sorry, ladies – I’m taken) or other things that may tempt you, reward yourself with something you like – just make sure it’s kosher. 
  • Train Your Brain: Sometimes, whether you like it or not, temptation will always find it’s way to your line of vision. You may have to work with that lady who insists on wearing low-cut blouses everyday and you really do value her friendship. In these situations, conjure up the most unsavory thought you can think of. Imagine that same blouse on your buddy Carl who is about 40 pounds overweight and maybe doesn’t shower everyday. Better yet, imagine she’s Carl – warts, odors and all! 
  • Remember What You Have: One of the biggest reasons people start to covet what other people have is that they take what they themselves have for granted. While your husband may not have the broad shoulders of that handsome UPS guy that delivers to your neighborhood, remember why you married your husband in the first place. He loves you and cares for you. He would be do anything for you. Recall all of the things that first drew you to him. Keep this at the forefront of your mind. One practice that many observant Jews use to keep their mind in the right place is by reciting blessings over the little things in life. Rabbi Yehuda HaKohen once said in a shiur, “A bracha (blessing) is a protest against taking things for granted.” When you make a bracha over your food, you’re actively telling God, “This may just be a hum-drum sandwich out of a plastic bag, but it’s from You and I haven’t forgotten that.” In the same way, you should periodically make a bracha over your husband, your wife, your children, your parents, heck – even your clunker.“Blessed are you God, King of the Universe, Who has blessed me with this 1987 Plymouth Horizon. I could be walking 7 miles to work, but I have this!” (Side note: I really do miss my ’87 Plymouth Horizon…not that I’m coveting those who have them…just saying…) 

Abstaining from coveting requires a perception shift. It requires the conscious act of not reducing objects to their lowest form of your emotional desires, but instead seeing people as they are – fellow earthlings with their own doubts and fears just like you. By coveting, you’re taking your attention away from a feeling of gratitude and shifting it towards greed – which will never satisfy. Choose an attitude of gratitude. 

So, the question remains – why is this mitzvah listed amongst the 10 utterances?! It can’t be legislated. No prosecution in the world can find sufficient evidence for a crime that is committed within your own heart and mind. 
What’s the answer? God wants to help you. What is unique about this mitzvah? We don’t find a listed punishment for breaking it. If you kidnap, you can be killed. If you harm someone, you have to make restitution. Even if you commit manslaughter, you’re exiled for a time. If you covet something, then what? 

The only evidence that can be found regarding this mitzvah is the evidence of God’s love for you. You see, this mitzvah is a tool for you to use. It’s a freedom from the distractions of vanity. It’s a training regimen for your mind to not be tied up things that really don’t matter – in the urges that, when misallocated, become destructive. And I’m not talking destructive on some lofty spiritual plane – no, destructive to your daily life and to your household. If you’re conditioned to crave what you don’t have (many times, just because you don’t have it), you’re not only never satisfied with what God gives you, but then it’s incredibly difficult to truly experience happiness and simple pleasures. We hear stories of millionaires and billionaires and we want that life. They have gorgeous wives, handsome husbands, cars, fancy vacations, extravagant houses with all the amenities and then what? Many of those marriages end in divorce. Some of these people go bankrupt. Some turn to drugs and other addictions simply to fill the void – the void of “enough.” God gives us this mitzvah as a tool to help us see “enough.” Then these people that we once thought were on top of the world look to the poor family with the children that truly love their parents, the husband and wife whose love has been strengthened by having to weather storm after storm, their ability to be satisfied by simple joys. They covet this.

This commandment is a gift – the gift of joy and happiness – even in the tiny amount of material things we possess in this world. God blesses us with this law for our own sake. 

This has been episode 4 of the Okie Hebrew Podcast. I hope that it’s been a blessing for you in order to help you better appreciate what you have in this world. I’m Ken Lane, aka: Yefet ben Ezra of OkieHebrew.com. Shalom!

Slavery In The Bible – Okie Hebrew Podcast

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Transcript:

Shalom and welcome to yet another edition of the Okie Hebrew Podcast. In this episode, we’ll be discussing what some might say is a hot-button topic: religion and slavery. The U.S. has a terrible past of permitting slavery to exist and, in many instances, the slave masters claim their right to own slaves from the words of the Bible. In this episode, we’re going to see if they were really onto something. 

In some conversations I have with Christians and other non-Jews, when they ask me what I believe and I say “I strive to keep the entire Hebrew Bible to the best of my ability,” one reply I get back is “Oh, so you’re ok with slavery then? According to the Old Testament, ancient Israelites were permitted to own slaves.” 

Ooh, tricky. How do I best handle this?

Let me first clarify that I detest the slavery that took place in the American South prior to the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. With that having been said, let me also state that that brand of slavery was not only cruel and unusual, but was not holy according to the Hebrew Bible. 

Most American’s concept of slavery is not based on the Bible, but based on the greed of men prior to the existence of the Thirteenth Amendment in America. This definition of slavery is men’s supposed right to kidnap another individual and submit them to forced labor and cruel treatment for their own profit. This is wrong and this is not the style of slavery that was permitted of Israel according to the Hebrew Bible. In fact, most all of the antebellum slave holders claimed the right to own and mistreat slaves from a terrible mistranslation of the text. 

The word in the Hebrew for “slave” is עבד: “eved.” Though the root of this word is, in fact, used to define a slave 69 times in the Hebrew Bible, it’s also the word for “servant.” How many times is it used for “servant”? 710 times! Let’s now sprinkle some context on the use of this mistranslated term. 

During the age of when the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) was given to the People of Israel, being an eved was a precaution against poverty or a method of repaying debt. Most who were evedim were poor foreigners who would travel to Israelite cities because they had no means by which to live or were captives of war. If a person was heavily in debt or did not have the means to support themselves in any way, they were permitted to sell themselves into servitude in order to pay back a debt or in order to have a place to live and work as part of a contractual agreement. Part of the agreement of this servant-master relationship was that they were to do all that their master asked of them, keeping in mind that their master was a righteous person according to the Hebrew Bible. Evedim were granted food, lodgings, and were treated with respect. They were permitted to marry, have children, and to even have a day off from their labors once a week on the Holy Sabbath day.

“But the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a eved in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” 
– Deuteronomy 5:14-15  

The Israelites were accustomed to unholy slavery, just as Deuteronomy 5 and many other places in the Hebrew Bible reminded them to be righteous to their evedim because they were once evedim themselves.

There are also many laws of masters on how they are to treat their evedim. The beginning of Exodus 21 contains many of these laws, such as: 

  • An eved can only serve as a such for six years. On the sixth year, they must be granted their freedom and were even furnished with a portion of their master’s flock so they could start a life of their own. 
  • If a man was married as a eved, his eved wife must be freed with him after his six years were up. 
  • If a master is not happy with a female servant, he must let her go and cannot sell her. 
  • If an eved is injured (in this instance, blinded in one eye) by a master, they must be let go free.
  • Kidnapping anyone and forcing them into slavery was so forbidden that anyone caught doing so or even in the possession of one that was sold into slavery was to be killed.

One of the oddest laws concerning servitude in Hebrew Bible is what to be done with a eved who does not want to be freed once his six years of servitude are up. In most instances, many evedim were treated as one of the family and loved their masters. They lived with them, worked alongside them day-in-day-out, and defended them. Just the fact that there was a law concerning evedim who did not desire a life outside of servitude says that this was an issue to be addressed. When this was the case, an eved wore an earring denoting that he was a eved of his master forever. 

To conclude expressing the nature of servanthood in the Israelite culture, the one law in the Hebrew Bible that best expresses how Israelite slave culture differs from American pre-Thirteenth Amendment slave culture is the law regarding what to do with a runaway eved. Because evedim were treated with respect by their owners, one who ran away from their masters had to have been mistreated in such a way that justified their escape. Still, this is what the Torah says should be done with runaway evedim:

“You shall not give up to his master an eved who has escaped from his master to you. He shall dwell with you, in your midst, in the place that he shall choose within one of your towns, wherever it suits him. You shall not wrong him.” 
– Deuteronomy 23:15-16

Being an eved in Israelite culture was not about forced labor, but was about either giving people a means of paying off their debts or escaping poverty and starvation. Yes, the services of an evedim could be bought or sold from those who had no use for them or simply preferred goods or currency instead of the services of an eved, but no person could ever be kidnapped and forced into slavery. This is strictly against the Bible with a penalty of death.