Talmidav Shel Aharon
26-5768: Mitzvah N-28
May 12, 2008
Negative Mitzvah 28 – This is a negative commandment: Do not make gashes or incisions in one’s flesh in idol-worship or [in grief] over one’s dead.
Hafetz Hayim: For Scripture says, “you shall not gash yourselves” (Deut. 14:1). Whoever cuts his flesh in grief over his dead violates this prohibition, whether he makes the gash by hand or with an instrument. In idol-worship, however, if he uses an instrument his is punished by whiplashes, but if he uses his hand, he is free of penalty. Included in this law is the warning not to separate into agudot, (groups). This teaches us that there should not be two religious courts in town, one following one practice and one following another practice. It is in force everywhere and at all times for both men and women.
The first part of this commandment is pretty easy to explain. First of all, in Judaism, we do not own our bodies. Our bodies are a gift from G-d and we use them as long as G-d is willing to let us. In this sense, we only rent our bodies for the duration of our life and we have, therefore an obligation to take care of our bodies. When we get sick, we must seek healing. We need to eat healthy foods, exercise and make sure our body is as healthy as can be. Drugs and excessive alcohol are forbidden as is tobacco. We are not permitted to over pierce our body or decorate it with tattoos. It only follows that we cannot scar or maim our bodies, especially in the name of an idol or on behalf of the dead. Cutting for idols is clearly forbidden and the punishment is set. Ritual gashing is done with a ritual knife, so if one gashes by hand, then this law does not apply. Gashing for the dead is a sign of grief so it does not matter how you do the slashing, it is all forbidden. Just as one should not spend too much to bury the dead, I can see here a similar problem. Just how much pain should I endure to show how much I loved the one who died? The more gashes, the more blood, the more love? We can see where this is going. Jewish law would have us rip our clothing to mourn the dead, one rip, over the heart. That is all that is allowed. Our grief is enough pain without the added pain of gashing our bodies.
The second part seems to be honored in the breach more than in reality. I can think of few times in Jewish History where the Jewish People were not divided into camps. Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist are only the most modern divisions. In Israel there are Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities, Hasidic and Mitnagdic, and the Hasidim are divided into even smaller camps. The sages were divided into the schools of Hillel and Shammai, into political camps of Pharisees and Sadducees. The priests who worked in the Temple were divided into “families” who were rivals of each other. You get the picture. We are not a very unified people. The trick is not to divide into sects that don’t talk to each other and who do not intermarry with each other. We may divide ourselves into groups that don’t agree with each other, but there are only rare moments in Jewish History where we were so divided that we stopped talking and intermarrying with each other. Underneath it all, we are still Jews.
The most famous schism was the one that opened up between Rabbinic Judaism and the Jews who were followers of Jesus of Nazareth. Eventually, there was no reconciliation possible and the two groups moved off in separate ways and began to see each other as new religions. Other than this one historical event, we may not agree on much but we agree that we are all Jews. The rest is just details. In Israel today, there is a movement against the official “Rabbanut” because they are becoming so particular in how one proves one is Jewish, that the rest of the country is almost in rebellion against them. We will see how it plays out. In any event, our communities, both here and in Israel have many different rabbinical courts. The Hafetz Hayim is making his pitch for Jewish unity, but that is an ideal, not the reality of Judaism, neither in history nor today.