"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Biblical and Talmudic Perspective - II

Perhaps the most vivid example of basic knowledge that is lost to our secular encyclopedists by their ignorance of the Bible and Talmud is the history of table utensils.

Some years ago, an article in the Chicago Tribune traced the practice of eating with a fork and a knife to the 1600s, a mere four hundred years back. That totally blew my mind, considering my own life history, as I shall explain. Sure enough, this seems to be accepted wisdom. This segment from Diner's Digest is typical. It indicates that in the 11th century a Greek princess brought forks to Venice and was branded a heretic. They did not come into common use until the early 17th century.

The first apparent mention of a fork in the Bible is in Exodus (27:3) where it uses the Hebrew word "mazleg" to designate an implement used in handling meat on the altar. However, Rashi (1040-1105) interprets this to mean a hooked prong that was used from a distance to manipulate meat still burning on the altar.

However, the same word "mazleg", this time clearly meaning a fork, is used in Samuel I (2:13-14). "And the Priests made a rule among the populace, that whenever a person slaughtered an offering, the young Priest would come as the meat was cooking, with the three-toothed fork in his hand... whatever came up on the fork the priest would take..."

In modern Hebrew, mazleg is in standard use to mean a fork.

In Hebrew School in the 5th Grade,we began basic Talmud study with the chapter that discusses returning lost objects. As a general principle, items found in situations where the owner is likely to be optimistic about their being returned, and with identifying marks, must be advertised and may not be kept. If there are no unique markings, or if they are found in situations where the owner will assume loss (such as at a huge carnival), they may be kept.

One of the cases dealt with (Bava Metzia 25b) is when things are found amid the collected neighborhood trash. The decision is that forks and knives found there may be kept, because the owner will entertain no hope of it resurfacing in the garbage dump.

The Talmud was compiled in the 6th Century. Not only are forks and knives mentioned casually, but we even encounter the common scenario of accidentally clearing some utensils into the trash along with the food remnants.

The way this subject became a personal issue for me in the 5th Grade was because the Talmud uses the Aramaic word for fork, which is pronounced either 'hemnik' or 'himnek'. You can imagine what my classmates did with the similarity to my family name, devising all sorts of gags and pranks.

Incidentally, the Jews do not take credit for inventing this implement. Here is the the quote from Rabbenu Hananel, the 11th Century commentator from North Africa, on the above section of Talmud: "A himnek is an implement with multiple prongs, like the (Biblical) fork with three teeth, and it is the practice of the Greeks to steady the piece of meat while cutting with the knife, then eating. He can take what he cut and put it in his mouth without his hands touching the food at all, thus avoiding the grease."

Clearly, having this sort of basic knowledge as part of our cultural heritage enables us to know better the history of civilization.

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