Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Exploring the Technicalities

by Susan Weinberg

“What do you think of when I say Halakhah (Jewish law)?” asked the rabbi. Discipline, focus, rules, guidelines were the more neutral responses.  “Restrictions,” offered another.  We began to expand on the idea of “restrictions,” with its negative overtones.  “It segregates you from the world around you.  It requires accommodation.”  

One lab member who recently returned from a trip noted how much she had to plan ahead to allow for keeping kosher while traveling. Suddenly we did a u-turn to a more positive coloration.  It was suggested that “It takes a lot of thought to live intentionally, mindfully.”   

It should be noted that our group is mixed in our practice. Some keep kosher, restrict their use of cellphones on Shabbat, pay attention to the restrictions within Halakhah. Others of us find those practices quite foreign and not part of our everyday life. Being in this latter category, I was curious how we were going to address this topic.

The rabbi introduced us to Hayyim Nahman Bialik, a Jewish poet who was a pioneer of modern Hebrew poetry. Bialik examined the distinction between ‘‘Halakhah and Aggadah (story, folklore).’’ The halakhah is ‘‘severe, strict, hard as iron’’ and the aggadah ‘‘compliant, merciful, softer than oil.’’ The halakhah is ‘‘piety, fossilized, duty and yoke,’’ wearing a ‘‘stern face,’’ whereas aggadah is ‘‘eternal renewal, freedom, leniency,’’ wearing a joyous face (handout-"Revealment and Concealment")

These two aspects work in tandem with Halakhah laying down the foundation, the scaffolding on which the law is structured, while Aggadah interprets the meaning and the values.

With that introduction, we began to explore the distinction by way of two elements of Halakhah (handout- "How Hot").  The rule is that on Shabbat we are not to heat either oil or water to the point where the hand spontaneously recoils. The question that then arises is when is that?  The Gemara considers that not all hands are equally sensitive to heat, thus the conclusion was that any water that could scald a baby’s stomach would cause a hand to recoil.   The sages then arrive at a range of heat ranging from 104 degrees Fahrenheit to 176 degrees while I contemplate how many babies were scalded in arriving at these degrees of precision.

And yet another element of Halakhah. As cooking is prohibited on Shabbat eve, what can one do earlier in the day that may not yet be completed by Shabbat eve?  But first we considered why cooking is prohibited.  It is considered a creative act in that it is a transformative process. Similarly, heating water also meets this test and hence this prohibition.  A niggling inconsistency was raised: “Having sex on Shabbat is considered a mitzvah. How is that not a creative act?” Obviously, men wrote the rules we retorted. (A bit of exploration post-lab and I came up with the explanation that the creative acts that were forbidden were those involved with the building of the tabernacle or their derivatives.)

But enough of sex, let’s return to food. The Mishna establishes that the meal must be at least mostly completed while it is still day.  And how do we define completion? If a cake or bread, it must form a crust while still day. A more entertaining criteria was established based on the bandit, Ben Drosai, who was always on the run, hence only cooked his food one-third through. Ben Drosai is immortalized by Rashi who codifies this, noting that we can keep food on the stove if it is already cooked one-third through, like Ben Drosai did. Rambam sets a more conservative standard at half-cooked.  I am beginning to understand why there are so many Jewish attorneys.

With a surfeit of attorneys, Hayyim Nahman Bialik proposes that what we need are more creative artists to bring Hallakhah to life. 

For the second part of our session, Jonathan Gross focused upon the details that often trip us up with the black box of digital imaging. From raster graphics to pixels, from RGB to CMYK, he introduced us to the underlying elements that we seldom deal with directly even though we often struggle with their result.  He explained mysteries such as why digital may seem over-exposed relative to film (the chemical reaction stops at some point and resists over-exposure) and the distinction between additive color (RGB) and subtractive color (CMYK). Those of us with I-phones have HDR, high dynamic range. It actually takes three images at different settings and combines them. I always wondered what HDR meant! He also suggested we might want to explore gimp.org, free software relatively comparable to Photoshop. If you use raw files you will need to download a free add-in.   For those who would like to more carefully consider this content you can find the presentation here.