Tuesday, May 3, 2022

The origins of Shabbat

Jewish law is affluent with rules and regulations, such as the famous “Kashrut” laws that forbid certain food items. Many are aware that Jews are forbidden from consuming pork products, but Karshrut is actually a very long list of regulations that limit not only things one is allowed/barred from eating, but also preparation methods and other restrictions. For example, blood itself is the most un-kosher thing, so one is forbidden from interacting with it, and so men are forbidden from touching a woman during her menstrual cycle (and some won’t touch a woman at all to eliminate all risk of accidental exposure). Another part of these laws is concerning the Shabbat, the day of rest. Jewish law forbids doing any deliberate work during the Sabbath, which includes a wide array of activities. Lighting a fire is a well-known one, but some of the other restrictions seem absurd, like one that forbids exchanging money or walking long distances. The question on my mind today is WHERE it all came from?

Religious scholars have postulated that Kosher laws came to be as a way of protecting people from unhealthy foods. The theory suggests that the foods that are un-kosher have been designated so because they present a higher risk of contamination or food-borne illness. For example, pigs are known to carry the parasite trichinella, making it riskier than other types of meat. Similarly, the bacteria Vibrio is often carried by shrimp, prawn and crab, making them riskier to eat than other marine animals. Today, we have various techniques to reduce the risks, by chilling and freezing products, and we are also aware of the existence of microscopic bacteria and parasites, so we know that certain foods need to be cooked to a certain temperature to be safe (for example, pork is recommended to be cooked to 160 degrees, higher than other meats). The theory is that thousands of years ago, before people were aware of bacteria and refrigeration was not readily available to all, avoiding these foods was a way of reducing food poisoning and death. Religious teaching say that the prophet Moses, who led the Jewish people out of Egypt to their freedom, received the Torah directly from God, and that included the various rules of Kashrut. Atheists like me believe that the more plausible explanation for various religious stories is that the being humans perceived as “god” at the time was actually an advanced race, possibly extra-terrestrial, and it’s plausible to think that such a race was aware of the risks associated with certain foods and included them in the rules delivered to Moses as “divine” guidance (as we all know, this sort of guidance, by its very nature, is unquestionable and thus doesn’t “require” an explanation). 

I theorize that the rules of Shabbat, which are also divine and part of religious teachings, have a plausible practical origin. Breaking down the calendar to “weeks” with a day of rest in each predates Judaism. This was practiced in Babylon, although in a slightly different structure, which was based on breaking-down the lunar month to 4 periods, rather than counting the days themselves. My theory is that the day of rest was a time where people could “let loose” and consume alcohol and drugs (in old times, hallucinogens like mushrooms and cannabis were legal and common), and so the rules were put in place not to force one to rest, but to prevent people from engaging in activity that might risk or harm them if done while inebriated. For example, going far while drunk risks getting lost, robbed or falling off a cliff. Similarly, lighting a fire while hallucinating could lead someone to get injured, or forgetting to extinguish the fire could end up in burning down the village. My theory is that the same people who gave mankind kashrut laws under the false pretense that it’s a divine rule did the same with Shabbat rules. They were just trying to protect us from self-destruction. 

Naturally, I’m no historian, nor am I a religious scholar. The above is just my rambling at 5am on some idle Tuesday. Maybe it will seem sensible to someone…

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