"Blessed be You, HaShem our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who sanctified us in Your Mitzvot, and commanded us to wash our hands".  This is the traditional (translated) blessing, recited after washing our hands before starting a meal.  This commandment, together with the Jewish dietary laws, are believed to have saved many Jewish lives in 14th century Europe from the Black Plague.  The horrible deadly disease, which decimated Europe, killing more than a third of its population, did not hit the Jews as badly.  Actually, Jews were blamed for spreading the disease, and the "evidence" was that they were relatively spared from it.  The cause of the (Bubonic) Plague, now known to be spread because of lack of hygiene and by eating weak and injured animals, was a mystery to the people of Europe, including the Jews.  Unknowingly, by following the mitzvot of hygiene and diet, whether logically understood or not, the Jews were relatively protected.  Their habits were developed because of purely religious commandments.  The Torah commands the Kohanim (priests) to wash their hands when they go to serve or deal with food (Exodus 30:17-21) and we learn and do the same.  I remember that as a child I was taught to wash my hands when I woke up, when I came out of the restroom and before eating.  I could not argue: "look, my hands are clean", because the reason was not hygiene, but the mitzvah and the occasion for blessing.  God was watching, not Mom.  I think about that every time I see people exiting public restrooms without washing their hands.

This month we will read in a Torah portion: "any fatty tissues of oxen, sheep or goat - you shall not eat" (Leviticus 7:23).  This prohibition has been observed for more than 3000 years by generations of Jews who did not know anything about cholesterol and health.  It probably did not make any sense to waste such a source of energy, but fatty tissues were removed and not eaten because God was watching.  Now it makes so much sense that it is even strange to think that people have needed to be educated about this.

We also read: "you shall not eat any blood, in all your dwellings, from fowl or from animal" (Leviticus 7:26).  The Torah commands us to cook the meat so that there is no blood left.  The Jewish answer to the question: 'how do you want your steak done?' is 'until there is no blood in it'.  It may not be very juicy, but God is watching.  We now know, after more than 3000 years, that this is the safest way to protect against food poisoning from meat.  By the way, this prohibition does not include fish.

What else is in the Book of Life that we do not understand?  How many more years will it take before more commandments become understood, reasonable and natural?  And then, is there any Jewish dietary law that is known to be unhealthy and damaging?

-- Judah Ari-Gur


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