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Parshas Pekudei - Shekalim (5771)

Jewish Myths and Urban Legends

We often don’t realize just how many myths and misconceptions fill up our heads. Some of them come from our mothers when we were growing up, such as these ‘gems’:

“If you don’t wait an hour after eating to get in the swimming pool, you will get a cramp and die!”

“You shouldn’t drink coffee. It will stunt your growth!”

“Don’t cross your eyes. They’ll get stuck!”

Still others come from the imaginative little minds of small children, such as these actual statements made by kids in science class:

“The body consists of three parts: the branium, the borax, and the abominable cavity. The branium contains the brain, the borax contains the heart and lungs, and the abominable cavity contains the bowels, of which there are five–a, e, i, o, and u.”

“Water is composed of two gins, Oxygin and Hydrogin. Oxygin is pure gin. Hydrogin is gin and water.”

“Three kinds of blood vessels are arteries, vanes and caterpillars.”

“Vacuum: A large, empty space where the pope lives.”

Then there are a whole host of so-called “urban legends” – stories and ideas that spread around and that many people believe to be true despite their absurdity - such as these popular ones (see www.snopes.com for more):

A tooth left in a glass of Coca-Cola will dissolve overnight.

Fred Rogers, host of children's TV show 'Mr. Roger's Neighborhood', was a Navy Seal during the Vietnam War.

New York City's sewer system is infested with alligators.

College bereavement policies state that if your roommate commits suicide, you get an automatic 4.0 GPA.

Of course, these myths and misconceptions are kind of cute, and the fact that many people might believe that they’re true doesn’t really matter that much in the long term.

More troubling, though, are the misconceptions many of us have about the really important things in life such as marriage, money and religion. See, for example, Emunah Braverman’s very excellent article on the Five Modern Myths of Marriage at http://www.aish.com/f/m/48932832.html or Rabbi Nechemia Coopersmith’s insightful essay, based on the teachings of Rabbi Noach Weinberg ZT”L, about the Four Misconceptions Jews Have About Judaism at http://www.aish.com/jl/p/ph/48971136.html.

I would like to share with you the five most popular Jewish misconceptions about Torah and Mitzvah observance that I have heard quoted over the past 13 years by all types of Jews, from the most traditional to the most unaffiliated. Here goes:

1) If you have a tattoo, you can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery.

If I had a dollar for every time I heard a Jew repeat this line, I would be a very rich man! I have researched this claim, and there is absolutely no source for it in Jewish law. The Torah certainly prohibits getting a tattoo (see Leviticus 19:28), but this has absolutely no bearing on burial, and a Jew with a tattoo may be buried in a Jewish cemetery. I am not sure of the origin of this oft-repeated myth, but it could be a distortion of the Jewish law that says that we don’t bury a ‘wicked’ person next to a ‘righteous’ person (see the Code of Jewish Law in Yoreh Deah 362:5 where this law is discussed). Of course, if we used this rule to restrict anyone who has ever gotten a tattoo, then we could never bury anyone who is not perfectly righteous in a Jewish cemetery!

[I always like to joke that while a Jew with a tattoo may be buried in a Jewish cemetery, “Tattoo” himself – otherwise known as Herve Villechaize, the little guy who played Mr. Roarke’s assistant in the early 1980’s TV Series Fantasy Island – would certainly not be buried in a Jewish cemetery as he wasn’t Jewish!]

2) Most Orthodox Jewish married women shave their heads bald.

Although a minority of Chassidic women does indeed shave their heads, this practice is not based on a religious commandment, but is rather a custom that some women have adopted over generations. There is no requirement to shave one's head – and most Orthodox Jewish women grow their hair long like everyone else. However, according to Torah law, a woman does start to cover her hair after marriage, and some women might prefer to keep their hair short, because it is more comfortable and easier to cover under a wig or a scarf. One possible reason why some Chassidic women choose to shave their heads bald is to avoid Halachic problems while immersing in a Mikvah (ritual bath) where, in order for the immersion to be kosher, the woman must be completely immersed including every last strand of her hair. Having no, or very short, hair eliminates this problem. That said, it is a mitzvah for both husband and wife to look attractive to each other, and if shaving her head repulses him, I’m guessing she should probably not adopt this custom.

3) Religious couples are not allowed to use birth control.

It sure seems that way when you look at the size of their families, in some religious communities averaging 9-10 kids! (We have seven of our own, kein ayin hara). Yet has it ever dawned on you that maybe they actually want to have large families?! As Rabbi Shmuley Boteach likes to respond when people (rudely) ask him why he has so many kids (he has nine): “When I find something else that gives me lots of pleasure, I’ll have a lot of that too!”

Truth be told, the actual biblical obligation of Pru u’Rvu (“Be fruitful and multiply”) as commanded in the Torah in Genesis 1:28 and 9:7, is fulfilled by having just two children - a boy and a girl. The rabbis later taught, based on certain Scriptural verses, that beyond the biblical requirement, there is a continuous mitzvah for a couple to have more children if they mentally and physically can.

However, to say that a religious couple is not allowed to use birth control would be a “myth-conception”. The use of certain methods of birth control is definitely permitted by most Rabbinical authorities – but it is proscribed and limited by many factors including: the couples’ obligation to have children, and the prohibition against “wasting seed”. When Orthodox Jewish couples contemplate the use of contraceptives, they generally consult a rabbi who evaluates the need for the intervention and which method is preferable from a Halachic point of view.

4) The Torah forbids eating pork because, when untreated, it can cause trichinosis.

Many Jews still believe the Jewish Dietary Laws to be primitive health regulations. This theory is supported by the fact that eating only kosher food offers many health benefits. Some are obvious: rodents and insects are notorious as disease-carriers, and a discovered carcass is likely to be rotting and unsanitary. Some benefits have only come to light recently: the parasitic disease trichinosis has been linked to untreated pork. Based on this theory, some late-19th Century Jewish Reformers suggested that now that we know how to treat pork, the Torah law prohibiting it is no longer applicable.

Of course, the real reasons for keeping kosher as commanded in the Torah go way beyond health measures. As Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin brilliantly wrote in their (original) book Eight Questions People Ask about Judaism:

"The assumption that Kashrus [the Jewish Dietary Laws] is a health measure raises an interesting question. How do the people who believe that the prohibition of eating pigs saved Jews from death by trichinosis account for the Jews anticipating the negative effects of eating pig thousands of years before physicians knew about it? They must concede that either the Bible was written by G-d or by veritable supermen who made medical discoveries thousands of years before anyone else. In either case, persons holding such beliefs should adopt a more respectful attitude towards the laws of Kashrus, insofar as they might be based on other medical knowledge that the modern world does not yet know. We, of course, do not look to Kashrus as a source of medical benefits but as laws leading to moral sensitivity and holiness."

5) Orthodox Jews have marital relations through a hole in the sheet.

This is a complete myth and fabrication. In fact, it goes against Jewish law which states quite clearly that if the husband or wife does not consent to have relations unless they are wearing their clothes, it is grounds for divorce without alimony.

So where did this ridiculous urban legend come from? The following story, quoted in response to a question on Aish.com’s popular Ask the Rabbi feature, might hold the answer:

Many years ago, two tourists were walking through Meah She’arim, an Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem. As they were looking at all the children playing in the street and the merchants selling their wares, the tourists looked up at a laundry line and saw a sheet with a hole in the middle of it. One asked his friend if he knew what it was. Taking his best guess, the friend said it must be a special sheet that married couples use for relations. This first guy then noticed there were strings tied to each corner of the sheet. "And what are those strings on the four corners?" he asked. "To tie to the four bed posts," his friend replied.

Of course, the "sheet" they saw was really a Tallis Katan, the four-cornered garment that religious men wear. This ritual garment has tzitzis (fringes) tied on each of the four corners, and a hole in the middle to slip over one's head (like a poncho).

I believe the real reason for this and so many other myths and misconceptions that Jews have about Judaism and Mitzvah observance is simply human nature. You see, common to the human experience is the need and desire to bask in the knowledge that those who adhere to different practices have it much worse than we do. We need to feel that our choice of lifestyle is the best of its kind, so we seek (consciously or subconsciously) to portray other’s lifestyles in a negative light.

So when a ‘disconnected’ Jew feels threatened by the Torah-observant lifestyle of an Orthodox Jew who seems to find meaning and stability in his life through his performance of the Mitzvos, he might grab on to one or another of these patently absurd misconceptions just to confirm the rightness of his own choice.

Either way, we would do well to research all these unsubstantiated urban legends that seem to be circulating around the world and around the web, before we start repeating them as fact – especially when they involve the distortion and negative portrayal of our 3300-year-old Jewish tradition.

http://www.torchweb.org/torah_detail.php?id=147

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