Pick up a “how to” guide on being Jewish and encounter a collection of very specific mandates. It is, at first blush, less a religion and more a list of rules. There are exact words to utter upon rising from bed in the morning, the precise blessing to say depending on what foods a meal includes, and prayers to be spoken at various sites—including what to declare should one happen to lay eyes on a rainbow.
Almost no aspect of an observant Jew’s day is free from guidelines. These are not just the broad strokes I encountered on my journey into Christianity like the order to refrain from murder. Even though the Christian Old Testament is the same book as the Jewish Torah, Jews approach their holy book differently. An observant Jew will try to adhere to all the instructions contained within its pages.
In addition to the Ten Commandments, the Torah spells out 613 do’s and don’ts—and from these, Jewish sages have spun additional mandates to promote adherence to the original 613. These are included in two supplemental guides: the Talmud, and its modern companion, the Midrash.
Take, for example, the biblical instruction of “You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk” (Deuteronomy 14:21). This simple commandment about how not to prepare a young goat for consumption has spawned instructions about never letting any dairy product come into contact with meat of any kind—and not just during the cooking process. Meat and dairy are never to occupy the same space whether on a plate, in a mouth, or in a belly. Even a basin that washes the utensils used to prepare one should not be used to clean the utensils for the other.
The guidelines are so detailed that they require Jews to wait between three and six hours after consuming meat before eating an item containing dairy. However, if the dairy product is eaten first, one may reduce this waiting time to a maximum of four hours because dairy-based items tend to be softer and more easily cleared from a person’s system. Unless, of course, the dairy was a particularly hard cheese—a piece of which may have gotten lodged between the teeth. In that case, sages have determined one should wait the full six hours—just to be on the safe side.
All told, it’s quite a bit of instruction generated from a brief line in the Bible, a comment that some contemporary scholars suggest may have been meant as a metaphor for a larger point about the ethical treatment of animals—even those intended for food.
For weeks, I pored over books trying to take in every letter of Bible-based law. I was in a state of wonder at both the breadth and specificity. I could never comprehend all the instructions much less abide by them. How much of Judaism could I hope to experience?
Had I set upon an impossible task?