Monday 14 April 2014

Attention to detail

I suspect that there is a perception by outsiders that Science is Hard (see last para) - all that kit to master, the sums to crank through, the experiments that explode in your face and require starting again. You'd be right to assess science thus but it's not about the technological or numerical face of science - the difficulty lies in assessing the value of contradictory evidence: and if the data isn't contradictory, you're not really doing science.  We need critical thinkers in the years ahead but I acknowledge that other magisteria produce critical thinkers too.  Ethics and philosophy have dealt with the hard issues that face the human condition and have cranked through the issues and offered solutions to the problem of How To Live without ever spilling stuff into a test-tube or firing up a computer.  They have also helped tease out How To Die which, surprisingly to me, turned out to be more complex than asking a willing Dau.II to finish me off when the time came.  I've just said goodbye to a good friend who is returning to the Netherlands this week to help his aged and now stroke-crippled father over the threshold - you can do that there.

Today is תענית בכורות‎, Ta'anit B'khorot the Fast of the Firstborn.  It marks the threshold of Passover and celebrates the existence of the few who survived the last (Death of the Firstborn) of the ten plagues that Jahweh laid on the Israelites in Egypt.  It seems right and proper that such a miraculous survival should be celebrated and who better to do so than the present day Firstborn.  Lots of Christians, after all, are gearing up this week to celebrate the death and resurrection of their chap.  So you might think it was easy: decide on how to celebrate the occasion, wheel out the firstborn and let them go to.

Fasting is the celebratory act of choice in many of the monotheistic religions (think Lent, Ramadan, meatless Fridays).  It serves both for a) atonement in case witting or unwitting you have precipitated the bad event by your actions and b) commemorative gratitude: by leaving aside the ould food for a day you might better focus on the spiritual side of your nature.  So that's simple enough.

But who are the Firstborn?  Jewish scholars have snarled and worried at this problem for the last 3000 years and it's still not resolved. Some think it should be the firstborn child, but most just count the son-and heir.  Everyone is agreed that children should be exempt (they only little) but someone has to fast on this special day, so the father fasts on behalf of his minor children unless he is already going to fast because he is himself firstborn then the mother steps up to the plate (and ignores what's on it!). Achieving 'halakhic' adulthood is easy: 12 for girls and 13 for boys.  In the compassionate way of many religions, mothers (firstborn or proxy) are exempt from fasting if they are pregnant or lactating. Others, including the insane (informed consent?) and deaf-mutes (!?) are also exempt from fasting. Judaism recognises the reality that many children aren't the offspring of their declared father (think cuckold) so the Firstborn of a couple is defo a firstborn as is the firstborn of a woman, but it's not clear if the firstborn of a man (second husband for example) needs to fast.  If the firstborn dies, it is tragic, but the second son is not obligated to take on his fasting mantle unless Primo dies within 30 days of being born.

This fast, like all such, begins at dawn and ends at nightfall, which is usually taken as 40 minutes after sunset (which can be looked up in the newspaper if it's overcast).  Muslims recognise that we don't all have clocks and offer the pragmatic solution of darkness being defined as when a white and a black thread can no longer be distinguished.  But Ta'anit B'khorot is a bit of a poser because it is the day before the Passover starts and another rule states that you must not enter the Sabbath or any Festival in a state of fasting, so many break the fast a little early.

The world has it's rhythms but sometimes they are incommensurate - the months don't really fit the year; nightfall differs depending on the season; there are competing calls on our compassion and our belief in what is right. Having been brought up in extended families all arguing about niceties and fine distinctions and conundrums posed by attempting to live life as their religion prescribes, is it any wonder that Jews finish up doing law or philosophy or science in college?

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