At the beginning of the year, I wrote down every rule, every guideline, every suggestion, every nugget of advice I could find in the Bible. It’s a very long list. It runs 72 pages. More than 700 rules.
Some rules were wise, some completely baffling. Some were baffling at first, then wise. Some were wise first then baffling. Here, some of the highlights, broken down by category.
MOST UNEXPECTEDLY WISE AND LIFE-ENHANCING RULES
- Keep the sabbath. As a workaholic (I check my emails in the middle of movies), I learned the beauty of an enforced pause in the week. No cell phones, no messages, no thinking about deadlines. It was a bizarre and glorious feeling. As one famous rabbi called it, the sabbath is a “sanctuary in time.”
- “Let your garments be always white” Ecclesiastes 9:8. I chose to follow this literally – I wore white pants, a white shirt and a white jacket. This was one of the best things I did all year. I felt lighter, happier, purer. Clothes make the man: You can’t be in a bad mood when you’re dressed like you’re about to play the semi-finals at Wimbledon.
- No gossip. When you try to go on a gossip diet, you realize just how much of our conversations involve negative speech about others. But holding your tongue is like the verbal equivalent of wearing white. I felt cleaner and untainted.
- No images. If you interpret the second commandment literally, then it tells you not to make a likeness of anything in heaven, on earth, or underwater. Which pretty much covers it. So I tried to eliminate photos, TV, movies, doodling. It made me realize we’re too visual in this culture. It made me fall in love once again with words, with text.
- Give thanks. The Bible says to thank the Lord after meals. I did that. Perhaps too much. I got carried away. I gave thanks for everything – for the subway coming on time, for the comfortableness of my couch, etc. It was strange but great. Never have I been so aware of the thousands of little things that go right in our lives.
MOST BAFFLING RULES TO THE 21ST CENTURY MIND
(Note: See bottom of this for possible explanations of some of these rules)
- You shall not wear a “garment of cloth made of two kinds of stuff.” (Leviticus 19:19). At first, I thought this applied to any mixed fiber. So I cleared my closet of all polycotton T-shirts. But it turns out the truly forbidden combo is mixing wool and linen. Sadly, my only good suit – my wedding suit — contained both wool and linen. So I had to embargo it for a year.
- If you are in a fistfight with another man, and his wife grabs your private parts, you “shall cut off her hand.” (Deuteronomy 25:11-12). Another rule you won’t find engraved outside many courthouses.
- If you suspect your wife is cheating, you shall bring her to a priest, who will mix a potion of barley, water, and dust, which the woman shall drink. If she’s cheating, her stomach will swell. (Numbers 5:11-20).
- If you set your slave free after six years, but he decides to stay, then you shall bring him to the doorpost and bore a hole in his ear. (Exodus 21:5).
RULES THAT I SUCCESSFULLY KEPT THE ENTIRE YEAR WITHOUT VIOLATING EVEN ONCE
- You shall not marry your wife’s sister (Leviticus 18:18) It helps that my wife doesn’t have a sister.
- You shall not plant your field with two kinds of seed (Leviticus 19:19). I did plant some cucumber seeds in some pots. But I kept it purely cukes.
- You shall not eat eagles, vultures, black vultures, red kites, black kites, ravens, horned or screech owl, gull or any kind of hawk, the little owl, the cormorant, the great owl, the white owl, the desert owl, the osprey, the stork, any kind of heron, the hoopoe and the bat.
- Do not become a shrine prostitute (Deuteronomy 23;17) I didn’t become any kind of prostitute.
MOST DIFFICULT TO FOLLOW
- You shall not trim the corners of your beard (Leviticus 19:27) My rabbinical beard became wildly uncomfortable, plus I was subjected to every beard joke in the history of facial hair, with about 412 ZZ Top references.
- You should not lie on a bed where a mensturating woman has lain, and you can’t sit on a chair where she has sat (Leviticus 15:20). That knocks out all subways and restaurants. See the Handy Seat section for my attempt to follow this.
- You shall smash idols. The ban on idolatry is such a huge part of the Bible, I figured I should try to smash something. I ended up smashing my wife’s fake Oscar statuette. But it felt like a hollow gesture, and it annoyed my wife by getting gold flakes all over the rug.
- Put to death men and women who commit adultery. Though I did manage to figure out a way to stone adulterers. One adulterer in particular. A grumpy seventysomething man I met in the park. I used pebbles.
RULES VIOLATED AT LEAST ONE TIME PER DAY
- You shall not covet. This is like asking someone not to breathe. Especially in New York. New York is a city that runs on coveting. On a typical day, I covet everything from Jonathan Safran Foer’s speaking fee (allegedly $15,000) to our friend’s sprawling backyard in the suburbs.
- You shall not lie. Once I started keeping track, the number of lies was astounding. I lie to everyone – strangers, my wife, my three-year-old son (“No, we can’t watch TV. It’s broken.”)
- You shall stand in the presence of the elderly. I did try to follow this at certain points in my journey. Like the time I ate dinner in a Florida restaurant at 5 p.m. That was the highest concentration of elderly people in America. So I stood up from my chair every time a white-haired person entered the room, which meant I was bouncing up and down like a pogo stick.
- You shall not utter the name of another God. English is filled with the names of pagan gods – even the days of the week are named for them: Thursday, for the Norse god of thunder Thor.
- Be slow to anger (Proverbs 19:11). My anger isn’t of the shouting, pulsing, vein-in-the-forehead variety. It’s more of long-lasting resentment. I never fully got it under control, but the best method for putting the brakes on my anger came from the story of Jonah. (See the book for details)
THE BAFFLING RULES (KIND OF, SORT OF) EXPLAINED
There are two schools of thought on the baffling rules. Well, there are countless schools of thought on them. But I’ll keep it to two for simplicity.
a) Many baffling rules have no rational explanation. We have to accept what God tells us, because He knows better than we do, just as a parent knows better than a child.
b) The baffling rules actually do have a rational explanation. They either made perfect logical sense back in biblical time, or they yield tangible benefits today, or both. Here, the spin on the baffling rules cited above (note: I’m not saying I buy all this spin, but I present it to you to judge):
–No mixing of wool and linen. This taught the ancient Israelites to keep things separate, good training for not intermarrying.
–If a woman grabs her husband’s opponent, she shall have her hand cut off. The hand-chopping part was meant as a metaphor: The woman actually just had to pay a monetary fine. And why? Because she had embarrassed her husband and his opponent.
–Make a suspected adulteress drink holy water. This was early marriage counseling. If the woman is, indeed, innocent of adultery, all she has to do is drink some water with a little dirt in it, and her husband’s mind will be put at ease. Marriage saved.
–Drill a hole in a slave’s ear if he refuses freedom. A man, it’s argued, should embrace freedom. An ear hole is a mark of humiliation, another reason why he should leave his master.