I promised you a post on what parashat Behukotai has to do with chopsticks, and here it is.

But first, I'm going to quote you a bit from Eric Ray's book Sofer: The Story of a Torah Scroll.
...no "base metals" may be used in making or repairing these texts. Base metals are the metals used in everyday tools. That means that no iron, no steel, no brass, no copper, and no bronze can be used. Base metals are the kinds used to make weapons. Nothing that is used for killing can be used in making a Sefer Torah, a Mezuzah, or a pair of Tefillin.
Strictly speaking, this is something of an overstatement, but let's explore the sentiment. Our aversion to metal implements starts in the Torah, in Exodus 20:22:
If you build an altar of stones to me, you shall not use dressed stone; if you lift your sword to it you pollute it.
And in 1 Kings 6:7:
In building the House, stones ready-dressed were brought, so that neither hammer nor axe nor any iron tool was heard in the House during its construction.
Rashi, the most widely-accepted biblical commentator, explains:
The altar was made to lengthen man's days, and iron was made to shorten man's days; it isn't appropriate to lift something which shortens against something which lengthens. Also, the altar brings peace between Israel and their heavenly father, so one should not use upon it anything which cuts and destroys.
That's some pretty powerful anti-iron associations.

Now, from ChinaDaily.com:
Chinese people, under the cultivation of Confucianism, consider the knife and fork bearing sort of violence, like cold weapons. However, chopsticks reflect gentleness and benevolence, the main moral teaching of Confucianism. Therefore, instruments used for killing must be banned from the dining table, and that is why Chinese food is always chopped into bite size before it reaches the table.
I couldn't find an authoritative-looking reference, so this may be an urban legend. But it's evidently sufficiently compelling that it gets printed in major national newspapers, and e.g. on chopstick wrappers. This fascinates me because it suggests that it's not just Jews who are made uneasy by iron tools. I have no idea how much cross-cultural exchange there may have been, but it's fascinating that such a concept should take hold in such different places.

The haftarah to parashat Behukotai contains a line from Jeremiah 17:
Judah's guilt is written with an iron pen...
Judah here means the Jews; Jeremiah is talking about how the Jews have messed up again. It seems likely that Jeremiah didn't choose an iron pen just because of its material properties. Iron has nasty overtones. A set of sinister connotations, if you will.

Looking forward, to today's sofer. It's not actually per se forbidden to use base metals, according to various authoritative halakhic sources, but many soferim hold that it's utterly inappropriate, for their associations with violence and the incompatibility of this with the ideals of Torah; Torah, like the altar, is supposed to lengthen man's days and promote peace between Israel and God. Hence the widespread use of alternative tools - gold, silver, glass.

In particular, the iron pen, associated by Jeremiah with the numerous times the Jews have failed to play straight by God. The iron pen carries not only associations of violence but also of disregarding the Torah. It's not necessarily the best tool for the process of creating that selfsame Torah. We are encouraged to use quills, so that we can create Torah without these overtones.

Or we could use chopsticks.


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February 2017

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