9/09/2013

The Origins of a Common Myth about Religious Jews

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to give a crash course in Judaism to a group of new (and veteran) personnel at the Philippine Embassy in Tel Aviv. Officially called a "Jewish cultural sensitivity seminar" by the Philippine Foreign Ministry, the idea was to go through the Jewish life cycle and calendar, give an introduction to the diversity of religious observance and belief, and address basic concepts, mores, and ideas they are likely to encounter. There were open questions throughout, and the entire event was quite talmudic in progressing associatively and following tangents.

The most interesting part was definitely the discussion about areas of Jewish law that a gentile in Israel is likely to encounter: bishul akum, Shabbes goy/ amira le-akum, sale of chametz before Pesach, and stam yeynam. The point was not to be thorough, but to give some context and perhaps avoid what might become an awkward situation (they appreciated my dramatization of a bunch of religious Jews inviting a gentile into the room so they can all say "Don't you think it's hot in here?").

The most interesting question was a version of the old hole-in-the-sheet myth, but one that confirmed what I have suspected for a long time. The questioner brought up the subject and then described the sheet, saying that a Filipina domestic saw such a thing in someone's laundry. It was clear that the object described was a tallit katan - good old-fashioned tzitzis. A rectangular white garment with a hole in the middle. I had long suspected that this myth originated when someone saw tzitzis on a clothesline. Now it's pretty much confirmed.

So I explained to my audience that it's a myth and how it most probably originated. I also noted the size of the hole in a tallit katan and thanked the questioner for the implied compliment.
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