Monday, March 19, 2007

We don't get that many Jewish jokes In Edgar County...

The blogosphere is snorting about a hoax "news story".
Yaniv Ben-Zaken, a local gas station owner, will be selling Kosher for Passover gasoline during the holiday this year. The move, Ben-Zaken says, has become necessary due to the increased ethanol content in gasoline required by the government. The ethanol is typically derived from corn, which is a forbidden food for Jews on Passover. And, according to Ben-Zaken, underJewish law, it is also forbidden to derive any benefit from corn. [More]

Like most good hoaxes, there is just enough truth to make it stand up for a while. And more than a few cerebral blogs swallowed it whole.
The “article” does get the two points of Jewish law correct. First, we are forbidden on Passover from having any hametz in our possession or ownership and it is forbidden to obtain a benefit from hametz during the eight days of the holiday. Hametz is any of the five forbidden grains (wheat, barley, oats, spelt, rye) that has been in the presence of moisture for more than eighteen minutes.

In Northern European communities around the 15th Century, the prohibition on eating hametz was extended to a category of grains called kitniyot: rice, millet, corn, and legumes. Because ground up rice flour or corn meal closely resembles wheat flour, Ashkenazi Jews exclude kitniyot from their Pesach diet as well. However, as “Rabbi Shalom Silver” is quoted as saying in the article, one may possess kitniyot and obtain a benefit from it, use it in any form or fashion, so long as one does not eat it. Baby powder that contains cornstarch, for example, is perfectly acceptable on Pesach, so long as one is not tempted to make a snack of it. [More of the debunking]
"Kosher ethanol" - ya gotta love it!

Coincidentally, as I have mentioned before, I have been listening to lectures on "The Story of the Bible". We're in the middle of the Middle Ages, so to speak, and one question that has long puzzled me was just answered. Why aren't there many Jewish farmers?

The answer seemed simple: Jews were forbidden to own land for most of the Christian era, and hence never developed a modern agrarian heritage.

Turns out there was more to it than that. Those prohibitions occurred later in the Middle Ages as the Christian Church gained almost absolute power in some areas. The full story was more about education.
So—which Jews stuck with Judaism? Presumably those with a particularly strong attachment to their religion and/or a particularly strong attachment to education for education's sake. (The burden of acquiring an education is, after all, less of a burden for those who enjoy being educated.) The result: Over time, you're left with a population of people who enjoy education, are required by their religion to be educated, and are particularly attached to their religion. Naturally, these people tend to become educated. And once they're educated, they leave the farms. [More of a really interesting article]
Bottom line: the bright ones chose more lucrative careers, the farmers likely dropped out of Judaism.

I wonder if the trend for farming to fail to appeal to our brightest - if not the best - will continue? Or will the technological intensity present a more attractive (and competitive) career?


rhoads said...

"I wonder if the trend for farming to fail to appeal to our brightest- if not the best- will continue?" Gee, I'm certainly glad I'm a dumbass or else I might not be able to enjoy everything good associated with being outside with all of nature; getting my hands dirty in the soil, nursing a sick calf, enjoying the smell of curing hay, or any number of other delightful things out here in the country. Yep, I guess there is an advantage to being not so bright.

Mark Ankcorn said...

Let me quarrel with your first premise that Jews aren't farmers. Jews are and have been very involved in farming. The Talmud (200-550 CE) records quite a bit of sophisticated ag practices, and has a vast vocabulary for farming equipment, irrigation techniques, crop varieties, etc.

Most American Jews, however, haven't been -- but then realize there weren't very many Jews in American until 1880 or so. By then, the medieval ban on owning land had meant most Jews were peddlers, shopkeepers, tradesmen, and continued with the work they knew when they came to the States.

Israel, by contrast, has a thriving agribusiness industry, especially in the exploding organic food sector. Most of it gets exported to Europe and not the US, so we don't see so much of it on our shelves.

Nevertheless, the Jewish calendar has two major harvest festivals and still celebrates a New Year for Trees (in early February). We're deeply, deeply connected with the soil and nature as part of our religious and cultural heritage.

John Phipps said...

rhoads: I apologize if my generalization seemed offensive. It's always a danger to reach a conclusion. My experience was the smart kids became doctors and accountants, etc. because it paid better and being smart offered a quick way to get ahead.

Sheer intellect has never been enough in farming - it also required enormous physical stamina, obedience, patience, and many other qualities that make farming a late-in-life reward career. Meanwhile brilliant MBA's own companies by 35.

Are farmers dumb? No. Did most of our brightest leave? I think so.

rabbi: I was referring to the US, and as you state we don't have many American Jewish farmers. In all my travels I have never met one. That's why the Slate article was so revealing.