A Catholic Monthly Magazine

The Year of Living Biblically

Commentary on A J Jacob's Book, by Elizabeth Isichei

Book by A J JacobsBrowsing in  our local library the other day, I came across a book by A J Jacobs called, The Year of Living Biblically. I could hardly wait to get it home. Did he give all his possessions away like St Francis, or serve the poorest of the poor like Mother Teresa?

It turned out that this is one of a large number of memoirs whose writers do something for a year to provide copy for a book.. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love is a very successful example (not one that grabbed me- one does not need to go to India or Bali to meditate.)
I had assumed that the author was a Christian. He is in fact a Jew, from a very secular background, and this was to colour the whole experiment- he  devoted nine months to the Old Testament.
In turns out that Jacobs is one of the editors of Esquire- not exactly a likely source for religious literature. He has made a career out of being what he calls a ‘human guinea pig.’ His previous book had described the way in which he read the entire Encylopaedia Britannica, and in  a subsequent one, biblical living is one of a whole series of experiments.

Like other memoirists, he tells us much about himself and his family.  He suffers from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. This is rooted in anxiety, and he is always overanxious about his little son. He can only switch the radio off after a noun, and more seriously, has a phobia about germs. He is a good example of someone who makes a weakness into a strength- his obsessive temperament drives his research. His quest was partly driven by his love for his son, and concern about how he should bring him up.

He began by reading the Bible from cover to cover, which took him five hours a day, for four weeks. As he went along, he made a list of every rule and guideline- a list of 700.

A J Jacobs with beard
As a Jew, Jacobs was reinventing the wheel.. The obvious thing to do was to join a congregation of Orthodox (or Conservative)  Jews, and  do what everyone else was doing. But this would not have  led to exciting copy for a book.  To observant Jews, there are 614 rules to follow, all in the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, but only about 271 are still binding today.. The many rules about sacrifice do not apply, for instance,  because this was offered at the Temple, which was destroyed for the second time in 70 CE.

The teachings of generations of rabbis  are gathered in a vast compilation called the Talmud. It has two sections, finalised in 200 CE and 500 CE respectively. There are very detailed teachings on everything from how to keep the Sabbath holy, to dietary rules.
What Jacobs chose to do was to make up a system of his own. Obviously, it had major overlaps with mainstream Judaism, but  he and his wife did not, apparently, keep a kosher kitchen  (meat and dairy are eaten at separate meals, and prepared and served using separate utensils.) He gives his son a hot dog, but is careful not to touch it.

He  started as  a pleasant-looking clean shaven man with a short hair cut. Following Leviticus 19:27, he  stopped shaving, and his face was gradually obliterated by a vast, untrimmed black beard.
(The ultra orthodox Hasidic Jews do this and so do the Amish.)  The Torah prohibits the wearing of textiles made of  mixed fibres- wool and linen,- and observant Jews obey this. Jacobs had his clothes tested by a specialist in this area and had to mothball his only good suit. The specialist was a radiantly devout man who kept ringing up Jacobs at eight  in the morning asking if he could come round to pray, and who avoided tap water, in case it included non kosher microorganisms!

Two passages in the Torah say to fasten tassles to the corner of one’s garments. Jacobs sent off to a tassle making company, and sewed  some on. Later, he did as observant Jews do, and bought a special tasseled garment to wear under his shirt, as we might wear  a scapular.
As far as I know, he is the only person in the world who took Ecclesiastes 9:8 literally as an instruction to wear white. (Lots of people choose to wear only  white- Leslie Kenton does and so did Emily Dickinson, but this is not the same thing.).) He poured olive oil on his head (Ecclesiastes 9.8).and  avoided words like Thursday which  name pagan gods. (Just as well he is not a tennis commentator,- he would have had difficulties with the Williams sisters!!!) He acquired a ceremonial trumpet (shofar) and with difficulty and tutition, managed to make a sound.
He erected an edifice of wood and canvas in his living room for the Feast of Booths. (Lev. 23:42). (This again is  standard practice among Observant Jews, though usually not in the living room. They are supposed to be in the open air, but Jacobs, as we all do, did his best.

We are used to the Psalmist  urging us to play the harp, cymbals and the ten stringed lyre. Jacobs actually acquired a ten stringed lyre, and found out that quite a number of people had one.
But no one, no matter how obsessive, can obey all the rules. The book has many photos, but the Amish believe photography is forbidden by the Second Commandment. Many Jehovah’s Witnesses have died because Leviticus 7:26 prohibits the consumption of blood, which they extend to transfusions. There is room for an almost infinite number of new religious movements, based on particular texts. The Observant Jew doesn’t need to worry- it has all been worked out already.  Neither do we.

Jacobs, of course, was not exclusively concerned with booths and lyres. He agonised over how much he should give to the poor, and with many struggles, decided to tithe. He researched various charities, was distressed by their overheads (especially CEO salaries) and made good choices. He served faithfully  in a soup kitchen, and began to work for Jubilee 2000, a wonderful organization, founded by a Christian, a retired professor in England, which  works for the forgiveness of Third World Debt. Jacobs’ wife, who was pregnant with twins for much of the biblical year, and endured  beards, booths and a great deal more, was happy to work for Jubilee. (I hope to look at this, and kindred movements, in a  later article.)

Jacobs  struggled to avoid gossip, and to tell the truth. He stopped working on the Sabbath (a mixed blessing for his wife, who had to put the rubbish out.)

There were problems for him in following the New Testament, of  which he was well aware. To become an observant Jew, he had simply to live like one. But to be a Christian means accepting Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, which would be a huge departure from the faith of his ancestors, and was certainly not something to do for three months. So he interviewed Christians, but because he was always in search of exciting copy for a book, he  sought out Creationists, Snake Handlers, the  Amish, and even a tiny group of Christians in favour of polygamy! He asked a Jehovah’s Witness round for a three hour chat. But he did not talk to, for instance, monks. Near the end of the experiment he had a great aunt to lunch. She was a Catholic, and spoke to him, in a way which moved him deeply, about the depth of God’s love for us.

I was fascinated by this book. I learned a lot of new stuff- that there are only 700 Samaritans left in the world, and that the Amish forbid bikes, but not skateboards. More seriously, Jacobs twice tells us of a Midrash (a form of biblical commentary) about the parting of the Red Sea. In this version, it did not open up majestically as the Isaelites drew near. Rather, one brave man walked into the water. It reached his knees, his waist, is lips. And then the waters parted.

In his most recent book, he looks back on his biblical year.  He tells us that it has left him with good habits, but not, it seems, faith.

“I do still observe the Sabbath, I still say prayers of thanksgiving every day (even though I’m an agnostic, go figure), I still try not to covet and gossip, with varying degrees of success. Like the Israelite, one just has to walk into a  very deep sea.

A J Jacobs, The Know-It-All
A J Jacobs, The Year of.  Living Biblically
A J Jacobs, My Life as an Experiment.

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