Further to the conversation we’re having about Jewish education, rabbis, etc

(This conversation. The one about Rabbi Barbie.)

A question about tzitzit

I get a question in my inbox.

Hi, Jen. I have a question and I have been told that you might know the answer. I am wondering if there are any rules about what to do with old tzitzit (arbah canfot). I want to get some new ones but I don’t know what to do with the old ones. Do they have special significance requiring some special treatment, or can they be discarded like any other fabric?

“Ask around and find someone who knows” is a perfectly valid way of getting a question answered, naturally, modulo the risk of misinformation (especially when asking Auntie Google).

The Text Model of finding the answer

Still…the way endorsed by the communities I hang out with, particularly the yeshiva ones (I would say “yeshivish,” but that’s got other connotations), goes like this.

1) There are rules about everything. So where do I find the rules about tzitzit?

2i) Orach Hayim deals with everyday sorts of things. Let’s try there.
OR 2ii) You just know that hilkhot tzitzit are in Orach Hayim.
OR 2iii) Ask Wikipedia, which will tell you “Orach Chaim 8-25”.

3) Fish out your Mishnah Berurah. Find the bit of the contents page which says HILKHOT TZITZIT.

4) Skim down the chapter heads until you find something that looks promising. You don’t have to be able to translate all the words, you can do it by deduction, when you know a little bit about how the contents are arranged. For instance, it’s probably not going to be near the beginning, because the question “what do I do with an old tallit” presupposes a lot of “tallit” concepts which have to be defined first. It’s also probably not going to be in a section called “Zman…” (“Time…”) or a section with a root meaning “sell.” Keep skimming. The section with the words “Talitot yeshanim” – that looks promising, since “yeshanim” means “old.”

Yes, it’s freaking intimidating to skim a table of contents in a halakha sefer. I know. But once you have a bit of vocabulary, a bit of navigational skill, and a dollop of confidence, you can do it.

5) Read the section.

6) Now you know the answer.

The Cheese Model of finding the answer

It’s like shopping in a foreign supermarket, kind of. You want to buy cheese. Okay, you can ask someone “where’s the cheese?” and that’s fine. But if you want to find it yourself, what do you do?

You know it’s not going to be in the vegetable section or the peanut butter section. You know it’s going to be in a fridgy sort of place, so you find the fridgy places and look through them till you find cheese.

So far, you’ve not really needed any language skills at all; maybe you read the aisle labels. You needed cultural skills – knowing that this is the sort of shop that contains cheese, knowing that cheese lives in fridges, knowing what cheese tends to look like.

Then you’re going to need some language skills to make sure you aren’t buying goat cheese, yes. But the point is, you don’t need to know how to read every single word on every single package in the store, and you don’t need to know where every single item in the store is, and you don’t need to know where all those items came from – you found the cheese, and if you have a dictionary you can probably figure out what you need to know.

Of course it’s not always that simple, and of course there are lots of ways you can get off track, and we could explore that in the cheese metaphor or in the context of halakha, but let’s save that for another post, because that’s not the point right now.

Point is, with some really basic vocabulary and navigational skills, we found our way to the rules about “What to do with broken-off tzitzit and old tallitot.”

Now, this is where we get to start questioning the educational model.

Why halakha isn’t cheese

I have enough vocabulary now that I can read through that section, pretty much (with dictionary) and work out that it’s telling me, I can get rid of an old tallit katan by putting it in the garbage, but I can’t use it for something gross like a snot-rag, and a good person detatches the tzitzit and puts them in geniza.

But. There are plenty of instances – communal prayer is a better example – where we don’t, in fact, do precisely what’s written in the book, since a good many years have passed since then and ritual evolves – and adhering to the book won’t help you or anyone.

The book will keep you from completely screwing up – if you put your old tallit in a plastic bag in the garbage you won’t have done anything hideously wrong. But you need some input from the community to find out, what do we do? For which one needs conversation, tradition, mimetics – all sorts of things.

Which, by the way, is why it’s okay to ask me, even though I’m not a rabbi. Because here the question, fundamentally, is “What do we do,” and I’m as much “we” as the next person.

And when it’s a vast, complicated issue like marriage or death or something, one needs someone who knows the bigger picture – the book, and the other book, and the commentaries, and the conversations, and the tradition, and the other tradition. Learning the bigger picture takes time, and helping people work out which bits of the bigger picture pertain to their situation takes time, and that’s what we have scholars and rabbis for.

That is to say. The model where anyone vaguely interested in referring to the Mishnah Berurah for answers becomes a rabbi is deeply unsatisfactory. But likewise, the model where we don’t need rabbis and everyone can use the Mishnah Berurah – is also deeply unsatisfactory.

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