Oy, Morris, we hardly knew ye!
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Oy, Morris, we hardly knew ye!

Morris Ayin is dead and Pesach will never be the same.

Once upon a time, Morris was a macher. It was he who often decided what was proper and what was not. When I was a child, for example, I was told that it was not permissible to put a bar of pareve margarine on the table during a meat meal “because of Morris Ayin.” I didn’t know Morris myself, but I was impressed that he commanded such authority.

KEEPING THE FAITH: One religious perspectIve on issues of the day Near the end of fourth grade, when we were rounding the far turn on a lightning exploration of the Babylonian Talmud tractate Bava Metzia (fourth-graders don’t often go in for the kind of hot and heavy debating that slows progress of Talmud study to a delightful crawl), I discovered who Morris really was. He wasn’t a person, at all, but a principle of Jewish law, “maris ayin” (more correctly maris ha-ayin, or marit ha-ayin in modern pronunciation), which translates as “for the sake of appearances.”

The issue in that case was one that would normally cause a fourth-grader’s eyes to glaze over. A person had prematurely designated certain grains as an offering for the Temple, and then set a cow to the task of husking the grain by trampling over it. The problem is Deuteronomy 25:4, which states: “You shall not muzzle the ox when he treads out the grain.” That’s fine if the grain belongs to the person whose cow is doing the trampling, but once the grain has been designated for the Temple, it no longer belongs to that person – and that means he cannot let the cow eat any of it.

No problem, states BT Bava Metzia 89b-90a. Put a feedbag on the animal and hang some grain on the outside of it, so people walking by will know that the animal can eat the same kind of grain it is trampling.

My eyes lit up – no, not over the notion of a cow stomping on grain, which is a concept way beyond the capacity of a fourth-grader on the Lower East Side who never saw a cow or unhusked grain up close and personal. No, my eyes lit up because I finally understood why we couldn’t put pareve margarine on a fleishig table: We didn’t want to give anyone walking by our window the wrong idea, that we were mixing meat with “milk.”

The problem, of course, was that our window was on the fifth floor of an apartment building on the corner of Clinton and Grand streets, so anyone walking by it was more likely to give us the wrong idea. When I asked my father about this seeming perplexity, he gave me the definitive answer for everything that didn’t make sense: “That’s the way it’s written.” It sounds a lot more Sinaitic in Yiddish.

As I learned several years later, this time the answer was on the money. In BT Shabbat 64b and several other places in the Talmud it states: “In every instance in which the Sages prohibited [something] for marit ha’ayin, [the thing] is forbidden even in inside rooms.” In other words, it was prohibited even if no outsider was likely to see it.

This was not a universally accepted opinion (the Academy of Hillel had some misgivings, for example), but it did become standard.

Perhaps the most relevant examples of the principle are to be found in BT Avodah Zarah 12a. Three situations are presented. In one, a person gets a splinter in his foot while walking by an idol. In the second, a man drops some loose change in front of the idol. In the third, there is a spring of fresh water immediately in front of the idol. In all three cases, the man would have to bend down, and this could appear to someone else to be him bowing down to the idol. Unless he can bend down in a way that makes it clear that he is not paying homage to a pagan deity, he may not bend down until he is out of the object’s presence. (Similarly, if the mouth of the idol is a fountain and water is spouting forth, a person cannot drink from it because someone may think he is giving the false god or goddess a kiss.)

The Talmud then wonders why the three cases were necessary, when one would have sufficed to make the point. Not so, comes the answer. If just the splinter case was mentioned, we could assume that bending down was banned because he could walk a few feet away and then deal with the offending sliver. So we are given the case of the coins, which could only be retrieved in front of the idol. Ah – but perhaps the prohibition attends because it was only money. So we are given the case of the water. It could be argued that someone who is dying of thirst would be permitted to bend down and get a drink, but he may not do so nonetheless.

This brings us back to Pesach (and you thought this was just “idol” chatter). If a person dying of thirst may not bend down before an idol to drink from a pool of refreshingly fresh water, why is it permissible to bring into our homes faux versions of such impermissible foods as spaghetti, macaroni, breakfast cereals that mimic popular chametz varieties, breakfast pancake mixes, pizza dough mixes, bagel mixes, sandwich roll mixes, and so on? This year, you can even buy Panko-style “breadcrumbs,” and there are a host of gluten-free mixes that will whip up “pie crusts” and “dinner rolls” by the oven-full.

This is Pesach?

Pesach itself is unique; the food restrictions and other distinctive features that accompany it are designed to emphasize that uniqueness. We wipe that out when the only difference between yesterday and today is that our bagel is not as chewy and our Cheerios taste a bit off.

At the very least, all this suggests to what lengths we will go to get around the spirit of a law while clinging hypocritically to its letter (and at what expense; check out the prices on these “clones”).

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